Aside from seeming to depict a merperson with breasts, both in and out of armor, the page was interesting because it was in a book of hours. Books of hours are usually illustrated with biblical scenes, natural plants and animals, and scenes of medieval life and work. They are also a delightful source of strange hybrid creatures, but usually in the border decorations, not given the same amount of space and detail as illustrations of saints or the Holy Family.
But before I get into the quest for more female armored merpeople, let’s look at the general scene of merfolk in manuscripts. In the hopes of getting a more representative and less biased sample than usual– or at least differently biased– I searched the Morgan Library’s manuscript collection for any manuscript images where the description mentioned a mermaid, merman, et c.
This is still a biased selection, because it’s only the images that the Morgan chose to highlight and add descriptions to, using one of the several keywords I searched for, plus undescribed images I identified in the other available scans of the manuscripts. Unfortunately, most of these were not manuscripts that are available in high resolution, so you’ll have to forgive the image quality.
Here, in approximate date order, is what I found. All images are by the Morgan Library.
The oldest mermaids I found are also the tiniest, and sadly the page scans are also very small, so these are just plain hard to see.
Many medieval manuscripts use some kind of decoration to take up the blank space at the end of each paragraph, or each item in a list. These decorations are often fairly simple and geometric, such as alternating red and blue rectangles with fine gold outlines. M730 takes this to the next level and puts teensy marginal figures onto each rectangle. All of the figures with human torsos kind of look like merfolk, because their legs have to trail out behind them to accommodate the short, wide rectangle format.
If this looks like your jam, definitely take a closer look– there are at least a few of these little pairings on every page available on the website, plus many also have ornate initials or borders with their own marginal figures. My favorite are the wrestlers and jousters.
A few of these don’t have mermaids, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.
In M730 the images were mostly too small to make out what the merfolk were doing, but often they were about to begin armed combat. G24 adds a new occupation: the bare-breasted merperson (on the right) is playing a jawbone. Note also that these three examples show at least two different types of tail, one with periodic bands and scalloped fins, the other with round overlapping scales.
Artist: attributed to the Egerton Master by Millard Meiss.
And now, we come to the fifteenth century. Here are two mermen, one with a fish-like tail and a bagpipe, the other with a perhaps dolphin-like tail holding a two-handed sword and a very long fish.
The third image is a whole page that doesn’t have enough pixels to be cropped further. In the right-hand margin is a merman wearing a yellow hat and a green doublet, with a blue tail with many fins, perhaps holding a spear with a red pennant. (There is also a man wearing red and blue fighting or playing with a dragon.)
It’s time to talk about gold in manuscripts again! These are photos I took at the Morgan Library of manuscript M279.
When I made my appointment with the Morgan Library reading room, I was asked why it was important that I see the manuscript in person, rather than a digital surrogate such as high-quality scans. I explained that I’m interested in the use of metallic elements in manuscript art, which can’t be fully captured by the consistent light and camera angles used when creating digital surrogates.
Since I usually only work with digital surrogates, I had no idea just how true this was.
These pictures are, of course, also photographs, and thus also unable to fully capture the details. At least partly by intention (but also because I was using an unfamiliar camera), I took them at a variety of angles, and often much closer to the page surface than I was allowed to get my face. I hope they convey some of the intense and dazzling nature of manuscript decorations.
Regrettably, they don’t convey much about scale, because the manuscript was pretty big and I needed both of my hands for the camera, and because these are zoomed and cropped to draw your attention to specific details. For reference, each page of the manuscript is about 8 by 12 inches (22 by 31 cm). All of the parchment in the manuscript is roughly the same shade– variations here are because I adjusted the exposure and white-balance of the photos so that specific details were clearer. I was shooting with no lighting beyond what was provided by the reading room, a compromise that makes reading possible but is much darker than photography prefers and much brighter than conservation prefers.
This may sound like a strange way to read books, but only examining manuscripts in modern, idealized lighting conditions may prevent us from appreciating everything their creators put into them. Medieval readers had fewer options for reading light sources, and only skylights in the middle of the day might provide bright, even, downward light. Uneven, flickering, and angled light were probably more likely. Ines Correia observes that some manuscript production practices make a lot more sense with low-angled light (called raking light in photography, used to bring out surface texture). Blank pages were often ruled using “dry point,” scoring subtle un-inked lines that are nearly invisible to the reader, but sharply angled light would cast tiny shadows to reveal them.
All that said, my strangely angled photos are still lit with diffuse, overcast light and a single modern lamp, so these don’t recreate that angled-light viewing experience. However, raking light is an interesting thing to consider while examining textured and reflective elements.
One detail about the first page of M279 that caught my eye is how the heraldic escutcheon at the bottom is worn away. Kathy Rudy has found this can be the result of repeated reverent touching rather than deliberate defacing. The obliteration here seems less even and thorough than examples I’ve seen that were clearly intentionally destroyed, such as blackening that neatly fills the escutcheon but stays within the lines, or finger-smearing that rubs out the entire offending item and a little of what’s nearby too. It is interesting that the damage here is fairly precise, not just avoiding the angels but also leaving the blue and gold oak design at the top of the shield untouched (literally). If the intent were to deliberately remove the symbol of identification or family affiliation, surely this, the device of the famous della Rovere family, would not be retained.
That’s not what makes it interesting for today’s topic, though. This illustration features one of the medieval methods for adding metallic gold to manuscripts. The della Rovere oak branches and the borders and repeating designs of the angels’ robes are all colored using a liquid paint called shell gold (because it was often kept in a mussel shell). This is added late in the illustration process– here the opaque gold designs are on top of the delicately shaded folds of fabric.
The idea of covering a whole area of the page with a sheet of pure gold seems incredibly lush to the modern eye in a way that highlights of gold paint don’t, but in fact shell gold was considerably more expensive than gold leaf. One reason for this is complexity: you can make gold leaf with a supply of gold, a piece of special leather called goldbeater’s skin, and the right hammer. Gold can be beaten until it’s only microns thick, so the weight of gold in a single sheet of leaf is actually quite small.
However, turning gold into a substance that can be used as paint, and stored in between uses basically requires alchemy. It seems to be fairly easy alchemy, but it’s fussy for the same reason making gold leaf is straightforward: gold is soft enough to squish under pressure, and squishing multiple pieces of gold together combines them into a single piece. The usual processes for turning raw materials into powdered pigments don’t work. More importantly, shell gold is more expensive than gold leaf, because it requires more actual gold.
This little fellow in Roman-ish armor is from the top right corner of the same page. His armor is colored with several shades of grey for the steel, and then a less metallic, darker goldish color for the fauld and shoulders, with all areas (including his sandals, staff, and banner) then highlighted with touches of a lighter goldish shade.
But the most famous and striking manuscript gold is gold leaf. Gold leaf is added at the beginning of the illustration process (but usually after all the verbal content has been written in by a scribe), working over pencil outlines of illustrations and initials. This ten-minute video by the Getty Museum shows pre-1400 methods for working with gold leaf on panel paintings.
Here’s some gold leaf in M279, on an initial Q. It’s very recognizable because it’s so shiny. It has also aged to a finely cracked surface, which the other materials on the page have not. The tiny dots to the left are also gold leaf, but the inner ring of the Q is mosaic gold, which is not gold at all but bronze powder, used in similar fashion to shell gold but yielding a warmer color that’s duller but still very distinctive next to the velvety matte paints.
I recently gave a presentation about getting started with manuscript research. You can see a PDF of the slides and full-res versions of all the page images in them in this cloud storage folder.
My main advice for new researchers (and, I suppose, everyone): Know why you’re doing this. Know what you want to get out of it, and who you’re doing it for.
Knowing those things will help you find answers to lots of other important questions. What manuscript should you study? Depends why you want to start a new project. What work should you do? Depends what you want to get out of it. What will the end result be? Depends who you’re doing this for.
Your project will be very different if you want to get personally, deeply engaged with a text on a particular subject than if you want to publish a translation of a previously untranslated work. When the going gets tough, understanding your original motivation and goal will help you stay on track.
I’m speaking from personal experience here. I used to wail about how I wasn’t sure I could or should keep going a few times a year until I understood what I get out of translation study group, which is mostly about connecting with the text and sharing that experience, but I also want to share some of it in a bigger way by publishing or releasing a version that can be read by other translators and scholars working on similar texts. I’m not in this to publish a book for newcomers to read as an introduction to historical sword study, and while I would like to bring some novelty to treatise interpretation discourse, I’m not going to starve without that vitamin while I chase down all the details of the text that seem important to understanding it.
But maybe you are! Maybe you are drawn to manuscripts so you can introduce newcomers to the field and introduce seasoned scholars to things they’ve never seen. Only you can know that, and it may require some introspection.
Thanks to the variable time compression effects of this year, I wrote this in early November, thought I’d sleep on it and see if I still liked it, and… well, here we are.
Because apparently I have a research theme for 2020, I’d like to tell you about a variety of medieval depictions of a decorative gold thing that’s said to have been uncommon in practice, but I’ve seen it in lots of artwork from varied sources.
But I’m starting in the wrong place. Let me begin at the beginning.
Sources disagree on how widespread or popular it was: U of Adelaide says “not common”, but the Language of Bindings Thesaurus says “not uncommon.” The Etherington and Roberts dictionary of bookbinding terms goes into more detail: “While this technique was used by a number of European bookbinders, it was especially associated with German bookbinding of the 16th century. The use of color on the edges of books bound in England was less frequent and more restrained. Plain gauffering was done well into the 17th century, usually on embroidered bindings, but appears to have declined sharply after 1650 or so.”
As always, the examples I’m about to show you are artwork– they aren’t photos, and the number or proportion of gauffered books in art has little relationship to the number that were actually made. These examples often place the books in the hands of saints, not ordinary people, and it seems likely the decoration is a symbol of wealth and preciousness. All I’m saying about commonality is all of these artists were aware of it as a way to make a book super fancy.
So. Pictures! First, a couple I saw and photographed in museums.
Mary’s gauffered book also has a chemise binding, which has a fabric wrapping built into the binding. It can protect the book from wear and handling or simply add additional tactile richness and specialness. The golden shadows in her book’s chemise may mean it’s made of shot silk, which is woven in a way that makes it change color in light and shadow.
Here’s a different Mary with a different book, from an altarpiece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters galleries. The angel Gabriel is interrupting Mary in the middle of reading a chemise-bound book to give her some big news; beside her on a table is a gauffered book lying open by a small scroll, both on a green drawstring purse.
