Tag Archives: Medieval

A medieval scribe curses a cat for peeing on his manuscript

In 1420, a scribe in Deventer (the Netherlands) had a rather unpleasant day. He left the manuscript which he was working on open on the desk. It proved to be quite a mistake as when he returned, he found that a cat had urinated on his pages

This prompted a hilarious writing now preserved for posterity.

The Latin version reads thusly (don’t worry if your Latin is a little rusty, there’s an English translation below:

Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.

English:

Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.

The scribe continued to write on the urinated pages, but one can only imagine the stench that impregnated the pages. He probably had more curses for the cat than the one he wrote down. The way the writing is arranged is also very telling: on the left, everything is ordered and neat, whereas on the right it looks more like a scribble than a proper text.

So given their inclination to ruin all things, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries in the first place? Especially since paper to write on was expensive and difficult to produce, this seems like an unwise idea. However, cats played a very important role: they defended the manuscripts from pesky rodents. This is brilliantly illustrated by a ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

You can read the entire poem here.

If there’s any lesson to be learned here — don’t heave your manuscript open at night when there’s a cat around. As a matter of fact, don’t leave anything out. Looking directly at my cat-chewed headphone cable, I can only empathize with the scribe in Deventer.

The medieval elephant was partly horse, partly dog, totally hilarious

There were some pretty epic works of art made throughout the Middle Ages and especially the Renaissance. Tapestries, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, monumental works gracing royal chambers and cathedrals. But we’re not gonna talk about those today. We’re gonna talk about the drawings that would have barely made it under a magnet on the fridge door (if they would’ve had fridges or magnets in those times.)

The drawings that never fail to get a giggle out of me. No matter how tragic or dramatic the scene, there’s always a little something hilarious in the depiction; most often caused by a dissociation between what’s happening and the expressions depicted. The fiercest battle, the most grueling siege, for example, has that one guy stabbing away with a bored expression on his face, seemingly wondering whether or not he turned the stove off before he left home. For me, it just adds to the experience — they’re treats, like little chips of chocolate in a cookie to be found and enjoyed.

But if you want a full chocolate bar, look no further than these medieval takes on what an elephant looks like.

From the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, Classe

Ok so only two pictures in and color, anatomy and size are already hilariously wrong. A preschooler could probably draw a better elephant, right?

Well yes, that’s probably right. But consider the fact that these drawings were done starting from nothing more than a description of what an elephant is, and a shoddy one at that. Or from another drawing, at best. The average preschooler today has seen a lot more elephants than all these artists combined. So they naturally drew them similar animals they knew of which seemed similar in form or use: horses, boars or dogs.

From the Rochester Beastiary

It just goes to show the huge difference modern photography makes in our lives, connecting the world, making it smaller and smaller each day. I can’t think of a single thing that I know of without having seen at least one picture or photograph of. But if I do and I’m curious to see how it looks like, all I have to do is google it. These artists could have only dreamed of that.

Luckily for us, or they wouldn’t have made these awfully hilarious drawings.

All images via Imgur.