The Anglo-Saxon Monk champions Cow and Donkey in his alternative reading of the medieval Nativity. You've been warned!
Left: Cow and Donkey return from last year's Christmas post. Image: The Queen Mary Psalter, fourteenth-century. See details below.
All images in this post are considered by the British Library to be free from any known copyright restrictions and are attributed by the British Library as 'public domain'.
I had intended to provide you all with a detailed account of my monkish Christmastide duties here in eleventh-century England, but I have to confess that I get so confused myself with all the different ceremonies we monks have to participate in that I thought I had better not burden you, beloved, with my Christmas troubles.
I swear I will get a grip! And by this time next year you will hear not only about our multiple masses, in the correct order, our antiphons and our Gloria, but I solemnly promise to provide you with a behind the scenes account of our special confession: always a treat to witness our beloved abbot grovelling prostrate on the floor before the whole brethren, imploring our forgiveness. I wonder what sins he’s committed this year?
Anyway, I digress. Rather than inundate you, then, with such liturgical niceties, I thought I would revisit an element from last year’s Christmas post. Yes, we recycle here, too.
Undoubtedly, you all remember with great fondness my commentary on three late medieval Christmas scenes – of course you do. Well, as you probably gathered, I was personally rather enamoured with the way the two nativity scenes I showed you deployed Donkey and Cow. How those later medieval folk loved them, this glorious couple of anthropomorphic adorers of the Christ child! Such expression, I can barely contain my wonderment.
Now, you think I’m prone to unchristian exaggeration, here, I’m quite sure, but please take a close look at the three manuscript examples below before you condemn my admiration for these most beloved of our Lord’s earthly creatures.
Oh, and I nearly forgot, do have the merriest of Christmastides!
Carefully note the faces of Cow and Donkey in the first scene (above). Such deep concern on the face of Cow: "I'm not sure the Virgin's got the hang of this breastfeeding, Donkey." But Donkey doesn't look too worried. In fact, he's rather caught up in the beauty of the moment, wouldn't you say?
Now, it seems that trouble is brewing in the scenes below, if I'm reading it correctly. Just look at the close-up of Cow and Donkey from the upper register, and you will see that they're not happy with what that angel is saying to Joseph.
And what is he saying, I hear you cry, what is on that scroll he dangles before us all? Well, I'm no expert on late medieval Nativity iconography but I think the clue is below in the lower register. And I don't mean the fact that the blessed family are being urged to leave their cosy stable in Bethlehem and head off into Egypt.
Oh, no, you've worked it out too, haven't you, my blessed readers? Poor Mary is actually being told to cover up! Well, I never! Cannot the Queen of Heaven, the very Mother of God, be allowed some right to express her natural instincts? Well, Donkey and Cow think so. And there is at least some comfort in that.