Marginal Beings: Hybrids as the Other in Late Medieval Manuscripts–By Heidi Thimann


In Western Europe in the Middle Ages, tales of monstrous men circulated in manuscripts such as the Wonders of the East, a book written in two versions, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, between ca. 970 and 1150.[1] The Wondersdetailed the outer reaches of the earth and its strange inhabitants such as the Blemmyae, a race of peoples with eyes on their chests. Similarly, the earlier eighth century Liber monstrorum describes the monstrous races as well as terrifying animals and hybrid creatures.[2] One thing stood out among these texts: the monstrous races were always in the exterior regions of civilization, in deserts, caves, and desolate and hostile environments. As John Block Friedman notes, “Men who lived outside cities, since their lives were guided by no law, were not really human, as for example Homer’s Cyclopes, who lived apart in caves.”[3]

Figure 1:Mappa mundi. Psalter. London (?), after 1262. British Library, London, Add. MS 28681, fol. 9. Courtesy of the British Library.

This is particularly apparent in an English psalter from ca. 1260 that depicts a map of the earth with Jerusalem at its center and over which Christ presides as Salvator mundi. (Figure 1) As Michael Camille observes, “The further one moves away from the center-point of Jerusalem, the more deformed and alien things become.”[4] Indeed, in the bottom-right edge resides fourteen of the monstrous races including the Blemmyae and the Cynocephali, a race of dog-headed people.

These edge dwellers are the inhabitants of what the French cultural theorist, Michel de Certeau, might mean when he speaks of the borderland as the space of the other, “the far-off land which substantiates the alterity of the savage.”[5] It is this otherness, relegated to the borders, that we find in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts, particularly in psalters and Books of Hours aimed at the laity. Here hybrids (half-men, half-beast), grotesques (monstrous beings), and babewyns (simian-like creatures) lurk and make mayhem, always threatening to traverse the edges of the main miniature or text. These “composite creatures,”[6] or hybrids, as I shall refer to them hereafter, occupy a liminal space where the sacred meets the secular and profane. Humorous, repugnant, or seemingly benign, they act upon the text and/or image like a medieval trickster. These hybrids were also known in the Middle Ages as a variant of the term babuini, from which our word baboon is derived.[7] I posit that the hybrids/babewyns are a type of other in medieval culture, figures onto which the medieval reader would attempt to project and diffuse fears of the outcast and the marginalized, particularly those perceived as sinful.

In this article, I will examine the hybrids (half-men, half-beast, and the monstrous beings) in the margins of medieval psalters and Books of Hours. In order to clarify the role these hybrids play in these texts, I ask how they operate in medieval visual culture and how they can be read as a type of other in what may seem to be very pious texts? Taking Michel de Certeau’s essay “Montaigne’s ‘Of Cannibals’: The Savage ‘I’” as my point of departure, I argue that the borderland occupied by the hybrids is a site of disruption and rupture that challenges the authority of the text/main miniature itself. I suggest that the figures’ carnality and monstrous embodiment is a type of mirror of otherness within the intended manuscript reader/viewer. This mirror of otherness is meant to have a two-fold function: one to amuse and the other to have a didactic purpose—that is to focus on sinful or “monstrous” behavior that should be remedied by contemplating the central miniature or image. In other words, the medieval person believed that sin and damnation lurked in the borders, while grace and salvation were found in the miniature. For the medieval viewer, man apart from God occupies this border space while the Word is made manifest in the miniature. Outside the miniature or sacred text in the borderlands lies the alien other which is constantly reflecting its alterity back at the reader/viewer. Thus for the Christian viewer, the non-Christian other lurks within the Christian self.

De Certeau and the Space of the Other

In his essay, “Montaigne’s ‘Of Cannibals’: The Savage ‘I’,” Michel de Certeau, working in the vein of deconstruction, proceeds to map the text of Montaigne, seeking to uncover how it operates. He speaks of the text as constructing spaces which define a cultural boundary.[8] Thus, there is the “space of the other” and “the space of the text”[9] which allows for a topographical model or approach to textual analysis.

