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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Good news! The Facebook thing is all sorted out. You can subscribe to Darth Kendra Research on Facebook and get articles and, as long as I remember to load the queue, a steady stream of detail crops from manuscript illustrations.
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.
Today I thought I’d give a try at writing a post in less than six hours. Here goes!
A couple weeks ago, I was looking at books which were in the Estense library (owned by the d’Este family) in the fifteenth century. A lot of them are no longer in the Estense collection, but Estense still tracks them in the catalog, which is cool.
Anyway, I found some cool stuff.
Here’s a well-worn header image from the first page of a Boccacio De Mulieribus Claris:
Also exciting: this face-off between a mermaid and an angry something.
But it gets better! That’s from fairly early in a book of hours.
Sixteen or so pages later, she’s back and she’s got better gear, and the something is now a little less angry and a little more freaked out.
Gentle readers, it’s been a while since I wrote. I keep starting to, but to write about new armor lady pictures I’ve found I need to think of something to say about them, so I need to know when and where they’re all from, and somehow I never write down all the information I need on the first try, and then somehow the weekend is over again and while I have glorious heaps of downloaded pictures and manuscript scans and maybe they’re tagged correctly, I still haven’t written anything.
So… Let’s do something different. Let’s go on a paleography adventure! Come with me while I explore some old handwriting.
Most of the manuscripts I look at are not first drafts. I usually read books that were made by commission or for sale, though not all of them were finished. The handwriting is consistent and even and intentional, whether or not I can read it easily. They have few if any corrections (by the writer’s hand or any other), and sadly only rarely have marginal notes.
In my ongoing translation project, we’ve been looking at terminology consistency, things like how many words are used for a particular concept in Latin and how many in German. It occurred to me that in order to create a new translation with consistent terminology, the translator would need to work through the whole text once to find out what all the concepts are, and then choose consistent terms to use, and then go back and re-work it to put all of the terms in the right places. It should’ve been obvious, since the manuscript we’re working from doesn’t have corrections, but I had never thought about the existence of a translation draft.
What would that look like? Would it have as many extra notes and corrections as my drafts do? I may never know about this exact text, but I have hope that someday I’ll know more about what tools and steps were involved in creating new translations in the 16th century. And maybe somewhere, some library or museum has a gloriously messy translation notebook from someone who was working German to Latin.
My brother recently asked me a question after watching this “Instant Legolas device” video. The video mentions that “nothing in the medieval world was not decorated.” The question was whether that was a cultural thing, or a misperception based on survivorship bias where the objects likeliest to survive into the modern era were generally higher quality and fancier.
My first reaction was that an average person’s regular tools must have been simpler and plainer, because who needs an everyday wood-choppin’ axe that’s got fancy borders?
On the other hand, it is true that people in the past in basically every era before 1900 used more decoration on the things they did decorate than modern people do or would. The term horror vacui refers to decorations or details that fill all available space as though the creator was afraid of emptiness, and has been applied to works from Victorian England as well as Ancient Greece.
What do I mean by “more decoration”?
There’s a rule of thumb in historical costuming that once you’ve put trim on your clothing, you should go back and add at least that much more trim to achieve the minimum historical look. Modern sensibilities are simply never over-the-top enough. Let’s start with something familiar. Think of a necklace, maybe something you’d give as a gift or wear yourself. Now think of an elaborate necklace, extra-fancy, maybe even gaudy.
I’ve never quite figured out where to start this one. I created a draft to write this post four years ago, but all it said was “Yup. I should write this.” Maybe I’m overthinking where to start, though.
In the late 19th century, in Vienna, there was a fencing school for women.