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

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


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