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: 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.

 

Medieval Monday: The Knight

It’s the beginning of the month, so here’s another episode of Medieval Lives with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. He talks about the evolving role of knights in medieval society and the emergence of a code of chivalry. Sadly legend and reality are two very different things! There is also an interesting section on horses and how they were trained to be used as weapons on the battlefield. Additionally, he talks about coats of arms and learns what his own might look like. It’s actually pretty funny. So enjoy this episode of Medieval Lives.


Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.

Medieval Monday: Travel Distance in a Day

medieval-horseBack in January, I put together a post on horses and their role in medieval society, and another on travel. Today’s post is a bit unusual, but it relates to both of those. It will be particularly interesting to those of you who are also writers, and are constantly trying to figure out distances. How far can my character travel in a day by horseback, or on foot. How about an army? How does terrain and weather affect travel distances? I was thinking along these lines over the weekend while working on my next book. I did a little poking around online, and found this awesome thread in a forum from five years ago. The best credit I can give to the writers/researchers is to include the forum page and their forum usernames. But whoever they are, I thank them for putting this together, as I am guessing it took a lot of time and wasn’t all that easy. Even if you aren’t a writer, this is pretty fascinating stuff.

 

Anyway, here is the information, taken from https://www.cartographersguild.com/showthread.php?t=19730. I hope you find it interesting and possibly useful as well.

How far can a horse travel in one day: by fifty

Strangely I was doing a little research on how far a horse can realistically travel in one day and after much google-fu it seems to depend very much on the type of horse, conditioning (i.e. is it used for long distance travel all the time, rather than been standing in a field for months, or only used for racing, etc..) and condition (i.e. is it well fed and watered), as well as how heavy a load and the terrain involved.

…anyway this is the list of distances (in miles per day) I’ve come up with from a variety of sources that I shall be using personally:

On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 40
Hilly terrain: 30
Mountainous terrain: 20

Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 30
Hilly grasslands: 25
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 20
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 15
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 10
Marshland: 10

Assumptions

  • An average quality horse, of a breed suitable for riding, conditioned for overland travel and in good condition.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travelers are riding for around ten hours a day.

Notes

Halve these distances for a horse pulling a cart or for a very heavily laden horse (e.g. a fully armoured knight who insists on wearing his armour all day rather than having it stowed on a second baggage horse as would be normal!).

Add half again for specially trained horses and riders who are prepared to push hard (rangers, scouts and messangers, etc…) though do bear in mind that horses cannot be pushed like this for more than a few days at a time. You can add a bit more again to this distance if the breed of horse is exceptionally suitable for this sort of thing, but I’d say 2 to 2.5 times the base is the absolute maximum without some sort of magical assistance!

Poor weather such as heavy rain or wind should reduce distances by about one quarter, and very poor conditions like heavy snow or gale force winds, etc.. should reduce distances by at least half if not more.

Finding a place to ford a small river or swimming your horse across a larger river should knock a couple of miles off the day’s journey, other unique obstacles might have a similar reduction. (as a guide remember a horse walks at around 4 miles per hour (compared to a human average of around 2.5 – 3mph) so if the obstacle takes half an hour to deal with that’s a couple of miles lost.

Out of interest

The Tevis cup is a 100-mile-in-one-day competition which goes over some quite rugged and mountainous trail terrain in the western states of USA… but they do it on very special Arab horses, with little or no baggage and even the winning times are usually around 17 hours!

 

How far can a person walk in one day: by fifty

Ok, well to weigh in in similar style to my earlier post…

Again from my reading around on the matter overland travel by foot again depends on a number of human factors such as the condition and experience of the walker as well as environmental and terrain considerations.

Equipment and preparedness would also have a bearing… Modern hiking boots, ultra-light camping equipment and freeze dried trail rations as compared to hob-nailed roman sandals and hard tack, or even pre-historic fur wrapped feet and foraging as you go would all have a dramatic effect on distances covered!

But working on an earliest Roman through to a latest pre-19thC sort of period, and with some other rather broad assumptions again (such as average human walking speed of 3 mph) this is the list of distances (in miles per day) that I would tentatively suggest:

On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 20
Hilly terrain: 14
Mountainous terrain: 9

Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 15
Hilly grasslands: 12
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 8
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 6
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 6
Marshland: 5

Assumptions

  • A young to middle aged man of average height and build, in good physical condition and used to walking for long distances, Equipped with good walking footwear and other hiking equipment appropriate to the era.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travellers are walking for around 7-8 hours a day.

Notes

Reduce these distances by around a quarter for a heavily laden man.

Add a quarter to half again for very experienced hikers.

As with mounted travel, exceptionally experienced and/or physically capable men might be able to do significantly more as a one off forced march, but twice the base is probably a reasonable maximum and I would expect them to take be walking for up to 20 hours and be utterly exhausted at the end of it!

Out of interest

Naismith’s rule is a ‘rule of thumb’ for planning a hiking expedition by calculating how long it will take to walk the route, including ascents. The basic rule is:

“Allow 1 hour for every 3 miles forward, plus 1 hour for every 2000 feet of ascent”.

I’ve read anything from 15 to 25 miles per day quoted in many places for a fully laden Roman Legionary, but 15 miles seems more common though with time to break camp and rebuild it after the days march factored in most sources reckon they were only marching for a round 5 hours a day anyway. (There are some sources that suggestion 50 mile forced marches were possible for the Legions but many dismiss this as an exaggeration)

And just to show how subjective and ‘as a guide only’ this sort of table is:

The world record for the marathon distance of just over 26 miles is a mere 2 hours and 8 minutes!

