St. Christopher’s Surprising Pedigree

St. Christopher carrying the Christ child; book of hours, England, 1316-1331; New York, Pierpont Morgan MS G.50 f. 5v

St. Christopher is a saint with an exciting etymological pedigree. The name Christopher is actually a brief description of one of the most famous stories about him: he is the Christ-bearer, from the Greek words Χριστός (Christ) and φέρειν (to bear or carry). Christopher, the story goes, was a new convert to Christianity and, as an ascetic spiritual exercise, undertook to wait by a river ford, carrying travelers across on his back. One day, a young child came along and requested passage.

Christopher carrying the Christ child; Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa, England, first quarter of the 15th century; BL, Harley MS 614, f. 5r

As he carried the child across, the boy seemed to increase in weight until it seemed to Christopher that he carried the entire weight of the world on his back. This anomaly was explained when, on being challenged, the boy revealed that he was in fact the Christ child, and the weighty importance of his burden – responsible for both the creation and redemption of indeed the whole world – meant that this physical weight was a true reflection of its spiritual and symbolic importance. Depictions of Christopher, therefore, are easily recognizable, in depicting this famous story and rendering visible the pun of his name. Christopher is almost always shown stooped over, fording a river while carrying a small child on his back.

St. Christopher carrying the Christ child; prayer roll, Yorkshire, c. 1500; New York, Pierpont Morgan MS G.39, f. 12r

While this iconography is the most frequent and prevalent representation of Christopher, it is not, however, fully consistent with how the saint is represented in some of the earliest medieval descriptions of his story. Christopher is perhaps able to bear such a weighty burden because he is no ordinary man, but a giant in strength and stature. He was a convert to Christianity, coming from a country somewhere in the mysterious east – a region that, in medieval chronicles, romances, and travel writings, was frequently asserted to be the home of wonders and so-called “monstrous races,” mysterious peoples with strange customs and bizarre bodies: cannibals, men with ears like fans or faces in the center of their chests.

The marvels of India including, in the top center, three cynocephali conversing; Livres des Merveilles du Monde, France, c. 1460; New York, Pierpont Morgan MS M.461, f. 41v

Among these strange peoples were the cynocephali, the dog-headed men, and it was to this race that Christopher was sometimes said to belong. In Mandeville’s Travels, one of the best-known of the travel narratives in the English traditions, a race of dog-headed men are described who are a fascinating combination of the fierce and the cultured: “Men and wymmen of that contre [country] hath houndes hedes [heads] and they ben resonable and they worshipeth an oxe for her [their] god and they gon [go about] alle naked save a lytel cloth byfore her [their] privyteis and they ben good men to fiȝt [fight] and they beren [carry] a great targe [shield] with wham [which] they coveryn alle her [their] body and a sper [spear] in her honde [hand].”

Armed cynocephalus and, on the left, a member of a cannibal race being mauled by a dog; John Mandeville, Travels, England, c. 1410-1420; BL, Royal MS 17 C. xxxviii, f. 43r

Despite their bestial appearance, they have “reason” and an apparently well-developed religion (although one, to Christian sensibilities, misguided). Largely naked, they are still human enough to wear loincloths and carry weapons – and when they defeat an enemy in battle, they take the prisoner to their king, “a gret lord and devout in his faith,” who wears a prayer necklace the author compares to a rosary.

Initial ‘C’ decorated with a cynocephalus; Odo of Asti, Expositio in psalmos, Northern Italy, 1100-1149; New York, Pierpont Morgan MS G.51, f. 23v

Such a religiously-minded race, indisputably and terrifyingly “other,” but strongly mirroring the familiar,  seems an appropriate match for St. Christopher. Being physically strong himself, one version of Christopher’s story goes, he decided to seek out and serve the strongest king he could find. But a powerful human king still stood in fear of the name of the devil, and when Christopher then sought out Satan as clearly the more powerful lord, he was likewise disappointed to find his new master frightened by the Christian symbolism of the cross. So finally he decides to serve Christ instead, as clearly the most powerful. In this version of the story, Christopher is cast in the role of a virtuous outsider, and his bestial appearance makes him an even more powerful spiritual exemplar, while the conclusion of the tale reassures the faithful of Christianity’s superiority, obvious even to someone not quite fully human.

Pentecost including, at bottom center, a cynocephalus among those representing the far-flung nations of the world; Gospel book, Van, Turkey, 1461; New York, Pierpont Morgan MS M.749, f. 9r

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! (Watch Out for Snakes)

St. Patrick, with his bishop’s cross and miter, is surrounded by demons, gleefully torturing departed sinners; Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: The Vision of William Staunton, England, 1451; British Library, Royal MS 17 B. xliii, f. 132v

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and at Notre Dame, proud home of the Fighting Irish, it seems a fitting time to examine more closely this saint now synonymous with Ireland.  It may come as a surprise to learn, then, that the saint is not, by birth, Irish at all.  Instead, Patrick was born in Roman-occupied Britain, in the late fourth or early fifth century.  His first encounter with Ireland was not a friendly one, as he was captured by Irish raiders at sixteen, and sold into slavery.  Six years later, the young slave was able to escape, and made his way back to Britain.  Years later, he returned to Ireland, becoming the “Apostle of the Irish” for his efforts to convert the Irish to Christianity.  He was not the first missionary to come to the island – he was preceded by enigmatic figure St. Palladius, who was sent to Ireland by the pope in 431.  But for whatever reason, it is Patrick’s reputation that has proven the more enduring.

St. Patrick (with halo) reclines on a hillock, while, below him, visionary beasts frolic; Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, Paris, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; British Library, Royal MS 20 D. vi, f. 213

Popular myth credits him with “driving the snakes out of Ireland,” although this is not the Herculean task it might sound, since there do not seem to ever have been snakes in Ireland to begin with!  Scientists attribute this circumstance to Ireland’s lack of a landlink to mainland Europe following the last ice age.  The usual explanation for the snake tale (besides a desire to credit an observed anomaly to a well-known national hero) is that the story is in its roots an allegorical one.  In Genesis and elsewhere, the association between snakes and the demonic is strong.

Snakes, twined around the roots of a basil plant, which was thought to be effective as a deterrent against them; Pseudo-Apuleius Platonicus, De medicaminibus herbarum, Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century; British Library, Harley MS 4986, f. 43v

The medieval allegorical connotations of the venemous asp give a window on some of the associations that discussion of snakes might have brought up, and are not inapropos to Patrick’s story.  The asp, medieval bestiaries tell us, has a defense mechanism against that natural predator of asps, the snake-charmer, who draws it from its hole in these stories not with pipe music but with mystic incantations.  An unwary snake could find itself in trouble this way, bewitched from its protective home.  But the clever asp does the no-hands equivalent of putting its fingers in its ears, pressing one ear to the ground and sticking its tail in the other to block out the sound of the charmer’s chanting (a particularly tricky technique to execute, given snakes’ lack of external ear structures).  In this way, the asp can be read allegorically as a recalcitrant convert, with one ear to worldly pleasures, and stopping up the ear that might hear words from heaven advocating spiritual reform: an appropriate genius loci for an aspiring missionary to cast out. While you’re wearing your green this St. Patrick’s Day, then, don’t forget to watch out for snakes!

An asp, refusing to listen to the incantations of the snake charmer; Bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 61r

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Want to know more about Patrick?  The story continues with St. Patrick’s Excellent Adventure in Purgatory.

 

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.