A Natural History of Monstrous Nonsense (part 2)

A Natural History of Monstrous Nonsense (part 2)
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  A Natural History of Monstrous Nonsense (part 2): An Investigation into the Physiologus, Bestiaries and the Sea-Bishop Nick Jones Bournemouth and Poole College Bournemouth Dorset BH1 3JJ A BSTRACT   From the first to the sixteenth century (AD) fabulous creatures continued to form part of the natural world. Christianity utilised the natural world for moral instruction and increasingly creatures both real and fantastic absorbed aspects of the religious environment. Representations of creatures changed with spatial and temporal reproduction through printed media and this  process is assessed through Dawkins’ meme hypothesis. Keywords: Fabulous creatures, theology, moralisation, nonsense, development, meme. 1.0: Introduction In 560 BC a man was put to death for sacrilege by the Oracle of Delphi. The method of execution was by being thrown from the cliffs of Hypania. Having once been a slave before being given his freedom and a vehement critic of Athenian authority, the man’s works are still read 2500yrs after his death. This man was Aesop and his ‘Book of Fables’ survive having been translated from Greek into Latin, held by the Library at Alexandria that was destroyed 391 AD and later emerging in the middle ages with William Caxton printing the Fables in 1484. What can be read in modern editions is not what the author intended his student to read. Tales from Libya and India have entered the corpus and this has blurred the srcinality of the content. Yet the greatest corruption of Aesop’s legacy was the moralisation   that Christian scholars of the middle ages applied to the Fables. Christian scholars applied moral characterisations to the creatures, thus imbuing each with an anthropomorphised set of traits. Should it be of concern that a set of ancient stories were hijacked as a means of moral instruction? The only wise response to this question is yes. The reasoning for this conclusion is twofold: 1. Studying the natural world as a moral project retarded the development of natural history as had been commenced by the Greeks more than one thousand years earlier. 2. Having been released from slavery and condemned to death for challenging authority it is most ignoble that Aesop’s intellectual output was usurped and bastardised in the service of a modern dogma. The portrayal of animals as moral or immoral actors combined with idiosyncratic habits was to become a popular device. As Christianity spread across Europe in the first millennium (AD) the animal kingdom was considered in moral terms. In the same encyclopedic tradition as Pliny the Elder had used in the first century (AD), scholars embarked on reporting facts   about the different creatures that existed. This included cataloguing some of the monsters that had been reported by Pliny the Elder, Aristotle and Herodotus. The animals and monsters provided Christianity with a useful pedagogic tool. The application of moral narrative to animal nature showed that each creature had its part to play in God’s great plan .   In contrast, humans possessed a soul   that through religious observance and conduct would be able to read the natural world and learn from it. Humans were not part of nature but resided in the world as an observer and student awaiting edification. The ‘Book of Nature’ concept still persists to some small degree in the current era with the justification attributed to Galileo stating in the Assayer   (1623): 'Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth.' [1]. If mathematics was the language that described the mechanics of the universe it was theology that was to provide the language of purpose to which the universe was attendant. Monsters had an important role in that paradigm. Bovey (2002) states that “The majority of people most certainly believed in demons and devils…these metaphysic al monsters represented spiritual dangers, while others surely expressed the manifold physical dangers that threatened life in the Middle Ages. Forests, wilderness and foreign lands were dangerous places…” [2].  The natural world was to become moral and spiritual territory that could be observed and learned from as if it were a divine textbook. However, there were places where spiritual and doctrinal illumination had yet to reach. Galileo’s ‘dark labyrinth’ can be understood in geographical terms by stu dying ‘ mappa mundi  ’. These maps or ‘cloths of the world’ showed the ungodly, monstrous and   demonic   creatures to reside at the periphery of the civilized world. The inhabitants of these places would have no soul, as confirmed by St Augustine (4 th  century AD), if they were not descendents of Adam and Eve. This paper will extend upon the themes outlined above using three noteworthy developments of the post-Pliny period: 2.0: The Physiologus and Bestiaries. 2.1: The Sea-Bishop. Theoretical speculations will be considered as a means of explaining the survival of fabulous creatures in the canon of natural history post-Pliny and why adaptations/mutations were necessary to their survival in a changing theological and latterly scientific environment. 