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Chasing Butterflies in Medieval Europe

Chasing Butterflies in Medieval Europe

Chasing Butterflies in Medieval Europe

By Vazrick Nazari

Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society, Vol.68:4 (2014)

Abstract: A survey of illuminated medieval manuscripts from Europe reveals depictions of several different methods used in the Middle Ages for catching butterflies. A discussion on the meaning and iconography of lepidopteran imagery in these manuscripts is presented.

Introduction: With the large-scale digitization of rare illuminated medieval manuscripts by libraries, museums and other institutions around the world, a new and unexpected online resource is rapidly becoming available for a least likely audience: entomologists. Although mostly of religious nature, the illuminated manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages (5th–15th century CE) are richly illustrated with scenes from daily lives of ordinary people, clerics, and royalty. The margins of these manuscripts are often ornamented with elaborate decorative illustrations, also known as “marginalia”, incorporating a variety of natural elements such as flowers, birds, and other animals, including insects. Previous studies on illustrations of birds (Yapp 1982), dragonflies (Kern 2005) and snails (Hope 2013) in medieval manuscripts have shown that beside useful historical taxonomic information, insights can be gained from these sources on iconography and symbolism of living elements in medieval times. In this paper I will discuss some of the ways in which the lepidopterans may be understood in medieval iconography, and in particular in the context of religion and warfare. The time frame for the works selected in this paper is 1280–1540, and the selection contains images from modern-day Belgium, England, France, Italy, Netherlands, and Spain. The manuscripts include books of hours, breviaries, pontificals, ordinals, decretals, psalters, oratories, graduals, and other works of devotion. The images in this paper are all either in public domain or are reproduced here with permission.

Using various online databases and websites from European and North American institutions, I conducted searches for digitized medieval manuscripts made available courtesy of universities, religious colleges, municipal or national libraries, or other institutions. The quality of images and the ownership rights varied but all institutions were cooperative in providing permission to use and obtain higher quality images for research purposes upon request. Many of these institutions have built comprehensive online databases with descriptions of elements on every folio (page) of the manuscripts in their deposition, making it easy to search for key words (e.g. “butterfly”) and focus only on pages where these images appear. Others, however, did not have such a cataloguing system and required checking each manuscript page by page for relevant imagery.

Among the hundreds of manuscripts surveyed, I found about 270 that contained lepidopteran imagery. There is no doubt that a more rigorous search will yield further material. In many of these manuscripts, the depicted lepidopterans are highly stylized and it is often difficult to even tell if an image is of a butterfly or a moth. Among the ones I came across, about 30 manuscripts included scenes where lepidopterans were shown in some kind of interaction either with humans, monkeys, putti (child-like winged nude beings), centaurs, or other fantastical creatures. Lepidopterans in these scenes were either being pursued, aimed at, or caught in one-way or another. The diversity of methods depicted by medieval illustrators to capture butterflies and moths was truly surprising, especially since the principal motivation behind these activities has remained largely unexplained.


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