Medieval Monday: Crazy Creatures–Real or Imagined?

Last week’s shared post about knights and giant snails, written by Nicholas Rossis, inspired me to make a post that features some of the other mythical beasts, strange animals, and human-creature hybrids found in medieval texts. They’re are a lot of fun, and good inspiration for fantasy writers. These bizarre creatures defy all reason; part man, part beast, men without heads, or with the heads of dogs. At times, the grotesque physical deformities can be rather alarming. Those listed below are only a small number of the many crazy creatures born from the medieval imagination.

With a couple of exceptions, there are more images than writings about these fantastical abominations. Were they visual metaphors to express common beliefs and fears of the day? Or were they thought to be real, lurking in the remote or exotic places of the world? Maybe a little of both.


The alerion is lord over all other birds. Bigger than an eagle, it has razor-sharp, fire-colored wings. However, this bird is also exceedingly rare. There is only one pair in the world at a time.

The female of the pair lays two eggs when she is sixty years old, which take sixty days to hatch. Once the young emerge, the adult pair are escorted by a host of other birds to the sea, where they plunge into the waters and drown. The accompanying birds then return to the nest to care of the alerions’ young until they can fly on their own.


The parandrus (or tarandos) was a beast the size of an ox, with long, dark hair, and the antlers of a stag. It was able to hide itself by changing its appearance to blend in with its surroundings.

It is unclear if this creature was supposed to pose any threat, or if its exotic nature and abilities were merely a curiosity.


The cerastes is even more flexible than an ordinary serpent, and has horns protruding from the top of its head. There might be two, like those of a ram, or four small horns.

A cerastes will hide itself under the sand, with only the ends of its horns sticking up as a lure. When other animals come close thinking they’ve found food, the serpent quickly kills and eats them.

Now imagine the possible fantasy adaptations for such a creature. Animals are lured by food…what might lure larger prey, including human beings? Perhaps water in a desert environment…or glittering treasure. Maybe such a serpent would see us as an easy meal. Or with some intelligence it might have a more sinister motive. What do you think?


A muscaliet is certainly a strange creature from medieval lore. This small animal has the body of a hare, the tail and legs of a squirrel, teeth like a boar, the muzzle of a mole, and ears like a weasel. It uses the strength of its tail to jump from branch to branch, and its paws for climbing and digging under tree roots.

The muscaliet was supposed to have an extremely high body temperature, burning anything it touches. It devastates the leaves and fruit of trees, burrowing beneath the roots, building its nest there, and causing the tree to dry up and die.


Ever heard of an aspidochelone? This sea-monster is similar to a whale, but it has spines along the ridge of its back, a turtle-shell, and a head like a snake.

The creature masks itself as an island, sometimes even appearing to have rocks, trees, and sandy beaches. It lures sailors to land on its back, then it pulls all the sailors and their ship down into the depths of the ocean where it devours them.

In medieval lore, the aspidochelone was symbolic of Satan, who deceives sinners, and drags them down into hell.


No doubt you’ve heard of centaurs, which are generally good and noble creatures. But what about the onocentaur?

This beast has the upper body of a man, and the lower body of a donkey. The human half is rational, but the donkey half is wild and without control. The onocentaur is symbolic of lust and the hypocrisy of those who speak of doing good, but who do evil instead.

The onocentaur is often depicted carrying a club or bow for a weapon, and is sometimes seen working together with the siren, luring men to their doom.

 


A caladrius is a white bird, typically associated with royalty. Its excrement placed directly onto the eyes was said to cure blindness.

But this was not the bird’s only value. It was also believed that if a caladrius was brought into the room with a sick person, and turned its face away, that person was going to die. However, if the caladrius gazed into the face of the sick person, he or she would recover. When the bird eventually flew away, the illness would be taken with it.


The skoffin is the offspring of an arctic fox and a female tabby cat, and is the Icelandic version of a basilisk. It was a truly evil being that said horribly wicked things, and killed with just a look.

A skoffin could only be killed by seeing another of its kind. (In some stories it was tricked into seeing its own reflection.) Later lore claimed that it could also be killed by the sign of the cross or with a silver bullet.

Incidentally, the skoffin not pictured anywhere in medieval manuscripts… Maybe no one ever saw one and lived to tell about it…


Here’s another strange one…a gryllus. This funny looking medieval “monster” has a head and legs, but no arms or body.

Its origin is likely in the Odyssey of Greek Mythology, but it frequently graced medieval religious imagery. The gryllus became a symbol of base bodily vices and human folly.

 


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover other topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

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Inspiration Sunday!

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

I Corinthians 25:30

Medieval Monday: What Did Knights Have Against Snails?

I found this fun post by Nicholas Rossis and thought I’d share it today. Medieval manuscripts are full of all sorts of mythic beasts, strange animals, and human-creature hybrids. They seem to have been a staple of the medieval imagination. Some of them were actually thought to be real, lurking in distant or unreachable places. Others were merely meant to be entertaining. A good number of them were symbolic and used for teaching lessons and morals. The giant snails? Well, I’m as stumped as everyone else it would seem. But it’s certainly fun to imagine the possibilities.


