Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in Medieval Bestiaries

Dragon and a lion. British Library manuscript Royal 10 E IV f. 80v circa 1275-1325.

Basilisks and dragons and phoenixes, oh my! These fantastic beasts are not creatures you’re likely to see on your next holiday, but in the Middle Ages, they commonly appeared in bestiaries alongside real animals like eagles, lions, badgers and elephants. These magical animals have not faded from the literary imagination and appear frequently in popular culture, like in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s contemporary bestiary, the fictional author Newt Scamander writes:

Astounding though it may seem to many wizards, Muggles [non-magical folk] have not always been ignorant of the magical and monstrous creatures that we have worked so long and hard to hide. A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were then known to be real. The dragon, the griffin, the unicorn, the phoenix, the centaur—these and more are represented in Muggle works of that period, though usually with almost comical inexactitude. (xiv)

Perhaps our medieval counterparts were onto something. While Rowling’s descriptions may not be any more accurate than those of medieval artists, they share some notable similarities, with a few creative innovations.

Basilisk:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 59 circa 1225-1250. Harley 4751 and Bodley 764 are sister manuscripts with very similar illustrations.

Oxford, Bodley MS 764: “The basilisk’s name in Greek (regulus) means little king, because he is the king of creeping things. Those who see him flee, because his scent will kill them. And he will kill a man simply by looking at him…The basilisk is half-a-foot long, with white spots” (Barber 184).

The basilisk is one of the most fearsome mythical creatures found in medieval bestiaries. Rowling’s description incorporates many of the elements common in most medieval descriptions of the basilisk. She retains the scarlet plume (often depicted as a crown in medieval art) and has made the snake green and longer (50 feet). Most versions differ in their descriptions of the size of the snake, but death by sight is an important part of the myth. The scent of the snake appears in some versions but not others.

Phoenix:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 45 circa 1225-1250 depicting a phoenix burning on a pyre.

There are two versions of the phoenix myth, both of which appear in Bodley MS 764.

Bodley 764: The phoenix, “lives for 500 years, and when it feels itself growing old, it collects twigs from aromatic plants and builds itself a pyre, on which it sits and spreads its wings to the rays of sun, setting itself on fire. When it has been consumed a new bird arises the next day out of the ashes” (Barber 141).

Bodley 764: “When [the phoenix] knows that the end of its life is approaching, it builds a chrysalis of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and when it is about to expire it goes into the chrysalis and dies. From its flesh a worm emerges, which gradually grows up” (Barber 142).

Rowling’s phoenix is fire-colored and it has a fairly similar description to those of most bestiaries and that found in the Old English poem “The Phoenix” (a translation/ adaptation of Lactantius’ Latin poem “De Ave Phoenice”). There are multiple versions of how the regeneration happens and its duration, the more common of which involves the pyre. The illustrations often do not depict the phoenix in red and gold, but the immense age and regeneration through fire are quintessential elements of the phoenix myth.

Dragon:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 3244 f. 59 circa 1237-1275 depicting an orange fire-breathing dragon with two pairs of wings.

Bodley 764: “The dragon is larger than all the rest of the serpents and than all other animals in the world…It has a crest, a small mouth and narrow nostrils, through which it breathes, and it puts out its tongue. It’s strength is not in its teeth, but its tail, and it harms more by blows than by force of impact” (Barber 183).

Rowling’s dragons vary by breed, of which she identifies ten. Most of her dragons are fire-breathing and they resemble the dragons usually depicted in contemporary art, film, and literature. Dragon illustrations vary greatly in their portrayal of size, color and characteristics. One of the most famous Old English stories about dragons appears in Beowulf, in which the dragon is slayed. J. R. R. Tolkien famously pays homage to this dragon tale in The Hobbit.

Rowling has crafted an engaging narrative incorporating elements found in medieval bestiaries into her descriptions. She has transformed some of the creatures for plot purposes, but their original origins are very much recognizable. I now leave you with a bit of advice, should you ever encounter a rogue dragon on your travels.

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

(Never tickle a sleeping dragon.)

Maria Fahs
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.

Sources:

Barber, Richard W., trans. Bestiary Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M. S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993. Print.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.

Cook, Albert Stanburrough (ed.). The Old English Elene, Phoenix, and Physiologus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919.

Detailed Record for Harley 3244.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Harley 4751.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Royal 10 E IV.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Newt Scamander. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Print.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973. Print. 

The Froissart Harley: Caricature on the Margins?

Miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary with marginalia of a stag with wings and a sow with a conical hat on stilts on the left-hand side. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

The Froissart Harley, Harley MS 4379, is a manuscript filled with popular conceptions of the medieval period: knights, jousting, courtiers, war, queens and kings. Harley MS 4379 consists of the fourth volume of Froissart’s Chronicle, which recounts the events of the Hundred Years’ War. The manuscript was produced between 1470 and 1472 at the behest of Philippe de Commynes, one of the most powerful members of Charles the Bold’s court.

Detail of miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Froissart’s Chronicle explores courtly life, the sphere of the nobility, but his work also teaches noble listeners: it includes emblematic examples of good, contemporary rulers, meant to advise a young lord in the proper governance of his subjects.

Detail of a miniature of tents and mounted knights, with marginal illumination, including a rabbit and snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges) Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Although the text itself instructed its readership in proper chivalric behavior, the illustrations and marginalia enliven dry discussions of events such as siege warfare and provide images to connect to the chapter text. One particularly interesting feature of Harley MS 4379 centers on the depictions of animal marginalia and how they relate to the text.

