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Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the wild boar was admired and feared for its courage and ferocity. This blogpost calls attention to this warrior among beasts and, in particular, to its presence on various helmets from Anglo-Saxon England.

The boar as a warrior

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Boars in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 45v; Morgan Library, MS M.81, Folio 36v; Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 20r (source)

As a symbol of courage, the boar enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages. In his biography of Alfred the Great (d. 899), for instance, the monk Asser described how Alfred led his people against the Vikings as ‘a wild boar’:

… the king [Æthelred, Alfred’s brother] still continued a long time in prayer, and the heathen, prepared for battle, had hastened to the field. Then Alfred, though only second in command, could no longer support the advance of the enemy, unless he either retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother. At length, with the rush of a wild boar, he courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army. (source)

The early medieval inhabitants of England would also name their children after the courageous boar, as is revealed by such Anglo-Saxon names as Eoforheard (‘boar-hard’), Eoformund (‘boar-protector’) and Eoforwulf (‘boar-wulf’) . In the later Middle Ages and beyond, the boar remained populair and was frequently used as a heraldic symbol, most famously by Richard III of England (d. 1485):

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Richard III (d. 1485) and his son Edward, standing on boars; his wife Anne Neville, standing on a polar bear? © British Library, Add MS 48976

In his encyclopaedic Proprietatibus rerum, the thirteenth-century scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the boar as a courageous and ferocious warrior. The boar, he noted, “useth the tusks instead of a sword. And hath a hard shield, broad and thick in the right side, and putteth that always against his weapon that pursueth him, and useth that brawn instead of a shield to defend himself.” (source) With its tusks for a sword and its thick skin for a shield, the boar does not run away from its enemies, but rather chooses to attack. He does not fear for his life, even if he is mortally wounded:

The boar is so fierce a beast, and also so cruel, that for his fierceness and his cruelness, he despiseth and setteth nought by death, and he reseth full piteously against the point of a spear of the hunter. And though it be so that he be smitten or sticked with a spear through the body, yet for the greater ire and cruelness in heart that he hath, he reseth on his enemy, and taketh comfort and heart and strength for to wreak himself on his adversary with his tusks, and putteth himself in peril of death with a wonder fierceness against the weapon of his enemy. (source)

Interestingly, the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail wears an emblem of a boar’s head. A fitting image, indeed: his persistence, despite his wounds, ties in well with what Bartholomaeus Anglicus tells us about the boar!

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“It is only a flesh wound” [and a boar’s head on his chest]

Bearing a boar into battle

In the early Middle Ages, a true warrior would carry an image of a boar with him into battle. This practice among Germanic tribes was already described by the Roman historian Tacitus in chapter 45 of his Germania (98 AD.). Some Germanic tribesmen, Tacitus wrotes, would carry with them “formae aprorum” (images of boars) as a kind of talisman for protection in battle:

They worship the mother of the gods, and wear as a religious symbol the device of a wild boar. This serves as armour, and as a universal defence, rendering the votary of the goddess safe even amidst enemies. (source)

In Old English literature, we find various examples of this practice.  The Old English poem Elene, for example, makes mention of an eoforcumbol ‘boar-standard’. In Beowulf, too, there is a reference to an eoforheafodsegn ‘lit. boar-head-sign’, usually interpreted as a banner with a boar’s head. In addition, various warriors in Beowulf adorn themselves with “eofor-lic […] fah ond fyr-heard” (ll. 303b-305: A boar image, coloured and fire-hardened), “swyn eal-gylden (l. 1112b: a boar entirely of gold), “eofer iren-heard” (l. 1113a: an iron-hard boar) and “swin ofer helme (l. 1286a: a swine on top of the helmet). As the last phrase, “swin ofer helme”, suggests, these boar images were typically found on helmets. The hero Beowulf himself also seems to have possessed such a boar helmet, “besette swin-licum, þæt hine syðþan ne / brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton” (ll. 1450-1451: Studded with boar images, so that no sword or war-knife could bite him). Like Tacitus, the Beowulf poet here ascribes an ‘apotropaic’ function to the swine images: they are a form of defensive magic.

Boars on the helmet

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Left: Torslunda helmet-plate; Right: Wollaston helmet in Royal Armouries, Leeds

The boar helmet is not a figment of literary imagination. Several archaeological finds from the early Middle Ages confirm the existence of this kind of headgear. One of the seventh-century helmet plates from Torslunda (Sweden), for example, shows two heavily armed warriors, each an effigy of a wild boar on their helmet. These swine are easily recognizable by their tusks, bristles and curly tails . Actual helmets dating from much the same time and complete with boar-crowns have been found in various places in England, such as Benty Grange and Wollaston.

Even the famous seventh-century Sutton Hoo helmet features an image of a boar, although it may not be visible at first sight. Considered carefully, the facemask of the Sutton Hoo helmet, with its moustache, nose and eyebrows, is actually the body of an eagle. But if we zoom in on the eyebrows, we can see that these are not only the wings of the eagle but that they are, in fact, boars, terminating as they do in swine-ish heads with tusks.

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Boar-ish eyebrow, eagle-like facial features and the Sutton Hoo Helmet © The British Museum (source)

The carriers of these helmets no doubt imagined themselves protected or inspired by the martial valour of the boar.

Cruel and deadly: The dangers of boar baiting

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Miniature of man being killed by a wild boar. © The British Library, Harley 4431, f. 124v

Aside from their courage, boars were famed for their cruelty. Bartholomaeus Anglicus writes that boars would sharpen their tusks as soon as they heard hunters approach, so as to deal more damage:

And when he spieth peril that should befall, he whetteth his tusks and frotteth them, and assayeth in that while fretting against trees, if the points of his tusks be all blunt. And if he feel that they be blunt, he seeketh a herb which is called Origanum, and gnaweth it and cheweth it, and cleanseth and comforteth the roots of his teeth therewith by vertue thereof. (source)

Its reputation for cruelty was well-deserved: the boar hunt cost the lives of many a prince and nobleman, including the West Frankish king Carloman II (d. 884), the Hungarian prince Imre (d. 1031) and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (d. 1392). These unfortunate people had probably forgotten to bear an image of a boar with them!

This blog is a revised version of small Dutch article that will appear in a book on thirty medieval animals, to be published here.

P.S. On a not entirely unrelated note: given the boar’s reputation for courage and cruelty, Dáin Ironfoot’s choice of transportation in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies suddenly makes some sense.

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Dain Ironfoot riding a boar in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

 

A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus

Manuscripts are among the most fascinating artefacts from the Middle Ages. This post focuses on a manuscript that was kidnapped by Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus.

‘The Golden Book’

The Stockholm Codex Aureus (Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135) is an eighth-century Gospel book. This beautiful manuscript was probably made in Canterbury and would also have had a bejewelled bookbinding. The presence of a precious binding can be inferred from a note on the opening page that commemorates Wulfhelm, the goldsmith, Ceolheard, the jeweller, and someone named Ealhhun. These could be the monks who were involved in the making of the book or they may have been responsible for rebinding it at a later point in time (see Gameson 2001):

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Opening page of St Jerome’s preface, inscription for Ceolheard, Ealhhun and Wulfhelm in top margin © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 1r

Orate p<ro> Ceolheard p<res>b<itero>, inclas [for inclusor?] 7 Ealhhun 7 Wulfhelm, aurifex

[Pray for priest Ceolheard, the jeweller(?), and Ealhhun and Wulfhelm, the goldsmith]

The Stockholm Codex Aureus (or: Canterbury Codex Aureus)  owes its nickname ‘Golden Codex’ to the lavish use of gold-leaf for some of its initials. Its golden glory is best illustrated by the opening page of the Gospel of Matthew:

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The Stockholm Codex Aureus © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

Kidnapped by Vikings!

The opening page of the Gospel of Matthew has more to offer than just its gold and decorated letters: a ninth-century note added in the upper and lower margin of the page relates the exciting history of this book. As it turns out, the Codex Aureus had once been stolen by Vikings and, as the note states, an Anglo-Saxon ealdorman and his wife had ransomed it from the heathen army:

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Inscription in the names of Alfred and Werburg © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

In nomine Domini nostri Ihesu Christi Ic Aelfred aldormon ond Werburg min gefera begetan ðas bec æt haeðnum herge mid uncre claene feo, ðæt ðonne wæs mid clæne golde, ond ðæt wit deodan for Godes lufan ond for uncre saule ðearfe.

