‘Simple logic’ and the bestiaries. (Interim post)

c.4000 words

A certain uniformity in several emails and in comments I’ve not given the ok suggests some crowd-mood (twitter?). So I’m adding a bit about bestiaries, or more exactly, versions of the Physiologus.

The gist of all those recent comments went along the lines …

You should look at this image/these images.

It’s/they are from French/German/Spanish/Italian/Scottish/New World manuscript/s, so stop complicating things. Simple logic should tell you the Voynich is French/German/Spanish/Italian .. etc

various authors

It’s always good to know where manuscript was manufactured.

It says very little about a manuscript’s content, meaning, sources or, ultimately, any ‘national character’ for text or image.

That won’t be news to medieval historians today, I trust, nor that we don’t imagine a place of manufacture means any manuscript’s content must express any local indigenous ‘nationality’ defined as ‘no external influence’ – but such assumptions pervaded the earlier Voynich writings in a time of heightened nationalistic feeling and social Darwinist theories. The attitudes have persisted in Voynich studies to the extent that many Voynich writers still imagine the aim of Voynich research is to claim for all elements of the manuscript a single local national-cultural identity defined overtly or implicitly by its exclusions.

It troubles me that, in pursuit of that aim, and for want of better knowledge, theorists taking that line have resorted increasingly over the past decade to asserting that by simply amassing more pictures of munching goats, or four-footed Scorpios than anyone else, their theory must triumph and everything in the Voynich manuscript be deemed exclusively French, imperial-German-ish, Spanish, Italian, New World or.. whatever.

The superficial use of images, especially, makes a travesty of art- and textual history and of iconographic analysis, making such mis-use something I am inclined to resent.

Medieval history, and iconographic analysis have both come a long way since the nineteenth century and contrary to popular belief, pictures deserve serious and detailed investigation.

This post isn’t for people who know better; it’s for Voynicheros over-exposed to old and unfortunate habits, who have gained an idea that the aim of Voynich research is to stick a ‘made in…’ label on Beinecke MS 408.

Below are two among the many images sent to me recently after I’d posted about the Roman ‘Hell hound’. The first was asserted ‘French’ by the correspondent – it is actually from a manuscript made in Cambrai. Cambrai did not become part of France until 1678.

The second was asserted ‘German’ though made in Admont, in a Benedictine monastery which was, or soon became, a Cluniac abbey. Admont was not then in Germany, but in Austria.

It was easy enough to find the sources from which those images came, I’ve added their details. Since both those crocodile-hound-demon images come (of course) from what is usually called a Bestiary, not from anything like the Voynich ‘calendar’ fold-in, I’ve made this post about bestiaries and the Physiologus because it offers yet another example of transmission into Latin Europe of matter originally formed in the eastern Mediterranean, and probably in Egypt, around the 1st-2ndC AD, but in this case arriving in the form of texts already Christian and dating from the 3rd and/or the 4thC AD.

But first, a checklist of features which any claimed ‘match’ for the November emblem must account for, either within a preferred image, or by analytical commentary upon it.

posited ‘Scorpius’

  • Associated with November only.
  • Four-footed,
  • Tail ‘looped’ or ‘lashing’.
  • spotted hide
  • associated with a human head or skull
  • Skull given hat of outdoor/non-courtly type.
  • head with elongated and flattened snout – as were the heads of both hound and crocodile in art of the older eastern Mediterranean and specifically in Egypt.
  • lifted forefoot.

Neither of those claimed ‘matches’ from bestiaries scores well. Neither writer supplemented their image with informed commentary on it – which might have made up the difference. Bestiaries were not texts designed to teach astronomy or astrology or even natural history.

That aside – in what sense are those images French or German given that one comes from a manuscript made in thirteenth-century Cambrai and the other from an abbey in fourteenth-century Austria?

Networks

We call it ‘Latin Europe’ because western Europe was united, until after 1440, by a common religion and a common language for its education, diplomacy and liturgy. In the same way, the Byzantine sphere was united by Greek language and by Greek Orthodoxy, and the world of Islam too by religion and by use of Arabic.

That meant you could travel anywhere within each of those linguistic-religious zones, attend worship and learn from scholars without being immediately made to feel an outsider.

At the same time, Europe consisted of a patchwork of shifting territorial and linguistic spaces, while the ordinary person’s horizon was so narrow that anyone living outside their own village was a ‘foreigner’.

