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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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/


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Medieval Monday: Medieval Nun Fakes her own Death

Whoever thinks history is boring obviously hasn’t read stories like these! It’s too bad we don’t know how things turned out for the wayward nun, but maybe this little glimpse into the past could inspire some writer out there to tell their own version of who she was, why she left, and how she lived out the rest of her days. Melton’s perspective is interesting too, especially since he has quite a story all his own. Is he a villain in this real life drama, or is he correct in his assessment of her character? I guess we’ll never know for sure…


Archive shows medieval nun faked her own death to escape convent

Archbishop’s register reveals how Joan of Leeds crafted a dummy of her body that was buried, while she pursued ‘the way of carnal lust’.

A team of medieval historians working in the archives at the University of York has found evidence that a nun in the 14th century faked her own death and crafted a dummy “in the likeness of her body” in order to escape her convent and pursue – in the words of the archbishop of the time – “the way of carnal lust”.

A marginal note written in Latin and buried deep within one of the 16 heavy registers used by to record the business of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405 first alerted archivists to the adventures of the runaway nun. “To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house,” runs the note written by archbishop William Melton and dated to 1318.

Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the “scandalous rumour” he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex”, and “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place”.

After faking her own death, he continued, “and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

Professor Sarah Rees Jones, principal investigator on the project, said the story of Joan’s escape, which she and her team discovered last week, was “extraordinary – like a Monty Python sketch”.

Continue reading: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/11/archive-shows-medieval-nun-faked-her-own-death-to-escape-convent


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Medieval Monday: 900 Years Ago she was an Artist…

Monastic communities and illuminated manuscripts play important roles in my book series, so articles like this one always intrigue me. They give me glimpses into a reality that has long inspired my imagination and continues to fuel it. I can’t help but think, this woman could have been a real life version of my character Morganne, who loves and studies the ancient spiritual tomes of her world. The thought makes me want to read more history, look deeper…discover what life would have been like for someone like this woman who lived 900 years ago. I hope you are intrigued by this article too. Don’t hesitate to browse the Medieval Monday Index for more information about the real Middle Ages.


900 years ago she was artist – we know this because she has bits of blue stone in her teeth

A team of researchers examining the remains of a woman buried around the year 1100 AD have – to their surprise – discovered dozens of tiny bits of blue stone in her teeth. They soon realized that she was likely a painter of illuminated medieval manuscripts.

The discovery was made by an international team of researchers, including those from the University of York and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. They had been examining the remains of individuals who were buried in a medieval cemetery associated with a women’s monastery at the site of Dalheim in Germany. Few records remain of the monastery and its exact founding date is not known, although a women’s community may have formed there as early as the 10th century AD. The earliest known written records from the monastery date to 1244. The monastery is believed to have been home to about 14 religious women from its founding until its destruction by fire following a series of 14th century battles…

Continue reading: http://www.medievalists.net/2019/01/900-years-ago-she-was-artist/


 

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

 

Medieval Monday: Illuminated Manuscripts

Many people assume that the Middle Ages were governed by ignorance and superstition.  Though there was certainly much that was not yet understood in the realm of science and medicine, people in the Middle Ages were not completely uneducated.

The ancient Greek writers were greatly respected, and their works translated into Latin so they could be made more widely known.  Topics of interest were geometry and mathematics, physics, studies of animals, politics, and medicine.  Medieval thinkers also studied the Bible, which was considered to be more important than any other field of study.  St. Augustine encouraged learning about other subjects, such as music, nature, and mathematics, with the idea that they would help people better understand God and the Bible.

At first monks, and those who wanted to have a career with the Church, were the only ones who sought a higher education.  By the 13th century, learning was available to a larger group of people, though typically schools and universities were still run by the monastic orders.

With the printing press not yet in existence, books for learning had to be written and copied entirely by hand.  Monasteries housed scriptoriums where Bibles, books of prayers, and other books of knowledge were produced. Beautiful, highly detailed illuminations often decorated the margins.  Some of what we know about medieval life today comes from these illuminations.  Where we don’t have archaeological artifacts to learn from, illuminations can take us back in time, showing us what the world looked like hundreds of years ago.

Because books were costly and laborious to make, they were shared as treasures between monasteries, even from one country to another. This is something I carried into my fictional world, where the tomes of knowledge are passed down through generations, copied and shared across monastic orders, and sometimes moved around to protect them from being destroyed by God’s enemies.

Enjoy browsing this small collection of illuminations, and wonder at the steady, masterful hands that made them.  There was no correction tape, no “undo” button, and no easy way to start over once a book was in production.

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