Why Do We Love Mermaids?

Image (c) Chiara Salomoni 2

Image © Chiara Salomoni for Project Mermaids

A couple of weeks ago Neil Morrison of Podcraft Productions invited me to record a podcast that tackled the enduring appeal of mermaids. It was a fun afternoon and we chatted for so long that I think we could have produced two or three podcasts from the material! I’m sure some of the sections that didn’t make the final edit will appear on here or Mermaids of the British Isles at some point, but for the time being here’s the final product: a walk through our long, complex and profound relationship with the beguiling messengers from the deep.

 

Why We Can’t Resist the Lure of Mermaids

Mermaids are everywhere. In the past month alone they have surfaced in New Brighton, caused controversy in Asda, reinvigorated toast, partied with the Kardashians, transformed maternity and wedding photography, been a focal point for vandalism and protest in Copenhagen, and helped a child overcome trauma when she learned to liken her badly burned skin to a mermaid’s scales.

Daily hashtags on social media such as #MermaidLife and #MermaidMonday also bolster the burgeoning “mermaid economy”, as mermaid schools, mer-fashion, mermaid parades, and “mermaiding” – where people put on fabric or silicone tails to swim as mermaids – become more mainstream. Most incredibly, being a “professional mermaid” is now a viable career choice. Those able to hold their breath and keep their eyes open underwater for long periods of time can make a living entertaining children and adults, starring in films and music videos and raising awareness of ocean conservation.

The film industry has similarly grasped the lucrative potential of merfolk. Last year, China’s highest grossing film of all time, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (美人鱼/美人魚), used the creatures to foreground mankind’s destructive effect on the environment. With four new Hollywood mer-movies currently in the pipeline – three inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and a remake of the 1984 comedy Splash featuring Channing Tatum as a merman – merfolk are poised to dominate the media for the foreseeable future.

Beautiful beasts

All of this might give the impression that the world has suddenly gone mer-crazy – but the pre-eminence of mermaids as cultural icons has long been apparent. Merfolk have been with mankind since the dawn of civilisation, inspiring stories, art and religious iconography, featuring in our politics, and helping us to navigate complex emotions and questions about the human condition.

In ancient Mesopotamia, half-human, half-fish creatures were believed to inhabit the primordial waters from which all life sprang. Their presence on amulets and buildings from this region suggests they had a protective function, warding off evil and bringing good luck to people and places. Atargatis, a Syrian goddess who appears to have had a fish-tail in one of her iconographical forms, similarly afforded protection to her followers, safeguarding fertility, order and justice. And let’s not forget the pantheon of marine deities that the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans honoured. The latter influenced medieval portrayals of mermaids and their deadly cousins the sirens, who had started to transform from seaside dwelling bird-women to fishtailed maidens by the seventh century.

In the Middle Ages, the medieval church used mermaids and sirens to teach Christians about sin and salvation. Twelfth-century Bestiaries, or Book of Beasts, provided allegorical readings of the sirens as emblems of worldly pleasures and sin, while the 14th-century Cornish plays known as the Ordinalia employed the hybrid body of the mermaid (part woman, part fish) to explain the dual nature of Christ incarnate (part man, part God).

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Sirens attack sailors in the 14th-century Queen Mary Psalter (London, British Library Royal B VII). The British Library

Though the use of mermaids in a religious context ended with the Reformation, their presence in other media – in drama and poetry, on maps, decorative architecture, jewellery, tableware, tavern signs and inns – increased exponentially, prompting English author and scientist Thomas Browne to declare in 1646 that: “Few eyes have escaped the picture of mermaids.”

Mer-politics

By the 16th century, mermaids were also being used in political contexts. Mary, Queen of Scots, was depicted as a mermaid on a placard posted in Edinburgh following the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley.

Implicating Mary and her future husband, James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell, in the (still unsolved) murder, the placard drew public attention to a longstanding tradition that equated mermaids with prostitutes by presenting Mary as a mermaid beguiling Bothwell in the form of a hare, one of his heraldic badges. Just a few years later, the mermaid was recycled as a positive sign of English mastery over the sea, as Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth I, was painted next to an elaborate mermaid chair in a portrait celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Merfolk and money

Though the Age of Enlightenment saw the phenomena of merfolk subjected to greater scientific scrutiny, some individuals exploited people’s natural curiosity about the sea and its inhabitants by exhibiting fake mermaids. At least five mermaids were on show in fairs and exhibitions in London between 1775 and 1795.