The thing that caught my eye here and inspired me to take a close-up photo is not actually the gauffering, but the way the pages seem to dance in a breeze or perhaps turn themselves. This is very common in medieval and early modern depictions of open books– you can see it in the Chicago Mary Magdalen’s book too.
According to my rare books professor, who seems trustworthy, this was something medieval and early modern books simply did. The combination of the binding methods of the time and the properties of parchment meant that pages didn’t lie docile waiting to be read, but might seem to turn themselves in response to the book being opened, or might need to be held still for reading.
I didn’t get a picture– this sort of thing is hard to capture with a camera and lens that took two hands to aim– but one of the Morgan Library books I looked at did this a little. Occasionally, a page would refuse to lie flat against its neighbor; I didn’t test whether any would turn themselves. Holding these pages in place is a major function of the little weighted velveteen book snakes the library provided for me.
Parchment can be generally kind of intractable. The gauffered book on the table in the painting has a little strip of binding material bridging across the fore-edge on the left side, which could indicate where the book’s last reader actually left off. But it’s not a bookmark; there are medieval bindings with bound-in ribbons or bookmarks with moving parts to record which page and column you left off on, so we know what a book with an attached bookmark would look like. I think this little strip indicates where the book was left open to (and the clasp naturally fell to, since its leather is too stiff to flop to the table) before the pages turned themselves to their current position.
That’s the strap from a book clasp, which holds the book shut when not in use. Book clasps are very common and in some collections even ubiquitous feature of medieval bindings. While it helps keep the book from flapping open during transport, they’re necessary for parchment books that never travel too. Parchment doesn’t lie flat without encouragement; this is sometimes poetically described as “longing to return to the shape it had when alive.” Book clasps affix the covers into a tidy, parallel slab shape and apply even pressure to the parchment, keeping it from taking ever more lively shapes. Erik Kwakkel’s piece “Hugging a medieval book” is a delightful examination of this practice if you want to know more.
I’m getting away from pictures again. Keep an eye out for more book clasps in these examples from around the internet.
I would have guessed that gauffering was done when a book was nearly finished, but these manuscript miniatures and painting show people writing content into unfinished books that already have decorated edges. It makes sense that gauffering might be done as part of the binding process, which could go before or after the content was put in. Also, it seems to hold up to handling better than I would have guessed (more on this later), so maybe there’s no detriment to doing it early.
Also, as you look at these, take note of the equipment of a scribe– the furniture, the accessories, the storage space, the scraps and note paper.
This illustration shows the author of Roman de la Rose pausing a moment in his work. Lots of manuscripts have a picture of the scribe or compiler of the volume at hand creating it and presenting it to a patron, generally as one of the first few illustrations in the book. This one is different; it’s about three-quarters of the way through the book, a part of the story itself. That suggests he’s probably the original composer of the text itself, possibly Guillaume de Lorris, breaking the fourth wall here.
Even without a caption, the picture itself hints that this must be the original creator, not a copyist or compiler or redactor or glossator. (There’s probably some artistic license at play, so this may not represent how medieval authors actually worked.) He’s writing in neat columns with red symbols and titles giving structure to the piece, and has even left a squarish space for a miniature illustration, like a scribe might do in a presentation copy for a patron or buyer, but not in a composition from scratch. However, something very important is not in this picture. There’s only one open book in sight! He can’t be making a copy of an existing exemplar or draft. I don’t know if scribes ever created copies of works they had memorized, but in this case the text clarifies that he’s the author.
Anyway, note that the large folio tome he’s writing in has gauffered edges. Folio describes a book where the pages are created from sheets of parchment folded once; the book size from sheets folded twice is called quarto, which is what the two volumes in his writing desk are. It’s harder to see, but those both also have patterns on their edges, meaning that (as far as we can tell) all of his books are gauffered– quite the fancy collection! The book he’s writing in is actually so big I’d guess it’s Royal or Imperial folio, since the height of the book looks longer than his forearm. It’s hard to be certain, but I think it’s much bigger than my next example.
The King of Arms of the Order of the Golden Fleece is not as fancy, book-wise, although he is also composing his text in a gauffered folio book. His writing desk is not designed for facing against a wall, which might mean it’s intended for non-solitary use, but I don’t know a lot about writing furniture. This design also means the storage area can be on the tall side, and accessed without interrupting his work or banging his shins with a cabinet door.
Peek inside that cabinet. It appears to be divided by a single shelf, with books stored rather haphazardly above and below. To the modern eye, it may seem more haphazard than the artist intended, since we’re used to books being packed vertically onto shelves with their spines facing out. Take a look at Erik Kwakkel’s post about reference book furniture to see more images of medieval reading and writing rooms with lots of books in them– not a single one has books on a shelf in a case or cabinet, all vertical with their spines facing out.
In the medieval period and into the early modern period, it was unusual for any person or institution to have so many books that they needed to be stored efficiently and in a way that would facilitate finding exactly the one you wanted. Even if you have dozens of books, you would probably recognize them all by their bindings (since matching bindings were also rare!) and picking up and checking each one wouldn’t be that much bother. If you needed to add a label to a book, the page block is a much easier surface to write on than the spine or cover, so you might write your label there and store the book with that edge facing out.
