The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I recently read Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin and very much enjoyed it.  One of the most striking tales from it (possibly second only to the one about the housebreaker and the tortoise) is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  I’m now reading Irwin’s history of Orientalist scholarship, The Lust of Knowing, and the story reoccurs.  Thus I feel compelled to share this strange idea with anyone who hasn’t heard it.

220px-vegetable_lamb_28lee2c_188729In medieval tales, the Vegetable Lamb or Scythian Lamb or Barometz is a plant-animal hybrid that lives in central Asia, or Russia, or perhaps the Black Sea area near Persia.  It consists of a lamb that is rooted to the earth by a umbilical cord like stem.  The lamb can flex this stem such that is can eat grass in the immediate circle around it, but is prevented from moving beyond that and must then either starve or drop off the plant as a ripened sheep (sources seem divided as to which one; or perhaps just generally confused).


The story really came to public attention in the fourteenth century with the tales of Sir John Mandeville (whoever he may have actually been) and the travelogues of various friars.  As late as 1683, a German doctor called Engelbert Kaempfer would search for the lamb in Persia, before reasonably deciding that it was a myth, possibly due to some local farming practices.

Wikipedia quotes some priceless poetry on the topic:

E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around

Demetrius De La Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata

Back in reality, the legend seems to be perhaps rooted (!) in an old Jewish text, or perhaps a misunderstanding of cotton fibres or even due to a furry looking Asian fern – Cibotium barometz.  Answers may also be available for the Barnacle Goose (or Bernacle), but there’s only so much of this I can take in one sitting.


Wonder Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

32919654The quote from The Guardian on the back of the book compared it to a mix of AS Byatt and Terry Pratchett.  Perhaps, but I’d throw in Hilary Mantel and Umberto Eco.  There’s something in the mix of the realist portrayal of medieval life blending with constant surrealist tangents.  What they really meant though was that the book will reward multiple readings, it is enjoyable first time round but there are so many allusions and references that you can come back again and again.

Irwin starts his book with Anthony Woodville dying at the Battle of Towton before being resurrected with an unfortunate tendency to see the dead walking.  The book then follows the real life Anthony Woodville’s path through the Wars of the Roses: switching sides to the Yorkists, temporary exile, a court favourite under Edward IV, before quickly falling out of favour under Richard III.  Along the way, he battles the Bastard of Burgandy in a two day duel and delves into his literary interests – translating works into English and even having them printed by William Caxton.

As a bibliophile and as a medieval man, Woodville explores the world through stories and rumours.  And so Irwin uses these throughout – as characters meet they share stories, and these tales shift and change as their context changes.  Thus the tone of the book swings wildly: with a very funny story about housebreakers using  tortoises with candles mounted on their backs, alongside darker, almost tragic material.  Familiar stories like Appointment in Samarra show up too – I’m sure there would be even more, if my mythology knowledge was on a par with Irwin’s!

The characters in the book are fantastic too.  Not necessarily deep, but certainly memorable.  The scheming alchemist George Ripley, the Machiavellian constable John Tiptoft (known as “butcher of England”) and the mysterious writer Thomas Malory all particularly caught my imagination.  Irwin conjures a strange sort of world – rich and detailed yet shallow and mysterious; a last flourishing of romance before the modern world begins to kick in.  It’s imaginative, bizarre and (in truth) at points I wasn’t really sure what on earth was going on; but that just will just spur me to read it again – it’s that sort of book.

The First Crusade by Peter Frankopan

The first question that this book should pose is “Why?”.  Why do we need another history of the crusades?  What does this one add?  I had previously enjoyed Peter Frankopan’s Silk Road, he clearly has a head for both the details of politics and the big picture.  In this book he applies that talent to the role of Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos in the crusade.

This allows him to pick up on a couple of loose threads from the traditional story of the first crusade: why did Alexios send to the west for help?  Why and when did the Byzantine cut ties with the crusaders?  The obvious historical source for Alexios is the Alexiad, but this is written by his daughter Anna and has an pretty definite bias to it.

The answer to the first question is perhaps the more interesting: why did the Byzantines request help at that point in time?  Alexios had been in power for over a decade, and the Alexiad presents him as leading a recovery for earlier military setbacks.  The chronology is not as simple as it appears however – Alexios’ reign had military failures too and he was becoming increasingly under threat domestically.

Later in the book Alexios feels more peripheral, but Frankopan presents a case that this distance from the crusaders was in good faith.  He was unwilling to leave the capital and risk revolt there, he provided supplies readily in most cases, and where he didn’t it would have appeared futile to do so.

I don’t think this book succeeds at significantly changing the narrative of the first crusade, but it does provide a new slant and point of view.  The coverage of the campaigns in Asia Minor is particularly good.  Worth reading for anyone who thinks they are already familiar with the story of the crusades.


War On Heresy by R.I Moore

Catharism is probably the best known Medieval heresy.  It has popped up in Dan Brown and Bernard Cornwell books, and in Iron Maiden songs.  People may be familiar with the crusades against it, famous quotes like “Kill them alllet God sort them out”, and even with the general idea of dualism with a split between good and evil, spiritual and physical.  In another sense it isn’t well known at all, much of what we know comes from anti-Cathar propaganda or rebuttals.

In this book Moore looks again at the response to heresy in the medieval church and particularly the Cathars.  He finds little to hold on to where they are concerned; it seems that the idea of the heretics being an organised group with a church structure and doctrine was a construction of writers within the catholic church.  The local heretics may have had reformist motives, complaints against clerical corruption, a desire to follow the bible more literally, or a desire for greater local independence – but aspects of their behaviour was taken and fit into a stock idea of a dualist heretic but churchmen who had been reading a bit too much classical literature!