2.2: The Physiologus and Bestiaries: Although the author of the Physiologus   (The Naturalist) remains unknown, scholars contend that it was in all likelihood produced in Alexandria between the second and fifth centuries AD. It may have been written in Greek being later translated into Syriac, Armenian and Ethiopian as the copied manuscripts travelled. The earliest example of a Latin translation derives from the 8 th  century AD. The popularity of the Physiologus was only second to the Bible in the early medieval period. As copies of the srcinal Greek manuscript circulated across the coming centuries, so did the contents. The srcinal Greek version contains 49 beasts but this quantity increased as this manuscript was transformed into an array of Bestiaries across the world. One such Bestiary written in Latin prose emerged in Britain during the 12 th  century providing a most resplendent picture book from which woodcarvers would take inspiration in the production of decoration for misericordia   (mercy seats) in the abbeys and Gothic cathedrals of the period. Undoubtedly, the Physiologus owed much of its content to the natural historians of antiquity: Herodotus, Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. Its augmentation can be examined through comparison with Bestiaries and when this is done the sources of these additional entries can be traced. By the 13 th  century the content of most Bestiaries had quadrupled in size. This was due to the Physiologus containing only North African fauna whereas the augmented   reproductions (Bestiaries) contained Northern European species too. Further augmentation in later Bestiaries contained information on birds deriving from Gerald of Wales’ (1146 –  1223) Topography of Ireland  . The moralisations found in the Bestiaries can be traced in part to Rabanus Maurus (780  –  856 AD) who derived much of his understanding from Isidore of Seville ’s Etymologies   (560-636 AD). Further augmentation of Christian narrative may have taken place in the late 12 th  century. The moral utility of the text accorded with what St Augustine had advocated 800yrs earlier, that it did not matter whether fantastical creatures were real or not, what mattered was what they meant. The Physiologus had been placed on the Index Prohibitorum   by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, no doubt for heretical content, yet 700yrs later the Physiologus heresy was to become an instrument of theological instruction. Three examples serve to demonstrate the typical content of a medieval Bestiary. The first is the Castor (Beaver) who is described as having testicles of great medicinal import. When being pursued by hunters the castor chews off its own testicles and throws them at the hunter enabling escape. The benefit of this for the castor becomes clear if it is chased by another hunter because by facing the hunter and displaying that its testicles have been removed will cause the hunter to retreat. Now for the moral; “Hence every man who inclines towards the commandment of God and who wants to live chastely, must cut off from himself all vices, all motions of lewdness, and must cast them from him in the Devil’s face. Thereupon the Devil, seeing him to have nothing of his own about him, goes away from him confused. The man truly lives in God and is not captured by the Devil who says: ‘I shall preserve and attain these things’.” [3]  The Unicorn is described as a small animal that is swift and small like a kid. It has one horn on its forehead and can be trapped by a female virgin who having been sent alone to the woods and patiently sits can lure the unicorn who leaps into her lap. Once embraced the unicorn is caught. The moral lesson is thus: “ Our Lord Jesus Christ is also a Unicorn spiritually, about whom it is said: ‘And he was beloved like the Son of the Unicorns’. And in another psalm: ‘He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his son David.’.” [4].  The moralising goes on and concludes with a non-moral observation which explains that unicorns and elephants often battle with the unicorn succeeding due to it wounding the elephant in its stomach. There is no moral attribution made to the mouse but the mouse is explained as a small creature that is produced from damp soil and that its liver enlarges with a full moon. 2.3: The Sea-Bishop: The leading zoology and marine life researcher of the mid-sixteenth century was a French academic called Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566) who in 1554 wrote a book titled: Libri de Piscibus Merinis. In this book Rondelet recorded an account from a physician called Gisbertus Germanus who claimed to have seen a creature from the sea when in Poland that would later be described as the Sea-Bishop. Rondelet recorded Germanus’ report in full but was hesitant as to the credulity of the information advising his reader; “I present the image of the monster altogether the way I received it". Rondelet continues; "Whether it is true or not, I neither affirm nor deny." [5] The Sea-Bishop was