The bestiary was a type of book popular during the Middle Ages that featured descriptions of beasts alongside illuminations of their appearances. These included real and imagined animals, and their descriptions often came with anecdotes and religious symbolisms to provide moral instruction to the reader.
Production of a bestiary was an arduous and costly process because its texts and illuminations were typically done entirely by hand with intricate details and vivid colouring (involving gold and silver decorations), and was not the work of a single person.
The Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200) is considered one of the finest and most beautiful examples due to its particularly lavish, gilded illuminations.
REFLECTIONS AND ENGAGEMENT
During the course on Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330), a number in the class produced their own creative bestiary entries to better engage with and understand the characteristics of this textual form. Their works are compiled here in alphabetical order, with links to their full reflections on their projects and the bestiary in general:
THE MEDIEVAL KINGFISHER BESTIARY
The Capricornus-Xuanwu is a hybrid celestial beast of the northern summer skies and southern winter skies. Beheld in the west, it takes the shape of a goat with fish tail, coiling as a serpent round the form of a black monstrous turtle beheld in the east. The Xuanwu turtle is half-lion, half-dragon, half-snake, a fierce and mysterious guardian of the north with the power of water. The sea-goat shares this affinity, but it is also endowed with the abundance of earth, of which the infant Zeus once suckled upon through the horns. It is a confused creature at war with itself always, but alas, such is also the nature of the world.
Prophecy or revelation in medieval romance is the process by which some piece of information is introduced into the minds of characters through divine, mystical, or otherwise unexplained means. The means by which characters receive prophetic knowledge varies widely: sometimes it reveals itself in the form of dreams, while at other times, characters are simply able to perceive truths that remain invisible to other characters. These revelations can be seen across medieval romance. In Gottfried’s Tristan, for example, Queen Isolde is seen “consult[ing] her secret arts (in which she was marvellously skilled);” soon after, “she saw in a dream that things had not happened as rumoured” (Strassburg, 164). In this case, a clear attribution to magic is given. Queen Isolde, whose affinity with magic was earlier suggested by her healing ability, calls upon something that is not subject to conventional rationalisation, in order to uncover the trickery concocted by the young Isolde’s suitor.
Depictions of prophecy or revelation are not always so explicit, however. Within Marie de France’s Lais, for example, Guigemar’s secret lover says “Fair sweet friend, my fearful heart/tells me I’ll lose you, that we’ll part” (Marie de France, Poetry, Guigemar 547-8). It is debatable as to whether this even counts as prophecy, as it is certainly possible that the lover says this because she intuits her husband’s growing suspicion from external actions. Nonetheless, the text does not dwell on the reliability of the information, instead focusing on how the characters behave in response. The premonition prompts the two to create symbols of each other’s loyalty. Surely enough, the couple is found out that same day and the story proceeds with these tokens at the centre of their relationship.
Contrasting these two cases specifically, we begin to see differences in the implementation of the same phenomenon. In Tristan, the reason for belief is explicated because the text is interested in the psychology of the characters (Gottfried’s text reflects the interests of 13th century humanism in epistemology and in human nature). The text, after all, details the encounter of two lovers who defy customs in the name of love. In Guigemar, on the contrary, the love relationship is manifested through actions and external symbols, and the narrative is more concerned with the fulfilment of the romantic tropes of promises and restoration than with the psychology and intentions of its characters.
We see, then, that instances of prophecy show something about the relative priorities of each text. This is because from a literary standpoint, prophecy can be seen to represent an almost metatextual aspect of the text; it is often effectively a manifestation of authorial intent. Often we see in Le Morte Darthur that characters are almost puppets of prophecy, such that the author can manipulate their actions simply by introducing prophetic voices—as in the case of Sir Lancelot, who enters a castle for this reason alone (Malory, 390). When circumstance proves insufficient, prophecy can be introduced, and it is in these gaps that we may infer the concerns of the texts.
Gottfried, & Hatto, A. T. (1972). Tristan: With the surviving fragments of the Tristran of Thomas, newly translated. Penguin Books.
Malory, T., & C., F. P. J. (2013). Le Morte Darthur. D.S. Brewer.
Marie, & Gilbert, D. (2015). Marie de France Poetry: New translations, backgrounds and contexts, criticism. W.W. Norton & Company.
Translatio studii et imperii is a Latin term that emerges frequently in the analysis of medieval literary works, where translatio is defined as translation or transferal, studii as knowledge and culture, and imperii as political power and legitimacy. Hence, translatio studii et imperii traces the spatial and chronological movement of knowledge and culture, as well as political power and legitimacy from one civilization to another. In the Medieval ages, politics and transmission were intimately connected as it was perceived that political and cultural legitimacy were inherited from classical antiquity and bequeathed to modern-day medieval Europe (Schwartz), thus revealing the significance of translatio studii et imperii in claiming literary authority.
The classical parallelism between translatio studii and translatio imperii is exemplified by the thematic coupling of artes ac arma (arms and arts) and chevalerie et clergie (chivalry and scholarship) in medieval texts (Knauth). The prologue of Chrétien’s Cligès is one of the most cited examples that pays tribute to historical and spatial succession, where the prominence of power and knowledge is reflected in the lines “In Greece/ Knighthood and learning ranked/ Above all other things” (Cligès, 2). The reference to the particular geographical region indicates the esteem conferred upon cultural heritage hailing from Greece. Weight is placed upon succession, whether it is “Arthur’s lineage”, or the lineage of knighthood and learning having been “passed from Greece to Rome,/ And has reappeared, now,/ In France” (Cligès, 2). The mapping of space across Greece, Rome and France displays a historical continuity and legitimacy that lends itself to evolving literary traditions passed down over time from one civilization to another.
Chrétien’s Cligès, among a repertoire of other texts, also reflect political continuity by incorporating the unifying feature of the Arthurian court. In Cligès, Arthur serves not as a protagonist, but as the figurehead of the Arthurian Court, where the romance narrates the quests undertaken by Arthur’s knights. The Arthurian legend, weaved into stories from Celtic folklore, to Breton literature, Chrétien’s works and eventually across the greater Europe, underlies the geographical and geopolitical movement of literary material that is rooted in certain linguistic, cultural and literary codes, and concepts related to knighthood, chivalry and courtly love (Rikhardsdottir, 141). At the same time, each new work that draws upon the tradition simultaneously adds to it, and reconfigures the landscape of Arthurian literature. Given the shift from one form of writing to another, Translatio as a concept also moves beyond geographical and cultural transferal to encompass a linguistic movement from the classical languages of Greek and Latin to vernacular (Rikhardsdottir, 141).
The idea of literary evolution is reflected in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet draws upon French romance tradition by using rhyming couplets, but also deviates by incorporating the old English verse form of alliteration (Schwartz). Thematically, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight subverts the trope of courtly love through the rejection of earthly pleasures represented by the temptress, for spiritual love devoted to Virgin Mary. Similar to Cligès, translatio studii et imperii is also echoed in the references to historical and cultural heritage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s prologue and ending – while the past is remembered through the founding of Britain, and the legacy of Brutus and Troy, the future is reshaped as the very chronicle of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is memorialized in the symbol of the green sash.
Rikhardsdottir, S. (2017). Chronology, Anachronism and Translatio imperii. Handbook of Arthurian Romance, 135–150. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110432466-009
Knauth, K. Translatio Studii and Cross-cultural Movements or Weltverkehr. Comparative Literature: Sharing Knowledges for Preserving Cultural Diversity, vol 2.
Schwartz, D. (2002). Translatio Studii Et Imperii. California Polytechnic State University. http://cola.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl513/courtly/translat.htm
Raffel, Burton, trans. (1997) Chrétien de Troyes: Cligès. Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0300070217.
Armitage, Simon, trans. (2009) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN: 978-0393334159.
The ‘rash boon’ is a motif in which a character promises to fulfill anything another character wishes for, despite being unaware of the conditions of this favor.
The rash boon features prominently in various medieval texts spanning French, Breton, and Celtic imaginaries – namely Marie de France’s Lais, Gottfried’s Tristan, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the narratives of the Mabinogion. Nonetheless, the motif appears to have roots in Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Turkish, Persian, and Burmese tales (Rosenberg) – critics have even posited these Eastern tales as analogues to Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale (Rosenberg; Correale; Clouston). As Chaucer and Boccaccio’s access to Asian tales or orators was never documented, the rash boon presents itself as a motif that transects various cultures.
ROLE IN MEDIEVAL LITERATURE
Readers can expect misadventure when characters offer a rash boon, which usually foreshadows losing a loved one or suffering by the character who makes the promise. The tribulations of rash boons give rise to the distinctive features of medieval romance – the adherence to chivalry and the appraisal of love.
Keeping one’s promise, no matter how rash, is a cornerstone of courtly reputation and chivalry. In the English Breton lai Sir Orfeo, Orfeo uses his musical ability to charm the King of Fairies, who has kidnapped his wife Heurodis. Once the King offers Orfeo any reward he desires, Orfeo seeks Heurodis, and the King, albeit imbued with powerful magic, must acquiesce. Although the King protests, his objection falls short when Orfeo recalled how it was “fouler” (disgraceful) for a king to lie. Another instance of the motif occurs in The First Branch of the Mabinogi, whereby Prince Pwyll has no choice but to hand Gwawl his lover Rhiannon due to his promise to Gwawl (Davies). This motif thus illuminates how courtly integrity and the significance of public reputation prevail over characters’ supernatural or courtly might. In fact, these courtly preoccupations are so crucial that they apply to courtly love, too.
Love is unpredictable, and therefore must be tried and tested in the form of rash boons to be deemed true. Similar to Orfeo’s trial of love, an episode of Gottfried’s Tristan concerns the Irish knight Gandin, who refuses to play his rote unless King Mark offers a rash boon. King Mark then loses his wife Ysolde to Gandin, but gains her back through Tristan’s rash boon – Tristan plays his harp and gets Gandin to reward him with the best clothes in his tent, deceiving Gandin into handing back Ysolde. Rash boons have pushed Orfeo and Tristan to great lengths in order to win their lovers back, affirming their genuine affection. Both instances present rash boons as double-edged in the context of love – a loved one can be forsaken, yet gained back with the surety of true love.
Literary critic John Pitcher also perceives rash boons as an “articulat[ion of] the logic of desire” (62). In The Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen promises herself to her admirer Aurelius, if he can remove all the coastal rocks (Chaucer). One can interpret this boon as indicative of the magnitude of Aurelius’s desire, as he goes to great lengths to fulfill Dorigen’s request. However, Dorigen’s boon, while intended to reject Aurelius, insinuates her “latent, repressed desire for him.” (Pitcher, 62) Through a Freudian lens, Pitcher proposes the rash boon as a means for desire when words fail – because Dorigen identifies as a faithful wife, her repressed desire manifests in the impossible fantasy of removing rocks (Pitcher, 62). Accordingly, rash boons not only help delineate characters but also characterize their desires.
Chaucer, Geoffrey, -1400. The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale from the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Clouston, W. A. The Damsel’s Rash Promise: Indian Original and Some Asiatic and European Variants of Chaucher’s Franklin’s Tale. See Description, 1931.
Correale, Robert M. Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. DS Brewer, 2002.
Davies, Sioned, trans. The Mabinogion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Pitcher, John A. “The Rhetoric of Desire in The Franklin’s Tale.” Chaucer’s Feminine Subjects: Figures of Desire in the Canterbury Tales, edited by John A. Pitcher, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2012, pp. 59–80. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137089724_3.
Rosenberg, Bruce A. “The Bari Widow and the ‘Franklin’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 14, no. 4, 1980, pp. 344–52.
Sir Orfeo | Robbins Library Digital Projects. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/laskaya-and-salisbury-middle-english-breton-lays-sir-orfeo. Accessed 3 Apr. 2022.
