One of the little thrills those us who do academic research get to enjoy — whether we specialize in the arts and humanities or engineering and sciences — is when our favorite topics come up in films or on television. Imagine the excitement for anyone who studies Andalusian architecture when the quasi-medieval show “Game of Thrones” received rare permission to film inside the beautiful Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.
Now perhaps it will come as no surprise that several of us here at the Index of Medieval Art are looking forward to the next series of “Doctor Who” — and the premiere of the first female Doctor (to be played by Jodie Whittaker)! — when the Doctor’s complicated history with historical accuracy resumes. For those of you regrettably unfamiliar with “Doctor Who,” it is a long-running BBC show about a long-lived, possibly immortal, time-traveling alien, and history nerds are among the most avid Whovians. To understand why, just watch the episode in which Pompeii was destroyed because aliens were building a spaceship in Vesuvius! In another episode, we learned that William Shakespeare’s plays include secret spells that open portals to other parts of the universe!
In the most recent series, the episode “The Eaters of Light” took place in Scotland in the second century AD. The Ninth Roman Legion, charged with the task of defeating the “barbarians” living in ancient Scotland, disappeared without a trace. When the Doctor and his companions investigate, things get a little strange. In the second century, the Roman Empire was trying desperately to maintain control of the lands of the “Picts” who lived north of what would very soon be the site of Hadrian’s Wall. The Picts are so called because these “painted people” (Picti) are mentioned in very early medieval texts. We know almost nothing about them, other than that they were fierce warriors, they painted their bodies before battle, and they left behind large stone monuments decorated with pictographic writing.
The Index of Medieval Art has almost 250 entries for “Pictish” artwork, most of which are large stones, either stelai or crosses. The stones usually appear in pairs, and the symbols carved on them depict inanimate objects like mirrors and combs, or crescents, and other geometrical shapes, as well as animals such as horses, dogs, birds and the enigmatic “Pictish beast.” It was this Pictish beast, a creature something like a hybrid of dolphin, horse, and dragon, or even (as some have argued), the Loch Ness Monster, that was the focus of “The Eaters of Light.” The episode proposed that it was a species of lizard-like alien monster that traveled through a great stone chamber-tomb in northern Scotland. Released in order to defeat the invading imperial army, it continued eating, threatening to consume all the light in our universe. Of course!
While this episode provides a fanciful interpretation of the Pictish stone carvings, it does actually highlight a point that art historians and archaeologists have been puzzling over for more than a century — just what do these symbols mean?
The stones were classified in the early twentieth century into three types, based upon their iconography and the level of detail in their carving. Class I stones, which date roughly to the fifth to seventh centuries, are relatively plain, and have only Pictish symbols inscribed upon them. Class II stones are slightly more ornate, with more effort obviously spent on not only carving the imagery but also on decorating the shape of the stone itself. They have not only Pictish symbols, but also Christian iconography such as very simple cruciform carvings. These are thought to date to the period of the seventh to ninth centuries, when conversion to Christianity was becoming more common in the region we now know as Scotland. Finally, Class III stones, which date to the later eighth and ninth centuries, are the most ornate. Their edges are highly decorated, the shape itself has been clearly hewn from the rock rather than simply incised upon it, and they have intricate carvings of knot-work and lace-work. Apparently used not only as upright markers or crosses but also as grave slabs, all of these Class III stones have explicitly Christian imagery, with many carved in the shape of crosses. None of them bear Pictish symbols, so these stones are interpreted as a last step in the Christianization of Scotland.
There are, however, two main difficulties in interpreting these Pictish symbol stones, though there are many theories as to what they represent. First, we are not entirely sure what they were for. Scholars have debated the issue for the last half century, arguing that they were monuments marking important meeting places or boundaries, or that they were memorials to particular individuals, families, events, or even that they might have been political statements opposing the spread of Christianity in early medieval Britain. Inscriptions are not helpful for interpretation either. While ogham writing in Ireland and Wales is found on stones that include Latin inscriptions, so that each stone is like a Rosetta Stone (with the Latin inscription in each case serving as a key to interpreting the ogham text), we do not currently have such a direct method of interpreting Pictish ideograms.
