THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

101 posts categorized "Animals"

18 August 2019

What is a bestiary?

Add comment

As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').

Lions resuscitating their cubs
The lion bringing its cubs to life (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r)

Function and origins

We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. 

A page from a bestiary, illustrating a lion
The opening page of a medieval bestiary (Add MS 11283, f. 1r)

The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'

MedievalBestiary4-cats-mice-f36v
Cats and mice in a bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 36v)

Real and imagined

Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.

An elephant from a bestiary
Men mounted on an elephant (Harley MS 3244, f. 39r)

Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix in a medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 45r)

Bestiary folklore

Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.

Whale2
Sailors making camp on the back of a whale (Harley MS 4751, f. 69r)

We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.

Surviving manuscripts

Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).

Illustration of a dragon
A dragon from an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 59r)

Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:

Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century

Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236

Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230

Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century

Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century

Medieval sheep
Sheep in a bestiary (Sloane MS 3544, f. 16r)
 
A manticore wearing a jaunty hat
A manticore (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v)

You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

04 August 2019

The birds and the bees

Add comment

As many of our readers are aware, medieval manuscripts are an invaluable source for illustrations of cats and dogs and knights fighting snails. Some of our favourite images are of elephants, while western European attempts to accurately depict crocodiles and camels always make us smile. In this blogpost, we thought we would delight you with a selection of the charming pictures of birds and bees found in manuscripts in the British Library's collections.

Osprey

The margins of this late 12th or early 13th-century of the Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales are adorned with a number of illustrations, including the dive-bombing osprey (shown above, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 9r) and the kingfishers and stork featured below (f. 9v). An equally famous image in the same book is that of St Kevin, who kept so still that a blackbird nested in the palm of his hand (f. 20r).

King

Kevin

In a much later manuscript, known as the Hours of Dionora of Urbino (Yates Thompson MS 7), is found this border at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, containing this rather realistic blue tit and bullfinch separated by a roundel of John the Baptist (f. 14r).

Bull

Another manuscript we often look to for inspiration is Burney MS 97, made in Paris in the 1550s or 1560s. We are particularly fond of the heron (f. 4r), the pelican striking her breast to feed her young with the blood (f. 6r), and this rather fetching pair of owls (f. 10r).

Burney_ms_97_f004r

Pelican

Owls

Talking of owls, this rather important looking specimen is found in the border of the Hours of the Earls of Ormond (Harley MS 2887, f. 29r), at the beginning of the Annunciation. If you look carefully at the same border, you can also see a rather splendid peacock and a bear playing the bagpipes!

Owl

Peacock 2

Peacock

We couldn't resist showing you another peacock, this time alongside other birds, among them a hoopoe and a jay, in a cutting from a gospel lectionary of Pope Gregory XIII (Add MS 21412, f. 110r).

Border

Finally for our birds, how about a little swan-upmanship? This first swan with its noble beak is found in a 13th-century English bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 39v), and would have surely won the prize were it not for the magnificent illustration of the constellation 'Cygnus', made in 9th-century France (Harley MS 647, f. 5v).

Swan

647

When it comes to bees, we are also spoilt for choice. How about the beehives in an Italian herbal (Sloane MS 4016, f. 57v), with a duck in an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 57v), or with the bear looking suspiciously like a medieval Winnie the Pooh (Harley MS 3448, f. 10v)?

Hive

Hive1

3448

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

Add comment

Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the Bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f024r copy

A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

Stowe_ms_1067_f002v

Stowe_ms_1067_f003r

A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

Sloane 3544

Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

Croc

Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

Harley_ms_3244_f043r

A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f012v

A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

K039085

A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

Add_ms_40731_f092r
A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f102v

A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

Papyrus_107_f001r

The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 May 2019

Book of Beasts at the Getty

Add comment

Bestiaries are one of the most popular medieval texts, describing the characteristics and habits of beasts real and imagined. We are delighted to say that the British Library has loaned six manuscripts to an exciting new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts, curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond, explores the wonders of the medieval bestiary tradition, drawing together manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, as well as a variety of other objects.

Two of these British Library loans are magnificent 13th-century English bestiaries. The first (Royal MS 12 C XIX) contains over 80 illustrations of beasts, birds and fish, painted in gold and bright colours. This bestiary is accompanied by several theological works, including extracts from the Book of Genesis and the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), as well as a number of medical recipes. In the page illustrated here, it tells us that the camel can endure thirst for three days, and that it prefers to drink muddy water.

