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.
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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Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, English, Monsters
Tagged chameleon, comedy, drama, figurative, folkloric approach, heroes as animals, imported stories, literary approach, lovers, modern, play, satire, Shakespeare, Shakespeare play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, woodland
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.
Posted in British, Latin, Mammals, Special Feature
Tagged archaeological approach, art history, biblical, ecosensitive approach, extinction, figurative, heroes as animals, home, imported stories, material culture, monastic, nature is a texture, saint's life
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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Posted in Birds, British, Monsters, Welsh
Tagged arthurian, coastland, ecosensitive approach, folkloric approach, harmony with nature, imported stories, linguistic approach, mabinogion, nature is a hero, wetland
Brown bear photographed by Makeen Osman, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Great spotted woodpecker photographed by Maarten Visser and licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. Compilation created by Lee Raye, and hereby released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Species Mentioned: Possibly one bee-wolf (?Ursus Arctos? Dendrocopus Major?)
Source: ‘Beowulf’ the most famous Old English story.
Date: Uh-oh, best not to ask. The version we have probably somewhere c.700-1050.
Highlights: Beowulf is the all-star hero of his story, so his name must mean something, right? It quite nicely breaks down to beo-wulf (=bee-wolf). But what could a bee-wolf be?
Posted in Birds, English, Mammals
Tagged bee-keeping, eco-sensitive reading, extinction, figurative, folkloric approach, heroes as animals, heroic age, heroic cycle, hierarchy of birds, honey, imported stories, linguistic approach, linguistic drift, native status, persecution
- Earthworm photographed by Jacopo Werther, licensed under CC-SA-BY 2.0. Hydra concept art from Dragon’s Dogma, a 2012 computer game. Display and discussion of this cover image comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.
Species Mentioned: Folklore originally attached to various medieval fictional serpents but now attached (falsely) to all British earthworms.
Source: Most medieval Bestiaries.
Date: Bestiary tradition most popular in Britain c.1150-1450.
Highlights: The source attests that snakes can be chopped into pieces and still try to kill you like an ineffective cartoon supervillain. Many people in Britain sometimes still believe this about worms, the modern descendants of poisonous “wyrms” to this day. Are we really any less gullible than our predecessors?
Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, Invertebrates, Latin, Monsters
Tagged bestiary, farmland, folkloric approach, garden, imported stories, linguistic approach, linguistic drift, monsters, nature is a pest, persecution, redelimitation
Photograph of fire salamander, taken by Thomas Bresson and licensed for use under CC-BY-2.0.
Species Mentioned: One non-native fire-proof salamander.
Source: ‘Liber Monstrorum’ (The Book of Monsters), a kind of Latin encyclopaedia of scary beasties.
Date of Source: c.650-750 A.D.
Highlights: The idea of a salamander living in flame isn’t original to this text, but this text lets us know the story had reached Britain by 750 A.D.
Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, English, Latin, Monsters
Tagged bestiary, figurative, folkloric approach, home, imported stories, literary approach, monsters, nature is amazing