What exactly is a monster? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is an ‘ugly or deformed person, animal or thing’. The narrator of the 14th century The Travels of Sir John Mandeville categorises a monster as ‘a thing deformed against kind, both of man or of beast’. Given society’s changing standards of beauty and ugliness, it’s interesting to see such similarity in definitions of the monstrous which are separated by over 600 years. Medieval manuscripts contain illustrations of all kinds of strange monsters, but the monsters I’ll be looking at in this post are the humanoid ones; that is, half-man, half-beast creatures. Illustrations of manlike monsters can appear in the most unusual places. Not only are they featured where they might be expected – in bestaries or books of travels – but they sometimes sneak into breviaries, books of hours and psalters.
Manlike monsters in medieval manuscripts take on many different forms. The main types are man-beast hybrids, those with too few human features and those with too many. A good example of the first type is the manticore. It was a creature of Persian legend which found its way into medieval bestiaries via Pliny’s Naturalis Historia (a text which seems to have been an important and apparently unquestioned source for medieval writers). Manticores were thought to have the body of a lion, a human head with three rows of sharp teeth, and a trumpet-like voice. They could have horns, wings, or both, and they would paralyse and kill their prey – which they devoured whole – by shooting out poisonous spines.
The second type of humanoid monster includes monopods and blemmyes. Monopods, dwarf-like creatures with a single foot extending from one leg centered in the middle of the body, were first mentioned in Aristophanes’ play The Birds (413 BC). Pliny reports that monopods have been spotted in India, a piece of (mis)information which might have derived from sightings of Indian sadhus, who sometimes meditate on one foot. The blemmyes are perhaps even stranger. Blemmyes were believed to be headless cannibals living in North Africa and the Middle East, whose eyes and mouths were located on their chests. The name comes from an ancient African tribe based in what is now Sudan; perhaps something about them or their dress made European travellers think that their heads were in their chests, although science fiction author Bruce Sterling writes about a Blemmye during the Crusades who turns out to be an extraterrestrial, so who knows…
So why this fascination with half-man, half-beast figures? For one thing, they were a way of interpreting the world and drawing allegories. They could be used as satire in order to portray common human faults; the first illustration in this post looks suspiciously like a parody of a group of courtiers. Yet I have a feeling that there was another reason that illustrators could, and would, draw such monstrous figures. In the medieval period, you would come face to face with disfigured people everyday; plague victims, lepers, children with birth deformities, and so on. Taking leprosy as an example, the effects were so horrible as to make people lose almost all semblance of humanity. It progressed very slowly, over a matter of years. As time went on, you would typically lose sensation in your hands and feet, your body hair would fall out, the bridge of your nose would collapse, throat ulcers would leave you incapable of doing much much than croaking, you would develop ulcerations and nodules all over your body, and you would eventually become blind.
Modern medical descriptions of leprosy symptoms are very bland; your fingers and toes falling off becomes ‘loss of digits’, and they hurriedly go on to say that if treated soon enough, antibiotics can cure the leprous infection very effectively. Obviously this is because they don’t want sufferers to panic, which is a laudable aim. Yet in the medieval era, leprosy was doubly terrifying because there was no sure explanation and no treatment. Because of this, it doesn’t make sense to think of medieval leprosy in a sanitised way. It was a horrible disease and you were almost certainly condemned to lonely exile when people found out that you had it. The Third Lateran Council of 1179 decreed that lepers must shroud themselves in a cloak and ring a bell wherever they went, so that people knew not to come near them. Perhaps it wasn’t such a huge jump from witnessing ill and horribly disfigured people to imagining the manlike monsters which people medieval manuscripts.
Today, Western society has a horror of anything which does not live up to the perfect physical ideal, or at least to the ‘acceptable’ norm. Partly because disfiguring diseases have become much more rare in our society, we set an impossible standard of physical perfection, and disfigurements are shunted away into dark corners where they can’t offend anyone. Although medieval ladies worried about cosmetics and hair dye just like women now, I think that they would have had a much better sense of perspective than today, where shamelessly gendered advertisements act as if nothing worse can happen to a woman than getting wrinkles or cellulite.
Our post-Enlightenment society is also unwilling to believe in the possibility of manlike monsters. We’ve trivialised these figures. In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy’s reaction to the Dufflepuds (a race of monopods)is to simply exclaim ‘oh, the funnies!’. Centaurs have become largely nonthreatening mainstays of childrens’ fiction, and the mermaid has turned from the traditional image of a fatally attractive siren into the cheerful subject of sugary Disney films. I don’t believe that medieval manuscript illustrators were drawing for children, and this brings us to the eternally popular view of ‘gosh, weren’t those medieval people crazy?!? How did they believe in such weird things?!?’. This is an unproductive approach to history, particularly to medieval history. We can’t hope to even begin to understand the past if we don’t make an effort to lay aside our own prejudices.
Whatever the motivations and beliefs behind them, medieval depictions of manlike monsters are fascinating to look at. We have room enough to marvel at their creativity and comicality (no one could accuse medieval people of lacking a sense of humour!) without having to make negative judgements about the illustrators and their readers.