The second problem is the dating. Surviving Pictish stones suggest a development from the simple, presumably pagan, Pictish animals and shapes of Class I stones to the elaborate crosses in Class III. Like much archaeological evidence from the post-Roman fifth and early-sixth centuries in Britain, this dating is often based upon our expectations affected by early medieval texts like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History or Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, none of which were written in Britain in the period they describe. Unlike human or plant remains, stones cannot be radiocarbon dated. Even if we wanted to make the attempt at dating, for example, organic elements of the soil beneath the stones, only a few of the stones are actually still in situ. So the dating of the Pictish stones depends on parallels in manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow, and upon what we currently think about the history of the arrival of Christianity in Scotland. Even if we were able to determine with absolute certainty when exactly these stones were first inscribed and placed in the landscape, that account would still not consider the many succeeding generations and their many possible uses for these stones.
The Pictish stones in the Index of Medieval Art, especially the Class I stones, are part of a wider discussion of very early medieval society in Scotland. The Picts are the people that sixth-century and later texts blame for the beginning of the end of Roman Britain. Their raids along coasts to the south created defensive problems at a time when the Roman military presence in Britain was declining. Over the last fifty years or so, archaeological excavations of cemeteries in Scotland have increased our understanding of the monumental commemorations of death among the people who raised these decorated stones and crosses. The iconography on the stones that these people left behind is one of the few sources that modern scholars can work with to learn about the Picts and their world — and it also turns out to be a great source of inspiration for science fiction television.
This guest blog post was written by Janet Kay, a CLSA-Cotsen postdoctoral fellow at the Princeton Society of Fellows. She studies the history of fifth-century Britain, looking at burial practices to study a period for which there are no surviving texts. Janet uses material culture and funerary rites as primary sources to explore how fifth-century communities understood themselves and their newly-arrived neighbors from the continent and how invested they were in maintaining connections with their Roman past.
The month of June marks the passing of two historically consequential rulers: the fourth-century Roman emperor Julian, posthumously referred to as Julian the Apostate, and the twelfth-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, also known as Frederick Barbarossa. Their untimely deaths shocked the Late Antique and Medieval worlds, respectively. On June 26, 363, Julian was mortally wounded in the battle of Samarra during a Roman military campaign against the Persians. According to various sources, a spear delivered by a member of the Sassanian cavalry pierced his liver, and he subsequently died from the mortal blow some three days later. June 10, 1190, marks the day on which Frederick Barbarossa drowned in the Saleph River (the Göksu in modern Turkey) in the middle of the Third Crusade, the Latin West’s attempt to recapture the Holy Land from Saladin. The deaths of both leaders in the middle of critical military campaigns generated either anxiety or derision among their contemporaries, as underscored in subsequent medieval representations of the two emperors.Posthumous medieval representations of Julian, the last Roman emperor who championed paganism, are almost always critical. For example, a lavishly illuminated ninth-century Byzantine manuscript of Gregory Nazianzen’s homilies (Paris, BnF, gr.510, fol. 374v), depicts the ruler accompanying the pagan philosopher Maximus of Ephesus and venerating idols. In Simone Martini’s fourteenth-century fresco cycle in the Chapel of Saint Martino within the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi, the figure of Julian the Apostate serves as an arrogant, pagan, visual foil to the saintly Martin of Tours, who is shown renouncing military life for his Christian beliefs. Depictions of Julian’s death are even more damning. By the early sixth century, accounts surrounding Julian’s death shifted away from a battle against the Persians and amplified the legend of Saint Mercurius (identified as Mercurius of Caesarea in the Index database), a Byzantine soldier saint who rises from the dead and kills the pagan emperor with his lance or sword.
Although this legend developed in Eastern sources, it grew in popularity in the Medieval Latin West, even making an appearance in Jacopo de Voragine’s thirteenth-century Golden Legend. In a fourteenth-century Christherre-Chronik miniature in the Morgan Library (New York, PML, M.769, fol. 327v), the figure of Julian is portrayed as an elderly medieval monarch lanced by a fully armored Saint Mercurius astride a galloping horse.In contrast to the overwhelmingly uncomplimentary medieval portraits of Julian the Apostate, representations of Frederick Barbarossa generally evoke the idea of imperial majesty and power. The so-called Cappenberg head (c. 1160), a reliquary that originated as a portrait of Frederick, effectively conveys an image of grandeur and stability through its precious materials and antique visual language. Yet a miniature drawn, less than a decade after his death, in Peter of Eboli’s De Rebus Sicilis (Bern, Stadtbibliothek, 120 II, fol. 107r) betrays the unease surrounding the emperor’s accidental passing. Inscribed FREDERICUS IMPERATOR IN FLUMINE DEFUNCTUS, the drawing depicts the ruler falling off his horse and drowning in the water, his crown lying ignobly in the riverbed. As if to combat the contemporary whispers that Frederick died without confessing his sins, the illuminator purposely included an image of the ruler’s soul as a swaddled infant held aloft by an angel and given to the Hand of God emerging from heaven. In so doing, the artist was participating in a larger, concerted effort to salvage Frederick Barbarossa’s reputation for posterity as a noble and most Christian emperor.
While the other months of the year had specific harvesting tasks associated with them, the relative ease of May was a welcome relief from the daily toil that dominated medieval life. May occupations are traditionally represented as more joyous, particularly in Books of Hours and Psalters. The Index database records over 180 scenes for May in manuscripts, and a little over half of them use the occupation of the male falconer on horseback (see related subjects: Month, Occupation: May; Figure, Male: Falconer; Horseman: Falconer; and Scene, Sports and Games: Falconer). Falconry, or Hawking, was a favorite medieval sport enjoyed especially at the beginning of spring. These hunting birds were prized for their agility and loyalty to their masters. Another popular scene depicting May is a pair of lovers on horseback, occasionally with a bird perching on the man’s wrist. This scene of a riding couple was a favored occupation and signaled the readiness for new courtships. Other instances of May scenes include figures holding flowers or wreaths, couples promenading, and other verdant scenes of courtship, whether amid blooms in grassy gardens or even on boats (see related subject: Scene, Secular: Courting).
The zodiac sign that commences in May is Gemini, traditionally represented by a pair of figures—Gemini being Latin for “twins”—that are linked to their astrological appearance in the sky (see related subjects: Zodiac Sign: Gemini and Constellation: Gemini). The representations of Gemini can also be divided into a few main categories. A sample of about 80 French medieval manuscripts reveals that the most popular Gemini sign was the embracing nude couple, with far fewer of them appearing clothed. Often the couple’s bodies are masked by parts of the landscape or are cropped by a frame. Nude twins are the second most common Gemini sign and are usually depicted as two men embracing or wrestling. Sometimes the twins will appear as confronted soldiers with mirrored weapons and gear. The twin variations in Gemini also include pairs with crossed legs, conjoined bodies, or even one figure with two heads.
The subjects for months and zodiac signs are most prevalent in manuscripts, but they are also well-represented in sculpture such as the famous façades at Chartres and Vézelay. In 2007, information on all zodiac and occupation subjects classified by the Index was collected and published with Penn State University Press as Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art. This book has been hailed as a “lavishly illustrated” and “functional research tool” for studying the subject of the medieval measuring of time.
Hourihane, C., ed. Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007.
Neal, K. “Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months & Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art (review).” Parergon, vol. 25 no. 2, 2008, pp. 164-166.
The marketplaces of medieval Europe were redolent of the spices that purportedly first arrived with returning Crusaders. A taste for the flavors of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, pepper and the like created an increasing demand for spices that could not be grown in Europe’s climate but had to be imported from the East along secret trade routes, over land and sea. Distance was only one of several factors that affected the supply of spices, which were expensive and enjoyed only by those who could afford them. Nevertheless, as Paul Freedman writes in his blog “Spices: How the Search for Flavors Influenced our World,” the new taste for exotic flavors helped encourage world exploration and turn spices into global commodities.
The uses of spices were both culinary and medical, and medieval cookbooks and herbals reveal that spices were part of preferred regimens. Spices were taken together in varying combinations, sometimes seasonal. In the cold and wet winter months, it was advisable to eat spices in strongly flavored food and drink to warm the body. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat notes in her History of Food that the physician Arnau de Villanova (c. 1240-1311) recommended balancing the four humors of the body by consuming spices “proper for winter” as zesty sauces of ginger, clove, cinnamon, and pepper (Toussaint-Samat, 486). These spices would aid digestion after a heavy winter meal by heightening the effects of “hot” and “humid” properties in roasted meats. To this day, the warming spices advocated by Arnau de Villanova tend to be associated with fall and winter.
Cameline sauce, perhaps the original steak sauce, was the perfect accompaniment to roast meats. Prepared in summer and winter months alike, the sauce was so popular in some locations, such as fourteenth-century Paris, that the blend was usually readily available from the local sauce maker. There were regional varieties of Cameline sauce, too, and the “Tournais style” involved grinding together ginger, cinnamon, saffron and half a nutmeg. The spice powder was soaked in wine and stirred together with bread crumbs. The strained mixture was then boiled, with sugar added to make the winter variety of the sauce. One recipe for Cameline sauce has been adapted by Daniel Myers for the Medieval Cookery web site and is reproduced here with permission.
3 slices white bread
3/4 cup red wine
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/8 tsp. cloves
1 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
Cut bread in pieces and place in a bowl with wine and vinegar. Allow to soak, stirring occasionally, until bread turns to mush. Strain through a fine sieve into a saucepan, pressing well to get as much the liquid as possible out of the bread. Add spices and bring to a low boil, simmering until thick. Serve warm.
Ginger came to be highly prized during the Middle Ages, though the use of ginger can be traced back thousands of years in India and China. The potent ginger plant and rhizomes were valued for their stomach-warming and digestive properties as much as for the flavors they imparted. The first-century Greek physician Dioscorides advocated consuming a spicy Arabian plant called ζιγγίβερις (zingiberis), which was probably ginger, to “soften the intestines gently.” In Arabia, Dioscorides noted, they used only the freshest ginger plants (O’Connell 116-117).
Clove was known as one of the “lesser spices.” Though not as strong as ginger but useful for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, clove was especially useful in dental care.
Named in English and other languages—“clou de girofle” in French—for the resemblance of the bud to nails, clove originated in the Moluccan Islands of Indonesia, the historical core of the Spice Islands. As with ginger, clove had its earliest uses in India and China in the fourth-century BCE, finding its way to Roman and Greek markets by way of port cities on the Mediterranean. By the eighth century, clove was known throughout Europe and features in several historic dishes. It was also a typical spice in pomanders, the medieval precursor to potpourri, in which fragrant ingredients were placed in a perforated box to ward off illness. The decorative use of clove-studded oranges, a seasonal pomander, is still associated with the winter months.
Hippocras, or hypocras, was a medieval spiced wine and popular cordial enjoyed especially during the winter holidays for several centuries. Hippocras was a concoction of powdered cinnamon, cassia buds, ginger, grains of paradise and nutmeg boiled with sugar and wine. Cinnamon, the essential flavor of hippocras, was a favorite spice of the medieval palate. Its mysterious origins generated many fanciful tales and even several expeditions. Perhaps most famously, the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus thought he had located the spice in America—the Indies to him— and in 1493 he reportedly brought back bits of bark from a perfumed wild cinnamon tree that was not very tasty.
Long before Columbus, the ancient Egyptians had prized cinnamon as the “… goodly fragrant woods of The Divine Land…” while medieval Arabs believed that large birds used cinnamon sticks in their nests (O’Connell, 76-77). In the first century, the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder rightly located the origin of cinnamon on the shores of the Indian Ocean. With information from some seasoned merchant, perhaps, Pliny knew that the cinnamon trade was dangerous and that a return trip to the source of the spice took almost five years. Pliny’s claims about the origin of cinnamon were eventually verified in the 1340s when the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta (1304–c. 1368) arrived at the island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and discovered untouched miles of the cinnamon tree. Before its widespread appreciation as a culinary ingredient, cinnamon was prized in several ancient cultures as incense holding ritualistic importance, sometimes burned for its fragrance on a funeral pyre.
The final “proper” winter spice is pepper. With a name widely applied to many spices, including the black and white varieties, pepper was perhaps the most familiar spice of the Middle Ages. Both black pepper and white pepper are obtained from the small berries of the Piper nigrum vine.
Unripe berries are green, and ripe berries are red. Dried ripe berries yield white pepper, and despite the fantastic medieval legend propagated by Isidore of Seville (560–636) that the scorching of pepper crops blackened the berries and drove out the poisonous guard snakes, unripe pepper berries are simply plucked, gathered, cooked, and then dried to give us the most familiar variety, black pepper. The principal traders of pepper came from India where the vines thrived in tropical regions. Pepper was used in medicine to aid digestion and to treat ailments like gout and arthritis, as well as infectious diseases like the bubonic plague.
The term “peppercorn rent” derives from the practice established in early common law in England that payment of rent or tax might be made by a peppercorn, to avoid the bother of exchanging real currency. Usually no peppercorns were actually collected during these transactions, but the spice represented a hard asset, and the term is still in use today in legal parlance to describe a token amount of rent money paid in order to keep a title alive. In all seasons, spices and their increasingly globalized trade during the Middle Ages affected medieval economies, and brought social, culinary, and health benefits to Europe. To this day, the flavors and aromas of medieval markets spice up the long, cold winter months.
