The Return of the Reader and a peculiar little manuscript

According to many medieval writers, dragons sometimes need to sleep. Apparently, wreaking havoc, breathing fire, and hoarding riches is rather exhausting work. Beowulf’s dragon rests for 300 years before bringing disaster to the Geats, and Merlin discovers two sleeping dragons on the land where a certain king wants to build a tower. People, while much smaller and hairier than dragons, also need rest. Writing this blog brings me much joy, but between taking on additional classes, drafting The Dissertation, and practicing my Cajun cooking, I found myself in much need of that deep, rejuvenating slumber dragons are accustomed to.  

Now, though, the Reader of all things reptilian is back with a manuscript in her (digital) hand! I recently stumbled upon and subsequently fell in love with a Carthusian Miscellany in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts from the British Library. This manuscript contains over 30 graphic illustrations focuses on death, demons, and, of course, a dragon. The manuscript contains devotional poems, chronicles, and treatises alongside these large illustrations, and while it does not center on dragons, it also contains a summary of The Travels of John Mandeville, a popular travelogue that features many marvelous creatures, including dragons.

Miscellanies, or collections of various texts (think of modern English “miscellaneous”), are fairly popular in religious orders like that of the Carthusians, a particular group founded as a hermitage in the French Alps. In fact, medieval miscellanies exist in many rare books libraries, demonstrating their prominence in both the Middle Ages and the early Modern period. Likewise, it is not unusual for excerpts of Mandeville’s Travels to exist such manuscript (I guess even monks wanted to dwell in Mandeville’s wondrous landscapes). What I’m struck by, though, is the placement of all the components: religious texts, Travels, and the images.

I love the images in this book. They are not the detailed, awe-inspiring and gold-laced miniatures of French books of hours, but the character and storybook elements win me over. These pictures speak to me in their off-kilter weirdness. They are attention grabbing and surprisingly modern. They do not shy away from the grotesque. The dragon image, I must say, is one of my favorites:

Additional 37049; f. 19v; Man, unicorn and dragon

If you’re like me and have difficult parsing just what is happening in this text, the catalogue entry provides a brief explanation that, somehow, makes it even better:

Emblematic drawing of a man in a tree (man’s life) pursued by a unicorn (death), taking honey (worldly vanities), while a white mouse (day) and a black mouse (night) gnaw at the trunk. Four serpents beneath represent the four elements, and a dragon’s open mouth awaits victims. 

I guess, then, this is a representation of someone’s experience as a living being. The “life tree” (perhaps, specifically, the mice) immediately reminds me of Old Norse cosmology (a sentence I never thought I’d get to write!). In the Old Norse worldview, Yggdrasil, the sacred ash tree, has branches that extend into different realms, and it houses three creature: Ratatoskr, a squirrel who carries messages from Níðhöggr, a serpent gnawing on the roots of the tree, to an eagle perched atop its branches. See the resemblance?

Yggdrasil, with serpents gnawing at her roots. Unfortunately, this representation (from a plate in a mid-19th century translation of the Prose Edda) does not include our squirrel or eagle.

Maybe it’s the Old Norse connection, or maybe it’s just my own feelings about living in the Pandemic Times, 21st century edition, but I think this image and this miscellany are about making sense of the incomprehensible. The British Library puts this Middle English miscellany’s Northern England, dated from 1460-1500. This time marked a particularly intense time in the region’s history. The country was plagued with violence between the Anglo-Scottish Wars and the War of the Roses, and the Protestant Reformation was on the horizon. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that this miscellany is so full of texts questioning man’s place in the world. In a world full of life, death, worldly vanities, day, night, and the four elements, not to mention mice, serpents, and unicorns, where do we fall? We might boldly portray ourselves at its center to exercise some imaginary control, but in the end, we are just one more figure competing on the page. What might be more worthy of note, then, is that marvels like the dragon are seamlessly integrated into the world order, even if they inhabit a negative space.

Where to read it:

This miscellany is amazing, and I highly recommend taking a gander. The British Library has done a quick summary of the artifact that you can read here, but if you’re interested in the many marvelous images this text houses, try the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.