Marginal Monkey: Scandalous Simians of the Middle Ages

It’s Monday, and we are still hanging out in the margins of Medieval manuscripts, looking at all the animals behaving badly. This week, we are focusing on the monkey. These partying primates present puerile pastimes and perilous pranks.

As an aside, WTF is up with the Luttrell Psalter? I mean seriously. A psalter is supposed to be a solemn collection of the 150 Psalms of the Bible. The Luttrell Psalter was written somewhere between 1320-1340, and it was commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell in Lincolnshire. Lemme tell ya, whatever they were putting in the water in Lincolnshire back then, the guys who produced the book drank a lot of it.

Anyway, back to the monkey thing.

The fact that there were monkeys in Medieval Europe should surprise no one. Really, if you’re surprised, unsurprise yourself right now. The Medieval world was by no means as isolated and isolationist as is commonly thought. That’s a whole other post about travel and tourism in the Middle Ages (complete with souvenirs). Suffice it to say that monkeys were around.

Let’s begin, shall we?

 

Monkey on a What?

We know that monkeys are climbers. But the monkey of the Middle Ages apparently got a lot of rides…on whatever he could.

This monkey is riding a pig. Okay, it’s a boar. Which is a kind of pig. And this boar seems to be pretty jazzed about the whole thing. Look at the smile on his face.

Monkey riding a boar and holding a stick skewering a chicken, Stowe 17, 14th c., fol. 82r. British Library.
Monkey riding a boar and holding a stick skewering a chicken, Stowe 17, 14th c., fol. 82r. British Library.

We know that this dude is fighting a snail. But apparently, he’s riding…an ostrich? If you have any ideas of what this bird might actually be, leave them in the comments.

Monkey vs. Snail. Sloane 3097, f. 3v. 1311. British Library.
Monkey vs. Snail. Sloane 3097, f. 3v. 1311. British Library.

I am assuming this is a turkey. And the monkey doesn’t look too confident about his chances in the joust, either.

Monkey jouster, English, about 1260. Rutland Psalter, f. 66v
Monkey jouster, English, about 1260. Rutland Psalter, f. 66v

This is a little different. We have a SHE-monkey (which unfortunately makes me think of Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes), riding a goat, training an owl to be a falcon. Seems to me we have a whole lot of species-identity confusion. The monkey wants to be human. The owl wants to be a falcon. The goat wants to be a horse. I mean, it doesn’t bother me. I’m really open minded about that kind of thing.

The Falconer - Female monkey on a goat training an owl, Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, fol. 38, 1325-1340. British Library.
The Falconer – Female monkey on a goat training an owl, Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, fol. 38, 1325-1340. British Library.

There are some other images, but I think I’ll end the section with this one: a happy little monkey on a happy camel. This is how you know the guy drawing this has never seen a camel before. Camels are never this happy and cooperative. Camels are assholes.

Book of Hours, MS G.4 fol. 106v - Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts - The Morgan Library & Museum
Book of Hours, MS G.4 fol. 106v – Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts – The Morgan Library & Museum

 

What’s with this Shit?

No, seriously. Apparently, the Medieval Monkey was seriously into poop. I mean, look at this guy. He’s just sitting there, thinking deep thoughts as we all do sometimes when we’re on the toilet. Maybe the monk who was working on this section really needed a bathroom break.

Rodinesque monkey on a pot (above Saints Peter and Paul ‘Petrus apostolus et Paulus doctor gentium’) Book of Hours, Paris ca.1460 | Morgan Library & Museum, NY: MS M.282, fol. 125v
Rodinesque monkey on a pot (above Saints Peter and Paul ‘Petrus apostolus et Paulus doctor gentium’) Book of Hours, Paris ca.1460 | Morgan Library & Museum, NY: MS M.282, fol. 125v

At this point, I feel the need to remind you that these drawings were done by monks. MONKS.

Monkey prank, from Recueil des croniques d'Engleterre, Bruges, 1471-1483
Monkey prank, from Recueil des croniques d’Engleterre, Bruges, 1471-1483

Your guess is as good as mine as to what this monkey is up to. No, seriously. Early simian proctologist? Mocking the astronomer monkey? Shooting peas up his butt?

British Library, Stowe 17, detail of f. 61v. Book of Hours, Use of Maastricht (‘The Maastricht Hours’). 1st quarter of the 14th century.
British Library, Stowe 17, detail of f. 61v. Book of Hours, Use of Maastricht (‘The Maastricht Hours’). 1st quarter of the 14th century.

What do you do when your monkey poops everywhere instead of the chamber pot? You break out the Medieval equivalent of the newspaper. Except this first monkey seems to be enjoying it, which borders on bestiality, which is not someplace I want to go.

Monkey, wearing hat, seated on back of second monkey and disciplining it with switch held in right hand | Book of Hours | France, Paris | ca. 1460 | The Morgan Library & Museum
Monkey, wearing hat, seated on back of second monkey and disciplining it with switch held in right hand | Book of Hours | France, Paris | ca. 1460 | The Morgan Library & Museum

Apparently, there are instruction manuals on how to do do this.

Naughty monkey, from Arthurian Romances, French, about 1275-1300. Beinecke Library
Naughty monkey, from Arthurian Romances, French, about 1275-1300. Beinecke Library

 

Party Animals

Apparently, these primates liked their booze and corrupting other animals with their naughty ways.

Literary, MS G.24 fol. 118r - Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts - The Morgan Library & Museum
Literary, MS G.24 fol. 118r – Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts – The Morgan Library & Museum

These guys are totally going to trash the place and not even write a thank you note.

Roman d’Alexandre, Tournai, 1338-1344. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 94v
Roman d’Alexandre, Tournai, 1338-1344. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 94v

This picture makes me want earplugs because you know this guy is playing the fiddle in the middle of the night to annoy his neighbors.

Monkey
Red-hooded monkey playing the vielle, Prayer Book of Charles the Bold. Ms. 37, fol. 41v, c. 1469. J. Paul Getty Museum

Snails and Monkeys

I can’t even with this category. I mean, if there had been Ye Olde Facebook back then, their relationship status would have clearly been: “It’s Complicated.”

See? Complicated.

Mine! No mine!, from the Copenhagen Chansonnier, 1400s. Det Kongelige Bibliotek
Mine! No mine!, from the Copenhagen Chansonnier, 1400s. Det Kongelige Bibliotek

This is the equivalent of the text message that you can’t decide if he’s breaking up with you or wants to have sex. I don’t get this at all.

The Copenhagen Chansonnier : (Thott 291 8º ): 26 recto
The Copenhagen Chansonnier : (Thott 291 8º ): 26 recto

Clearly, these snails are stalkers. I mean, do you see the snail going up the side of the turret? DO YOU???

The snails attack the monkeys' castle, The Copenhagen Chansonnier, Thott 291 8º, France, 15th century. Det Kongelige Bibliotek
The snails attack the monkeys’ castle, The Copenhagen Chansonnier, Thott 291 8º, France, 15th century. Det Kongelige Bibliotek

Totally, totally complicated. Poly-species-amory? Kinky cosplay? This is the Snapchat photo you didn’t want everyone to see.

Taking the slow train, from the Copenhagen Chansonnier, 1400s. Det Kongelige Bibliotek
Taking the slow train, from the Copenhagen Chansonnier, 1400s. Det Kongelige Bibliotek

These Monkeys Broke the Medieval Internet with their Cuteness

Not all monkeys were assholes. Just like we see those cute videos of monkeys taking care of tiger cubs or puppies, folks in the middle ages wanted to capture those cute moments as well.

See? Here’s a nice monkey helping a kitty get a (non-alcoholic) drink.

Sharing, from Trivulzio Book of Hours, 1400s. Koninklijke Bibliotheek
Sharing, from Trivulzio Book of Hours, 1400s. Koninklijke Bibliotheek

Koko the Gorilla wasn’t the first simian to want a kitten.

Monkey hugs a kitten, from a Book of Hours, Brussels, about 1475. Morgan Library
Monkey hugs a kitten, from a Book of Hours, Brussels, about 1475. Morgan Library

Medieval monkeys also liked puppies.

couple embracing on fleurs-de-lysTraictés de Pierre Salemon a Charles VI roy de France, Paris 1412-1415. Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 165...
couple embracing on fleurs-de-lysTraictés de Pierre Salemon a Charles VI roy de France, Paris 1412-1415. Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 165…

This monkey is going above and beyond the call of duty and feeding a bird. Heart-warming, non?

