This week, we’re revisiting the first published episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” Back in 2022, we sat down with Dr. Andrew Irving, assistant professor of religion and heritage at the University of Groningen. We spoke to him about his journey to Medieval Studies, his work on the 11th century Uta Codex, why one should always weigh their books, and why liturgy is like a Wagnerian opera.
Dr. Irving’s story is one of a truly international scholar. A native of New Zealand who moved to the US to study for his PhD at Notre Dame, he now works in Europe on a broad range of medieval subjects. His stories of archival work highlight some of the unexpected challenges that researchers can face: limited access to resources, unconducive weather (it helps to examine books in “raking light”), or flat out denied permission to consult a manuscript. Traveling to another country to visit a library and examine its rarest materials can be intimidating, especially for young scholars. But Dr. Irving demonstrates that a personal connection and diligent preparation can pave the way for a smooth experience. It’s an instructive tale for young scholars, and sheds light on a part of scholarly work that may seem mysterious to the uninitiated.
Dr. Irving’s work is about place. His career has taken him all over the world, of course. But the place in which texts exist is also paramount. Through his work on texts like the Uta Codex, he provides some great examples of how a manuscript has to be considered in terms of its home. Where was it kept? What was the environment? What was the history of that home? Was it ever destroyed, raided, burned? If it was a written document, was it read aloud? To whom? Was it carried about? How much did it weigh? All of these questions must be asked to get at the truth of an object. A text has to be wrestled with on its own terms—in isolation—but this is only half the story. Each historical artifact is living history: it was created by someone for someone or something. We have to be prepared to engage with it in a multitude of ways. We must be historians, linguists, theologians, art historians, literary critics, and more. That is what it is to be a medievalist.
Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.
I have a fascination with the strange and obscure, and if I find oddities and curiosities during my travels that intersect with my medieval interests, even better. On a recent trip to Italy, I encountered a creature from both Greek mythology and medieval bestiaries at one of the most wonderfully macabre sites I’ve explored.
While on vacation in Rome this summer, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, an underground mausoleum containing an elaborate arrangement of human bones – lots and lots of bones. No one knows who designed the beautiful and haunting configurations comprised from the bones of approximately 3,700 bodies, presumably those belonging to Capuchin monks who sought refuge from religious persecution in France and perished while in Rome.
Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, and efforts to describe the intricacies and expanse of the design prove rather futile. Skulls and pelvic bones combine to create sculptures reminiscent of butterflies in the arches of doorways. Vertebra dot and line the ceilings of the chambers like so many fresco tiles. Massive piles of assorted bones have been shaped into seats for carefully posed skeletons. Reviewing his experience, the Marquis de Sade rated the exhibit five stars by modern standards.
But the crypt is a 17th-century construction. It’s the museum that contains the medieval bits, and that’s where I noticed an early print book, dated to the 15th or 16th century, that clearly depicted a cockatrice and that the museum had identified as a harpy. To be fair, the label included a question mark, indicating that the curator was unsure as to what kind of creature was on display.
Far less familiar than the harpy, the cockatrice is a legendary creature with a dragon’s body and a rooster’s head. The beast was believed to be hatched from a rooster’s egg incubated by either a serpent or a toad. Its first recorded mention in English appears in a Wycliffite bible dated 1382.
The cockatrice seems to have become synonymous with the basilisk in medieval bestiaries.  Most often, basilisks are depicted as a bird, typically a rooster, with a snake’s take. In some illustrations, the basilisk is all snake in terms of physical characteristics, though often with a crest reminiscent of a rooster’s head. The mythologies of the cockatrice and basilisk also share similar elements. As with the basilisk, it is fatal for a person to look the cockatrice in the eyes. Both creatures’ breath can also cause death according to folklore.
A harpy, in contrast to the cockatrice, has a bird’s body with a human head and no serpent components. When I mentioned the mislabeling to the front desk staff, I was told that a historian had recently visited the museum and indicated the reverse but without additional explanation. I assured them that the rooster-headed serpent was—hands down—a cockatrice. Harpies have bird bodies, human heads, and zero snake parts. As imperatively, harpies are depicted as female.
According to Greek mythology, harpyiai were winged female spirits thought to be embodied in sharp gusts of wind, and while certainly fearsome, they were not always so bestial. Known as the “hounds of Zeus,” the female entities were sent from Olympus to snatch people or objects from the earth. Sudden disappearances were, as a result, often attributed to the harpies.
In their earliest representations, harpies appeared as winged women, sometimes with the lower bodies of birds. They were vengeful creatures but not hideous in appearance. Writing between 750 and 650 BC, Hesiod describes harpies as winged maidens with beautiful hair, whom he praises for swiftness in flight that exceeds the speed of storms and birds. Homer, writing roughly around the same time, mentions a female harpy but says nothing derogatory about her looks.
By the end of the classical period, harpies had become monstrous portraits of femininity. They were birds with the heads of maidens, their faces visibly hungry, and had long claws extending from their hands. In the writings of Aeschylus around 500 BC, they are described as disgusting creatures with weeping eyes and foul breath. Virgil, in his Aeneid dated 30-19 BC, refers to them as bird-bodied and female-faced with talons for hands, whose faces reflect insatiable hunger and whose droppings are notably vile. These grotesque portrayals of the harpy—half woman, half monster—are the most well-known from classical mythology.