Ond for ðon ðe wit noldan ðæt ðas halgan beoc lencg in ðære haeðenesse wunaden, ond nu willað heo gesellan inn to Cristes circan Gode to lofe ond to wuldre ond to weorðunga, ond his ðrowunga to ðoncunga, ond ðæm godcundan geferscipe to brucenne ðe in Cristes circan dæghwæmlice Godes lof rærað, to ðæm gerade ðæt heo mon arede eghwelce monaðe for Aelfred ond for Werburge ond for Alhðryðe, heora saulum to ecum lecedome, ða hwile ðe God gesegen haebbe ðæt fulwiht æt ðeosse stowe beon mote.

Ec swelce ic Aelfred dux ond Werburg biddað ond halsiað on Godes almaehtiges noman ond on allra his haligra ðæt nænig mon seo to ðon gedyrstig ðætte ðas halgan beoc aselle oððe aðeode from Cristes circan ða hwile ðe fulwiht <stondan><mote>.

In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg, my wife, obtained these books from the heathen arme with our pure money, that was with pure gold, and we did that for God’s love and for the sake of our souls.

And because we did not wish that these holy books would remain long among the heathens, and now we want to give it to Christ’s church for God’s praise, honour and glory, and in gratitude of his passion and for the use of the religious community, who daily raises up God’s praise in Christ’s church, on the condition that they are read every month for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal salvation of their souls, for as long as God should grant that the faith is allowed to be in this place.

Also likewise, I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg pray and ask in the God’s almighty name and those of all his saints that no man will be so bold as to deliver or separate these books from Christ’s church for as long as the faith is allowed to stand.

Having ransomed the book from the Viking army, Alfred and Werburg donated the book to the monastic community at Christ Church, Canterbury. In return, they expected the monks to pray for their souls and the soul of Alhthryth, who may have been their daughter. To make sure the monks would not forget them, the donators also had their names written in the right-hand margin of the same page: Alfred, Werburg, Alhthryth.

The beauty of the Chi-Rho page: Animals galore

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“XPI AUTEM” © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in medieval Gospel books was often highly decorated. The so-called Chi-Rho page (named after the two first capital letters of Christ’s name) of the Stockholm Codex Aureus is no exception. What is striking about the first line of this page is its inclusion of no fewer than twenty animals. While some (like the lamb of God above the PI of ‘XPI’-abbreviation for Christ) are easy to find, other are hidden among the many decorations. I personally like how even the initial capital X terminates in two animal heads (cows?) and how one animal is trying to balance himself between the two arches of the M. The image below lists the twenty animals and their location in the words “XPI AUTEM”:

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20 animals in “XPI AUTEM” © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

Bipolar pages

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White pages with black ink alternated with purple pages with gold and silver ink. © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fols. 17v-19r

Another interesting feature of the Stockholm Codex Aureus is its consistent alternation of normal parchment pages with pages that were dyed purple. Whereas the white pages are written with black ink, the purple pages have lettering in gold and silver. The use of purple pages and gold ink is well attested for the seventh and eighth centuries: since gold and silver were durable metals, they were deemed the proper colours for the equally incorruptible word of God. Ironically, it was probably this use of gold in the Stockholm Codex Aureus (and its bejewelled cover) that made it catch the attention of the marauding Vikings in the ninth century.

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Portrait of Matthew the Evangelist and the opening page of the Gospel of Matthew © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fols. 9v-10r

While the Codex Aureus was temporarily returned to England, it did eventually end up in Scandinavia. The manuscript had remained in Canterbury until the end of the Middle Ages, then spent some time in Spain, but was finally acquired by the Royal Library of Sweden in 1690. I wonder how much “pure gold” it would take to ransom the book once more from these Vikings!

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Works referred to:

  • Gameson, R. (ed.), The Codex Aureus: An Eighth-Century Gospel Book (Copenhagen, 2001)

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671

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 self-made cartoon. In this post, I deal with the remarkable story  of a battle of birds in the year 671.

A battle of birds in England, 671

In the thirteenth-century historiographical work Flores historiarum [Flowers of History], Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) collected all sorts of events that caught his interest whilst reading the chronicles of other historians. Interestingly, he notes that he collected these stories for entertainment, as well as (intellectual) ‘profit’:

…that which follows has been taken from the books of catholic writers worthy of credit, just as flowers of various colours are gathered from various fields, to the end that the very variety, noted in the diversity of the colours, may be grateful to the various minds of the readers, and by presenting some which each may relish, may suffice for the profit and entertainment of all (trans. Giles, p. 2)

Among his bouquet of historical anecdotes is a peculiar fight among fowls in the year 671:

“In the year of grace 671, there was an extraordinary battle in England among the birds, insomuch that many thousands were found killed, and it seemed that the foreign birds were put to flight.” (trans. Giles, p. 100)

Xenophobic, English birds ousting foreign fowl…imagine if they had made a tapestry out of that battle!

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Birds Tapestry – inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry (see and compare for yourself)

Chinese whispers from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum

The first reference to bird-activity in the year 671 is found in various manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (initiated during the reign of Alfred the Great [d. 899]):

671: Her wæs þæt micle fugla wæl. (Manuscripts A, B, C and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available here)

[671: In this year was a great mortality of birds]

While the Old English word wæl is often used to denote dead bodies after a battle, it is more likely that the word here refers to the death of birds following a natural disaster. This interpretation seems supported by the Latin chronicle of Æthelweard (d. c.988), who reported a foul smell caused by the dead birds:

Itaque post decursu anni unius facta est auium magna ruina, ita ut et in mare et in arida spurcissimus foetor uideretur tam de minutis auibus quam de maioribus.

[After the lapse of one year (i.e. in 671) a great mortality of birds occurred, so that on sea and on land a very foul stench was noticeable from the <carrion of> small birds and larger ones.] (Ed. and trans. Campbell)

Since Æthelweard was writing in the tenth century, he is unlikely to have remembered the smell himself: he probably used a now-lost Old English manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that contained this extra information about the event of 671. The chronicler John of Worcester (d. 1140) also seems to have interpreted the event of 671 as stemming from natural causes and spoke of an “[a]uium strages” [destruction of birds]: the same phrase he used for the deaths of birds caused by a harsh winter in 1111:

Hox anno hyemps asperrima, fames ualida, mortalitas hominum, pestis animalium, agrestium simul et domesticorum, stragesque auium extitit permaxima.

This year there was a very harsh winter, a serious famine, mortality of men, disease among animals, both wild and domestic, and a very great destruction of birds. (ed. Darlington & McGurk; trans. McGurk and Bray)

So far, the most likely interpretation of what went on in 671 is a mass mortality of birds, caused by some disease or harsh weather conditions. So what about Roger of Wendover’s battle?

         Matters appear to have gone astray when Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088–c. 1157), in his Historia Anglorum, tried to make sense of annal 671 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He erroneously translated Old English wæl with Latin pugna ‘battle, combat’:

Precedenti autem anno fuit maxima pugna uolucrum in Anglia.

[In the preceding year (671) there was a very great battle of birds in England.] (ed. and trans. Greenway)

Henry, realizing that a battle of birds does not sound very likely, then defended himself by relating that a similar fight had broken out in his own days, one with a symbolic meaning:

This seems more credibly because it also happened in Normandy in our own time, in the reign of King Henry. He was the first king of England of this name. This is specified because in the future there may perhaps be another so named. The birds fought openly at Rouen, and thousands of dead birds were discovered and the foreign birds were observed being driven off. This was a sign of the battle that was fought between Henry, lord of England and Normandy, and Louis, king of France, son of Philip. In this battle the strong King Henry emerged the victor and the defeated Louis fled away. (trans. Greenway)

Now it becomes clear what has happened with regard to the Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover: Roger had read Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum but shortened the text in such a way that the details of the battle of birds in 12h-century Rouen were  transposed to the English event of 671. Regrettably, then, we must conclude that in the year 671, in all likelihood, no battle of birds took place in England and that no foreign birds were put to flight that year; some of the flowery anecdotes of the Anglo-Saxon past, it appears, are merely the result of an intriguing game of Chinese whispers!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • Campbell, A., ed. and trans. The Chronicle of Æthelweard (London, 1961)
  • Darlington, R. R. and P. McGurk, eds., P. McGurk and J. Bray, trans., The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450-1066 (Oxford, 1995)
  • Giles, J.A., trans. Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History (London, 1849)
  • Greenway, D. E., ed. and trans., Henry Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum. The History of the English People (Oxford, 1996)

Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

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:

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

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.]

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

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.

A mouse ate my Boethius! (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 214, fol. 122r)

A mouse ate my Boethius! (© Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 214, fol. 122r)

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!]

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

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).

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The TICA Trend magazine. My cat Cnut was most pleased to read the magazine ‘for fabulous felines, fun and friendship’; Breca the Pug was not impressed.

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:

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© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r