So you have medieval western Europe simultaneously unified by a language and a single religious culture – Catholicity – and at the same time so fragmented that the idea of a national identity simply didn’t exist as we would think of it today. A person belonged to the place they were born, and was defined by the vernacular tongue which they spoke in the market-place and in everyday life. Your ‘nation’ was that language.

For those living on the mainland, ‘national’ allegiance, as duty to a given king, was also fluid.

Your town’s land-lord might now be the pope and your taxes go to Rome; the next year the town might have been taken by the king who lived in Paris, and your taxes now went to him; five years later, the city might be sold, inherited, gifted or taken in war by the king of Catalonia, and that’s now where your taxes went and he was now your king-landowner.

England’s physical separation from the mainland (the ‘continent’) made it something of an exception but it was still true that ‘England’ was whatever land was possessed at a given time by the English king, and similarly for France and the various smaller states nominally ‘owned’ by a western emperor. The land-lord might forbid a person to travel, and a cleric be forbidden by bishop, abbot or Rule, but there was no general prohibition. If you had the means, you could travel.

There were networks which connected across territorial boundaries in other ways. I’ve already shown how those of Francesco Datini stretched from the Red Sea to the Black Sea and to England, while he (a man of Prato) lived for 30 years in papal Avignon. He wasn’t “an expatriate” he was just living in a different part of the same region – Latin Europe.

Again, when Michael Scot went to Toledo to study, he shared the language of Latin with other scholars there, and similarly when we was in French territory or when he went to serve the king of Sicily, who then held the post of ‘Emperor’. No no-one would have dreamed of describing Scot’s time in Sicily as service to a ‘foreign government’, or imagined that his being an ordained Catholic priest was evidence of disloyalty to England or to Sicily. Whether his book had been manufactured first in England, in Spain, in Italy or in Sicily such attribution can only be of the book-as-object; if the person charged with adding illustrations came from the same place or another one, we might describe the style of drawing as English, Spanish, Italian or Sicilian, but such terms, used by libraries and art historians, are geographic referents and not claims about the manuscripts being the expression of an exclusively-defined, blood-and-soil sort of ‘national character’.

A vital element in exploring the textual and iconographic lineage of a given manuscript are the monastic networks. Take the Cluniac abbeys for example. Here’s a partial map showing how all Cluniac abbeys were connected to what is called the ‘mother-house’ of Cluny.

The Benedictine Rule and Cluniac Reforms are essential reading in medieval history, including the history of medieval art.

If a Benedictine abbey adopted the Cluniac reforms, certain important changes occurred which impact on the history of manuscript production and illustration.

Benedictine monks were noted for their book-copying, but when the reforms of Cluny came into effect, the reforms saw Cluniacs largely enclosed, and silent monks, and the Benedictine emphasis on learning and book-production gave way to an emphasis on religious observance and ritual. As a result, Cluniac libraries are typically small, although Cluny itself amassed a very large collection of manuscripts. Since every Cluniac monastery was independent of secular control – owing allegiance only to the head of the western church and to its mother-monastery in Cluny – so any gifts from those sources would see greater artistic influence from France and from Italy than from another nearby Austrian monastery, if the latter was under a different monastic rule.

Pilgrimage and War

People went to war for gain. Some for spiritual gain, some for spoils and many for both reasons.

People went on pilgrimage as a kind of group-tour and like those who went with swords, they too might bring back something they considered valuable – a holy relic or fabric, even a copy of some saint’s life – ornamented in foreign style. Knights weren’t noted for their interest in scholarship, but it was perfectly possible to bring back some book on a subject in which the knight and his fellows were interested – astronomy, astrology or medicine. His cousin might be a monastic and glad to have the book to copy and to illuminate in something like the ‘holy land’ style.

That’s a hypothetical example of how images and/or texts might pass from east to west. The ‘Bestiaries’ are a much more concrete example.

“What about the Bestiaries – duh?”

That’s how one of the recent correspondents ended their email. 😀

And it sounds ‘logical and commonsense’ so long as you don’t know much about ‘the bestiary’.

That field of research is sufficiently complex and fraught, even among specialists in that one area of manuscript studies and medieval studies, that most of us tend to stand aside and let the specialists debate. It’s a subject where the calm and measured tone of scholarly discourse develops a certain sharpness.

The first problem is that English scholars have tended to treat their Bestiaries as a collection of interesting pictures, where every other stream of study treats the work primarily as the study of its written texts. That is – texts, plural.

