Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ship as Monster

Miniature of Noah’s Ark, Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library, MS. Cotton Claudius B. IV, f. 15v).

Living as they did, at the edge of the inhabitable world, the medieval English were very concerned with limits and boundaries. Their texts and images demonstrate a focus not only on the borders of the earth, of towns, even of individual bodies, but also on the borders of images and pages, which would result in the eventual English efflorescence of visual marginalia. Now, at the final boundary of this text, one frame seems of particular significance. On folio 14r of the Hexateuch—one of the most significant works to survive the Anglo-Saxon period, with approximately 400 images and “one of the first extended projects of translation of the Bible in a European vernacular”—we find an image of Noah’s Ark. Above, God explains to Noah the specifications of the ark. It must be three hundred cubits long, fifty wide and thirty high, with a window at the apex and a door and three decks, all of which are clearly present in the image, below.

This ark is, however, no mere boat. The illuminator has added particular touches that localize the ship, tying it to his own region. From the prow springs a lively dragon-head, with a curling blue mane and its mouth open wide. The stern has been transformed into a broad, flat tail, perhaps more like that of a fish than a dragon. As a result, the whole boat has become animate. Karen Olsen notes that “the depiction of the ship as a beast” in Old English and Old Norse poetry is quite common, with the sea-horse as the most frequently used metaphor. The term more frequently used in the Old English compounds is hengest (horse) which, it will be recalled, was also the name of the mythical founder of Anglo-Saxon England. This visual image, like many others, does not present a sea-horse but rather, a mighty seadragon, though it is somewhat equine in its features.

C. R. Dodwell and Ruth Mellinkoff argue that Scandinavian influences may account for the serpent-head on the ark. Surviving examples of actual Scandinavian ships of the Early Middle Ages feature dragon carvings at their prows, and on separate posts and copper vanes, “decorated with zoomorphic figures, which would also have been set at the ship’s prow.” Dodwell rightly notes that “it needs little perception to see that [the Hexateuch’s] ships, decorated with dragon-heads at the bow and stern, reproduce those used in northern Europe in the 11th century.” Still, Olsen notes regarding animate ships in Old English and Old Norse poetry that while “the Anglo-Saxon scop worked under sociocultural conditions very different from those of the Norse poet . . . of course, sea-travel was an important aspect of Anglo-Saxon society as well.” It ought be recalled that the Anglo-Saxons were, like the Scandinavians with whom they shared much of their mythology, a sea-faring culture. Boats played vital roles not only in their commerce and warfare, but also in their poetic works, such as “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer,” as well as their spiritual life; boats as burial structures, such as were found at Sutton Hoo, indicate that these vessels were more than simple conveyances to their owners.

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