further reported a few years later by a 16 th  century barber-surgeon from France named Ambrose Pare in a book titled; Des Monstres   (Monsters and Marvels). Pare presents the Sea-Bishop in full pontifical attire which reflected the political machinations that confronted France at the time. It is uncertain as to whether Pare was a Catholic or not but it is understood that shortly before his death he made representations to the   Archbishop of Lyon to help the poor and destitute of Paris. Fig. 1, The Sea-Bishop (source: Pare, 1500s). [6] Pare describes the Sea-Bishop thus: “Another monster described by said Rondelet, in the manner of a Bishop, covered with scales, having his miter (sic.) and pontifical ornaments, which was seen in Poland, in 1531, as Gesnerus describes.” [7 ]. Gesnerus (Gessner) was a Swiss naturalist who wrote five volumes tilted: Historiae animalium   (Histories of the Animals) published in Zurich during the 1550s. Gesnerus was regarded as a leading authority on Renaissance zoology. It is noteworthy that Rondelet published the Sea-Bishop account in the same decade as Gesnerus suggesting that Germanus’ story was well known.  Benwell & Waugh (1961) asser t; “…the Sea -Bishop... …probably arose out of the theory, encountered even up to the end of the eighteenth century, that the sea held the counterpart of every living creature on land. Since there were mermen and mermaids, sea-horses, sea-calves, sea-wolves and sea-elephants and the like, why should there not be a marine religious hierarchy.” [8] To some extent the willingness to accept the existence of the Sea-Bishop was due to the retention of the parallelism of creatures between ocean and land that had continued since the time of Plato 2000yrs earlier. Benwell & Waugh (1961) claim that the French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517  – 1564) is reported by John Gregory in his work Opuscula   (1650) to have commented thus: “..that this Fish was for all the world like a Roman bishop, sua mitra, suique reliquis ornamentis  , etc….What Poperie in the Sea too?...Away with these Bables, tis a marvail that such fopperies should be pretended, to the beating down of substantial Truths (because you and I must live forsooth), and yet the thing themselves should signifie just nothing at all”. [9].  Russell & Russell (1975) argue that the Sea-Bishop is a development of merfolk that begins with the “Babylo nian water-god Ea (Sumerian Enki) and the Levantine water-goddess Atargis or Derceto”. [10 ]. These gods may have emerged from totemic traditions where devotees would adorn their bodies with fish skins and perhaps this could explain the characteristics of a fishtail and human torso. Mermaids and mermen have a long history of observational reports but their description changes through time with early reports akin to those of the Sirens described by Homer to the more familiar representation of the fishtailed woman holding a mirror and a comb. The semiotics of these accouterments convey vanity, one of the seven deadly sins and thereby demonstrating how mythology can be reconstituted to serve theological objectives. As Ea was a mythological product serving the psychological and political demands of the Babylonians, so merfolk served the demands of Christian pedagogue and the Sea-Bishop the demands of Protestantism in post-Reformation Europe.   Fig. 2, Ea  –  Babylonian Water-god (Source:8 th  century BC. Relief from Khorsabad). [11] However, beneath the surface of religious and political change there would need to be some physical phenomena to provide a canvas on which the mythology could be sketched. The 16 th  century naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi of Bologna (1522-1605) in his book Serpents and Dragons   published posthumously in 1640 describes forged examples of fantastic specimens. Doctored specimens were common in the centuries to follow gaining the term Jenny Hanivers  . Carrington (1957) argues that forgeries combined with fantastic claims from sailors who had travelled the oceans and mis-observed real creatures, such as sea bonzes, provided pseudo-scientific evidence of the Sea- Bishop’s existence. [12 ]. Russell & Russell (1975) describe how they manufactured two specimens of the Sea-Bishop using two small skates ( Raia clavata  ) having been preserved in alcohol for some days; “We then took them out of the alcohol, bent back their wing-like fins and held them clipped together (a surgical clamp proved best for this), and allowed them to dry for two days. In the case of this specimen, we slit the pelvic fins to produce (together with the genital clasper organs) the effect of fingers. A comparison of our specimen with Rondelet’s picture shows a number of striking resemblances.” [13 ]. Fig. 3, Jenny Haniver   resembling a Sea-Bishop (Source: Russell & Russell, 1975). [14] 3.0: Discussion: In 1976, Richard Dawkins proposed in the Selfish Gene a concept that may throw some light on why it is that the Bestiaries developed from the Physiologus with a greater array of entries and a moral tone but retained many of
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