The text behind de Certeau’s essay is, of course, Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals,” which constructs the other/the cannibal as the noble savage. At the end of Montaigne’s essay, the cannibal makes an improbable trip to Rouen and holds up a metaphorical mirror to his French hosts which shows them their own barbarity. Montaigne’s point is that the other resides within.

Commenting on the savage’s nomadism, de Certeau contends that it defines the cannibal. “What is foreign escapes from a place,” he states.[10] Furthermore, “The cannibal is a figure on the fringe who leaves the premises, and in so doing, jolts the entire topographical order of language.”[11] Like the figures on the fringe, the medieval hybrids in the margins inhabit the space of the other. They are literally demarcated and cut off from the space of the main miniature which marks a cultural boundary, as it were, where disruption and destabilization occur. Just as de Certeau remarks “that which is foreign escapes from a place,” the figures in the borderlands slither in and out of the margins, drag in text, or make obscene gestures which mock the central image or reader. They too “jolt the topographical order of language” through the destabilization of the borderland. De Certeau’s theory of the other provides a way of conceptualizing how the border areas of the medieval margins act topographically and discursively so that they can be useful in understanding the relationship between text and miniature. Never fully taking over the space of the page, these monstrous hybrids nonetheless destabilize the border areas, making their presence known, often by mimicry, thus announcing their alterity to the reader.

Buttressing de Certeau is Homi Bhabha’s concept of mimicry through which “colonialism…exercises authority through the figure of farce.”[12] Here, we find a parallel to the disfigurement of the hybrid. The hybrid is, in the words of Bhabha, “a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite.”[13] To Bhabha, “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.” [14] He continues, “It is a discourse on the crossroads of what is known and permissible and that though known must be kept concealed; a discourse uttered between the lines and as such against the rules and within them.”[15] I would argue that the hybrid acts within Bhabha’s definition of mimicry—“a discourse on the crossroads,” “half-visible, half-concealed” playing “by the rules and against them.” The hybrid, in Bhabha’s definition, subverts the dominant discourse of the theological meaning conveyed by the central miniature (for Bhabha this would be the discourse of colonialism) by “sly appropriation”[16] and in fact resists its hegemonic power. The space of the main miniature dictates the rules of the game in its ordered stable site, but the monstrous hybrids attempt to play with those very borders, and are kept largely at bay by the seemingly impermeable boundary.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen echoes Bhabha by describing the hybrid as “a composite figure derived from biology, botany, and the discourses of race, the hybrid conjoins differences without fully assimilating them.”[17] While Cohen looks at Mestiza hybridity taken from Hispanic/Chicana postcolonial theory as a model for medieval hybridity, I am interested in his use of the borderlands as a site where “monstrous hybridity produces an unbounded middle space, as unstable corporally as it is geographically and temporally. This middle, this bridge, conjoins influences; it is the borderlands.”[18] This takes us full circle to de Certeau and space as that which defines cultural boundaries. The margins of manuscripts are these unstable border sites—liminal, indeterminate spaces where these monstrous figures of fantasy and dream reside.

The Monstrous Races

The Middle Ages inherited its concept of the monstrous races from the Classical world. As John Block Friedman points out, the monstrous races were often called “Plinian” after the Roman author, Pliny the Elder, whose meticulous descriptions of them were widely circulated in manuscripts in the Middle Ages.[19] Pliny’s Natural History was influenced by the Greeks Ctesias (early 5th century B.C.E.) and Megasthenes (4th century B.C.E.) who both traveled to India and wrote accounts of their respective voyages.[20] According to Friedman, their influence on Pliny cannot be denied. “Pliny was an obsessive compiler and ransacker of other people’s books for odd pieces of lore,” Friedman notes.[21] Pliny not only claimed to have collected 20,000 bits of factual information from one hundred authors, but he was an extensive traveler for his time, visiting most of what would become modern Europe.[22] Bestiaries from the Middle Ages provided a visual catalogue of these mysterious, alien races described by Pliny.[23] Troglodytes (hole creepers), Blemmyae(the people with eyes on their chests), and Amyctrae (a race of peoples with large lower lips) were among those described.[24] By the late antique and early medieval period, these monstrous races are referenced again in Augustine’s City of God and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.

