I recently visited Exeter Cathedral so I figured I would post some photos I took! These photos are in no particular order. They feature multiple different aspects of the cathedral.
I’m not really a list making sort of guy, but today I wanted to do something a little different. Since late June, I’ve been running an Instagram where I share images I’ve found in medieval manuscripts. During my searches, I’ve stumbled upon a lot of weird and strange things drawn in the margins. Today I want to share with you some of these images so you too can have some of the delight I’ve had while finding these. (After all, it’s a lot of fun to sift through manuscripts and find a weird thing you absolutely were NOT expecting!) I will also be rating these images on a scale of 1 to 10 on how weird I personally find them.
This little guy I found in the Luttrell Psalter. (A great source for weirdness!) I find him extremely endearing. Medieval manuscripts are filled with little monsters that are combinations of animals and humans. The technical term for them is “grotesque.” Grotesques are often found in the margins. Personally, I like to try to figure out what kind of animals the artist took inspiration from when drawing their grotesques. My educated guess is that this creature is made up of an owl for the face/head and some kind of hoofed animal for the feet and tail. (Though the artist definitely took some creative liberties by making those party’s green!) I’m not sure what kind of animal the red and white spotted body is from (if it’s from any animal at all!). The grotesque’s hood is definitely a very human element. While this image is certainly strange, it’s not the weirdest I’ve found.
Weirdness Rating: 4/10
Here we have another grotesque from a later manuscript. This is another manuscript that’s absolutely filled with delightfully weird creatures. The longer you look at this little guy the more and more you find. First off, he’s completely naked except for his rather fashionable hat. (Look at that feather!) He has the body of a baby but has the head of a grown man. That’s definitely an interesting and amusing style choice. He’s got bird wings and bird feet. (At least they somewhat resemble bird feet!) Then of course, he’s holding a flower but his hands don’t seem to have fingers. Over all, he’s definitely one of the weirder images I’ve found so far.
Weirdness Rating: 8/10
Medieval people sure did love their snails! Here we have a snail with a human head. Or he could also been interpreted as a tiny human living in a snail shell. He’s a strange little thing, but certainly not the strangest. Either way, he certainly seems to be happy with his shell!
Weirdness Rating: 1/10
This grotesque is unlike anything I’ve seen before. They seem to have the body of some kind of dog (a greyhound perhaps?), the torso of a human, and their head is maybe some kind of nut? I believe the lower part of the body is so orange to match with the general color scheme of the manuscript. (Other grotesques in this manuscript have the green and orange color scheme.) However, what I personally find the weirdest is their head. So far this is the only grotesque I’ve seen where the head is a nut! (At least I think it’s a nut.) As a side note, I love how the grotesque’s body language suggests that they are all turned around. They certainly look as though they have something stuck on their head and are trying to make sure they don’t walk into anything.
Weirdness Rating: 7/10
If this creepy looking man wasn’t here, then this detail wouldn’t classify as weird. But he is here, so it’s made the list. Everything about this guy is extremely unsettling. He’s mostly naked except for his braies (at least I think they count as braies). His hood is barely covering his shoulders. He’s hunched over. And of course, he’s got a pretty scary look on his face. If I saw this man in real life, I’d probably avoid him!
Weirdness Rating: 8/10
There’s certainly a lot going on in this illustration. We have a bald head with a beard that has been impaled at the top of his skull and through his mouth by a golden spike. This golden spike is sticking out of the bottom of a luxurious sort of column. (The column goes up the entirety of the page and the first letters of each sentence are drawn as fancy initials in it.) Then to add to the overall strangeness of the decapitated head, he seems to be alive and reacting positively to the wyverns nibbling at his ears. While this is strange in itself (the wyverns nibbling), it becomes stranger with a bit more context. This is not the only image in this manuscript that features wyverns eating/licking a person’s body. On other folios I’ve found two images of people getting their feet licked/eaten. (If I had to guess, I think the artist may have liked the idea of wyverns licking people. But that is pure speculation on my part!)
