Monkey Business in the Margins

York Minster, nXXV, detail of border. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

York Minster, nXXV, detail of border. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

To coincide with an exhibition at the Getty Museum devoted to images of animals and mythical creatures in medieval manuscripts, Vidimus spoke to Dr Paul Hardwick, Senior Lecturer in English at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds, and a member of the Misericordia International Committee, about his research into the symbolic use of animals in the borders of York Minister’s famous Pilgrimage Window (nXXV).

York Minster, nXXV. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

York Minster, nXXV. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

Made around 1325, the main lights depict the Crucifixion across the upper panels; a large representation of St Peter flanked by male and female pilgrims below, apparently invoking his help; and some fascinating animal imagery in the lower border. Closely resembling the bas-de-page illumination of an expensive psalter, the images include scenes of a fox preaching to a proud-looking cock; a funeral procession of monkeys with a monkey bell-ringer, cross-bearer, and four pall-bearers carrying a bier to which another monkey clings; a monkey doctor examining a patient; a parody of a hunt, with a stag chasing a hound (while itself being attacked by a smaller dog); and a fox stealing a goose pursued by a woman carrying a distaff. An archer and other animals, including an owl, complete the scene. The vertical borders also contain animal images of squirrels and monkeys, with some of the latter holding urine flasks mimicking the medical profession.

In manuscripts, borders decorated with grotesque figures or lewd and humorous antics do not just frame pictures. They also divide the spiritual content from the corporeal realm of the body, its monstrous behaviour and basest functions. Some use the unnatural and ridiculous to condemn and exclude the ubiquity of sin. Others provide images that have to be overcome or ‘passed through’ before understanding sacred texts.

At York these images form an integral part of the design of the window, carefully planned and made by craftsmen to order. They cannot be dismissed as doodles or sudden impulses by artists with vivid imaginations. ‘Although these images may appear as mere comic decoration, their intention was to reinforce the overall devotional message of the window’, Dr Hardwick explained. ‘The clues lie in the upper part of the window which celebrates lay devotion to the Minister itself – with its patron saint represented holding a church, below the upper Crucifixion scene of Christ’s commitment to mankind and the promise of eternal life for the pious. Animals in medieval art have to be seen in context. Like other examples, the York window needed a clerical interpreter to reveal its meanings. They cannot be ‘read’ like a book without such assistance. One of the most telling features of the border is that it can be seen easily from ground level: ideal for a priest guiding visitors or pilgrims around the church.

The Funeral of the Virgin at Stanton St John, Oxfordshire

The Funeral of the Virgin at Stanton St John, Oxfordshire

‘The use of monkeys in the scheme is particularly significant. These animals were often seen as imitators of man. The famous bishop St Isidore of Seville (c.560–636), sometimes called the last Father of the Latin Church, claimed that the word simius derived from similitudo, because monkeys mimic what they see. Medieval bestiaries continued the same etymological tradition, suggesting that apes were so called because they ape the behaviour of human beings. The monkey funeral is an important example of the use of animals, who resemble men while not being men, to make a serious point. The image is based on apocryphal stories of the funeral of the Virgin, a scheme now rarely depicted in medieval glass: three of the extant examples found in the Minster itself.’ There are other examples at Stanton St John, Oxfordshire, and in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich. The latter scheme was the subject of a detailed study by David King in his volume The Medieval Stained Glass of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (CVMA (GB) V, Oxford, 2005).

York Minster, nXXV, image of St Peter. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

York Minster, nXXV, image of St Peter. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

Rather than being a parody of this sacred story, the scene provides an additional layer of didactic meaning to the window. St Peter plays a pivotal role. As the story begins, another Apostle, St John, suggests that Peter should bear the palm at the head of the procession, but the patron saint of the Minster and the main subject of the figurative panels above declines. Instead, he takes his place as an equal amongst the other Apostles carrying the bier: an exemplar of humility. After the procession begins, it is mocked by a Jewish priest, who attempts to upturn the bier – only to be struck blind and to have his hand stuck to the underside of the coffin. The priest begs Peter for mercy, who replies that only Christ can cure him. Seen together, both episodes cast Peter as a humble intercessor, a role acted out in the stained glass above, where St Peter is linked to the image of Christ, while devout pilgrims seek his intercession with their prayers. The monkeys’ funeral in the margins of the glass ‘apes’ the humility and charity of Peter, as the viewer’s eye travels between ‘the world’ in the lower tier and the devotional space of the glass above.

York Minster, nXXV, detail of monkey in the border. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster.

York Minster, nXXV, detail of monkey in the border. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster.

‘The monkey physicians combine satire with a serious moral in the same vein. At one level, they echo the widespread suspicion of ‘Doctours of Physik’, whom poets like Chaucer portrayed as those who ‘loved gold in special’. But this scene is more than satirical. As St Peter told the Jewish priest, only one physician could cure men – Christ. While monkeys might ape physicians who purport to look after physical health, only priests were the true ‘doctors of souls’. Christ alone can cure men of their sins, their spiritual ailments.

The fox stories have similar allegorical meanings. The vain and foolish cock is led astray by the false words of the deceiving fox, and is eventually carried off by its deceiver, who, in turn, is hunted by a woman carrying a stick. The stag pursuing the hound turns the world upside-down by reversing natural roles, with the normally virtuous dog chased by an animal that sometimes symbolized lack of restraint. Thus fidelity is set to flight by its opposite, highlighting the consequences of lapses in devotion. But all is not lost: while one dog flees, another attempts to restore the correct order of things.

York Minster, nXXV, detail of fox in the border. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

York Minster, nXXV, detail of fox in the border. Thomas French, (C) Dean and Chapter, York Minster

The CVMA (GB) Picture Archive contain images of ‘babewyns’ (baboons), grotesques, and monsters in stained glass windows elsewhere. Grotesques fill roundels at Chartham, Kent, one of which was recorded in watercolour by Charles Winston, while in the borders of the Jesse Tree at Merevale, Warwickshire, strange creatures bite at their own long necks. Other examples include the hybrid musicians in sV at Ringland, Norfolk, and Norwich Cathedral.

Roger Rosewell

Grateful thanks to Amanda Daw for her help with the preparation of this article.

Useful Links

Dr Paul Hardwick

Dr Paul Hardwick

For a grotesque from Gloucester Cathedral, visit Vidimus 4 (February 2007), and for bas-de-page images from the Macclesfield Psalter in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, visit the museum’s website.

For information on the Getty Exhibition in Los Angeles, visit the institute’s website. For information on the Misericordia International Committee, click here.

Further Reading: Monkeys

Paul Hardwick, ‘The Monkeys’ Funeral in the Pilgrimage Window, York Minster’, Art History, 23 (2000), pp. 290–99

Paul Hardwick, “‘Through a Glass, Darkly”: Interpreting Animal Physicians,’ Reinardus, 15 (2002), pp. 63–70

Paul Hardwick, ‘Foxing Daun Russell: Moral Lessons of Poultry on Misericords in Literature’, Reinardus, 17 (2004), pp. 84–94

Paul Hardwick, ‘Making Light of Devotion: The Pilgrimage Window in York Minster’, in Paul Hardwick and Sandra Hordis (eds), Medieval English Comedy (forthcoming)

Further Reading: Manuscripts and Bestiaries

Ron Baxter, Bestiaries and their Users in the Middle Ages, Stroud, 1998

Richard Barber and Anne Riches, A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, Woodbridge, 1996

Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages, New York, 1992

Alixe Bovey, Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts, London, 2002

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, London, 1992

John Cherry, Mythical Beasts, London, 1995

Christa Grössinger, The World Upside Down: English Misericords, London, 1997

Ann Payne, Medieval Beasts, London, 1991

Lillian M. C. Randall, Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts, Berkeley, 1966

Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces: a Guide to Animal Symbolism, London 1974

David Williams, Deformed Discourse: the Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature, Exeter, 1996

Further Reading: General

Kerry Ayre, Medieval English Figurative Roundels, CVMA (GB) Summary Catalogue 6, Oxford, 2002

Sarah Brown, Stained Glass at York Minster, London, 1999

Sarah Crewe, Stained Glass in England 1180 – 1540, London, 1987

Peter Gibson, The Stained and Painted Glass of York Minster, Norwich, 1992

Peter Newton, The County of Oxford, CVMA (GB) I, Oxford, 1979 (See in particular the entry on Stanton St John, pp. 188–90)

David E. O’ Connor and Jeremy Haselock, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’, in G. E. Aylmer and Reginald Cant (eds), A History of York Minster, Oxford, 1977

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