During the Patristic period, Augustine describes the monstrous races in Book 16, chapter eight of the City of God. He, like Pliny, describes a race called the Sciopods “who have one leg with two feet and can run with remarkable speed without bending a knee […] They lie on their backs in the summer and keep the sun off with their feet.”[25] He also mentions the Cynocephalae “whose dog-like heads and barking voices prove they are more like animals than men.”[26] Augustine concludes after listing these races that if they exist, they must have descended from Adam and have a soul.[27]

For Isidore of Seville, monstrosity is constructed using the human body as the norm for form.[28] David Williams has examined Isidore’s taxonomy, stating that for Isidore “monstrosity includes: hypertrophy of the body, atrophy of the body, excrescence of bodily parts, superfluity of bodily parts, deprivation of bodily parts, mixture of animal and human parts…and the monstrous races.”[29] Williams argues that because of Neoplatonic thought, the body in the Middle Ages was “related to the allegorical concept of microcosm in which the cosmos is contained in the ‘little cosmos’ of the world and both are represented in miniature in the human body.”[30] Inherited from the Classical Greco-Roman ideal of harmonious and symmetrical parts, the medieval body was thought to be a reflection of God’s ordering of the cosmos. When Isidore focuses on the monstrous as disharmonious, he is paving the path for later medieval illuminators who would draw upon the monstrous races constructing them as hybrid abominations to remind the viewer of his/her own sinfulness.

Monsters in the Margins

Nowhere is the monstrous more apparent than in medieval visual culture. From cathedral tympanums, to stained glass, to misericords, and in illuminated psalters and Books of Hours, the monstrous always had a presence in the most sacred of medieval sites. The twelfth-century Abbey Church of the Madeleine at Vézelay is an early example of this phenomenon. There, above the central portal, is an imposing tympanum where Christ sits rigidly presiding over the Apostles who surround him holding books as they receive the Word depicted in rays emanating from Christ’s hands. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Tympanum, Abbey Church of the Madeleine at Vézelay, 12th century

As Uwe Geese notes, “In accordance with the Acts of the Apostles, the radiating coffers depict the nations that need to be converted.”[31] Separated from the main scene by a wavy border and below it, is a frieze of the monstrous races including the Panotii, a race whose ears are so large that they use them as blankets or to fly away from predators.[32]

(Figure 3) The church was located at the starting point of four pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, and as Geese remarks, “Vézelay was the place where innumerable pilgrims gathered in order to start their journey together.”[33]

Figure 3:Panotii on the lintel of the central portal, Abbey Church of the Madeleine at Vézelay.

It was also here in 1145 that Bernard of Clairvaux rallied pilgrims for the Second Crusade.[34] Friedman notes that little is known about the sculptor or who planned the iconography of the tympanum although the same individual carved the capitals at Cluny. Friedman also states that Peter the Venerable was director of studies under Abbot Renaud de Sémur at the time, and “Peter may have contributed to the imagery of the tympanum.”[35] Whatever the case, the role of the tympanum was to instruct the pilgrim or crusader in what he/she might encounter at the edges of the earth and in unknown and hostile lands—that which needed to be kept at bay by the example of the Apostles. Thus, literally, at the bottom of Christ’s feet, the sinful lurk separate and apart from God.

