Sunday, June 22, 2014

Beasties from the Bestiary

  Purely coincidentally, the last two script samples and paleography exercises for which I have updated the graphics in Medieval Writing (courtesy once again of the British Library's generous usage policies for their digital facsimiles) have been extracts from that wondrous medieval text known as the bestiary. The first (Royal 12 C xix) concerns the partridge, a bird which is painted with a very bad character. This is a nice example of protogothic/early Gothic, however you want to designate it. Because I now have access to the whole manuscript rather than just a small segment of the page, the displayed text and transcription has been extended. The full translation is still pending. I may have to give a bit of a rough guide rather than a translation, as the peculiarities of the bestiary text defeated even the family medievalist.

  The second (Harley 3244) concerns the elephant, a creature considered to be of much more moral character than the perfidious partridge. The script is a very small Gothic textura. The images of elephants, usually depicted with a castle full of soldiers on their back, are often grossly anatomically inaccurate, but this one is a pretty good representation of an elephant. It looks very like a depiction of the town band of Cremona as drawn by Matthew Paris, so perhaps, like Matthew Paris, the artist had actually seen as elephant or perhaps he took elephant drawing lessons from Matthew Paris. Suffice to say that everybody on board the elephant appears to be having a jolly old time and this has to be the best medieval party elephant ever.

  I adore bestiaries. The text is crazy and the images are delightful. In many ways the bestiary is the absolute prototype of a medieval text, if you exclude the liturgical texts which supposedly were reproduced accurately and consistently. The work comes in multitudinous variations, based on a core text, Physiologus, whoever or whatever he or that may have been. The text is confused, corrupted, with startling links to very ancient depictions of animals or mythical creatures in the ancient world. It has also been added to from various sources, including local familiar animals so that hedgehogs (dutifully carrying grapes on their spines) could share a page with gryphons or cockatrices.
  As far as natural history goes, the descriptions are bizarrely inaccurate, and they are overlaid with moral lessons. While the pictorial character of each creature may be reasonably consistent, and the general character of each animal follows a pattern, the precise text varies from manuscript to manuscript. There is no definitive text. This means you can't just google a transcript or translation of a section, like you can the Vulgate Bible. This is true of so much literature from the manuscript era. However, picking the text to pieces to try to find some authentic core in a reductionist mode is fruitless. Each example is an authentic witness to something somewhere. If a few creatures from Gerald of Wales appear occasionally, as they do, this is not an intrusion but a legitimate form of the text which meant something in a particular place and time.
  So enjoy the paleography lessons, then waste many happy hours poking through all the other amazing creatures of the bestiary. There are worse ways to spend a wet afternoon.

    I leave you to contemplate the battle between the crocodile and the hydrus (also Royal 12 C XIX), in which the crocodile swallows the hydrus but loses the bout because the hydrus gnaws his way out through his guts. The bestiary can be a bit savage at times.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Protogothic and Choking Lions

  For reasons which are not entirely clear, some members of the medieval Tweeting community use the hashtag #notalion to post pictures of medieval illustrations of lions that don't look like lions. Part of the culture of foolish recreational medievalia, I guess. One of my favourite #notalion images is in the form of a decorative initial that has a lion apparently choking on it while eating spinach.

  Which brings me to note that the graphics have been updated on the script sample and paleography exercise for a Continental protogothic script from the works of Suetonius in Medieval Writing, courtesy once again of the British Library image bank. And now that there is a colour illustration, it can be seen that the exercise has turned the lion quite green around the gills.
  Very easy paleography in this example. Good one to start on.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Medieval Cartoon Strip and Reader's Digest

  I think my very favourite English church is All Saints, North Street in York. Unusual design, sits down there by the river, sports an angel roof and at one time constantly reeked of incense. The greatest treasure of all is the collection of late medieval stained glass windows. Like most of their kind they have been moved, damaged, restored, jumbled, but they are still an amazing collection, and that in a town which has vitreous wonders dotted around it in many churches great and small.
  Some of the windows have less than common iconographic schemes, of which perhaps the most unique is the Pricke of Conscience window, illustrating an English language medieval poem about the last days of the world. This poem was once attributed to Richard Rolle of Hampole, but has since been re-assigned to that most prolific of English authors, Anon. It is a very, very long poem, and the window illustrates one short segment of it, listing the events of the last fifteen days of the world. It reads from left to right, bottom to top, like a strip cartoon.

    Two panels are in the wrong order for the poem, the second top right and the top left. This may have occurred during restoration of the glass at some time. The bottom row represents the donors of the window, praying for their own salvation. In the tracery lights St Peter leads the blessed to heaven and demons take the damned to hell, so get praying. Sorry, I don't have a good picture of those panels.
  So far we have the standard "lessons for the illiterate" paradigm, but it isn't quite so. Each panel has two lines of the poem written beneath it in chunky Gothic script. Some of these do not survive complete, but they were there. So it is not just a picture book, but a Reader's Digest; a potted summary of the most important lessons from a very long literary work that even the literate among the congregation may have found daunting to read in full. So this is how it goes.
  (Text from version by Richard Morris, 1863 from Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse - starts on p.129. As is apparent it doesn't match on every panel, so there must be variant texts, and the thorns have all been turned into th for easier typing. The spelling checker will now proceed to explode.)

  The first day of thas fiften days
  The se sal ryse, als the bukes says,
  Abowen the heght of ilka mountayne,
  Fully fourty cubyttes certayne,
  And in his stede even upstande,
  Als an heghe hil dus on the lande

  The secunde day, the se sal be swa law
  That unnethes men sal it knaw.

  The thred day, the se sal seme playn
  Ans stand even in his cours agayn
  Als it stode forst at the bygynnyng,
  With-outen mare rysing or fallyng.

  The fierth day, sal swilk a wonder be,
  the mast wondreful fisshes of the se
  Sal com to-geder and mak swilk romyng (roryng in another ms. Much better, roaring fishes.)
  That it sal be hydus til mans hering.
  Bot what that romiyng (roryng) sal signify,
  Na man may whit, bor God almyghty.

  The fift day, the se sal brynne
  And alle watters als thai sal rynne;
  And that sal last fra the son rysyng
  Til the tyme of the son doun gangyng.

  The sext day, sal spryng a blody dewe
  On grisse and tres, als it sal shewe.

  The sevend day byggyns doun sal falle
  And grete  castels, and tours with-alle.

  The eght day, hard roches and stanes
  Sal strik togyder, alle attanes.
  An ilkan of tham sal other doun cast,
  And ilkan agayn other hortel fast,
  Swa that ilka stan,on divers wyse,
  Sal sonder other in thre partyse.

  The neghend day, gret erthedyn sal be,
  Generaly in ilka contre;
  Ans swa gret erthdyn als sal be than
  Was never hard, sythen the world bygan.

  The tend day thar-aftir to neven,
  The erthe sal be made playn and even,
  For hilles and valeis sal turned be
  In-til playn, and made even to se.

  The ellevend day men sal com out
  Of caves, and holes and wend about,
  Als wode men, that na witt can;
  And nane sal spek til other than.

  The twelfte day aftir, the sternes alle
  And the signes fra the heven sal falle.

  The thredend day sal dede men banes
  Be sett to-gyder, and ryse al attanes,
  And aboven on thair graves stand; This sal byfalle in ilka land.

  Sal dighe, childe, man and woman
  For thai shalle with tham rys ogayn
  That byfor war dede, outher til ioy or payn.

  The fiftend day, thos sal betyde,
  Alle the world sal bryn on ilk syde,
  And the erthe whar we now duelle,
  Until the utter end of alle helle.

  So there you have it; the sea rising and falling, fish gathering and roaring, the sea burning, bloody dew, earthquakes with castles and towers falling, rocks breaking each other apart and the earth flattened, people crawling out of holes just in time to see the stars falling, the bones of dead people reassembled and then everyone dies so they can rise again, after the earth has been destroyed by fire. I guess they picked those lines for their marvellous pictorial possibilities. After all, a hundred pages or so on the sayings of the Anti-Christ just wouldn't have the same visual impact. Be very scared. Pray. Be good.
  What does it say about lay literacy? The words are there for the reading in the vernacular. It even has a bit of a northern twist to it. I can hear it in a Yorkshire accent. But the assumption seems to be that the written text must be extremely abbreviated and rendered visually. Narrative, yes, but not too many words.
  The church of All Saints, North Street has applied for a Heritage grant to restore and protect these windows for future generations. Check out all their news on their own website.