Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Medieval Whimsy in Serious Places

Today at the Treasures of Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral, I saw a 13th century copy of Gratian’s Decretum complete with an illumination of some odd imaginary creature, a friendly dragon perhaps?

Since Gratian was the dominant canon law reference of the time, that’s a bit like seeing a modern lawyerly tome illustrated with Spongebob.

Now I am certainly aware that many medieval manuscripts, even of religious import, are whimsically illustrated. The Luttrell Psalter, which I intend to study in some detail, stands out in that regard. But I certainly did not expect such in a medieval law book.

Such can also be found in English cathedrals and churches. In Hexham Abbey is stone carving of a jester and of a fox preaching to other animals. And this on a chantry near the altar no less. At the crossing of Wells Cathedral is the famous stone carving of a man with a toothache.

I have not yet come across much scholarly commentary on frequent medieval whimsy in illuminated manuscripts and in places of grave, even holy import.

But I have a theory . . . which I may promulgate at a later time.


Housekeeping: I did promise you a surprise about this time. I am studying in England again. And my posts will focus mainly on that experience for a while.

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