The contorted specimen that was displayed between September 1822 and January 1823 in the Turf Coffeehouse on St James Street provides a good example of the money such specimens could generate. Hundreds of spectators paid one shilling to see it – as various publications reported on its authenticity, condemned it as a forgery, or charted the incredible story of its acquisition (the owner, Captain Samuel Barrett Eades, had sold a ship that didn’t belong to him to fund the purchase). Two decades later, the same mermaid crossed the Atlantic and become P.T. Barnum’s most notorious attraction.

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A fake mermaid in The British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

From the 19th century to the present day, artists have harnessed the erotic aesthetic of the mermaid’s form to navigate female sexuality and human desire, producing works as diverse as John William Waterhouse’s A Mermaid (1900) and René Magritte’s The Collective Invention (1934). Meanwhile, writers such as Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and Oscar Wilde have woven their imaginative power into literary explorations of love and loss, old age and sexual inadequacy, and the isolation of modernity.

It is this flexibility that has allowed the mermaid to endure as an icon across cultures and across time. As a creature of duality, belonging to two worlds, the mermaid embodies contradiction and unity – she is a bendable cipher that absorbs and transforms whatever hopes, ambitions, anxieties and fears we imprint upon her. Though it might seem that the 21st century has the edge on romanticising, ecologising, feminising and politicising the mermaid to better understand ourselves, we are merely following in our ancestors footsteps in succumbing to her ancient charms.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens’ Song (Blog)
Five Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (BBC Radio 3 website)
Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (Blog)

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St Valentine’s – a minor day in a medieval calendar packed with festivals

The feast of St Valentine has been associated with love since the Middle Ages. Back then Valentine was one of many saints honoured in the Christian calendar alongside major religious festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in British Library Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243.

In medieval times people lived their lives according to the liturgical – or ceremonial – year. But many festivals on the religious calendar also tracked seasonal changes, marking the darkest and lightest times of year, times of planting, harvesting or using up stored food, or signalling the need for people to tighten their belts in periods of traditional shortage.

Little is known about the St Valentine who was martyred on February 14. There are several Valentines in the Catholic martyrology so it’s unclear whether he’s the same saint mentioned by John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, the first English poets to associate the feast of St Valentine with the mating impulses of birds – which were thought to begin looking for their mates on February 14 (this may have been associated with the sounds of the first songbirds after winter).

But what we do know is that Valentine was not one of the more important saints venerated by medieval people – nor was his feast one of the 40 to 50 festa ferianda, or celebratory festivals, which required people to abstain from work in order to fast and attend mass.

Candlemas

Far from being the main event in February, as today’s British high street retailers would have us believe, St Valentine’s Day was vastly overshadowed by Candlemas on February 2 – or to give it its proper name, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which commemorates when Christ’s mother presented her holy child in the temple 40 days after his birth.

Each parishioner participated in a solemn candlelit procession before hearing mass and offering a penny to the church. How people celebrated the rest of this work-free day is not clear – though records of other religious holidays reveal that singing, dancing, playing games, drinking, watching plays and feasting were standard forms of entertainment, despite being frowned upon by church officials. Secular distractions aside, Candlemas had huge popular appeal because it celebrated spiritual renewal through Christ’s light in the darkness of winter. It heralded the end of the cold season and the candle stubs blessed by the priest were believed to ward off evil and protect the bearer from harm for the rest of the year.

Shrovetide

Another festival that has echoes today was Shrovetide, a carnival period before Lent that ran from Septuagesima Sunday until Shrove Tuesday – or as it is popularly known, Pancake Day (Mardi Gras). Shrovetide was similarly well-liked because it provided the opportunity to make merry before the strict rules governing diet, sex and recreation kicked in for the 40 days of Lent, when fasting was obligatory and marriages forbidden.

Second only to the festivities witnessed throughout the 12 days of Christmas, when excessive feasting, music, dancing, and games were the order of the day, Shrovetide, was a time for ordinary people to indulge in food, drink and raucous entertainments, watch plays, and play the popular – but dangerous – game of football.

Wood carving of two youths playing ball on a misericord at Gloucester Cathedral. Gloucester Cathedral, CC BY.

Shrovetide also had a practical function. It legitimised the consumption of the last of the food stored over winter before it turned bad, allowing people to prepare mentally and physically for Lent at a time when there was traditionally a shortage of food. The carnival atmosphere also offered a release from the frustrations of winter. Taking its name from the act of shriving – or confessing – sins, Shrovetide captures the very essence of how the medieval calendar absorbed, governed and brought meaning to everyday life.

To everything a season

Of course, there were many other holy days, or holidays, providing occasions for celebration. Christmas, Easter and Pentecost (which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples after Christ’s ascension) were the principal religious periods – balancing penitential fasting and solemnity with time away from work, merriment and gift giving. And the outdoor revels of early May and summer also played an important role in people’s lives, giving rise to secular rituals such as “Maying” (gathering blossoms and dancing around the Maypole, etc), mummings and various forms of secular and religious plays. Events such as these took full advantage of the spring and summer months, with warmer days providing ample opportunity for large numbers of people to gather together outside and celebrate the natural seasons of rebirth and growth.

The complex seasonal rhythms of the liturgical year remained consistent in England right up until the Reformation, when the observance of saints’ days was abolished and events in the temporal cycle were modified. That some of the Catholic feasts, such as Valentine’s Day, Shrove Tuesday and Halloween (All Hallows Eve) survived the Reformation to remain in our cultural calendar today, is undoubtedly due to the rituals and traditions that secular folk attached to them, an issue that brings us full circle to St Valentine.

Be my Valentine

By the end of the Middle Ages, the meaning of Valentine’s Day had expanded to incorporate human lovers expressing their feelings in hope of attracting or reaffirming a mate. In February 1477, one would-be lover, Margery Brews, sent the oldest-known “Valentine” in the English language to John Paston, referring to him as her “right welbelouyd Voluntyn”. At the time Brews’s parents were negotiating her marriage to Paston, a member of the Norfolk gentry, but he was not satisfied with the size of the dowry offered by her father.

The earliest English Valentine from Margery Brews to John Paston. British Library.

The couple married shortly after, so Margery’s heartfelt letters clearly appealed to her beloved. While we have to wait until the Tudor period to witness the now familiar concept of bestowing material gifts on one’s Valentine, it is Margery’s Valentine that best captures the essence of how the saint’s day transformed from being a lesser-known feast on the medieval liturgical calendar to one of the most important days of the year for hopeful and hopeless romantics, regardless of religion.

Further Links:
A reading of Margery’s letter in Middle English is available on this page.
An earlier blog post on medieval Valentines is available here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Medieval Depictions of Stonehenge

The current controversy over plans to build a tunnel under Stonehenge has made me think about medieval depictions of the site again. Over the years, I’ve come across various descriptions of Stonehenge in medieval chronicles, but I haven’t thought seriously about them since preparing volume 1 of John Hardyng’s Chronicle. This post aims to gather together the earliest accounts and images of the stones.

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A view of Stonehenge. Image taken by Sarah Peverley

Written and revised between 1129 and 1154, Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, or History of the English, lists the stone circle as the second of four marvels in England. Henry’s brief but thought-provoking description conveys the sense of wonder and mystery that medieval people experienced when seeing the stones. Unsurprisingly, the response is the same for many visitors today.

Quatuor autem sunt que mira uidentur in Anglia […] Secundum est apud Stanenges ubi lapides mire magnitudinis in modum portarum eleuati sunt, ita ut porte portis superposite uideantur. Nec potest aliquis excogitare qua arte tanti lapides adeo in altum eleuati sunt uel quare ibi constructi sunt.

There are four wonders which may be seen in England […] The second is at Stonehenge, where stones of remarkable size are raised up like gates, in such a way that gates seem to be placed on top of gates. And no one can work out how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height or why they were erected there.

Translation taken from Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana E. Greenway, p. 23.

In addition to being the earliest medieval reference to the site, Henry’s account has the accolade of being the first to provide the name “Stanenges” or “Stonehenge”. The etymology of “Stanenges” is up for debate, but it  derives from either the Old English words for stone and gallows/hang (i.e. hanging stones), because the sarsen trilithons look like medieval gallows, or the Old English words for stone and hinge, because the lintels suspend, or hinge, on two standing stones.

