Fun Fact

The Devil’s Ten Commandments

Medieval Meme
Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 51v.

We find in several manuscript an illumination of a devil sitting on a tree. Every branch of the tree reads one of his Ten Commandments. Additionally, a wild boar at the bottom of the tree looks up at the devil and his commandments.

1 ~ Here is my first Commandment: swear upon God’s name as often as you can.

2 ~ Grant your body with as much delights as possible; there isn’t any other heaven.

3 ~ Come by my house anytime: it is the pub and the brothel.

4 ~ If you wish me to remember you, cover yourself with vain glory.

5 ~ Despise all poor people and love nothing but gold and silver.

6 ~ If you have nothing for yourself, take it from another, and give nothing back.

7 ~ Should you father argue with you make him fear you.

8 ~ Use wine for gambling instead of holy mass.

9 ~ Believe and witchcraft and violence: your will shall be fulfilled.

10 ~ Would you be short of money you shall take if from the Church.

Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 26v

Those Ten Commandments are given as Queen Ratio provides a moral and allegorical commentary of the wild boar which is depicted as a devilish creature. Furthermore, all of this is found, believe it or not, in a medieval hunting treatise.

It is called the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio and reads as a long dialogue. Whereas King Modus teaches the hunting apprentice how to hunt the deer and other animals, Queen Ratio provides an allegorical reading of nature and its creatures.

If the wild boar is a devilish beast, then the deer is a Christian one. Its noble antlers are actually a figure for God’s own Ten Commandments. The deer protects itself with its antlers as the good Christian shields himself with God’s Commandments.

Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 29r

The wild boar used to be considered as a brave and mighty beast in Germanic culture. Henri de Ferrières, author of the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio, however, turns it into the most despicable creature of the forest. Would you want to know more about that cultural shift, I’d recommend Michel Pastoureau’s book on the subject. It’s quite the page turner!

Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 50r

Further readings:
~ Michel Pastoureau, Le Cochon. Histoire d’un cousin mal aimé (1999).
~ Les livres du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio, éd. Gunnar Tilander, Paris, Société des anciens textes français, 1932, 2 t.

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Fun Fact

Alexander the Great depicted in Medieval Manuscripts

Foreword

Alexander the Great was a very popular hero in Medieval Litterature, nothing short of a Marvel or DC character. As a matter of fact his true story was slightly forgotten and casted away in favor of wonders and legends.

Here under you’ll find my personal best off of medieval illuminations telling the fabulous stories of Alexander the Great in various manuscripts. Expect this best off to grow over time!

How Alexander was Conceived

A great man can only have a great birth. It is said that Buddha was born he looked around and then took 7 paces in the direction of the 4 cardinal points. Just like that. He was born and he could already walk up straight.

The Legend of Alexander’s legendary birth however draws closer to Suetonius’ reported tale of Augustus’ birth [Suet., 12 Caes., 2:94]:

I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.

Similarly, Alexander’s birth is linked to a divine figure of the Sun and results of a sexual act with a ‘serpent’. Well, in his case, it was no less than a dragon which got involved!

Nectanebus was an astrologer who predicted to queen Olympias of Macedonia that she’d be visited by Amon in the form of a dragon and that she would give birth out of their union. However, Nectanebus got tired of waiting and turned into a dragon and visited Olympias at night. According to that story, Alexander is therefore a bastard!

Why are you so shocked? So was King Arthur. Read Geoffrey of Monmouth [Hist. Reg. Brit., 8:19]:

After this victory Uther repaired to the city of Alclud, where he settled the affairs of that province, and restored peace everywhere. […] The Easter following he ordered all the nobility in the kingdom to meet, in order to celebrate that great festival, in honour of which he designed to wear his crown. […] Among the guests was present Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, with his wife Igerna, the greatest beauty in all Britain. No sooner had the king cast his eyes upon her among the rest of the ladies, than he fell passionately in love with her, and little regarding the rest, made her the subject of all his thoughts. She was the only lady that he continually served with fresh dishes, and to whom he sent golden cups by his confidants; on her he bestowed all his smiles, and to her addressed all his discourse. […] A whole week was now past, when, retaining in mind his love to Igerna, he said to one of his confidants, named Ulfin de Ricaradoch: “My passion for Igerna is such that I can neither have ease of mind, nor health of body, till I obtain her: and if you cannot assist me with your advice how to accomplish my desire, the inward torments I endure will kill me.” […]

