H is for Hero (or G is for Gormless)

Field Notes, Installment IV

Usually when the girl recorded an unusual creature in her field notes, it is was a creature. Four legs. Claws. Snout. That manner of thing. After meeting Robert Schapper, however, the girl decided that restricting her field notes to beasts had been rather narrow-minded of her. As a specimen, Robert was so utterly unremarkable as to be moderately fascinating.

“All field notes should include at least one study in contradictions,” said the girl as she sketched quietly.  So far as she was concerned, the fact that her thoughts had juxtaposed ‘utterly’ and ‘moderately’ together, and then ‘unremarkable’ and ‘fascinating’ meant the Robert qualified nicely as an exemplum contradictionis.

h is for hero 1

Robert Schnapper. “May he prove them all wrong.”

“After all,” observed the girl to a starling which had landed on a nearby branch to observe her progress, “it’s not every day you meet a young man whose ears have migrated to the lowest possible point of his head.”

Had any of the Schnapper family seen the girl’s sketch or overheard her meditations on their fifth son, they would have avoided each other’s eyes and talked loudly of the merits of strong beer and axe throwing, for the perilous hanging of Robert’s ears was an embarrassment to one and all. Any lower and they would have resided on his neck, and that position would have once and finally disqualified him from the occupation of hero.

Since it is an established fact that the ears of heroes are well behaved and handsomely situated to either side of the head–and not only-just-barely above the neck–Robert’s family had long ago dismissed the likelihood of his doing anything more heroic than managing not to tread upon his own feet. Had anyone of the Schnappers (particularly Robert’s younger brother Vipper) known that the young man still harbored high hopes of heroism (and wasn’t half bad at alliteration either), they would have laughed themselves silly.h-is-for-hero-2-1.jpg

The Schnappers were the sort of people who believed manliness and facial hair were one in the same,† on account of which remarkable logic, the entire Schnapper clan–from grandparents to third cousins twice removed—had given up on Robert amounting to anything.

It was manifestly unfair, for while the young Robert could have done something to ameliorate the expression of perpetual surprise upon his face, and while he could have taken better care not to step on his own feet,  there was nothing he could do about his beard. Mother Nature had heartlessly condemned him to a life of scruff, and that was that.

After sketching the young man in her field notes, the girl stared at the page. Beneath her sketch of the underestimated Robert, she wrote only, “May he prove them all wrong.”

v is for vipper 2

Vipper Schnapper. “Let that be a lesson to you, girl.”

Before slamming her notebook closed in disgust, the girl added one last, hasty sketch of the mocking Vipper Schnapper with a quick note.

The girl was perhaps a little hard on herself. It wasn’t as if she was the first young woman to be misled by a dramatic head of hair. Moreover (and to her credit), it had only taken a few minutes’ conversation for her to realize that the well-groomed Vipper would never live up to the intensity of his eyebrows. Such disappointments happen all too often.

Still, if she was brutally honest with herself, the chin beard really should have told her e v e r y t h i n g. It really, really should.

† That created some difficulty where Great Aunt Stomp was concerned, but that’s another story.

R is for Regrettable

Field Notes, Installment III

“Oooh!” exclaimed the creature excitedly. “If it’s odd bits of the animal kingdom you’re interested in, then your best bet is to find the Master of the Menagerie.”

“The what?” asked the girl, edging a bit further away as the creature opened a second can of kippers.

The oh-so-delicate Toggler

“The Master of the Menagerie,” returned the creature. For a moment, it munched blissfully away on a kipper–bones and all. “He’s an odd one by all reports. They say his collection is the last word in collection, so if you’re the last of your kind, it is best to avoid him. I’m safe, I am. We togglers are yoooo-bik-kweee-tuss in these parts.”

Another kipper followed its predecessor.

“Ah!! I thee that thurpritheth you!”

“It’s only that you are the first of your kind that I’ve seen. In fact, I took you for a dachshund of sorts at first,” she offered. To herself, she added, “the very, very, very fat sort.”

A large blatting noise filled the air and the girl had to fight the desire to shield her nose. The toggler blinked confusedly and looked about it. Then, with a shrug, it dug a fork into the jar of sauerkraut beside it to eat lustily for a moment.

“We togglers are prolific breeders. There were seven in my litter and my parents have had four litters, all about that size. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but we’re delicate creatures. Have to eat a great deal to keep up our strength.” The round little beast gave its belly rolls an affectionate pat. “Most togglers prefer to sustain themselves in their dens. Me, I like picnic. Always be prepared to enjoy a good view to the full. That’s my motto.”

Here the toggler waved an unopened can of kippers at the girl. “Happy to share!”

Before she could answer, another heraldic toot trumpeted through the air. Once more, the creature looked suspiciously about it for the culprit.

“Nothing for me. Thank you! Most kind!” returned the girl as she feigned blowing her nose. “You were saying about this Master of the Menagerie—”

The creature shrugged, a move that regrettably brought forth further eructation, saying, “That’s all I know really. No! Wait a minute. They say when you hear the bells you’ll know you’re nearly there.”

“The bells? What kind of bells?”

“B e l l s. The bells kind of bells, I expect. The kind that go ding.”

The opening of the third can of kippers defeated the girl and she fled. After rounding a bend a bit down the dusty road, the girl pulled out her field notes and quickly sketched a picture of the creature. She was pretty certain the creature was fatter than she’d depicted, but it already looked preposterous. With a sigh, the girl jotted a few notes about the Master of the Menagerie, concluding:

The toggler seemed oddly surprised by its own flatulence, which was indeed  remarkable both for its volume and rapidity. The flatulence, that is. Frankly, I can’t imagine how it could be surprised. What else is one to expect if one consumes of a steady diet of sauerkraut and kippers?

The Demons of Indigestion

Two summers ago when I came across this little fellow on Chartres Cathedral I wondered if the stone carver hadn’t had one of those headless wonders called Blemmyes in mind when he carved this demon who is merrily providing a demonstration in infernal torture to the cathedral’s visitors.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. It may be nothing more than a case of the mason’s lunch not sitting well, or perhaps a colleague’s flatulence taking on a life of its own in the mason’s imagination.

Inspiration. It’s a mysterious thing.



O is for Oatmeal

Field Notes, Installment II.

Somewhere around the second or third day of her travels, someone directed the girl to seek out the Snættlyng.

“‘E’s an odd creature,” warned the man after a moment.

“Odd how?” asked the girl. “Odd-dangerous as in ears that face both ways and poisonous spurs on its heels, or odd-strange as in eats cheese scones loaded with elderberry jam?”

“What’s odd about that? Though I prefer grape meself,” returned the man. Looking more closely at the girl, he sniffed and added, “Well, you may not find ‘im odd. Bookish little type ‘e is. Never without a pile of ’em. Never seen the point of ’em myself. ‘Cept as doorstops.”

“I like books,” said the girl.

“There you have it,” said the man, his deepest suspicions confirmed. “Jus’ yer cup o’ tea.”

She parted from the man, jotting down the directions he gave her with a little question mark beside the information received, for she could not bring herself to trust people who ate grape jelly. (And who can blame her?)

Suspicions of grape jelly notwithstanding, the man’s directions proved accurate enough, and the girl found the Snættlyng. O is for Oatmeal signedIt had made a little fire for itself to heat a kettle of water, and while the girl saw scones laid out, there was no grape jelly to be seen, so that her hopes of sensible conversation rose at once.

The Snættlyng was a peculiar little creature with neat, polished tusks and a pert, violet nose. Its linen coat was pressed and it had a wine-colored cravat and dark green shoes. When it spoke, the Snættlyng did so with a slight slurping sound, as if not entirely in control of its tongue. The two shared a very pleasant cup of tea despite the fact the tea was black as mud and the creature could not stop apologizing for the fact that there was no milk and there were no biscuits.

“Ginger bithcuits,” mourned the Snættlyng, “are my favorite. I’m very thorry I cannot offer you any. I thought I’d packed thome in my thatchel, but I picked up a penthil bockth by mithtake. Alath.”

Try as she might, none of the girl’s assurances that the tea was sufficient comforted the creature, and their conversation continued to be peppered with intermittent lamentations over the lack of biscuits.

As they talked, the Snættlyng (whose name, the girl learned, was Livy) squinted at its companion in a manner that made the girl fear she had something on her nose or in her teeth.* Still, if both were a little self-conscious, it did not prevent them from having a long and pleasant conversation, and it was from the Snættlyng that the girl first heard of the Master of the Menagerie.

“Oh my,” said the Snættlyng, “if it’th odd creatureth you’re after, then you want the Mathter of the Menagerie. Hith collecthion ith famouth! Oh no, my dear. I’ve never met him mythelf. I don’t go that far afield. It’th true that one hearthe odd thingth about him, but then, people are tho critical. I wouldn’t pay any attenthion to rumorth if I were you. Theek him out, then come back and tell me all about it. Thith hath been delightful!”

Regrettably, the Snættlyng had no information to provide his guest on how to find this Master of the Menagerie, but it assured her that the Master’s collection of the unique and peculiar was so famous that if she continued on, she would be sure to find someone who could direct her.  So, the girl said her goodbyes to the Snættlyng, stopping after she was out of sight to write down a description of the little creature. Just as she was about to close her notebook, the girl remembered something else and scribbled ,

“Bring ginger bithcuits biscuits and milk next time.”

*Editor’s Notes:

  1. The Snættlyng thought the girl rather odd for the way she kept raising her handkerchief before her nose and mouth. It suspected that she had false teeth which were giving her trouble and felt very, very badly for her.
  2. After longer acquaintance, the girl learned that the Snættlyng suffered from near terminal nearsightedness; and although the creature would rather have eaten oatmeal (which it loathed) for the rest of its life than admit to it, the Snættlyng was entirely dependent upon the thick spectacles which it had swiftly stowed in its satchel at any visitor’s approach. The Snættlyng never wanted its visitors to feel as if they were “under the microscope” of its lenses.

P is for Poison

Field Notes, Installment I

One can only read so much during a layover. So, doodling has become my way to retain my sanity. Several years ago I had a ridiculous layover—I think in O’Hare of all the miserable airports–during which time I was faced with the choice we all face at some point: Break out into rude sea shanties and amuse myself by horrifying my fellow travelers, or curl up in the fetal position and quietly mumble Lewis Carrol poetry to myself?

Since getting myself held by T.S.A. for public annoyance would hardly serve to get me home faster, I resisted both temptations and pulled out a notebook. Commitment-phobe that I am, I prefer pencil to paper. (Ink requires a certainty that I rarely have.) Below is the first of the project–drawing and “field notes” together–that gets longer with every flight (and I travel a good bit). As the “field notes” have expanded, they have started to come together in a loose narrative. We shall take this in good Dickensian fashion: installments.

As I written previously, I am not an artist.  “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!”

P is for Poison

P is for Poison editedThe ramshackle creature returned the girl’s stare with all the insolence of a haystack roused suddenly (and  improbably) to life. Very slowly, the beast tilted its head to one side as if sizing the observer up. Something about the deliberateness of the movement made the girl revise her original impression of the creature as “rather cute.”

Then, she took a slow, stealthy step backwards. As the creature had turned, the girl had noted that one of its ears faced forwards, the other faced back. A) No creature develops that kind of anomaly unless it is of deeply suspicious nature. B) Deeply suspicious beasts are to be treated with much caution. Therefore, C) Retreat is the wisest course of action.

A sudden twitch of a hind leg pulled the girl’s gaze to the massive, ostrich-like feet, and it was those feet which in the end sent her hurriedly upon her way. Every one of those overlarge, bird-like feet had a nasty spur on the back of it.

“Probably poisonous,” muttered the girl, stowing her notebook quickly and slipping away.

Editor’s notes: 1) The beast above is generically known as a ‘fiðerfete,’ a name that frankly scrapes the bottom of the barrel o’ illumination as it means nothing more than “four-footed beast.” Specific classification of the creature has proven difficult due to its stubborn antipathy to being the object of study.  2) While the spurs of the the fiðerfete are noxious, they are not fatally so. That said, between the nausea, the unsightly swelling, and the hives, most victims express a devout wish to be dead.

Beasts and Babewyns

I first encountered the word babewyn in the late Michael Camille’s  Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, wherein Camille explores what medieval illuminators and scribes were up to with all that tomfoolery in the margins. The term babewyn–nicely encapsulated by Camille’s translation “monkey-business”–covers the wide range of playfulness (and occasional visual commentary) that one sometimes finds in medieval manuscripts (12). From the trope of knights fighting snails to monkeys dressed as bishops, from organ-playing rabbits to badly behaving monks, medieval marginalia ranges from the fanciful to the vulgar. I am both frivolous and honest enough to admit that I would have taken my studies of paleography far, far more seriously had my professor included babewyns alongside the Beneventan script she so devoutly worshiped. Alas, she was deeply earnest and I never have been.

BL MS 49622 f. 107r

Knight vs. Snail, BL MS 49622 107r

While manuscript scholars would no doubt take umbrage at my referring to the glories of medieval marginalia as doodling, I cannot help but wonder if the impulse behind much marginalia is not the same as that impulse which led cavemen to paint on walls. Perhaps among the pre-historic images and squiggles over which scholars pour, there are bits that simply mean, “Glod bored out of mind. When rain stop?” Or, “Mog invent committee. Glod kill Mog.” What about some of the more puzzling Egyptian hieroglyphs? Might not some inscrutable passage have a similar origin? Imagine some poor bugger of a stone carver staring in despair at the blank wall before him while two priests argue theology (or worse still, liturgy).

“Phukdat, I many times do I have to tell you, orthodoxy requires a reed before the horned viper. If you put the horned viper before the water squiggle without the reed, Osiris will not bless the Nile!”

“It means nothing of the sort, Thikhut. The reed symbol is phallic and oppressive. We should write a new prayer–“


The poor stone carver starts chinking away just to pass the time while the priests try to stuff each other into canopic jars. Thus, out of sheer boredom was born the solitary occurrence of a dog-headed bird, an image that launched a handful of obscure doctoral dissertations and one very idiosyncratic cult. (Totally making that up. Too bad, eh?)


BL Arundel MS 60, f. 7r

To return to the Middle Ages–as all sensible people must–sometimes the stuff in the margins is logical and obviously illustrative. Vide, the astrological figure found in the liturgical calendar (to the right), or the bird tolling the bell on the first page of instructions for an Office of the Dead (below).

BL MS 21926 f. 208v

BL MS 21926 f. 208v


If the term babewyn, from which we get our word baboons, was originally related to the monkeys that occasionally showed up in the margins mocking the action of the text, monkeys were certainly not the only creatures called upon to strut their marginal stuff. So, one finds  in the Gorleston Psalter a fox-bear creature dressed as a bishop preaching to a congregation of excited ducks (folio 47r). Other times, the creatures are as fantastical as the chimères and gargoyles of architecture, and much as I love the gastropod “shake-down” of  the knightly class and the ecclesiastical menagerie, the more fabulous creatures are the ones to which I feel a doodling kinship. Take for instance, this rogues gallery from the Gorleston MS 49622:

If I came to the term babewyn late, I came to the practice much earlier. I have always been an inveterate doodler. Let there be no mistake. I am no artist. I make no claims to either talent or skill. Nevertheless, the tradition of doodling in the margins of books, class note, meeting agendæ, and whatnot is one I know of old. Many is the time I’ve wished I had my math homework from seventh grade, the year in which I officially gave up on mathematics. While it was a bitter parting with no love lost on either side, my frustration gave rise to a whole pantheon of fantastical creatures. Some were gnome-like fellows not unlike the little “gryllus” I would find years later in the margins of medieval manuscripts (e.g. the beturbaned little fellow below).  Others were multi-headed monsters which embodied the Scylla and Charybdis that was life in junior high.

BL MS 21926 f. 26r

BL MS 21926 f. 26r

Whereas doodles from meetings reflect the Escher-like reality of the moment, the doodles from long layovers in international airports have begun over the last years to incline toward the tradition of the medieval bestiary. Admittedly, the short, explanatory notes which now accompany the doodles verge more toward the “field notes”end of the spectrum rather than the moralizing natural history of a true bestiary. Nevertheless, I feel a kinship there.

One of my favorite bestiaries is the magnificent, late sixteenth-century Aberdeen Bestiary, and if you look at the image below of the elephant below having a really, really bad day, you can undoubtedly see why. If you want to lose yourself in some beautiful illumination and some fascinating reading, follow the link to the Aberdeen Bestiary and read about the nature and kinds of snakes, or scroll around and read up on the habits of hedgehogs or the virtues of newts. Ever heard of a monceros? You can remedy that lamentable ignorance by reading up folio 15r (head of stag, body of a horse, and feet like an elephant. The final parts of the bestiary explain the “parts of man” as well as explaining the virtues and powers of various stones from run-of-the-mill chalcedony to thunder stones. You read that correctly, thunder stones. (Eat your heart out Avengers.)

Aberdeen Bestiary, MS 24 f. 65v

Aberdeen, De Serpentibus

In the spirit that marginalia is its own reward, I will in the coming weeks offer up a doodle or two. In the meantime, if you’re curious about the tradition of knights versus snails, visit the British Library’s delightful Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1992. 12-13)