Paul Freedman, “Spices: How the Search for Flavors Influenced Our World,” The YaleGlobal Online Blog, March 11, 2003, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/spices-how-search-flavors-influenced-our-world.
Daniel Myers. “Cameline Sauce.” Medieval Cookery. Last modified July 13, 2006. http://medievalcookery.com/recipes/cameline.html.
Freedman, Paul. Out of the East: Spices and Medieval Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. Translated by Anthea Bell. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Leah Hyslop, “Where do Christmas spices come from?” The Telegraph.co.uk (blog), December 22, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/grow-to-eat/where-do-christmas-spices-come-from/
O’Connell, John. The Book of Spice: From Anise to Zedoary. London: Profile Books, 2015.
The governing offices of medieval church and state – such as emperor, king, pope, archbishop, abbot, mayor, and so on – were often filled by election, in accordance with public and canon law. Often, election by a voting body facilitated the peaceful transference of power, even if such decisions also considered the privileges of birth and rank, as well as the requirements of the church.
Under canon law, medieval people were guaranteed certain human rights, including welfare rights, the right of certain classes to vote, and religious liberty (Helmholz 3). Canonists supported the free exercise of these rights, as they believed them to be supported by biblical tradition. Common law, or ius commune, upheld that a right order of government on earth was based in natural law and the upholding of these God-given rights. In effect, common law and canon law were seen as linked systems, to be enforced at the highest level to promote God’s plan for the world. Voting rights were recognized under both systems, so that secular elections evolved from the system put in place by medieval canonists for choosing offices within the church (Helmholz 6).
Medieval elections took place primarily in three contexts, ecclesiastical, secular and academic, but detailed evidence about them is scarce. Voting in both ecclesiastical and secular elections could follow one of four main procedures: overseen by an external authority with no direct interest in the election; by indirect election, in which electors named a proxy to select the officials; by lot; and by ballot (Uckelman and Uckelman 3). In contrast to most modern practice, electors had a limited choice, and the outcome of an election was always subject to the judgment of their superiors. Medieval law also ruled that all of the electors had to meet at the same time in the same place, whether or not the actual voting was done in secret. This was to mimic the meeting of the apostles at Pentecost and to wait for divine guidance before voting (Helmholz 8).
For some medieval rulers, the election, crowning, and anointing of Old Testament kings proved to be an excellent model for legitimizing their rule. Biblical tradition not only provided a justification for absolute reign, it also ensured that the church remained authoritative over secular rulers. In principle, the selection of a medieval monarch was based on both elective and hereditary elements, but from the tenth century in northern and central Europe, political and social trends steered toward hereditary succession over an elective monarchy (Nelson 183). This trend is exemplified in a French manuscript titled the Avis aus Roys, or royal advice book, dating to the mid-fourteenth century and possibly made for Louis, Duc d’Anjou (1339-1385). This book highlights the benefits of adhering to hereditary royal succession, which was widely seen as a more secure and manageable transference of power than other means of selecting a ruler.
The Church’s rules for filling ecclesiastical offices presented a paradox, as they strongly favored a mix of election and hierarchy. Before the papal bull In nomine Domini of 1059, which included an election decree, the pope’s successor was most often named by the incumbent pope or by secular rulers (Larson 151). Reforms put in place over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries resulted in the creation of the first papal conclave (1276) and College of Cardinals, the familiar process for electing the pope that is still in practice today. Below the pope were elected cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and other local offices for priests and deacons. Episodes of their ritual consecration, ordination, vesting, installation, and taking orders feature prominently in the Index subject headings. Another elective office common in the Middle Ages was that of abbot or abbess of a monastery.
Among the more numerous depictions of Benedict of Montecassino delivering rule to monks is a rare episode in an Italian manuscript depicting him chosen as abbot. In this Vita Benedicti, dating to the mid-fifteenth century, a miniature depicts a group of monks presenting a letter, stamped with a dangling wax seal, to the new abbot-elect standing in the doorway of his mountain monastery.