Line-ending monkey feeding a small bird (MS Douce 6, Psalter, made in Ghent, ca.1320-1330)
Line-ending monkey feeding a small bird (MS Douce 6, Psalter, made in Ghent, ca.1320-1330)

 

What to Make of the Medieval Monkey?

Was he good? Bad? True to his nature? Frankly, I don’t know and would rather ponder the fact that it was almost all monks doing these illustrations. Which, as this monkey shows, is far more worthy of further thought…

The Thinker Monkey, from the Breviary of Mary of Savoy, Lombardy, c. 1430
The Thinker Monkey, from the Breviary of Mary of Savoy, Lombardy, c. 1430

Want to see other Medieval Monday Posts? Check out:

Marginal Cats

Marginal Dogs

The Medieval Hair Salon

The Medieval Church Sorta Did Quantum Physics

Just Your Average 14th Century Dog

Cats might rule the internet, but dogs come a close second. The same is true in Medieval manuscripts. Well, it might be a photo finish with the monkeys, snails, and rabbits (yes, snails), but more on that later.

You can find dogs doing lots of things in Medieval manuscripts: playing instruments, reading books, working as scribes, break-dancing, and riding goats into battle (don’t ask). They’re also portrayed as frequent and faithful companions on the hunt and in battle. The devotion of the Medieval dog to his master is never in question.

But, you can also find dogs doing regular dog things.

For example, they never really did accept the cat. However, my money is still on the cat to kick all their asses.

Medieval dogs
4 of Hounds, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards, ca. 1430. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart (KK grau 34) |

There’s also you traditional domestic standoff. Dog wants to play. Cat wants no part of it. Dog gets huffy. Cat prepares to kick ass.

To Agree Like Cat and Dog----French (Artist) PERIOD ca. 1490 MEDIUM ink on paper. (Manuscripts & Rare Books) The Walters Museum
To Agree Like Cat and Dog—-French (Artist) PERIOD ca. 1490 MEDIUM ink on paper. (Manuscripts & Rare Books) The Walters Museum

The dog on the right is clearly just waiting for the cat to leave the safety of the bench, and then it’s ON.

«Regnault de Montauban», rédaction en prose. Regnault de Montauban, tome 1er Date d'édition : 1451-1500 Contributeur : Paulmy (Antoine-René d'Argenson, marquis de). Ancien possesseur Contributeur : Philippe III le Bon, duc de Bourgogne. Ancien possesseur Type : manuscrit Langue : Français
«Regnault de Montauban», rédaction en prose. Regnault de Montauban, tome 1er Date d’édition : 1451-1500 Contributeur : Paulmy (Antoine-René d’Argenson, marquis de). Ancien possesseur Contributeur : Philippe III le Bon, duc de Bourgogne. Ancien possesseur Type : manuscrit Langue : Français

Dogs will be Dogs, Mostly.

Has your dog ever given you side eye? Like when you need to take them outside in the rain to do their business or mentioned the b-a-t-h or the v-e-t? Or even worse, asked them to move from their (your) spot on the couch? These hounds clearly disapprove of you, the monks who drew them, and whoever is reading the manuscript.

Grumpy dog - Psalter, Flanders 13th century. (Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 49, fol. 64v)
Grumpy dog – Psalter, Flanders 13th century. (Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 49, fol. 64v)

 

Hours of Joanna the Mad (Add MS 18852), a Book of Hours produced for Joanna of Castile (more frequently, and somewhat unfairly, known as Joanna the Mad) in Bruges between 1496 and 1506. Nearly every folio has marginalia, unrelated to the text, including many animals and hybrids.
Hours of Joanna the Mad (Add MS 18852), a Book of Hours produced for Joanna of Castile (more frequently, and somewhat unfairly, known as Joanna the Mad) in Bruges between 1496 and 1506. Nearly every folio has marginalia, unrelated to the text, including many animals and hybrids.

 

Wolf As Monk (in a monk's cowl): in the margins of a Book of Hours, Utrecht, c 1460 - Reynard the Fox
Wolf As Monk (in a monk’s cowl): in the margins of a Book of Hours, Utrecht, c 1460 – Reynard the Fox

You know that sound? *That* sound? The glunngh glunngh glunngh that comes right before dinner is reproduced all over the carpet/bed/sofa? Medieval peeps were apparently familiar with that sound, too. To the point where they were moved to show these dogs vomiting in manuscripts.

