Down the rabbit hole yesterday researching hounds in cards and much fun it was it was too. A very kind inquiry into such pressing matters at AT has given me a whole new research project (or tarot wish list). I’ve done an image search of every suggested deck and this yielded some lovely historic hound art. Bonus! So when I got the chariot today I knew what to go with. A rabbit riding a hound in the Macclesfield Psalter…
The focus of the Macclesfield Psalter is the bible book of Psalms, a foremost liturgical and devotional text in the Middle Ages. The Psalms received sumptuous decoration in manuscripts indicating the wealth, status and piety of their owners. But illustrations in the margins tell another story of medieval humour.
Marginal humour and uninhibited fantasy are described by the Fitzwilliam Museum as the ‘most charming and provocative aspects of the Macclesfield Psalter’. To quote in full ‘Hybrid creatures merge human and animal shapes into nightmarish visions. A fox grabs a credulous cockerell or runs away with the farmer’s wife’s duck. An ape-doctor tricks a bear-patient with a mock diagnosis. An enormous skate fish frightens a man out of his wits. Wielding a sword against a giant snail seems pointless. Rabbits joust, play organs or ride the hounds that are supposed to hunt them’
The sources of these parodies and absurdities were verbal and visual. They range from the anecdotes used by preachers to spice up their sermons, to religious plays, secular romances, and fabliaux that entertained aristocrats and peasants alike.
So why include such images in a prayer book? According to the Fitzwilliam their role was not ‘marginal’, despite their position on the page. Laughter was not frowned upon in the Middle Ages. It was part of the warp and weft of day to day life, including religious experience. This wholesome attitude to life, encompassing the saints and the sinners, and embracing the world in all its glorious technicolour, bubbles up from the pages of the Macclesfield Psalter without any false modesty.
The strict distinction between sacred and profane, high and low, serious and funny, was alien to the medieval mentality. However these marginal absurdities and obscenities, quite acceptable to the medieval patron of the Macclesfield Psalter, outraged the puritanical mindset of its post-medieval owners. They defaced both horned devils and bare bottoms, equating evil with laughter. So who was the sillier?
The medieval view of laughter as a defence against evil seems healthier to me. These images taught about sin in an engaging rather than ‘fire and brimstone’ way. Moral norms and the social order could be reinforced by by exposing and mocking their violation. Most importantly these amusements could defeat boredom, distraction and sloth by keeping the reader alert through the long hours of reading and prayer.
“Owl,” said Rabbit shortly, “you and I have brains. The others have fluff. If there is any thinking to be done in this Forest–and when I say thinking I mean thinking–you and I must do it.”