Merlin, therefore, being introduced into the king’s presence, was commanded to give his advice, how the king might accomplish his desire with respect to Igerna. And he, finding the great anguish of the king, was moved by such excessive love, and said, “To accomplish your desire, you must make use of such arts as have not been heard of in your time. I know how, by the force of my medicines, to give you the exact likeness of Gorlois, so that in all respects you shall seem to be no other than himself. If you will therefore obey my prescriptions, I will metamorphose you into the true semblance of Gorlois […]; and in this disguise you may go safely to the town where Igerna is, and have admittance to her.” The king complied with the proposal, and acted with great caution in this affair; [then he] underwent the medical applications of Merlin, by whom he was transformed into the likeness of Gorlois. […] The king therefore stayed that night with Igerna, and had the full enjoyment of her, for she was deceived with the false disguise which he had put on, and the artful and amourous discourses wherewith he entertained her. […] She refused him nothing which he desired.

The same night therefore she conceived the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity.

Oh, because you thought Jon Snow’s story and the ‘R + L = J’ theory was an original idea? You thought works of fiction never saw a bastard prince secretely being the actual heir to the throne prophesied to save or take over the world? Yeah. Sure!

Ever since Jesus, magical bastards that can survive or come back from death tend to be plentiful and rather generic. Yet we love them. We can’t help it.

Nectanebus Prophesies Alexander’s Birth

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 3r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus addressing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Olympias enthroned, with attendants, and Nectanebus in a white robe with a case of astronomical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r)

Nectanebus Lays with Queen Olympias

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon and in bed with Olympias (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 11r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus disguised as a dragon beside Olympias’s bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus practicising enchantments on Olympias, who lies in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 8v)

Nectanabus Keeps Flirting in the Shape of a Dragon

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon kissing Olympias at King Philip’s feast (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 12v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as dragon kissing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as a dragon at Philip’s table (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6v)

The Legend Refuted

As the 15th century went by and the Renaissance grew closer, scholars were tired to see fables get the better of the nobility’s knowledge of History. Vasco de Lucena decided to refute the legends regarding Alexander the Great and to translate Quitus Curtius Rufus’ biography of the Macedonian king. Nevertheless, his erudite translation was illustrated with well-known legendary tales. His work states how Alexander the Great couldn’t be born from a dragon. Vasco de Lucena even goes as far as to quote the Holy Scriptures to do so. Yet, the illuminations made to embellish several of the manuscripts containing his work still act as reminders of Nectanebus’ fabled fatherhood.

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. BnF, français 257. Quinte Curse. Vasco de Lucena. Life of Alexander.
Birth of Alexander the Great (Paris, BnF, fr. 257, f. 1r)

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Alexander battles monsters on his way to India

“Go West, young man!” did they say in 19th century Northern America. During the European Middle Ages, however, it was more like “Go East, young man!” And so did Alexander. Did he expect to face dragons, giants and other monsters on his way to conquer India? As you can see, he seemed pretty well prepared, even to meet naked damsels in the woods!

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 49v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with white lions (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 50v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander driving off elephants with pigs and musical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 57r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander meeting women of the forest (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 58v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting against dragons with emeralds in their foreheads (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 73r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with horse headed men (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with one eyed giants (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Fights with headless men with faces on their torsos (Blemmyae) (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting with two-headed dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 83v)

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Q&A

Fantastic Beasts 101. Bacchus, the Tiger and the Griffin.

Wild Reddit Question Appeared!

When monks and scribes draw a bestiary, do they believe the animals depicted all existed? Were horses, zebra, unicorn and giraffe considered essentially the same class of beasts? [Question by u/Aoditor: link to the original reddit post]

My answer

It all started with the Physiologus…

The literature of bestiaries evolved substantially from the 5th to the 15th century. The founding stone of this literature is nonetheless the Physiologus, written in Greek in the 2nd century and translated into Latin in the 4th or 5th century. This work consisted in 48 descriptions of animals, real or imaginary, such as the lion or the unicorn, mostly based on fables and literary tales. The success of this book cannot be underestimated. It was only rivalled by the Bible. It also counted amongst the first work translated into vernacular language around the 11th century.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1290. Bacchus. Tiger. Lion. Wild Boar. Monkey. Grapes. Wine.
Bacchus riding a tiger – Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1290, f. 5v