When we hear the term “madness”, perhaps what comes to mind first would be an idea of mental pathology or derangement. Folie is the literal translation of “madness” in the French language, yet this term does not limit itself to insanity. Its meaning contains many nuances, such as recklessness, foolishness, insult, sin, and sexual ardour. Given this, folie may not necessarily indicate madness per se but also an act that may be perceived as such, regardless of the actual state of mind of the individual. This suggests that folie characterizes the aberrant individual through deviation from sanity as well as from the social expectations of medieval European norms. Sylvia Huot indeed argues that the term folie or fol appears in medieval tales when describing a behaviour corresponding to madness and folly, as well as foolishness and the court fool. She also points out that this concept serves as “a literary device to characterise the culture and ethos of a royal court” and to show how “social exclusion operates in defining communal identity”.
The concept of folie in medieval romance reveals the many aspects of love and its accepted norms in medieval European society. Folie complicates love’s impact on a person’s state of mind and seems to unveil what is normally expected from a lover, both in terms of actions and appearances. In the Oxford Folie Tristan, love is depicted as driving Tristan mad, almost into insanity, as he would rather choose death over the torment inflicted by his love and desire for Yseut. This feeling of internal deterioration hints at the bitter side of love, which is a motif shared with many other works, such as Chretien de Troyes’ Cliges and some of the Lais of Marie de France. Madness is not only depicted through Tristan’s torment but also Tristan’s new ugly appearance in both the Oxford and Berne versions of the tale. This indicates that medieval European societies may have tended to associate insanity with a certain type of appearance. Tristan’s act of cutting off his blond hair is itself considered as mad and reckless by his those around him in the Berne Folie. This judgment seems on par with the inability of the others to understand the intentions in his act, thereby making his action appear aberrant.
In these tales, love is the source of Tristan’s mental breakdown that drives him to act against accepted norms, which is to embody the appearance of a madman. With these various nuances of folie involved, these romances seem to challenge the accepted norms through Yseut withstanding the change in Tristan’s appearance and name by finally recognizing him. The combination of love and folie (both madness caused by love and the so-called recklessness of Tristan’s actions) serves as a device to question and critique accepted norms about romance. All in all, it is thanks to Tristan’s ‘foolish’ deviation and social exclusion that we can clearly see the existing norms about courtly love and their absurdity.
Huot, Sylvia. “The Specular Madman.” Madness in Medieval French Literature. 2003.
Lacy, Norris J. “La Folie Tristan (Berne).” Early French Tristan Poems, D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge, 1998.
Lacy, Norris J. “La Folie Tristan (Oxford).” Early French Tristan Poems, D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge, 1998.
A motif that frequently recurs in many medieval romances, wound imagery is closely intertwined with the paradoxical experience of love. Love inflicts an amorous wound on unsuspecting lovers; yet, love also heals a pining lover’s aching afflictions.
In Marie de France’s Guigemar, we encounter a knight who is physically wounded during a hunt and prophesied to be incurable save for the cure of true love. As the “wound” of love trope would have it, when Guigemar first meets his beloved, he laments that the languishing of love’s “wound” far supersedes his physical injury. Reflecting the ideals of courtly love, the wound imagery associates nobility with one’s dedication and willingness to suffer for love. Often, in descriptions where love is personified as an assailant, love is portrayed as an inescapable force of nature. Without agency or alternative, Marie’s lovers are afflicted with amorous longing for another and have no choice but to give in to their passionate desires.
While it may be assumed that it was Marie’s Lais that first introduced the motif of love’s “wound” into the medieval romance canon, the motif pre-dates medieval texts and finds its roots in multiple origins. In fact, the image of Cupid’s arrows, which we still find relevant to modern conceptions of love today, can be traced back to the ancient depictions of Aphrodite’s and Eros’ love wounds in Greek mythology1. In Guigemar, Marie herself draws inspiration from Ovidian epics, Celtic myth, and the lyric tropes of Northern French trouvères2. For instance, commentators have identified reminiscence to Ovidian love and suffering when the white hind – itself a common Celtic reference to the supernatural – prophesies about Guigemar’s mortal wound.
Similar to Marie’s lais, wound imagery in Gottfried von Stassburg’s Tristan nods to classical literature. However, Gottfried’s Tristan stands apart for its religious undertones that blend amatory wound with the spirituality of Christological wounds3. Gottfried is intentional in physically manifesting this metaphor in his narrative. In the case of Tristan’s biological parents, though they experience the metaphorical wound of love, Rivalin’s physical gash is what brings them together. Brought together by this grievous injury, Rivalin and Blancheflor consummate their love and Tristan is conceived. After this, Rivalin succumbs to his injuries and Blancheflor dies of heartbreak. Thus imbued with a sacrificial quality, Tristan’s life is born from his parent’s death. Like his father, Tristan and his beloved are brought together because of major physical afflictions. Three battles bring about their union: Tristan’s battle with Morold, Tristan’s slaying of the dragon, and Tristan’s battle with Estult l’ Orgillus. Since Tristan’s eventual demise is caused by the injuries he sustains from his final battle with Orgillus, earlier wounds foreshadow this tale’s tragic end where the spirits of the lovers, separated by their circumstances, can finally be joined together in death. With an added element of spirituality, Gottfried’s account melds together wound imagery of different genealogies.
Today, the wound of love is still a motif deeply embedded in mainstream cultural imaginations and modern literary consciousness. Despite its evolution through contemporary renditions, its origin can be traced to the flourishing of romance in the Middle Ages and even further back in antiquity. Ultimately, its longevity speaks volumes to a timeless and universal experience of love in all its various expressions.
1Sinka, Margit M. “Wound Imagery in Gottfried von Strassburg’s ‘Tristan.’” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 2, 1977, pp. 3–10, https://doi.org/10.2307/3199059. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
2Krueger, Roberta L. “Chapter Three. The Wound, The Knot, And The Book: Marie De France And Literary Traditions Of Love In The Lais”. A Companion to Marie de France. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011. https://doi-org.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/10.1163/ej.9789004202177.i-336.12. Web.
3Sinka, Margit M. “Wound Imagery in Gottfried von Strassburg’s ‘Tristan.’” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 2, 1977, pp. 3–10, https://doi.org/10.2307/3199059. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
Le Losengier, originating from French, refers to a typically older, envious person who betrays lovers in romance or troubadour poetry. They are “gossipmongers who destroy love and destroy relationships”1. Such characters are commonplace in medieval romance narratives — think of Melot and Marjodoc in Gottfried’s Tristan, or of various cronies and eunuchs in the Lais of Marie de France. Losengiers lurk in the shadows, invading the private space of others so they can report their findings to society. Through losengiers, binaries are highlighted: tensions between personal and private spaces, or even between the virtue of love and the vice of envy.
The losengier’s transgressions between the personal and the public space illuminate the tension between romantic relationships being secret or public. In medieval romance narratives, privacy from losengiers was important because of the belief that true love must be secret, between lovers only2. When losengiers spy on lovers, they typically report to someone who is intent on stopping the lovers. For instance, in Tristan, Melot’s gossip involves spreading “lies and stratagems round the lovers’ secret doings” (Strassburg, 230). Consequently, King Mark is wary of his nephew and wife, his increased suspicion creating an obstacle for the lovers. Losengiers are “annoyances, another hurdle to overcome in the adventure of love”; the consequences include societal isolation and even literal imprisonment in towers3. Another example would be in Yonec, where the jealous lord’s sister is charged with safeguarding his wife. The archetypal role of the old dame as losengier is expected; Muldumarec tells his lady (Gilbert, 101):
“The old dame will betray us, pry night and day with her spying eye; she will find out our love; for sure she will tell all to the seigneur.”
The suffering that losengiers cause to the lovers is expected, representing a trial to test the worthiness of their love.