The Index collection includes many images of election-related imagery, including depictions of medieval leadership, kingly coronations, ecclesiastical consecrations, synods, and deliberating monks. Typical subject headings include David: proclaimed King, Solomon: crowned King; Simon Thassi: chosen Leader of Machabees; Edmund of England: Scene, Coronation and Consecration; Guillaume de Machaut, Livre du Voir Dit: Scene, King addressing Court; and Louis of Toulouse: Scene, taking of Orders.
Benson, Robert L. The Bishop-Elect: A Study in Medieval Ecclesiastical Office. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Barzel, Yoram, and Edgar Kiser. “The development and decline of medieval voting institutions: A comparison of England and France.” Economic Inquiry 35, no. 2 (1997): 244-60.
Uckelman, Sara L., and Joel Uckelman. “Strategy and manipulation in medieval elections.” Accessed in http://ccc.cs uni-duesseldorf. de/COMSOC2010/papers/logiccc-uckelman. pdf (2010), 1-12.
Helmholz, Richard H. “Fundamental Human Rights in Medieval Law.” (Fulton Lectures 2001): 1-18.
Nelson, Janet L. “Medieval Queenship.” In Women in Medieval Western European Culture, edited by Linda E. Mitchell, 179-208. New York and London: Routledge, 2011.
Weiler, Björn. “8 things you (probably) didn’t know about medieval elections.” History Extra Blog. N.p., 6 May 2015.
Larson, Atria. “Popes and Canon Law.” In A Companion to the Medieval Papacy: Growth of an Ideology and Institution, edited by Atria Larson and Keith Sisson, 135-37. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
On June 21st we recognize Cancer, the astrological sign that Richard Hinckley Allen called the most “inconspicuous figure of the zodiac” (Allen, 107). Representing the sun at its highest point, Cancer is the zodiacal sign of the summer solstice. In ancient Egypt, the Cancer sign was imagined as a scarab beetle, and in Mesopotamia as a turtle or tortoise, both of which may have pushed the sun across the heavens. In Europe, traditionally, the constellation of Cancer was identified with the crab from Greek mythology that was crushed by the foot of Hercules and placed in the sky by Hera. Some have speculated that the characteristic sideways walk of hard-shelled crustaceans, whether crayfish or crab, could be symbolic of the backward shift in day-length after the arrival of the summer constellation in the Northern Hemisphere at the end of June, and Medieval people also believed those born under Cancer’s influence harnessed great, gripping power.
At the Index of Christian Art, the label “lobster-like” has been used to describe Cancerian crabs that are not at all “crab-like.” These crustaceans have elongated pincers, chunky claws, and a distinct tail, and they more closely resemble a lobster or a crayfish. The zoological treatise The Crustacea, published by Brill in 2004, states that, although crabs are the most frequent symbol of the Cancer sign, that the variety of shellfish that adorn horoscopes “can bring surprises” (Forest et al., 173). It is possible that while the symbol of Cancer may draw from a singular iconographic entity which included all shellfish, the idea of a distinct crab, including its spoken and written labels, could be historically transmutable. A definitive explanation for the choice of crustacean in horoscopes might be impossible, but there are some hints as to why “lobster-like” crabs were so pervasive in zodiacal art of the medieval period.
“Cancer,” “Crab,” & “Crayfish”
“Cancer” is an ancient word of Indo-European origin from a root meaning “to scratch.” Today Cancer is the scientific Latin genus name for “crab,” but in classical usage it described many species of shellfish. J.-Ö. Swahn notes in “The Cultural History of Crayfish” that in both Sanskrit and Greek the word for crab had the same meaning as crayfish, both animals having pincers. While the Latin word for Cancer, Carcinus, comes from the Greek karkinos, the English word “crab” has Germanic and Old English roots, and an Anglo-Saxon chronicle from about the year 1000 identified Cancer as crabba (Allen 107). In Old High German (800-1050), kerbiz meant simply “edible crustacean” and was also used to describe crayfish. The OED links the Middle High German (1050-1350) krebz to the Middle French (ca. 1400-1600) escrevisse, which in turn became écrevisse (crayfish).
The OED cites these words for crayfish, through much of their history, were general terms for all larger edible crustaceans. On “lobster,” OED notes some crayfish are called “fresh-water lobsters” and the term “lobster” is applied to several crustaceans of resemblance. Well into the seventeenth century, the word “cancer” and its translations were used as generic terms for all crabs and “lobster-like” creatures until Linnaeus established the species name Astacus Astacus for crayfish in his Systema Naturae of 1758 (interestingly, also with the synonym Cancer Astacus). The OED also noting that the 1656 translation of Comenius’ Latinae Linguae Janua Reserata, described the crayfish as a “shelled swimmer, with ten feet, and two claws: among which are huge Lobsters of three cubits; round Crabs; Craw-fish, little Lobsters.” So, etymologically speaking, crabs, crayfishes, and lobsters were mingled together from very early on.
Star Sign and Sustenance
In the Middle Ages, the zodiacal symbol of Cancer often appeared in the calendar pages of devotional books, or on adorned monumental sculpture of the Middle Ages. The Index records examples in these mediums (including examples on more than 200 manuscript pages) with the subject heading Zodiac Sign: Cancer. Generally, the depiction of the sign of Cancer as a crab is most prevalent in art from the Mediterranean and Western Europe, possibly due to the proximity to the sea, but the crayfish as a symbol for Cancer is not unusual, even in coastal regions. Crabs are saltwater decapods, creatures with ten feet or five pairs of legs. Crayfish are also decapods, but they thrive in freshwater lakes and rivers. Summer was the best season for fishing, and crayfish were easily trapped along the streams and creeks of rural Europe. The French and the English were the first to incorporate crayfish into their diet.
The Romans had viewed the crayfish as a scavenger animal, and they disliked the taste in their cuisine. Elevated from its lowly status as mere fodder in the classical era, crayfish came to be considered a delicacy in Western Europe from as early as the tenth century. In medicine, the sign ruled over the chest, stomach and ribs, and there are also several medieval pharmacological texts that note the medical properties of the crayfish, including the fact that “If you boil them in milk they cause a good sleep” (Swahn, “The Cultural History of Crayfish,” 247). We know that Europeans were using crayfish in their recipes and tinctures, so their distinctive form would have been a familiar one. In the blog article “The Crusty Conundrum,” for the Voynich Portal, J. K. Petersen makes interesting points about the Cancerian crayfish in the 15th century Voynich Manuscript. Petersen reads the Voynich crayfish as anatomically incorrect, with legs attached to tail, suggesting that the artist had been working from traditional representations rather than from life. This idea supports the theory that crayfish were so common in medieval astrological culture that the critters were simply represented from memory!
Allen, Richard Hinckley. Star-names and Their Meanings. New York, Leipzig: G.E. Stechert, 1899, 107-111.
Fischof, Iris. “The Twelve Signs,” In Written in the Stars: Art and Symbolism of the Zodiac. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2001, 111.
Forest, Jacques, J. C. von Vaupel Klein, and J. Chaigneau. The Crustacea: Treatise on zoology – anatomy, taxonomy, biology: Revised and updated from the Traité de zoologie. Leiden: Brill, 2004, 173.
Swahn, J.-Ö. “The Cultural History of Crayfish.” Bulletin Français de la Pêche et de la Pisciculture 372-373 (2004), 243-251.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Cancer,” “Crab,” “Crayfish,” “Lobster,” accessed June 2016, http://www.oed.com/
Larkin, Deirdre, “Making Hay: The Zodiacal Sign of Cancer,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Blog, June 5, 2009, http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2009/06/05/making-hay/060509_bottom/
Petersen, J. K., “A Crusty Conundrum,” The Voynich Portal Blog, February 15, 2016, http://voynichportal.com/tag/cancer-symbol/
“Summer and Crayfish,” The Medieval Histories Blog, June 15, 2016, http://www.medievalhistories.com/summer-and-crayfish/
The Index of Christian Art presents three images in honor of the 160,000 allied troops who landed on the fortified beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944. The first, a detail of the Bayeux Embroidery portraying Duke William of Normandy sailing to England, evokes the seaborne operation that marked the beginning of the liberation of occupied Europe from Nazi control. The second, a sculpted personification of Fortitude holding a sword and shield from the west façade of Notre-Dame of Paris, speaks to the courage and resilience of the allied forces in the face of the enemy. The third, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s languid depiction of Peace from the Allegory of Good Government fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, alludes to the aftermath of the war, while also expressing hope for the resolution of current conflicts worldwide.
Mother’s Day has been celebrated annually in the United States on the second Sunday in May for over one hundred years. Following its declaration as an official holiday by the state of West Virginia, Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation announcing the first national Mother’s Day on 9 May 1914.
