Conferences and Symposia

Harlaxton Zoomposium : 26th – 30 July 2021

I am delighted to report that the Harlaxton website for this year’s meeting is now up and running. This year’s theme is travel.

Unlike previous years when we have met in person at Harlaxton Manor, this year, due to Covid, the annual meeting will take the form of a Zoomposium, thus enabling so many more enthusiasts of medieval history from around the world to participate.

The papers cover a wide range of topics including the production and use of maps; inns, horses and stabling as well as clusters of inns; entertainment; a study of John Mandeville in the 21st century; research into a specific visit of the Emperor Sigismund in 1416; women travelling in the medieval period, to the visual wonders of travel and trade and sources for travel.

I will be presenting a paper that explores the visual evidence of exotic fauna from far off places that appear in various illuminated manuscripts and other works of art dating from the late medieval and early modern periods. The following is a very brief outline of an aspect of my research.

Known from their inclusion in the writings of Pliny the Elder (1st century BCE), Isidore of Seville (7th century BCE) and later bestiaries of the 12 and 13th centuries, parrots were considered to be special because of their ability to speak with a human voice. Pliny tells us that when a parrot is being taught to speak it has to be hit over the head with an iron bar (Natural History : Book 10 :58), while Isidore recognised that green parakeets came from India. (Etymologies: Book 12, 7:24) and that its abilty to mimic human speach was uncanny. An example of such a bird is held by the Christ Child in Van Eyck’s altarpiece of Canon van der Paele & The Virgin painted in 1436, but there are many examples elsewhere.  

Canon van der Paele & The Virgin (1436): Jan Van Eyck (1390 – 1441): Greoninge Museum, Bruges.

Since the discovery in 1999 of a 9th century Arab dhow wrecked on its return journey from China it is now easier to argue that there are examples of hard items from the Far East that are portrayed in paintings and manuscripts. It is not so easy to document the trade in birds or more bizarre animals. Were the various examples of birds and other exotica a result of a vivid descriptions of specimens seen in the wild (possibly fuelled by a generous addition of ale), or perhaps captured and brought back to Europe where they were sold as curiosities that were then immortalised in paint?  

Many of these artistic endeavours have been created by artists who were based in the main centres of power and trade such as Bruges, Lisbon, Venice and other major ports. This paper will demonstrate visual evidence birds and other exotic species from the New World and the Spice Islands that can be seen in manuscripts and other works of art of the medieval and early modern period.

For further information on the papers and for the link for you to register with Eventbrite visit the Harlaxton website

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