If Only Ariel Had Known It Was That Easy (Mmm… Marginalia #35)

This week’s marginal delight comes from the pages of the Hunterian Psalter, a twelfth-century English manuscript currently held by one of my alma maters, the University of Glasgow, and kept safe and sound inside their appropriately named Hunterian Museum:*


Mermaids are fairly common in the margins of manuscripts, but this one is of a rarer stripe, able to slip out of her fishy bottom to walk around on two legs just like us surface dwellers, as you can see if you look a bit closer:


I’m not familiar with this forgotten talent of medieval mermaids in any other accounts,** but such an ability would answer a question I’ve always had about mermaids. People say they were dreamt up by lonely sailors away on long voyages without women. But if that’s true, why would these horndog sailors give their dream women inaccessible lady parts? Or, to quote Fry from the Lost City of Atlantis episode of Futurama: “Why couldn’t she be the other sort of mermaid, with the fish parts on top and the lady parts on bottom?”*** This gal neatly sidesteps the problem. She can be half fish while still remaining all woman.

Oh, and manuscript illustration snobs will descend upon me with teeth bared if I don’t add the disclaimer that this lovely lady is technically part of a historiated initial, and thus strictly speaking not marginalia–but it sure looks to me like it’s into the margins she’s headed once she shucks that tail.****

*Both named for William Hunter, an eighteenth-century collector of antiquities.
**And, as I allude to in my title, neither was Walt Disney–or, for that matter, Hans Christian Anderson. But think how much shorter their Little Mermaids would be if the titular mermaid could just hop right out of her tail.
***This said after his Parker Posey-voiced mermaid date offers to let him fertilize her eggs with his man jelly while she’s out of the room.
****Possibly as soon as she finds some pants.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • MasterGote

    What do you think about her hair? She has a braid, but she’s about to comb right through it. It’s kind of a visual and conceptual parallel to the tail/legs situation, no? The braid even looks like a fish-tail.

  • Got Medieval

    Well, mermaids often appear in medieval images holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other. They symbolize vanity. So, I see the comb and wonder where the mirror is. But your suggestion, Gote, is also quite good.

  • Pamela

    Couldn’t the tail making her lady-parts inaccesible be appropriate given the inaccessibility of mermaids — and for that matter, women — to these lonely sailors?

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