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Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. London, British Library MS Egerton 3668, ff. 2v-3r

 

At the same time that Henry of Huntingdon was composing the Historia Anglorum, a Welshman named Geoffrey of Monmouth, was writing the Historia Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138). Geoffrey’s account of British history became one of the most influential works of the Middle Ages. It also provided a mythic origin for Stonehenge. In his account of the reign of Aurelius Ambrose, an early British king, Geoffrey describes how Aurelius sought a fitting monument to mark the burial site of the British chiefs slaughtered at Amesbury by Hengist, a tricksy Saxon leader. Merlin (of King Arthur fame) informs Aurelius of a structure in Ireland called “The Giant’s Ring” (aka “The Giants’ Dance” or “The Giants’ Carol”), an ancient stone circle with magical healing properties that will stand for all eternity if erected at the burial site. Merlin agrees to bring the stones to England (they are too heavy for normal men to lift!) and departs for Ireland with Aurelius’s brother, Uther Pendragon (King Arthur’s father), and Uther’s men. A battle between Uther and the Irish king ensues, during which the Irish are defeated. Uther’s men build devices to transport the stones, but they only work when Merlin employs his superior knowledge to improve the designs. The stones are taken to Salisbury and erected as a monument to the dead. Later, Aurelius and Uther are buried at The Giant’s Ring.

Here are the relevant extracts for those wishing to read Geoffrey’s account in full (skip ahead if the summary above is enough):

As Aurelius looked upon the place where the dead lay buried, he was moved to great pity and burst out in tears. For a long time he considered many different ideas about how to memorialise this site, for he felt that some kind of monument should grace the soil that covered so many noblemen who had died for their homeland […]  Merlin said to him: “If you wish to honour the grave of the men with something that will last forever, send for the Ring of Giants which is in now atop Mount Killaraus in Ireland. This Ring consists of a formation of stones that no man in this age could erect unless he employed great skill and ingenuity. The stones are enormous, and there is no one with strength enough to move them. If they can be placed in a circle here, in the exact formation which they currently hold, they will stand for all eternity.” […] “These stones are magical and possess certain healing powers. The giants brought them long ago from the confines of Africa and set them up in Ireland when they settled that country. They set the Ring up thus in order to be healed of their sickness by bathing amid the stones, for they would wash the stones and then bathe in the water that spilled from them; they were thus cured of their illness. They would even mix herbs in and heal their wounds in that way. There is not a stone among them which does not have some kind of medicinal power.” When the Britons heard Merlin’s words, they agreed to send for the stones and to attack the people of Ireland if they tried to withhold them. At last they chose Uther Pendragon, the brother of the king, along with fifteen thousand armed soldiers to carry out this business. Merlin was chosen so that they could be guided by his wisdom and advice. When the ships were ready, they set sail, and, with prosperous winds, made for Ireland. [Battle ensues and the Britons are victorious] Having achieved this victory, the Britons went up Mount Killaraus and gazed at the ring of stones in gladness and wonder. As they all stood there, Merlin came among them and said: “Use all of your strength, men, and you will soon discover that it is not by sinew but by knowledge that these stones shall be moved.” They then agreed to give in to Merlin’s counsel and, through the use of many clever devices, they attempted to dismantle the Ring. Some of the men set up ropes and cords, and ladders in order to accomplish their goal; but none of these things were able to budge the stones at all. Seeing all of their efforts fall flat, Merlin laughed and then rearranged all of their devices. When he had arranged everything carefully, the stones were removed more easily than can be believed. Merlin then had the stones carried away and loaded onto the ships. [The stones are transported back and celebrations are held…] the stones were set up in a circle around the graves exactly as they had been arranged on Mount Killaraus in Ireland. Merlin thus proved that his craft was indeed better than mere strength.

Extracts taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, trans. by Michael A. Faletra (Broadview Press, 2008), pp. 150-53.

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An early copy of Geoffrey’s Historia. London, British Library MS Arundel 10, f. 2r

Geoffrey’s account of Stonehenge was repeated and adapted by chroniclers until the sixteenth century. The first to recycle and embellish it was Wace, who completed his Roman de Brut, a history of Britain, in 1155 and provided three names for the stones:

Bretun les suelent en bretanz
Apeler carole as gaianz,
Stanhenges unt nun en engleis,
Pieres pendues en francis.

In the British language the Britons usually call them the Giants’ Dance; in English they are called Stonehenge, and in French, the Hanging Stones.

Wace’s Roman de brut A History of the British: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by Judith Weiss, pp. 206-07.

A fourteenth-century manuscript of Wace’s text in the British Library also contains one of the earliest visual depictions of Stonehenge.

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Merlin building Stonehenge in London, British Library MS Egerton 3028, f. 30

Another early fourteenth-century illustration accompanies a copy of the Scala Mundi, or Ladder of the World, in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (pictured below). The Scala Mundi is an anonymous diagrammatic chronicle covering world events from creation to the early fourteenth century. Its depiction of Stonehenge occurs, once again, in the reign of Aurelius Ambrose, next to the statement “Hoc anno chorea gigantum de Hybernia non vi set arte Merlini deuecta apud Stonhenges” [That year the Giants’ Carol of Ireland, not by force but by the art of Merlin, was conveyed to Stonehenge]. The text pictured across the stones reads: “Stonhenges iuxta Ambesbury in Anglia sita” [Stonehenge located near Amesbury in England]. The Scala positions Merlin’s removal of the stones within the broader context of world history by placing it in the same period as Pope Felix III and Emperor Zeno.

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Stonehenge in a copy of the Scala Mundi in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 194, f. 57

While the images above are recognisable as Stonehenge, the most accurate illustration  dates to around 1440 and can be found in another copy of the Scala Mundi (Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803). It was rediscovered by Christian Heck in 2006.

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Stonehenge in the Scala Mundi in Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803, f. 55

 

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Close up of Stonehenge in Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803, f. 55

The image shows four trilithons in a circle, with tenons protruding from the lintels. While this configuration and the visibility of the tenons on the lintels is not entirely accurate, the image does appear to have been drawn by someone who knew what the stone circle looked like or had been given a technical description of how the lintels were fixed to the standing stones. But of course, not everyone was as well informed as this illustrator. The mystery and magical allure of Stonehenge and its construction continued into the fifteenth-century when the Northern chronicler John Hardyng commented on the stones:

Whiche now so hight the Stonehengles fulle sure
Bycause thay henge and somwhat bowand ere.
In wondre wyse men mervelle how thay bere .

[Which now are called the Stonehenge full sure
Because they hang and are somewhat bowing.
In wonder, wise men marvel how they keep from falling.]

John Hardyng. Chronicle, ed. by James Simpson and Sarah Peverley, 3.1915-17.

Writing towards the end of the Middle Ages, Hardyng captures the same sense of wonder that Henry of Huntingdon articulated over three centuries earlier. Today, almost nine hundred years since Henry put ink to parchment to record the name of the stones for posterity, the site still has the power to captivate and confound. Whatever happens regarding the proposed tunnel, we owe it to future generations to protect the integrity of the site and allow it to continue dazzling those who gaze upon it in all its awesome splendour.

For more on the terminology and building of Stonehenge, follow this link.

Lovers of stone might also enjoy Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s wonderful book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman.

 

Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them

Last week I was asked to write about my Five Favourite Medieval Hybrids for BBC Radio 3. I’ve been pondering the enduring appeal of mythical beings since I started work on a cultural history of the mermaid, but this feature, and the release of the next instalment of the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has got me thinking once again about the powerful place fabulous creatures hold in our imagination and how that maps onto the physical places they are meant to inhabit.

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Alexander the Great carried by Griffins in London, British Library Royal MS 20 B xx, f. 76v

Hybrid beings like merfolk, centaurs, and sphinxes, reside in a twilight realm. They have a foothold in two worlds – human and animal – yet belong to neither. They often have sentience and speech, yet visually they epitomise chaos, a convergence of opposites, an impossible binding together of body parts that shouldn’t co-exist.

In the Middle Ages, hybrid creatures were frequently used to explain our existence and teach Christians how to live good (or bad) lives. Inherited from the Classical tradition, the sirens and their enchanting song, for example, became an emblem of the devil, ever ready to lure sinners to their destruction with the sweetness of worldly pleasures. The mermaid, on the other hand, might encapsulate vanity. Commonly depicted with a mirror and comb, the accoutrements of pride, she would often appear in manuscripts and churches as a warning against sin. Yet her hybrid body could also be used to represent positive dualities, as the fourteenth-century religious plays known as the Cornish Ordinalia show. Here the mermaid is employed to explain the concept of Christ’s dual nature (part-man, part-god).

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Sirens planning an attack on sleeping sailors in ‘The Queen Mary Psalter’, British Library MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 96v

While the bodies of these fantastic creatures could be used to ponder or explain what it meant to live in a fallen world, where corporeal forms could deceive or influence those who gazed upon them, the landscapes inhabited by liminal creatures such as the mermaid, the werewolf, or the centaur, were equally useful for reflecting on the dichotomies of our existence. Typified by duality, the mermaid’s element – the sea and watery regions of the land – could nurture mankind by providing food and connecting cultures, or it could destroy life and civilisation. It was fierce and impenetrable, it was temperamental and unpredictable. It could give and it could take away.

