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Archive for the 'Arendse Lund' Category

An Afternoon with Materials & Objects

By Arendse I Lund, on 25 May 2017

Materials & Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, took place on Thursday, 18 May 2017, in the UCL Art Museum.

The first manuscript I ever handled was the Vercelli Book. I was on an archival research trip to the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, just outside of Milan, and I couldn’t believe that the librarian would entrust me with this. Awe struck and fangirling, I oh-so-very-carefully flipped my way through the large manuscript. I had written papers and looked at digital versions of the manuscript but nothing could compare to handling and studying it in person.

The  Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross

The Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross

 

The Vercelli Book is a late 10th-century work, compiled of both prose and poetry, and written in Old English on parchment. How it got down to Vercelli is still something scholars debate. It’s not the largest work I’ve ever handled, and depending on your perspective, not the rarest either; I’ve handled manuscripts that are technically saints’ relics. The Vercelli Book holds a special place in my heart and I’ve never lost my awe for handling the objects behind my research.

Talking about the manuscripts with the public is one way I try to share my enthusiasm for what an incredible field of studies I’m in and how exciting it is to be a medievalist. Last week’s Materials & Objects event was the first event we’ve put on since I’ve joined the fabulous Student Engagement team here at UCL and one in which I got to speak all about manuscripts and what they’re made of. Thanks to everyone who turned up, the UCL Art Museum was packed — we even had to place out more chairs! — and the presentations sparked fascinating questions about aspects of research that showed everyone was really engaged with the speakers.

In a way it’s humbling to hear about all the incredible and life changing research that my fellow PhD students are performing. Hannah took the audience step-by-step through recreating the process of 18th-century paper making in her kitchen, and Kyle talked about depictions of archives and their diversity problems (something he’s also written about on this blog). Cerys spoke about researching the Dark Web to aid law enforcement, and Citlali walked the audience through the difficulties and possibilities of growing brains in labs. Josie defended Neanderthals (something she’s done here as well) and handed around flint examples for everyone to feel; finally, Stacy subtly gave the concluding talk standing on one leg to demonstrate how our day-to-day activities shape our bone growth.

Thanks to everyone who came out and participated in our event — leave us a comment and let us know what you thought. If you missed the afternoon, don’t fret; many of the talks will appear in blog post form here before too long and you’re always welcome to come into any of the UCL museums and talk to us more in person!

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.

Question of the Week: What’s that zigzag on your skull?

By Arendse I Lund, on 25 April 2017

Stan hangs out in a corner of the Grant Museum amid cases filled with insect exoskeletons and bisected animal heads. Standing at around two meters, he keeps watch through empty sockets over the animal bones, taxidermy, and jar specimens.

“Can I hold his hand?” I’ve been asked more than once. “Is he real?” comes the hesitant question. As a matter of fact, Stan is a model skeleton, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in any biology classroom. Although he’s resin and missing a joint or two he’s still a remarkably good way to explain what we’re made of once you strip all our clothes, skin, and muscles away.

One of Stan’s characteristics is a zigzagging line arching its way across his skull. Surprised by the mark, a visitor wanted to know why Stan bears this line. She might have been surprised to know that she has one too. It’s actually a feature all human skulls have. Known as the coronal suture, it’s an immovable joint that runs transverse across the skull, separating the frontal bone from the parietal bones.

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford's Children Health Hospital)

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford’s Children Health Hospital)

At birth, the various bones of the skull don’t quite join up, making it easier for the infant to fit through the birth canal; following the birth, the gap persists for a while and the coronal suture reflects where that separation once was. There can be “premature closing” of the suture if the bones fuse too soon and people will develop conditions such as oxycephaly—where the skull is lengthened—or plagiocephaly—where the skull is flattened.

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the "Peking man" but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the “Peking man” but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

If you take an “exploded skull” view then you can see how the various parts of your head all join up. We can see these sutures in other skulls than just modern humans as these skulls are formed in similar ways.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Stan has a few friends at the Grant Museum. There’s a Neanderthal skull alongside Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus afarensis. There’s also a human skeleton that oversees the museum up on a balcony accompanied by an orangutan, gorilla, and chimpanzee—all bearing these sutures.