Then Isidore of Seville pitched it…

Though the Physiologus was read generation after generation as surely as the Bible or saint Augustine’s works, and even though the Physiologus was translated and adapted to many literary format (an unknown “Thetbaldus” made a metrical Latin version of 13 of its sections), scholars slowly added on it and developed a literature of bestiaries that became a genre in itself. It all began, of course, with Isidore of Seville (c. 556-636) and his renowned Etymologiae, and etymological encylopedia that was a sum of knowledge every scholar deserving the name would study and learn by heart in the next centuries. The Etymologiae had a very specific goal: explain the nature of every single thing known to mankind by looking at the origin of the words used to designate them. This tend to offer somewhat funny statements: “The Tigris is so called because the fowl of panic and flight, for this is what they call the Persians and the Medes at an arrow. It is a beast with various markings, and the speed of the power of wonderful by whose name the river is called the Tigris, and it is the most rapid of all rivers.” (Isid. Etym. 12:2,7) [link to source] Isidore describes indeed the tiger as one of the fastest animal there is and justify this assertion by stating that its name derives from the Tigris river (located in the Middle East), which is “the most rapid of all rivers”. But more on the tiger in a moment…

Paris, BnF, français 137. Ovide moralisé (prose bourguignonne). Hercules. Bacchus. Louis de Bruges.
Hercules and Bacchus – Paris, BnF, fr. 137, f. 182v

And later medieval scholars pretty much repeated what Isidore wrote…

When writing on animals, Isidore used the Physiologus but multiplied his sources, quoting Pliny and many others. Scholars writing after Isidore would only reinforce that method. By the 13th century, Thomas Cantipratensis wrote a sum of his own, the De Natura Rerum, which renders Isidore’s work totally obsolete. Thomas names his sources systematically and adds many to those used by Isidore. Meanwhile, he also pushes the symbolic interpretation of animals much farther.

A common trait of medieval scholarship was to assume that our world was only the reflection of a higher reality: God’s own realm. This idea was summed up in the concept of “speculum” or “mirror”. Therefore intellectuals had the difficult task to uncover the hidden meaning of everything around us, through some sophisticated symbolic reasoning that was guided by faith and the word of God.

Paris, BnF, français 143. Evrart de Conty. Échecs amoureux moralisés. Bacchus. Grapes. Tiger. Mirror.
Bacchus riding a “tiger” – Paris, BnF, fr. 143, f. 151v

Meanwhile the tiger became a forgotten animal!

More on the tiger now. And I will basically sum up Clara Wille’s article “Le Tigre dans la tradition latine du Moyen Âge”, adding here and there some information of my own. This will help us understand how the literature of bestiaries evolved from the 5th to the 15th century.

The tiger was a well-known animal in India and it is notable that the Physiologus has a distinct Indian influence. The animal was introduced to the Roman world in the first century when Augustus received some tigers as a gift from an Indian embassy. It quickly became a famous pattern for mosaics and we often find it depicted as Bacchus’ personal steed.

Paris, BnF, français 9197. Bacchus. Griffin. Vineyard.
Bacchus riding a wingless griffin in a vineyard – Paris, BnF, fr. 9197, f. 181v

Tigers totally disappeared from Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. We have to wait 1475 for Greeks to showcase tigers in Italy. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if medieval scholars totally misrepresented the tiger in their works. By the 12-14th century, the tiger is either depicted as a kind of dog, big cat or some fantastic creature, but looks nothing like the actual animal we know (and love).

And he got depicted as a fantastic beast

I’ll let you be the judge of it. In the famous Aberdeen bestiary, the tiger is a blue creature with white and red spots. However what I uncovered myself were the very diverse depictions of the tiger in manuscripts that all derived from a single same source: Petrus Berchorius’ De formis figurisque deorum, written in the 14th century. This introductory chapter of the Ovidius Moralizatus indeed describes Bacchus and sits him on a tiger. Plus, the De formis figurisque deorum quickly became a manual in itself for every artist that wanted to depict the pagan gods of old. Therefore, many manuscripts somewhat related to Berchorius’ work and depicting the pagan gods display the picture of a “tiger”, Bacchus riding it. You’d expect all those tigers to look alike since they are all derived from the same written source. Think twice.