Detail of a marginal painting of a winged stag. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v.

Any medieval reader would have comprehended allegorical associations with animals. One notable example of such symbolism occurs in the hunting scene in Fit 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While Gawain remains in Bertilak’s castle with Bertilak’s wife, his host hunts for three days: the first day he hunts deer, the second a boar, and the third a fox. The alternating hunting scenes and bedroom scenes narrated in Fit 3 parallel one another, underlining the analogous relationship between his lady’s attempts to trick Gawain and the Bertilak’s attempts to catch his prey.

Detail of a marginal painting of a rabbit and a snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 23v. Knights jousting against snails are a common occurrence in medieval manuscripts, but no satisfactory explanation has been supplied as to why!

However, the animal symbolism in the Froissart Harley differs from the hunting scenes in Gawain in an obvious fashion. While Gawain’s animals are meant to reinforce Gawain’s perilous situation, the marginalia in the Froissart Harley seem to caricature their own text. Regarding the rabbit and snail jousting, neither animal symbolically represents the jousting knights in the center miniature, nor do these two animals have a broader meaning in medieval bestiaries concerning jousting. These marginalia are meant to represent and enhance the text they accompany, but this point is problematic when considering the Burgundian approach to chivalry, the milieu out of which this manuscript emerged. Burgundians valued chivalric ideals above all else, as is shown by the great status granted to those of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a knightly order created by the dukes of Burgundy. Associating a rabbit and a snail with the jousters of Inglevert, perhaps the most vibrant and epic tournament in Froissart’s Chronicle, most likely would not have pleased a Burgundian audience.

Detail of a marginalia painting: a sow with a conical hat on stilts, playing a harp. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Nor does the Master of the Froissart Harley spare courtly women in his caricatures. On the margin of folio 19v, the illustrator places a sow on stilts wearing a conical hat, playing the harp. This sow draws attention to the miniature of female courtiers, all wearing conical hats on watching the tournament in the middle of the page. Again, this characterization is paradoxical in a Burgundian context: pigs typically represented uncleanliness and greed, unfortunate traits for a woman trying to navigate the vicissitudes of court.

Detail of a miniature of courtiers watching a joust. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Sean Sapp
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern

Further Reading:

Froissart’s Chronicle trans. John Jolliffe (New York: Random House, 1968).

Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Laetitia Le Guay, Les princes de Bourgogne lecteurs de Froissart : les rapports entre le texte et l’image dans les manuscrits enluminés du livre IV des Chroniques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998).

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles: Getty Pulications, 2003).

Willene B. Clark, A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation (Boyden Press, 2013).

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/09/knight-v-snail.html

Read to Yourself, Please: Oral and Silent Medieval Reading Practices

When we think about reading, we usually imagine reading silently to ourselves—unless we’re reading to children, or sharing an especially funny or interesting blog post with a friend! (Feel free to do this). But in the early medieval period, the reverse held true: oral reading was more common than silent reading. For example, in Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine visits his friend and mentor Ambrose, and is surprised by Ambrose’s eccentric habit of reading silently:

“When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely, and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud” (Confessions [Paris, 1959], 6.3).

King Solomon reading the Scriptures, MS Additional 11639, f. 116r, France, 1277-1286, courtesy of the British Library

Oral reading was a public, social event. One person would read aloud to the group, and the group could give him or her feedback, comment on the text, and discuss afterwards.

Litigants reading from a scroll before a seated judge, MS Additional 37473, f. 2r, Italy, last quarter of the 13th century, courtesy of the British Library

In the twelfth century, however, reading practices started to change. Silent reading became more popular, eventually becoming the most common way of reading in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Blessed Benedictine Cardinal reading and contemplating alone, MS Additional 18197, f. F, c. 1460-c. 1490, courtesy of the British Library

As a private, portable experience, silent reading opened a whole new kind of learning. You could now learn on your own, without hearing others’ feedback or criticism. You could spend as long as you wanted on a particular section and re-read it as often as you wanted. You could have two manuscripts in front of you and cross-reference them, or check the citations in one manuscript against a copy of the cited text.

Silent reading influenced the way manuscripts were arranged. Because texts were read visually, not heard, manuscripts frequently included a table of contents, subheadings, and other similar organizational markers (ordinatio). The new interest in structure and cross-referencing helped shape scholastic writings. Scholastic authors wrote (in)famously dense, complex works for an audience that could re-read long sentences and check manuscripts against each other.

Ordinatio of Arundel 479, ff. 39v-40r, Italy, 1471, courtesy of the British Library

Silent reading also contributed to heterodoxy—private readers could access heretical works without the censorship or criticism that might take place in a group reading.  Similarly, private reading triggered a small revival in fifteenth-century French pornographic manuscripts. (Imagine trying to read a medieval Shades of Grey in front of a group!)

The privacy of silent reading also transformed devotional and spiritual experiences. It allowed the reader’s mind to briefly wander but return to the spiritual texts, discovering the hidden and mystical meanings in an intensely personal way. Monastic orders in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries emphasized silent contemplation and meditation which began with private reading. These new practices contributed to new ways of thinking about the self and one’s relationship to God, ideas that culminated in the Protestant Reformation.

A Benedictine monk prays to Christ after contemplating Scripture, MS Additional 11639, England, c. 1265, courtesy of the British Library

While oral reading never really disappeared, the medieval rise of silent reading transformed reading and devotional practices. Ultimately, it contributed to modern ways of thinking about God, the community, and the self.

Caitlin Smith
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of our ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern.