Tag Archives: Symbol

Mediaeval adultery: quiz answer

Here, I bombarded readers with disturbing mediaeval book illustrations, of which the last one was a quiz.

The queen is being caressed by a dragon while the king watches the scene from behind the door. What is going on there?

This is the Conception of Alexander the Great, from the Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus, produced in Bruges ca. 1468-1475.

It represents, perhaps, one of the most complicated cover-up stories for adultery in history.

According to the ancient myth, Alexander was the product of a liaison between his mother, Olympias, and Ammon, a relatively obscure Asian god.

Under normal circumstances, Ammon appeared as a handsome man with bull horns.


He turned into a serpent to seduce Olympias.

My first reaction was like, “A serpent?! Wait a minute. What was wrong with the horny man avatar?”

I can only assume Ammon always changed appearances, when aroused (like most men) or realised his horns were making Olympias’ favourite love-making positions awkward or even dangerous. Recently, a theory was proposed that the horns might disagree with Olympias’ habit of wearing crown in bed. The academic community, citing the case of Edward VIII, dismissed the suggestion as a liberal fantasy: a crown is known to have been tossed aside at passionate moments by queens and kings alike.

Alexander’s father, Philip, couldn’t interfere in this affair because Christianity, the only religion that allowed humans to crucify God now and pay later, had not been invented yet. Greek gods didn’t grace their people with eternal love and afterlife.  Their relationship was mainly about vanity, envy, and inventive ways of immediate retribution. It went both ways, with the Ancient Greeks often beating their gods at this game.

This also explains why the Modern Greeks don’t have much respect for the German God of Euro, the French God of Austerity, or the Brussels God of Proper Administration. They believe they can show them all the middle finger, and keep the finger, reenacting the famous moment when English archers mocked their French enemies with the V sign. The archers were advertising their ability to aim and shoot arrows despite the French earlier promise to cut off their fingers. The only difference between then and now is that the archers, unlike the Modern Greeks, did have their long-bows and arrows to back up the threat.

Back to Philip now. He had to watch in awe how a Loch Ness monster was having sex with his wife who was having great time with Ammon, who must have immensely enjoyed himself both physically and spiritually, foreseeing that his son would pepper all the lands he would conquer with shrines to Ammon his father.

Is the now forgotten trick of informing your son he was fathered by a god the right career start for a power maniac? Discuss.

Even the Ancient Greeks, famous for their ability to spin tales found it difficult to believe this fantasy.

They said, nay, it couldn’t be Ammon. I totally agree: gods that sound like “Come on” uttered by someone with a digested nose can’t be historically important.

It must have been Nectanebo, they said, formerly a sorcerer, a skilled astrologist, and the ruler of Egypt, who arrived to Macedonia as a political refugee a few years before Alexander was born.

First, he foretold Olympias would have a son conceived by the god Ammon who would appear as a serpent, then he changed into a serpent, and had unprotected sex with her.

You know, that’s plausible. It’s what the Americans want Assange for: he did something similar to a Swedish girl. She testified she had been convinced she was having sex with the god of the freedom of expression, that is until she boasted of the escapade to a friend.

Years later Nectanebo’s secret was revealed, and Olympias had to admit she had been tricked into having extramatiral sex with a dragon, or a serpent, or even a large eagle. She couldn’t point out the exact species, but recalled that the size was impressive. I wonder if she smiled inwardly at remembering the experience.

A thought-provoking story, isn’t it? Alas, it is almost forgotten. Alexander’s hollywood biopic does not feature this episode (a PG rating would hurt revenues), serious history books bypass its absurdity, and even telling the story to students is rarely possible. They are underage when they study this period at school, and are likely to file a harassment suit against their professor at uni.

Just imagine what could transpire if Tolkien preferred the subtlety of Southern myths to the brutality of their Northern varieties! We could end up with a much more adventurous story of Bilbo Baggins.

But now you know it, and thanks to a mediaeval publisher, you’ve just witnessed its climax.

Rabid rabbits and merry nuns

Mediaeval cats from Part I on feline domination created quite a stir. While I am labouring away at cat history of the 19th century, here’s more of symbolic medieval imagery. It is always bizarre, often funny, sometimes psychedelic, and, at times, mildly disturbing. And each one is a challenge on symbolism.

The Dark Middle Ages were not as somber as the name implies. Monks, sublimating their celibacy by prayer, brewing beer, and copying books would occasionally allow themselves a bit of fun in the margins. It appears they were using a lot of visual codes that no one can decipher now. Their symbolism has been forever lost with the invention of the printing press.

Are you ready for a bit of guesswork, and a lot of leaps of faith?

First comes a cat playing bagpipes from a 15th c French manuscript.

What is the symbolic meaning of this cat?