Weirdness Rating: 9/10
This illumination answers the age old question of how merfolk would feed their merbabies. By breastfeeding of course! But in all seriousness, let’s analyze the weird. Besides the breastfeeding imagery (which implies that merfolk are more mammal than fish, also implying merfolk give birth to their young rather than lay eggs), there’s the creature doing a handstand on the mermaid’s tail. I’m not a parent, but I would assume it would be difficult to breastfeed while you had a person doing gymnastics on your lower half (whether you have a tail or legs). The creature seems to have hands for feet, so I don’t believe that they are intended to be a human being. Also, to add to the strangeness, even though the merbaby is, well, a baby, she has breasts too. That’s definitely an interesting stylistic choice and personally not one I would have chosen myself if I was told to draw a mermaid breastfeeding. So while breastfeeding imagery isn’t strange in itself, the other details about this drawing definitely amps up the strangeness.
Weirdness Rating: 5/10
This is definitely another image that has a lot going on in it! First we have the larger figure. It’s not quite human but not quite animal either. It has a long kind of s-shaped neck. (Think the front of a Viking longboat.) to continue with the boat comparison, the lower half of its body is shaped kind of like a boat. Though it also reminds me of a leaf, especially the orange part. The tail of this figure is also kind of weird looking. It’s long and a little curly but it doesn’t look like an animal tail. It makes me think of the geometric decorations that can usually be found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Then of course you have its very human head. This poor fellow looks quite concerned! By the larger figure’s head is a little orange arrow that resembles a fishhook. Finally, we have a person in the larger figure. I’m not quite sure if the person is a child or an adult, but it’s certainly an interesting choice to have a person there!
Weirdness Rating: 10/10
Here we have a bunch of demons entering the jaws of Hell. While normally I wouldn’t consider this subject matter strange, I do find the artwork itself a bit weird. If I had to guess, I think the artist was either trolling or simply trying their best to draw something outside of their comfort zone. While I won’t describe each demon in detail, I will say that each demon has an extremely goofy looking face, including some silly bug eyes. Other interesting details include guts coming out of one demon’s stomach (who also has a skeleton face for some reason), another demon who seems to be pregnant, backwards thighs, duck feet, a spider (?) on one demon’s crotch, and the lamb (?) ears on the disemboweled demon. Medieval demons were often drawn having a combination of different animal and human traits, so these aren’t necessarily strange in itself. I just find how awful these demons look to be weird.
Weirdness Rating: 6/10
Our final image! This one is weird! Of course, there’s the king pooping. But he’s pooping on two grotesques heads while also standing on their necks. The grotesques are kissing and don’t seem to be noticing what the king is doing. (Though to be fair, the excrement has not landed on them yet.) Nor do they seem to mind that the king is standing on them. Is it possible this image is a metaphor for oppressive rulers? Or is it just some artist finding poop funny? Who knows!
Weirdness Rating: 10/10
In my last blog post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I talked about the adventures of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. (And even in my first post on An Ecclesiastical History I shared an excerpt about him!) Today I will be discussing another important man in the history of the English church: Augustine of Canterbury. In this post, I will focus on three stories about Augustine. (I will talk about Augustine’s letter to Pope Gregory next week as that deserves a post of its own.)
The first excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Three. It is the year 596 A.D. and in the tenth year of his reign as pope, Pope Gregory decides to send missionaries to Britain. (As there are already a good amount of Christians in Britain, I believe that Pope Gregory wants to convert the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, as the Britons have already been converted.) Gregory chooses “his servant Augustine [and] several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation” (pg. 66). Augustine and his companions agree to go, but soon it becomes clear to them that they might be in over their heads. The group “progressed a short distance on their journey” (pg. 66) before wanting to return home. After all, none of them actually speak any English. And they consider Britain to be “a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation” (pg. 66).
Besides the fact Augustine and his companions don’t want to go to Britain because they think it’s full of pagan barbarians, I do think they had some valid concerns. After all, it’s extremely difficult to preach and connect with people when you don’t speak the same language. There is a lot of risk for things to get lost in translation, among other dangers. However, Pope Gregory did not think that their concerns were valid. The group sent Augustine back to Gregory to ask that they might return home. Instead of saying yes, Gregory gave them a letter of encouragement and sent them on their way to Britain.