Inside the marginal spaces of cathedrals also lurked the monstrous. A thirteenth-century transept rose window from Lausanne Cathedral depicts anEpiphagus. Related to the Blemmyae, he has eyes in his shoulders. Debra Higgs Strickland argues that the lack of a true head in the ubiquitous Blemmayai and Epiphagi adorning medieval visual culture can be traced in meaning to John of Salisbury (c. 1115-1180). His treatise, the Policraticus (1159) describes the body politic with “the head signify[ing] the prince, the heart the senate, the ears, eyes, and mouth judges and governors of provinces […] the feet, the peasants.”[36] Lacking a head, Strickland observes, would mean a lack of “political organization but also [would connote] godlessness.”[37]

And at Aosta Cathedral in the choir stalls reserved for the clerics, a wood carver with a sense of humor as well as a sense of sinful behavior has brought the monstrous subtly into the heart of the cathedral. Not visible to the laity, but only witnessed by the clergy, this rather bawdy misericord, as Michael Camille points out, was “used during the long hours of liturgical performance, which is why they were called ‘mercy seats.’ The often very physical nature of the imagery is perhaps linked to the body parts of the clerical anatomy with which they came into contact.”[38] The choir bordering and framing the altar space was thus turned into a site of ribald disruption, a place where the sacred literally met the profane. Bordering the altar itself would also have been an ornate candlestick, and one in gold presented by Abbot Peter (b. 1104) to the monastery of St. Peter at Gloucester is an example of the monstrous on decorative liturgical objects. It is richly adorned with babewyns, serpents, and fantastic hybrid creatures. Although this is an English example, this is the sort of sumptuous object in with the French Abbot Suger of the abbey of St. Denis delighted and to which Bernard of Clairvaux, as we will soon see, would strenuously object.

In psalters and Books of Hours, particularly those destined for the laity, the monstrous races would appear with increasing frequency after 1250, and in their earliest phase would be most visible in English examples.[39] A psalter from ca. 1260, most likely illuminated for a friend or family member of Edmund de Lacy, Second Earl of Lincoln,[40] is a case in point. (Figure 4)

Figure 4: Exotic Archer Shooting a Sciopod. Rutland Psalter. London (?), c.1260. British Library, London, Add. MS 62925, fol. 87v (detail). Courtesy of the British Library

Known as the Rutland Psalter, the illuminator depicts in the bas-de-page of the manuscript an Ethiopian shooting a Sciopod in the bottom with an arrow. As Debra Higgs Strickland points out, this image is attached to Psalm 85. She states, “This psalm is a plea for God’s protection from enemies, and so the line which appears just above the monstrous vignette reads: ‘O God, the wicked have risen up against me, and the assembly of the mighty have sought my soul; and they have not set thee before their eyes.’ (Ps. 85:14) As a parody, this line might be spoken by the Sciopod, under attack by his enemy, the Ethiopian. It is perhaps notable that the medieval interpreters of this passage identify the ‘assembly of the mighty’ as the proud, the proud who called for Christ’s Crucifixion, or the damned who belong to the Devil.”[41]

The humorous aspect of the encounter, however, would not be lost on the medieval viewer. Mikhail Bakhtin aptly expresses this in his study of Rabelais. He observes,

The men of the Middle Ages participated in two lives, the official and the carnival life. Two aspects of the world, the serious and the laughing aspect coexisted in their consciousness. This coexistence was strikingly reflected in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century illuminated manuscripts […] Here we find on the same page strictly pious illustrations…as well as free designs not connected with the story. The free designs represent chimeras (fantastic forms combining human, animal, and vegetable elements) comic devils, jugglers […] masquerade figures, and parodical scenes—that is purely grotesque, carnivalesque themes. All these pictures are shown on the same page, which like medieval man’s consciousness contains both aspects of life and the world.[42]

Thus the image on the margin of the Rutland Psalter would serve a dual function, to instruct (referencing the Psalm above) and to amuse. Michael Camille points out that the visual pun was linked with a verbal pun over the wordconspectus (to see or penetrate visually)[43] He notes, by the time of the Rutland Psalter, there would have been a division of labor between the scribe and the illuminator. “The illuminator usually followed the scribe, a procedure that framed his labor as secondary to, but also gave him a chance of undermining the always written Word.”[44] The dual message of amusement and instruction is visible in another English psalter from the second phase of marginal illustration, which Lilian Randall finds from 1300 to 1350; it is characterized by a proliferation of images on the margins.[45] Like the Rutland Psalter, a pattern begins to emerge of an aristocratic taste for these images in the margins. The Luttrell Psalter is an example of the proliferation of this imagery for the nobility.(Figure 5)

Figure 5:A boy steals cherries; monsters fill the surrounding borders. Luttrell Psalter, c. 1325-1335. British Library, London, Add. MS 42130, fols. 196v-197r. Courtesy of the British Library.