Anyway, I’m getting off track again. The King of Arms of the Order of the Golden Fleece has eight books in addition to the one he’s writing in, mostly stored in a cabinet on the back of his writing desk. Some of them are gilded, but I think none of the closed books are gauffered.
Let us continue, then, to a man who is only shown with five books, but of those, the two biggest ones are gauffered, another has solid-color decorated edges, and two (the ones not lying flat) are labeled on their top edge. Like the others, I’ve included a detail zoom, and since I couldn’t find a photo that showed it better, a color-adjusted version of the detail to draw out the gauffering design a bit.
Nearly all of the books are closed with pairs of metal clasps, except the smallest one which has a binding that wraps all the way around and overlaps, then closes with red ribbon ties that have metal caps. You can also see clearly on two of the books (the closed gauffered one and the one with blue edges) that their covers have metal ornaments, although these in particular are not very ornamental– they all look like flat discs with raised flat discs in the center. These protect the covers from getting worn by rubbing against the surface of whatever book stand they’re read or displayed on. This book furniture is another thing that isn’t possible in collections with lots of books; books with raised metal parts interact awkwardly with each other.
This is Saint Paul, and like many saints, he’s posed here with the object of his martyring: a sword. However, there’s something unusual about this sword (especially as a symbol of martyrdom!)– look closely at the edge, visible just above his left wrist, and you’ll see it seems kind of square, not at all like a cutting edge. The Master of the Parrot has painted Saint Paul writing with not just any sword tucked into his arm; that’s a federschwert, a fencing (rather than war) sword with squarish edges that can withstand a lot of use but can’t be sharpened to cut, and his has an especially fancy grip.
The next few images are paintings of female saints. They’re shown holding books as symbols of their education and studious nature. As you look at these, take note of how they’re holding and using the books. In the modern study of medieval books, we can sometimes guess how a book might have been used by its size, or where the most fingerprints or smudges are.
Saint Auta was one of the companions of Saint Ursula, whose legend tells of the eleven virgins she traveled with (or eleven thousand, depending who you ask). In this altarpiece panel, Auta, still punctured by the arrow of her martyring, with a saintly palm frond tucked between her fingers, holds the viewer’s attention in the foreground, seemingly unaware that her relics are being transported behind her with great ceremony.
Auta’s book looks quarto-size, with edges gauffered in a fine, repeating pattern. It has a chemise binding, but not quite like the ones in the paintings of Mary Magdalen or the Virgin Mary above. Auta’s is trimmed much closer around two edges of the book, but left very long on the third, suggesting that it’s actually a large girdle book. Girdle books had a long extension of their covering material which allowed them to be hung from a belt (or girdle) for hands-free transport. Quarto seems big for carrying on a belt, to me (imagine hanging a modern hardcover novel from your belt) and I would prefer the next smaller size, octavo, which is closer to paperback size, but then, I need different things from books than medieval readers did.
Saint Margaret of Antioch is wrestling with a gauffered folio volume here. I’m impressed; I don’t think I could hold a folio book like this and still have the parchment pop up. The snout at the bottom suggests Margaret is managing this with a smallish dragon underfoot. One of her miracles was surviving being swallowed by a dragon, and freeing herself by inflicting her faith upon it from the inside.
Because she exited an abdomen unharmed, one of her saintly specialties is protecting or interceding on behalf of women in labor. Some depictions of her show the dragon holding receiving blankets in its mouth, although this often looks more like she’s found a way to deal with her dragon’s uncontrollable drooling problem. Margaret is also one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc (probably sans dragon drool).
Margaret’s book has hinged metal clasps– you can see the clasp dangling from the far edge, and the metal piece it connects to protruding on the near edge. These smooth, square clasps are reminiscent of the ones on Saint Paul’s books. The top end of the spine looks interesting, but I couldn’t find a better resolution image that revealed what the little gold flower shape is.
Looking for a bigger photo of the Phoenix Saint Margaret is how I found this lovely triptych, also by Jacob Corneliusz von Oostsanen. Like the Annunciation at the Met, the wings of this triptych are attached with hinges so they can be closed across the center panel like shutters. The format creates a natural hierarchy of significance, with the center image of Mary and Jesus twice as large as the scenes with saints to either side. These particular saints were a popular combination, so much that the Wikipedia page about triptychs has another example with the same composition and subjects, including a gauffered book with an ornament at the top of the spine.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria (on the left with the sword and wheel) and Saint Barbara (on the right with the castle tower) are among the “Fourteen Holy Helpers,” the most effective saints to pray to in adversity, as well as virgin martyrs associated with self-education. I think they are great role models for daughters, but Barbara is known primarily for defying her father and Catherine’s big skill was winning debates against opponents twice her age. I suspect many parents might prefer the quiet behavior shown in the painting.
Catherine is reading a book with zig-zag gauffering, a single metal clasp, and a large gold and pearl ornament at the top of the spine (maybe a much blingier version of the feature on Margaret’s book?) which also anchors a thin bookmark with a gold tassel at the bottom. Barbara’s book has nested arch shapes in the gauffering, a large gold clasp, and appears to have a gold-stamped cover, providing an extra touch of richness– bindings were most often blind-stamped, tooled with no ink or foil.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the first manuscript I transcribed and translated from was a heckin’ chonker of a two-volume gauffered set. I don’t have any photos with other objects for reference, but the cover measurement on these is 402 mm x 276 mm, nearly 16 x 11 inches.
