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The Monsters that Lurk in Illuminated Texts

Imagine spending all day, every day, writing. That was the lot for many Medieval monks. It was grueling work, so we can’t begrudge them a little levity in the margins. The illustrations that adorn illuminated texts go from the silly to the downright bizarre. Here are some of my favorites.

A bird-like demon with a two figures fighting in his basket, from Nürnberger Schembart-Buch, 17th century

I included this skeleton from Ars bene moriendi (France, 1470-1480) mostly because I love skeletons.

Bizarre bird-dog-tiger from the Luttrell Psalter, Add 42130 f.197r, c.1325-1335


A battle between headless combatants from the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

Here we have what appears to be a demon (or monster) eating a doughnut. This is from Les Grandes Heures du duc de Berry, Paris, 1409.

There seems to be a trend in Medieval illuminations of animals attacking people.

Homicidal rabbit from Gorleston Psalter, England, 14th century

A very angry, axe-weilding, ape. (Source unknown)

Rabbits about to kill a man from The Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300

We also see many examples of animal warfare.

Dogs battle rabbits from the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

Here, foxes siege a castle of monkeys from a 13th-century Bible.

A dog and a rabbit joust. Source unknown.

And then there are the snails. Seriously. Many many illustrations show knights battling snails. Scholars are baffled as to the significance.

A knight about to slay an monstrous snail from The Smithsfield Decretals, decretals of Gregory IX, Tolouse, c. 1300. Illuminations were added about forty years later in London.

Another knight (this one riding a dragon) is about to spear two snails from The Queen Mary Psalter, c 1310-1320 via British Library

So the next time you see a snail, pull your sword.

Tim Kane

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