Next time you see a human skull in a museum, see if you can spot the coronal suture. While knowing its name may not win you any prizes in a pub quiz, it’ll certainly impress Stan. He’ll be waiting to say hi.

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.

#MedievalTwitter and Academia

By Arendse I Lund, on 31 March 2017

After my undergraduate degree, I took two years off to work before returning to school for my Masters and PhD. In that interim period, Twitter was my lifeline to academia.

Social media is surprisingly egalitarian—I could follow professors and academies, grad students and departments, and be part of the higher education conversation. When I returned to academia, I held on to that connection. I’ve sourced reading recommendations and run into academics at conferences who I had previously interacted with on Twitter.

Medieval hug manuscript

British Library, MS Arundel 66, f. 34

Social media also has a less serious and downright silly side. 31 March is International Hug A Medievalist Day. Initially promulgated on Facebook by Sarah Laseke, this holiday is my favorite since medievalists are the best people—though I might be a little biased. There’s great joy that goes into days like these and at one point the New Yorker even did a write up on the holiday. If you run into me, I’ll be accepting hugs all day.

Following directly on the heels of the International Hug A Medievalist Day, 1 April is Whan That Aprille Day, which was started by the person behind @LeVostreGC and celebrates all the old or dead languages of the world.

Hwæt! You might say. That’s just the day for me! Feel free; the only thing required is a sense of humor.

Cantebury tales opening

Oxford, MS Bodl. 686, f. 1r

All year round, you can follow along with #MedievalTwitter and #twitterstorians and watch as people post photos of manuscripts with wacky captions, announce their publications, and invent holidays; there’s something exceptionally joyous in academics delighting in and sharing their research.

While this is my favorite corner of the internet, every specialty seems to have their own hashtags. You can join in different conversations by following #Appellatetwitter for U.S. legal discussion, #histmed for medical history, and #museumhour for weekly public history topics. (The best part is I sourced the answers to this last question on Twitter.) Enjoy!

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.

Question of the Week: What is Egyptian Faience?

By Arendse I Lund, on 2 February 2017

Many of the most noticeable objects in the Petrie Museum’s collection are a striking blue. Visitors are often surprised by their brilliance and ask me whether these objects, thousands of years old, have been recently repainted. They haven’t; they’re part of an ancient Egyptian material called faience.

Shabti with hieroglyphs of the reverse: "the god's father beloved of the god, ruler of the goddess Bat Amunireru (?)" (Petrie Museum, UC13211)

Shabti with hieroglyphs of the reverse: “the god’s father beloved of the god, ruler of the goddess Bat Amunireru (?)” (Petrie Museum, UC13211)

Faience was commonly used for small objects to be worn—such as amulets and beads—as it is smooth to touch. In many cases, these objects are quite similar to glass: the technique involves crushing quartz or sand and applying a soda-lime silica glaze. While faience is often studied and discussed in relation to pottery, in actuality it’s a type of ceramic, most popularly glazed in blue.

string of beads

String of beads: gold, lapis lazuli, glazed steatite (Petrie Museum, UC5432)

I’m often asked if the amulets are made of lapis lazuli, an intensely blue semi-precious stone favored throughout the ancient and medieval worlds. (Ground-up lapis is the source of the color ultramarine.) Blue faience was viewed as a substitute of sorts for the more precious lapis and the objects in the Petrie collection are more frequently faience.

pendant

Pendant (Petrie Museum, UC1231)

Faience may have been produced in Armana, the short-lived capital city built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten and the site of one of William Flinders Petrie’s most famous excavations. While Petrie did not find the remnants of any actual faience kilns, he did find a multitude of artifacts which are now on display in his namesake museum. Unsurprisingly, faience is popular in museum displays due to its shockingly blue hue; you can stop by the V&A and spot this famous sceptre or pop into the Met and say hi to “William” the blue faience hippopotamus—other artifacts that also use the faience technique. Once you start noticing all the faience, you just can’t stop.

Further Reading:

  • Nicholson, Paul T., and Ian Shaw. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
  • Stevenson, Alice. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections. London: UCL, 2015.

 

Medieval Calendar Predictions for 2017

By Arendse I Lund, on 16 January 2017

With the twists and turns of 2016, excuse me if I’m not crazy about not wanting to make predictions for the year ahead. Instead, I’ll look back. By relying on some good ol’ advice from the fifteenth-century, I don’t see how anything could go wrong.

