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

mandag 20. juni 2016

Blind Heretics Under Ground - Excerpts from the cultural history of the mole

I cannot choose: sometime he angers me
With telling of  the moldwarp and the ant
- William Shakespeare,
Henry IV, part 1, Act 3, Scene 1

Outside my office windows, the moles are waging war against the campus caretakers. It all started a few weeks ago, and when I got to the office in the morning I noticed that five-six mounds of modest size had appeared in the course of the night. I assumed right away that these were erected by moles, although it might well be gophers - they mostly work at night and I have not yet seen one. The mounds were levelled in a few days by one of the caretakers, but the very next day five-six more mounds had appeared, and these are the ones that can be seen on a picture far below in this blogpost. The second series of mounds were later levelled too, but they were replaced shortly thereafter by a total of about ten mounds, plus some smaller ones which I only noticed today closer to the office wall. All of these third-series mounds were levelled today, but only a few hours after that I noticed that a small mound had actually appeared in the same spot as a cluster of two-three mounds, and I wonder how many will be erected in the course of the night.  This ongoing conflict prompted me to write this blogpost.

De talpa - chapter heading for the mole
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.080, Thomas Cantimpré, De Natura Rerum, c.1290
Courtesy of

In the Middle Ages, the learned world did in general not take kindly to the moles. Like all animals included in medieval bestiaries, the mole was endowed with a spiritual, allegorical meaning which made it serve as a model for mankind - in this case a model to be shunned, as we shall see.

Two of the oldest descriptions of the mole, one of which would influence descriptions in bestiaries centuries later, can be found in book twelve of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies. One description can be found in chapter 2, paragraph 39, where Isidore says that "The mole (furo) is named from 'dark' (furvus), whence also comes the word 'thief' (fur), for it digs dark and hidden tunnels and tosses out the prey that it finds" (Barney 2006: 254). There is good reason to be somewhat skeptical about Isidore's etymological connection here.

In the next chapter of book 12, or more precisely in chapter 3, paragraph 5, there is another description of the mole, and - as we can see from the chapter heading of Thomas Cantimpré's De Natura Rerum above - this was the descriptions transmitted by later commentators. Here, Isidore writes that "The mole (talpa) is so called because it is condemned to perpetual blindness in the dark (tenebrae), for, having no eyes, it always digs the dirt, and tosses out the soil, and devours the roots beneath vegetables" (Barney 2006: 254). I do not know how come there are two description translated as belonging to the same animal, but it might be that Isidore are describing both the gopher and the mole in this part of the book.

Mouse stealing the host, and an innocent mole
MS Royal 12 C XIX, bestiary, England, 1st quarter of the 13th century
Courtesy of the British Library

Commentators after Isidore also added an allegorical explanation, In one English thirteenth-century bestiary, MS. Bodley 764, for instance, the natural description of the mole follows the standard set by Isidore, and then finishes with the following exposition (translated by Richard Barber):

The mole, condemned to perpetual blindness, is the image of pagan idols, blind deaf and dumb; or even their worshippers, wandering in the eternal darkness of ignorance and folly. Isaiah writes of them: 'In that day a man shall cast his idols ... to the moles and to the bats' [2:20], that is, the blind shall worship the blind. The mole is also the symbol of heretics or false Christians who, like the eyeless mole which digs in the earth, heaping up the soil and eating the roots beneath the crops, lack the light of true knowledge and devote themselves to earthly deeds. They serve the desires of the flesh zealously, and succumb to the lure of pleasure, while they try in every way possible to gnaw at the roots of all that is good.

The Vulgate does indeed speak of bats and moles as symbols of the wasteland, and the imagery is a typical biblical topos where one or two types of wild animals become a synechdoche for the antithesis of civilization. With the desolate imagery of Isaiah in mind, it is easy to see how the mole came to have such an unfavourable standing in the reading of the book of the universe, and how the mole came to be a counter-example to proper Christians.

Mole and company

MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

On the next stop in this itinerary of cultural history, we come to early modern Norway, where the mole seems to have held a very different position in the popular imagination than that offered by the exegetical parts of medieval bestiaries. In Norwegian, the mole is called "muldvarp", a name that is etymologically linked to the moldwarp of Shakespeare's time, and which comes from German "Maulwürfe", or mold-thrower (werfen = to throw).

In the popular Norwegian imagination, the mole was seen as a bringer of fortune - much to the misfortune of the animal itself, if we are to believe a collection of magic formulas and remedies gathered by Dr. A. Christian Bang in Norske Hexeformularer og Magiske Opskrifter (Norwegian witch formulas and magical remedies). There are two remedies by which moles are believed to improve a person's luck at cards, and both of them have dire consequences for the mole.

According to one of these remedies, recorded about 1770, (Bang 1901-02: 222-23) one must take a living mole and kill it by striking a big pen-knife to its neck. Once this is done, the mole must be placed in a clean pot or other type of clean vessel, and the body of the dead animal must then be burned to powder. No liquid is to be added. This powder is then to be sprinkled into the right shoe of the player, and this will ensure his fortunes at the table. The remedy concludes with the words "one dare not doubt upon this", which suggests that the rhetoric of conviction has not changed all that much these past centuries.

Another remedy, recorded in 1790, is perhaps even more cruel to the poor animals. Again, the mole in question must be alive when it is caught, and the person wishing for luck in games must then bite off the right foot and then release the animal. The foot of the mole is then to be kept in a piece of paper, and it must not touch the earth lest its luck-bringing power goes away. Nor must it be revealed to any other person, presumably for the same reason. To such an extent must the mole-foot be kept a secret talisman, that if the player is in a game which requires a partner, then the mole-foot must be given to the partner's pocket without the knowledge of the partner.

Fortunately, moles are quite rare in Norway and not easy to come by.

Towers of the mole empire
SDU Campus, Odense

In modern popular culture, the moles have largely been depicted in more favourable terms. In fact, modern literature and film is rife with friendly and more or less anthropomorphic moles. For instance, we have the Mole, the protagonist in Zdenek Miler animated children's tv-show from Cold War Czechoslovakia. In British literature we have the kind Mole of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, or the companion of Badger in Colin Dann's The Animals of Farthing Wood, not to mention the moles of Brian Jacques' Redwall novels, who all speak in a dialect very similar to that of the West Country. Indeed, there is even a series of fantasy novels centered entirely on the moles, namely William Horwood's Duncton Woods.

As a final installment in this eclectic mix of cultural history, I also want to mention one piece of popular culture which appears to have had some resonance, namely the 1956 science fiction movie The Mole People, where a people of humanoid mole men are enslaved in a subterranean kingdom ruled by albino descendants of the old Sumerians.

Courtesy of Wikimedia


A. Christian Bang, Norske Hexeformularer og Magiske Opskrifter,  A. W. Bröggers Bogtrykkeri, Kristiania, 1901-1902

Richard Barber (editor and translator), Bestiary, The Folio Society, 1992 (this is an abridgement)

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, edited and translated by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, Cambridge University Press, 2006

T. H. White (editor and translator), The Book of Beasts, Dover Publications, 1984

Similar blogposts

Christ the unicorn

Excerpts from the cultural history of whales

Beavers in medieval Norway

The miracle of the fox

Ingen kommentarer:

Legg inn en kommentar