It really stood out to me that Augustine didn’t actually want to go to Britain. Usually, with missionary stories (at least the modern ones I’ve seen) people are enthusiastic about going to another country to convert non-Christians. (Sometimes these modern-day missionaries are a bit too enthusiastic…to state it lightly. But that’s a post for another day.) Instead of being enthusiastic, Augustine “humbly request[ed]” that the pope “recall them from so dangerous, arduous, and uncertain a journey” (pg. 67). Even if Augustine didn’t want to go for the glory of God, he actually had a lot to gain by going to Britain. He “was to be consecrated bishop in the event of their being received by the English” (pgs. 66-67). And as discussed in my last few posts, Britain wasn’t entirely pagan. Christianity was a thing in Britain and it had been for a while. However, instead of Roman Christianity, Britain practiced Celtic Christianity.
The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Five. Augustine and his companions have landed on the British Isle of Thanet and they are finally comfortable with the idea of preaching to the English. I think it helped that “at the direction of…Pope Gregory, they had brought interpreters from among the Franks” (pg. 69). The monks send these interpreters to the king of Kent, Ethelbert with this message:
[T]hey came from Rome bearing very glad news, which infallibly assured all who would receive it of eternal joy in heaven and an everlasting kingdom with the living and true God (pg. 69).
Understandably, King Ethelbert was a bit thrown off by this. After all, that’s a lot of information to unpack. He sent a message back, which “ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed” (pg. 69). King Ethelbert made sure all the monks’ needs were taken care of while he figured out exactly what to do with them. Luckily for Augustine and his companions, King Ethelbert had a Christian wife so he wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Christianity. But it can still be off-putting to have someone want to preach to you, so I understand why King Ethelbert told the monks to stay put for a while. (Also, people preaching about religion is an almost guaranteed way for conflicts to start. King Ethelbert is aware of this as he later tells Augustine and the monks that he can’t “abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation” (pgs. 69-70).)
Putting King Ethelbert’s political decisions aside, we come to what I consider the meat of this excerpt. (If the meat is the part I find particularly fascinating!) In the second paragraph of this three-ish paragraph chapter, Bede documents “an ancient superstition” (pg. 69) of King Ethelbert. King Ethelbert is concerned that Augustine and the other monks are “practisers of magical arts” (pg. 69), so refuses to meet them inside a building. Instead, King Ethelbert meets the missionaries outside so they don’t “have [an] opportunity to deceive and master him” (pg. 69). It’s the little details like this that I find so interesting. Here we have a documented folk belief that might have been lost to history otherwise. As someone who writes historical fiction, it’s details like these that I love to collect so I can make my fiction more realistic. Plus from an anthropological standpoint, the fact that a king (or anyone really) had a belief like this that effected their behavior lets us see a past culture better.
The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Six. The mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons is going pretty well. A lot of people have been baptized including King Ethelbert. However, after his own conversion, Ethelbert isn’t forcing anyone else to become Christians. While he is showing “greater favour to believers” (pg. 71) he’s doesn’t “compel anyone to accept Christianity” (pg. 71). Instead, Ethelbert “had learned from his instructors…that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion” (pg. 71). This is certainly a different way of doing things when you look at what other rulers from history (both distant history and more recent history) did when they converted.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.
In my last post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I mentioned that I might want to write more about the text. As of today, I’m only on page 114 of the book, but I’ve already found quite a few interesting stories in An Ecclesiastical History. Consequently, I’ve decided to make this type of post a series. As I read An Ecclesiastical History and as I find more and more events I wish to talk about, I will write more blog posts. I’ll probably do this until I finish the book. There are a lot of events that I find fascinating and I really do want to talk about them all. As an added bonus, most of the chapters are only a few paragraphs long so it’s easy to summarize and talk about each one.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not particularly concerned whether or not the stories Bede documents are true. I’m more interested in the culture that Bede is writing about. Histories like these capture the thought process of the time and culture, especially the thought process of a devoted monk. In short, I’m reading An Ecclesiastical History of the English People for fun. Because I’m reading his text for fun I will be documenting the events I find fascinating. I will share four excerpts from An Ecclesiastical History. Originally for this series, I planned to do five excerpts a post but today I want to focus exclusively on Bishop Germanus of Auxerre.
For reference, I’m using the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.
The first excerpt comes from Book One, Chapter Seventeen. This is the same chapter that documents Bishop Germanus of Auxerre calming a storm caused by devils. Germanus and Bishop Lupus of Troyes have finally reached Britain and must confront the Pelagians. Germanus and Lupus have been preaching the word of God and “the majority of the people readily accepted their teaching” (pg. 59). The Pelagians are not particularly happy about this and basically challenge Germanus and Lupus to a preach off. (Or “a trial of strength” (pg. 59) as Bede calls it.) Germanus and Lupus accept.
It’s important to note that Bede describes the Pelagians as wearing “rich ornaments and magnificent robes, supported by crowds of flattering followers” (pg. 59). Basically, the Pelagians are not very Christ-like. Christ was a poor man who told the rich to give their money and possessions away to the needy. Instead of following Christ’s teachings, the Pelagians wear fancy clothes, have fancy stuff, and are surrounded by people who flatter and fawn over them. Not only does Bede code the Pelagians as not Christ-like, but they are also greatly contrasted with Germanus, who earlier in the chapter stopped a storm like Christ.
The thing I found most amusing about this section of the chapter isn’t the preach off or the comparison of the two groups to Christ. What actually made me put another sticky tab in this chapter was the fact that the judges of this preach off are the Pelagians’ wives and children. (In the early days of the church priests could have wives and children and it wasn’t a big deal. How and why this changed is extremely fascinating and contains a lot of wild stories, but that is a story for another blog post.) Germanus and Lupus let the Pelagians speak first, “which they did at great length, filling the time, and the ears of their audience with empty words” (pg. 60). Germanus and Lupus go next and they win. (Of course.) The Pelagians’ “lies [are] exposed, and [they are] unable to defend any of their arguments” (pg. 60). As a result, the Pelagians admit they are wrong, the judges (the Pelagians’ families remember) almost get violent, and Germanus and Lupus are proclaimed the winners/right about God.
So not only do the Pelagians lose, but they are also humiliated in front of their wives and children.
The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Eighteen. Bishop Germanus is once again compared to Christ here. In this chapter, Germanus cures a ten-year-old girl’s blindness. “Immediately after” (pg. 60) the preach off, a tribune and his wife ask the bishops to heal his child. However, it appears that Germanus and Lupus are feeling petty and they tell the tribune to take his daughter to “their opponents” (pg. 60). The Pelagians are “smitten by guilty consciences, joined their entreaties to those of the girl’s parents and begged the bishops to heal her” (pg. 60). It’s only after the bishops see the Pelagians begging for help does Germanus actually cure the girl’s blindness with a prayer and some relics. The pettiness here is tremendous. (Though I will add that Germanus’ miracle convinces everyone that the Pelagians are wrong and Germanus and Lupus’ teachings about God are right.)
The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Nineteen. We are still following the adventures of Bishop Germanus. (From what I can tell from Bede’s work, Germanus is the more important bishop. He’s the one who actually performs the miracles while Lupus just kind of seems like his sidekick.) At the beginning of this chapter, the Devil makes Germanus fall and break his leg. This is before X-rays or anti-biotics, so breaking your leg is a pretty big deal. Also, the fact that the Devil made Germanus break his leg makes it an even bigger deal.
While Germanus is recovering, he is staying in a cottage. In a neighboring cottage, a fire breaks out. After the fire destroyed “the adjoining dwellings which…were thatched with reeds from the marshes, [the fire] was carried by the wind to the cottage where he lay”(pg. 61). Because these cottages are made with reeds (and probably wood) they are practically pre-made bonfires. Houses back then were super flammable. Because Germanus’ house is on fire, people try to get him out. Germanus is “full of trust in God” (pg. 61) so he tells them to leave him in there. He also refuses to leave.
It’s important to look at Bede’s wording here. In my translation, it is described as follows:
The people ran to pick up the bishop and carry him to a place of safety; but, full of trust in God, he reproved them and would not allow them to do so (pg. 61).
Other translations might word this differently, but based on my copy, the phrase “would not allow them to do so” (pg. 61) makes me think that they tried to pick him up and Germanus slapped their hands away or used some sort of physical violence. There is no concrete textual evidence for this, but that is certainly the image that came into my head as I read the chapter. One reason I think this might be the case is that who is going to willingly leave a holy man in a cottage to burn alive? And even if there was no physical force involved, there must have been some shouting.
