The moon-head (quasi-caput-luna)

The peg-backed water monster

What is a moon-head? Would you guess… a crocodile? For that matter, would you guess that any of the medieval critters pictured below are crocodiles?

A two-legged crocodile with a fish tail. Its head is on upside down. Jacob van Maerlant’s Der Naturen Bloeme. Flanders or Utrecht, c. 1450-1500. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, f. 64r. []
Granted these medieval critters are from bestiaries created in England and northern Europe, and there weren’t exactly a lot of crocodiles roaming Utrecht and Durham in medieval times (or today for that matter). If you were just going by a bizarre second- or thirdhand description of a crocodile without the benefit of a photograph or accurate drawing, you too might have trouble with the illustration.

The passage below comes from the Old English translation of Alexander the Great’s letter to his tutor Aristotle, in which he describes his adventures and conquests across Asia. At this particular point in his letter he is exploring India.

R. D. Fulk says that the Latin version of Alexander’s letter makes it clear that this animal is a crocodile.[1] For this reason, I’ve included pictures of medieval crocodiles in this post; however, I don’t think that any of these images resemble the critter described here. James Merry has a done a far more accurate portrayal of the so-called ‘moon-head’, at least if we’re going by Alexander the Great’s description.

A crocodile eating someone. Miscellany. France, c. 1450. Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, f. 12v. []
Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.

The londland through which we travelled was a dried-up fen, where cane and hreodreeds grew. All of a sudden there came an deoranimal out of the fennefen, from that fæstenefastness.

Crocodile. Lambert of St Omer’s Le Livre fleurissant en fleurs. Enghien, 1512. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 128 C 4, f. 96v. []

The animal’s hrycgback was all studded with pegs. That same animal had a headdress. Its heafodhead was round like the monamoon, and it was called a moon-head, or quasi-caput-luna.

Crocodile. Bestiary. England (Durham?), c. 1200-1210. British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, f. 12v. []

Its breast was similar to that of a niccresknucker[2], and it was gegyredequipped and geteϸedtoothed with big, hard teeth.

Crocodile. Bestiary. England, c. 1225-1250. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, f. 24r. []


[1] R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript: Complete Texts and ‘The Fight at Finnsburg’ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 350, n. 182. [back]

[2] Dialect word for a kind of water dragon that lives in “knuckerholes” in Sussex, England. The word comes from the Old English nicor, which means “water monster” and is used in the poem Beowulf. [back]

A crocodile has been invaded by a hydrus, which has eaten its way out of the crocodile’s stomach. Worksop Bestiary. England, c. 1185. Morgan Library, MS M.81, f. 15v. []

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