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As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the parallels between Tolkien’s oliphaunts and their counterparts from early medieval England.
Of oliphaunts and elephants
As the hobbits Sam and Frodo, guided by the creature Gollum, make their way to Mordor in The Two Towers, they chance upon a number of Southron forces marching to the Black Gate of Mordor. Sam wonders whether they might have brought oliphaunts. When Gollum expresses his ignorance concerning these animals, Sam stands up and recites a little poem:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)
Sam’s poem (which is also reproduced as part of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) has an interesting analogue in a homily written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010). Ælfric wrote about the Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors (revered as saints in the early Christian church), who had several interactions with elephants. He described this exotic animal as follows:
Sumum menn wile þincan sellic þis to gehyrenne, forðan þe ylpas ne comon næfre on Engla lande. Ylp is ormæte nyten mare þonne sum hus, eall mid banum befangen binnan þam felle butan æt þam nafelan, 7 he næfre ne lið. Feower 7 twentig monða gæð seo modor mid folan, 7 þreo hund geara hi libbað, gif hi alefede ne beoð. 7 hi man mæg wenian wundorlice to gefeohte. Hwæl is ealra fixa mæst, 7 ylp is ealra nytena mæst, ac swa þeah mannes gescead hi mæg gewyldan.
Some men will think this is strange to hear, because elephants never came to England. An elephant is an immense creature, bigger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within the skin except at the navel, and he never lies. The mother is with foal for twenty-four months and they live for three hundred years if they are not crippled. And one can wonderfully train them for a battle. The whale is the largest of all fishes, and the elephant is the largest of all animals, but a man’s power of reason can nevertheless tame them.
Note how both Ælfric and Sam’s poem compare the size of these beasts to a house; they both mention their remarkable old age and the fact they never lie down. According to Ælfric, most people in early medieval England were as unfamiliar with elephants as Gollum was with oliphaunts – something that is confirmed by the following artistic impressions of elephants in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts:
The ‘elephant’ on the left illustrates the passage “On þyssum stowum beoð akende þa miclan menigeo ylpenda” [In these places, the great multitudes of elephants are born] in the Old English Marvels of the East (for which, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex); the ‘elephant’ on the right accompanies a medical recipe that prescribes “ylpenban” [elephant bone]. Judging by the texture of the skin, lack of tusks and floppy ears, these Anglo-Saxon artists had clearly never seen an elephant.
How to kill an elephant or an oliphaunt
In his Hexameron (a work on the six days of Creation), Ælfric again wrote about the elephant, this time giving more context to how one might use it in battle:
Ða ylpas beoð swa micele swylce oðre muntas 7 hi magon libban ðreo hund geara 7 man mæg hi wenian to wige mid cræfte swa ðæt men wyrcað wighus him uppan 7 of ðam feohtað on heora fyrdinge. Þonne flyheð ælc hors afæred þurh þa ylpas, 7 gif hwa him wiðstent he bið sona oftreden.
[The elephants are as big as mountains and they can live for three hundred years and one can train them for war with skill in such a way that men build a battle-house upon them and from that they fight in their army. Then every horse will flee, afraid because of the elephants, and if anyone withstands them he will immediately be trampled.]
The notion that men will build houses on the backs of elephants is another aspect that Ælfric’s elephants share with what Sam tells Gollum about oliphaunts:
But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)
When Oliphaunts (who are named Mûmakil in the language of Harad) show up at the Battle of Pellennor Fields in The Return of the King, they indeed have war-towers on their backs and, like Ælfric’s elephants, they scare away horses:
… from the southward fields came footmen of Harad with horsemen before them, and behind them rose the huge backs of the mûmakil with war-towers upon them. … Horns were blown and trumpets were braying, and the mûmakil were bellowing as they were goaded to war. … But wherever the mûmakil came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away; and the great monsters were unfought, and stood like towers of defence, and the Haradrim rallied about them. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, bk. 5, ch. 6)
In Tolkien’s chapter, we also learn about Derufin and Duilin of Morthond who “were trampled to death when they assailed the mûmakil, leading their bowmen close to shoot at the eyes of the monsters”. The risk of getting trampled by elephants is also touched upon by Ælfric in his homily on the Maccabees, when he narrates the heroic death of Eleazar, who struck at the navel of the elephant (its weak spot) and then found himself underneath the beast.
And an his geferena, Eleazarus hatte, arn to anum ylpe þe ðær enlicost wæs, wende þæt se cyning wære on ðam wighuse ðe he bær. He arn mid atogenum swurde betwux þam eorode middan, and sloh æfre on twa healfa þæt hi sweltende feollon oð þæt he to þam ylpe com, and eode him on under, stang ða hine æt ðam nauelan þæt hi lagon ðær begen, heora egðer oðres slaga.]
[And one of his companions, called Eleazar, ran to the one elephant who was the most noble; he thought that the king would be in the tower that it bore. He ran with drawn sword through the middle of the mounted troop, and hacked continuously on both sides, so that they fell dying and he came to the elephant, and he went under it, struck it then at the navel so that they both lay there, each the slayer of the other.]
Perhaps Eleazar should have taken his cue from Legolas the elf, who, in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, manages to kill an oliphaunt and walk away unscathed:
Note: An elephant is not a camel!
In the Stapledon Magazine of June 1927, Tolkien published an earlier version of the Oliphaunt poem recited by the hobbit Sam in The Lord of the Rings, entitled “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”. This significantly larger piece is part of Tolkien’s attempt to make a parody of the medieval bestiary genre [I am writing an article about this , which will hopefully be out later this year]. The poem about the Oliphaunt starts as follows:
The Indic oliphaunt’s a burly lump,
A moving mountain, a majestic mammal
(But those that fancy that he wears a hump
Confuse him incorrectly with the camel). (J.R. R. Tolkien, “”Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”, ll. 1-4)
The confusion between an elephant and a camel relies on a linguistic joke: the Old English word for ‘camel’ is olfend and bears a great similarity to present-day elephant. In his “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“, Tolkien explains:
Elephant in English is derived from Old French olifant, but the o is probably derived from old forms of English or German: Old English olfend, Old High German olbenta ‘camel’. The names of foreign animals, seldom or never seen, are often misapplied in the borrowing language. (J. R. R. Tolkien, “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“)
An interesting example of the names of foreign animals being misapplied is found in the early medieval manuscript of Beowulf, which also contains an illustrated copy of The Marvels of the East. In the passage of this text where the Latin source (and at least one other Old English translation, see above) mention elephants, the scribe of this version accidentally replaced the Old English word “ylpenda” [of elephants] with “olfenda” [of camels] and the illuminator followed suit:Was Tolkien thinking of the scribe and artist of the Beowulf manuscript when he wrote his little elephant-camel joke in “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”? Who knows? What is clear is that Tolkien’s oliphaunts clearly fit an early medieval mindset!
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Anglo-Saxon Elves
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Thror’s Map
You can find my academic publications (some of which are Open Access) on Tolkien here.
For more information on medieval elephants, see:
- The British Library Blog: Anglo-Saxon Elephants
- E. J. Christie, “The Idea of an Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham, Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England,” Neophilologus 98 (2014), 465-479
- List of medieval elephant images at larsdatter.com.
Geoffrey Chaucer drew on various medieval traditions surrounding pigs to characterise one of his most memorable characters in the Canterbury Tales: Robin the Miller.
A boarish fellow
In his Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Geoffrey Chaucer brings to life a great variety of characters who set out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. To pass the time, the pilgrims tell each other stories and, along the way, the audience learns about the pilgrims’ appearance, their behaviour and how they react to each other’s tales. Perhaps one of Chaucer’s most memorable characters is Robin the Miller, depicted here in the early-fifteenth-century Ellesmere manuscript:
Chaucer’s Miller behaves like a pig and his demeanour towards his fellow pilgrims is nothing short of boarish: he drunkenly interrupts the Knight and the Host and angers the Reeve by telling a bawdy tale about how a carpenter was tricked by a student (the Reeve used to be a carpenter). The Miller’s interests are also ungentlemanlike: Chaucer reveals in his General Prologue that Robin the Miller is “a janglere and a goliardeys, And that was moost of synne and harlotries” [a buffoon and teller of dirty stories, mostly about sin and deeds of harlotry] (General Prologue, ll. 560-561). Indeed, the Miller’s Tale is all about sex and obscenities. One of the Tale’s highlights is the moment a parish clerk accidentally kisses a woman’s arse (incidentally, the woman’s response, “Tehee!”, is the first recorded instance of the interjection “Teehee!” in the English language). The clerk, disgusted and out for revenge, pretends to return for another kiss and, after being farted in the face, shoves a redhot poker up the offending orifice. Robin the Miller certainly has a wicked sense of humour and a mind like a sow: full of dirty thoughts.
A sow in body and mind
‘A mind like a sow’? Let me explain by first pointing out that the Miller, in his appearance, also resembles a female pig. The Miller is a stout fellow, full of brawn, who likes wrestling and has a big mouth; more importantly, the Miller’s red hair is explicitly linked to the sow:
His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,
And therto brood, as though it were a spade.
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys,
Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys (General Prologue, ll. 552-556)
[His beard was as red as any sow or fox, and also broad, as if it were a spade. On the top of his nose he had a wart, and thereupon stood a tuft of hairs, as red as the bristles of a sow’s ears.]
These two references to the sow are no coincidence. In the Canterbury Tales, animal imagery is often used to highlight certain aspects a character shares with these animals. The female pig is a good ‘spirit animal’ for the Miller since, according to medieval bestiaries, the sow represents dirty-minded, unclean people. The entry for ‘sow’ in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 764, for instance, explains:
The pig (porcus) is a filthy beast (spurcus): it sucks up filth, wallows in mud, and smears itself with slime. …Sows signify sinners, the unclean and heretics … Sows are unclean and gluttonous men … The pig is also the man who is unclean of spirit. … The sow thinks on carnal things; from her thoughts wicked or wasteful deeds result … (trans. Barber 1992, pp. 85-87)
Clearly, Chaucer’s red-haired Miller, rejoicing in sin and telling dirty stories, is like a sow in both body and mind.
A porky piper
One more intriguing detail links Chaucer’s Miller to a sow: “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne, / And therwithal he broghte us out of towne” [he well knew how to blow and play the bagpipes and with that he brought us out of the town] (General Prologue, ll. 565-566). Chaucer’s Miller shares his ability to play the bagpipes with various pigs that make their appearance in late medieval art. Porky pipers may be found on wooden misericords…
… hanging from the roof of Melrose Abbey …
… pilgrim badges …
… and in medieval manuscripts:
Exactly what connects the bagpipes to the sow is uncertain: the form of the instrument (a bag with a pipe) might be interpreted as phallic in nature and the bagpipe, like the sow, was associated with sexual sin in the Middle Ages; it was an “impious instrument with sexual connotations” (see Planer 1988, 343). Alternatively, there may be a link between the sound of a screaming pig and the bagpipes (both unpleasant sounds?). Whatever the connection between pigs and bagpipes, we may assume that Chaucer and his audience were familiar with this artistic tradition since most depictions of these porky pipers stem from fourteenth- and fifteen-century England. What better instrument for the boarish Miller, with the body and mind of a sow, than the bagpipes?
Chaucer’s Miller truly is a pig, in more ways than one.
- Planer, John H. 1988. “Damned Music: The Symbolism of the Bagpipes in the Art of Hieronymus Bosch and His Followers.” In Music from the Middle Ages Through the Twentieth Century: Essays in Honor of Gwynn S. McPeek, ed. C.P. Comberiati & M.C. Steel (New York), 335-356.
- Barber, Richard. 1992. Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 764 (Woodbridge)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*
Various medieval English kings sought to identify themselves with the boar, including Henry II, Edward III and Richard III of York. This blog post calls attention to the role of the boar in medieval English royal prophecies.
King Arthur as the Boar of Cornwall
The frequent use of the boar in royal prophecies in medieval England can be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Book 7 of this foundational work of the Arthurian legend describes the prophecies of Merlin. These prophecies include a list of various animals who represent future rulers of Britain, including the White Dragon, the Lion of Justice and the Hedgehog (who will rebuild a town and lure many birds with the apples on its spines). Greatest among these animals is the ‘boar of Cornwall’:
For a boar of Cornwall shall give his assistance, and trample their necks under his feet. The islands of the ocean shall be subject to his power, and he shall possess the forests of Gaul. The house of Romulus shall dread his courage, and his end shall be doubtful.
This boar of Cornwall turns out to be none other than King Arthur, who comes to the aid of the Britons, conquers France and also attempts to conquer Rome. The “doubtful end” may anticipate Arthur’s departure for Avalon, mortally wounded but not quite dead.
Since Arthur came to be regarded as the epitome of the ideal king, various English monarchs have tried to link themselves to the Arthurian legend. As a result, the boar also became a popular royal symbol, found in various texts that are based on the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies.
Boar-pretenders: Henry II and Edward III
A 14th-century, Latin copy of a list of Merlin’s prophecies now in Cambridge, Parker LIbrary, MS 404, spelled out the symbolic interpretation of Merlin’s prohetic animal-rulers by adding the names of prior English monarchs in the margin. The “Lion of Justice”, for instance, was identified as Henry I (r. 1100-1135); the Crab whose reign brings war and suffering was associated with the unfortunate Stephen (r. 1135-1154); and their succesor was the heroically tusked boar Henry II (r. 1154-1189).
The tradition of Merlin’s prophecies was not only used retrospectively, to make sense of the succession of prior rulers, but it could also be applied for propaganda purposes. This appears to have been the case for Edward III (r. 1327-1377), who sought to associate himself with the “Boar of Windsor”. According to a version of Merlin’s prophecies that circulated with the Middle English Brut Chronicle, this boar of Windsor would succeed the malfunctiong Goat:
Aftre þis goote, shal come out of Wyndesore a Boor, þat shal haue an heuede of witte, a lyons hert, a pitouse lokyng; his vesage shal be reste to sike men; his breþ shal bene stanchyn of þerst to ham þat bene aþrest þerof shal; his worde shal bene gospelle; his beryng shal bene meke as a Lambe… and he shal whet his teiþ vppon þe gates of Parys. (source)
This image of a heroic, holy boar that would ‘whet his teeth on the gates of Paris’ was appealed to by the poet Laurence Minot (1300-1352), when he celebrated the victories of Edward III against the French in Normandy during the 1340s:
Merlin said thus with his mowth:
Out of the north into the sowth
suld cum a bare over the se
that suld make many man to fle.
And in the se, he said ful right,
suld he schew ful mekill might,
and in Franse he suld bigin
To mak tham wrath that er tharein. (source)
Thus, the boar from Merlin’s prophecies became a powerful symbol that could be used by kings to raise their status (see, e.g. Coote).
The last royal boar: Richard III
The English royal most famous for his use of the boar as a sigil was King Richard III (r. 1483-1485), whose followers wore livery badges with the image of a white boar. Belonging to the House of York, the use of the boar has been associated with the English etymology of York (eofor-wic ‘boar-town’), but it is possible that Richard, too, was inspired by the (predominantly positive) portrayals of the boar in the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies. Be that as it may, Richard’s reign would not last long, nor was it as positive as the boar-ish reigns once prophesized by Merlin. In 1485, Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth, which was won by Henry Tudor. The Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn, in a poem priasing one of Henry’s Welsh knights, referred ironically to Richard as a boar:
King Henry won the day
through the strength of our master
He killed Englishmen, capable hand
He killed the boar, he chopped off his head (source)
Perhaps it is Richard III’s eventual loss and his strong association with the boar that has led to the fact that no other English royal would ever appeal to the royal boar prophecy again. However, it is possible that the printed edition of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte Darthur also played a role.
How a bear became a boar: Mouvance in William Caxton’s Le Morte Darthur (1485)
The most widely read version of the Arthurian legend is Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, composed some time before 1470. The text of this work survives in a printed edition by William Caxton, dated to 1485, and the so-called ‘Winchester Manuscript’ (London, British Library, Add. 59678). This Winchester Manuscript is dated to a decade after Thomas Mallory’s death in 1471 and was probably used by Caxton in his print shop, along with another manuscript now lost. Comparing the Winchester Manuscript to Caxton’s later printed edition allows a glimpse at how Caxton made subtle alterations in Mallory’s text. Crucially, for the purpose of this blog, Caxton changed the text of a prophetic dream that King Arthur has while he is on his way to conquer Rome in book V, chapter 4. According to the Winchester manuscript, Arthur dreams of how a dragon defeats a “gresly Beare”; after Arthur wakes up a philosopher explains that Arthur need not worry: he is the dragon that will defeat the bear, who, in turn, symbolises a cruel and powerful tyrant that torments its people.
In Caxton’s version, printed in 1485, the bear has been changed into a boar: “the bore”! This appears to be a conscious change, inspired by the political situation of the day, as P. J. C. Field has noted:
“In C, the bear is (six times) turned into a boar. The change must have been deliberate, and it created a bold political allusion: the boar was the badge of King Richard III and the dragon that of Henry Tudor. The allusion would only have made sense in or just before 1485, and it is difficult to see who could have been responsible for it but Caxton himself …” (cited in Crofts)
By exchanging the bear for the boar, Caxton has altered Mallory’s prophetic dream to be a comment on the political situation of 1485. Notably, the dream, as altered by Caxton, came true! Caxton had published his Le Morte Darthur on the last day of July 1485 and, less than a month later, Henry Tudor, flying a dragon banner, defeated Richard III, flying a boar banner, at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485.
Following Richard III, no other English monarch seems to have appealed to a royal boar prophecy. Perhaps this was, in part, due to Caxton’s introduction of an alternative, negative royal boar prophecy that featured prominently in one of the most popular works of the Arthurian Legend.
- Lesley Coote, Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2000)
- P. J. C. Field, “Caxton’s Roman War,” Arthuriana 5 (1995): 31-73.
- Thomas Crofts, Malory’s contemporary audience the social reading of romance in late medieval England (Woodbridge, 2006)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*
Kings, queens, warriors and monks often take centre stage in writings about Anglo-Saxon England; by contrast, this post calls attention to the beings that generally shunned the limelight: worms, earwigs, scorpions, spiders and dungbeetles. As it turns out, these minibeasts played an important role in early medieval medicine.
Lice for the learned: Crawling among the glosses
While Anglo-Saxon England must have been crawling with all sorts of little critters, ‘minibeasts’ (a general term denoting insects, spiders, scorpions and such) only rarely receive mention in Old English texts. In fact, most Old English words for various bugs only survive because they were listed as glosses (translations) of Latin words. The so-called ‘Leiden Glossary’ (c. 800), for instance, features the Old English words “hnitu” (‘nit’ for Latin lendina); “ęruigga” (‘earwig’ for Latin auricula) and “snægl” (‘snail’ for Latin maruca):
Other minibeasts whose names only survive as glosses include:
- ticia ‘tick’
- beaw ‘gad-fly’
- sidwyrm ‘silk worm’
- seolcwyrm ‘silk worm’
- rensnægl ‘rain snail’
- sæsnægl ‘sea snail’
- buterfleoge ‘butterfly’
- eorþ-maþa ‘earth worm’
Some of these buggy Old English glosses are wonderfully descriptive, such as flǣsc-maþu ‘maggot, lit. flesh-worm’ and niht-butorflēoge ‘moth, lit. night-butterfly’.
Invasive insects: Purging pests with Anglo-Saxon medicine
Other than glossaries, Anglo-Saxon medical texts are the best place to find creepy crawlies. Anglo-Saxon medical practicioners were well aware of the dangers posed by parasites for the well-being of their patients. As such, Anglo-Saxon medicine features various recipes to purge the body of bugs. Bald’s Leechbook (compiled in the ninth century) provides ample examples of such remedies against invading worms and earwigs:
Wiþ wyrmum on eagum genim beolonan sæd, scead on gleda, do twa bleda fulle wæteres to, sete on twa healfe 7 site þær ofer, bræd þonne þæt heafod hider 7 geond ofer þæt fyr 7 þa bleda eac, þonne sceadaþ þa wyrmas on þæt wæter.
Wiþ earwicgan genim þæt micle greate windelstreaw twyecge þæt on worþium wixð, ceow on þæt eare. He bið of sona.
[For worms in eyes, take seed of henbane, shed it onto glowing embers, add two saucers full of water, set them on two sides of the man, and let him sit there over them, jerk the head hither and thither over the fire and the saucers also, then worms shed themselves into the water.
Against earwigs, take the big great windlestraw with two edges, which grows on highways, chew it into the ear; he (the insect) will soon be off.] (ed. and trans. Cockayne 1864, 38-39; 44-45 – I have slightly modernized the translation)
As these two remedies demonstrate, Anglo-Saxon medical practice could involve a mixture of bodily maneuvers (some practical, other less so) and the application of herbs.
Aggresive arthropods: Curing scorpion and spider bites in early medieval England
The beautiful Old English Herbarium (an eleventh-century Old English translation of a fifth-century Latin text) is a testimony to the importance of herbs in Anglo-Saxon medicine. The Herbarium gives illustrations for each herb, followed by various remedies that can be made with them. The common plantain (or: waybread), for instance, was said to help against the bites of scorpions, as well as intestinal worms:
Wiþ scorpiones slite genim wegbrædan wyrtwalan, bind on þone man. Þonne ys to gelyfenne þæt hyt cume him to godre are.
Gif men innan wyrmas eglen genim wægbredan seaw, cnuca 7 wring 7 syle him supan 7 nim ða sylfan wyrte, gecnuca, lege on þone naflan 7 wrið þærto swyðe fæste. (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. iii, fol. 22r)
[Against the bite of a scorpion, take the roots of the plantain, bind them onto the man. Then it is believed that it will come to good use for him.
If intestinal worms harm a man, take the juice of the waybread, pound and wring, give it to him to drink and take the same plant, pound it to dust, put it on the navel (or: anus) and fasten it tightly thereto.]
The Old English Herbarium has various recipes against the bites of scorpions, despite the fact that, for as far as I know, these critters were not native to Anglo-Saxon England.
Another biting bug to be featured in the Old English Herbarium is the spider, whose bites may be alleviated with the help of the herbs vervain, ivy and stonecrop. Yet another medical text, known as Leechbook III, features a more obscure remedy for a spider bite:
Uiþ gongewifran bite nim henne æg, gnid on ealu hreaw 7 sceapes tord niwe, swa he nyte, sele him drincan godne scenc fulne.
[Against the bite of a spider, take a hen’s egg, mix it raw in ale with a fresh sheep’s turd, so that he does not know, give him a good cup full to drink.]
This cure seems hardly effective! Although it would, I suppose, prevent people from ever complaining about spider bites again. This cure also demonstrate another aspect of Anglo-Saxon medicine: some of its remedies make absolutely no sense or even come across as magical. (also worthy of note: the Old English word gongewifran literally means ‘a weaver as it goes, a walking weaver’!)
Medicinal minibeast magic: Creepy crawlies as part of the cure
The ‘magical’ side of Anglo-Saxon medicine truly comes to the fore in those remedies that feature insects not as causes of diseases, but as parts of the cure. Some of these cures rely on what might be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence – i.e. the cure often resembles the ailment. Leechbook III seems to be appealing to this kind of magic when it proposes to use earthworms and ants in the case of severed or shrunken sinews:
Gif sinwe syn forcorfene nim renwyrmas, gecnuwa wel, lege on oþ þæt hi hale synd. Gif sinwe sien gescruncene nime æmettan mid hiora bedgeride, wyl on wætre & beþe mid & rece þa sinwe geornlice.
[If the sinews are cut, take earthworms (lit. rain-worms), pound them wel, lay them on until they are whole. If the sinews are shrunk, take ants and their nest, boil in water and bath therwith the sinews and expose them earnestly to the smoke]
The rationale behind these cures is simple: since earthworms can regenerate after having been cut, they must surely be able to help severed sinews; the best thing to use against small sinews is small insects like ants.
Leechbook III also features another peculiar cure, which involves a dung beetle. The occult procedure outlined below promises to give the practitioner the ability to cure stomach aches for a whole year:
Þær þu geseo tordwifel on eorþan up weorpan, ymbfo hine mid twam handum mid his geweorpe. Wafa mid þinum handum swiþe and cweð þriwa: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem. Weorp þonne ofer bæc þone wifel on wege. Beheald þæt þu ne locige æfter. Þonne monnes wambe wærce oððe rysle, ymbfoh mid þinum handum þa wambe. Him biþ sona sel. XII monaþ þu meaht swa don after þam wifel. (London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 115r)
[Where you see a dungbeetle throw up on the earth, grab it with two hands along with its dung-ball. Wave greatly with your hands and say three times: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem (I make a a cure for the pain in the stomach). Throw then the beetle over your shoulder onto the way. See to it that you do not look back. In case of a person’s stomach or abdomen pain, grab with your hands the stomach. It will soon be whole for them. You are able to do this for twelve months after the beetle.]
I wonder how many Anglo-Saxon dungbeetles fell prey to aspiring doctors in search of ways to alleviate rumbling tummies.
The Anglo-Saxon remedies described above would certainly be classified as ‘alternative’ by modern standards and it is to be hoped that today’s medical professionals have found more effective ways to remedy diseases caused by worms, earwigs, spiders, scorpions and other parasites.
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
Works referred to:
- T.O. Cockayne (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England. Vol. 2 (London)
Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses how a singing ox and some dead pigeons heralded the death of St. Edith of Wilton.
St. Edith of Wilton
Edith (961- 984) was daughter to King Edgar the Peacable (d. 975) and sister to Edward the Martyr (979). At a young age, she entered the nunnery at Wilton, where her mother (St. Wulfthryth) was an abbess. While she only lived to the age of 23, Edith seems to have made an impression on the community at Wilton. When, some hundred years later, the monk Goscelin of St Bertin travelled around England to write saint’s lives, he found that Edith was remembered as the patron saint of Wilton Abbey. Goscelin then wrote a biography of Edith, basing himself on “those things which they [the nuns of Wilton] heard from the venerable senior nuns, who both saw the holy virgin herself and devotedly obeyed her [Edith]” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 24).
Goscelin’s narrative includes various miracles, including Edith’s prophetic dreams. When her brother Edward was crowned King of England, for instance, “Edith, in contemplation, dreamed that her right eye fell out”. She interpreted this dream as follows: “It seems to me that this vision foretells some disaster to my brother Edward” (trans. Wright & Loncar, pp. 50-51). Four years later, Edith was proven correct: Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle (possibly due to the treachery of his stepmother Ælfthryth).
A singing ox and some dead pigeons
Goscelin reported another of Edith’s visions, which took place seven days before her own death. In a dream, she had a most disturbing vision: she dreamt that she was in a bathtub, surrounded by an ox who repeatedly sang John 3:8:
An ox went around the cauldron in which her bath used to be heated, and sang three times: “The Spirit breathes where he will, and you hear his voice, but you do not know whence he comes and whither he goes.” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 56).
As soon as she awoke, she contracted a fever. Next, she saw her pet pigeons lying dead near her bedside:
The doves, which she had fed as living beings like her in their purity and innocence, and had cherished with the regard of the Creator of all things, were suddenly found dead when their mistress fell into her fever, foretelling the sleep of their mistress, so that they seemed to anticipate her funeral rites. (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 57).