Below is my translation from Middle English of the calendar from the Medical Society of London, MS 136; the italicised portions indicate where I have relied on the Middle English text of the Henslow duplicate instead. Remedies 143-156 in this manuscript contain instructions on how to ensure a good year. These contain a month-by-month breakdown and, like a negative fortune cookie, list the bad or “perilous” days to expect each month. Forewarned is forearmed, right?

Bedford Hours, January calendar

Detail from the calendar page for January (British Library, Bedford Hours, f. 1r)

In the month of January, white wine is good to drink and blood-letting to forbear. There are seven perilous days: January 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 10th, 15th, and 19th.

February medeval calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for February (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 19v)

In the month of February, don’t eat pottage made of hocks because they are poisonous. And bloodlet from the wrist of the hand and the vein of the thumb. There are two perilous days: February 6th and the 7th; the 8th is not that good either. Eat hot meats.

Medieval March calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for March (British Library, Add. MS 18852, f. 3r)

In the month of March, eat figs and raisins and other sweet meats. And don’t bloodlet on the right arm for each manner of fever of that year. There are four perilous days: March 10th, 12th, 16th, and 18th.

Medieval April calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for April (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 22r)

In the month of April, bloodlet on the left arm on the 11th day and that year he shall not lose his sight. And on April 3rd, bloodlet and that year you shall not get a headache. Eat fresh flesh and hot meat. There are two perilous days: April 6th and 11th.

Medieval May calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for May (British Library, Add. MS 35313, f. 3v)

In the month of May, arise early and eat and drink early; don’t sleep at noon. Eat hot meats. Don’t eat the head or the feet of any animal because her brain wastes and her marrow consumes, and all living things become feeble in this month. There are four perilous days: May 7th, 15th, 16th, and 20th.

June medieval calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for June (British Library, Add. MS 18851, f. 4)

In the month of June, it is good to drink a draught of water every day while fasting; eat and drink meat and ale in moderation. Only bleed when there’s the greatest of needs. There are seven days which are perilous to bloodlet.

July medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for July (British Library, Add. MS 18851, f. 4v)

In the month of July, keep away from women because your brain is just beginning to gather its humors. And don’t bloodlet. There are two perilous days: July 15th and 19th.

August medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for August (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Belles Heures, f. 9r)

In the month of August, don’t eat wort plants or cabbages and don’t bloodlet. There are two perilous days: August 19th and 20th.

September medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for September (British Library, Add. MS 18850, f. 9r)

In the month of September, all ripe fruit is good to eat and blood is good to let. Without doubt, he who bloodlets on September 17th shall not suffer from edema, nor frenzy, nor the falling evil.

October medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for October (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 27v)

In the month of October, new wine is good to drink, and bloodlet if necessary; there is one perilous day and that is October 6th.

November medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for November (British Library, Bedford Hours, f. 11r)

In the month of November, don’t take a bath because blood is gathering well in your head-vein. Apply a cupping glass a little because lancing and cupping are good to use then since all the humors are active and quick. There are two perilous days: November 15th and 20th.

December medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for December (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 30r)

In the month of December, eat hot meats and bloodlet if necessary. There are three perilous days: December 15th, 16th, and 18th. Refrain from cold worts as they are poisonous and melancholic.

Whosoever holds to this life regimen may be secure in his health.

by Arendse Lund

 

Medieval Snowball Fights

By Arendse I Lund, on 21 December 2016

Medieval illuminations are one of the great delights of working with manuscripts. Many times fanciful, sometimes austere, and frequently religious, these images and marginalia provide a delightful insight into the cultures that made them.

medieval snowball fight

Children throwing pre-made snowballs (Bodleian Library MS Douce 135, f. 7v)

Contemplating the Cat depicted some of that diversity in marginalia and illumination but with the winter solstice upon us, I thought I’d shed a light on the colder illuminations. Snowball fights are some of those illuminations that are always cheery, showing that winter play really has not changed all that much in the centuries since these manuscripts were created.

