European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

07 August 2015

Monkeys ahoy!

In Lisuarte de Grecia, Book VII of the Amadis de Gaula cycle, what should heave into view but a ship crewed by monkeys, sent by the damsel Alquifa to summon Perion, son of Amadis, to her aid:

Amadis MonkeysThe ship crewed by monkeys, from Le quatriesme liure d'Amadis de Gaule (Paris, 1560). British Library RB.23.a.36495

The medievals knew well how good imitators monkeys were (Peter of Blois called wine “simia vini”, according to Curtius) and discerned a resemblance between man and monkey, but did not consider there was a genetic relationship.

Don Juan Manuel, among other things a keen huntsman, classified the animals according to their way of getting food: Some animals hunt each other, such as lions and leopards;

Et otras bestias [ay] pequennas que caçan caças pequennas, et de noche, a fuerça o con enganno, asy commo xymios et adiues et raposos et maymones et fuynas et tessugos et furones et gardunnas et turones, et otras bestias sus semejantes. Libro del cavallero e del escudero, ch. xl.

(there are other small animals that hunt other small animals, and by night, by strength or cunning, such as monkeys and jackals and foxes and apes and weasels and badgers and ferrets and martens and stoats, and other animals like them)

The author of the Orto do esposo, the Old Portuguese  (14th century?) compilation of ascetic, exemplary and pseudozoological literature, was not a hunting man but he was a chauvinist: he classifies the animal kingdom by their human-serving function:

todalas geerações das animalias forom criadas pera bõo uso e proveito do homen, segundo diz o filosafo e Joaham Demaceno, doctor catolico mui grande.  Ca algūas animalias forom criadas pera comer e mantiimento do homem, assi como os gaados e os cervos e as lebres, e as outras animalias semelhantes a estas.  E outras forom creados pera serviço do homem, assi como os asnos e os cavalos e as outras taes animalias.  (IV, iii, p. 96)

(all the generations of animals were created for the good use of man, as the philosopher [Aristotle] and St John Damascene, a very great Catholic doctor, say.  For some animals were created for the eating and nourishment of man, such as cattle and stags and hares, and other animals like them.  And other animals were created for the service of man, such as donkeys and horses and other such animals.)

And he was also something of a poet:

E outras forom criadas pera solaz e prazer do homem, assi como as simeas e as aves que bem cantam e os paãos

(And others were created for the consolation and pleasure of man, such as monkeys and beautifully singing birds and peacocks.)

Monkeys and birds (Harley 3469)‘Consolation and pleasure’: Monkeys and birds in the border of a 16th-century German manuscript of Salomon Trismosin, Splendor Solis (Harley 3469)


Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies


Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages [German original 1948] (Princeton, 1990) HLR 809.02

H. W. Janson, Apes and ape lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London, 1952) Ac.4569/6.(20.)

Horto do Esposo; coordenação, Helder Godinho (Lisbon, 2007)  YF.2010.b.34

Don Juan Manuel, Obras completas, ed. J.M. Blecua (Madrid, 1982-83), vol. I.  X.0800/1790



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