Another binary explored is that of the difference between our virtues and vices. A clear contrast between love and envy is delineated in most medieval romance narratives: love is good, envy undoubtedly bad. Yet, these two emotions are closely linked, both stemming from desire4. In Tristan, Marjodoc, loyal friend to Tristan and Isolde, upon discovering their affair, felt “hatred and anger, anger and hatred” (Strassburg, 220). Admiration is quickly turned into bitter jealousy; Majodoc is described as being easily “moved first by one passion, then by the other” (Strassburg, 220). As such, he reports to King Mark about his suspicions of the lovers’ affair, plotting their demise with Melot. Gottfried suggests that the intensity of our love could amplify how easily they devolve into the opposite of hurt and pain, especially as they are created out of the same emotion: desire. The fine line between courtly love and envious hatred is clearly highlighted.
Le Losengier is a recurring motif in medieval romance narratives, representing an antagonistic character that can cross the boundaries of private and public spheres to cause suffering and pain to the lovers. The motive of losengiers appears to stem from jealousy and envy, underscoring a parallel between the purity and innocence of love, suggesting these emotions are not so different after all.
1Harkey, Hannah, “Quant Se Depart Li Jolis Tans: Betrayal In The Songs Of Medieval French Women” (2016). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 696. https://egrove.olemiss.edu/etd/696
4“Is Envy OK? Is Love Laudable? What Medieval Texts Tell Us About….” https://artsci.wustl.edu/ampersand/envy-ok-love-laudable-what-medieval-texts-tell-us-about-emotions.
“Is Envy OK? Is Love Laudable? What Medieval Texts Tell Us About ….” https://artsci.wustl.edu/ampersand/envy-ok-love-laudable-what-medieval-texts-tell-us-about-emotions.
Harkey, Hannah, “Quant Se Depart Li Jolis Tans: Betrayal In The Songs Of Medieval French Women” (2016). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 696. https://egrove.olemiss.edu/etd/696
Strassburg, Gottfried. Tristan with the ‘Tristran’ of Thomas. Penguin, 2004.
Marie de France: Poetry. Translated by Dorothy Gilbert. W.W. Norton and Company, 2015.
Fig. 1: “Is Envy OK? Is Love Laudable? What Medieval Texts Tell Us About ….” https://artsci.wustl.edu/ampersand/envy-ok-love-laudable-what-medieval-texts-tell-us-about-emotions. Accessed 6 Apr. 2022.
Fig. 2: “How To Write A Medieval Romance – History Extra.” 24 Sep. 2021, https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/how-to-write-medieval-romance-plot-structure/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2022.
The quality of largesse, a willingness to spend freely and give generously, was considered an important virtue in the chivalric culture of medieval romance, part of the code of behaviour by which knights could gain a good reputation. Often presented in its idealised form in romance texts, the display of largesse evokes a fantasy of limitless wealth that signals high social status.
A literary type who appears frequently in medieval French romances, lais, and fabliaux (fables), the mal mariée is an unhappily married woman, usually the wife of a much older husband at whose hands she often suffers abuse. In Marie’s Lais, we often encounter such a mal mariée literally or figuratively imprisoned by her jealous husband—either locked in a tower or subject to constant surveillance. She inevitably invites readers’ sympathy when she meets a lover who helps her escape, often with the aid of magical intervention.
Etymologically, “to translate” means to carry across (from the Latin trans– ‘across, beyond’ + latus, ‘borne, carried). To a large extent, medieval European literature is a literature of translation, defined by the movement of literary material across linguistic, geographic and cultural borders. Not only did the romance genre emerge from recasting Latin narratives in the vernacular, but the same stories often circulated in many different vernacular languages (such as French, Spanish, Italian, German, or English).
Medieval European ideas about translation differed substantially from some of our modern assumptions. First, there was no perceived hierarchy between original text and translation. Composing an original work was not seen as a fundamentally different undertaking from translating; instead, both processes were guided by the same principles. Secondly, translators were rarely constrained by the idea of “faithfulness” to an original text: translation could involve adding, removing, or altering large sections of a work, or shifting its emphases to adapt it to new contexts.