THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

26 August 2014

Bugs in Books

Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects.  Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books.  But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts.  Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion. 

A detail from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, showing a decorated border, with plants, moths, and flies.
Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 64v

Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures.  As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects:  ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’

A detail from the Cocharelli Codex, showing marginal illustrations of spiders and a praying mantis.
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Add MS 28841, f. 6r

We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts.  The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.

A detail from a medieval bestiary, showing an illustration of ants.
Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r

The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary.  Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’).   It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group. 

A detail from a theological miscellany, showing an illustration of ants.
Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r

A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East.  In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold.  Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them. 

A detail from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing an illustration of dog-like ants, accompanying the text of the Marvels of the East.
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from The Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r

A detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, showing a marginal illustration of dog-like ants.
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r

The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period.  Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals.  They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king.  Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders.  Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of bees protecting their hives from a bear.
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v

A detail from a 13th-century bestiary, showing an illustration of bees returning to their hives.
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v

That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons.  A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.

A detail from a 13th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of bees attacking the Patriarch of Antioch.
Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r

It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later.  The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).

A detail from a 16th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of three spiders.
Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r

Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:

A page from a 15th-century herbal, showing an illustration of a spider in its web.
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of a ten-legged spider.
Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r

Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era.  The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages.  Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text.   An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval.  Happy bug hunting!

A detail from the Maastricht Hours, showing an illustration of a dog being bothered by two flies.
Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r

A detail from the Lovell Lectionary, showing a marginal illustration of a dragonfly and a dragon.
Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r

A selection of cuttings of border illuminations, containing flowers, birds and insects.
Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Add MS 35254, f. N

A detail from the Cocharelli Codex, showing an illustration of a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly.
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Add MS 28841, f. 7v

A detail from the Breviary of Isabella of Castile, showing an illustration of a grasshopper.
Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 30r

A detail from the Breviary of Isabella of Castile, showing an illustration of a butterfly.
Detail of a butterfly alighting on a flower, Add MS 18851, f. 17r

A detail from the Exultet Roll, showing an illustration of bees and a beekeeper.
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar, and a beekeeper (rotated 180°), from the Exultet Roll, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075 - c. 1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the Crucifixion, with a decorated border.
Miniature of the Crucifixion, with a gold border including flowers, moths, a fly, and a caterpillar, Add MS 35313, f. 29r

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a decorated border containing a monkey and a fly.
Detail of a border including a monkey and a fly, Add MS 35313, f. 71v

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing a decorated border containing a dragonfly.
Detail of a border including a dragonfly and helmets, from De bello gallico, Italy, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Burney MS 132, f. 2r

Sarah J Biggs

Comments

Fascinating, the ten legged spider looks like a louse.

A fascinating post! I have never paid much attention to insects in the manuscripts myself, though they do appear with disturbing realism in texts on death, like the Disputation Betwixt the Body and Worms.
I also found the information about gold-carrying ants very interesting. There is a traditional Russian fairy-tale, from the collection of the Ural miners' tales record by Pavel Bazhov in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that puts in action the behaviour described by Physiologus. The ants carry gold 'shoes' on their feet, going into a sort of cave, and, the closer they get to the cave, the bigger they grow (reaching the size of a dog and then of a horse!). Of course, there is an honest miner who takes just as much gold as he needs and a dishonest one, who is punished for avarice. It's fascinating how such motifs can travel across times and spaces, though.

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