Three-way medieval snowball fight

Rambunctious children engage in winter fun (Walters Collection W.425.12R)

This illumination from the Walters Collection is appended to a calendar describing December Feast Days. This was an important topic in medieval manuscripts as Feast Days had to be meticulously calculated so that fasting and celebrations would occur on the correct days. Instead of an illumination depicting a nativity, or another religious topic as was common, this illuminator instead chose a winter scene—a snowball fight.

Medieval snowball fight flirting

A little snowball fight flirting (Bibliothèque Nationale de France NAL 167, f. 79)

Winter was an understandable theme in medieval works. The eponymous prince in the Old English Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn inquires what the purpose of snow falling is and the Maxims I promises that good weather will return once more. The majority of early medieval works were religious; it is only around the 14th century that an increasing number of secular works are produced and illuminated.

In these manuscripts, snowball fights aren’t confined to children either; people of all ages, men and women, can be seeing hefting an icy ball creating an endearing lightheartedness to winter that we might otherwise overlook.

Aggressive medieval snowball fight

Children gang up in a snowball fight (Book of Hours of Bénigne Serre, Cod. 103, f.12r)

Illuminations are a great way to see what games would have been played and known in the Middle Ages. Jenneka Janzen wrote about the evidence for medieval board games: chess, backgammon, etc. Card playing is also well documented.

Typically, illuminators would have depicted scenes familiar to them or that they had high confidence in drawing. (Sketches and pen trials often appear on folios considered less important, or in the margins, testing designs and scenes.) The winter scenes here were done in detail with great skill.

As the demand for manuscripts grew, those with the money could afford to have them illuminated precisely how they desired and more richly detailed and elaborately decorated scenes appear. Books of Hours, as personal books of devotion, were particular favorites to ornately illuminate.

While my dreams of a white Christmas are unlikely to come true, at least I can pretend while looking at medieval manuscripts.

Question of the Week: How do snakes poop?

By Arendse I Lund, on 9 November 2016

Arendseby Arendse Lund

Sometimes kids ask the darndest things, and this week in the Grant Museum one kid asked me how do snakes poop? I didn’t know, and none of the books we consulted seemed to get to the bottom of this.

 

 

carpet snake eating toad

Juvenile carpet snake eating a cane toad (Photo: Andrew Mercer)

It turns out that a snake’s excretion process is highly variable from species to species. When a snake eats something—be it a mouse, deer, or hippo—it’s digested, and the gut extracts the nutrients. Poop consists of everything that couldn’t, for whatever reason, be extracted. Rat snakes defecate approximately every two days; bush vipers defecate every 3-7 days. A good rule of thumb is that if a snake eats frequently, it will defecate frequently. If a snake eats infrequently, it will defecate infrequently. Simple in theory, this means that a snake may defecate only a few times a year. (One snake was recorded holding it for 420 days!)

Because of this, up to 5-20% of a snake’s body weight at any given time may be fecal matter. In a human of 130 lbs, that would be 6.5-26 lbs of feces. If you think that number is incredible, it turns out that a snake eating a particularly large meal will potentially experience its body mass more than double!

Alazarin stained snake

Grass snake stained with Alazarin Red to show the skeletal structure (Grant Museum, X50)

How big a snake is and where it lives matters too. Scientists have found there to be a positive correlation between the ingestion to defecation period and the relative body mass of snake species. An arboreal snake will defecate soon after eating to maximize mobility; a terrestrial snake such as the Gaboon Viper, which lies still for days on end, doesn’t require the same speediness and doesn’t defecate as frequently. One theory suggests that holding onto its feces may help a snake as the increased size and weight could anchor it in attacks on larger and heavier animals. If the added weight becomes cumbersome, then the snake can simply dispel it. (Please don’t try this at home.)

rock python eating antelope

An African Rock Python eating an antelope (Photo: Alex Griffiths)

So in the end, where does it all go? Once the meal is reduced to poop, the snake can get rid of it through an anal opening, or cloaca, which is Latin for ‘sewer.’ This opening can be found at the end of a snake’s belly and beginning of its tail; unsurprisingly, the feces are the same width as the snake’s body. A snake will use the same opening to defecate, urinate, mate, and lay eggs—now that’s multi-purpose!

 

 

 

The People Who Became Book Bindings

By Arendse I Lund, on 31 October 2016

Arendseby Arendse Lund

The softness of the leather, the beauty of the decoration—we just can’t help it, we judge a book by its cover. Yet, when we hold a book in our hands, how good of judges are we as to what it’s made of?