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f033r

A bestiary made in England (c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 33r (detail)

The second manuscript (Royal MS 12 F XIII) is now known as the Rochester Bestiary, because it belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. This manuscript includes 55 finished illustrations, although there were spaces left for 126 in total, some with added instructions in Frecnch to an illuminator. The bestiary is followed by a lapidary (an account of the properties of precious stones), written in Anglo-Norman French.

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f004r

The lion (the king of the beasts) is usually the first animal to be described in a bestiary, as found in the Rochester Bestiary (c. 1230): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 4r

Medieval bestiaries were produced in many different forms. Another of the manuscripts on loan to the Getty contains an illustrated aviary (or text about birds) by Hugh of Fouilloy (Sloane MS 278). It is combined with the Dicta Chrysostomi, which survives in very few manuscripts from this period and contains only a small number of accounts of animals, discussed across 27 chapters. Although the title of this text — The Words of John Chrysostom on the Nature of Beasts — suggests that its author was St John Chrysostom, who lived during the 4th century, it was actually written in France around the year 1000.

Sloane 278

A watchful crane raises its foot, in a bestiary with Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 27r (detail)

Another bestiary is featured in the theological miscellany pictured below (Harley MS 3244). Made in the middle of the 13th century, the volume is a compilation of texts intended for a Dominican friar, who is depicted kneeling before Christ on f. 27r. Many of its 133 illustrations have unique designs; it includes more images of fish and insects than most other bestiaries that survive from this period, as well as a number of additions to the text itself.  

Harley_ms_3244_f039r

An elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back (England, c. 1236–c. 1250): Harley MS 3244, f. 39r (detail)  

The Getty Museum's exhibition examines how artists adapted the stories and images of the bestiary for use in other medieval manuscripts and artworks. For example, we have also loaned an illustrated collection of treatises on heraldry, compiled around 1494 by a certain Adam Loutfut, a Scottish scribe in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy (Harley MS 6149). One of its treatises describes the animals that most commonly appear on medieval coats of arms, many of which derive from the bestiary tradition.

Harley_ms_6149_f017r

A page from a heraldic treatise by Adam Loutfut, including images of a modewarp (mole), tiger, horse and a bear (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, f. 17r

The final volume in this selection is known as ‘The Northern French Miscellany’ (Add MS 11639), a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing a variety of biblical and theological texts in Hebrew. Numerous inhabited initial-word panels appear throughout the book, some featuring vibrant images of birds and beasts, whose designs are stylistically very similar to the illustrations of bestiary manuscripts.

Add_ms_11639

An eagle lands upon an unsuspecting duck in this inhabited initial-word panel, from the Northern French Miscellany (southern Germany or France, 1277–1324): Add MS 11639, f. 107r

To explore more of the stories from the medieval ‘book of beasts’, check out our animations about the lives of the Crane and the Whale, both based on accounts and illustrations from another early illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). Our own website also features an article written by Beth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

Book of Beasts is on at the Getty Center until 18 August. We'd love you to catch it if you're in California this summer.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

BnF logo
BnF logo

02 May 2019

Whale of a time

Add comment

The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created a new animation telling the story of the Whale, the terror of the seas, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here. 

The bestiary was a type of manuscript that contained descriptions of over a hundred animals, detailing their characteristics and habits, as well as associated allegorical moral lessons. To explore more stories from the bestiary, check out this brilliant discussion on our website: ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’.

Illustrations of the whale in early medieval bestiaries vary greatly, but they often take the form of a type of enormous fish, with fins, a tail and a huge belly. According to one description in a manuscript made during the early 13th century (Harley MS 4751), the whale’s body is so large that unwary sailors mistake it for land and anchor their ships on its back. When they light fires, the creature feels the heat of the flames and dives beneath the waves, dragging the sailors to their deaths.  

Harley_ms_4751_f069r

The whale is so huge that sailors could mistake it for an island, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 69r

Harley_ms_3244_f60v

Sailors mistake a whale for an island and anchor their ship on its back, in Peraldus’ Theological Miscellany (England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 60v 

To feed itself, the whale will open its mouth and let out a sweet scent, luring schools of small fish inside. Then it quickly snaps its jaws shut, so that the fish cannot escape, and swallows them whole. Because of these behaviours, the commentary in medieval bestiaries associated the whale with the Devil, who similarly deceives and lures sinners, dragging them down with him to the depths of Hell.

Sloane_ms_3544_f042v

A hungry whale opens its mouth and lets out a sweet scent to lure small fish, in a bestiary (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 42v

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. As well as Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, check out this animation of the life of the crane, also created for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. The Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website contains a wealth of other articles relating to the manuscript culture of this period, alongside collection items from the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

#PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

19 March 2019

Let sleeping cranes lie

Add comment

The RSPB has reported that the crane is coming back to Britain, with a record number of new birds reported in recent years. We have similarly found many cranes hidden in the British Library’s medieval bestiaries, manuscripts full of fantastic stories about all manner of birds and beasts.

A bird with great wings and long thin legs, the crane’s Latin name — grus — was thought to derive from the hoarse cry of her voice. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created an animation that tells the story of the life of the bird and her flock, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here.

Cranes are not solitary creatures. They fly together as a flock, arranging themselves with military discipline high up in the air. According to this medieval bestiary, the birds swallow sand before they take off. Watch the animation to find out why.

Harley_ms_4751_f039r

A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 39r

At night, the cranes are known for keeping a careful watch, guarding their camp and looking over the rest of the flock as they sleep. Other birds act as sentries, looking out for any enemies who might attack them. When there is cause for alarm, the cranes call out, to wake the rest and make sure they are safe.

Add_ms_11283_f017r

A pair of cranes alongside a Latin description of the bird in an early illustrated bestiary (England, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 17r

On duty, the crane has a particularly surprising way of keeping awake: she holds a stone in her claws. If she falls asleep, the stone will fall to the ground, make a noise and wake her up. Representations of this behaviour were common in early medieval bestiaries, and the crane’s vigilance and loyalty to her flock were regarded as particularly admirable traits.

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f040r

Sleeping cranes in an illustrated bestiary (England, c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 40r

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. Check out this brilliant discussion on our website, entitled Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In collaboration with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

12 March 2019

A useful companion for a scholar: cats in the Middle Ages

Add comment

Who am I?

'I am a most faithful watchwoman, ever-vigilant in guarding the halls; in the dark nights I make my rounds of the shadowy corners — my eyes’ light is not lost even in black caverns. For unseen thieves, who ravage the heaped-up grain, I silently lay snares as fatal obstacles. Though I am a roving huntress and will pry open the dens of beasts, I refuse to pursue the fleeing herds with dogs, who, yapping at me, instigate cruel battles. I take my name from a race that is hateful to me.'

Cat1

A decorated initial featuring a cock, a dog biting a cat, and a cat carrying mice, at the beginning of book 16 of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job (Arnstein, Germany, 12th century): Harley MS 3053, f. 56v

The answer is, of course, a cat. This riddle was posed by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, in 7th-century England. It is a striking portrait of an animal that was, it seems, especially important to those in religious life during the Middle Ages. In the Ancrene Riwle, a guide for anchoresses written in the early 13th century these religious women, who were shutting themselves away from the world, were only allowed to have one animal companion … and that was a cat. Medieval monks and nuns, leading sometimes solitary but often studious lives, immortalised their beloved feline companions in texts that have captivated their readers ever since.

Perhaps the most famous tribute to a scholar’s cat is the 9th-century poem known as Pangur Bán, named after the cat that inspired it (the cat’s name indicates his soft, white coat). Written in Old Irish, by an Irish monk in exile in Continental Europe, it playfully and fondly compares the monk’s arduous tasks to those of his cat.

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(translated by Robin Flower)

Cat2

A miniature of a cat and mouse, from a herbal (Italy, 15th century): Sloane MS 4016, f. 40r

The nameless monk who was so fond of his cat came from a society (early medieval Ireland) in which there was an entire section of the law-code devoted to cats, so his love of his snow-white companion is perhaps not so surprising. The central tract on cats in medieval Irish law was called Catslechta — ‘Cat-sections’ — and detailed not only the types of cat (herders, mousers, guard cats, but also kittens as playmates for children and simple pet cats) but also what was due to an owner for the loss of such cats, as well as certain exemptions available to cats in the pursuit of their duties. For example, a cat was not held to be liable if it injured someone who had no business being there while it was chasing a mouse. There is a respect for and a tolerance of cats in domestic settings within the medieval Irish law codes, which indicate a high importance and affection attached to these domestic creatures. Little wonder then that one of the most famous of medieval poems about a cat evolved from such a society. 

Cats were appreciated as both companions and skilled mousers during the Middle Ages. There is no doubt that many cats were a valuable and beloved part of people’s domestic life whether in the cloister or the wider world. Cats were not only useful animals to have around but also loving companions whose loyalty alleviated loneliness and whose antics amused their owners no end — some of which have become immortalised in literature — from the Middle Ages and beyond.

These authors’ fascination with and love for their cats continues to shine through the centuries as can be seen in the Cats on the Page exhibition currently running at the British Library.

For more feline capers, you may be interested in our blogposts Lolcats of the Middle Ages, Cats, get off the page! and Cat and mouse, and hairy elephants.