Vomiting dog. 'li chiens qui est de teil nature que quant il a womit si repaire à son womitte et le remengue de rechief jou eusse volontiers ma proiere renglotie cent fois...' Richard de Fournival, Bestiaire d’Amour, Lorraine 14th century (Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 308, fol. 89r). Discarding images
Vomiting dog. ‘li chiens qui est de teil nature que quant il a womit si repaire à son womitte et le remengue de rechief jou eusse volontiers ma proiere renglotie cent fois…’ Richard de Fournival, Bestiaire d’Amour, Lorraine 14th century (Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 308, fol. 89r). Discarding images

 

PERRO: El perro que devora su propio vómito es como el hombre que, tras la confesión, regresa al pecado. Bestiaire d'amour, Richard de Fournival, s. XIV-XV. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951
PERRO: El perro que devora su propio vómito es como el hombre que, tras la confesión, regresa al pecado. Bestiaire d’amour, Richard de Fournival, s. XIV-XV. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951

Mostly, though, dogs spent the Middle Ages just being dogs. Doing the things they do best…like…

Begging at the table.

Medieval Manuscript Images, Pierpont Morgan Library, Book of hours (MS M.6). MS M.6 fol. 3r
Medieval Manuscript Images, Pierpont Morgan Library, Book of hours (MS M.6). MS M.6 fol. 3r

Being annoyed by/chasing insects.

Marginalia painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century
Marginalia painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century

Fighting over bones.

Dogs from Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Circa 1440. Morgan Library MS M 945 ff 142v 143r
Dogs from Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Circa 1440. Morgan Library MS M 945 ff 142v 143r

And, the perennial favorite, hogging the bed…

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Which leads to the other favorite, being kicked out of the bed.

103 [50r] - Ms. germ. qu. 12 - Die sieben weisen Meister - Page - Mittelalterliche Handschriften - Digitale Sammlungen
103 [50r] – Ms. germ. qu. 12 – Die sieben weisen Meister – Page – Mittelalterliche Handschriften – Digitale Sammlungen
But the best things that dogs have always been – and will always be – are a girl’s best friend.***

Taymouth Hours, 1325-40 English.
Taymouth Hours, 1325-40 English.

See more fun dogs on my Pinterest board: Marginal Dogs.

***This post is Denny Basenji-approved.

Marginal Cats – Ye Olde Icanhascheezburger

Long before Icanhascheezburger.com gave us the gift of endless cat memes, Medieval cats were movers and shakers, behaving inappropriately, seizing power, and literally leaving their mark on history.

Most of these lovable assholes are found in the margins and designs of Medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts. Let’s take a tour of all the feline marginalia mayhem, shall we?

Always Inappropriate

You have guests over. The neighboring seigneur and his lady. The venison is perfectly roasted. The troubadour is singing like his life depends on it (and it could). The mead is flowing.

And then the cat comes in, settles down on the middle of the floor and proceeds to do this.

MorganLibrary, MS M. 1004, 15th c., 38m
MorganLibrary, MS M. 1004, 15th c., 38m
Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France ca. 1290. Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 320, fol. 72r
Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France ca. 1290.
Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 320, fol. 72r
Book of Hours, Lyon, ca. 1505-1510. Lyon, BM, Ms 6881, fol. 30r
Book of Hours, Lyon, ca. 1505-1510. Lyon, BM, Ms 6881, fol. 30r

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This cat doesn’t even give a shit if it’s the Apocalypse.

Christ on Majesty flanked by two angels blowing trumpets of the Last Judgement and a little grey guy licking its butt. Missal, Bavaria ca. 1440-1460 (New York Public Library, MA 112, fol. 7r)
Christ on Majesty flanked by two angels blowing trumpets of the Last Judgement and a little grey guy licking its butt. Missal, Bavaria ca. 1440-1460 (New York Public Library, MA 112, fol. 7r)

Sometimes, though, you’ve just had enough. This is the Medieval version of the squirt bottle:

1Maccabees 16:18-20. Bible, France 13th century (Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r)
1Maccabees 16:18-20. Bible, France 13th century (Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r)

Cats with Delusions of Grandeur

Cats have always believed they are the king or queen of the castle and that humans are simply thumbed slaves. Medieval cats were no different, only – as appropriate for the time – they included the Church in their ambitions.

