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

Medieval Elephants and Middle Earth Oliphaunts

Once upon a time, there was a mystical medieval animal with many extraordinary properties. Towering over the other members of the animal kingdom, this animal possessed the ability to live for 300 years. It was the sworn enemy of the dragon, and as an aid to mankind, this formidable animal frequently went to war with an entire castle on its back! As the animal did not have any joints in its legs, it was required to sleep standing up, reinforcing the idea that it was built upon never-waning pillars of strength and vitality. Our animal mated for life and produced only one offspring, a testament to its sense of honor and commitment.

At least, that’s what the medieval bestiaries will tell you.

This image on British Library, Royal 12 F X III, f. 11v depicts five elephants. None of the elephants are shown in typical grey, and instead are portrayed as cream, tan, beige, grey blue, and dusk blue. In addition, they have very wolfish or boar-like features. This image dates from the 2nd quarter of the thirteenth century where it illustrated a bestiary written in Latin and French.

With all of these attributes, it is curious that men would dare to hunt these animals, yet tales of the trickery necessary for their capture abound in medieval legend. Furthermore, in extreme circumstances, the hair and bones of its venerated and innocent young could be collected and burned, the smoke creating a defense to ward off the aforementioned dragon, which seemed to be quite the problematic creature.

BL Royal 15 E V I is also known as Poems and Romances (or the “Talbot Shrewsbury Book”), a French manuscript dated from 1444-1445. This image found on f. 16v depicts Alexander’s knights conquering two white elephants with spears.

What is this majestic animal, you ask? The great grey elephant of course!

Featured in BL Harley 3244, the image on f. 39 hailed from a text by Peraldus written in Latin sometime closely after 1236. The elephant in this picture appears accurately sized and proportioned, unlike those in the other images.

Also known as the Barrus and Olifant, the medieval elephant was a sight to behold. First noted in English history in 1255, an elephant was presented to King Henry III by King Louis of France. Henry of Florence became the keeper of the elephant, and it lived happily—or probably not so happily—in the Tower of London. Like many tower prisoners, the elephant unfortunately died after four years in captivity. Clearly, elephants were much more up to the task of fighting dragons and carrying around castles than being observed by the king’s curious subjects.

In actuality, elephants really were used in combat.

Folio 11v of BL Royal 12 X III (see the companion image at the top of the post) shows a skirmish between men on an elephant and men on horseback. Unrealistically, the horses appear much larger than the elephant in this English bestiary written in Latin and French.

According to the thirteenth-century British Library MS Harley 3244, elephants were once dubbed Lucanian oxen by the Romans when they met King Pyrrhus in battle in “the year of the City 472.” Persian and Indian warriors were said to construct wooden towers on the backs of these great beasts and fight with tactics normally reserved for a tower wall. As a more rational example, Aelian describes military elephants that carried “three fighting men on a cuirass, or even on [their] bare [backs], one fighting on the right, another on the left, while the third faces to the rear” (Druce).

Today, CGI fighting mûmakil, (Colloquially “oliphaunts”) appear in The Return of the King, a movie inspired by Tolkien’s work of the same name. Possibly more reminiscent of the mythical construction which could fight dragons and live up to 300 years, the Middle Earth oliphaunt is utilized by the men from the East (see Persian and Indian influence) as they engage in battle with the “good guys” of Middle Earth.

Written as a mythology for England, maybe Tolkien’s work really does ring true. If the elephants of today are merely the smaller, sweeter descendants of the Middle Earth oliphaunts, it is quite possible that the medieval bestiary’s description isn’t quite so far from the truth.

Angela Lake
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Druce, George C. “The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art.” Archaeological Journal 76 (1919): 1-73.

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