The British Library’s Cats on the Page exhibition explores cats and their capers in rhymes and stories familiar to us from childhood. Whether raising a smile, solving a crime, wreaking magical havoc or even performing in theatre, cats take centre stage in this free exhibition. Cats come to life in books manuscripts and artwork to captivate and inspire audiences. 

Cats on the Page is supported by Animal Friends Pet Insurance Experts and is open until 17 March 2019. Visit now to avoid missing this fantastic exhibition.

 

Dr Gillian Kenny

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 December 2018

Cats, get off the page!

Add comment Comments (3)

The British Library’s current free exhibition, Cats on the Page, celebrates the role that cats have played in literature and book illustration. In the interests of fairness and balance, we thought that we should point out the shameful times when cats on the page were a very literal problem for our medieval manuscripts. Join our manuscript detectives for some crime-scene reconstruction.

Royal_ms_6_c_x_f019v

A 12th-century copy of Gregory the Great, Registrum epistolarum, from the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester: Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v.

Ellie: What a CATastrophe! This 12th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s letters is covered in muddy paw-prints.

Kate: Judging from the position of the four muddy paw-prints, it looks as though a crafty cat jumped onto the corner of the page. Did it step away backwards or was it lifted off carefully before it could get any further? A couple of the prints are quite distinct and not scuffed, as you’d expect if the cat had struggled or been pushed off the page.

Royal 6 C X detail

Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v (detail).

Ellie: Perhaps the crime scene looked something like this evangelist portrait of St Mark from a Flemish Book of Hours. The picture shows St Mark as a scholar writing in a domestic setting, his books piled up by his side. He’s so absorbed in his work that he hasn’t noticed the cat prowling in the background. Let’s hope that this furry intruder keeps its paws to itself.

Add_ms_35313_f016v
Add_ms_35313_f016v

Evangelist portrait of St Mark in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 16v.

Burney_ms_326_f104v

An English copy of Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, from the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century: Burney MS 326, f. 104v.

Kate: Another cat may have been a little less lucky. This 12th-century copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies may show signs of a human/feline struggle. One muddy paw-print is very clear at the top of the page, but the others, which number perhaps ten or more and cover about half of the written page, are severely scuffed. It seems that the cat did not want to be evicted from the nice seat it had found, while the reader may not have been so pleased to see dirty marks all over a fine copy of the Middle Ages’ greatest encyclopaedia!

Ellie: Or maybe there’s another explanation. In the Etymologies, Isidore wrote that cats are called ‘mousers’ because they are troublesome to mice, or ‘cats’ because they are good at catching things. Perhaps the feline troublemaker who prowled across this page was pursuing a mouse at the time. We know that in the Middle Ages, cats were kept mostly for their rodent-catching abilities. Perhaps we are looking at the traces of a high-speed cat-and-mouse chase through the monastic library?

Add_ms_42130_f190r
A cat toys with a mouse in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325–1340: Add MS 42130, f. 190r.

Royal_ms_18_d_ii_f205v

Royal_ms_18_d_ii_f205v detail

A compilation of Middle English poetry, 1457–c 1530: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 205v.

Ellie: These verses in Middle English offer guidance on how to lead a wise and virtuous life. The poet included words of wisdom such as ‘make no wronge informacion’, ‘Meddill litill’ and ‘grownde thyn entent upon charite’. But they forgot to mention one important piece of life advice — always keep your books out of reach of cats.

The two paw-prints in the middle of the page suggest that the feline felon leapt onto it from afar. It is pawsible — I mean, possible — that the guilty culprit was a pet of Henry Algernon Percy, earl of Northumberland, who ordered this part of the manuscript to be made between c. 1516 and 1527.

Kate: Although all these manuscripts date from the Middle Ages, we cannot say for certain when the cats made their mark. Manuscripts could be read and used for centuries, by monastic communities, wealthy families and later collectors. Any one of these might have found a pesky feline brushing up against their manuscript.

Ellie: Sounds like these crimes against manuscripts will have to remain unsolved.

Add_ms_35313_f001v detail

A calendar scene for January in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 1v (detail). Not content with ruining its owners’ books, this cat is now contemplating their roast dinner.

If you love cats and books, we highly recommend visiting the British Library’s free exhibition, Cats on the Page, open until Sunday 17 March 2019.

Two of these manuscripts — Burney MS 326 and Royal MS 6 C X — have been digitised for the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project. To find out more about medieval cats, take a look at our previous blog post, or learn about medieval views on animals through the Polonsky Foundation project article, ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’.

 

Eleanor Jackson and Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo