Wednesday, 17 October 2012

We really do need to see these things in the flesh...

In my first book, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England, I say, regarding the images in the Vitellius A.xv (Beowulf MS), Tiberius B.v and Bodley 614 Wonders/Marvels of the East texts:
Returning to the blemmyes, we find that their skin, so human in tone, is not a painted color, but simply the real skin of which the page is made. 
I hadn't yet seen any of these three images in person, and was working with the black-and-white facsimiles in the EETS series (for Vitellius and Tiberius), and then with a few color reproductions I'd been able to track down.

I have since seen all three manuscripts, and it turns out that I was not only flatly wrong, but that the actual situation is much weirder:  The image of the blemmye in the Tiberius manuscript (online at the BL in, it seems, odd color, here, but the image in the current post is better) is indeed painted, but it is painted a shade of beige, of what Crayola, prior to the raising of consciousness of the civil rights movement, used to call "flesh color." I have asked Routledge to let me fix this, since they are still printing the book, but no dice.  The error is there, in perpetuity, when the bizarre truth is much more interesting.

There are losses to the image, and they are barely perceptible.  Why bother to paint the figure a shade that is almost totally indistinguishable from the color of the vellum?  Does this mean something?  Surely.  Another book,* another time.

*(Note of further fumble:  I intended to get this correction, at a minimum, into a footnote in a new book on the Wonders, but that is now done, and I seem to have lost that note, somewhere along the way...)


  1. Frustrating that you cant get it changed now you know!

  2. That British Library version is really *not okay.* What in the world? (I can't wait for a student to stumble upon that image and develop a thesis about the artist's use of hot pink to do something or other.)

  3. Yeah, clearly something has gone awry with the BL image..! I have just gotten them in high res, and this look rather better...

  4. Remarkable--reminds me of the moment when I ran into Jeffrey Hamburger's meditations on the Vera Ikon in that big gorgeous book he did with MIT Press. This is a pretty significant finding--the Blemmyes have a cameo in my new book eyegiene. I will be sure to add your work to that bibliography and somehow incorporate these latest findings in the manuscript.

  5. Excellent, thanks. What do you do with the wonderful blemmyes in your book (which looks very interesting, based on the tumblr site.