This is Paulus Hector Mair’s Opus Amplissimum de Arte Athletica, the copy that is held in Vienna. It’s on paper, not parchment, so it doesn’t need clasps, though the paper has picked up a bit of a warp. It’s interesting that the edge decorations use different designs– maybe the pattern-rollers were very width specific? If you look at the corners, you can see a little wear, especially on the second volume (the thicker one), but all in all, the fancy decoration is in great shape for being well over 400 years old.
The heckin’ chonker size is important, although it’s hard to keep in mind when I’m reading the book as high-res scans. There are a lot of things we don’t know about combat manuscripts, but how they were used (or intended to be used) is a really big one. The size and shape of books can be a hint, either because they match a specific size with a known use, or because their size or shape renders some uses impossible. Look at the books in these paintings, and their sizes, and how people are interacting with them. Then imagine going to sword class with a book like Saint Margaret’s. In a very literal way, where does a book like that fit in class? How would you use Mair’s two-volume set?
I’ve strayed a long way from my plan to show you some pictures of gauffered books, though I guess that won’t surprise you much if you’ve been following my writing. Loosely controlled straying is how I get from “What did medieval people do?” to “How did they do it?” to “Why did they do it that way?” The answers are rarely what I expect– when I find answers– but that’s how I know I’m on the right track. If my expectations aren’t being challenged, am I even learning anything?
I don’t tend to write about the kind of profound stuff that might rock your world, but I hope going on these rambles with me shakes up your expectations occasionally!
Hello, friends! It is once again National Coming Out Day which means it is once again time for me to show you a bunch of manuscript art on the very thin premise that it relates to a dorky bisexuality joke from the internet.
So, here is the joke:
This joke has always tickled me, even though TV and horses have never been in my top hobbies (I do have a bit of a soft spot for unicorns, though). It’s less and less true, which makes me much less sad that it’s not as funny anymore.
So! Here’s a unicorn that’s a unicorn. This is from the album amicorum of Samuel Radermacher. It’s on an early page, so it was probably drawn in the first few years of the seventeenth century. The lower right corner might have a date, but the ink seems to have blobbed out too much for me to recognize.
An album amicorum is called a friendship album or autograph album in English. In addition to autographs and personal notes, they often contain painted coats of arms, other paintings, drawings, pasted-in sheets, and marbled papers. The inscription below this unicorn says Tuus tuo imperio amicus, something like “Your friend at your command” or “Your friend in your empire.”
Some steeds are harder to label.
In case the grapes and leopard didn’t give him away, this is the wine god Bacchus on his traditional steed. Bacchus is sometimes considered a bisexual deity, but a lot of his post-Classical associations are about revelry and intoxication, and the sexual aspects of those are really about promiscuity in its original sense– without regard to proper order– and hedonism. Historically, Bacchus (and Dionysus, and Liber, and Iacchus the Horned, and other figures of worship within this archetype) was a more nuanced figure with aspects of fecundity, regrowth, easing suffering, bringing joy, and divine inspiration. It was also Bacchus’s festivals that hosted the Greek theatrical competitions that would eventually become the modern performance art community, where many people throughout history have found acceptance and self-expression outside the normative mainstream.
I don’t know why the leopard has a dragon-ish neck and head. Or what the blue and gold thing is. A ball? A tiny UFO? But I’m afraid I know even less about the next scene.
This is from Le pelerinage de la vie humaine— the pilgrimage of human life. It’s the story of a monk who goes on a sublimely allegorical journey through an inexplicable countryside and meets many strange creatures along the way. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because many copies of it have a lot of illustrations of the pilgrim being handed a lot of pieces of armor.
A surprising number of the strange creatures– which is perhaps to say more than zero– are like this, groups of two or three women including one on all fours and another on her back. I can’t explain the laser eyes or the sword that seems to have a zero gun hilt or something?
I’ll be honest, this is a pretty good allegory for how life feels sometimes. Some days you’re the monk with a sweet purse and a rockin’ staff; some days you’re the woman hiding beside the path like a shy cat; some days you have a Zero Blaster sword or laser eyes.
No? Just me?
I hope you don’t have many days like this.
This is from another album amicorum, so I don’t know if it refers to a particular story. It certainly refers to the medieval trope of comparing anything that could be framed as pursuit– from courtship to salvation of the soul– as a hunting story with dogs and weapons and forests and stuff.
Here is a horse that truly defies labels.
Meet Bucephalus. His name is Greek for “Ox-head.” He was renowned as a man-eater, and Alexander was the only human he would behave for. These pictures of him are from BnF Francais 9342.
This Bucephalus has a horn and a peacock tail. The idea that he had a horn may originate with the “ox-head” name– what would make a horse’s head more like an ox? I found references to a species of unicorns descended from him, but little in the way of footnotes. Some artists show Bucephalus with two or three horns. I found less about the peacock tail. Bucephalus’s unusual qualities may originally have been references to the legendary karkadann.
Alexander the Great may have used Greek-style horse armor, but medieval artists probably had no way of knowing what it looked like. It probably didn’t look like this awesome gear.
Bucephalus, at least in this version, seems to be a bit of a clothes horse. (I’m not sorry.) This matching set with Alexander seems to be their favorite look.
This artist does occasionally forget his horn, and it’s not really clear how the horn interacts with the chamfron, but I’m willing to forgive on general coolness factor. Interestingly, I saw some references that Bucephalus “wore golden horns in battle.”
Alexander himself is no less of a label-defyer. More specifically, it looks to me like Alexander was so very much himself that, unlike most major historical figures, the straightwashing gaze of history has not gotten heteronormativity to stick.
And this bothers people. I figured I could do a search for [alexander the great gay] or [alexander the great sexuality] and get an essay or a Wikipedia section or something that explained the available evidence. But as you’ll see to the right, there are a lot more sensational headlines than anything else at the top of these results. I think this sensational angle, and the conceptual itch of the greatest military man in Western history not being straight, is probably also why [alexander the great gay] got about 7 times as many results as [alexander the great sexuality].
Before I dig into this further, I should note that “gay” as we understand it now– as an identity, as a culture, as a community– is a phenomenon of the modern era. Historians typically use “queer” as a catch-all for “not straight” instead. But National Coming Out Day is not a day for avoiding labels, so I’m going to discard that convention for a little while in the name of representation and validation instead.
And in the name of representation and validation, let me state clearly that sexuality is not binary. The question “Was Alexander gay?” does not contain an implicit “(or was he straight?)”
If we view his recorded relationships through a fairly modern lens, it only makes sense to say he was bi, since his most serious relationship was with a man and he was married to three women at the time of his death.
That Alexander– or, really, anyone– married at least one woman and produced at least one biological heir shouldn’t be taken as evidence that he was sexually or romantically attracted to women; producing biological heirs is generally considered a key part of participation in a dynasty, and so legal marriage arrangements are also a key part. Alexander’s deepest relationship, with childhood friend and fellow military commander Hephaestion, continued throughout.
But this, too, I think is mostly of interest to modern people hung up about sensational but preferably normative sex and sexuality. What stands out to me in this article about relationships is not that Alexander’s probable lovers include both men and women. The thing that I see mentioned most often in this article is actually Alexander refusing or failing to seek sexual encounters.
Since Alexander’s life history includes at least one very intense and probably sexual relationship, but also a whole lot of disinterest in sexual attention, if I had to pick a label for Alexander that wasn’t “queer,” I’d probably pick gray ace. The anecdotes of disinterest should also be taken with a grain of salt, since disinterest in sex can be brought up as a symbol of someone’s moral purity or admirable single-mindedness for things other than sex (like military conquest), but asexuality and demisexuality don’t get enough representation. History needs that a lot more than it needs people saying disinterest in a female prostitute is “evidence of Alexander’s homosexuality.”
That turned out to be a very long sidebar in an article I told you was about horses. Here are some more pictures of Bucephalus and Alexander looking cool together.
Bucephalus and Alexander had a truly special relationship, and when the noble steed died, Alexander organized a full funeral ceremony for him and then founded a city near the memorial and named it Alexandria Bucephalus. Alexander himself followed soon after.
There’s a horse thing that I get asked about sometimes: if women were riding out to war wearing women’s clothes, could they use the same saddle men did?
Friends, I tell you with great delight that the answer is not at all binary.
Traditional “women’s saddles” sit the rider with both legs on the same side of the horse. Wikipedia tells me the earliest known sidesaddle permitting a secure seat and also control of the horse was designed in the late fourteenth century. Before that, both-legs-same-side riders were obliged to perch, apparently quite awkwardly, facing perpendicular to where the horse was headed and requiring someone else to guide the horse. Worse, these saddles offered so little assistance in staying on that they were only safe to use with horses that could maintain the slowest, smoothest gait.
Two-person saddles can solve the horse guiding problem, but they look worse than the solo perpendicular saddle in basically every way. Yikes.
As with so many things, the sidesaddles of the late medieval era were not standardized the way more modern ones we’re familiar with are– they came in both left and right varieties. Here are two miniatures from Roman de Guiron le Courtois showing riders facing off with lances in the foreground, and behind them, one or more ladies watching; the image with three ladies has them in right-facing side saddles, while the solo lady in the other faces to her horse’s left.
When it comes to women riding to war, a lot of artists phone it in and draw something weird and generic that doesn’t make any sense, but doesn’t hurt your brain as long as you don’t look at it very hard.
Here, Hypsicratea has made the extremely questionable choice of cutting her own hair one-handed while riding a horse. Hardly any of her saddle is visible, but it doesn’t appear to curl up behind her the way the lancers’ saddles do in the Roman de Guiron le Courtois pictures. Her skirt folds and falls gracefully, and she hardly appears to suffer the awkward reality of knees.
In many cases, the saddle appears to be the aggressive-lumbar-support battle variety, similar to the ones seen in the Alexander and Roman de Guiron le Courtois miniatures above. Artists seem fond of simply drawing in a graceful skirt with a subtle gesture of leg position.
To firmly anchor this in my usual themes, here’s Amazon queen Penthesilea riding with her army and breaking lances in some all-gold armor.
She definitely has knees, but her skirt hangs curiously straight compared to other examples that show some amount of draping or bunching or rumpling explaining where the rest of the skirt volume goes when she’s on the horse. More on Amazons with lances later.
