Medieval Hybrids

What happens when you cross an elephant with a fish?  I’m really not sure, but a thirteenth-century artist in Metz had a pretty good idea (well, two, in fact): 

This is a fraction of a stunning wood ceiling that was excavated in Metz at the end of the 19th century.  It has been dendrochronologically dated to the mid 13th century, the height of the textual bestiary craze that swept upper-class Europe by storm. Bestiaries, most often found in monastic manuscripts, are a form of encyclopedic work that resonates clearly with another intellectual trend of the era, that of attempting to collect, convey, and interpret universal knowledge (aka encyclopedism). As my students will attest, I had NO idea this was here, and it literally stopped me in my tracks.

One of the things that has always drawn me to bestiaries is the way that they are a seaming together of diverse kinds of knowledge—the ancient and the modern (for them), the real and the imagined, the ordinary and the fabulous. The animals in bestiaries are domestic and wild, small and large, mundane and extraordinarily rare. They are both fish and fowl….but to be honest, I’ve never seen one that tried so completely to jam all of these identities together—it literally includes a hybrid fish/fowl!


The ceiling panels include traditional bestiary animals (unicorns, roosters, fish, etc.), as well as monstrous races and routine (?) hybrids like mermaids.

But most unusual is the heavy theme of non-standard hybrids—ones that may well have been dreamed up by the patron/painter. The bulk of these hybrids are composed of fish blended with other animals and even humans. There is a wolf/fish, a monk/fish (see what I did there?), a stag/fish, a unicorn/fish, a horse/fish, a rather cute duck/fish, and, of course, the elephant/fishes.  Since I have particular affinity for medieval images of elephants, and I’m working on cultural representations of fish right now, these were gold.

The fish half of the hybrids are always the tails, though some individual fish exist on their own, including one fish that simply must be a flounder:


The authors of this ceiling lived at the Mosel/Seille confluence—a city where rivers merged, as, perhaps, did the identities and interests of the clerical and secular elite (we know nothing, as far as I could tell, of who the owner of this ceiling was). I can’t help but think that this kind of ceiling was only possible along a river as vibrant and ecologically and culturally diverse as the Mosel.

Poking around (a marvelous resource), I found this image (from BL, Harley MS 4751, Folio 68r) which similarly imagines a range of fish/terrestrial animal hybrids, and I will admit I started looking for similar representations in the rest of the Gallo-Roman museums we visited—there were MANY of them, especially at Trier (also on the Mosel…..). Of course there were capricorns, sirens, and melusines, but also other hybrids.

I have never seen anything like this ceiling. I’m as drawn to this as I am to the Liber Floridus, and for very similar reasons. Both works have a unique quality where you can so easily see (if you know the standard works the artists are using) individual personalities and minds at work. Both are imperfect, perhaps even a bit awkward in places (there are several repeated hybrid animals on the ceiling), and yet are all the more compelling for that.

The images are no longer vibrant, but still radiate energy. They are shockingly well-preserved and yet, as the museum itself points out, shockingly under-studied. I’ll be ordering the one book on it as soon as I’m back in the States. I am suddenly having thoughts about a post-script to my book project in which I can link this to both standard bestiaries and the Liber Floridus to look at the legacy of earlier medieval and classical ideas about rivers and river life…..but that’s all a very vague set of ideas right now. I’m still absorbing this, and I suspect I will be revisiting Metz sooner than I had first imagined…..