Aberdeen, University Library, 24, f. 8r.
Aberdeen Bestiary.
Tiger. Mirror.
Aberdeen, University Library, MS 24, f. 8r. A tiger being lured by a hunter.

The tiger looks like an exotic our monstrous horse in this wonderful Vatican manuscript (go to folio 5v), in Conty’s Echecs Amoureux moralisés and in the Bible des Poëtes. It is obviously a wolf in the Chronique de Hainaut (sorry, I got no link for this one). But more surprisingly it is either a monstrous dog or cat, a hippogriff, or a regular horse in the various manuscripts of Ovide moralise (links: Citta del Vaticano, BAV, MS Reg. lat 1480, go to the folio 176r; Geneva, BM, MS fr. 176, f. 177r; Paris, BnF, fr. 137, f. 182v).

However, by then, the zoological aspect of the tiger had less importance for medieval scholars than the symbolic interpretation of its assumed characteristics. In the very same manner, legendary creatures were studied very seriously even if their physical aspect were deemed of little or no importance. The phoenix was certainly very popular, but mostly because of its Christological interpretation. To my knowledge, no one ever claimed to have seen or hunted one.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1480. Bacchus. Tiger. Mirror.
Bacchus riding his tiger – Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1480, f. 176r

This leads us to the core of the question: did medieval scholars actually believed that fantastic animals existed?

For one thing, we have already stated that they had lost touch with a lot of actually existing animals. The tiger was as fantastic to them as the unicorn, even though we know today one to be real and the other to be imaginary.

It didn’t really matter though because animals were seen as “symbols” to understand a higher reality

In fact we need to consider how medieval scholars and clerics acquired knowledge. Any artisanal or physical work was forbidden to them. They were not expected to conduct experiments to validate or deny scientific hypotheses. They could only learn from books and develop their critical mind through faithful contemplation. Therefore they saw the written text as sacrosanct and they especially revered the notable authors of old. What they knew of the eagle they read it in Aristotle, Pliny, Isidore and Gregory. They never mounted or financed any expedition to track down and observe the behaviour of eagles.

Paris, BnF, Réserve Livres Rares, Vélins 559. Bacchus. Tiger. Mirror.
Bacchus, next to his “tiger” – Paris, BnF, Rés. Livres Rares, Vélins 559

Albert the Great is maybe the most interesting medieval scholar in that regard. When he wrote his own sum of knowledge on animals, called the De animalibus, he grabbed a lot of information from his student, Thomas Cantipratensis. However, whereas Thomas somehow slavishly compiled what former authors wrote on different animals and natural manifestations, Albert the Great slipped a few personal remarks in his work. Here and there we can read how he corrects Pliny or other authors according to his own personal observations. Albert the Great travelled a great deal and he had many encounters. Nonetheless his work is riddled with typically superstitious affirmations. Indeed he writes, for example, that a musical instrument with cords made of sheep and wolf bowels would never make any music for the hate between the two animals is too strong and would mute any sound coming out of it (De animalibus, book 12). Empiric knowledge was therefore not even a concept back then.

Geneva, Municipal Library, français 176. Bacchus. Griffin.
Bacchus, riding a griffin – Geneva, Municipal Library, fr. 176, f. 177r

Fantastic or not, beasts had magical properties

I will conclude this overview with an early modern archbishop: Olaus Magnus. He wrote a History of Northern People that would become very influential in the 16th century. In the book 18, chapters 45-47 of this work, he writes about werewolves and one thing clearly transpires from the text in my opinion: he actually believed they existed.

In conclusion, the lack of practical zoological knowledge and the tendency to think extensively through symbols totally made it possible for medieval scholars to believe in unicorns, phoenix and werewolves, or many other superstitions related to the animal kingdom. However, it needs to be stated that they rarely expressed their own opinion openly in their works. It is therefore very difficult to assess their definitive mind-set on the subject.

And we didn’t even consider hunting manuals! However in those books there were only animals that the aspiring hunter could actually encounter that were described.

For more insight on animal knowledge in the Middle Age, I’d advise to have a look at the wonderful website that is Animaliter (even though it is still a work in progress). The articles written on this online encyclopaedia are signed by the best and brightest of animal history in the Middle Ages.

London. British Library, Royal MS 12 C xix, f. 28r.
Bestiary.
Tiger. Mirror.
London, British Library, Royal MS 12 C xix, f. 28r. A tiger being lured by a hunter.