In religious literature and art, the sea often figures as a transitional space: a place of change and transformation for those adrift upon it. Once an individual embarks on a sea voyage, planned or otherwise, they are never the same. A good example is the Middle English poem Patience, which tells the story of Jonah, who must patiently suffer the trails God sends. Another is the breathtaking Anglo-Saxon poem known as “The Seafarer“, which uses the vastness of the winter sea to focus on the isolation of the individual. Even the story of the first founding of Britain, which prefaces the Middle English Prose Brut, begins with a sea voyage. After murdering their husbands to gain independence, 33 Syrian princess are cast adrift on the ocean, only to wash up on the shores of ancient Britain and found a race of giants by copulating with spirits of the air.

The wilderness or dark forests of Western Europe, were equally dangerous environments for medieval folk. Unsafe, uncharted, and unknown, the medieval imagination populated them with sharp-toothed beasts like werewolves, inscrutable fairies, or wildmen known as wodwoses. The creatures in these spaces are always used to test the humans that venture into them and challenge their way of life. The knights of Arthurian romance, like Sir Gawain, are repeatedly  confronted with such trials, as is the eponymous hero of the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo.

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A knight killing a wodwose in London, British Library Royal MS 10 E iv, f. 74v

In thinking about how fantastic creatures and their environments work together to isolate humans and take them beyond the known, the mappable, and the ‘safe’, the literature and art of the Middle Ages can offer us new insights into the medieval mind and how it tried to make sense of the world. In the same way, our own enduring fascination with mythical creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, and griffins, allows us to exercise the power of our own imaginations and ponder what a world filled with fabulous, and often uncontrollable, beasts might mean for the human condition.

The quest to find fantastic creatures in the wild and secret places they inhabit is also the search for ourselves.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Five Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (BBC Radio 3 website)

The Beauty of the Bestiaries (also featured on Being Human Festival Blog)

Remembering the Past: The History Behind Game of Thrones

‘We watch. We listen. And we remember. The past is already written. The ink is dry.’ So speaks the Three-eyed Raven to Bran Stark in a trailer for HBO’s eagerly awaited sixth season of Game of Thrones. In many respects the Raven’s words, resonantly intoned by Max von Sydow, capture the essence of the series’ enduring appeal. For all of its fantastical elements – dragons, White Walkers, magic – viewers watch and listen in their millions largely because of George R. R. Martin’s flair for taking inspiration from the past and conjuring a world that bears an uncanny resemblance to our own.

Pick practically any period in world history, and precedents for the characters and action can be found in abundance. The Dothraki, for instance, are reminiscent of early nomadic horse-riding peoples, like the Mongols, Huns, and various Native American tribes, while the fierce, seafaring nation of the Iron Islands, the Ironborn, align with the Vikings. Pick any location in Westeros or Essos and the fictional geography maps onto terrains our ancestors inhabited. Thus, the Great Pyramid of Meereen evokes ancient Egypt, and the labyrinthine canals of Braavos nod to the watery geography of Renaissance Venice.

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The City of Meereen (copyright HBO)

But as any fan will know, the series owes its greatest debt to the history of medieval Britain, especially the protracted civil conflict known as The Wars of the Roses. In the rival Houses of Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and Targaryen, there are clear reverberations of the Houses of York and Lancaster, the rival dynasties that vied for control of the English throne between 1455 and 1487. Dogged by a torrent of regicide and appalling battles, such as the bloody devastation at Towton, where 28,000 men died amidst a snow-storm befitting Winterfell, this epoch supplies the heart-stoppingly brutal, but realistic violence that has made the show so controversial and absorbing for viewers.

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Game of Thrones takes inspiration from the late fifteenth-century dynastic wars

To temper the raw physicality of the fictitious hostilities, the Wars of the Roses also furnishes Game of Thrones with a tangled web of political intrigues and betrayals. Aspects of Tyrion Lannister’s story parallel Richard III’s as he stands accused of attempting to murder young Bran Stark in a tower at Winterfell. Later, he is condemned (unjustly) for murdering his nephew, Joffrey, and in a brilliant twist of the tower-murder motif, flees Westeros after putting a crossbolt through his father, Tywin, in The Tower of the Hand. Like Richard III, Tyrion also exhibits Machiavellian behaviour. His love of books and instinctive ability to read people makes him adept at manipulating events and influencing others. While Tyrion uses this skill to help others or save his own skin, other characters, like Petyr Baelish, rise to power through fiendishly brilliant manouverings.

Cersei Lannister is equally adept at exploiting others to advance her cause. In this, and her irrepressible devotion to her children, she bears a striking resemblance to Margaret of Anjou, the consort of ‘mad king’ Henry VI. Like Cersei, Margaret engaged in the male-dominated politicking at court and was vexed by rumours of her son’s illegitimacy. In an attempt to strengthen her family’s position, she was forced to negotiate a number of strategic alliances, the most incredible being the marriage of her son, Prince Edward, to Anne Neville, daughter of the earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, the man who had helped to depose Henry VI several years earlier in 1461.

Perhaps it’s Game of Thrones’s capacity for capturing the essence of real life dramas, but not slavishly following them through to their historic conclusions that leaves viewers thirsty for more. We might hazard a guess that Daenerys Targaryan will return across the ‘narrow sea’ to claim the Iron Throne, just as her dragon-bearing counterpart Henry VII did when he crossed the Channel to claim the English throne from Richard III, but with myriad of historical machinations, murders, and power plays to draw on, it’s more likely that George Martin, David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss, have plenty of twists in store for us inspired by the incredible dramas of the past.

A shorter version of this article was published as A History Buff’s Guide to Game of Thrones in The Big Issue (issue 1201, 18 April 2016). Online Feature here.

Beauty of the Bestiaries

As David Attenborough once observed, ‘Animals were the first thing that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But Animals’ (Amazing Rare Things, p. 9). They are there in the earliest cave paintings, they are there in the cultures of antiquity, and in every subsequent age through to the present day, but no period in history has portrayed them so frequently in its art and literature, or attached such a diverse range of meanings to them, as the Middle Ages.

Book of Nature BNF MS Français 22971 f 15v

The Book of Nature: Bibliothèque National de France, Français 22971, f. 15v.

The medieval interest in animals extended from the real relationships that man had with them in day to day life – the ox that pulled the plough, the cat that kept the mice away – to the view that they were allegorical pieces in a divine jigsaw that helped define what it meant to be human in a fallen world.

Man was God’s favourite creation, but he had to work hard to redeem his sinful state. For many this meant pondering the wonders of creation and looking at nature for insights into how to live and die well. To the medieval mind, animals had been there from the start, even before Adam was created, so for the wise men and women who studied their appearance, their characteristics, and their activities, these little pockets of wisdom running across the face of the earth, swimming in the depths of the ocean, and soaring in the heavens, were constantly revealing God’s secrets.

holkham creation

Creation in the Holkham Picture Bible: British Library MS Add. 47682.

Of all the medieval artists and writers that took delight in drawing, writing about, and contemplating the secrets that animals could expose, the authors and illuminators of the Bestiaries, or Books of Beasts, were the most influential. Imbued with Christian symbolism, and blending biblical exegesis, natural science, fantasy, and humour, these encyclopaedic books were packed with descriptions of real and fantastic creatures. Each entry outlined an animal’s supposed appearance and characteristics, then provided a moral interpretation of what the beast represented. In this way, the Bestiaries functioned as schoolbooks, homiletic source material, and devotional aids in monasteries and noble households to help man unlock the secrets of creation.

Here’s an example of an entry for the (rather grumpy looking) elephant below.

elephant Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 54r

Grumpy elephant in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, f. 54r.

‘Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls. Unable to rise, the beast cries out, and a large elephant tries to lift it up, but fails… Finally a small elephant comes and succeeds in raising the fallen one… Male elephants are reluctant to mate, so when the female wants children, she and the male travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows. The female elephant eats some mandrake, and then gives some to the male; they mate and the female immediately conceives. When it is time to give birth, the female wades into a pool up to her belly and gives birth there. If she gave birth on land, the elephant’s enemy the dragon would devour the baby. To make sure the dragon cannot attack, the male elephant stands guard and tramples the dragon if it approaches the pool. The elephant’s life span is three hundred years. They travel in herds, are afraid of mice, and courteously salute men in whatever way they can.’

elephant Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 114v

Elephant giving birth in Bibliothèque Nationale deFrance MS Lat. 14429, f. 114v.

‘The elephant and its mate provide an allegory of Adam and Eve. When they were still without sin in the Garden of Eden, they did not mate, but when the dragon seduced them and Eve ate the fruit of the tree and gave some to Adam, they were forced to leave Paradise and enter the world, which was like a turbulent lake. She conceived, and ‘gave birth on the waters of guilt.’ The big elephant represents the law, which could not raise up mankind from sin… Christ is the small elephant who succeeded to raising the fallen’. Source of description here.

That’s a lot of hidden meaning in one grumpy elephant!

Here’s another for the wolf.

wolf British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 29r

Man and Wolves in British Library Royal MS 12 F xiii, f. 29r.

‘If a wolf sees a man before the man sees the wolf, the man will lose his voice. If the man sees the wolf first, the wolf can no longer be fierce. If a man loses his voice because the wolf saw him first, he should take off all his clothes and bang two rocks together, which will keep the wolf from attacking.

The wolf lives from prey, from the earth, and sometimes from the wind. When the wolf sneaks into a sheep fold, it approaches like a tame dog and is careful to approach from upwind so that the farm dogs do not smell its evil breath… If a wolf is caught in a trap, it will mutilate itself to escape rather than allow itself to be captured.

Wolves have strength in their feet, and anything they trample dies… Their eyes shine in the dark like lamps. At the tip of a wolf’s tail is a tuft of hair that can be used for love potions; if the wolf is about to be captured, it bites off the tuft so that no man can get it… Wolves mate only twelve days in the year. The female gives birth at the beginning of spring, in the month of May, when it first thunders.’

wolf Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 62r

Wolf in Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS KB, KA 16, f. 62r.

‘Like the wolf, the devil always sees mankind as prey and circles the sheepfold of the faithful, that is the Church. As the wolf gives birth when thunder first sounds, so the devil fell from heaven at the first display of his pride. The shining of the wolf’s eyes in the night is like the works of the devil, which seem beautiful to foolish men… Like the man who, because of the wolf has lost his voice, can save himself by removing his clothes and banging two rocks together, so can the man who is lost in sin be saved by stripping off, through baptism, his worldly self and then appealing to the saints, who are called “stones of adamant”.’ Source of description here.

Gorgeously illuminated, the Bestiaries shaped subsequent depictions of animals in literature, sermons, art, tapestries, church architecture, sculpture, furniture, wall paintings, stained glass, and heraldry. Though some of the real bestiary animals bear little resemblance to their living counterparts (many of the artists had never seen the beast they were drawing!), they continue to captivate and delight audiences today.

Take the crocodile for instance. If the beauty tip in the bestiary’s account of the crocodile isn’t enough to make a reader want to delve further into its secrets – to enhance your beauty, smear its excrement (or intestinal contents) on your face and leave it there until sweat washes it off – then perhaps the strange image of its bird-like beak, upside-down head, or lizard-like spikes might do the trick.

croc Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 110v

Crocodile in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 14429, f. 110v.

croc Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, Folio 64r

Crocodile in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, f. 64r.

croc Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, Folio 24r

Crocodile in Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, f. 24.

croc Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 12v

Crocodile in Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, f. 12v.

In Genesis the privilege of naming the animals is reserved for the first man, who is given the task of assigning them identities. This special gift to Adam, his sovereignty over all living creatures, is reflected in the opening pages of the Aberdeen Bestiary, whereby the parallelism between the three images depicting God’s creation of the animals and Adam’s naming of them, underlines the closeness of God to animals, man to animals, and man to God. Together, they form a perfect trinity: divine, human, and animal.

Animals then, were seen as being imbued with certain characteristics because God intended them to provide examples of proper or improper conduct to reinforce his laws. At first, man and animals were created to live in harmony, but after the Fall, new creatures, such as lice and fleas, were believed to have appeared to trouble man and make his life on earth uncomfortable. Animals became something to be feared if they could not be tamed. Two divisions appear with regards to the medieval view of animals, they could either serve man or hurt man: be tame or untame. This is similar to medieval perceptions of the landscape, whereby civilised, controlled spaces were (for the most part) considered to be safer places, while untamed landscapes, wildernesses, forests, and wastelands were perceived to be marginal, liminal places were wild, bad things dwelt. Living in a world full of threat and danger (physical and spiritual) became part of what it meant to be human.

There will inevitably be aspects of our ancestors’ use and love of animals in stories and artwork that we will perhaps never be able to fully understand, but we can be certain that they were used exhaustively in medieval culture to offer another view of the world. In attempting to elucidate aspects of the human condition through animals, the bestiaries express our fears and desires; they speak to man’s insatiable quest for knowledge and comprehension of the world he lives in. Perhaps this is why their influence is still widely felt today in the accepted ‘wisdom’ that lions are the king of beasts, elephants are scared of mice, dogs are loyal, or foxes are cunning, and, more spectacularly, in the creatures that inhabit the imaginary realms of popular series like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.

Read more about Bestiaries and their animals here.

View the Aberdeen Bestiary here.

View English Bestiaries in The British Library here.