Hedgehogs!

British Library, MS Harley 3244, f. 49v.

Did you know that hedgehogs look like young pigs, just young pigs covered in spines? Well, medievals thought they did.

They also thought that those poky bits were great for gathering food. See all those little circles on the hedgehog above? Food!

A hedgehog would enter a vineyard or orchard at harvest time and climb up a vine or tree. It would shake it to make the fruit fall:

Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 52v

Then it rolls around to spear the fruit on its quills:

How’s it going to eat fruit stuck to its back, you ask? It’s not for this hedgehog. It’s for the babies.

British Library, Royal 12, Folio viii

See how clever the hedgehog is!

But, don’t be fooled by how cute they are.

St Anthony of Padua (12th-13th c.) would have you know that

the hedgehog represents obstinate sinners, covered all over with the prickles of their sins.

You see, says Anthony, if you try to tell a sinner how, well, sinful he is, he immediately just rolls himself up and hides.

Oh, and apparently the hedgehog has 5 teeth in his mouth, one each for the 5 excuses sinners use:

  1. Ignorance
  2. Chance
  3. Suggestion of the devil
  4. Frailty of the flesh
  5. Occasion given by his neighbor

You are not required to think St. Anthony is correct. He did, after all, preach to fish.

Also, if sinners are anything like my students, there are more than five excuses. You’d think that a guy who talked to fish would have a better imagination.

Fun fact: If you’re ever reading kids books, look out for hedgehogs. They’re often depicted with an apple on their backs!

The Gryllus

The medieval butt-face.

Cuerden Psalter, Morgan Library, MS M. 756, fol. 10v-11r

When it comes to hedgehogs, bees, birds of all sorts, even ants, medieval bestiaries have lots to say. Which makes my job of riffing a bit on medieval attitudes towards animals relatively easy.

Things look a bit different when the question concerns humans.

That’s not to say medievals didn’t think about human nature. They did. A lot. And medieval bestiaries actually tell us a lot about humanity, albeit indirectly.

I’m not going to dive into that, though.

In the spirit of keeping these intervening posts light, I thought we’d look at the gryllus.

Hieronymous Bosch

You’ll find these figures in the margins of all kinds of medieval manuscripts. The concept is fairly simple: a face with two legs.

Maastricht Hours, British Library, Stowe 17, folio 10

The style dates back to ancient days and the Graeco-Egyptian painter Antiphilos, who painted a ludicrous figure known as a Gryllus (or so says Pliny in the Natural History).

In the Middle Ages, the gryllus stood for the baser bodily instincts. In other words, it is meant to show how the soul can become prisoner to the beast within.

Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 366, folio 131r

Take a look at the anatomy of the gryllus.

The head and face are where we’d expect a belly to be, right? That highlights the backwardness of the gryllus figure: someone ruled by their appetites (especially sexual).

One last aspect I’ll point out: the eyes.

The anatomy of the gryllus makes them particularly prominent.

Luttrell Psalter, British Library

As Michael Camille has pointed out in Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, the prominence of the eyes for the gryllus are important: looks could kill in the Middle Ages. They not only transmitted the soul and emitted rays–medieval laser eyes!!

Sorry, where was I?

Oh, right. The eyes were also particularly susceptible to demonic influence.

I thought the gryllus would therefore be a nice choice for a story about greed, gambling, and anger. Of course, I thought that after I’d drawn my stick figures. Ah well.

Keep an eye out for a gryllus making an appearance in a future story!