Medieval Monsters

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Men with dogs’ heads, creatures with giant feet, griffins, sirens and hellish demons can all be found in the illustrated pages of medieval manuscripts. Dr. Alixe Bovey delves into the symbolic meaning of a variety of monsters to understand what they can teach us about life and belief in the Middle Ages.


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By Dr. Alixe Bovey
Head of Research
Courtald Institute of Art

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Miniature of a red dragon, from Peraldus’s theological miscellany / The dragon is often associated with the devil and crucially appears in the final, apocalyptic book of the Bible, the Revelation of St John. As manifestations of the devil, dragons were a common enemy of the saints, perhaps the most famous of whom is St George, a warrior saint often depicted slaying a dragon.

Numerous documents from antiquity tell of monstrous people living at the edge of the known world. In the 1st century A.D., Pliny the Elder described extraordinary races of humans living in India and Ethiopia: these included mouthless hairy creatures called Astomi, who had no need of food or drink; men with dog’s heads; and one-legged creatures who could hop at incredible speed and use their giant feet as umbrellas to protect them from the sun.

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The Rutland Psalter / The Rutland Psalter was produced c. 1260 in England. Alongside the Psalms, the book contains a number of illustrations, full-page and partial-page miniatures, and historiated and illuminated initials. What is particularly striking about the manuscript, however, is the marginalia. Alongside the Psalms, the text contains images of men, women, animals, hybrids, dragons as well as scenes of daily life – albeit often influenced by Bestiaries.

In this image we can see a selection of common medieval musical instruments including the organ and the hurdy-gurdy, a string instrument. Manuscripts often show music being performed in many different scenarios, from the entertainment at banquets to a crucial part of religious prayer at funerals.

The second marginal image depicts the wholly fictional creature, the web-footed sciopod, a tiny one-footed beast which could use its large foot as an umbrella. Creatures like the sciopod, which often had some human qualities, were thought to exist in foreign, unexplored lands.

Pliny was himself repeating ancient authorities, and his account of these marvellous races was in turn influential throughout the Middle Ages, during which antique monster lore became part of a Christian framework.

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Illustration of the damned swallowed by a hellmouth, from the ‘Winchester Psalter’ / In this Psalter, Hell is personified as a demonic monster, physically torturing and devouring damned souls. Images likes these, which showed the consequences of an un-Christian life, were often used to graphically illustrate Christian teachings.

For Christians, the monstrous races tested not only their credulity, but also their ethics. St Augustine of Hippo, writing in the 4th century AD, was not convinced that these monstrous races existed, but considered that if they did the vital question was whether or not they were human, descended from Adam, and therefore ‘rational and mortal.’ If so, they were worthy of salvation.

Monstrous illustrations

Interest in monstrous races endured through the Middle Ages. In 10th century England, descriptions of such creatures were gathered together into a text known as the Wonders of the East. Illustrated copies of this text enabled readers to marvel at pictures of the wondrous beings it described.

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Illustration of a blemmyae, a man with its head in its chest, from an Anglo-Saxon Miscellany / Depicted as a man with his head in his chest, the blemmyae was a grotesque creature commonly used by medieval artists. It was a typical medieval monster, combining recognisable human elements with a monsterous deformity and it came from a faraway land.

Similarly, a giant 12th century Bible made at Arnstein in Germany, contains a page of drawings of the monstrous races, and the 13th century English Rutland Psalter includes depictions of monsters in its margins. Another Psalter made in England c.1260 includes a small but highly detailed map of the world with the monstrous races arrayed along its eastern edge.

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Psalter World Map / This Psalter is famous for, and named after, its full-page miniature of a map of the world, which is related to the famous medieval map of the world (Mappa Mundi) at Hereford cathedral. But it also has a series of full-page miniatures of the life of Christ, added late in the 13th century; historiated initials at the usual psalter divisions; and an unusual image of the Virgin and Child. The calendar and other features suggest a London/Westminster origin, and the presence of the feast of Richard of Chichester, canonised in 1262, provides the earliest possible date for the production of the book.

Beneath a blessing Christ and two censing angels is a remarkably detailed map of the world. Jerusalem is in the centre, the Red Sea is coloured red, and depictions of mythical monstrous races are arranged along the lower right-hand extremity. The British Isles are at the lower left extremity.

The East was not the only habitat for monsters: in his account of Ireland, Gerald of Wales (c.1146 – 1223) recounted tales of a talking werewolf, a bearded woman, creatures that were half-man and half-ox, and a fish with three gold teeth.

Demons in Christianity

Such monsters were exciting and exotic, but since they were located at the periphery of the known world, they did not seem to cause their medieval audience much anxiety. Another type of monster, however, was believed to lurk around every corner, and so aroused intense fear: these were the demons, often depicted with furry bodies, cloven hooves, leathery wings, and faces in strange places, that tried tirelessly to tempt, thwart and harm.

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Illustration of Dante’s Satan, from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ / Alongside the graphic descriptions and moral lessons of Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ is this image of Satan, a giant with three faces, eating a sinner with each of its mouths. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, are shown climbing its leg to continue their journey through Hell.

According to medieval Christian belief, these creatures were fallen angels, whose dark, hairy, winged bodies were a perversion of the angelic form. Though not always visible they were nevertheless believed to be ever-present. A diagram of the universe in a 14th-century Book of Hours shows these demons raining down from heaven towards Satan, bound in chains below the cosmos.

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The Neville of Hornby Hours / Medieval Christian belief stated that demons were fallen angels who underwent a physical transformation to become the beasts that tortured souls in Hell. This can be seen in this miniature of the earth, taken from the manuscript known as ‘The Neville of Hornby Hours’, which like traditional books of hours, contains a collection of devotional texts: prayers, poems and psalms. Here God and his angels can be seen at the top of the image in Heaven, while the failing angels, becoming devils are seen in Hell below. , Images like these emphasised the need to live a good Christian life.

While similar to images of the Virgin, this image is more likely to be Ecclesia, a female personification of the Church. She is often depicted in manuscripts, statues and stained glass windows, holding a staff and a church building. When shown alongside images of a blindfolded Synagoga, a representation of Judaism, she is used to illustrate the supremacy and power of the Christian Church and dogma.

Countless medieval stories describe the cunning of Satan and his army of demons, who were able to disguise themselves and to lure people into sin. Saints, and especially the Virgin, were able to recognise and to defeat such creatures.

Demonising difference

Monsters were often used to define boundaries and to express a distinction between morality and sin – or conformity and nonconformity. Those perceived as sinful were often portrayed as physically deformed. This tactic was used to demonise perceived enemies of Christendom, such as Jews, Muslims and Tartars, to whom inhuman practices (such as cannibalism) were sometimes attributed. Medieval artists often gave non-Christians exaggerated or deformed features, believing that their immorality could be expressed visually through monstrosity.

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Bestiary, in the Dicta Chrysostomi form / A Bestiary is an encyclopaedia of animals, both real and imaginary, through which medieval Christians would be taught different religious and moral lessons This image shows a mythical sea creature, a sawfish, with the body of a fish and the face, wings and legs of a bird. The sawfish uses its massive wings to block the wind from the ships sails, just as the devil tries to block man from God.

Another image depicts the siren and the centaur, both beautiful but dangerous monster who used their sexual attraction to corrupt men’s souls. Infamously, the siren lulls sailors into a deep sleep through song and then pulls them from their ships. These two hybrid monsters, often illustrated together, are typical depictions of the unknown world that monsters were thought to occupy.

Bestiaries

The natural world was also interpreted as the expression of a moral system. One of the best examples of this was the Bestiary, a type of book that gathered together descriptions of animals, ranging from ordinary creatures such as goats and bees to fantastical beasts including griffins, mermaids and unicorns.

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Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds / A Bestiary is an encyclopaedia of animals, both real and imaginary, which was used to provide moral teachings to medieval Christians. This image, and the accompanying story of the phoenix, in which it rises from the flames, was an allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ. In contrast, the story of the tiger and the knight was used to warn Christians about the dangerous tricks played by the devil. In the story the knight, who is easily outrun by the tigress, throws down a mirror in front of the animal who stops, thinking that the reflection is her own cub.

In most Bestiaries, these animals are interpreted in relation to Christian morality: the creatures themselves were not as important as the moral truths revealed in their explication. Sirens, for instance, were said to have the upper body of a human and the lower body of a bird or fish (or even a combination of the two); they sang beautiful songs to lull sailors to sleep, and then attacked and killed them. The moral: those who take pleasure in worldly diversions will be vulnerable to the devil.

Not all monstrous creatures were ugly, nor were they all bad: according to the Bestiary, the unicorn is a symbol of Christ, and its horn denotes the unity of God.

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Drawing of a unicorn, from the Flowers of Virtue and of Custom / Monsters in medieval manuscripts, such as the mythical unicorn, could be seen as incredibly beautiful. This magical beast could only be caught by a virgin and the unicorn’s horn had the power to purify poisoned water. The innocence of the unicorn echoed the purity of Christ.

This manuscript has an illustration showing a knight stealing a tiger cub from its mother. The text above indicates that a tiger can run faster than a man on a horse. The knight overcame this problem by throwing a mirror to the tigress, who stopped and looked at the reflection, thinking she was looking at her own cub.

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Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds / A Bestiary is an encyclopaedia of animals, both real and imaginary, which was used to provide moral teachings to medieval Christians. This image, and the accompanying story of the phoenix, in which it rises from the flames, was an allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ. In contrast, the story of the tiger and the knight was used to warn Christians about the dangerous tricks played by the devil. In the story the knight, who is easily outrun by the tigress, throws down a mirror in front of the animal who stops, thinking that the reflection is her own cub.

Illuminated monsters

Deluxe manuscripts were often decorated with images of monsters. Serpentine bodies with biting heads were twisted into splendid initial letters and borders; strange hybrid creatures, made up of body parts from two or more creatures, were painted in the margins; and images in miniatures and margins often showed the defeat of a monster by a saint or hero. The presence of such monsters is often playful, and sometimes in startling contrast to the seriousness of the text. Yet the morally charged interpretations of such monsters in other contexts hints that while medieval viewers might have taken delight in such images, they could also have seen them as symbolizing the dangers that lurked beyond the limits of Christian belief.

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The Luttrell Psalter / This celebrated manuscript was commissioned by a wealthy landowner, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, in the first half of the 14th century. It is one of the most striking to survive from the Middle Ages. Painted in rich colours embellished with gold and silver, with vitality and sometimes bizarre inventiveness of decoration, this manuscript is unlike virtually any other.

What is special about the Luttrell Psalter?

The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts because of its rich illustrations of everyday life in the 14th century. It was not the first to include scenes of contemporary rustic life, but it is exceptional in their number and fascinating detail. Its lively and often humorous images provide a virtual ‘documentary’ of work and play during a year on an estate such as Sir Geoffrey’s.

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