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

torsdag 20. juni 2013

Saint Sebastian with beard

As readers of this blog will have noticed, I have a particular fascination for Saint Sebastian (as evidenced here and here). This fascination stems in part from how his cult has affected medieval art and iconography, and in part from the iconographic evolution the saint himself underwent toward the close of the Late Middle Ages, when he was adapted into a more apollonian iconography. For more information on this transition, see Hasan Niyazi's excellent blogpost.

The transition of Sebastian from a soldier-saint largely of the same mould as SS. George and Christopher into an apollonian youth, is a testament to the quattrocento's commitment to classical postures and imagery. This is also the transition - or perhaps rejuvenation - of a bearded late-antique soldier growing into a barefaced athletic youngster. Such a transformation should of course not be misunderstood as a pagan appropriation or a return to the Roman pantheon, but it is interesting to note how ancient iconography was adapted into a Christian context, and how the Christian Saint Sebastian became represented through the symbols of the religious system he allegedly abandoned and which in turn resulted in his martyrdom.

In this blogpost, however, I present a few representations of Saint Sebastian from before and into the apollonian shift, depicting him with a bearded face in a manner customary to non-clerical male saints. It is interesting to note that the selection spans four centuries and includes both French, Italian and German renditions. Almost all the images are taken from the British Library online catalogue.

The torture of Saint Sebastian, MS. Royal 20 D VI, France, 2nd quarter of 13th century

From MS. Royal 19 B XVII, Legenda Aurea, France, 1382

From MS. Egerton 1070, French book of hours, c.1410

From MS. Yates Thompson 7, book of hours following the Roman Use, Florence or Mantua, c.1480

From MS. Yates Thompson 5, book of hours after the Roman Use, Central France, c.1500

In the last case I have cheated a little bit, since we clearly operate in a borderland. I have nonetheless decided to include this 16th-century German depiction, just to illustrate the variety which existed well into the apollonian paradigm.

Saint Sebastian, detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, c.1510
Image courtesy of this website

As we see, the depictions of Saint Sebastian retained a certain variety even after the Italian masters such as Andrea Mantegna and Sandro Botticelli had cast the saint in a new, apollonian appearance. We see also that Sebastian enjoyed a fairly wide geography of devotion, and this may of course account for some of this variety. It is, in any case, important to note that the most famous rendition of Saint Sebastian is far from the only one.

torsdag 13. juni 2013

A Spanish Romance of Tristan

The romance of Tristan and Isolde is one of the most enduring and widely disseminated romances of the Middle Ages, and it was known in numerous renditions, adaptations and translation. In the mid-12th century, an Anglo-Norman verse rendition was written at the court of Henry II by an author known only by his first name, Thomas. This work survives only in fragmentary form, and was probably written for Eleanor of Aquitaine. M. Dominica Legge suggests that it was through the Angevins this work was transmitted to other countries. Through her daughters the opus most likely travelled to Spain, Sicily and Germany, and by 1226 it had also been rendered into Norwegian.

Tristan battling fourteen knights of the round table, from the Prose Tristan
MS. Additional 5474, French, last quarter of the 13th century
Courtesy of British Library
The poem I want to present to you is a short Spanish ballad written sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries, known as Romance de Don Tristán. It depicts Tristan's death, but from the vantage point of an unknown female figure who concludes the narration with a strange story of her pregnancy. How this relate to the story of Tristan's death I do not know, but it is presumably an allusion to the Virgin Mary and the lily of the Annunciation. The translation is by J. M. Cohen.

Romance de Don Tristán

Herido está Don Tristán - de una mala lanzada,
diérasela el Rey su tío - con una lanza herbolada.
Diósela desde una torre, - que de cerca non osaba.
Que el hierro tiene en el cuerpo, - de fuera le tiembla el asta;
valo a ver la reina Iseo,  - la su linda enamorada,
cubierta de un paño negro, - que de luto se llamaba.
Viéndole tan mal parado - dice así la triste dama:
"Quien te hirió, Don Tristán - heridas tenga de rabia,
que no hallase maestro - que sopiese de sanallas."
Júntanse boca con boca - como palomillas mansas,
llora el uno, llora el otro, - la cama bañan en agua;
allí nace un arboledo - que azucena se llamaba,
cualquer mujer que la come - luego se siente preñada.
!Así hice yo, mezquina, - por la mi ventura mala!