This special kitten not only imitates the adoration of the Christ Child, but has the honor of being featured in the Book of Hours of Joanna the Mad. Yes, she really was mad. More on her another time.

‘Hours of Joanna the Mad’, Bruges 1486-1506. BL, Add 18852, fol. 412r
‘Hours of Joanna the Mad’, Bruges 1486-1506.
BL, Add 18852, fol. 412r

Here we have a King of the Cats and a cat who wants a bishopric. Assholes.

Antonius von Pforr, Buch der Beispiele, Swabia ca. 1475-1482 Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 84, fol. 227v
Antonius von Pforr, Buch der Beispiele, Swabia ca. 1475-1482 Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 84, fol. 227v
An Elderly Man Speaking to a Younger Man; A Cat with a Bishop's Crosier and Miter Sitting on a Circular Building; Unknown; Trier (probably), Germany; third quarter of 15th century; Pen and black ink and colored washes on paper; Leaf: 28.7 x 20.6 cm (11 5/16 x 8 1/8 in.); Ms. Ludwig XV 1, fol. 48
An Elderly Man Speaking to a Younger Man; A Cat with a Bishop’s Crosier and Miter Sitting on a Circular Building; Unknown; Trier (probably), Germany; third quarter of 15th century; Pen and black ink and colored washes on paper; Leaf: 28.7 x 20.6 cm (11 5/16 x 8 1/8 in.); Ms. Ludwig XV 1, fol. 48

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there’s this cat who let the power go to his head. Go home, royal kitteh, you’re drunk.

Zürich armorial, Zürich ca. 1340Zürich, Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum, AG 2760, fol. 1r
Zürich armorial, Zürich ca. 1340Zürich, Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum, AG 2760, fol. 1r

Paw Prints on your Heart…and Manuscript

See this cat? This cat is just waiting to jump up on this poor dude’s manuscript. I’m not kidding.

St. Matthew writing his Gospel book of hours, Bruges ca. 1510-1525 Rouen, BM, ms. 3028, fol. 63r
St. Matthew writing his Gospel book of hours, Bruges ca. 1510-1525 Rouen, BM, ms. 3028, fol. 63r

He probably knocked over the inkwell while he was at it because cats are like that.

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)
Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Cats take pride in ownership, even of the things they destroy. That has never changed, as seen here by this manuscript that some asshole cat peed on.

Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)
Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Actually, it says a lot more than “Ye Olde Damn Cat!”

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.] taken from Medieval Fragments.

The Ultimate Medieval Cat Asshole

I have saved the best for last because…well…I think I’ll just end here and let the picture speak for itself.

‘Flaisch macht Flaisch’, German woodcut, 1555.
‘Flaisch macht Flaisch’, German woodcut, 1555.

 

ultimate bad cat 1
She’s trying to trade a fish for the penis. The cat gives no fucks.

The Medieval Hair Salon

It’s Medieval Monday again! This week, we are going to pick and pluck our way through hairy tidbits of Medieval haircare and hairstyling. By the end of this post, you’ll be groomed to regale your friends with useless trivia about hair fashion and hygiene in the Middle Ages.

Have you ever wondered how women managed to take care of unibrow and mustache issues before nail salons and hot waxing pots were invented? What? You haven’t? Oh, well, I bet you are now! Also, in artwork – especially from the Renaissance onwards, you never really see those robust nude females sporting hairy underarms or hairy legs. As for the pudenda, most of them look like they had Brazilian wax jobs before Brazil was even discovered.

I worry about these things. They prey on my mind. This is why I end up reading so much non-fiction. I need answers.

Anyway.

Big Hair is not a New Thing

https://www.flickr.com/photos/museum_girl/4674203427/
Plaited hair retrieved from bogs in Denmark. Photo courtesy of Museum Girl on Flickr.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. In the Middle Ages, it was fashionable and desirable for women to have really long hair. Down-to-their-knees-long. Keeping that much hair clean was a serious challenge.

Actual washing was done several times a year – more often if you had enough money and servants to heat and carry water for bathing. Everyday hair maintenance included combing (which spread the hair’s natural oils and also did a decent job of helping to keep lice at bay – except when you got lice, and then you were screwed). Medieval women discovered “dry shampoo” long before us. Various types of powders were used to soak up scalp and hair oils (and to suffocate lice).

When you did wash your hair, you didn’t pull out your Paul Mitchell or Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner. You whipped up a delightful little mixture of ashes, vine stalks, and egg whites to cleanse your hair. Of course, this meant that you’d want to finish with a pleasantly-scented rinse or oil, like rose or lavender because no one wants their hair to smell like a veggie omelette when they come out of the shower.

A woman combing her hair. Paris, circa 1400 from a pen and ink drawing in the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin
A woman combing her hair. Paris, circa 1400
from a pen and ink drawing in the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin

Women in the Middle Ages didn’t have Miss Clairol or Garnier to cover up the grey, but they did have some charming recipes from the Trotula, a 12th century compendium of women’s medicine and healthcare. Blonde was the preferred shade, and several recipes guaranteed golden tresses. You could choose from a combination of Barberry tree ash and water, or honey and white wine with a finishing conditioner of calendine roots, olive-madder, oil of cumin seed, box shavings and saffron. The success rate of these recipes was never recorded.

As much as long, glorious, and – if possible – golden hair was desirable, it was crucial that it all be hidden at all times. A woman’s hair was considered highly erotic and was seen as a sign of their innate sinfulness (thanks, Eve).

Bernard de Clarivaux (who was kind of grim and ascetic anyway) decried women’s vanity and hair, went so far as to affirm that wigs were the work of the Devil. Which, technically makes everyone with hair extensions today a sinner…with fabulous hair.

Unmarried women and occasionally nobility would still wear their hair on display, intricately woven with golden threads, nets, beads, jewels, and pins. However, married women and any woman attending church had to cover her head. This is where we get caps, wimples, and gorgets, making women uncomfortable and hot for centuries.

Getting Rid of all that Hair

The basic principle of the wimple was a length of cloth wrapped around the head and under the chin. Then, another length of cloth was wrapped around the head like a crown. You literally topped it all off with draped fabric that concealed the straps and the pinned braids underneath.

The Trotula - the Medieval manual for women's health, fertility, beauty and hygiene. Image from medievallists.net
The Trotula – the Medieval manual for women’s health, fertility, beauty and hygiene. Image from medievallists.net

What’s a woman to do if she can’t show her hair that she spend so much time fussing with? She simply finds another way to set a fashion standard. With the advent of the wimple, a high, prominent forehead became the epitome of style. To achieve this look, women plucked and depilated with a nasty ye olde version of Nair that was made of ants’ eggs, red orpiment, and gum of ivy mixed with vinegar. Or, she could boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. In both cases, once the skin started burning, it was time to wash it off.

12th century straight razor. Image from Badgerandblade.com
12th century straight razor. Image from Badgerandblade.com

These pastes were used to remove hair on all parts of the body, and what they didn’t get, copper tweezers or primitive straight razors would (and based on the pictures of Medieval razors, it seems that arsenic and alum-based depilatories were the safer option). Other depilatory recipes included mixtures of cat dung and vinegar, or pig lard, mustard, and juniper if that was your preference.

My bet is that they ended up doing a lot of plucking on very sore, slightly raw skin.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I don’t know. I just wanted to use that for a subheading. Surprisingly, Wikipedia did not turn out to be a very good source for this post. It was a lot of Pinterest and Google instead. The closes to a generalist Wikipedia source I found was Rosalie’s Medieval Woman. It gave me quite a good grounding for knowing what to hunt for.

There’s lots more I could do – I mean, there are entire articles I could write about liturgical combs, hair nets, and hair pins (also quite useful for scratching itchy, lice-infested scalps). I figured, I’d go ahead and get the interesting and gross stuff out of the way, first.

I may also switch over to footwear. I have some very strong opinions on chopines.

Because shoes.

I will leave you with the wise words of Martial from his Epigrams (1st century AD): “Calvo turpius est nihil comato.” There is nothing more unsightly than a bald man who wears hair.

Proving that toupees have always been a bad idea.

The Medieval Church Sorta did Quantum Physics

It’s the strangest feeling to be reading about the Medieval Catholic Church trying to stamp out heresy and accidentally running smack into quantum physics.

Trust me. It’s a mindfuck.

