A Mermaid Intervention (Mmm… Marginalia #90)

Your first dose of marginal goodness in this new year is found From the always inscrutable Smithfield Decretals (British Library MS Royal 10 IV)* :

Why must you war, centaur-men? Do you not see how alike you are? Yes, one of you chooses to fight with a fish, the other some sort of bent cauldron thing. Yes, one of you has a man’s face for an ass–actually, the less we focus on the ass the better.

Where was I? Oh yes. Think of how much you have in common! Apart from the whole two-legged front-heavy body plans you’ve got going on there. You both like red, don’t you? And robes that drape in the front and kind of look like forelegs but aren’t. That’s got to count for something!

(In other words, I have absolutely no clue what’s supposed to be going on here, but a man wielding a fish is neat enough to justify the post on its own. Feel free to try to make sense of it yourselves.)


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  1. * Home to such treasures as the justice-lovin’ hares, the sneak-attack bears, and a dozen other oddities that I’ll dole out over the coming year. []

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  • Faerienerd

    Probably because I’ve just watched Golden Girls, but this scene has St. Olaf written all over it.

  • ScuffedShoes

    “Tonight on Coquus Ferreus the theme ingredient is flounder. Or maybe sole.”
    OR
    “Oh please, Sirs, spare my child; he is yet a tender flounder. Cut not his life short, but let him grow to be a strong, proud halibut.”

  • Marge

    They’re actually mostly fighting with ladles – that’s a guard very reminiscent of one in i33 (Scroll down to the fifth ward on this page to see: http://www.thearma.org/Manuals/I33-guards.html ). That makes the fish and the cauldron the bucklers, which makes sense as they both have them in their left hands.

    There are some interpreters of the fencing manuals that see an open guard like that as a “bring it on!” statement, which would fit with the mermaid being all “leave it, he’s not worth it!”.

    This does not explain much about what’s exactly going on though, apart from showing where it fits as a combat parody.

  • http://dcisgoingtohell.com Jenn Jordan

    Maybe they are fighting FOR the mermaid. She looks like quite the catch!

    (swerves to avoid projectile pie)

  • http://blog.ejly.net Eva Lyford

    Here we have it – the medieval origins of Monty Python’s fish-slapping dance! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCwLirQS2-o

  • Birgitte Heuschkel

    My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light
    And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
    Out of this union there came three
    A porpoise and a porgy and the other was me!
    Yo ho ho, the wind blows free,
    Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

    One night, as I was a-trimming the glim
    Singing a verse from the evening hymn
    I head a voice cry out an “Ahoy!”
    And there was my mother, sitting on a buoy.

    “Oh, what has become of my children three?”
    My mother then inquired of me.
    One’s on exhibit as a talking fish
    The other was served in a chafing dish.

    Then the phosphorus flashed in her seaweed hair.
    I looked again, and my mother wasn’t there
    But her voice came angrily out of the night
    “To Hell with the keeper of the Eddystone Light!”
    Yo ho ho, the wind blows free,
    Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

  • Sean M

    Haha Eva! I always wondered where that came from…

    Carl, you’ve your year’s worth of posts already if you’re covering the Decretals this year. 300+ pages of inscrutability, all in one handy package! Check out the treehugger on the page after this one.

  • http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com Jonathan Jarrett

    So I have no actual comment, I just want to say, the pool the mermaid is swimming in, it must be intended to be behind them, from the way it rises up the page as if it were a hillock. In other words, the artist is trying perspective? Which would also be why she of the fishtail is smaller than the combatants? I’m now wondering how many times I’ve looked at medieval drawings and never thought about a third dimension.

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com/ Got Medieval

      In many places, this particular artist’s sense of layout and scale is darn close to insane.

  • MPK

    This doesn’t look like a fight to me. I think the two boys are celebrating about the flounder they are about to cook. The poor mermaid looks like she is lamenting the imenent demise of one of her “relations”.

    This must have been drawn on a Friday, just before lunch.

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  • http://bestiary.ca David Badke

    In bestiaries the mermaid is often shown holding a mirror and a comb, and sometimes a fish. A related species, the siren, is shown holding musical instruments, and again, a fish. The beasty on the left has the fish, and the beasty on the right has the mirror and what could arguably be bagpipes, so maybe what we have here is a couple of mean hybrids playing keepaway with the mermaid/siren, who is gesticulating furiously and yelling “Hey! Give me back my stuff!”

  • http://girlscholar.blogspot.com Notorious Ph.D.

    Am I the only one who thinks that the fighting figures are women?

    Other than that: no freakin’ clue.

  • http://minorheresies.com Canute

    The half-centaur on the right is holding a common three-legged pot in his hand, made for sitting over an open fire. That, the fish, and the long handled spoons seem to make it a simple cooking reference. The mermaid’s gesture makes me want to agree with Scuffed Shoes on the “spare my child” interpretation.

    But the man’s face with animal ears on the guy’s butt is plenty trippy. ” Hmmm, mold on the rye….ahh, use it anyway, what could happen?”

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com/ Got Medieval

      I’m definitely coming around to the fight over dinner hypothesis.

      I’ve never encountered a medieval mermaid in the role of protectress of fish, so I don’t know what her presence is meant to indicate, but I do think the two hybrids are fighting over the fish and its culinary possibilities. Not sure if it’s, “Stay back, I get to eat this fish,” and “But you have no cauldron! Let me eat it!” or if ass-butt isn’t meant to be on the mermaid’s side against the cauldron-wielder.

  • Grep Agni

    I was thinking that the lower halves of the men were a single animal that happened to be divided in two parts. I’m choosing to ignore that the “front” part on the left has rear legs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/victor.gavenda Victor Gavenda

    I’m not so sure the centauroid dudes are warring at all. The implements they’re holding in their distal hands don’t really look like weapons to me. Maybe they’re trading recipes? Picking up on your “bent cauldron thing” idea, the guy on the right could be holding a soup ladle; then the guy on the left comes up and says “Hey, this fish is the perfect thing for your broth!” And luckily he’s brought along his flounder flattener; though a more redundant instrument is difficult to imagine.
    Between them, the Julia Child-ish mermaid throws up her hands in despair at the inability of the English to assemble a proper bouillabaisse.

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