21 June 2017
This week in Britain, we have been enjoying some hot weather. For inspiration on how to beat the heat, why not turn to the fantastical stories northern Europeans used to tell each other about how people and creatures in warm places kept cool?
Detail of elephants and a dragon, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 118v
Examples of such stories can be found in two groups of texts we’ve discussed before on the blog. These are copies of the Marvels of the East, descriptions of weird and wonderful creatures said to live beyond the known world, and bestiaries, collections describing various animals and their habits.
Panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r
The Marvels of the East focus on creatures found in warm climates, such as elephants and camels. The text may have been based on a variety of ancient sources, but like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers), they had been much distorted by the time it was being copied and illustrated in the early Middle Ages.
Bas-de-page scene of a hybrid with a panotii (man with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v
Among the creatures the text describes are the panotii, people with big ears ‘like fans’. Conveniently, the panotii's ears could also be used as blankets at night. Less conveniently, the panotii were said to be very shy, and they had to pick up their large ears when they ran away from company.
Detail of a sciapod, from the Arnstein Bible, North-West Germany, c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r
Another of our favourite strategies for keeping cool comes from the people known as the sciapodes or sciopods: literally, the ‘Shady-feet’. (H/T to Sjoerd Levelt, who recently noted them on Twitter!) These people were said to lie on their backs and use their giant feet to shield them from the heat of sun.
Sciapodes from John Mandeville’s Travels, England (East Anglia), c. 1425–1450, Harley MS 3954, f. 31r
This story continued to capture artists’ and writers’ imaginations, and sciapodes appear in manuscripts and maps throughout the Middle Ages. The story seems to have long roots, as well: the 5th-century BCE writer Scylax is credited with a similar story, which may ultimately be based on retellings of ancient Indian stories. On a day like today, one can certainly see the appeal of the idea!
Medieval writers also worried about how dragons coped with heat, given that some were believed to breathe fire. They were said to be born in the hottest parts of the world, where no cool places could be found, even on the mountaintops. There was a medieval tradition that overheated dragons solved their conundrum by eating elephants. According to these authors, elephants had cold blood, which dragons tried to drink to cool their ‘burning intestines’. (Please, please do not try this at home.)
A dragon biting an elephant, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), c. 1225–1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v
So enjoy the hot weather, while it lasts, and keep cool!
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