Romance of Sir Tristram

Sir Tristram has been wounded by an evil lance-thrust, which the King his uncle gave him with a poisoned lance. He dealth it him from a tower, for he dared not come near. He has the iron in his body, and the haft trembles without; Queen Iseult, his lovely mistress, goes to see him, swathed in black cloth which was called the (cloth of) mourning.

Seeing him in such an evil plight, the sorrowful lady said: 'May  he who wounded you, Sir Tristram, suffer in agony. For there is no surgeon to be found skilled enough to cure your wounds.'

They put their mouths together like tame turtle-doves. The one weeps, the other weeps, they bathe the bed in tears. There grew a bush that was called the white lily; any woman who eats of it immediately feels herself pregnant. I did so, poor girl that I am, to my own misfortune.


Cohen, J. M. (ed. and transl.), The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, Penguin Books, 1988

Legge, M. Dominica, Anglo-Norman Literature and its Background, Clarendon Press, 1963

Rindal, Magnus (transl.), Soga om Tristram og Isond, Det Norske Samlaget, 2003

tirsdag 11. juni 2013

The Mystery of the Maastricht Monkeys, part II - The Ship of Fools

Laughter abounds in the mouth of the fool
- Latin proverb (my translation)

For fools a mirror shall it be
Where each his counterfeit may see
- The Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brant (translated by Edwin Zeydel)

Frontispiece to The Ship of Fools, Master of Hainz Narr, courtesy of this website

In the previous blogpost I took as my starting point an illumination, shown below, from the early 14th-century book of hours MS. Stowe 17, examining its execution in view of the beast-fable tradition of medieval literature, reaching back into the mid-11th century and going up to the 14th. In this instalment, I wish to look at another literary tradition - the topos of the ship of fools - and contemplate this illumination as a possible precursor to this topos. This is not to say that I postulate a direct connection between the illumination and the ship of fools; I do not believe such connections can easily be established and I will not attempt it here. However, what I seek to do is to position this illumination at the onset of a tradition that informed Sebastian Brant's satire Das Narrenschyff, or The Ship of Fools, from 1494, suggesting that the same current which informed this illumination may have laid the groundwork for what later grew into a clearly discernible literary topos of its own. To do this, I will first bridge the gap between the early 14th-century illumination and Brant's satire by giving an overview of literary influences from the 14th century and up to 1494. I will then explain the concept of the ship of fools topos, and afterward conclude with some summary remarks.

Again I want to thank Johan Oosterman and Sarah J. Biggs for their invaluable contributions to this blogpost.

MS. Stowe 17, early 14th century, Liège, courtesy of British Library (with thanks to Sarah)

Background - Early 14 century to 1494

Medieval satire often attacked, and sometimes sought to redress, various vices termed as follies, and this was, as Edwin Zeydel points out, a commonplace in medieval literature (1). What constituted such behaviour could vary according to the author's emphasis. Nigel Wireker's late-12th-century
Speculum Stultorum, the Mirror of Fools, specifically targeted ambitious and hypocritical clerics, while Fiore di virtù - attributed to Tommaso Leoni and adapted by Hans Vintner in 1411 as Pluemen der Tugend - made a showcase of several types of fools.

The archetypal fool was of course the Biblical fool referred to in psalms 14 and 53 who "saith in his heart, there is no God", and at the medieval court the jester's bauble - his "rod of office (...) carved with an elaborate head with the ears of an ass" (2) - was a stark contrast to the king's rod and sceptre, making the jester akin to a mirror image of the wise king of medieval kingship, based on the
rex sapiens of Proverbs and Wisdom (3).
Dixit insipiens in corde suo: Non est Deus
Hague KB78D38, 15th century, with thanks to Erik Kwakkel

Fool in yellow, with thanks to Johan Oosterman

Medieval kingship contributed another counterpart to the fool, namely the king who dared humiliate himself in the eyes of God like King David had done when he stripped naked and danced, mocked by his wife Michal (2. Sam. 6:20). This was frolicking of a pious kind, and stood in contrast to the insipid revelry of the fool.

David and Fool, MS. Egerton 2652, France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century, courtesy of British Library

Medieval satirists employed various conceits to convey their message, and an important conceit was the foundation of a religious order, comprising foolish clergy. This occurs both in Speculum Stultorum and John Lydgate's Order of Fools, and although both Wireker and Lydgate were English, it is believed that the latter brought this conceit back into England via France (4). Lydgate ordered his satire as a "catalogue of isolated traits" (5) and made a showcase of them, much in the manner of Brant's 1494 satire. Sebastian Brant, however, allegedly knew neither of these works (6), but they are both important stepping stones in the tradition which later burgeoned into the Ship of Fools.

While Wireker and Lydgate placed their fools in cloistered communities, other satires employed the conceit of the ship freighting a merry band of delinquents and Zeydel remarks that "the idea of placing careless livers, rakes, drinkers, and the like together upon a ship was widespread from Holland to Austria before Brant's time" (7). How the image of a ship became used in this fashion is a matter of some contention. Early critics of Brant's Narrenschyff probably drew on a false etymology when they conjectured that it might stem from carnival floats, which did transport "various types of comical or fantastic characters", yet not solely in the guise of ships but also wagons and other types of vessels (8). It may also be that the image of a ship of fools served as an inversion of the Ship of God, i.e. the Church.

Prefatory vignette, courtesy of this website

The idea of a host of fools brought together in a ship and setting off for a promised land of their own, appeared in several satirical works of the Later Middle Ages. This paradise of fools had roots in the Goliardic poetry, and one the early-14th-century Kildare poems satirises over the corrupt monks living in luxury in the land of Cockayne. This conceit entered the various languages of Western Christendom. In German the land was known as Schluraffenland or Schlauraffenland (rendered in modern Norwegian as Slaraffenland), in French Pays de Cocaygne, in Italian Cuccagna and in Holland it was known as dat edele Lant van Cockaenghen (9).

The paradise of fools as imagined by Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Het Luilekkerland, 1567

Having considered the destination of the ship, it is time to say a bit more about the ship itself as a tradition of medieval satirical imagery. One example close to the date of the Maastricht illumination is the Renart-le-Nouvel, the new Reynard, a late-13th-century continuation of the Reynard Romance by the Flemish troubadour Jacquemars Giélée which retained significant popularity into the 16th century (10). Here the ship metaphor is merely suggested (11), but later works featured it more heavily. An important example is the Austrian Heinrich der Teichner's satire Das Schif der Flust from c.1360, which tells of a ship filled with gamblers, adulterers and the like sailing from Linz (12). Their destination is Hungary, not an imaginary realm, but the conceit is the same as later used by Sebastian Brant.

The ship laden with moral outcasts continued into 15th-century literature and appeared in Jacob van Oestvoren's
Die Blauwe Schute, a Dutch Shrovetide verse from 1413. Here it is stated that Ende alle ghesellen van wilde manieren / (...) Te comen in die Blauwe Scuut (all the wild lads come with you in the blue ship - my translation) (13). Parsons and Jongenelen states that this blue ship is probably based on the carts of Dutch Shrovetide plays (14). It is also interesting to note that Pieter van der Heyden - emulating Hieronymus Bosch - gave The Blue Ship as the title for his 1559 rendition of this topos.

Hieronymus Bosch, c.1490-1510, from wikimedia commons

Pieter van der Heyden, 1559, from wikimedia commons

However, Edwin Zeydel identifies some lesser known sources as the more immediate antecedents for Brant's satire. The probably oldest of these is the anonymous Die acht Schalkheiten (c.1450) which comprised eight woodcuts with rhyming texts (15). Next in the chronological order is a sermon from the 1460s or 1470s which treats dem geistlichen narrenshiff, i.e. the clerical ship of fools, held on St. Ursula's day and therefore nicely contrasted with the saint's iconic ship (16). Two more immediate sources are Felix Hemmerlin's Doctoratus in stultitia, which Brant himself edited (17), and finally the academic humorous oration Monopolium et societas vulgo des Lichtschiffs, held by Jodocus Gallus in Heidelberg late in the 1480s and published in Strassburg in 1489 at the behest of one of Brant's friends. This oration appears to have drawn from both Teichner and van Oestvoren (18), and it is through this work we finally arrive in 1494 by the time of Brant's own satire.
Cart and boat, courtesy of this website

The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant

Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) was born in Strassburg and educated at the University of Basel, an important centre for humanism. He became a teacher and practicioner of canon law, and later entered the realm of book-printing (19). In 1494 he wrote his most famous work, The Ship of Fools, a satire on various fools and expounds in humorous detail the ways in which they err and miss the mark. The satire is described as a compilation of what may have been fliegenblätter, leaflets, focussed on one particular topic and here bound together in one unit (20). The book is divided into 112 chapters, each introduced by a woodcut vignette depicting the foible specific to the chapter (although sometimes the same woodcuts are used for two chapters). In the prologue he devises how he would equip a vessel to gather up the many fools of the world, commenting snidingly that one ship would not be sufficient due to their great number. The ship imagery itself, however, recurs fairly seldom - only in chapters 48, 75, 103, 108 and 109 - and this strengthens the supposition that many of the chapters were written prior to the application of this conceit.

Of Bad Marksmen, chapter 75 (courtesy of this website)

Brant's satire is rife with humanistic ideal, and irreligion and contempt of wisdom are some of the most frequent targets for his verbal barrages. The first chapter, for instance, is dedicated to fools who collect books they do not understand, and feign learning by replacing certain native phrases with Latin ones. Sebastian Brant is, however, not a distant judge. He acknowledges his own folly and dedicates chapter 111 to the poet's apology, judging himself the way he judges others.

Of Heedless Fools, chapter 12 (courtesy of this website)

In Brant's contemporary language there were many words for fools, such as narr, tore, affe, esel and gouch (21). This diversity in nomenclature can be said to be reflected in the wide variety of fools inhabiting Brant's satire, and he ruminates on such subjects as teaching of children (chapter 6), taking offense at fools (chapter 40), dancing (chapter 60) and gamblers (chapter 77) to mention only a few. Despite this diversity, however, the fools aboard the ship have some important aspects in common: they are all fools, although their foolery comes in various guises, and they are all dressed to emphasise this.

My ears are covered up for me,
If they were not, an ass I'd be
- The Ship of Fools (chapter 26), Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)

However, although the satire is a general attack on fools, it appears that Brant treats some fools harder than others. These fools are the schluraffen, the lazy-apes inhabiting the land of indolence and luxury, the German rendition of Cockayne. However, although denizens of this fabled country, this is not their final destination. Rather, they're heading for Narragonia, a land invented by Brant himself, and in chapter 108 Sebastian Brant states that "this ship a wreck will be", prophesying a particularly bad end to the fools who also are lazy-apes, "the lazy, carefree carousers of the Land of Cockayne" (22).

You fellows, come and be on hand,
We're headed for Schluraffen land
And yet we're stuck in mud and sand
- The Ship of Fools (chapter 108), Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)
Courtesy of this website

The Antichrist versus Saint Peter, chapter 103, courtesy of this website

Concluding remarks

What, then, is the connection between the Maastricht monkeys and the ship of fools topos? If there is any such connection, I believe it must be sought in the literary works which combine the various satirical currents of medieval literature, such the beast-fable exemplified by Jacquemars Giélée, the idea of an inverted paradise exemplified by The Land of Cockayne and the idea of a ship manned with the inversive elements of medieval society exemplified by Jacob van Oestvoren. This is not to say that there is a direct connection between the illumination and Brant's satire. Nor is it to say that the Maastricht monkeys can be placed in squarely in these traditions. Rather, we see here how certain currents and ideas permeated the medieval conscience and resulted in various expressions and various media. What all these currents and depictions have in common is a focus on subversive elements who go contrary to the ideals of the satirists, often seeking to rectify these elements, but sometimes merely using them for a humorous story. What connects the Maastricht monkeys and the Ship of Fools is that they both have this focus and that they are informed by satirical currents prevalent in medieval literature. These currents drew on a common stock of iconography, which is why we sometimes find several elements recur in widely different works of literature and art, exemplified by the illumination from the Austrian Ulrich von Pottenstein's Spiegel der Weisheit (c.1430), seen below. By examining the traditions which informed the makers of these works we find ourselves in a wonderful world of mirror-images and mockery through which we may acquire a more complex understanding of the ideals of medieval society.