Made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell of Irnham in Lincolnshire between 1325 and 1335, the manuscript portrays daily life on a medieval estate, including farming, preparing animals for the table, and feasting.[46] Yet on the margins of the main scenes and text are these fantastic creatures menacing the border areas. Here, we have at bottom left a boy stealing cherries from a tree while the farmer awaits his descent from the tree with raised club. To their right is a green-beaked monster with tiger body and reptilian feet, and on the far right, there is an armless fellow with chicken feet and a small joker springing from his head like a parody of Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. On the far left resides a blue-faced dragon with spotted reptile body and horned hat. Alixe Bovey posits that “If the monsters are interpreted as symbols of spiritual monstrosity, then perhaps the image is a warning to the viewer of the dangers of petty thievery and the ubiquity of the devil.”[47] If her supposition of these monstrous beings is correct, then the message is that temptation lurks all around, but so does the consequence.

A French Book of Hours made for an anonymous patron in the 1320s includes the Office of the Dead, which was typically “a solemn text read to pray for the souls of the dead.”[48] (Figure 6) Here, in the main miniature, a group of monks sings the Office while in the margin is a veritable cacophony of chaos.

Figure 6:Monsters and Babewyns Ape the Office of the Dead. French Book of Hours, 1320s. British Library, London, Add. MS 36684, fol. 125r. Courtesy of the British Library.

Babewyns are depicted under the text mocking the central miniature. They too are singing the Office in a mocking way and bending over obscenely with a psalter stuck to one’s bottom. Another psalter falls to the ground. The presence of a laughing skeleton, as Bovey observes, mocks death, and at bottom left there is a grave-digging Sciopod-like hybrid with a shovel over his shoulder and a long-beaked bird/rabbit at far right that threatens to snip the sacred text in two.

The bald-faced mockery of the sacred and the solemn brings up the question of what was the reception of these images by the clergy. Scholars have a paucity of evidence in primary sources, but two survive, and one is by Bernard of Clairvaux. Written in 1125, Bernard of Clairvaux’ Apologia to Abbot Williamwas “the product of the controversy which arose between the Cistercians and the adherents of an established monasticism regarding the Rule of St. Benedict.”[49] The Cistercians, with Bernard as the spokesperson, were defending themselves in their austere interpretation of the Rule against the more critical Benedictines. St. Bernard writes:

What excuse can there be for these ridiculous monstrosities in the cloisters where the monks do their reading, extraordinary things at once beautiful and ugly? Here we find filthy monkeys and fierce lions, fearful centaurs, harpies, and striped tigers, soldiers at war, and hunters blowing their horns. Here is one head with many bodies, there is one body with many heads. Over there is a beast with a serpent for its tail, a fish with an animal’s head, and a creature that is a horse in front and a goat behind, and a second beast with horns and the rear of a horse…One could spend all day gazing fascinated at these things, one by one, instead of meditating on the law of God. Good Lord, even if the foolishness of it all occasion no shame, at least one might balk at the expense.[50]

Another Cistercian, Adam of Dore, echoes Clairvaux:

[I am] struck with grief that in the sanctuary of God there should be foolish pictures, and what are rather misshapen monstrosities than ornaments; I wish if possible to occupy the minds and eyes of the faithful in a more comely and useful fashion.[51]

He goes on to criticize not only the monstrous in the margins of illuminated manuscripts but in objects destined for the altar filled with “double-headed eagles, four lions with one and the same head, centaurs with quivers, [and] headless men grinning”.[52] In both Bernard’s Apologia and Adam of Dore’s tract, the emphasis was on the monstrous as excess. Despite the two Cistercians’ admonishment of these images, they persisted with abandon, particularly in Books of Hours destined for the laity.

