Full fathom five thy father lies: the sea-nymphs of the medieval world

Regular readers of my blog will know that beautiful medieval illuminated manuscripts have long held a particular fascination with me. Created in the medieval period – with some manuscripts now 700/800 years old – the medieval world seemed to have been inhabited by mythical creatures: jousting snails, cats in towers hurling missiles at their enemies, giant fish – to name a few. All elaborately and painstakingly drawn and painted by craftsmen from another era.

Today’s selection of images from the British Library’s collection of illuminated manuscripts is the sea-nymphs and mermaids (and a merman too!) of the medieval mind.

Click on any picture to be taken to the British Library’s full description of the image.

Detail of a mermaid sitting on a bar border holding her tail in one hand and a circular mirror in the other From Scholastic miscellany, (France, Central (Paris), between 1309 and 1316); shelfmark Burney 275 f.404Detail of a mermaid sitting on a bar border holding her tail in one hand and a circular mirror in the other. From Scholastic miscellany, (France, Central (Paris), between 1309 and 1316); shelfmark Burney 275 f.404

Miniature of a mermaid playing a harp luring sailors in a boat from Bestiary, Guillaume le Clerc (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century); shelfmark Egerton 613 f.38Miniature of a mermaid playing a harp luring sailors in a boat. From Bestiary, Guillaume le Clerc (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century); shelfmark Egerton 613 f.38

Detail of a miniature of a mermaid and a fish from Image du Monde (Le livre de clergie en roumans) (France, Central (Paris) and England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century); shelfmark Harley 334Detail of a miniature of a mermaid and a fish. From Image du Monde (Le livre de clergie en roumans) (France, Central (Paris) and England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century); shelfmark Harley 334.

Detail of a miniature a mermaid with a mirror and comb from Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens (France, N. W., Normandy (possibly Rouen), c. 1460-1487); shelfmark Harley 4372 f.79vDetail of a miniature a mermaid with a mirror and comb. From from Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens (France, N. W., Normandy (possibly Rouen), c. 1460-1487); shelfmark Harley 4372 f.79v

Detail of a miniature of the siren (Syrene) or mermaid who holds a fish, and the prow of a boat with two men in it, one rowing from Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds (England, S. (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century); Harley 4751 f.47v.Detail of a miniature of the siren (Syrene) or mermaid who holds a fish, and the prow of a boat with two men in it, one rowing. From Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds (England, S. (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century); Harley 4751 f.47v.

Detail of a miniature of a mermaid and merman with bow and arrow.  From Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria (the 'Smithfield Decretals'), (France, S. (Toulouse?), Last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century); shelfmark Royal 10 E IV, f.3.Detail of a miniature of a mermaid and merman with bow and arrow from Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria (the ‘Smithfield Decretals‘), (France, S. (Toulouse?), Last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century); shelfmark Royal 10 E IV, f.3.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mermaid. From Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria<em> (the 'Smithfield Decretals'), (France, S. (Toulouse?), Last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century); shelfmark Royal 10 E IV, f.47.Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mermaid. From Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria (the ‘Smithfield Decretals‘), (France, S. (Toulouse?), Last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century); shelfmark Royal 10 E IV, f.47.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two grotesques fighting with domestic implements; between them is a mermaid. From Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria<em> (the 'Smithfield Decretals'), (France, S. (Toulouse?), Last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century); shelfmark Royal 10 E IV, f.69.Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two grotesques fighting with domestic implements; between them is a mermaid. From Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria (the ‘Smithfield Decretals‘), (France, S. (Toulouse?), Last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century); shelfmark Royal 10 E IV, f.69.

 

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong,
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, circa 1610-11


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You may also be interested in the following
– Smithfield Decretals: The story of the sinful hermit
– Smithfield Decretals: The story of the medieval spinster
– The cats of the Macclesfield Psalter
– Early-modern images
– Images of Medieval animals
– Images of Medieval music
– Images of Tudors
– Images of Medieval devils
– Images of Medieval funerals
– Images of Medieval cats

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