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.