The Secret Language of Bears (Mmm… Marginalia #101)

This week’s marginal image is found in the lower left corner of a page from a late 14th-century English breviary.* Those in the know might bristle at my casual use of the indefinite article, as this is not just any psalter, but one likely commissioned by Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex.** The Bohun family is important for medieval art historians as regular employers of some of England’s finest miniaturists, but the rest of the world knows them instead for their part in the historical soap opera that inspired Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy, the plays Richard II, the two-part Henry IV, and Henry V.

When the titular king of Henry IV was still going by Harry Bollingbroke, he married a girl named Mary de Bohun, who gave him a son who would go on to become a titular king himself. This breviary may even have been Mary’s, and though she died before Bollingbroke usurped Richard, the book may have bounced around the royal households of both Henrys during all that sound and fury that Shakespeare immortalized. If only it had eyes, it would have been an eye witness to so much costume drama worthy history. Alas, no eyes, unless we count those owned by the people and beasties living in the margins.

But heck, why not ask them? What would these marginal people say if they could speak?*** Or if you find my flight of fancy to be dangerously close to dissociative identity disorder, we could just ask this bear, who was kind enough to write his thoughts down:****

Neither my paleography in general nor my specific knowledge of late Anglo-Norman hands is up to the task of providing a transcript. I used up all my squinting and letter-form analyzing wherewithal determining that Psalm 16 comprises most of the text to the right of our stenographic bear.

So it’s up to you to your squinting and parsing to figure out what the bear is writing on his scroll, and perhaps your superior understanding of ursine psychology. As usual, the image is click-zoomable, so you can give it as much of a try as you’d care to.*****

As you might expect if you read my marginalia posts regularly, I doubt his words have anything to do with Bollingbroke’s political maneuvering or with Psalm 16, but I don’t want to prejudice you. But I also don’t want to leave you to fend entirely for yourselves. If the text fails me, I can always direct you to the other images on the page for inspiration. If we follow the foliate border up, we find this little guy:******

With this in mind, I suggest the bear is writing home to Mama Bear, telling her something like, “The damn******* goose in the middle left margin won’t stop playing his damn horn. What the hell does a goose need a horn for, anyway? Is it not enough keeping me up all damn night just honking into his cell phone?”********

But then, I might be projecting–not my own dislike of geese and noise, but the feelings of the fellow found at the top of the left margin, who has his own more pressing problems with the non-avian horn-bearing jerks above him:

My tiny image parsing ability is not enough to tell you what’s going on inside that historiated initial, nor is my sociological study of conjoined twins and their musical talent far enough along********* to say why these two who share a lower torso think that playing from atop the back of a reluctant drummer will add to their horn technique. So do with them what you will as you tell me (and the other clever readers of this blog) exactly what you think the bear is writing about at the bottom of the breviary page.

Go on, there’s this whole fancy Disqus plugin waiting for you down there at the bottom of the post page past the footnotes.**********

  1. * The British Library’s MS Egerton 3277, f. 13v, to be precise. A breviary is a collection of psalms, hymns, prayers, and other religiously significant material for everyday use, most often used by clerics and others with official religious responsibilities, but layfolk had them too. []
  2. ** Either the seventh or eighth Earl, both of whom were named Humphrey. []
  3. *** I imagine it’d mostly be poop jokes, given what usually seems to preoccupy marginal people. They’re mostly just tiny illuminated Kevin Smiths and brothers Farrelly. Except with extra anuses. And anuses in places you don’t usually expect them. []
  4. **** Man, that’s the longest intro to a marginal image I’ve ever written. Curse you, history, for you interesting but inconveniently intertwined factoids. []
  5. ***** And as I’ve said before, even those who’ve not been formally trained in paleography have acquired some of the skill in wrestling with reCAPTCHA‘s increasingly inscrutable confirmation words. []
  6. ****** Who there’s no point in clicking on in hopes of a zoom, as I’m using the BL’s maximum available resolution already. Oh, British Library, why will you not follow the Bodleian’s lead and bury us under multi-gig photos? []
  7. ******* In my world, bears swear, but no so much that movies featuring them would lose their PG ratings. []
  8. ******** Also, in my world geese have cell phones. And if you must know, they mostly use Sprint. They say it’s because they don’t like feeling nervous about going over an arbitrary data limit, but really they just like complaining about how the calls drop constantly unless you migrate along the interstate. []
  9. ********* Still waiting on my grant from the NEA. []
  10. ********** But no bear. Until someone makes a WordPress plugin to put one there–hey, while you’re down there commenting, would you mind doing that, too? My blog too often feels light on bears these days. []

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bex

    I think the bear is doing what all bears do with lists — adding up supplies for the winter.

  • Ruth

    It looks to me like the first two words are “sere” and “bere,” and the last two are “martinet” and “robinet.” I guess the bear is trying to write rhyming poetry–but I wonder whether “sere bere” might not be the beginning of a letter addressed to him?  

  • Anne

    I agree with Ruth, except I think the first word might be “sire.”

  • Zeborah

    The second letter looks like a “c” to me, but “screbere” would be an appalling spelling mistake.  There’s also a few letters on the previous page: pre-something?

  • frnk

    A bear has learn how to write, even has a tolerable hand, and he is faulted for spelling errors? Do not annoy the bear by correcting his spelling. Bears are known to eat naughty scribes.

  • Got Medieval
  • Judy S

    I think the last word is “robinet,” or “faucet,” so he might be telling Mama that he isn’t sure whether he left the faucet running, would she please check and if necessary “mai[n]tiner  robinet,” with the spelling error also seen in “Screbere,” meaning “maintenir le robinet,” “fix the faucet.” I suppose the word could also mean, in those crude days when bears didn’t have hot and cold laid on, “little Robin,” in which case it’s obviously a nickname for the goose.

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    I think I read (largely as other people have said):
    pri | eri
    scre [or sTe] | bere ||| ui– [or lit–] | milis | tinet | robi | net
    I like `martinet / robinet’ but can’t see why even a bear should drop into capitals for just one letter. No other obvious letters a to compare to though!

    I’m tempted to read the first few lines as `first to write’, which would probably be a reasonable claim for a bear, but what I really want to know is why has he apparently left the lines in the middle till last? (That is to say, I can’t make any sense of anything but the first bit.)

  • Lena

    Though unfortunately I can’t seem to decipher the contents, I have found the letters recipient in this fresco:

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  • Bart Beswick

    I think he may be dashing off a noise complaint to the local council. “Free Bear wishes to appeal to the guiy in the militant robes appointed by the mayor – please silence the geese and horn players after third bells, and those drummers have got to go as well”

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