Interestingly, one mythographer did stick a rooster’s head on the otherwise female body of a harpy. Writing in Rome during the 1st century AD, Hyginus describes harpies as having feathered bodies, wings, and cocks’ heads and the arms, bellies, breasts, and genitals of a human woman. Still, there are no serpent parts here to suggest that a medieval image of a cockatrice might instead be a harpy based on Hyginus’s design.
During the Middle Ages, harpies may not have been so distinctly gendered, at least in their encyclopedic cataloguing. Most representations in medieval bestiaries depict the creatures with bird bodies and female faces, but several manuscript illustrations appear androgynous and some even portray the harpy with a beard. The beard, however, may not be indicative of a male beast but instead emphasize the beastliness of the female creature.
Furthermore, Ovid’s retelling of the Jason story in his Metamorphoses specifically mentions the harpies having the faces of virgin women. Written in the 9th century, Ovid’s collection of myths served as a source text for many medieval writers, including Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, and his treatment of the harpies suggests that their association with female monstrosity continued to resonate soundly during the period.
Turning to the etymology of the term, the first recorded instance of harpy in English actually appears in Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale around 1405. The creatures are not specifically gendered; they are simply mentioned among the monsters defeated by Hercules, at which point the text reads, “He Arpies slow, the crueel bryddes felle” [“He slew the Harpies, the fierce cruel birds”] (2100). Yet one cannot help but see the feminine slippage in the spelling of “bryd,” meaning both “bird” and “bride” in Middle English. Indeed, the term harpy adopts a derogatory connotation in writing by the mid- to late 15th century. The term cockatrice, too, took on a negative meaning specifically with respect to women by the mid-16th century, at which point it referred to a prostitute or a sexually promiscuous woman.
While it’s possible that the harpy may have maintained some gender ambiguity during the medieval period, contemporary etymology and ideology has synonymized the harpy with femaleness but also, importantly, with power. The sheer number of times Hillary Clinton was called a “harpy” during her presidential campaign highlights how a powerful woman was characterized as not only threatening but also monstrous while pursuing a position historically deemed male domain.
Harpies in medieval fantasy films are also perched at the intersection of femaleness and power, glorious in their might regardless of how monstrous their bodies may be. The Last Unicorn, a 1982 animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s 1968 novel, provides a poignant example. Captured by a traveling circus, the titular character finds herself caged across from a harpy, the only authentic creature of legend in the menagerie apart from the unicorn herself.
In a magnificently ominous scene, the audience hears the harpy before they see her. A low growl grows to a raspy screech as the harpy appears on screen. She appears more bird than human, but her grotesque body is blatantly female with three elongated breasts visible beneath her beard and boar’s tusks. A knotted tree limb cracks from the strength of her talons, and her eyes glow red with rage when her captor approaches her cage. Once freed, she kills the old woman who boasted of keeping a harpy captive when no one else could.
Considering the harpy’s history, it seems a shame to mistake her for any other creature from Greek mythology or medieval bestiaries. She has been such a fraught representation of both femininity and monstrosity, but she has also endured as a symbol of female ferocity. Even as her beauty eroded over the centuries, her power has not waned, and her macabre femininity has never ceased to inspire fear.
Emily McLemore Ph.D. in English University of Notre Dame
 Photos are prohibited in the museum, so I have no physical record of the image. I attempted to contact the Capuchin Museum regarding the object on display to acquire additional information, including the date and location of production, but received no response.
In the latest, two-parter, episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages,” Ben and Will sit down with Dr. Ryan Szpiech, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. We chatted about the hidden power of language, his path into Medieval Studies, vision quests in rural Spain, parallel histories, and creating a documentary on the beginnings of the Spanish language.
Our conversation with Dr. Szpiech ranged from the deeply personal to the global. We spoke of the challenges we can face during our school days, when we are trying to work out who we are and who we want to be. But we also spoke of how a single man, Alfonso X of Castille, was able to recognise the value of other people and other cultures in his own period and shape the destiny of the Spanish language. It is a testament to the power of the individual. Alfonso was a king, yes, but he was driven, ambitious. His works had a profound impact on the world today, and it was fascinating to hear how Dr. Szpiech tackled researching, and presenting his findings, on such a complex individual.
His research on Ramon Martí, a 13th century Dominican monk, is a helpful reminder that academic work can yield all kinds of results. It gave him the chance to collaborate with other scholars like the Medieval Institute’s own Dr. Thomas Burman. He published an edition of Martí’s “The Dagger of Faith.” He wrote a more theoretical article on what it means to use an alphabet. Primary sources (that is, the medieval texts or objects that medievalist scholars use) can have all sorts of strange quirks and features. One of Martí’s was citing the Quran in Arabic, but using Hebrew letters to write it. Dr. Szpiech shows us that these eccentricities or even problems can be goldmines for research.
Dr. Szpiech’s personal story is proof of the power of the written word, and of the study of the humanities more broadly. He was open and honest during the conversation. Initially set on a course of his own choosing toward neuroscience, he was utterly blindsided by profound ideas captured in prose and poetry. His pivot to Medieval Studies has netted the world a brilliant medievalist doing rigorous work that makes historical figures not only intelligible to modern audiences, but also captivating in their own right. He also reminds us of two things: everyone is on their own journey, and success takes hard work. It is easy, as a graduate student, to look at the talented graduates and professors around you and assume that they were all naturally gifted scholars. That they were destined to be scholars. But Dr. Szpiech’s story shows us the value of passion and dedication, no matter the path.
Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.
Will Beattie & Ben Pykare Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame