Medieval monsters

Men with dogs’ heads, creatures with giant feet, griffins, sirens and hellish demons can all be found in the illustrated pages of medieval manuscripts. Dr Alixe Bovey delves into the symbolic meaning of a variety of monsters to understand what they can teach us about life and belief in the Middle Ages.

Miniature of a red dragon, from Peraldus's theological miscellany

Dragon

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Numerous documents from antiquity tell of monstrous people living at the edge of the known world. In the 1st century A.D., Pliny the Elder described extraordinary races of humans living in India and Ethiopia: these included mouthless hairy creatures called Astomi, who had no need of food or drink; men with dog's heads; and one-legged creatures who could hop at incredible speed and use their giant feet as umbrellas to protect them from the sun. 
Pliny was himself repeating ancient authorities, and his account of these marvellous races was in turn influential throughout the Middle Ages, during which antique monster lore became part of a Christian framework.

Illustration of the damned swallowed by a hellmouth, from the 'Winchester Psalter'

The damned are swallowed by a hellmouth

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For Christians, the monstrous races tested not only their credulity, but also their ethics. St Augustine of Hippo, writing in the 4th century AD, was not convinced that these monstrous races existed, but considered that if they did the vital question was whether or not they were human, descended from Adam, and therefore ‘rational and mortal.’ If so, they were worthy of salvation.

Miniatures of various monstrous races, in 'The Arnstein Bible'

The Arnstein Bible showing drawings of 17 monstrous races

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Monstrous illustrations

Interest in monstrous races endured through the Middle Ages. In 10th century England, descriptions of such creatures were gathered together into a text known as the Wonders of the East. Illustrated copies of this text enabled readers to marvel at pictures of the wondrous beings it described.

Illustration of a blemmyae, a man with its head in its chest, from an Anglo-Saxon Miscellany

A blemmyae (man with its head in its chest), as described in Wonders of the East

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Similarly, a giant 12th century Bible made at Arnstein in Germany, contains a page of drawings of the monstrous races, and the 13th century English Rutland Psalter includes depictions of monsters in its margins. Another Psalter made in England c.1260 includes a small but highly detailed map of the world with the monstrous races arrayed along its eastern edge.
The East was not the only habitat for monsters: in his account of Ireland, Gerald of Wales (c.1146 - 1223) recounted tales of a talking werewolf, a bearded woman, creatures that were half-man and half-ox, and a fish with three gold teeth.

Demons in Christianity

Such monsters were exciting and exotic, but since they were located at the periphery of the known world, they did not seem to cause their medieval audience much anxiety. Another type of monster, however, was believed to lurk around every corner, and so aroused intense fear: these were the demons, often depicted with furry bodies, cloven hooves, leathery wings, and faces in strange places, that tried tirelessly to tempt, thwart and harm.

Illustration of Dante's Satan, from Dante Alighieri's 'Divine Comedy'

Dante's Satan, a giant chewing sinners with each of his three mouths

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According to medieval Christian belief, these creatures were fallen angels, whose dark, hairy, winged bodies were a perversion of the angelic form. Though not always visible they were nevertheless believed to be ever-present. A diagram of the universe in a 14th-century Book of Hours shows these demons raining down from heaven towards Satan, bound in chains below the cosmos.

The Neville of Hornby Hours

Demons rain down from heaven into hell

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Countless medieval stories describe the cunning of Satan and his army of demons, who were able to disguise themselves and to lure people into sin. Saints, and especially the Virgin, were able to recognise and to defeat such creatures.

Demonising difference

Monsters were often used to define boundaries and to express a distinction between morality and sin - or conformity and nonconformity. Those perceived as sinful were often portrayed as physically deformed. This tactic was used to demonise perceived enemies of Christendom, such as Jews, Muslims and Tartars, to whom inhuman practices (such as cannibalism) were sometimes attributed. Medieval artists often gave non-Christians exaggerated or deformed features, believing that their immorality could be expressed visually through monstrosity.

Bestiary, in the Dicta Chrysostomi form

A mythical sea creature taken from a Bestiary

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Bestiaries

The natural world was also interpreted as the expression of a moral system. One of the best examples of this was the Bestiary, a type of book that gathered together descriptions of animals, ranging from ordinary creatures such as goats and bees to fantastical beasts including griffins, mermaids and unicorns.

Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds

A phoenix rising from flames

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In most Bestiaries, these animals are interpreted in relation to Christian morality: the creatures themselves were not as important as the moral truths revealed in their explication. Sirens, for instance, were said to have the upper body of a human and the lower body of a bird or fish (or even a combination of the two); they sang beautiful songs to lull sailors to sleep, and then attacked and killed them. The moral: those who take pleasure in worldly diversions will be vulnerable to the devil.

Bestiary, in the Dicta Chrysostomi form

A siren lures a man to his death

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Not all monstrous creatures were ugly, nor were they all bad: according to the Bestiary, the unicorn is a symbol of Christ, and its horn denotes the unity of God.

Drawing of a unicorn, from the Flowers of Virtue and of Custom

A unicorn

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This manuscript has an illustration showing a knight stealing a tiger cub from its mother. The text above indicates that a tiger can run faster than a man on a horse. The knight overcame this problem by throwing a mirror to the tigress, who stopped and looked at the reflection, thinking she was looking at her own cub.

Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds

Illustration of a tiger and a knight

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Illuminated monsters

Deluxe manuscripts were often decorated with images of monsters. Serpentine bodies with biting heads were twisted into splendid initial letters and borders; strange hybrid creatures, made up of body parts from two or more creatures, were painted in the margins; and images in miniatures and margins often showed the defeat of a monster by a saint or hero. The presence of such monsters is often playful, and sometimes in startling contrast to the seriousness of the text. Yet the morally charged interpretations of such monsters in other contexts hints that while medieval viewers might have taken delight in such images, they could also have seen them as symbolizing the dangers that lurked beyond the limits of Christian belief.

Copyright: © British Library

  • Alixe Bovey
  • Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years; she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

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