What Did Knights Have Against Snails? by Nicholas Rossis

Regular readers will be familiar with my fascination with Medieval manuscripts. I recently came across on Vintage News a detail I wasn’t aware of: that Medieval knights were often pictured fighting giant snails.

Scrolls and manuscripts dating back to the 13th and 14th century often contain marginalia–broad margins and blank space that was filled with different notes and drawings (you can read more about them in my previous post, (Medieval-style Doodles, marginalia, and manicules). Funnily enough, gothic manuscripts abound with depictions of an epic snail versus knight standoff.

Sometimes the knight is mounted, sometimes not. Sometimes the snail is monstrous, sometimes tiny. Sometimes the snail is all the way across the page, sometimes right under the knight’s foot. Usually, the knight is drawn so that he looks worried, stunned, or shocked by his tiny foe.

So, what was the deal here? Historians have been unable to come to a unified answer.

The first serious contemporary study of this odd phenomenon was written in the 1960s by Lillian Randall. In her book The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare, she presented one hypothesis to explain the reasoning behind these drawings: perhaps the joke is that snails, what with the shells they carry on their backs and can hide away in, are some sort of parody of a highly-armored chivalric foe. We’re supposed to laugh at the idea of a knight being afraid of attacking such a ‘heavily armored’ opponent. Silly knight, it’s just a snail!

Lillian Randall proposed a further explanation that could account for the fact that snails so often antagonized the knights. She proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behavior, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’ However, she could not explain why the knight was always supposed to lose the battle.


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover other topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

Inspiration Sunday!

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one.

Romans 8:31-34

Fill up your e-reader with FREE books!

One of the benefits I offer my newsletter subscribers is sharing links to free book promotions where readers can discover new authors and find fun stuff to read. As much as possible, I only join and include promos with books that are relatively clean (no suggestive covers allowed, etc.) While I can’t vouch for every single book in each promo, I’ve tried my best.

There are a lot of good ones running right now, so I thought I’d share them this week with my blog followers as well. Just click on the images below to check out each promotion. Get these books free while you can!

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Inspiration Sunday!

 

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

Medieval Monday: 7 Things You Didn’t Know a Medieval Princess Could Do

I stumbled on another great article last week and thought I would share it for my Medieval Monday post.  If you go through this and just skim the 7 headers for the quick answers, you’ll really miss out. The most interesting part of this is in the detailed accounts of specific princesses in history; their circumstances…and eccentricities. Once again, real history is anything but boring!


7 things you didn’t know a medieval princess could do

Many fairy tales tell us that princesses spent years confined to towers waiting for knights to rescue them, little more than decorative pawns to be traded by their father. But the lives of historical princesses paint a very different picture. Here, through the lives of the five daughters of Edward I, historian Kelcey Wilson-Lee shares seven lessons on what it was to be a real medieval princess…

#1 Medieval princesses could command a castle

In 1293, Eleanor, the eldest daughter of Edward I, married Henri, the ruler of the small province of Bar in present-day northern France. Four years later, Henri was fighting near Lille when he was captured by hostile French forces and taken as a prisoner to Paris. With her husband imprisoned, responsibility for securing the county fell to Eleanor. As the 14th-century writer Christine de Pisan wrote, a princess should “know how to use weapons… so that she may be ready to command her men if need arises”. Eleanor marshalled what remained of Henri’s army to defend her home – the castle at Bar – and wrote to her father and other allies to raise money for Henri’s ransom, successfully safeguarding the inheritance of her young children.

Almost 30 years earlier, another princess named Eleanor held Dover Castle against her own brother, King Henry III, for several months during the uprising led by her husband, the rebel baron Simon de Montfort. After the decisive battle at Evesham, in which Eleanor’s husband and eldest son were killed, the tireless princess nevertheless fought on, bringing in a siege engine to defend the castle and using its coastal position to ship her younger children abroad with money for their upkeep.

#2 Medieval princesses could marry for love

Joan of Acre, Edward’s second daughter, first married at the age of 18 to a much older man – Gilbert de Clare, a 46-year-old divorcee who was a troublesome magnate within her father’s kingdom. When he died five years later, his widow found herself extremely eligible: young, proven fertile (as a mother of four), and in sole possession of one of England’s most valuable estates. Coupled with her royal connections, the princess proved a strong temptation to powerful European rulers and could easily have found herself consort at a rich court far from England.

But Joan had fallen in love, with a dashing but landless young man in her deceased husband’s retinue named Ralph de Monthermer. Determined not to be parted from her lover, Joan married Ralph in a secret ceremony that contravened her vow of homage to her father (rich widows who held land directly from the monarch needed the king’s permission to remarry, since their new husbands would be empowered through control of their estates). The king was livid, but eventually he forgave his headstrong daughter, who managed to keep her estates and independent income, as well as the man she loved.

Read #s 3-7 at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/princesses-what-life-like-middle-ages-daughters-edward-i-eleanor-joan-acre/


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover other topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.