In the earlier part of the book, Moore seems very comfortable with the sources, and convincing that there was no true heretical organization.  We see reformers of various types, some integrated within the church, some not.  Later on, as the book hits the 13th century, there seems to be a bit of extrapolation, that we should continue to interpret these later events in a similar manner to the former.  This may be reasonable – it is a very subtle book, possibly too subtle for me and I will have to leave judgement to those with a greater familiarity with the era.

Aimed at a general audience, but with some scholarship behind it, this is an interesting if difficult read and probably not one for beginners.  The conclusion of the book leaves the traditional narrative disrupted and muddied, but that’s the way history often is.  It’s worth reading for those familiar with the topic, but look elsewhere for an introduction (The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea perhaps?).


14th Century Games

I came across this quote the other day:

“In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws.”

(originally from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century).

Back in the days when you had to make your own entertainment!


The Northmen’s Fury by Philip Parker

This is probably the first Viking history I’ve read since Horrible Histories, when I was a kid. I’m certainly wasn’t disappointed – Parker gives a narrative history of the Vikings through their early raids in Ireland, France and England, to the high points of the great Heathen Armies and the Danelaw, and finally the settlement into various Christian kingdoms. Alongside this he covers the sagas and writings that have preserved this Norse culture so we can read it today.

This book ties in with a few other things I’ve read recently – Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris and The Empire Stops Here. There is a little bit on mythology here, but by and large Parker is focused on fact (or at least the more possible sorts of legend). The myths of Loki, Odin and Thor are mentioned, but only to explain how the fit into the Viking world. Actually, Christianity plays as big a part in this history, and much of our story is on the conversion and settlement of the pagan raiders. By avoiding telling these myths for their own sake, Parker actually gives the book a greater sense of purpose. It allows an almost unbroken focus on the raiding and colonization of the Norsemen; one can get a sense of the connections and development throughout Scandinavian societies.

In comparison to The Empire Stops Here, I preferred Parker’s style here. Although he clearly has a solid take on the dry details, Parker’s writing is at his best when he has a colourful story to tell. The Viking world isn’t short of those! Harald Hardrada in particular stands out, for me, as a highlight. He was a man who seemed to collect good stories, even when they were blatantly stolen from elsewhere!

The chapters on Iceland, Greenland and (what we know of) Vinland are also good. They give a good picture of how the societies in these lands were built, and what may have went wrong (in the case of the latter two). Parker deals with the problem of evidence well; in many situations we just don’t have historical evidence to fill in a complete picture.

Parker keeps a pace and a vividness that makes the Viking age just as interesting to read about as the stories one reads a a child. Maybe a bit more factual, but also more varied – the Viking influence spanned such a geographical area (from North America to the Middle East) and time (Norn was being spoken in the Scottish islands as late as the 19th century!). It’s just a luxury to encounter them from such a distance.


Alfred The Great by David Horspool

The quote on the front of the book says “If you only have time to read one book on the great man, you should make it this one”.  I wouldn’t entirely agree with that.  David Horspool’s book is largely a critical review of the myths and legends about King Alfred.  It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of Alfred’s life; there’s none of the the colour and myths and grandeur with which he often appears – but it is none the worse for it.

Book CoverThe real historical evidence and the growth of the legend are covered, and with some wit.  There’s a memorable phrase where Horspool describes the Victorian ideal of Alfred as a “Anglo Saxon head boy king”.  There is great detail on contemporary sources like Bishop Asser; on Matthew Parker, the Tudor archbishop who used the myth to boost the newly independent Church of England; and on later romantic portrayals in painting and theatre, all the way up to Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom and the 1969 epic film starring David Hemmings, Michael York and Ian McKellan.

Continue reading Alfred The Great by David Horspool


Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

There has been a bit of a gap in posts, but I had been doing a series of post inspired by Ethan Masood‘s book Science & Islam. I’m coming towards the final topics now, but certainly not to the least of them. Medicine could perhaps be picked out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic science. While some parts of science could come into conflict with religion, the treatment of the sick had a pretty easy start in the Islamic world – Muhammad himself said to make use of the best methods out there. This was seized on with some enthusiasm and, while it was far from the first culture to have hospitals and charitable institutions, advanced hospitals were common.

Continue reading Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine


Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor

Why is Paracelsus1 important? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in this 2006 biography by Philip Ball. He didn’t actually discover anything (in any case, not so far as can be deciphered from his often cryptic writing). None of his theories have lasted (most were dismissed under even basic experimentation). Although he was a practical and skeptical man, he never really had a system for his work and it would be stretching the term to labelled it as “science”.

Continue reading Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor


Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry

As with most Islamic scholarship, the roots of the subject came from ancient Greece. Even the terms Chemisty and Alchemy are derived from ancient greek terms. At this early stage of Chemistry, there is still a huge mixture between what would correspond to real science (Chemistry) and what would correspond to utter nonsense (Alchemy) – similar to Astronomy and Astrology but possibly harder to discern. Despite the subject not yet being fully refined, there was still the beginnings of skepticism and a more structured scientific method. In practical terms there were great developments in equipment and results – particularly in the field of medicine.  To include the huge amount of discoveries, I would basically have to write a list of names and dates.  Therefore for the sake of readability I’m going to focus on just a few of the big names.

Geber and Pseudo-Geber

The source of much of this is Jabir Ibn Hayyan, otherwise known as Geber, a scholar from Persia in the 8th century. His name was so bound up with the subject of chemistry that there is even a so-called “Pseudo-Geber” who put out his own work under the name of the earlier scholar as “translations”. This, and the usual mysteriousness associated with the profession of Alchemy, can make it difficult to pin down the genuine works of Geber. Regardless of this, both Geber and Psuedo-Geber did much for the science.

Continue reading Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry