Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Lovers and Chameleons of Shakespeare

Looking at references to the chameleon in Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ can reveal some surprising things. Chameleons were once thought to live on nothing but air, and therefore make perfect metaphorical comparisons for those in unrequited love.

Species: Some kind of chameleon (Chamaeleonid sp.)
Source: ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, perhaps Shakespeare’s first play.
Date: c.1589-91.
Highlights: Considering how often Shakespeare uses the semantic field of feasting to describe love, comparing people to chameleons (who were thought to never eat) was an especially effective insult…

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Is medieval British artwork naturalistic or derivative? : Lions in Insular British Manuscripts

The portrait of St. Mark in the Lichfield (St Chad) Gospel.

The portrait of St. Mark in the Lichfield (St Chad) Gospel.

In 2013 I had an academic paper accepted by the Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture (JLARC). The journal is open access and you can read it here (link to pdf in the right hand column). I found that the manuscript animals were copied from manuscript to manuscript by closeted scribes, and were not based on real animals (e.g. lynxes, cats, wolves).

Species: The manuscript images were all derivative and made up a coherent, although unrealistic tradition of depicting lions (Panthera leo) not lynxes (Lynx lynx), wolves (Canis lupus) or cats (Felis catus; Felis sylvestris).

Source: Some of the oldest manuscripts in Britain: The illuminated gospels.

Date: 650-1000 A.D.

Highlights: One lion, that from the Lichfield (St Chad) Gospel (above) provoked a great deal of interest. It only had the stub of a tail and the scribe’s style made its body looked speckled. However in every other respect the lion was drawn in a derivative way to the mainstream tradition, and the answer is probably that the scribe simply forgot to paint the rest of the lion’s tail.

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Salmon, Sea Eagles and the earliest Welsh story

Atlantic Salmon photo

Atlantic Salmon (S. salar) photographed by Hans-Petter Fjeld, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species: Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) AT WAR.

Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ the oldest native (not imported) Welsh prose story.

Date: The version we have most probably c.1100 A.D., but some plot lines of the story also found mentioned in text from 828 A.D.

Highlights: The supposedly pointless oldest animals episode in Culhwch actually makes perfect sense, if you read it like a medieval person, with a knowledge of the species being discussed.

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Mystical Apple Trees in the Black Book of Carmarthen

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris)

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris) by Katy Wrathall licensed under CC-BY-SA-ND.

 Species Mentioned: A series of crab apple trees (Malus sylvestris).

Source: ‘Yr Afallenau’, a series of  Old Welsh prophetic verses found in the Black Book of Carmarthen and Peniarth 3.

Date: Pre-1138. Suggested earliest form c.800-899 A.D., but little evidence for this.

Highlights: Myrddin the Mad is the literary inspiration for THE Merlin you’ve heard about. He goes to live in the woods and gives prophecies to a series of apple trees. He believes some of these are magic and they hide him from “his enemies” (possibly just friends trying to get him to come down from that tree and put some clothes on.)

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