Last year around Easter I was invited to the school of my village to talk about the Middle Ages. I took the opportunity to introduce some of my favourite subjects of medieval history to the pupils, while also trying to keep close to topics they had themselves covered – or were going to cover – in their own syllabi. To the high-school pupils I talked about the Latin literature of Norway, hoping to give them a sense of the depth and range of the literary and textual history of medieval Norway, and also to counteract the notion – which is very widespread in our own time – that there is little of interest before Snorri Sturlusson. I also gave them a brief introduction to palaeography, and had them attempt a transcription of a text from a manuscript produced in thirteenth-century Norway. Some of them did very well, but it was perhaps unavoidable that the ennui of teenagers made the pupils not very communicative.
It was a different situation when I talked to the middle-school pupils, as they were eager to ask questions and to respond to my own questions. To them I talked about ideas about nature which were prevalent in the Middle Ages, impressing upon them that people of the medieval period knew very well that the earth is round. Some of them were very surprised to hear this, especially as their own textbooks said differently. However, with the aid of a wide range of examples from medieval sculpture and illumination, I showed how both lay and learned could easily be exposed to the view of the earth as a sphere. The most enjoyable part of my time with the middle-schoolers, however, was when I brought out some scans from Richard Barber’s facsimile of the thirteenth-century bestiary of MS. Bodley 764.
In order to engage the pupils a bit more, I read aloud to them the descriptions of animals of their choosing, and they seemed amused by listening to the now very alien ideas about familiar beasts such as the horse, the ape, or the lion. This exercise also came to highlight some of the differences in expectation between our modern frame of reference and that of the medieval period, as several pupils wanted to hear about animals that could not possibly be part of medieval knowledge, such as the American bison or the penguin.
Griffin capturing its prey
MS Bodley 764, bestiary, first half of thirteenth century
The main purpose of the bestiary, however, was to have the pupils themselves guess what was being depicted in the lavish illuminations of the book. They were divided into groups of three and four and together they discussed eagerly what the beasts could be. I had given them a blend of real and mythical beings, and I sought to introduce them to some imaginary animals that they might not have encountered before, such as the bonnacon, as well as the griffin shown above.
After they had all had some time to discuss they gave me their answers, going through each of the animals in turn and keeping score of who had managed to guess correctly. When we got to the griffin and I asked them for their suggestions, one boy put his arm eagerly in the air and his whole face beamed with expectation. I pointed to him, looking forward to what he thought it might be, and as he was about to give his answer, he looked up at me with a sort of restrained joy. He said, partly in aborted self-censure, and no doubt inspired by the pointed end of the beast’s tail: “it’s a devil”. His whole demeanour and the half-hidden, relishing tone as his voice delivered the forbidden word “devil” showed very clearly the delight he took in the transgression that his suggestion constituted. Here he was, placed among his peers and in the presence of his superiors, subject to the verbal restrictions of the school law and quite likely imbued with a parental prohibition against cursing, and yet being able to take hold of a loop-hole and transgress by that simple word “devil”. His utter delight in this transgression was crystal clear also in the lack of care he showed when I told him that the answer was incorrect. He had managed to say a naughty word within the framework of a lesson, and he knew delightedly that he was beyond any reproach or censure for having said it, being allowed by the circumstance of my question.
The whole exchange was over in just a few seconds, but the boy’s response and the familiar way in which he broke with the restrictions of his upbringing has stayed with me. In part, this is because I remember when I was his age, growing up in the same village and knowing full well that some words were bad to utter. Unlike this boy, however, I don’t remember any such liberating transgression against this restrictive upbringing, and I think it was in part because of this that I took delight in his opportunity to utter a word that he would not have been allowed to utter in any other context.