My take is that it must be a cat from the hallucinogenic meadows of Scotland. Perhaps, the French have always been friends with the Scots (and enemies of the English) because they believed the Scots might let them walk freely on those meadows one day. The flora here seems to be very different to the classical concept of the English Lawn. Any other ideas?

bagpipes cat  book of hours, Paris ca. 1460. NY, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.282, fol. 133v

Book of Hours, Paris ca. 1460

Next comes, or rather flies in, a penis monster with a Mona Lisa smile on its face. Apparently it takes its passenger non-stop to Sinful Pleasure, and Eternal Damnation. What it means, I suppose, is that all women think of is sex, and because of this they are a constant threat to men (at least, in the eyes of the celibate scribe in 1340).

flying penis monster  Decretum Gratiani with the commentary of Bartolomeo da Brescia, Italy 1340-1345. Lyon, BM, Ms 5128, fol. 100r

Decretum Gratiani with the commentary of Bartolomeo a Brescia, Italy 1340-1345.

This particular visual symbol has survived the Renaissance, Reformation, Industrialisation, and postmodernism to become a standard feature of an urban public toilet, commonly known as “flying penis graffiti”.  Alas, its original moral message has been lost along the way.

If a flying willy is something we are all accustomed to, a cultivated pecker would be more readily associated with, say, a polite son of a bitch often encountered among corporate executives and lawyers than with a penis fruit tree.

nuns and the penis tree Roman de la Rose, France 14th century. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, fols. 106v, 160r

Roman de la Rose, France 14th century.

What is the symbolic meaning of nuns harvesting penises from trees?

While this concept may seem silly and bawdy to a modern observer, it was quite popular in the Dark Middle Ages. It could be found on lead pilgrimage badges, wood carvings, and even frescoes, like the one discovered in Tuscany fifteen years ago:


If you can’t see the faded fruit on this mural, click on it to get a bigger size

At a recent conference on mediaeval manuscripts, a UK librarian came up with an unorthodox idea. According to him, the nuns represent an antithesis to the widespread secular attitude of indifference, which in most European languages is commonly reduced to “I don’t give a f***”. Effectively, the nuns say, “We give a lot of what you don’t”, or, simply, “We care!”

Rumour has it the librarian was sued by Office Depot for slogan copyright infringement, and later abandoned the idea in favour of the straightforward traditional view.  Depending on circumstance, the image could mean fertility, [re]generation, or men’s obsession with their potency, which feminist historians have established as the cause of the rise of chivalry, the popularity of jousts, and the beginning of most military campaigns, in general.

That’s not true, of course. Most boys, when they are innocent kids, love sword fighting and arrow shooting because, simply, it is tremendous fun. The problem is that some youths start entertaining the idea they can get even more fun with lethal weapons, once they don’t have to face their parents about torn clothes, broken limbs, and new holes in their bodies.

A lot of symbolism related to fighting and waging wars can be found in mediaeval books. Yet, some of it is not easy and sometimes impossible to understand.

In books, knights often fight snails. No one knows why. The prevalent hypothesis is that the snail stands for human vices, and feminine dissoluteness. I am sorry, but it seems to be about the bad influence of women’s thinking about sex all the time, again!

Snail vs. Knight, from The Smithsfield Decretals, decretals of Gregory IX, Tolouse, c. 1300. Illuminations were added about forty years later in London.

Smithsfield Decretals, decretals of Gregory IX, Tolouse, c.1300. Illuminations were added ca.40 years later in London.

If you are in time management, think of using this illumination for your presentations: you can claim that the pioneers of your profession were noble knights in shining armor (tip: buy appropriate cufflinks, and a ring).

There is another recurring war-related image that fills out the margins of many mediaeval books. It is so… mediaevil that even hardcore mediaevalists don’t know what it really means. It is about bunnies maiming and killing men with amazing ingenuity and determination.

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

A giant rabid rabbit is a creature both to behold and run away from, isn’t it?

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

So, what this image is trying to tell us? Is it about dangers lurking behind amiable appearances of apparently harmless stuff? Is it a hint a fluffy bunny may become a murderous werehare? It could be a nice educational material to teach kids that the real world can be surprisingly cruel. The side-effect, of course, is that the number of dedicated hare killers and general-purpose psychos is expected to grow.

Now that you’ve been harassed enough by the mediaevil stuff, I’ll set off to finish Part II of my feline art history. In the meantime, you may want to entertain yourself by trying to guess the meaning of this highly symbolic image:

hey dragon. you’re not supposed to be here. Conception of Alexander the Great, Les faize d'Alexandre (translation of Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus), Bruges ca. 1468-1475. British Library, Burney 169, fol. 14r

We are quite used to dragons being slain by saintly knights, but it doesn’t look like “a lady-in-distress” kind of story. Do you feel pity for the king? Or do you sympathise with the queen?

What the heck is going on here?