A Case Study: The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux

Figure 7:Pucelle, Jean (fl.c1319-1360s). The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, c.1324-1328.Grisaille and tempera on vellum, 3 1/2 x 2 5/8 in (8.9 x 6.2 cm). folio 159 verso. The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.2). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. Image Copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Art Resources, NY

The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux was made by the artist Jean Pucelle or his workshop for the third wife of Charles IV of France for either her wedding or coronation in 1324. Pucelle represents Lilian Randall’s second prolific phase of marginal illumination; courtly tastes seemed to defy the stern warnings of Bernard of Clairvaux two hundred years earlier. The proliferation of images in this tiny Book of Hours (over 200 marginal figures) would indicate the artist’s intention to instruct and delight Jeanne. I the miniature on the verso side, depicts St. Louis (Louis IX), Jeanne’s great-grandfather, imprisoned by the Saracens on his Crusade; he had lost his breviary, which here is miraculously restored to him by the Holy Spirit. On the recto side, we see the prayer to be recited at the Office hour of Sext. In the historiated initial D for Deus is a hybrid playing a stringed instrument. A monk with a serpent’s tail slithers below, invading the text. Below him is a ferret-like creature or possibly a cat, a cowled gnome, and in the bas-de-page,, a lion advances with a jaunty hat, while a beggar sounds a bag pipe, which the Atlantes holding up the miniature of St. Louis strain to hear.

In another image, St. Louis performs one of the Seven Corporeal Acts of Mercy. (Figure 7) Here he is burying the dead while his compatriots cover their respective noses from the stench. On the recto side, we see two hybrids in the historiated initial D: one is vanquishing the other with a sword while a beggar seems to be pulling out the foliage surrounding the scene.

Figure 8:Pucelle, Jean (fl.c1319-1360s). Pucelle, Jean (fl.c1319-1360s). The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, c.1324-1328.Grisaille and tempera on vellum, 3 1/2 x 2 5/8 in (8.9 x 6.2 cm). folio 154 verso – 159 recto. The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.2). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. Image Copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Art Resources, NY

Below a tonsured monk slithers out of the text, and two creatures signal the end of a phrase. At the bottom, a hybrid vanquishes a dragon symbolizing the devil. In this lovely manuscript, painted in grisaille technique (grey and white tones with hints of color), we have a total integration of miniature and margin. Pucelle and his shop, ever the innovators, breached the borders of the margins. De Certeau’s space of the other is intruding on the space of the text. The sacred text seems to be threatened in a very subversive way while the miniatures of St. Louis seem to be self-contained, less disrupted by the hybrid/monsters in the margins. Jeanne was being instructed to emulate the pious acts of her great-grandfather, [53] and the focus here is on the miniatures of St. Louis while the hybrids served two functions. The first was to instruct her that the world of earthly chaos was only tamed by a focus on the spiritual. The second was to serve as a site of pure amusement and delight. From a Bhabhaian perspective, what is occurring in the margins is a sort of theological colonization. The hybrid represents the other who is constructed as a mimic of the Christian. The mimic reveals the medieval person apart from God—a grotesque simulacrum of a person in communion with the divine. This is evident in another miniature and its textual meddlers in The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux. (Figure 8 )

In the verso scene, St. Louis washes the feet of beggars. In the facing folio, as Michael Camille points out,

[T]he contrast is between the humility of the beggar and king and the pride of the corrupt clergy in the top-right historiated initial. [A hooded female hybrid] peers into a mirror symbolizing vanity at the right of the text, while in the historiated initial, a fat priest plays the bellows of pride from a book held out by even a fatter monk.[54]

Creatures and hybrids slither in and out of the text while a poor barefoot beggar beseeches Jeanne to follow St. Louis’ example. The hybrids’ emphasis is on pride and the vanity of earthly things, thus they are relegated to the margins, the space of the other. Based on de Certeau’s topographical model and its conditions of testimony, reason, for Jeanne, lies in the Word of God that she would recite, the information is laid out before her in a system of signs both textual and pictorial of which she would make sense, and reliability would be akin to the authority of the miniatures of St. Louis, set off by a demarcated line from the impending disorder of the borderlands.

But if reason and authority lay in the central miniature, what purpose could the monstrous possibly serve in the margins? Here we find a theological explanation. In the Summa halesiana II by Alexander of Hales (13th c.) as paraphrased by Umberto Eco, “Creation as a whole [was] to be appreciated in its entirety, where the contribution of shadows [was] to make the light shine out all the more, and even that which can be considered ugly in itself appears beautiful within the framework of the general Order.” [55] The medieval conception of the world was that God accounted for all beings, human and the monstrous. Thus Jeanne was to travel into the borderlands or margins of her manuscript and know that the beggar as the other, who expressed sin in his bodily disarray, was part of the divine plan. What was reflected back at her was that the other was in fact mirrored in the self. To drive the point home, Pucelle and his workshop paint the female hybrid on the right who holds up a mirror.

What the artist Pucelle understood, and what he and his shop tried to represent to Jeanne, was that the central miniature in tandem with the marginal figures worked as a team. As she would recite out loud the Hours and mark the day with her book, she would be aware of the goal of the text. The medieval person had a completely different conception of time than contemporary notions of temporality. Time was marked in Christological terms with everything dependent upon the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, or hell. Thus time was of the essence, and the chance to be redeemed through the example of her great-grandfather St. Louis was at hand. The marginal beings could have reinforced her awareness of the sins of pride and vanity, and their disturbance of the Word, by literally slithering in and out of the text, they called attention to this disturbance in a very visual way. What remains undisturbed and set apart are the miniatures of St. Louis from which she would take her lesson of charity toward the poor and the marginalized.


As Homi Bhabha states, the hybrid “is a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” [56] To the medieval person, that sameness was a reflection of the otherness within the self. Albert the Great (b. 1206), writing in De Animalibus, would note this imperfection of the other stating of the monstrous race of the Pygmies: “They do not have the use of reason, nor modesty, nor feelings of honor. They do not revere justice, nor practice the virtues of the republic. They imitate men in many things and have words of speech, but they have them imperfectly.” [57] It was this imperfection of the monstrous focused on by medieval illuminators that served a didactic function for the intended reader. Note Albert’s focus on the Pygmies’ lack of civilized behavior. Those relegated to the outer reaches of the earth, the monstrous races, were furthest away from the divine. Occupying the borderlands of culture, they, like Montaigne’s cannibal, hold up a metaphorical mirror to what lurks within the so-called civilized medieval person as a result of the Fall.

In sum, it is these borderlands or margins of psalters and Books of Hours which are constructed cultural spaces occupied by the other—an other reflected within the medieval reader/viewer himself or herself. The borderlands of manuscripts are the site of the ribald, the earthly, and the sinful. They are disordered places that serve to focus the reader/viewer’s attention on the ordered “civilized” space of the main miniature. In Jeanne d’Évreux’ voyage into the margins of her Book of Hours, it would be a place of which she would be asked to take heed and set her sights on the spiritual example of her canonized great-grandfather, St. Louis.

Didactic, amusing, or frightening in form, medieval hybrids offered a voyage to that “far-off land which substantiates the alterity of the savage.” [58] By keeping the monstrous in the margins, the barbarian other was somehow contained, as if under glass, near yet far enough away. The authority of the main miniature was challenged, but so was the challenge to the medieval person to refrain from sin. Artists, like Pucelle, clearly demarcated the borders of the miniature as a safety zone, one in which grace and salvation resided. It was here, away from the ribald and the bawdy, that the eye was to rest and contemplate the divine.

Heidi Thimann

Heidi Thimann is a third-year doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She received her B.A. in French from U.C. Berkeley, and a M.A. in the History of Art from U.C. Davis. She also has an M.A. in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union. Her area of specialization is the late medieval period with a particular interest in Books of Hours for aristocratic French women. Her dissertation will reflect her interest in pictorial representations of medieval readers.

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Marginal Beings: Hybrids as the Other in Late Medieval Manuscripts by Heidi Thimann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Alixe Bovey, Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto, 2002), p. 8.
  2. Ann Knock, “The ‘Liber monstrorum’: An Unpublished Manuscript and Some Reconsiderations,” Scriptorium 32 (1978), 19-28.
  3. John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (New York, 2000), p. 30.
  4. Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art(Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 14.
  5. Michel de Certeau, “Montaigne’s ‘Of Cannibals’: The Savage ‘I’,” in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 17, eds. Wlad Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse (Minneapolis, 1986), p. 69.
  6. Camille’s term, Image on the Edge, p. 12.
  7. Ibid. According to Camille, Babewyn was a term first used by Chaucer, which would eventually be the catch-all word for hybrids. Camille points out that the term relates for Isidore of Seville to simius or an ape who mocks or mimics. The prevalence of apes and ape-men in the margins of manuscripts points to a medieval fascination with visual puns or mockery.
  8. De Certeau, “Montaigne’s ‘Of Cannibals’” p. 68.
  9. Ibid., p. 67.
  10. Ibid., p. 70.
  11. Ibid., p. 70-71.
  12. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London, 2004), p. 121.
  13. Ibid.>
  14. Ibid., p. 126.
  15. Ibid., p. 128.
  16. Bhaba’s term is “sly civility.”
  17. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Hybrids, Monsters, Borderlands: The Bodies of Gerald of Wales,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York, 2001), p. 85.
  18. Ibid., p. 96.
  19. John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, p. 5.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., p. 7.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., p. 19.
  24. For a complete list of Pliny’s monstrous races, see John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought.
  25. St. Augustine, City of God, trans. Gerald G. Walsh, et al. (New York, 1958), p. 365.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum, Book XI (Oxford, 1911). See particularly de Portentis that describes how the monstrous races differ in form from humans.
  29. David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature(Montreal, 2002), p. 107.
  30. Ibid., p. 108.
  31. Uwe Geese, “Romanesque Sculpture,” in Romanesque, trans. Fiona Hulse and Ian McMillan (Cologne, 2004), p. 277.
  32. Pliny’s description of the Panotii reproduced in John Block Friedman, p. 18.
  33. Geese, p. 277.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Friedman, p. 78.
  36. Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton, 2003), pp. 47-48.
  37. Ibid., p. 48.
  38. Michael Camille, Gothic Art: Glorious Visions (New York, 1996), p. 151.
  39. Lilian M.C. Randall, Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts (Berkeley, 1966), p. 9.
  40. Strickland, p. 57.
  41. Ibid., 58.
  42. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, 1984), p. 96.
  43. Camille, Image on the Edge, p. 22.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Randall, p. 10.
  46. Bovey, p. 47.
  47. Ibid., p. 50.
  48. Ibid., p. 53.
  49. Jean Leclercq in his introduction to Cistercians and Cluniacs: St. Bernard’s Apologia to Abbot William, trans. Michael Casey (Kalamazoo, 1970), p. 3.
  50. Bernard of Clairvaux quoted in Cistercians and Cluniacs, p. 66.
  51. Adam of Dore quoted in Lilian M.C. Randall, p. 4.
  52. Ibid.
  53. For more on The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux and its message of charity, see Gerald B. Guest, ‘A Discourse on the Poor: The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux,’ Viator 26 (1995) 153-180 and Joan A. Holladay, ‘The Education of Jeanne d’Evreux: Personal Piety and Dynastic Salvation in her Book of Hours at the Cloisters. Art History 17 (1994) 585-611.
  54. Camille, Image on the Edge, p. 138.
  55. Alexander of Hales paraphrased by Umberto Eco in History of Beauty, trans. Alastair McEwen (New York, 2005), p. 148.
  56. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, p. 121.
  57. Albert the Great quoted in Friedman, The Monstrous Races, p. 191.
  58. de Certeau, “Montaignes ‘Of Cannibals: The Savage ‘I’,” p. 69.

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