Images of the Virgin and Child are among the most common depictions of motherhood from the Middle Ages. The Strahov Madonna of ca. 1340 captures the dynamism (or “squirminess”) typical of small children, while also communicating to beholders the special status of the figures through solemn expressions and meaningful gestures. The Child grasps his mother’s veil with his left hand and holds a goldfinch in his right hand, a pose adapted from the Virgin Kykkotissa, a highly venerated, miracle-working Byzantine icon thought to have been painted from life by Saint Luke. Portrayals of the Visitation present an earlier stage of motherhood.
A fifteenth-century French Book of Hours shows the pregnant Virgin gently cradling her swollen abdomen as she greets her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, who “leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). A thirteenth-century fresco of the birth of John the Baptist from Parma Baptistery captures yet another aspect of motherhood, depicting two midwives tending to Elizabeth as two others bathe her newborn infant.
The Index of Christian Art has 29 subject records for the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. John the Baptist: Birth appears in 104 records.
Nine times Moses went to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II to demand freedom for the Israelites in captivity, saying “Let my people go.” Each time Moses and his brother Aaron were sent a way, an episode classified by the Index as, Moses and Aaron: driven from Pharaoh’s Presence. Despite these increasingly tense exchanges, and then a marvelous act that changed Aaron’s rod into a serpent before the Pharaoh’s court (Moses: Miracle of Rod changed to Serpent), Ramses still refused to release the Israelites from slavery.
What followed was the foretold wrath of God enacted as ten crippling plagues on the Egyptians. In the first wave of calamities, there were plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, and lice that polluted the air and water. The second wave, brought plagues of flies, diseased livestock, and boils. Then came hail, locusts, and darkness that fell on Egypt for three days. The tenth and final plague, the “Plague of the Firstborn,” claimed the lives of the eldest children in all Egyptian families. The Index of Christian Art classifies the subjects of the Exodus plagues under the major figure of Moses:
The final plague is described in several phases throughout the books of Exodus (11:4-8; 12:1-13, 21-23, 29-30). Moses first warns of its coming to the embattled Ramses, but his warning is dismissed.
Facing the impending deadly plague, Moses instructs the Israelites to make a sacrificial offering to God, and to use the blood of the animal – a male yearling – to mark the doorposts and lintels of their homes. Moses explains to them that marking their homes this way will spare their firstborn children from the “death angel,” saying he “will pass over the door.” (Exodus 12:23).
Following this, the Israelites were delivered from bondage and departed from Egypt. The Exodus is remembered at the feast of Passover – the Hebrew feast of Pesach – with special instructions for preparing, eating, and storing traditional, often symbolic food. While Passover traditions have varied over time and from one region to another, it is generally a family holiday in which the meal is accompanied by readings, songs, and traditional rituals designed to remind the celebrants of the Exodus story and the hopes for a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. The order of the seder, or Passover meal, is set out in a book known as the Haggadah, which was sometimes richly illuminated in the Middle Ages, as shown here in the Sarajevo Haggadah, originating in Barcelona in the middle of the 14th century. Well-known related manuscripts to this Haggadah include the Rylands Haggadah and the Simeon Haggadah. The Index classifies subjects depicting the original Passover feast as Moses: Passover, Moses: Passover proclaimed, and Moses: Law, Feast of Passover and with a general heading for Scene: Passover.
The middle of April strikes dread (or joy) in the hearts of millions of tax filers. Since 1955, April 15 has typically marked the end of the tax season in the continental US. This year, however, filers have received a three-day reprieve to accommodate Emancipation Day in Washington D.C, which is observed on the weekday closest to April 16 when it falls on a weekend.
Saint Matthew is among the best-known tax collectors in the history of Christian art. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus encountered Levi (Matthew’s name before his conversion) in the custom house of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus said to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew obeyed.
A remarkable depiction of Christ calling Matthew appears in the Picture Book of Madame Marie, a thirteenth–century French devotional manuscript now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. The scene takes place beneath sharply-cusped arches and against a fiery background. Wearing a brilliant blue garment and purple cloak, Christ addresses Matthew, whose money table has been dramatically tilted to reveal neat piles of gold and silver coins. Thematically related is a fifth-century gold solidus of Pulcheria with the empress wearing an elaborate coiffure and lavish jewels, a macabre Dance of Death featuring a money-changer from a fifteenth century French Book of Hours, and a regal image of the Queen of Coins on a fifteenth-century Italian tarot card.
May the rocks in your field turn to gold!