The nearest of the Amazons in this scene from Le Mirouer historial has the most careful detail we’ve seen so far, and the artist has made use of the excellent feature of mounted armies where most of the horses, saddles, and legs are not visible. However, the skirts and dresses don’t seem to be draping and wrinkling in entirely logical ways. Remember, it won’t hurt your brain if you don’t think about it very hard. Check out the armor colors in use here! Also note the Amazons’ helmets, shaped like women’s hats or hairstyles.
It will not shock you that I find the idea that a sidesaddle is required for riding in a dress rather suspect. Europeans have been riding horses for way longer than they’ve worn manly bifurcated legwear, but nobody ever seems to ask “How did men go hunting in the thirteenth century?” (See right.)
Riding in a “ladylike fashion” is an entirely different question, but it’s unmistakably a social construct. It’s often based in the idea that it’s improper for a woman to admit to having legs or to put her legs on either side of something. “Improper” seems even more nebulous than “ladylike.” These are notions that not only vary with time, place, and culture, but also with social class and privilege level.
The evidence in artwork suggests that it was not common for women to ride “astride” (one leg to each side), but it was also not unheard-of or restricted to acts of gender or moral transgression. Larsdatter has collected a bunch of non-Amazon examples, mostly from the fourteenth century.
This lady in her rose-colored dress and matching cape has the benefit of being a full-width illustration, but also this artist has simply put a lot of care into realistic fabric shading. Her saddle has less aggressive lumbar containment than most of the ones we’ve seen, so it’s probably specialised for a non-battle application like hunting. If she looks determined and reliable, that’s because she’s the allegory of Diligence from Alain Chartier’s Breviary of Nobles.
Next let’s look at some more large and detailed illustrations of women in dresses riding astride, created between 1596 and 1606. They seem to have saddles even lower-profile than the lady in rose, and each has dressed her skirt over the horse’s back.
The British Library labels the party as “travelling English players”, but that seems too easy an answer for bird-faced men and a woman whose heart is aflame in her hand. No explanation is given for what makes them English. The BL also suggests theirs was painted from life or memory, but the composition seems much too similar for them to be coincidentally painted alike, if not identical enough to suggest one was intended as an exact copy of the other.
These are each in an album amicorum from German lands. The first, wth the lead rider in orange, is from BnF Allemand 362, whose owner lived in Nuremburg and visited Leipzig and Frankfurt-on-Oder. The second, with the lead rider in red, is from BL Egerton MS 1222 and its owner studied near Frankfurt-on-Oder.
To round out this collection, I have a few more Amazons for you! There are a lot of variations of the story of Amazons defeating Greek warriors, but I like Christine de Pizan’s version, from part 18 of the first book of The City of Ladies.
Hercules the mighty hero expressed a concern to his friend Theseus, the king of Athens, that the Amazon army was going to invade, and it would be better not to wait for the Amazons to attack first. Theseus declared that Hercules must never go to war without him, and so it was they set out with a large army in many boats. Even Hercules was not brave enough to simply dock the ships and storm ashore in broad daylight, though, and so they waited until cover of darkness let them sneak ashore and begin their raid.
When Queen Orithyia of the Amazons, who succeeded Antiope and was the mother of Penthesilea, received this news, she commanded her troops to take arms and be ready by daybreak. But two of the warriors, Menalippe and Hippolyta, couldn’t wait and rode out ahead of the others armed with lances. They charged directly at Hercules and Theseus, who were directing the night assault from their own horses. Menalippe struck Hercules and Hippolyta struck Theseus, and both men were struck down, though the women fell from their own horses after this attack. The fight continued on foot for a long time, but in the end the women were taken captive.
Hercules and Theseus treated their captives well (and perhaps fell in love a little), and Queen Orithyia halted her troops and sent two baronesses to negotiate the terms of their release. The Greeks demanded no ransom except to keep the Amazons’ armor as trophies. Orithyia staged a peaceful welcome parade for the return of the hostages, but when the time came, Theseus found he was unable to let Hippolyta simply walk away, and instead petitioned the queen to be allowed to marry her. Thus was Greece delivered from their fear of the Amazons.
On the topic of saddles, there’s a curious detail in there: the Amazons were not able to stay on their horses after landing a devastating lance blow. At a glance, this seemed odd to me, especially having seen the war saddles shown above– but Christine de Pizan, whose Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry came out a mere 5 years later than The City of Ladies, surely knows something about something.
But in deciding what I wanted to say about saddles, I looked for more information about how many kinds of medieval saddle there were, and ran across a photo from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna showing a lot of saddles for jousting (according to the caption). After seeing so many pictures of war saddles, what stood out to me most about these was their total lack of any backstop. In 2014, The Jousting Life surveyed extant and depicted saddles and concluded that the higher-in-back saddles were preferred for battle, and the lower variety for other purposes.
This seems like it could be detrimental to launching powerful attacks, since I’ve heard war saddles hold a rider fairly firmly in position. However, as I thought about this, I realized the very low back might be very useful for a different need of jousting: not just to launch attacks, but to do it over and over again all day. From that perspective– with the caveat that I don’t actually know a lot about saddles or jousting– maybe a little attenuation of power and a lot of occasions to practice your backwards-yeet dismount are a worthwhile trade for reduced injuries on impact and fewer bruises and spine kinks from being folded backwards over your saddle-ears.