Into the fool's ship toss the ape
- The Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)
MS. Egerton 1121, c.1430, Austria, Spiegel der Weisheit, Ulrich von Pottenstein
Courtesy of British Library, with thanks to Damien Kempf

Blind fools can only see this earth
- The Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)
16th-century print, with thanks to Erik Kwakkel


1: Zeydel 1962: 9

2: Corèdon and Williams 2007: 35

3: Gaposchkin 2010: 106-07

4: Schirmer 1979: 95

5: Zeydel 1962: 10

6: Zeydel 1962: 10

7: Zeydel 1962: 12

8: Zeydel 1962: 11

9: Heuser 1904: 141

10: Houdoy and Roussel 1874: 14-15

11: Zeydel 1962: 12

12: Pleij 1983: 182


14: Parsons and Jongenelen 2012: 37-38

15: Zeydel 1962: 9

16: Zeydel 1962: 13

17: Zeydel 1962: 9

18: Zeydel 1962: 13

19: Zeydel 1962: 3

20: Zeydel 1962: 15

21: Zeydel 1962: 9

22: Zeydel 1962: 15

German woodcut, 1549, from wikimedia commons



Brant, Sebastian, The Ship of Fools, translated by Edwin Zeydel, Dover Publications, 1962

Corèdon, Christopher and Williams, Ann, A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases, D. S. Brewer, 2007

Gaposchkin, Cecilia, The Making of Saint Louis, Cornell University Press, 2010

Heuser, Wilhelm,
Die Kildare-gedichte; die ältesten mittelenglischen denkmäler in anglo-irischer überlieferung von Dr. W. Heuser, 1904

Houdoy, Jules and Roussel, Henri (eds.), Renart-le-Nouvel: roman satirique composé au XIIIe siècle, 1874

Parsons, Ben and Jongenelen, Bas (eds.), Comic Drama in the Low Countries, C.1450-1560: A Critical Anthology, 2012

Pleij, Hermann, Het gilde van de Blauwe Schuit: literatuur, volksfeest en burgermoraal in de late middeleeuwen; met een nabeschouwing van de auteur, Amsterdam University Press, 1983

Schirmer, Walter Franz, John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century, Greenwood Press, 1979


DISCLAIMER: I have taken most of the woodcut images from The Public Domain Review, where it is stated that these woodcuts were made by Albrecht Dürer. This is a matter of contention and due to lack of evidence I myself do not subscribe to this theory.

lørdag 8. juni 2013

The Mystery of the Maastricht Monkeys, part I - Beast and Fable

Apes are so called because they ape the behaviour of rational human beings
- MS. Bodley 764, translated by Richard Barber

Mighty things from small beginnings grow, wrote John Dryden in his poem Annus Mirabilis in the mid-17th century, and although I do not claim this blogpost to be in any way mighty, its origin is nonetheless quite humble in terms of size - namely a tweet - compared to the prolix outcome. The tweet in question featured a picture of an illumination from f.76v of the book of hours MS. Stowe 17. The book is also known as the Maastricht Hours because it follows the liturgical standard known as the Maastricht Rule. The MS dates to the first quarter of the 14th century, was produced in Lièges, possibly used by an aristocratic woman and, as seen below, it depicts a rather endearing scene.

Apes or monkeys in a boat, courtesy of British Library

The picture was tweeted by Sarah J. Biggs, digitiser of manuscripts at the British Library, and the two of us engaged in a discussion on what the scene was meant to convey, whether it was a St. Brendan's voyage or a ship of fools. We were joined by Johan Oosterman, professor of medieval and early modern literature at Radboud University who added some valuable insights on the latter subject, and although lack of research and evidence prohibited any conclusions, we had a great time discussing the subject. In a way, the whole affair serves as a showcase of how useful twitter can be for academic exchanges of this kind, and what a great tool of communication it is for a small group of people spread across the northwestern part of Europe. Without twitter, this blogpost would not have come about, and although I lay no claims to brilliance, I do hope this can one day be the foundation for a more thorough research on the subject.

As stated above, one of my first thoughts was that the scene above depicts an early rendition of the ship of fools, a literary topos best known for its enactment in Sebastian Brant's satire Narrenschiff or Ship of Fools (1494). This satire engendered a long list of adaptations and emulations, and was also deeply embedded in the satirical beast-fable tradition of the Middle Ages. In this blogpost I will examine the illumination from the Maastricht Hours against these two traditions - the beast-fable of the Middle Ages and the Narrenschiff topos - but the point is to make sense of the image in view of these traditions, not to latch the illumination on to any of them. This first instalment will treat the beast-fable tradition, while in the next I will examine the ship of fools topos.

The beast-fable tradition

The medieval beast-fable, drawing on Aesop's educational fables, belongs to what is known as the burlesque tradition - one of two overarching categories of medieval satire (1) - and its earliest manifestation is the anonymous Ecbasis Captivi from c.1050 (2), by an anonymous monk from Lorraine (3). This poem, featuring a calf who runs away from the stall and is abducted by a wolf, inspired Nivard of Ghent's 1148 beast-epic Ysengrimus.

