Sunday, February 05, 2012

Medieval Monstrosities

What do "Medieval monstrosities" have to do with cathedrals? The Basillica Church of Saint Mary Magdelene in Vezelay, France, depicts some of these monstrosities the central tympanum lintel above the main door. Why? The theme of this lintel is Jesus telling his disciples to preach the gospel to the ends of the world. And, at this time, people in Europe thought there were monstrous people who needed to hear the gospel!

Here are some of the 'people' who were thought to exist:
  • Sciopods - people with one leg and a foot so big they used it for shade
  • Cyclopes - people with one, central eye
  • Pygmies - short people (though I'm not sure why this one has two heads)
  • Blymmyes - people with faces on their chest
  • Cynocephalus - dog-headed people
I got more information about the history of these people at J. A. Beard's Unnecessary Musings blog. Blymmeys were described as early as the fifth century B.C. by Herodutus. Later, Pliny the Elder in his book "Natural History, Book V" (75 A.D.) also described them. Pliny's book was an attempt to "comprehensively document all the knowledge known in the world available to the Roman Empire at the time." Later on, they were described as man eaters, too.
(Large eared people - I didn't come across a name - image from Wikipedia)

(Sciapod/Skiapod/Monopod - from the Nuremburg Chronicle 1493 - image from Wikipedia)
Pliny describes Skiapods as follows: He [Ctesias] speaks also of another race of men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility. The same people are also called Sciapodae, because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet. (Ctesias' book was about India from the 5th century B.C.)
In this age of mass information and Google Earth it is hard to believe that people believed these human 'monstrosities' really existed. But, even today, we talk about leprechauns and big foot! Anyway, I can't wait to visit Europe and examine some of this medieval art in person.

P.S. I really enjoyed a related post called "How Columbus Discovered Cannibals in the New World" which talks about the dog-headed people and how Columbus used this idea to justify enslaving people.

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