Ulysse Grant thought a forced march of 20 miles in a day was generally not a good idea if troops were expected to fight at the end of it

The British SAS selection ‘Test week’ concludes with ‘Endurance’, a 40 mile march across the Brecon Beacons (very hilly / mountainous terrain, famed for its bad weather) – completed in less than 20 hours whilst loaded in excess of fifty five pounds of equipment, plus water, food and rifle.


More Info: by rdanhenry

Over long distances, there are very few animals that the human (in proper condition) cannot outpace. Horses, however, are no slouches themselves at long distances. I would say you probably get about the same rates on foot or by horse, assuming conditions do not hinder the horse unduly (you’ll never get a horse up Everest and a man can fit through more closely grown trees). The great advantage of mounted travel is that somebody else is doing the work. You also generally use a beast of burden, which can handle more weight than a man.

Dean Karnazes “Ran 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across the United States from Disneyland to New York City in 75 days, running 40 to 50 miles per day, 2011” per Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Karnazes)

Armies will travel much slower, due to the amount of equipment required, including considerations of food for such large groups. Armies generally include wagons, which will always be slower than simply and horse and rider. Smaller bands of travelers who are less burdened will go faster. Maximum rates require that one be essentially unburdened; running over 100 miles in a day is simply not done with a backpack.

I’d say 20-40 miles per day on a good road and no hampering conditions is about what you can expect with a normal group either on foot or mounted. Conditions will often make travel slower. Don’t forget that weather will have an effect; travel can be slowed considerably if the skies are unfriendly. The need to obtain food is more of a problem with horses, if there is no ready grazing. How elaborate the encampment preparations are will also have an affect on travel rate, as will daylight hours, as both influence hours spent in travel. An army that fortifies its encampment will be more secure, but travel slower, than one that simply throws down its bedrolls, sets a watch, and sleeps.

And as fifty’s post points out, there is a difference between how far you will travel in a day if you simply need to get where you are going and how fast you go if you need to reserve enough strength to do battle or otherwise exert yourself when done with the journey. Peaceful pilgrims in a peaceful land will outpace an army or a group of “adventurers” exploring wilderness. There are many factors, which is why historical numbers vary so much.


by Midgardsormr

I don’t recall where I read it, but I remember learning that the effective control radius for a Medieval castle is about 20 miles: the distance that a mounted force can travel in a single day and still be able to fight when they arrive.

Somewhere around here is a very nice analysis of settlement density in an English county, originally posted by Gidde I believe, that included some numbers of travel distance and time. If I recall correctly, the average distance between settlements was roughly half a day’s walk, such that a person could go to the next town, make some trades, and be back home before dark.

 

Medieval Monday: Horses

medieval-horseHorses were extremely important to medieval society. Generally they were smaller than modern day horses, and were of different builds and kinds—some no longer in existence today. The concept of “breed” had not yet come about, but horses were classified by “type” depending on what sort of work they would be used for. The three main types were chargers, palfreys, and sumpters, with specific sub-classifications under each.

horse-plowing-fieldSumpters were used in the fields to pull plows for planting, gradually replacing oxen as the animal of choice. They were powerful draft horses, not particularly beautiful, but the least expensive. Still more costly to keep than oxen or donkeys, they gained favor because they could work longer and faster. When they weren’t being used for field labor, they could be put to use pulling carts and wagons, or hired out to those who needed the use of a horse but didn’t own one.

Palfreys were ideal for riding, particularly over long distances. They had a particular gait (the amble) which was comfortable and fast. It could be maintained for long periods of time, making travel easier for both the horse and rider. Some palfreys were in such demand, only the wealthy could afford them.

horses-in-battleChargers were, of course, those horses trained for tournaments and warfare. However, knights rarely rode their war horses. On the way to battle, these horses would be led by the knight’s squire, while the knight rode a less valuable horse. This would help save the charger’s strength for the coming fight. Some chargers were less valuable than others—depending on the type, they might also be used for more everyday uses, such as general riding, hunting, or even to carry packs, though they were never used to pull carts.

When they were not working, horses were generally kept in stables with stalls large enough for the animal to lie down. Peasant families might keep work horses in barns along with their other animals, or pasture them in a fallow field, providing a simple wooden shelter the horse could use in bad weather. As much as possible, horses were left to graze on fresh grasses. When those were not available, they were fed primarily oats and hay, sometimes beans and bran. There was also something called “horse bread” which was a baked mixture of peas and beans. How much a horse was fed depended largely on how hard it was being asked to work on a daily basis.

horse-healedHorses typically wore iron shoes, often with raised areas on the heel portion to improve traction on slick and muddy surfaces. This type of shoe is not one still used today. Farriers—those who shoed horses as their trade—were also responsible for the care of sick horses.

Horses were regularly groomed with combs and brushes, bathed by hand, and wiped down and dried with a rough type of cloth that made their coats shiny. No doubt the horses of the nobility received a better grooming regimen than the workhorses plowing fields. Though horses were the primary source of medieval transportation, only wealthy households could afford to keep a stable full of horses. Most only kept the number of horses they could afford to care for year ‘round, and had a practical need for on a daily basis.