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A Bestiary for the Magnificently Wrong Monsters of Medieval Times

Yates Thompson 49, f.34v
St. Anthony and tormenting demons, Yates Thompson 49, f.34v (courtesy The British Library Board)

Beyond the borders of maps, where the limits of exploration fell to imagination, medieval artists and authors created monsters. Humans were deformed into beasts, such as the Panotii with huge ears used for wings and blankets, and the Sciapods — supposedly in China — who held one giant foot above their heads as an umbrella. Unicorns that could only be tamed by virginal women hid in India’s deep forests, and dragons straight from hell tormented distant towns.

Medieval Monsters
Cover of ‘Medieval Monsters’ (courtesy the University of Chicago Press)

With 100 images, Medieval Monsters out this month from the British Library and distributed by the University of Chicago Press explores these strange creatures. Authors Damien Kempf, a medieval historian, and Maria L. Gilbert, senior writer and editor at the J. Paul Getty Museum, write in an introduction that the book “is about how people always imagine that, somewhere in or outside our world, there exists a different category of beings that at once defies the rules of nature and fascinates the human mind.”

It’s a compact volume, following similar British Library titles like Medieval Cats and Medieval Dogs that also dug into obscure corners of the institution’s archives. High-resolution images from medieval maps, religious manuscripts, and travel volumes fill the pages with short text giving context. The selected monsters reveal the unease and curiosity with the unknown, and the influence of religion at a time when demons were believed to visit your deathbed for one last temptation, and Jerusalem was often situated at the center of maps.

Pages from 'Medieval Monsters' (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from ‘Medieval Monsters’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from 'Medieval Monsters' (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from ‘Medieval Monsters’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Some of the more outlandish monsters endured for a surprisingly long time, among them the Blemmyae, a headless humanoid race with their faces in their chests. The beings were described in the 14th-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a fictitious work that was nonetheless carried by Christopher Columbus as he made his own voyage into the unknown. Others make sense of the world’s dangers, like the depths and hazards of the ocean, which to this day remains in many ways mysterious. In the 13th century, Guillaume le Clerc described a whale which supposedly disguised itself as a sandy island, luring sailors ashore to rest and build fires. “When the monster feels the heat of the fire which burns upon its back, it plunges down into the depths of the sea, and drags the ship and all the people after it,” he wrote.

Access to travel and global contact reduced to myth the satyrs, sirens, sea monsters, griffons, and even an odd character who looks just like Yoda of Star Wars. Like the recent Strange Creatures exhibition at London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, which looked at the sometimes terribly wrong depictions of exotic animals in art, they recall the gradual expansion of our global connection, and the creativity of the human mind to fill in its gaps.

Royal 10 E.iv
A Yoda-like character, Royal 10 E.iv (courtesy The British Library Board)
Royal 20 B.xx,
The Blemmyae, Royal 20 B.xx, (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 18852  f.102
A siren, Add. 18852 f.102 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Stowe 17, f.90v
A unicorn, Stowe 17, f.90v (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 62925
Panotii (at right), Add. 62925 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Arundel 484, f.245
A demon at a deathbed, Arundel 484, f.245 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 28162
Demons of avarice, Add. 28162 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 38126
George the dragon slayer, Add. 38126 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 42555
The entrance to hell, Add. 42555 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 54180
Beast from the Book of Revelation, Add. 54180 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 62925
Battling a dragon, Add. 62925 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 18851  f.464
St. Anthony and demons, Add. 18851 f.464 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 18851  f.464
The angel Michael with dragons, Add. 18851 f.464 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Harley 3244  f.59
A dragon, Harley 3244 f.59 (courtesy The British Library Board)
Yates Thompson 13,  f.111v
A demon of avarice, Yates Thompson 13, f.111v (courtesy The British Library Board)
Add. 28162
Beast of the Book of Revelation, Add. 28162 (courtesy The British Library Board)

Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert is out this month from the British Library and the University of Chicago Press. 

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