Despite the people’s efforts, the end result is still the same: “In despair, the people ran off to fight the fire” (pg. 61-62). So they leave Germanus in the cottage and try to save other things. What those things are isn’t specified, but “whatever the crowd endeavoured to save was destroyed” (pg. 62). Bede makes sure that his reader knows that this destruction is all God’s will and is “clearer evidence of God’s power” (pg. 62).
By the way, the fire doesn’t reach Germanus and he’s fine.
The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty. The Saxons and the Picts have “made war on the Britons” (pg. 62) and the Britons have asked Germanus and Lupus for help. The two bishops agree to assist them. However, instead of offering tactical advice or even suggestions on how to bring about peace, Germanus “promised to direct the battle in person” (pg. 63). I’m not sure if bishops leading armies were common in 429 A.D. (the date this story occurred), but Germanus ends up being a great leader.
That being said, Germanus doesn’t necessarily use direct violence against the enemy forces. Instead, Germanus tricks them into thinking there is a rock slide occurring in the valley they are passing through. How does he do this? Germanus shouts ‘Alleluia’ three times and the Briton army does the same. Their shouting (and the echoes of their shouting) is so loud that the enemy army panics, “thinking that the very rocks and sky were falling on them, and were so terrified that they could not run fast enough” (pg. 63). They throw down their weapons to run faster. Most of the enemy ends up drowning in a river they tried to cross. In the end, the Britons win the battle and peace is restored (well, for now). Germanus and Lupus go home.
It’s important for me to note that Germanus and Lupus do have to return to Britain because the Pelagian heresy is revived, but I have decided not to write about that chapter. Instead, my next blog post about An Ecclesiastical History will focus on Saint Augustine.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.
It’s obvious that the Wars of the Roses had a massive impact on English royalty and nobility. However, what was its impact on religion and the Church during the time the Wars occurred? The Wars of the Roses must have had some sort of effect, even if it was only a subtle one. After all, religion was a major factor in the lives of medieval people. The Church had a massive influence on society and it shaped every aspect of a person’s life either directly or indirectly. So how exactly did religion cause the Wars of the Roses to change and vise versa?
One way religion factored into the Wars of the Roses was with the idea of divine right. Nobility often used the clergy to justify their claims to the crown (Davies 137). This could be in the form of sermons or official documents. One such document was a letter that was signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the bishop of Exeter (Storey 83). In 1461 “the archbishop…and…the bishop of Salisbury…[decided] that Edward of York should assume the crown” (Storey 83). After all, bishops and priests were considered to be voices for God. If they were saying that a certain nobleman should be king, that meant God wanted him to be king.
However, if you ignore divine right, the Wars of the Roses had a very small impact on the Church’s hierarchy and vise versa. Of course clergymen, especially higher up clergymen, supported different sides of the conflicts but very rarely did these men seem to be severely punished for doing so. Most of the time, “in terms of personal hurt, the episcopate was afflicted surprisingly little” (Davies 141). However, when bishops and other clergymen were punished their punishments were usually the equivalent of being gently slapped on the wrist and told what they did was bad and they should feel bad.
Of course, there were harsher punishments, but the clergyman usually had to push his luck a lot. For example, Archbishop George Neville “after Edward [IV] had bided his time, was seriously punished” (Davies 141) by being imprisoned. However, “the archbishop was released quite quickly…and in theory restored to full authority” (Davies 141). And just because clergymen were involved in politics, it did not mean they had enough experience to know what they were doing. In Edward IV’s case, he “could not use many of [the clergy] in public life, not for their lack of loyalty but for lack of the right skills” (Davies 138).
Davies, Richard G.. “The Church and the Wars of the Roses”. The Wars of the Roses, edited by A.J. Pollard, MacMillan Press, 1995, pp. 134-161.
Storey, R.L.. “Episcopal King-Makers in the Fifteenth Century”. The Church, Politics and Patronage In the Fifteenth Century, edited by R.B. Dobson, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1984, pp. 82-98.
Shinners, J.R., editor. Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500: A Reader, University of Toronto Press, 2007.