Tag Archives: Medieval literature

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.


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).

Queen Mary Psalter 96v Sirens

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.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.74v

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)

The Appeal of King Arthur Across the Centuries

This is an illustrated transcript of The Appeal of King Arthur, a feature I wrote for BBC Radio 3. Broadcast on 24 June 2013. Downloadable as a BBC podcast here.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

Picture the scene. Arthur, legendary king of the Britons, glances pensively across the glassy surface of a deep blue lake. The softest of ripples breaks the brooding silence as a glittering sword cuts the surface, flashes reflected sunlight, and thrusts towards heaven held aloft by a slender arm clad in shimmering samite, signifying that Arthur rules by divine providence. ‘Listen!’ interrupts Dennis, a medieval peasant rising from the dirt to mock Arthur’s investiture of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, ‘strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.’

This scene from Monty Python’s award winning Spamalot is part of a musical send up of the Arthurian myth that has appealed to audiences the world over. Its satirical irreverence makes it an odd bedfellow for other Arthuriana in the public imagination like Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur or the BBC’s Merlin, yet each retelling of the myth is testament to its enduring hold across the centuries. What is it that continues to draw us to Arthur’s story and why does it lend itself to such radically different treatments?

Monty Python's Spamalot

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Arthurian fiction has always flourished during periods of social and dynastic collapse. In the twelfth century, the first complete account of Arthur’s reign in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, furnished Britain with a national epic to mitigate a succession crisis. Fast forward eight centuries, to Kennedy’s assassination and we find his presidency idealised as the Camelot era, or, more recently, Merlin, running for five successful series throughout a global recession. In each example Arthur is a touchstone for strong leadership and accord, showing what society could achieve, but never does.

Merlin introduces Galahad to the Round Table. BnF Français 343.

Merlin introduces Galahad to Arthur and the Round Table. BnF MS Français 343, folio 3r.

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, British Library Arundel 10, f. 2.

While Geoffrey uses the legend to reimagine British history as a series of seamless dynastic successions attuned to the imperialism of his Norman overlords, Merlin espouses a multicultural Britain, free of class distinctions, where magic, not race or social background, is a focal point for prejudice. Magic becomes a moral barometer reflecting popular anxieties and aspirations. While Morgana uses it for personal gain, Merlin’s magic is socially beneficial, helping characters like Arthur and Guinevere, the servant-come-queen, fulfil their potential for common good. As we sympathise with Merlin’s struggle to reconcile personal and public responsibility, his endless vigil for Arthur’s return parallels our contemporary desire for stability in social and economic adversity.

The BBC's popular Merlin series

The BBC’s popular Merlin series

Literature produced during the Wars of the Roses, similarly manifests the concerns of its original fifteenth-century audience. Written when aristocratic factionalism encroached on, and overturned, royal authority, Thomas Malory’s highly influential Morte Darthur depicts the desolation of the Arthurian kingdom as a constitutional crisis reminiscent of the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. Remarkably for a medieval romance, it articulates the voice of the lower born men facilitating the noble feud. The silent masses that ordinarily acquiesce to royal power grow weary of war and switch their allegiance to Mordred.

Brother against brother: the Destruction of Arthur's Realm. British Library MS Additional 10294.

Civil War: The Destruction of Arthur’s Realm as depicted in British Library MS Additional 10294.

While Malory leaves us in no doubt that the people are ‘new-fangle’, or inconstant, the text reflects genuine concerns about the role of large groups in maintaining or changing the status quo. Malory’s Arthur prompts its audience to ask persistently relevant questions: where does true power reside, how is it transferred legitimately, and what is the relationship between a leader and his people?

Detail of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Detail of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Those questions also underpin Dennis the peasant’s rant in Spamalot, as the satirical collision of royal absolutism and proletarian power opens up serious debate about modern systems of governance under the guise of Arthurian parody.

As a narrative of nation and community exploring the human condition, Arthur’s rise and fall is the story of civilisation itself locked in an endless cycle of beginnings and endings. That is why Arthur has and always will be the once and future king.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Edward Burne-Jones's 'The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon'.

Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’, one of many popular Victorian depictions of Arthur .

The Parchment Mirror: Reflections of Medieval Life in Literature and Art

Welcome to my occasional blog – The Parchment Mirror.

This is where I will share my fascination with the material remains of the Middle Ages, the manuscripts, literature, art, music, and other precious artefacts, that bring history to life and illuminate medieval culture in thrilling and often unexpected ways.

The inspiration for this blog came from a series of ‘Medieval Entertainment’ tweets that I shared on Twitter a few months ago. I originally envisaged the series comprising approximately ten tweets about the different forms of entertainment available to people in the Middle Ages, but the more I explored the various pastimes illustrated in contemporary manuscripts, the bigger the series grew. I ended the series at fifty-six tweets (across two weeks), but I could have gone on, especially if I’d dedicated more than one tweet to the games that I grouped together under the headings ‘ball games’ and ‘board games’. This blog will allow me to revisit the various forms of entertainment I tweeted about and expand on those activities that my Twitter followers and I found most interesting. It will also allow me to share some of the incredible reflections of the medieval world contained within the literature and manuscripts of the period. Watch this space.

To officially launch my blog, it is only fitting that I should say a few words about the manuscript that inspired the title and featured in my entertainment series: the famous Luttrell Psalter.

The Psalter, otherwise known as British Library Additional MS 42130, is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures; it was made in the first half of the fourteenth century (c. 1325-35) for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345), lord of Irnham in Lincolnshire. Psalters were devotional books that contained the Book of Psalms and other liturgical items, such as calendars, which marked important feast days and often represented medieval life though the ‘Labours of the Month‘. The Luttrell Psalter is particularly special because in addition to containing illustrations typically found in psalters – scenes from the life of Christ and images of the biblical king David, who was believed to be the author of the psalms – the margins of the text are brimming with depictions of daily life in medieval Irnham. From images of low-born peasants tending the fields to striking representations of Geoffrey Luttrell and his noble family feasting and travelling, the psalter offers an exceptional peak at life at both ends of the social spectrum.

Luttrell2As we turn the pages of the psalter, moving through the seasons, we are rewarded with representations of contemporary fashion, rural life, feudal obligation, and fourteenth-century humour. Alongside images of work and play, we also find fantastic grotesques and hybrid creatures drawn straight from the imaginations of the psalter’s artists. Extraordinary drolleries like this commonly inhabit the margins of devotional texts like the Luttrell Psalter and scholars believe that they represent the chaos that lurks beyond the borders of established medieval structures and rule.

As the proud owner of both the British Library facsimile and ebook editions of the psalter, I never tire of looking at the wonderful scenes. They capture my imagination precisely because of the intimate relationship that emerges between the manuscript’s creators and the landscape the artists chose to depict.

To turn the pages of The Luttrell Psalter visit The British Library’s ‘Treasure’ website here. If you fancy time travelling back to fourteenth-century Irnham, watch WAG Screen‘s stunning film based on the Luttrell Psalter below.

To learn more about the psalter’s representation of medieval life see the book that inspired the title of my blog: Michael Camille’s Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England.