When Edith died seven days later, she was carried out of her room in the cauldron that she usually took her bath in. As such, the singing ox walking around this ‘bathtub’ makes some sense, after all!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo!
Stay tuned (and follow this blog) for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!
Works referred to:
- Goscelin, The Vita of Edith, trans. M. Wright & K. Loncar, in Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius, ed. S. Hollis (Turnhout, 2004), pp. 23-67.
Since today is #InternationalCatDay, I figured it was time to reboot the following blog post, which appeared three-and-a-half years ago on medievalfragments and is my most succesful blog post so far. In this present blog, I have added the rather entertaining aftermath of the blog post (I was contacted by The International Cat Association!), as well as a better version of the image of the medieval manuscript that was peed over by a mischievous feline in fifteenth-century Deventer…
Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts
Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel revealed that this is nothing new:
Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky. A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:
“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi catti venire possunt.”
[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]
Given their inclination to defile beautiful books, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries at all? A ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”, holds the answer:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
(You can read the full poem here)
The cats were there to keep out the mice. For good reason, because a medieval manuscript offered a tasty treat for the little vermin, as this eleventh-century copy of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae illustrates. The manuscript has been all but devoured by rats and mice and every page shows the marks of their teeth.
Aside from their book-endangering eating habits, mice could be an annoying distraction, as illustrated by the twelfth-century scribe Hildebert. The illustration shows how a mouse has climbed up Hildebert’s table and is eating his cheese. Hildebert lifts a stone in an apparent attempt to kill the mouse. In the book that he was writing, we find a curse directed at the cheese-nibbling beast: “Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat” [Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]
So, while at least two cats are responsible for leaving their unwanted marks on manuscripts, the cat’s mouse-catching abilities may have saved a large number of manuscripts from ending up in a mouse’s belly and may have enabled many a scribe to focus on his work, knowing that his lunch would remain untouched.
The aftermath: My first paw-reviewed article
The blog post above was ridiculously succesful and has been viewed over 75,000 times over the last three-and-a-half years. Various bits of the blog post have also been floating around on the internet, including my own translation of the Latin along with the image of the cat-pee manuscript (sometimes with, but more often without attribution!). The success of the blog post, obviously, boils down to a mix of popular ingredients. The internet has always had a unique relationship with cats, with several websites being devoted only to clips and pictures of our feline friends. The Middle Ages, too, are gaining in popularity with the ongoing success of medieval fantasy series such as Game of Thrones and Vikings. People are fascinated by medieval culture and like learning more about the world of our ancestors a thousand years ago. Combining medieval stuff with cats? The key to success!
About two years ago, the blog post reached its apex of fame, when I received an e-mail from The International Cat Association (TICA). Apparently, they had read my blog post and now wanted to publish it in their magazine. This magazine, TICA TREND with its tagline ‘For Fabulous Felines, Fun and Friendships!’, is shipped to over five thousand cat owners worldwide! My piece was indeed published in the June/July issue of 2015, which also featured the winner of the 2013-2014 Best Household Pet Kitten of the Year’ (you can read it here).
While I am aware that the little publication in TICA TREND is not an academic achievement worth boasting too much about, it does introduce the fascinating world of medieval manuscripts to an audience outside of academia. In all, therefore, I am quite pleased with my first ‘paw-reviewed’ article, even if something appears to have gone wrong in the printing process. The article’s title in the magazine reads ‘Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Century Manuscripts’ and the word ‘Century’ obviously shouldn’t have been there. Perhaps, the error was caused by a cat walking all over the editor’s keyboard – a problem a medieval scribe could relate to!
A better image of the cat-pee manuscript
The image of the manuscript with the scribe’s apology for feline urine that has circulated the Internet for the past three-and-a-half-years was taken with my IPhone from a photographic reproduction of the manuscript in a book. I was pleased to learn that the manuscript has since been digitzed (you can access it here), allowing me to present the Internet with a better quality image. Enjoy: