The elephant who trusts in trees too much
This description of an elephant comes from the Middle English Physiologus (lines 423-92). Because it’s written in Middle English as opposed to Old English, the words I’ve left in the original language may appear more familiar than those in previous posts. The text survives in only one manuscript (British Library, MS Arundel 292), which can be dated to around 1300 and was probably written at Norwich. Hanneke Wirtjes says, ‘The ME Physiologus is for the most part a translation of a Latin work by Theobald.’* As with other medieval animals, the elephant here is an allegorical figure. Whom do you think the elephant represents in the Old Testament? Who else “fell” because of deception in a tree?
James and I tried something new with this post, something we will continue to do in future posts. I didn’t identify the animal for him, leaving out its name wherever it appeared (calling it “this creature” or “the animal” instead). Doing this made me realise how few physical descriptors there are, making it a bit of a challenge to illustrate if you are unfamiliar with the mysterious ways of a medieval elephant. Here are some of the sketches James did before producing the delightful elpes at the beginning of this post. Does he pick up on the same details as the medieval illustrators? What characteristics does he emphasise that the bestiary images do not?
Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.
Elpes live in the kingdom of Inde, borlic with bodies like mountains. Like sheep leaving their sheepfold, they travel together on the open plains and come back together when they reproduce—and they are by nature so kolde that this activity never crosses their minds until they have consumed a plant called the mandragores.
When the creature is pregnant, she carries the child for two ȝer. Even if they lived for ðre hundred more years, these creatures would never make another baby—their blod and body are so cold! When they give birth, they stand in the water up to their middles to prevent their falling down—ðat is most in hire ðoȝt because they don’t have the joints to help them up.
How does ðis der rest when he goes for a long walk? Herkne to what is told here. Because he is al unride, the creature always seeks a strong tre with firm roots and leans against it unconcernedly when he is of walke weri.
But the hunter has observed this habit and uses it to his advantage. He saȝeð through the tree and props it up in a certain way. He conceals it wel so that the animal is taken unawares. Then he sits there alon, waiting to see whether the trap will work. When the elp unride comes and leans on the tree for a nap in the shade, both he and the tree fall down.
If the hunter is not there when he falls, the creature remeð reufulike, calling for help, hoping that with assistance he shall get up again. His broðer comes walking there, hoping to help him stand, but trying and struggling with all his might, he can do nothing at all. A great many come there, hoping to help out their friend, but in spite of this, he cannot get back on his feet. His cry is like the hornes blast or the belles drem.
Hearing a great bellowing, a ȝungling comes running. He bends down, puts his snute beneath the older one, and with everyone’s help raises the elp to his feet. Thus he escapes from the hunter’s trap.
*Hanneke Wirtjes, ed.,The Middle English ‘Physiologus’ (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), p. lxxix.