And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 7. mai 2012

Names of the Hedgehog

and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
- Genesis 2:19

Linguistics is one of my many passions and I find great pleasure in learning new words or learning how words have come about. One of the great things about being a Medievalist is the opportunity the subject-matter gives you to come across and learn new words when elving into a past age and its texts. In the course of my thesis work I have come across several great words, both in English and in Latin, and this blogpost is dedicated to the words used to describe one particular animal: the hedgehog.

Edmund's martyrdom

Old English

The oldest of the texts I will deal with in this blogpost is Life of St. Edmund by Ælfric of Eynsham (c.950-c.1010). This text is a hagiography of king Edmund of East Anglia who was killed by Vikings in 869 and it is written in Old English. In the story King Edmund is captured by the Viking chieftain Hingwar who wants him to become his underking and reveal the whereabouts of the royal treasure. The king, a Christian, refuses to become the subject of a pagan and steadfastly resists the tortures brought about by the Vikings. Hingwar orders his men to pierce the king with arrows, a martyrdom like that of St. Sebastian. In describing this episode Ælfric employs a very effective comparison, effective both because it is precise and because its hyperbolic nature increases the shock-effect of the brutality of martyrdom: Edmund, pierced by arrows, resembles an ígl, a hedgehog. The passage concludes as follows:

he eall wæs besæt mid heora scotungum swilce igles byrsta, swa swa Sebastianus wæs.

(he was covered with arrows in the manner of a hedhehog, as was Sebastian)

This particular passage will be a recurring feature of this linguistic expedition since this is the story in which I have found most of the names of the hedgehog, and indeed it is the story that put me onto this idea in the first place.

The name in question here is, as mentioned, ígl, a name that can, according to the Old English dictionary also be rendered as ígil or íl. Interestingly this particular name can be recognised as the root of the modern Swedish word for hedgehog: igelkott.

 Hedgehogs from the Aberdeen bestiary, c.1200


Like all other animals of the Middle Ages, real or mythical, the hedgehog was interpreted allegorically or "in mystical terms" in the bestiaries where it was made a didactic example for men to learn from. In the bestiary of MS Bodley 764, written between 1220 and1250 and translated and abbreviated by Richard Barber, the author first describes the creature's habits and way of life. He commends it for its cleverness and claims that they gather grapes directly from their vine with their spines, a myth that probably dates all the way back to Roman times. When he turns to the didactic part of the text, the mystical interpretation, the author is quite severe and says that the hedgehog is "a sinner full of vices like spines, skilled in wicked cunning, and in deceits and robberies. He cheats others of the fruit of their labours and takes their food for himself." Like the sinner who fears the judgement of God, it is claimed, so the hedgehog hides among rocks.

This unfavourable reputation owes probably much of its severity to the Vulgate where Jerome mistook the Hebrew word for owl, kippoz, for kippod, hedgehog. In Bible passages such as Isaiah 34:11 and Zephaniah 2:14 the hedgehog thus becomes a symbol of desolation and deserted places, said to inhabit the places that will be destroyed in the vengeance of God.

In Latin the hedgehog is known by the name irenaceus or erinacius. According to the author of the MS Bodley 764 bestiary the animal was also known by the name echinus and this rendition, perhaps a vulgarisation, we will find vestiges of in vernacular texts.

 Hedgehogs from the MS Bodley 764

Middle English

In one of the secondary sources I've been working with, I have been referred to three Middle English texts in which the hedgehog is named. Each of these texts is a version of the story of St. Edmund and they all employ the classic simile when describing the pierced King Edmund. I have also come across another Middle English text in which the hedgehog features poetically, a poem by William Dunbar, but here the matter does not pertain to the life of Edmund of East Anglia.

The oldest of the three hagiographic texts is the South English Legendary. This book is a collection of saints' lives rendered in verse and composed in the latter half of the 13th century somewhere close to Gloucester. Here the vernacular word for hedgehog resembles very much the Old English word and we see here one of the stations in the word's trajectory towards modern Swedish. In the words of the compiler of the legend, King Edmund was [a]s ful as an illespyl is of pikes al about.

John Lydgate (c.1370-1449/50), a monk at Bury-St-Edmunds, wrote the poetical rendition of the lives of Edmund and his cousin Fremund as a gift for the child-king Henry VI. The king stayed at Bury from Christmas 1433 to April 23, St. George's day, the following year and was given this didactic present, presumably aimed at shaping the young monarch to become a good and righteous Christian. In this work we may detect that the evolution of the language has favoured the name most resembling the Latin word. John Lydgate states that Edmund [r]assemble an yrchoun fulfillid with spynys thikke /As was the martyr seint Sebastyan.

A similar usage we can also find in the third text, the Gilte Legende. This opus is a mid-15th-century hagiographical collection translated from the French work Legende doree, which in turn is a translation of Jacobus the Voragine's 13th-century Legenda Aurea. Although more or less contemporary with John Lydgate the saint's martyrdom is rendered differently, owing perhaps to a difference in sources or the fact that Lydgate wrote in rhyme royal. According to the author of the Gilte Legende King Edmund appierid fulle of arowys lyke as an urchyn fulle of pryckis.

In conclusion of this linguistic excursion we must turn to a work by William Dunbar (1460?–1513x30), The Tretis of the twa mariit wemen and the wido. This poem is Dunbar's longest opus and one of the first to be printed. It is a comical work recounting a conversation between the three titular women.The subject is the trials of marriage and in a passage dealing with a husband's kisses the husband's cheeks are compared to the pines of a hedgehog: He schowis one me his schewill mouth & schendis my lippis / And with his hard hurcheone scyne sa heklis he my chekis.

St Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna

With Dunbar we come to a close as he stood on the threshold of Modern English and the English Renaissance. As we have seen the hedgehog has furnished authors with poetic and didactic material - and the simile of Edmund can be said to be both - throughout the Middle Ages. Due to its recurring role we have here been able to follow the evolution of its name in a long-spanning, but of course vastly incomplete, trajectory. The names I have presented above are not the only names awarded the hedgehog in Medieval times, but they serve nonetheless as a nice overview.

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