A Field Guide to Strange Medieval Monsters

What should you do if you come across a man­ti­core? Would you even know how to iden­ti­fy it? An unlike­ly occur­rence, you say? Per­haps. But if you lived in Europe in the Mid­dle Ages – and you were the type to believe such tales – you might expect to see one some­day. Wouldn’t it be use­ful to have a field guide? You’d want it on paper (or parch­ment): no one’s car­ry­ing smart­phones in misty 13th cen­tu­ry York or over the rocky high­lands of 15th cen­tu­ry Lom­bardy. You could con­sult a reign­ing expert of the time, such as Sir John Man­dev­ille, who either saw such things as blem­myae (head­less humans with faces in their chests) near Ethiopia, or made them up. But this didn’t mat­ter much. Truth and fic­tion did­n’t have such rigid bound­aries. Yet books were rare, and any­way, few peo­ple could read. If only there were YouTube.…

“Medieval zool­o­gy is bizarre,” says the nar­ra­tor of the video above — a brief “Field Guide to Bizarre Medieval Mon­sters” — “because half the crea­tures don’t even exist, and those that do look very, very strange.” Your aver­age medieval Euro­pean could­n’t vis­it zoos full of exot­ic ani­mals (rare excep­tions like the Tow­er of Lon­don Menagerie notwith­stand­ing), nor could they trav­el the world and see what crea­tures thrived in oth­er climes.

They were forced to rely on the gar­bled accounts, or out­right lies, of sailors, mer­chants, and oth­er trav­el­ers, and the odd illus­tra­tions found in illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts. These blend­ed trav­el­ogue, native folk ele­ments, the weird imag­in­ings of alche­my and demonolo­gy, and the myths and leg­ends of medieval romance to cre­ate “a world where mythol­o­gy and biol­o­gy blend togeth­er.”

Drag­ons, uni­corns, dog-head­ed saints.… You’ll find these and many more in the video field guide at the top and oth­ers online from the Cleve­land Muse­um of Art and Medievalists.net, which describes our friend the man­ti­core as a crea­ture “hav­ing the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scor­pi­on.”

Many ancient and medieval mon­sters were hybrids of dif­fer­ent ani­mals, such as the Tarasque, which our field guide nar­ra­tor explains lies “some­where between a drag­on and a tor­toise.”

To find out its ori­gins, you’ll have to keep watch­ing. To read the orig­i­nal sources of this bizarre medieval zool­o­gy, see the British Library’s Medieval Mon­ster’s col­lec­tion, which includes aviaries, bes­tiaries, mis­cel­la­nies, books of hours, and psalters, like the big page above from the Lut­trell Psalter, a strik­ing exam­ple of mon­strous illus­tra­tion. While we may nev­er expect to see any of these crea­tures in the flesh, we can see more of them on the page (or screen) than any­one who lived in medieval Europe.

via Twist­ed Sifter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Aberdeen Bes­tiary, One of the Great Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts, Now Dig­i­tized in High Res­o­lu­tion & Made Avail­able Online

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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