This post comes off of last week’s consideration of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. Lewis’s novel starts with a monkey and a donkey dressing up as a human king and a supernatural lion (Aslan). The monkey and donkey are soon confronted by an actual human King Tirian and an actual supernatural being (the unicorn Jewel). It is the king and unicorn’s utter failure to reveal the charade that leads to the destruction of the political structure of Narnia. It might be worth noting that the lion and the unicorn are heraldic emblems of Britain – if the destruction of Narnia echoes post-World War II anxieties about not only nuclear apocalypse, then the role of Puzzle in challenging Aslan and Jewel might reflect Lewis’s worry about social destabilization.
But the monkey and donkey’s parody is not a new thing.
This week, I’m featuring two images are part of a set called the “Grotesque Tournament” from the Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau. This Flemish manuscript was hand-written and hand-illustrated c.1480-90. The painstaking illustrations mean that someone put a lot of thought and effort into…using monkeys to mock unicorns. The monkeys aren’t just mocking unicorns, they’re mocking the idea of chivalry. Though there’s a lion riding the fake unicorn in the image above, they aren’t mocking Great Britain specifically…the heraldic combination of the English Lion and Scottish Unicorn only occurred in 1707 with the Act of Union. Instead, there’s a general topsy-turvy reversal of power structures. Mikhail Bakhtin developed the idea of the carnivalesque to address moments like these, like the Feast of Fools, when hierarchies were temporarily inverted. But in such moments, the reversal is a temporary release of stress…to have it last longer is to (like in Narnia) destroy the culture itself.
Which is bad, if you side with C.S. Lewis, Jewel, Aslan, and King Tirian. But it might not be bad if you don’t have much power. Like if you’re a medieval woman…
Here we see a young noblewoman contributing to the creation of the mock-unicorn.
This works on several levels. Virgins are the only ones to attract real unicorns, so this lady’s sneaky creation of a mock unicorn may say something about her love life. In preparing the unicorn for a joust, she’s also undermining the manly virtues of combat. But it cuts both ways. She’s in on the joke with the monkey…but does that mean that she (as a woman) is on the same level as the animals? When the monkeys in these images hold horses and lances, they are doing the work of squires and pages. I wonder whether they stand in for children or rebellious young people?
Monkeys vs unicorns…monkeys win! But whether that’s good thing or not depends on the interpretation of author, illustrator, and reader alike.
Lastly, for anyone who wants to check out this amazing book or other beautiful manuscripts, the Bodleian Library at Oxford has an amazing digital collection: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/?#
Digital collections like these are the internet done right!