Mandrakes, Dragons, Jews — And Other Monsters Of Medieval Times

The mandrake is a small, perennial plant that grows in warm Mediterranean climates. Its flowers are a pretty shade of purple, but its roots can be deadly. Pluck a mandrake from the soil and you’ll find a tiny man hanging down underneath the leaves, screaming loudly enough to kill anyone nearby. The only safe way to harvest the plant is to get a dog to pluck it for you.

Or maybe it’s safe to harvest it on a Monday, but only after the vernal equinox. When you get your hands on a mandrake, at any rate, you can grind it up into a fine powder and inhale it, at which time you may start having visions. Or, if you’re trying to have a child, you can eat the mandrake, although just smelling the flowers might be sufficient. A 14th-century Italian medical textbook shows the little man that sleeps beneath the mandrake plant, leaves growing out of his head like a great, green headdress.

That image, and dozens of others depicting strange un- or semi-real creatures, is currently hanging in Manhattan’s Morgan Library and Museum as part of an intelligent new exhibit, “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.” Walking through the exhibit, I kept thinking of a famous quote from the English historian E. P. Thompson: his claim that he wanted to use scholarship to rescue the people of the past (especially anonymous, working-class people) from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” It can be very difficult to study old, debunked beliefs without a hint of a sneer. Because the beliefs have already been proved wrong, it’s tempting to conclude that the impulse that inspired them was similarly “wrong” or low — thus, medieval people believed in dragons out of stupidity and fear, nothing more.

Hang on St. Christopher: “St. Christopher Carries Christ Child,” from Book of Hours, Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1520.

Morgan Library and Museum...

Hang on St. Christopher: “St. Christopher Carries Christ Child,” from Book of Hours, Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1520.

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Source : https://forward.com/culture/art/407912/mandrakes-dragons-jews-and-other-monsters-of-medieval-times/

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