Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 281 fol. 184r

Finding focus in the profane

What would you expect to see on the first page of a book of sermons – a hunting scene? Perhaps not.

Yet this is exactly what we find in a mid-fourteenth-century manuscript preserved at the Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 281.

A hunting scene: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 281, fol. 1r

This manuscript contains a variety of texts: its greater part is occupied by a collection of Sunday sermons whose author is an Italian monk, Philippo de Monte Calerio. It is written in Latin, and, as proper for this serious work, a historiated initial, a capital ‘R’ at the beginning of the text presents a devout scene. In the top part, represented by the upper curve of the letter, Virgin Mary holds infant Jesus in her lap, supporting the holy child with her left arm. Jesus extends his right hand in a gesture of blessing.

The beneficiary of the blessing kneels below, in a sort of cell made by the lower part of the letter. The monk’s hands are folded in a gesture of prayer, and he looks up at the Virgin and the Child. This is likely to be friar Philippo himself. It was not unusual in the Middle Ages to show authors in the illustrations adorning the manuscripts with their work.

The scene is highly appropriate and likely to inspire devotion in the reader.

Focus or distraction?

In this context, the border decorations appear to offer some distraction from the matter of the initial and the edifying text it introduces. The upper and lower borders of the text show animals, including two hunting dogs chasing after two hares below the text, as well as a hare and a bird above the text. But are these images as irrelevant as they may seem?

Birds in the border: MS. Laud Misc. 281, fol. 184r

Hunting scenes are common in the medieval manuscripts of this period, where they include religious or secular writings. An Arthurian manuscript, now London, British Library, Royal MS 14. E. iii, introduces one of its three romances with just such a scene: it includes, among other things, hares and hunting dogs on folio 140r. The scene bears no relation to the text, as the French romance it introduces, the Mort Artu (Death of Arthur), does not include any hunting scenes.

The manuscript of Arthurian romances from London and the religious miscellany from Oxford have more in common than would appear at first glance. Both were produced in the north of France in mid-fourteenth century. Both are comparatively richly expensive, though the London manuscript includes miniatures consistently throughout the romances, while the Oxford one only has illuminations on the first page. The following pages, however, have penwork initials for new sections, as well as smaller initials in blue and red throughout. The penwork initials in blue and red would have involved considerable work – as well as aesthetic pleasure to the reader. The text, laid out in two uniform columns, would have been executed by a competent scribe in a rather unhurried manner.

Why, then, is there the hunting scene on the opening page? Is there more to it than the purpose of pleasing the eye of a reader?

Symbolism in the secular

Images in the margins of medieval manuscripts, bizarre and haphazard as some of them may appear, often carried symbolic meaning. The animals that appear in the marginalia of expensive religious and secular manuscripts could be interpreted in the light of the bestiary – a medieval genre of writing that described various real and imaginary animals and their Christian symbolism.

The hare, for instance, was associated with the devil, while the dog symbolized fidelity and served as example to the good Christian, who was entreated to be as faithful to God as the dog is to its master. The collars on the hunting dogs from the Oxford manuscripts indicate that they are domestic animals and remind the viewer that they are owned by someone.

The hares, by contrast, are wild, and they run in forested landscape, as indicated by a tree to the right and the foliated branch in the middle. The branch with three leaves – which may evoke the Holy Trinity – separates the dogs from the hares, the hunters from the hunted, culture from nature, and good from evil.

In reverse to what a modern viewer might expect, the hunters offer a positive example, that of Christian zeal, whereas the running hares may be read as sinners or miscreants. One may even associate these dogs with mendicant monks, who would preach the word of God, as Philippo does through his sermons.

This hunting scene initially appears to distract the viewer from the text itself. If we look more closely, it focuses the viewer’s mind on the religious symbolism of the scene and directs it towards the text that the images encircle.

About the author

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University for a study of Arthurian romance. She is now based in Latvia, and her recent research focuses on the history of medieval Livonia, the study of local manuscript culture, and equestrian history.