God's Philosopher's by James Hannam
God’s Philosopher’s by James Hannam

Let me give you the Cliff Notes background. All of this is taken from my current bedtime nonfiction reading, “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science” by James Hannam. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound exciting to you, but ask my husband. I may or may not have bounced up and down with giddy joy when I found the book on sale at Brookline Booksmith. MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE.

Anyway. You can blame the whole thing on Aristotle, which is handy, because I remember suffering through Aristotle my freshman year of college, and I am eager to blame Aristotle for lots of things – headaches, tears, late nights, fruitless hours in the library, begging my senior friends in the class to explain it to me and hear that they suffered as well from an inability to understand….

I digress.

The Church had just dipped its toe into progress, saying that it was okay to study ALL of Aristotle’s work, including his work on natural philosophy, though it was paramount to cherrypick only the parts of Aristotle that fit Church doctrine and study those.

Enter Siger of Brabant (they had such cool names back then). He was at the University of Paris with Thomas Aquinas during this time, and he was an Averroist, which set Aquinas’ and the Church’s back up. What’s an Averroist?

Late 13th century French manuscript of Averroes' commentary on Aristotle's De Anima. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Late 13th century French manuscript of Averroes’ commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima. The Church’s version of a “Honey Do” list. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Averroists followed Averroes, the Arab scholar and philosopher who had translated Aristotle (Thanks, Averroes, for being part of the Arab scholarship that saved most of ancient Greek philosophy for us by actually keeping it instead of burning or losing it!).

Averroes took Aristotle a few logical steps further and said that the universe was totally deterministic (i.e. there’s no such thing as free will). He also agreed with Aristotle that the universe and the world had to be eternal, and that there was no life after death, that humans had no individual souls. Even more radical, Averroes backed Aristotle’s idea that the laws of nature even constrain God’s abilities.

Whoa. Right? Just whoa. (Oh, and sorry, Aristotle, about you being wrong about the universe and Earth being eternal. Sucks to be you. Yes, I still resent you for my freshman year).

The Church’s Condemnations of 1277 Weren’t That Bad

Back to Siger of Brabant. He was a total Averroes groupie, which didn’t sit very well with the Church, but they tolerated it as long as it was just a theoretical exercise and he *cough cough* came to the correct conclusions about faith, God, and nature.

Church Aquinas Averroes
Giovanni di Paolo’s St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës. They never actually met. Just sayin’. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m not going to get into the whole Siger vs. Aquinas thing because they were both right and both wrong about certain things (Schrodinger’s cat ain’t got nothing on the intellectual coruscations these guys did). Basically, the whole thing led to the Church sighing like a parent in the front seat of a long car trip and breaking them up, setting the rules with the Condemnations of 1277.

Like with all ad hoc parenting rules, the Condemnations of 1277 were a little haphazard. It was the Medieval Church’s attempt to set the rules for the intellectual sandbox and keep natural philosophers and theologians from stepping on each other’s toes (to mix metaphors).

Oh yeah, did I mention that the Church had no problem with “natural philosophy” (i.e. Science!)? Yeah, they were cool with it so long as it didn’t try and throw over some basic tenets of faith (another blog post for another time and a lot more coffee).

Back to the Condemnations of 1277. There were 219 of them, and they all dealt in double negatives. There’s not enough coffee in the world to make it through all 219 of them without a headache. They set out what people should not not believe. 219 times. Yeah, baby.

So, this is where we bump into quantum physics with some pretty progressive biology thrown in for good measure.

The main point of the Condemnations was to insist that God could not be limited by natural laws. This meant  that *clears throat and looks ecclesiastically severe at audience* it was heretical to say that:

  • God could not create multiple universes
  • God could not move the universe in a straight line (because a vacuum would result) 
  • God could not make more than three dimensions exist at the same time
  • “That the world is eternal as to all the species contained in it; and that time is eternal, as are motion, matter, agent, and recipient; and because the world is from the infinite power of God, it is impossible that there be novelty in an effect without novelty in the cause.” (Grant, Edward. (1962) “Late Medieval Thought, Copernicus, and the Scientific Revolution”, Journal of the History of Ideas, XXIII, n. 8)

What’s mind-blowing to me is that the Medieval Church, theologians, and natural philosophers of the day had actually conceptualized these ideas…and then dropped them. Understandably, it would take another 800 years (give or take) before mathematics and science actually got advanced enough to take the ideas to the next level. Still. Pretty interesting, non?

Don’t answer that.