Medieval Unicorn Chasers (Google Penance)

According to my sitemeter, Google sent someone with the question “Is it true about medieval unicorns?” to an old post here about Harry Potter, giving me reason to suspect that, once again, people at Google are having me on. But since it’s been a while since my last Google Penance, I’ll play along.

So, is it true about medieval unicorns?

Yes, it’s true; medieval unicorns, like everything else in the Middle Ages, signify Christ. Unicorns cannot be tamed and run fierce and wild–just like Christ… who could not be held by the prisons of Hell. Their horns symbolize the unity between God and Christ,* and their small size symbolizes Christ’s humility in taking on the form of a wretched human.

Ok, it’s more likely the Googler wanted to know if it’s true that medieval unicorns could only be tamed by virgins. (If there’s one thing I know about Googlers, it’s their love of virginity trivia.)

Answer to this “it”: A definite yes. You cannot catch a unicorn unless you have a spare maiden around who is willing to stay seated until a unicorn happens along and puts its head in her lap. She may or may not have to bare her breast and let the unicorn suckle first.

Given their fierce untameableness, you might think that medieval depictions of unicorns would feature a lot of unicorns proudly running free, chased by hapless knights (or 13th-century wouldbe P.T. Barnums), their silver manes dancing with light and their horns pointing ever on toward freedom.

Certainly, these days, you’re most likely to encounter a unicorn in a poster hanging on a bubble-gum pink painted wall in the room of a pre-teen girl. There’s even an (only slightly outdated) internet meme built around using unicorns to banish away all the bad things one runs into while surfing the blagoblag blogosphere.


U · ni · corn chas · er [yoo-ni-kawrn chey-ser]
-noun
1. An internet post featuring an extremely cute and/or sparkly picture of a unicorn, meant to cleanse the palate after a blog reader has been subjected to a distasteful post or image such as goatse.cx, 2 girls 1 cup, etc.** The concept was first popularized at BoingBoing.net.

The medievals, however, had a different sort of unicorn chaser. Their pictures of unicorns were, instead, of unicorns being chased and then brutally murdered by clever maidens and their knightly accomplices. Witness this, from a 14th-century Book of Hours (MS Douce 48):

Or this, from a 13th-century bestiary (MS Douce 132):*****


Or this, from a completely different 13th-century bestiary (MS Bodl. 764):

In short, medieval unicorn chasers were more like to inspire, rather than banish, feelings of uneasiness. Oh and, poor Unknown Googler, if you really wanted to know about Christ signification and are shocked at all this unicorn snuff-porn, take heart. Unicorns being killed also signify Christ, who was brought to earth in the lap of a maiden only to be betrayed and horrifically murdered.

For everyone else, if images of unicorns impaled on spears don’t satisfy your hopes and dreams of prancing, noble, carefree medieval unicorns, you can at least take a little comfort from knowing that you’re not first to be disappointed by unicorns of the medieval variety. Marco Polo was shown a unicorn–actually, a rhinocerus–on his journeys and had this to say:

They are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boars…They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.

Read more about medieval unicorns here and here.

*But only when the Holy Ghost is off scaring those meddling kids away from the old abandoned amusement park.
**Note that this bloggist has not provided a link to either of said examples, and this is done as a service to you, my dear readers. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt Google searches for either phenomenon on your own.***
***No, really. Don’t. Really. Really really.****

****Readers accustomed to jokes in the footnotes, I promise you, none of these footnotes are jokes. I also understand the dilemma of a jokey footnote telling you it’s no joke. To quote a certain band, “I’m finished with lies. If you don’t believe me now, you’ll never believe me. (You’ll think it’s a lie.)”
*****I do not know what Mr. Douce had against unicorns.

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