When You Least Expect It… Expect BEARS!!! (Mmm… Marginalia #83)

As promised, this week we return to the bas-de-pages* of British Library MS Royal 10 E, AKA the “Smithfield Decretals” for a quick lesson in unicorn ecology.  As you might have heard, there’s only one surefire way for humans to hunt a unicorn.  But on the off chance you haven’t, here’s a quick primer: what you need above all else is a willing maiden who’ll sit serenely in a meadow or forest clearing where unicorns are known to frolic.  While the maiden does her thing, grab a long spear and go hide behind a tree until a unicorn happens upon the aforementioned maiden.  Since unicorns cannot resist laying their heads in the laps of maidens, all you have to do is wait for the proper time and let loose with the pokey spear.  Like so:

All this is so well-known as to be almost unworthy of mention at all–so imagine my surprise when I discovered the illuminator responsible for the pictures in the Smithfield Decretals advanced a wholly novel method of unicorn dispatching.  Bears!

Not pictured: the other bear (he’s cropped out so you won’t be too scared)

Bears 1, Unicorns 0.  Suck it, maidens.

Now you may be telling yourself, “Self, we shouldn’t be afraid of bears.  We probably taste nothing like a unicorn.”  That’s what I told myself, certainly, until I flipped around a little bit in the manuscript and found this idyllic picture of some monkeys cavorting with stuff they stole from a traveler’s pack.***

What’s so sinister about monkeys and their stolen treasures?  Well, they distract our poor monkeys from…

Bears!!! Ah!  Even monkeys aren’t safe from these ravenous death machines.  But, yeah, yeah, I know, you guys aren’t monkeys.  Why should you fear?  Well, why don’t you ask this fair maiden here?  Seems safe, doesn’t she, so well protected by that strapping knight–but, wait, where’s he going?  Don’t go away Mr. Knight…

Ah!!! Bears!!! Poor, poor maiden.  This is why you should never let a knight out of your sight.  (On account of the bears, you see.)

And what does Mr. Fancy Pants Knight have to say for himself?  Where is our hero?

Oh.  It seems he was otherwise occupied. (But at least not by bears!)

*Fancy talk for “bottom of the page”!**
**Though perhaps it should be “bottoms of the page”.  Like attorneys general. Or maybe “bottoms of the pages”?
***It’s a manuscript monkey thing.  They can’t resist travelers’ packs.  Monkey see monkey do and all that.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jon Hendry

    Is there a maiden mauling missing?

  • Got Medieval

    Yep. Fixed it. Sorry 'bout that.

  • Harry

    I posted a nice C15th woodcut of monkeys taking stuff from someone's luggage to Tumblr the other day — didn't realise it was a well-known hazard of medieval travel.

  • Jason Couch

    Solid Gold Awesomeness.

  • Matthew Johnson

    I swear I saw that last image somewhere in the original Dungeon Master's Guide.

  • jackd

    I like the way the knight's shield grew a face between the two panels. And is that a giant misshapen spoon he's using to battle the vicious snail?

  • Jon Hendry

    Yay! Maiden mauling!


    Um, this is the kind of comment that turns up in news reports if I were to get arrested, isn't it?

  • jurosk

    My countryman Olaus Magnus, the last catholic archbishop of Sweden wrote about a maiden-molesting bear in his "Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus" ("History of the Northern People"), 1555 (Venice). There is even a woodcut of the event.
    The bear was starting to tear the maiden in pieces, but the fight ended in unatural lust.
    (..in usum nefariae libidinis…)
    She later bore him a son. We Swedes were strange in those days. Brhm…
    Magnus, the swede

  • Freyalyn

    Who would have thought that bears and monkeys were such a problem for medieaval travellers.

  • WaveLength

    This was just too funny! Here in the Pacific Northwest we do not have unicorns, BUT we have bears and snails (and slugs). Walking in the woods will never be the same!

  • CJ Reyn

    Were wayward monkeys very common in Europe during that time?

  • DMH_Dragon

    That was too funny, I love the way you told that story, very authentic.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Re: D&D, there's a pixie or brownie fighter who fights a giant snail, I think.

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  • kaltzifer

    Best knowledge i got now.

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