Leather bindings are generally made from calfskin, sheepskin, or goatskin. (Traditionally, goatskin is referred to as Morocco leather.) It’s surprisingly difficult to tell these apart at a glance, and you’ll sometimes see labels stating two possibilities for the make of the bindings. This becomes even more complex when you throw in a fourth option: Anthropodermic bibliopegy. Otherwise known as books bound in human skin, these rare editions became popular in the 18th century although it’s uncertain when exactly the practice started.

pigskin and humanskin

Left, white pigskin binding (British Library, Add MS 59678); Right, human skin binding (Houghton Library, FC8.H8177.879dc)

However difficult it is to tell animal bindings apart, certainly we must be able to discern human skin bindings at a glance? Not so. UC Berkeley long held a book which it believed to have been bound in human skin. As this video from the Bancroft Library shows, it’s only by performing tests on the book that we’re able to know for certain. This opens an avenue for an unscrupulous bookseller, looking to increase the price of a particular book, to pass it off as something else. There’s simply no special smell or feel which acts as a dead giveaway; without testing it directly, we just can’t tell for certain.

book not boundin human skin

Book formerly thought to be bound in human skin (Wellcome Collection .b21243840)

For instance, one book in the Wellcome Library was rumored to be bound in the skin of Crispus Attucks, killed in the Boston Massacre. A note on paper attached to the clasp of the book reads: “The cover of this book is made of Tanned Skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence.” This has since been proven false.

binding formerly thought to be human

The supposed skin of Jonas Wright (HOLLIS no. 4317553)

The Harvard Law School Library had three books bound in what was thought to be human skin. One provoked extra interest because of the morbid inscription on its final page: “The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.” Unfortunately for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, tests proved that the binding was sheepskin instead. However, it is always possible that the book was rebound.

human skin book

A pocket book made from Burke (Surgeons’ Hall Museums)

Some books have been tested and turned out to be genuine. The Surgeons’ Hall Museums has a curious pocketbook which has been proven to be anthropodermic bibliopegy. Stamped into the pebbled leather are the words “BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK” and “EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829.” Medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris has noted that anthropodermic bibliopegy was historically done for three reasons: punishment, memorialization, and collection. Burke falls into the first category. He was a notorious serial killer posing as a body snatcher in the early 19th century; under Britain’s Murder Act, when he was caught and convicted, he was publicly dissected so as to be made an example of and his skin used for the bindings. This pocketbook makes no secrets of its background with its embossed cover.

Richly decorated binding using the skin of an unknown woman (Wellcome Collection .b13425110)

Richly decorated binding using the skin of an unknown woman (Wellcome Collection .b13425110)

By contrast, the cover of Houghton Library’s human skin book is free from decoration; the man who bound it wrote, “This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.” The volume referenced is now in the Wellcome Collection and is a treatise on female virginity.

Mary Lynch skin binding

Three books bound from the skin of Mary Lynch (Mutter Museum)

Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum owns five examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy; startling, three have been bound using the skin of the same woman, Mary Lynch. Lynch, unlike Burke, was not a criminal but a hospital patient who died of trichinosis after a short stay. Her doctor was responsible for taking her skin and using it to bind the books. The female subject matter of these books—Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female, Le Nouvelles Decouvertes sur Toutes les Parties Principales de L’Homme et de la Femme, and Recueil des Secrets de Louyse Bourgeois—suggests a perceived connection between the interior and exterior of the books. Similarly, one 1793 edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine Et Juliette, an erotic novel, was rumored to have used the skin from a woman’s breast.

inscription about Mary Lynch

An inscription memorializing Mary Lynch in one of the books bound in her skin (Mutter Museum)

The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy ended in the late 19th century and there are no known 20th century examples. It’s also important to bear in mind that many of the “donors” didn’t give their consent and—in the case of Burke and other criminals—using their skin in bindings was an additional means to publicly make an example of them. It would certainly be illegal today, yet many museums and libraries contain books which make this dubious claim to notoriety. However, historically it has been difficult to verify the truth behind such claims. With the advent of peptide mass fingerprinting, a test which analyzes the remaining proteins, bindings can finally undergo tests with little to no damage. The Anthropodermic Book Project is working to identify human skin bindings for books and, at last count, have confirmed 18. While there have never been very many cases of anthropodermic bibliopegy, now that libraries are able to test their books without harming them, we’re bound to discover additional examples.

