OSR: Medieval Things, Part 3

Medieval Things: 1, 2
Apocalypse, Normandy ca. 1320-1330, BL, Add 17333, fol. 8r
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Sir John Mandeville recorded a curious heresy in the hinterlands of Dalmatia. Groups of armed monks roved the land, tossing any peasants they could capture into pits, ditches, or caves. They took care not to harm their captives, but once deposited, the monks abandoned them to their fate.

According to the famed traveler, the monks were working on a great project, the completion of which would restore universal peace and harmony to the world. The peasants, though greatly inconvenienced by the arbitrary abductions of the monks, seemed to agree that the project was praiseworthy. Yet they did not help the monks, for that would defeat their aims and spoil the scheme.

A later commentator, drawing on sources I cannot fully trace, names the monks as the Monks of Babel, and explains their strange behavior thusly:

  • The Tower of Babel was made of bricks joined by tar. Bricks are worked separately and drawn together; tar is manifest corruption. Its antithesis must be made of air, which requires no working and no mortar.
  • The Tower of Babel was created by people working together. Its antithesis must be made separately, or not made at all.
  • The Tower of Babel rose towards heaven. Its antithesis must descend into the earth.
  • The Tower of Babel was a vainglorious project. Its antithesis must carry no honour or prestige.
The Monks of Babel therefore kidnapped unwilling people and tossed them into pits. Once a sufficient number of people have been appropriated into the project, the Lord would see the ancient sin of Babel was cancelled by the perfect antithesis, and all people would speak the universal language once more. Since the root of all conflict is a lack of understanding, wars would instantly cease.

And that is why your replacement character is in the dungeon.

Ormesby Psalter, England c. 1300, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 366, fol. 109r
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Many theories about the presence of snails in medieval marginalia neglect to mention that snails are inherently amusing. They are small, harmless, slow, and timid, and probably an endemic pest in damp monasteries. They could not be less suitable as antagonists or hunted quarry. They do not need to represent knights (in armour) or stand for a hidden class war.

Tales of "flying snails" are to be treated with deep suspicion.

The alternative explanation, that giant snails once infested Europe and terrorized the locals, has been carefully refuted. No giant snail shells have been found, and the gnawed bones in certain graves can be attributed to famine, toothless wolves, or flowing water.

Saturn Devours His Children
Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Lyon c. 1435-1440, BnF, Français 229, fol. 7v
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Medieval convention depicts past historical or mythological figures in contemporary dress. Galen and Hippocrates appear as 13th century doctors; King David dresses like a local king. Moses wears spectacles. Modern media tends to dress angels and demons in suits and ties, but the idea of a medieval lord drinking Starbucks coffee or bottled water sends the internet into paroxysms of fury. For shame!
Book of Hours, Arras ca. 1296-1311, Cambrai, BM, ms. 87, fol. 138r
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By the late middle ages, books of urology had become so advanced that apes could perform basic medical diagnostics. Like most birds, owls produce an undifferentiated guano, making urology difficult or impossible. Perhaps the illustrator knew this, perhaps not. The "wise" owl seeking medical advice from the "foolish" ape is possibly another jab at physicians.
Macclesfield Psalter, England ca. 1330-1340, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1-2005, fol. 68r
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A 14th century charlatan, posing as the famed alchemist Albertus Magnus, promised to produce a "Death Ray" for the King of England. When unleashed, the final result proved to fulfill the letter, if not the spirit, of the original contract.

What became of the ray, and the charlatan, is not recorded.
‘Hours of Joanna the Mad’, Bruges 1486-1506, BL, Add 18852, fol. 299r
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Sadly, the Bagpipe was extinct by the late 1400s. This depiction may have been drawn from life, or from a preserved specimen in a collection. They were the only ratidae found in the British Isles, and perfectly adapted to dark and boggy environments.


  1. This is hilarious and so fun!

  2. Eventually I need to sit down and read Mandeville, or a good summary of his work.

    1. The great thing is that nobody's read the complete version, only extracts and quotes, so you can just make stuff up and it sounds plausible.

  3. I think you may have lost count of your Medieval Things. The one true Medieval Things *part 3* can be found at