02 November 2017
How many horns does a unicorn have?
How many horns does a unicorn have? It's the kind of trick question you might encounter when watching the British television series QI. One, I hear you say — everyone knows that. Unicorns only have ONE horn (the clue is in the name). And that's what I used to think too, but it seems we’ve all been duped. Sometimes a unicorn can have TWO horns. I know, right? Whatever next?
A lion-like unicorn: British Library Burney MS 97, f. 18r
I first came across the infamous two-horned unicorn when selecting the objects for the British Library's new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, on show in the show, has a diagram featuring five different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. Apart from realising that you discover something new every day — it's incredible to learn that so many species of unicorn have been identified — your eye is also drawn to the beast in the lower, left-hand corner. It clearly has a pair of horns. That's cheating, surely?
On closer inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. We might be inclined to call it a bicorn. Delving deeper, we learn that it was described as being as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. But our story then takes a rather distressing turn. Pomet noted that unicorn horn was ‘well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons’. Unicorns, in other words, were valued for their body parts. The rather grisly image below, taken from a study of the unicorn by Ambroise Paré, published in 1582, depicts in the background the killing and skinning of a pirassoipi. Paré was surgeon to the French Crown and he had a keen interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his commentary, he admitted uncertainty whether the body parts of the unicorn would have any medicinal effectiveness.
An Italian unicorn, in Discours d’Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et Premier Chirurgien du Roy. Asçavoir, de la mumie, de la licorne, des venins, et de la peste (Paris, 1582): British Library 461.b.11.(1.), f. 27r
Let's have another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It's found in a 16th-century Greek manuscript, accompanying a poem by Manuel Philes called On the properties of animals. According to the poem, the unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Distinctly un-unicorn-like, isn't it?
The unicorn with the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion: Burney MS 97, f. 18r
The unicorn is not the only beast illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are filled with drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a cuttlefish. One of my favourites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of over-extended human arms serving as its front legs. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angelos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and the illustrator is said to have been his daughter. Here is a selection of those images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitisation of all the British Library's Greek manuscripts thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.) We'd love you to take a look at all of them and to tell us your favourites (please use Twitter or the comments form below).
A heron: Burney MS 97, f. 4r
Owls: Burney MS 97, f. 10r
A lioness: Burney MS 97, f. 16v
A centaur: Burney MS 97, f. 19v
A porcupine: Burney MS 97, f. 26v
Is is safe to go back into the water? A swordfish, narwhal, hammerhead shark and whale: Burney MS 97, f. 31v
A cuttlefish: Burney MS 97, f. 41v
And this returns us neatly to the theme introduced at the beginning of this blogpost. It is a central premise of our exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, that there are lots of things about the real world that we don't properly understand or don't even know about. When the curators started their research a couple of years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have encountered a unicorn with two horns, and that our journey would introduce us at the same time to such a beautifully illustrated manuscript. And now you can show off to your friends too, whenever someone asks "how many horns does a unicorn have?".
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on display at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018.
Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Medieval Historical Manuscripts
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If you tweet about the exhibition, don't forget to use the hashtag #BLHarryPotter.