Contemplating the Cat

By Arendse I Lund, on 28 September 2016

Arendse

by Arendse Lund

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, was once asked what surprised him most about his creation. His answer? “Kittens.” The feline statistics are both impressive and shocking: according to Friskies up to 15% of Internet traffic is cat related; cats get almost 4x the viral views as dogs on Buzzfeed. You don’t even need to seek out cat-related content during your daily Internet perusals; unless you have certain plug-ins, inevitably the cats come to you.

bisected cat

Dorso-ventrally bisected pregnant female. (Grant Museum, Z2969)

While cats seem to be the lingua franca of the web, the proliferation of cat gifs, memes, and photos is only magnifying a greater trend, one which continues offline as well. Children and adults alike ooh and aah over the Grant Museum’s display of bisected cats. Keen-eyed visitors may even spy with delight the embryonic kitten nestled in the womb of one of the specimens. There’s accessibility in the cats’ familiarity; this appeal extends to all ages if the toddler-height fingerprint smudges on the display cases are anything to go by. 

Egyptian cat stella

Cat underfoot? (Petrie Museum, UC14323)

Cats have fascinated diverse cultures for millennia. Linking cat lovers today with those three thousand years ago, the Petrie Museum has an entire display case dedicated to Ancient Egyptian cat statuettes and artefacts. Throughout the Egyptian dynasties, the felines were associated with several goddesses and revered in their own right for their ability to kill vermin—including cobras. Cats were also known to be mummified and buried after death. 

Much later, a similar fascination with cats can be found in an entirely different part of the world—medieval Europe. Illuminated manuscripts were the Internet of the times and cat references can be found scattered across those vellum pages. One early Irish monk wrote a poem in praise of his cat, Pangur Bán. From Robin Flower’s translation:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night…

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.

Cat erasure in manuscript

Green pigment has eaten through the parchment in the shape of a cat. (National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 28, f. 26r)

In Vatnsdœla saga, Thorolf Sledgehammer is the proud owner of twenty cats who defend him from attack. One might wonder if the writer had much knowledge of cats—rottweilers they are not. However fanciful that story was, cats served a useful function as pest control. A mid 13th-century Welsh manuscript containing the laws of Hywel Dda directs that payment be made if a cat is killed. Four pence should be paid to the owner if the cat is old enough to hunt mice; a kitten too young to open its eyes is only worth a single penny and one able to see but too young to hunt worth two pence.

Medieval zoomorphic decorated 'Q' motif

It’s a dog-eat-cat-eat-mouse world out there. (Harley 3053, f.45v)

The common sight of cats slinking around monasteries may have made them familiar source material for illuminators working on the manuscripts. Perhaps the medieval version of a Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks cartoon segment, one illuminator drew a historiated initial depicting a dog catching a cat catching mice. Cats are a common sight in manuscripts where they find themselves in an abundance of absurd situations.

Cat licking bottom

A clean cat is a happy cat. (Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r)

In the 13th-century Book of Maccabees, an archer takes aim at a cat who is busy ensuring it’s clean absolutely everywhere. Cat owners are accustomed to this sight and, clearly, so was the illuminator. There are plenty more strikingly similar images of this theme found in medieval manuscripts. 

A cat playing with nun's spindle

A helping hand? (Stowe MS 17, f. 34r)

In another instance of cat behavior which hasn’t changed all that much, the 14th-century illuminator of the Maastricht Hours depicted a cat playing with a nun’s spindle. Cats were such a common sight and part of daily life that the Middle English Ancrene Wisse permitted anchoresses to own a cat but no other animal. In the 15th century, Exeter Cathedral had a resident mouser on the payroll who earned one penny per week; someone even cut a cat flap in the cathedral’s south tower door which can still be seen today.

Cat paw prints on manuscript

Dubrovnik State Archives, Lettere di Levante. (Photograph by Emir O. Filipović)

Not all cats are depicted positively though and some aren’t intended to be depicted at all. One fine furry fellow left its mark all over the Lettere di Levante from the Dubrovnik State Archives. Pet owners may sympathize—the pages of the manuscript accidentally recorded where an inky-pawed cat walked across it. 

