Monday, 30 December 2013

Beavers: happy tea drinking critters with testicles to die for.

Beavers are so misunderstood. Common fiction draws them as happy tea drinking critters who build lodges among serine banks and woods and rolling meadows. In reality, they are cat sized water rats who leave no tree standing or a daisy blossoming above the water within 20-30 meters of their lodge. I know that because they are gnawing on my woods and they are flooding my meadows.

Beavers have been misunderstood for a while. In middle ages they were pictured dog-size or larger. Beaver testicles were believed to have had medicinal properties; as a result, they were heavily hunted. Manuscripts often feature a hunting scene from the fable, first recorded by Aesop in the 6th century, where
beaver, a four-footed animal that lives in pools, knows that he is hunted for his testicles, which are used to cure ailments. When pursued, the beaver runs for some distance, but when he sees he cannot escape, he will bite off his own testicles and throw them to the hunter, and thus escape death (...)

Hunting beaver. ,
Hunting beaver. France; c. 1450. (The Hague, MMW, 10 B 25)
Beaver biting off his testicles. Bestiary and Lapidary ('the Rochester Bestiary')
c 1230-14th century (British Library)
Beaver biting off his testicles. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 49v
One beaver biting off his testicles while the other one is showing the lack of them.  British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r
Beaver biting off his testicles. Bodleian Library, MS. Canon. Ital. 38, Folio 61r
Beaver throwing testicles at the hunter. Merton College Library, MS. 249, Folio 5v
Beaver throwing testicles at the hunter. Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8º, Folio 32v
Beaver throwing testicles at the hunter. Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 8v
A beaver, having previously bitten off its testicles to foil a hunter, shows another hunter that it has nothing he wants.  British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii, Folio 102r

I could not find much information on the use of dog-like and beaver-like images, but it seems that dog-image dominated the hunting scenes in relation to the fable, while beavers remained beavers elsewhere. Here is an image of beaver in marginalia.
Beaver in medallion (detail) - Medieval Manuscript Images, Pierpont Morgan Library, Bible (MS M.436). MS M.436 fol. 112r

Here are two later images of beavers from the 16th and 17th centuries.

page 336 of Konrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium, Volume I, 1551
The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, published in 1658 (Edward Topsell)

Beavers are also found surprisingly extensively in heraldic emblazons from the Middles Ages, with both dog-like and the beaver-like images used. A good compilation of various emblems can be found at Heraldic Beavers in period and in the S.C.A.
In January, 2004, the S.C.A. sovereigns of arms wrote:
The heraldic beaver is drawn with a stocky, smooth-furred. . .body, a wide (usually, but not always, paddle-like) tail, and small or nonexistent ears. It is sometimes contorted into an unspeakable posture based on the medieval view of this animal's habits. . .Some heraldic beavers did not resemble naturalistic beavers .

BSB Cod.icon. 307, page 152 
BSB Cod.icon. 312 c, page 114 
BSB Cgm. 7249, image 298

Contemporary depictions of beaver are abundant in children's literature. Beaver stands in line with Mr. Ratty and Mr. Toad as a cute pet of the English ponds from the innocent times passe. 

However - on July 18th 2013 the first wild beaver living in England for more than 500 (Telegraph) or 800 (Independent) years is believed to have been spotted by a woman walking her dogs in Devon. With good wildlife conservation, beavers should not take long to establish themselves (they are doing very well without any conservation efforts out here). 
In ten years or so, the few English trees that have been spared by the industrial revolution will be reduced to sharpened stumps.

PS A well illustrated website on Medieval Bestiary:

PPS Beaver castoreum (glands) dried can still be bought for $200 per kg.

Hairy men. Wild men.

The image above comes from my previous entry E- manuscripts: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves: a Wild Man (woodwose) creeps up to the rabbit and he is about get it; the rabbit hears him and looks back. I assume the rabbit escapes.
Wild Man pops up in the manuscripts here and there as a monster hairy figure living in the forest. It is not dissimilar to the contemporary myths of Bigfoot and yeti. Medieval forests, however, were bigger, denser and darker and there were indeed real and surreal dark things that dwelled  along the beasts: robbers, outcasts, hermits, spirits, trolls, boges. Pagan ritual were very much alive , just merging with Christian beliefs and fears.

The man above looks more like a naked hairy Santa, then a monster. Here a more images of very different representations.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 9342, detail of f158v (wild men). Jean Wauquelin, Histoire d’Alexandre. Bruges, mid-15th century.

Lucerne, Zentral- und Hochschulbibliothek, Msc. 42. fol., f. 109r. Nicholas of Lira, Commentary on the Bible [Isaiah], 1459

Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Codices Salemitani IXc, detail of f. 107r. Breviarium abbatis pars hiemalis (Salemer Abtsbrevier I [Winterteil]), 1493/4.

Burning of the Wild Man. Ms651-folio47verso Roman d'Alexandre d'après Pseudo-Callisthène Alexandre livre au bûcher un homme sauvage ; Vers 1470-1475 Ecole française Chantilly, musée Condé
Detail of a miniature of Alexander burning a wild man. From Historia de proelis in a French translation (Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre) 1420 (British Library)
"Sigenot", Dietrich von Bern with a  Wild Man. Codex from the workshops of Ludwig Henfflin
Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, AN II 3, f. 90r. Rektoratsmatrikel der Universität Basel, Band 1 (1460-1567).
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a wild man embracing (abducting?) a woman. Royal 10 E IV  f. 72. British Library.

My favorite! Wild Man in Red Shoes! Yale, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Beinecke MS 287, detail of f. 80r. Hours, Use of Rome. End of the 15th century (Flanders).

Wild Man is both human and animalistic. It is the inferior uncivilised "other", that can also represent unfamiliar people of the other lands.

Alexander encounter the Wildman in his voyage to Asia, from a medieval manuscript of the Alexander Romance @Biliothèque nationale de France)

Wild Man fits well into the medieval fascination with the liminal.

15th century manuscript illustration of Nebuchanezzar, the Babylonian king from the Old Testament Book of Daniel,
'During that time he lived away from others, eating grass for food and letting his hair and nails grow wild. In the the Middle Ages some mad persons were allowed to go free, and they usually drifted to the woods in order to live unmolested.'


A three meter wild man by Ron Mueck in Tate.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

E-manuscripts: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

" The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is the greatest Dutch illuminated manuscript in the world"says the Morgan Library and Museum.
"This digital facsimile provides reproductions of all 157 miniatures (and facing text pages) from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. The original one-volume prayer book had been taken apart in the nineteenth century; the leaves were shuffled and then rebound into two confusing volumes. The presentation offers the miniatures in their original, fifteenth-century sequence."

 Here are a few snippets from the margins:

A man with an ax and a very red strawberry.

What is this chicken holding? An ax?

A Wild Man chasing a rabbit.

A windmill in a the Dutch Bible.

A face in the rock.

 Jesus taken off the cross. A man with a fish in his mouth on the left.

Mussels - so perfect, they could almost be a 19thc chromolithograph


A beautiful picture of a sleeping man.

Below is a recording of curator Roger Wieck discussing selections from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves.