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The difficult Latin of Renaissance Natural History

 

himantopus

In my last blog post I announced I had found funding to start a research project looking at a seventeenth century Latin Natural History text. I am now well underway, kindly sponsored by the Antiquaries of London and the Alice McCosh Trust.
Robert Sibbald’s (1684) Scotia Illustrata is a really important text. One of the reasons for this is that it gives a full catalogue of wildlife found in seventeenth century Scotland. Most naturalists of the time period wanted to just write down every species of wildlife known at the time. Sibbald however, restricted himself to just writing about the species he had observed or had had people write to him about. That makes it a really important work for trying to reconstruct Scotland’s pre-industrial fauna. That includes some quite surprising species, and I’m planning to publish my findings next year.

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GUEST POST: The History of Wildlife Law

Species: Pests, game,  scavengers and royal beasts.

Source: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, The Acts for the Preservation of Grain, The Values of Wild and Tame.

Date: Medieval to Early Modern, c.1100-1566.

This week’s blog post is a guest post at the Academy for Distance Learning, where I have been challenged to provide a summary of Britain’s strangest laws in 500 words or less

The Academy for Distance Learning is a UK institution where you can take courses up to higher diploma level online or by correspondence. They have just started a (modern) Wildlife Law course which I will be teaching this year. You can read the blog post here.

The Academy for Distance Learning is a UK institution where you can take courses up to higher diploma level online or by correspondence. They have just started a (modern) Wildlife Law course which I will be teaching this year.
You can read the full blog post here.

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St Petroc vs. the dragon – worm

Species: One overgrown snake which grows into a dragon-worm.

Source: The ‘Life of St Petroc I’ a text in Latin probably written in Cornwall, perhaps at Bodmin Priory.

Date: The historical Petroc probably lived in the sixth century A.D. Our text was first written prior to 1177, most likely around the mid-eleventh century, although the only complete manuscript (Paris MS. Lat. 9989) only exists in sixteenth century transcript form. The story itself may well have been known orally before it was first included in the written life (Doble, 1965: 133-4; Orme, 2000: 214-15).

Highlights: Once upon a time an evil villain died. He had a snake pit like most evil villains and after he died no-one was being fed to the snakes (awww). They ate each other until one got so big it came out and turned into a dragon. It happens.

Oh yes, it happens. Grass snake  (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

Oh yes, it happens.
Grass snake (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

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Daddy-long-legs are harmless, right?

Phoenix

In the seventeenth century people still believed in phoenixes, based partially on indisputable pictorial evidence like this.
Picture from the Aberdeen Bestiary is a photographic representation of a 2d public domain image.

Source: Pseudodoxia Epidemica (the ‘Plague of Pseudoscience’), by Thomas Browne.

Date: 1646 A.D.

Highlights: It turns out that in the seventeenth century, belief in phoenixes, griffins and unicorns was still a thing.

To stop you feeling too proud of ‘how far we’ve come’ I should point out that we still have one or two irrational beliefs today.  Continue reading

Medieval snakes are not always so bad…

Three boys with spotty green snakes coiled around their necks

Part of the Vaughan coat-of-arms at Tretower Court, Brecon Beacons, south-east Wales.

Species: Generic snakey-snake, called an adder (Vipera berus) but has prey constricting habit like smooth snake (Coronella austriaca).

Source: The Vaughan family coat-of-arms and its descriptions (not as boring as it sounds, I promise!)

Date: c.1450 A.D.

Highlights: The Vaughan coat-of-arms shows three boys being strangled by snakes. This was inspired by the legend of a family member being born with a snake around his neck. Boring folklorists  c.1900 interpreted this as an #IHateSnakes moment. They are wrong, it was originally the opposite. The writings of Lewis Glyn Cothi suggest comparing someone to a snake was a compliment. Continue reading

Speaking Starlings

Here are three things you should know about starlings: (i) They have cool little stars all over their feathers. (ii) Boring people get very excited watching them gather together in clouds. (iii) They can learn to speak medieval Welsh, unlike most undergrads.

Species: The common but surprisingly cool starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Source: ‘Branwen’, second of the ‘Mabinogi’ stories.

Date: 1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: If you are ever a victim of domestic abuse, our text suggests that your best option is to train a starling to talk, and send it to your brother with orders to summon his army and invade.

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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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