Cat urinated on manuscript

An angry monk making his point. (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

However useful cats could be to have around, they could be disruptive as well. The blank half of the delineated page above, along with the manicules and cat sketch, was not initially planned in the 15th-century manuscript. What appears to have happened is that the scribe working on this left the manuscript out over night and came back to an unpleasant surprise. The scribe wrote an exasperated note in the margins: “Nothing is missing here, but one night a cat urinated on this. Cursed be the mischievous cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and similarly all the others too. And pay heed to not leave books open at night where cats can reach.” We would all do well to heed that advice.

As our ancestors were fascinated with cats, so are we. There’s something entrancing about the felines and that something has spoken to humans across cultures and time periods. While our medieval forebearers might have had to make do with sharing manuscripts rather than cat gifs, nowadays we can be endlessly entertained by the felines with a click of a mouse.

Thank goodness for that.

A Novel Idea: Popular Culture Influences in Zoology

By Arendse I Lund, on 18 August 2016

ArendseBy Arendse Lund

Hidden in one of the far cabinets in the Grant Museum, nestled amongst parasites and other unusual filter feeders, sits a much overlooked worm. This invertebrate marine creature is known as a Chaetopterus and is unusual because it has lived its whole adult life in a tube constructed from underwater sediment and attached to a rock. More colloquially though, the Chaetopterus is referred to as a parchment worm.

Parchment Worm

This worm (image on the right, Grant Museum, G52) has actually nothing in common with parchment, which usually is made of calf-, sheep-, or goatskin and used to create manuscripts. Nor does it have anything to do with those worms that destroy manuscripts to the detriment of scholarship everywhere. Actually, it takes its name from the papery, parchment-like burrows it lives in.

Similar to how visitors who are fans of Pokémon are thrilled to espy some of the animals the monsters are based on, book-loving visitors to the museum seem to take great delight in this worm’s name, granting it a celebrity status higher than it might otherwise have. A worm, by any other name, might not be as popular.

Literary lovers will also be happy that spiders and other arachnids have book lungs, respiratory organs unrelated to the lungs of humans. This diagram from John Henry Comstock’s aptly titled The Spider Book depicts a cross section of a spider’s book lung. These lungs are arranged with horizontal, leaf-like folds. Composed of stacks of alternating air pockets, these “pages” usually do not need to move to work. Similarly, horseshoe crabs have book gills, which are external appendages rather than internal organs.

Spider Book Lung

Figure 2: A spider’s book lung with the #3 marking the leaves of the book lung (Comstock, The Spider Book, pg. 146)

Luckily for fans of whimsy, there is a fair amount of freedom involved in describing or naming species. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature instructs that: “Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence.” This leniency with naming animals, in comparison to naming astronomical bodies, has allowed for newly discovered species to be named after expedition benefactors, popular celebrities, and even mythical creatures.

In the late 1990s, a species of turtle was dubbed Psephophorus terrypratchetti after Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series takes place on that back of a giant turtle. A species of ancient lizard was given the moniker Clevosaurus sectumsemper as an allusion to the vicious spell Severus Snape invents in the Harry Potter series. Similarly, a 66 million year-old dinosaur was named Dracorex Hogwartsia, or the “Dragon King of Hogwarts,” and resembles the fictional Hungarian Horntail. Dragons seem to be a popular source of naming inspiration: Two recently discovered ants were even named after Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons from Game of Thrones: Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion.

Pheidole Viserion

Figure 3: Pheidole viserion, whose spiked appearance and blonde color caused it to be named after the dragon from Game of Thrones. (Photo: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology).

While all these are fairly straight-forward allusions to fictional works, one paleontologist took it even further when she discovered a fossil tetrapod near a quarry in Scotland. She developed a name which only works in translation: Eucritta melanolimnetes, or “the true creature from the black lagoon.”

Sometimes that creativity fails though. An early twentieth-century biologist, overwhelmed at the prospect of naming a whole slew of new moth species at once, decided on: Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana, E. hohana, E. kokana, E. lolana and E. momana.

But with thousands of new species discovered a year, perhaps that’s understandable.