So now as usual, I have even more questions than I started with, and I’ve identified one more subject I don’t know enough about, but in my experience that’s basically the mark of research progress.
This article has wandered to a lot of places along its journey, so before I return you to normal life, here are some more unicorns wearing their horns proudly, in a fantastic tournament parade.
Hello again, dear readers. I actually wrote the sequel post I intended for once. Part 1 was The first of many questions: Whither gilding? which asks “Why is there so much artwork of gold-colored armor in late fifteenth century chronicle manuscripts?” but finds no answer.
Some additional questions are “Was there a form of gold-colored armor that was available to or affordable for the average man-at-arms?” and “Does the presence or commonality of gold armor mean anything in a particular artwork?”
It seems reasonable to guess that gold armor is cool and drawing armor the same color all the time was boring for many artists. Manuscript art– like all art– can’t be read as an accurate representation of reality, but that doesn’t make it useless as a historical record, it just requires careful interrogation. These manuscript art examples don’t mean that there were regions of Europe where whole armies wore suits of goldish armor. However, if I acknowledge that the reason might be “these artists got bored of drawing steel gray armor all the time,” I only have more questions.
These artists could make armor look any way they want, even completely fantastical or with randomly assigned colors. But, in general, they don’t. Armor is usually colored and shaded to look like metal, sometimes with non-metal colors on some pieces that generally follow a consistent logic. The non-metal colors usually clearly represent armor-related garments or cloth-covered armor.
It seems like these artists generally believed only some colors were appropriate for armor. The exact pigment choices vary between manuscripts and between art shops, so it seems unwise to guess at actual metal processes from this evidence. But if many artists seem to agree that armor should generally come in two or three colors of metal, or that a particular cultural group prefers a different color than mainstream Europeans, that seems important.
If this sounds like it’s leading somewhere, you’d be right! Today’s manuscript examples, I believe, consistently show armor that’s one of three colors: steel, bright gold, or one other shade of gold. Sometimes additional metal colors are used in limited parts of the work.
Before I get into the manuscript art, here’s some more context about the colors of armor.
Sometimes when I’m preparing images to write about, I adjust their colors to make some parts stand out more. Since I’m specifically writing about the significance of the artist’s color choices, I haven’t done any of that this time. All of the photos are mine; all of the manuscript art is from the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).
Most of the armor with gilding I’ve seen in museums was gilded about as much these two garnitures for field and foot, both made in Milan around 1575. They’re posed for foot combat at the barrier (fighting with spears, from either side of a hurdle) at the Chicago Art Institute. The armor is steel-colored with elaborate etching, and gold applied to some parts according to the etched designs.
This French gorget (ca 1590-1600), also in Chicago, is made of “steel, gilding, brass, translucent enamel, and leather.” The red and black enamel– thin layers of glass applied to the surface as a liquid– have broken away, and the gilding seems to have worn away unevenly, revealing the steel underneath.
And that’s one answer to why the surviving artifact record doesn’t have as many gold-colored armors as I’m seeing in manuscript art: nothing gold can stay gold.
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A little administrative announcement first: I’ve added pages to the top navigation area collecting my appearances elsewhere around the internet, one for video and audio recordings like podcasts, the other for writing and other stuff. Give a look at Writing and other projects and Lectures and recordings when you get a chance!
Second, a humble admission: in the name of getting this out to you sooner (or ever), I haven’t done a thorough editing pass. Please forgive any imperfections.
I was going to start with a joke about in these strange times, we can’t carry on doing what we always have but really that seems unnecessary.
Here’s a more true beginning: After being asked about it many times, I’ve finally started looking at artwork showing men’s armor in manuscripts. Strange days, indeed.
I’ve been avoiding it. There’s a huge amount to study. The ladies’ armor artwork spans at least 200 years, during which there were numerous major trends (regional and otherwise), and maybe that’s fine for a survey but it’s far too much to look into in depth.
I had my answer: To balance and complement heavily bejeweled ballgown armor from tapestries and allegories, I could look at men’s fantasy armor– more usually called “the heroic style”– as it was depicted in the late fifteenth century.
I knew I was on the right track as soon as I started finding more questions than answers.
So, here’s the first one: In the Bermejo St. Michael lecture, Dr. Capwell talks about fire-gilded armor, where a thin layer of gold is fused into the outer surface of the steel. It was as dazzling in reality as in the painting, he says, and was expensive and rare. Few people could even dream of it, but a special few including Charles the Bold were able to indulge and realize their elaborate fantasies. (Maybe they shouldn’t have.)
But here’s the thing– ever since finding out fifteenth-century chronicles sometimes have pictures of women leading armies, I’ve made sure to get a steady diet of them. And something snagged my curiosity early in this exploration, which has grown over time with each mention of “gold armor is special and rare.”
So, the first of many questions about illustrations of men’s armor from the mid to late 15th century:
The Bermejo painting offers an easy answer: because putting important heroic characters in the kind of fantastic armor dukes and kings dream of makes sense.
This seems like a good place for a little sidebar about fiction. In medieval literature, the lines between fiction and nonfiction are very blurry; history and legend are often not treated differently from each other. It’s sort of like a universe in which everything anyone has ever believed seriously is true somewhere.