What is well and widely known is that moralising animals is an eastern custom and that the text that first influenced the Christian world, was the use of moralised animal types in a work called the ‘Medicine chest’ or Panarion, written in Greek by a Christian polemicist and based on another – the Physiologus – which is thought by most to have been composed somewhat earlier in Alexandria.

Here’s Mermier’s neat summary, lightly edited.

We do not know where the Physiologus was composed; however it seems probable that it was begun in Alexandria during the second (or the the third) century AD. … Hommel gives some reasons for locating the Physiologus in Alexandria: these include the mention of the “landkrodil” the “Ichneumon,” and the “Ibis,” the mention the description of the Onager … and the mention of birds, beasts, … What is the Greek Physiologus? Basically … the description of beasts [real as well as] fantastic, used to illustrate points of Christian doctrine.

Guy R. Mermier, ‘The Romanian Bestiary: An English Translation and Commentary on the Ancient Physiologus Tradition’, Mediterranean Studies , Vol. 13 (2004), pp. 17-55.

One has to refine that description a little. because using moralised beasts to add colour to Christian preaching and teaching really only took off after a book known as the Panarion put them to that use. If your eyes glaze over at the sight of non-Latin names, I might say that Epiphianus adds a great deal more insight to the ‘November’ page of the Chronography of 354 – as we’ll see later.

This is from a wiki article:

Epiphanius used [the] Physiologus in his Panarion and from his time numerous further quotations and references to the Physiologus in the Greek and the Latin Church fathers show that it was one of the most generally known works of Christian Late Antiquity. Various translations and revisions were current in the Middle Ages. The earliest translation into Latin was followed by various recensions, among them the Sayings of St. John Chrysostom on the natures of beasts.

wikipedia

Precisely because the Physiologus as we know it of it developed as (a) a specifically Christian moralisation (b) probably originated in Alexandria and (c) came relatively late into the Latin west that I’ve deliberately begun my tracking elements in the Voynich ‘November’ emblem from the 1st-2ndC AD and, while still focusing on Alexandria, demonstrated a different and earlier line of east-west transmission to illustrate the reality of east-to-west transmission of both images and the knowledge informing images found in medieval western works.

Readers might like to know that copies of the Physiologus are very widely distributed, though not everywhere illustrated. To provide a balance for the sometimes myopic focus on Latin Europe, the Physiologus conference held last year in Paris, didn’t include discussion of the western bestiaries. This is from the Conference website:

The Physiologus was translated from Greek into Latin (twice), Ethiopian, Armenian (from Armenian into Georgian), Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, Old Slavonic (and from it into Old Russian), [it] was widely spread throughout the Christian world. Western Bestiaries derive from the Latin version, but they were not discussed in the conference.

And if we turn to the Latin versions, this might give you some idea of how complex the issues are. This comes from a paper by a modern scholar. Do take time to absorb it.

The earliest surviving manuscripts of all the Latin Physiologus translations (ia-ic) and of at least two of the pre-twelfth-century Latin bestiaries come from what is now France, or else from just over its borders in other Romance-speaking areas: France/Catalonia (2b) and France/north Italy (2c). All three pre-twelfth-century texts – Dicta Chrysostomi, B-Isidore, and Theobaldus — are also thought to have arisen in France (2a and 2b; 2c with less certainty). They were then diffused to the east and west [of Latin Europe], the preponderance of B-Isidore copies being made in northern France and England, the majority of those of Dicta Chrysostomi and Theobaldus in France or the Empire. Most of the major developments of the twelfth century took place in England, whence they spread east, but both the Aviarium (3b) and H bestiary (4c) are continental compositions. Even though it deals exclusively with birds, the Aviarium’s inscribed quest for a bestiary partner seems to have exerted a pull on manuscript production across the whole of Europe; it is copied with several English second-family bestiaries as well as, on the Continent, with B-Isidore, Dicta Chrysostomi, and the H bestiary. Conversely, the English redactions grouped as Transitional and second-family give rise to continental copies, and the H-type of B-Isidore seems to have influenced the composition of H.

Sarah Kay, ‘The English Bestiary’, the Continental ‘Physiologus’, and the Intersections Between Them’, Medium Ævum , 2016, Vol. 85, No. 1 (2016), pp. 118-142

England’s being an island gives a little more validity to the idea of a bestiary image having a ‘national’ character, and that’s so for imagery in some English manuscripts, but the important point is that the reason for the Latin translations was to aid religious teaching.

Epiphianus and Chrysostom are two of the important figures. Neither was native to western Europe. They were eastern and Greek-speaking Christians. Epiphianus himself explained why he wrote his ‘Medicine Chest’.

I am drafting this Preface … to explain the “Panarion”, or chest of remedies for the victims of wild beasts’ bites. It is a work in three Volumes and contains eighty Sects, which answer symbolically to wild animals or snakes.

Frank Williams, (trans.), The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book I (Sects 1-46)
Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Brill, 2009) Introduction, p.xx.

And here’s part of his long diatribe about one of those religions which he calls heretical ‘sects’.

5,6 For they [the Orphites] have a real snake and keep it in a basket of some sort.
When it is time for their mysteries they bring it out of the den, spread loaves around on a table, and call the snake to come; and when the den is opened it comes out. And then the snake—which comes up of its own accord and by its villainy—already knowing their foolishness, crawls onto the table and coils up on the loaves. And this they call a perfect sacrifice. [5,7] And so, as I have heard from someone, not only do they break the loaves the snake has coiled on and distribute them to the communicants, but each one kisses the snake on the mouth…

[Makes the snake’s pose rather less threatening, don’t you think?]

As for Epiphianus..

EPIPHIANUS – Born … Palestine, between 310 and 320 (but according to Bartolocci, in 288); died at sea in 403. Epiphanius is supposed to have been born of Jewish parents and to have embraced Christianity in his sixteenth year. …. After passing four years in Egypt in a monastery, Epiphanius returned to his native village, founding there a monastery … became abbot. In 367 .. elected Bishop of Constantia, in Cyprus … attaining celebrity on account of his opposition to Origen.. Epiphanius was a teacher and friend of Jerome. Suspecting Chrysostom of favoring the followers of Origen, he went to Constantinople to denounce the .. bishop, and died on his way back to Constantia.

Of especial interest to Jews, owing to the information it contains on Jewish, Gnostic, and Judoæo-Christian views, is his Πανάριον, [Panarion] an account, written in 374-376, of eighty heretical sects.

JVL ‘Epiphianus’

The moralised ‘beasts’ were vivid figures – verbal or visual – intended to assist preaching and polemic. Epiphianus’ remedies were, need I add, religious and not physical.

In connection with the Old Icelandic Physiologus, Marchand has a made a point which Voynicheros should take seriously, and says it much more nicely than I expect I would. First he explains why the text’s sections should be differently described – so bear with that part:

Image courtesy of The Medieval Bestiary website.

We know, with Saxo Grammaticus, that the Icelanders in the Middle Ages “account it a delight to learn and to consign to remembrance the history of all nations, deeming it as great a glory to set forth the excellences of others as to display their own.” and to the lore of Christianity they gave particular attention. … I would propose replacing the division presently used by the following, based also on the types of text: 1. Physiologus-A, [consisting of] five allegorical interpretations of animals; 2. Physiologus-B, [consisting of] fifteen treatments of animals and their allegorical significance, the Physiologus proper; 3. four treatments of animals in the Bible; 4. a spiritual interpretation of the rainbow. The first two of these [sections] have received exhaustive treatment, but the last three have scarcely been touched upon in the literature on the Old Icelandic Physiologus. The reason for this neglect is, of course, simple lack of interest, but it is also because we medievalists in general neglected patristic exegesis in our preparation and scholarship, so that we are just not prepared to deal with such matters.

James W. Marchand, ‘Two Notes on the Old Icelandic Physiologus Manuscript, MLN , Vol. 91, No. 3, German Issue (Apr., 1976), pp. 501-505.

And that’s also true for many contemporary historians of medieval art and cultures.

The whole history and culture of western Europe until and after 1440 was informed and united by a religious culture; from proverbs to popular songs, inn-signs to coats of arms, misericords and portraits of kings. If you are averse to studying the texts and beliefs of medieval Latin Europe, you simply are not equipped to read its images accurately – that is, as they were intended and were understood when and for whom they they were made.

Whether or not, the moralised ‘beast’ of the Voynich November emblem took its form from some version of the Physiologus, Its head is drawn with a long, flattened snout as Egyptians drew the head of a crocodile and of hunting hound, of Ammit and of Anubis.

As we’ve seen, Epiphianus lived in Egypt for some time.

The image which my correspondent called ‘German’ comes from a section of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek CLM 6908 described in the holding library’s catalogue as not from the ‘animal description’ section but from “the Dicta Chrysostomi version of the Physiologus’ [text]“.

Important for the Latin versions, John Chrysostom had spent most of his life in Antioch – another eastern Greek Christian.

JOHN CHRYOSTOMOS. Born and received a classical education in Antioch… met bishop Meletius. Withdrew into a more ascetic life… In 397 AD , unilaterally chosen by the emperor in Constantinople to become head over the Greek orthodox Church in Constantinople… soon alienated an increasing proportion of the court and populace, despite an initial favour from those attending his sermons and homilies. Finally, condemned and communicating with Rome from his place of exile, he sought – and gained – support from the western (Latin) church, but to little effect apart from widening the breach between the religious of Rome and those of Constantinople. Chrysostom died in exile in 407 AD.

extracted from the lengthy entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

So, once again we begin from the Greek-speaking east of the earlier centuries AD and the line of transmission becomes Egypt.. [Alexandria?]… with texts transmitted via the Byzantine world into the Latin west ..

An eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript (not a copy of the Physiologus) is now in the British library. One marginal image suggests that confusion of the forms for representing scorpion and crocodile occurs there so early, and before the Physiologus’ first Latin translation in which such a confusion occurs.* Here (below), the Greek inscription tells us it’s a scorpion, though most readers now would read the image as a curious effort to draw a crocodile.

*so far as I’m aware. Also, my gratitude to Joann Huinker, for noticing omission of the phrase: ‘in which such a confusion occurs.’ It is not known when the Physiologus was first translated into Latin; it is another of the topic on which specialists differ, and I’ve no intention of guessing which of the confidently-stated dates is ultimately correct. We may say it was known in a Latin version for several centuries before Charlemagne.

No-one knows how or when that particular Byzantine manuscript came to England though a case has been made for its belonging to, or with, one still the monastery of Mt. Athos.* I’d suggest the equation is ultimately a result of forms given protective amulets invoking Selqet,** whose scorpion was not rarely made deficient and is replaced by a sundisk in the figurine now in the Louvre (right).

*Jeffrey C. Anderson, ‘The Palimpsest Psalter, Pantokrator Cod. 61: Its Content and Relationship to the Bristol
Psalter’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers , 1994, Vol. 48 (1994), pp. 199-220.

**also: Serqet, Selket, Serket, or Selcis. The Louvre uses Selkis.

Physiologus in 14thC Austria – (“Fürstenfelder Physiologus”.

Known as the “Fürstenfelder Physiologus”, BSB CLM 6908 might as validly be described as The Admont Physiologus, or Abbot Englebert’s Physiologus.

It is believed written and possibly illustrated by the monk named Englebert. (b. 1250 – 12 May 1331).

In what sense was he ‘a German’?

Born in Austria, in Admont, he gained his earlier education there and his higher education in Prague and in Padua, before spending time in Salzburg and then becoming appointed Abbot in Admont. Englebert opposed the imperial Ghibelline claims, though wrote a poem on the occasion of Rudolf I’s coronation. He appears to have been influenced also by the thought of Duns Scotus, an influential teacher who had been born in Scotland and lived most of is life in England. It is said that the Abbey of Admont, previously Benedictine, became a Cluniac under the next Abbot, Giselbert, after Englebert retired in 1327. Adopting the Cluniac reforms could be predicted to lessen Admont’s earlier emphasis on scholarship and manuscript production, as we’ve said.

So was Englebert working from his memorised texts – and had they been learned in Admont, in Prague, in Padua, or Salzburg? Was he working from an exemplar, and if so, from where had that come. As Kay says,

All three pre-twelfth-century texts – Dicta Chrysostomi, B-Isidore, and Theobaldus — are also thought to have arisen in France (2a and 2b; 2c with less certainty). They were then diffused to the east and west [of Latin Europe], the preponderance of B-Isidore copies being made in northern France and England, the majority of those of Dicta Chrysostomi and Theobaldus in France or the Empire. Most of the major developments of the twelfth century took place in England, whence they spread east [-wards within Latin Europe],

And how like the Voynich image is Englebert’s crodile .. not enough for anyone to claim them self-evident ‘matches’. One must also ask if Adelbert Admont’s Englebert , a deeply scholarly fourteenth-century Benedictine monk, would have copied a diagram filled with unclothed female figures at all? And in precisely what sense is even the manufacture of BSB CLM 6908, let alone its text or its images fairly described as ‘German’?

Yes, quite – what about the bestiaries?

Next post will return to Beinecke MS 408.

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