Monthly Archives: June 2014

PEER REVIEWED: The whale (Eubalaena glacialis?) in ‘Breuddwyd Rhonabwy’ (‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’)


This week’s blog post is being hosted by the Medieval Animal Data Network. Go read the rest of it here.

Species Mentioned: The baleen of a whale, possibly a right whale (E. glacialis) from the now extinct east Atlantic population.

Source: ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’, which you might remember from its reference to the supposedly extinct pine tree.

Date of Source: Most probably c.1220-1309.

Highlights: One of the knights of the story has a belt made of a whale’s eyelash. The problems are (i) whales don’t have eyelashes and (ii) you couldn’t make a belt out of them if they did!

The phrase is now being translated for the first time as baleen, which is called the whale’s eyelash in Irish and German sources.
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The wild and managed environment in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Book Cover © John Howe, 2002. Display of this book-cover comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Species Mentioned: Bumper article! Two armies of species, one tame and one wild.

Source: ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. One of the most exciting Middle English stories.

Date of Source: 1385-1400.

Highlights: ‘Sir Gawain’ tells the story of a game played between the civilised, charming, boring Sir Gawain and the giant, strong, savage Green Knight. The story proves people in medieval Britain distinguished the environment as managed by humans and the wild, primordial environment. In ‘Sir Gawain’, civilisation won and we are still dealing with the complicated consequences of that ‘victory’ today.

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The Owl (Strix aluco?) in the ‘Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’ (Math)

Tawny Owl

Tawny owl, photographed by K.-M. Hansche and edited by Arad. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species Mentioned:  One owl, probably a tawny owl (S. aluco). Hated by all other birds.

Source: ‘Math’ fourth of the ‘Four Branches of the ‘Mabinogi’, the most important epics of medieval Welsh literature.

Date of Source: c.1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: This source is symptomatic of the suspicion and low esteem owls were considered with in medieval Britain.

Blodeuedd, the most beautiful woman in the world plots to murder her oh-so-boring demi-god husband. She nearly succeeds but her husband turns into an eagle and flies away. Blodeuedd is then hunted down and permanently changed into an owl, the most ignoble of all birds. Said husband is changed back into a human with no lasting damage. Don’t worry, it’s totally fair.

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Broom (Cytisus scoparius) and “pine” (Taxus baccata? Pinus sylvestris?) in ‘Breuddwyd Rhonabwy’ (‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’)


Broom shrub in flower

Broom flowers photographed by H. Zell and licensed under CC-AT-SA.

Species mentioned: The yellowest broom flowers and the bluest conifer you can imagine (wait, what?)

Source: ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ a bad, bad trip.

Date of Source: Most probably c.1220-1309.

Highlights: Whilst Rhonabwy hallucinates he sees a horse bluer than any “pine tree” he’s ever seen. You would not believe the trouble this causes:(i) Horses aren’t blue, (ii) pine trees were extinct in Wales at the time (iii) pine trees aren’t blue either.

It’s a shame medievalists take things so seriously…

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The adder (Vipera berus) in the ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’ (Death of King Arthur)

Adder with lolface.

Adder (V. berus), licensed under CC AT-SA. Created by Piet Spaans. Altered by Amy Raye.

Species mentioned: One adder (V. berus) who successfully provokes every knight in Britain and brings about the death of King Arthur.

Source: The ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’, the immediate forerunner of Thomas Mallory’s more famous ‘Le Morte dArthur’.

Date of Source: Fourteenth century, probably c.1350.

Highlights: A concerned adder realises that there is a possibility Arthur might reconcile with Mordred, leading to another hundred pages of boring story for poor students to read. It heroically glides (honestly!) from its hiding place and bites someone. This stirs-up a blood bath with 100,000 knights slaughtered, including many of the most angst-ridden ones.  Soon afterward the text ends with no chance of a sequel. You’re welcome.

On a more serious ecological note, this text is symptomatic of the antipathy people had for snakes even in the medieval period.

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