The ass, as depicted in MS. Bodley 764

The latter half of the twelfth century saw the genesis of two other major beast-fables whose popularity endured throughout the Middle Ages, and may therefore have informed and inspired the illuminator of the Maastricht Hours. The oldest of these is the direct descendant of Ysengrimus, a story of Reynard the Fox which later grew into a set of 26 loosely connected branches, approximatly 15 of which were composed between 1174 and 1205 (4), while the rest were written prior to 1250 (5). These stories were collectively referred to as the Roman de Renart, a title applied by the end of the 12th century (6), and their popularity is attested by numerous references in epic poems, romances, chronicles, sermons, and countless edifying and unedifying stories (7), not to mention that the word renard had replaced goupil as the French word for fox by the mid-13th century (8). The Romance of Reynard the Fox resulted in a number of adaptations and inspired later writers, such as Gervais du Bus and Geoffrey Chaucer. Gervais wrote the lyrics for the Roman de Fauvel, a story of an ass who becomes the king of France and has tapestries depicting Reynard's adventures, which was designed as a speculum, a king's mirror, for Philippe V of France. Geoffrey of Chaucer, however, was most likely inspired by Reynard when writing about Chanticleer in The Nun's Priest Tale. It is also interesting to note - since MS. Stowe 17 is from Liège - that "a fourteenth century Flemish version is the source of what medieval material remains in Goethe's Reineke Fuchs" (9).

Reynard in robes, from MS. Stowe 17

Chaucer's The Nun's Priest Tale also drew on the other beast-fable I referred to above, namely Nigel Wireker's (c.1135-98) Speculum Stultorum, the Mirror of Fools. The work was written in the timeframe November 1179 and March 1180, and dedicated the work to William, possibly the chancellor of Christ Church, Canterbury. Like Ecbasis Captivi, the protagonist of the satire is an ass, an animal described as "a sluggish and senseless beast and can be captured by a man as soon as he wishes to take it" (10) in the 13th-century MS. Bodley 764 bestiary, while Ælfric of Eynsham called it foolish, unclean and stupid in a Palm Sunday Homily. The popularity of Wireker's satire "reached its height during the late fourteenth and fifteenth centures" (11), may well have been known to the illuminator.

As the above image shows, the lluminator of MS. Stowe 17 was familiar with Reynard, the beast-fable genre and some of the genre's currents of mockery, animal imagery and satire. It is of course noteworthy that the animals in question here are monkeys, neither foxes nor asses, but this may of course be ascribed to the medieval idea - as expressed in the bestiary of MS. Bodley 764 - that apes "are so called because they ape the behaviour of rational human beings" (12). Accordingly, apes or monkeys (distinguished form apes by their tail) lend themselves very well to marginalia, depicting a mirror image of humanity, aping after human conduct. This is a fact well known to many medievalists, as apes and monkeys are inhabiting the margins of many a medieval manuscript.

Ape fleeing hunters, from MS. Bodley 764

The exact link between the beast-fable tradition and apes of marginalia remains uncertain, and since we are talking about two very different media - art and the written word - such links can be hard to pinpoint with certitude. These media, however, were complimentary in the Middle Ages, as marginalia and illuminations were meant to underscore or mirror the text on a page. It is therefore necessary to view the humanoid animals of medieval manuscripts in view of the widespread and enduring popularity of the beast-fable. This necessity becomes even more poignant in the case of MS. Stowe 17, when we consider that the folio in question, f.76v, contains the following text from Psalm 118: 22-24: Remove from reproach and contempt: because I have sought after thy testimonies. For princes sat, and spoke against me: but thy servant was employed in thy justifications. For thy testimonies are my meditation: and thy justifications my counsel.
- From the Douay-Rheims translation

There are no obvious reasons why this text should be framed by apes in a boat and another ape doing something with his bottom. It may be that the keywords here are reproach and contempt, but due to the tenuous relationship between text and image, it is interesting to keep in mind the widespread popularity of the beast-fable as a possible source of inspiration.

Next blogpost will examine the illumination in view of the topos of the ship of fools.

