Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Save the unicorn!

Just a short post, as I'm sick and tired and not really eager to engage the cerebellum...

Wandering through the blogsphere, I encountered David Badke's post on unicorn capture at his bestiary blog. It contains several manuscript images, all after a pattern: virgin with the unicorn in her lap, man or men slaughtering the helpless beast. Finally, he questions,

And what are we to make of the maiden’s betrayal of the trusting unicorn? Well, we can’t be sure she was in on the trick; maybe she didn’t know the true intent of the hunters. In some illustrations, the maiden seems upset at the killing.

The girl in the image included at this point is indeed reaching out her hand towards the killer in some sort of gesture, perhaps of supplication. It's hard to tell - she also has the unicorn's horn trapped under her arm, effectively preventing it from moving. But on looking back, all the girls (save one) in the images are gesturing.

There are other similarities: like many other similar manuscript illustrations, there seems to be a pattern. In all but one image, the girl and unicorn are on the left side of the painting. The girl always gestures with the hand farthest from the 'camera' - ie, her left hand, except in the one reversed image. Her other hand is on the unicorn, usually on its horn, and in most of the pictures she could be read as restraining the unicorn. In some, the gestures seem to be encouragement to the hunters; in some, reproach or shock, perhaps. The figure of the maiden in this series of images, then, can be seen as expressing a kind of ambivalence to the death of the unicorn: complicit (to varying degrees) in its capture, she may also prefer not to see it actually slaughtered.

There is one striking exception, in the image from Harley MS 4751. Here, the maiden's arms are wrapped firmly around the unicorn, her right hand at the nape of its neck, her left pinning its forelegs to its chest, while she turns her head to smile at the hunters. More than complicit, she is taking an active role in betraying and restraining the unicorn to prevent it from resisting its slaughter. In fact, the way she clasps it to her body is almost sexual, but of course we all know that sexualised women are evil and treacherous, so that's not surprising. If we are to read the unicorn as a Christ analogue, this falls in with some of the more dramatic depictions of either the torments before the crucifixion, or the betrayal of Judas (an embrace for a kiss?).

Anyway. The reason for this post was to add another exception, in the other direction: an image in which the girl was apparently just enjoying a peaceful cuddle with her unicorn when along came a knight with a great big spear to attack it. Again, the girl is to the left and her left hand is the one held out to the knight, but in this instance I think her aversion to the unicorn's death is much clearer. And interestingly, this is the only one in which the unicorn is free. She is not holding it - her hand rests on its head in what can only be a friendly or affectionate gesture, not a restraining one - and its head is turned around so that the long horn is levelled at the knight's chest. Uselessly, of course, as his spear is already in its side, but it's not quite the passively suffering or cruelly betrayed Christ anymore.

Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian MS Douce 366


Lady D. said...

I've always felt quite sorry for those unicorns. I didn't realise there was a Christ connection though. For some reason (my fevered imagination for one), I thought it was to do with virginity and the taking of - or something.

Hope you feel better soon!

Ceirseach said...

And that too, I suspect!

Got Medieval said...

Michael Camille predictably describes this as a highly sexualized unicorn capture scene--partially because he takes every gryllus, like the one watching in the far right, as a sexual signifier, but mostly because of the phallic spears and such. I like your interpretation better.

Ceirseach said...

He would! I think if you start interpreting that picture sexually you have to take into account the fact that there are, really, two phalluses in the image - and one of them is in the girl's lap, pointing towards the man. And is also painfully pointy.

... yes, I think I'll stick with innocent and defensive for today.