One of the many marginal apes of MS. Stowe 17


The other being the invective. Mozley and Raymo 1960: 5

2) Ibid

3) Owen 1994: x

4) Terry 1992: 4

Terry 1992: 5

6) Terry 1992: 4

7) Terry 1992: 4-5

8) Owen 1994: x; Terry 1992: 3

9) Terry 1992: 5

10) Barber 2006: 97

11) Mozley and Raymo 1960: 8

12) Barber 2006: 48



MS. Stowe 17 f.76v

Barber, Richard (ed. and transl.), Bestiary- MS Bodley 764, The Boydell Press, 2006

Mozley, John and Raymo, Robert (eds.), Nigel de Longchamps Speculum Stultorum, University of California Press, 1960

Owen, D. D. R. (ed. and transl.), The Romance of Reynard the Fox, Oxford World's Classics, 1994

Terry, Patricia (ed. and transl.), Renard the Fox, Northeastern University Press, 1992


tirsdag 4. juni 2013

Silent Bones - an irreverent allusion

In the 12th century the royal saint Edmund of East Anglia (d.869), better known as Edmund Martyr, enjoyed a substantial cult, centered at the powerful abbey of Bury-St-Edmunds in Suffolk. Some scholars claim that Bury was the most popular destination for pilgrimage around 1140 - although eventually outshone by Thomas Becket's shrine in Canterbury - and the abbots (among them Samson who reigned 1180-1211) enjoyed great power and many privileges of both clerical and secular nature. Throughout the 12th century new hagiographies for Edmund were written, and Edmund's cult became more widespread in Western Christendom.
The recovery of Edmund's head, from MS Harley 2278, English, c.1434-39

However, one text written towards the end of the 12th century includes what we might call an irreverent allusion to the legend of St. Edmund. The saint himself is not referred to by name, but the detail alluded to is so iconic that it is no doubt about its origin. The work in question is Speculum Stultorum, written by a Benedictine monk from Canterbury named Nigel (c.1135-98?), who is also known as Nigel Wireker, Nigel Whiteacre, Nigel of Canterbury or Nigel de Longchamps. Speculum Stultorum was Nigel's most popular work and it is a satirical beast-fable written within the timeframe November 1179 - March 1180, dedicated to William, possibly the chancellor of Christ Church at Canterbury.

Speculum Stultorum recounts the story of Bursinus, an ass meant to represent an ambitious religious man, who tries to get a new tail, attempts to acquire a university education and vainly aspires to found a new religious order. The poem belongs to the beast-fable tradition, which originated in the mid-eleventh century with the anonymous Ecbasis Captivi and was reinforced in the fable collection Ysengrimus from 1148 by Nivard of Ghent. The latter was also most likely the basis for the stories about Reynard the Fox.

Reynard preaching to birds, from MS. Royal 10 E IV, France, turn of the 13th century

Nigel Wireker was critical of the university education burgeoning in Paris - where he had himself most likely studied - and viewed other religious orders with scepticism. It is therefore only natural that a part of Speculum Stultorum is dedicated to satirising various religious orders, among which were the Albis Monachis, the white brethren, better known as the Cistercians. It is in this section (lines 2111-2182) Nigel refers to the popular Saint Edmund legend. The Cistercians were - and perhaps still are - prohibited from eating meat, but Nigel claims they did eat it, only they made sure to bury the remains:

Carnibus absumptis vestigia nulla videbis,
Ne clament, her her, ossa sepulta jacent.
- Lines 2135-36

Do not waste time looking for leftovers of the meat,
The bones do not shout "here, here!" from the grave in which they are tossed.
- my translation
The wolf guarding Edmund's head, MS. Harley 4826, English, c.1450-60

The allusion is to the popular, and often depicted, legend of Edmund's head. Tradition stated that when Edmund had refused to surrender to the torturing Vikings - and, some say, not given up the location of his treasure - he was decapitated and his head was tossed into the woods. The head - guarded by a wolf - started to call out "here, here, here", and was eventually found, rescued and reunited with the body. The Cistercians, however, took pains not to let the bones of the food give themselves away in a similar manner and buried them in the ground to prevent them from calling out to people passing by. That is, if we are to believe the contentious Nigel Wireker.
MS. Yates Thompson 47, English, c.1461-75


Bale, Anthony (ed.),
St Edmund, King and Martyr - Changing Images of a Medieval Saint, York Medieval Press, 2009

Mozley, John and Raymo, Robert (eds.), Nigel de Longchamps Speculum Stultorum

Rigg, A. G.,
‘Canterbury, Nigel of (c.1135–1198?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 5 June 2013]

All images courtesy of British Library.