The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 6/8: Medieval beasts and allegories.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the sixth in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are a total of 71 musicians, more than in any other medieval site. Having given the story of the Minster’s foundation, flourishing, iconoclasm and repair in the first article; examined the minstrels of the arcades in the second article; of the walls in the third; and of the tombs, altar screen, chapel and south transept in the fourth; the fifth article asked why there is such an abundance of medieval minstrelsy in the Minster, finding the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls”, which had its headquarters in Beverley.    

This sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings and beasts of the Minster which accompany the minstrels on the west, north and south walls. We will see allegorical carvings and describe the medieval meanings of: dogs and their owners; a thirsty snake attacking a man; a fighting lion and dragon; a lustful goat carrying nuns to hell; Reynard the trickster fox; a wild hairy man of the woods (woodwose); a beard-tugging pilgrim; a faithless pilgrim in the grip of a two-headed dragon (amphisbaena); half-human half-ass hybrids (onocentaurs); asses being carried by people; Triton the merman; and foliate heads, now misleadingly called green men.

The next article examines musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and the neo-Gothic imitation medieval instruments of the 19th–20th century organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Animals as allegories

For medieval Christian writers, all events in life carry a divine message, and God’s creatures were in themselves allegorical lessons from God to humanity. An allegory is a meaning conveyed figuratively: actions, objects or creatures stand symbolically for a religious or moral truth.

This is seen clearly in medieval bestiaries, encyclopaedic compendiums of beasts which take their information from authorities, being other Christian writings, often several centuries before, which are mixed in with references to Greek and Roman mythology and teachings from The Bible. The purpose of a bestiary was not primarily to understand animals naturalistically – such naturalistic information as was available was in any case repeated hearsay, heavily influenced by Greek, Roman and Christian mythology – but to understand God’s purpose for humanity. Every animal is an allegory, a moral message from God about how we should lead our lives, a sign exhorting Christian righteousness or a warning against sin.

Many of the stone carvings of Beverley Minster, created 1330-90, are of this nature, religious and moral visual messages to guide and encourage the faithful. Since we are far removed from the cultural atmosphere and shared understandings of 14th century England, the visual symbolism and implicit meanings now need to be decoded, which is the purpose of this article. The positions of the bays referenced are shown in the floor plan below.

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Pet dogs

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

In bay A on the west wall, bay D on the north wall (both above) and bay B on the north wall (three views below) are three women petting dogs. In all cases, the 16th and 17th century iconoclasts vandalised the heads of the women. In the late 19th and early 20th century, mason John Percy Baker repaired, restored and made new parts for the broken figures (described in the first article). The heads of the dog owners in bay A and B are the work of John Baker, made in the style of the original head in bay D with its features scrubbed off.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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The longest entry in the mid-13th century English bestiary, now shelf-marked MS Bodley 764, is for dogs, giving ample evidence that in 13th century England they were a human’s best friend and symbolised the Christian virtues of faithfulness and steadfastness: “There is no creature cleverer than the dog: they have more understanding than any other beast. They also know their name and love their master … In short, their nature is such that they cannot live without human company … As the dog’s tongue heals a wound when he licks it, so the wounds of sin are cleansed by the instruction of the priest when they are laid bare in confession.”

However, the meaning of these dogs may not have been so positive or unequivocal. William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, complained in 1387 that nuns were bringing their pet dogs, birds, and rabbits to church, distracting them from their psalmody so, for him, pets were a distraction from holiness. In the early 13th century, the Ancrene Wisse or Ancrene Riwle gave written guidance to anchoresses, ascetic nuns who secluded themselves from the world, some walled up in their cells. In a section on pets, the Ancrene Wisse states, “Unless need compels you, my dear sisters, and your director advises it, you must not keep any animal except a cat … Now if someone needs to keep one, let her see to it that it does not annoy anyone or do any harm to anybody, and that her thoughts are not taken up with it.”  

The Maastricht Hours, The Netherlands, c. 1300-25 (British Library Stowe MS 17).
Left: a nun spins while her cat plays with the spindle (folio 34r).
Right: a nun holds her dog (folio 100r).

14th century Dominican friar and writer of preaching aids, John Bromyard, was just as scathing about Christians keeping pets as William of Wykeham. John Bromyard drew upon the image of the lap dog standing for affluence, social status, and time for idle leisure. For him, dogs stood for lack of charity, feeding pampered pets instead of feeding the poor. For Bromyard, minstrels similarly stood for lack of charity, symbolic of taking food and livery (a servant’s uniform) from a master, helping themselves to material gain while the poor are left behind.

It is inconceivable that the presence of so many minstrels in the Minster was intended to be a negative moralistic warning in the manner of John Bromyard, for geographical and financial reasons explained in the previous article, and such criticism was wrongly aimed: minstrels were itinerant servants, dependent on others for their wages and welfare, certainly not part of the ruling class, and in need of making a living just like the vast majority (as explained in this article about minstrels and the medieval church).

Whether the symbolism of the Minster dogs was intended to evoke the meaning of faithfulness and cleansing of sin, or a warning against selfishness and lack of concern for others, is open to question.

The snake

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The carved snake in bay B at first appears to be a snake hybrid, apparently with the ears of a dog (or other animal), but medieval bestiaries regularly portray snakes with ears, as we see in the image below from the 15th century English bestiary, Kongelige Bibliotek, GKS 1633 4º, folio 49v.

The man is struggling to keep the snake away from his face as he uses his tongue to lap drink from a leather bottle. The entry for the snake in the bestiary MS Bodley 764 gives the meaning. When the snake “comes to a river to drink water, it does not take its poison with it, but leaves it behind in a pit. When we come together to hear the heavenly word of God in church, we must leave behind our earthly body, that is, earthly and evil desires.” It further states that when a snake “sees a naked man, it is frightened, but if it sees him clothed, it attacks him. In spiritual terms, the serpent was unable to attack the first man, Adam, for as long as he was naked in paradise, but when he was clothed, then it attacked him.”

The leather bottle, then, reminds the congregation of water, indicating that to drink the water of life they should leave their earthly sins behind as the snake leaves behind its poison; and the clothed man being attacked by the snake reminds them of Adam’s sinful fall from naked innocence. 


Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Beverley Minster has a striking 14th century carving of a lion fighting a dragon (above). The allegorical descriptions of the lion and dragon in MS Bodley 764 and other such medieval sources make clear that these animals together represent the ultimate fight between good and evil, God and the devil. 

MS Bodley 764 says the lion represents Christ in three ways: (i) the lion wipes out his tracks when pursued by hunters, just as Christ “hid the tracks of his love in heaven until, sent by the Father, he descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary”; (ii) the lion sleeps with eyes open, just as Christ “fell asleep within the body on the cross” but whose heart was awake; and (iii) the lioness gives birth to dead cubs and “watches over them for three days, until on the third day the father comes, blows in their faces, and awakens them to life”, just as Christ was dead in the tomb but was awakened to life by the Father on the third day. 

As his source for information on the dragon, the anonymous compiler of the MS Bodley 764 bestiary copied De bestiis et aliis rebus (The beasts and other affairs) by Hugh of Saint Victor (died 1142). Hugh’s bestiary states that the dragon is like the devil: he rises in the air just as “the devil rises from his abyss and transforms himself into an angel of light, deceiving fools with hopes of vainglory and human pleasures”. The dragon has a crest on his head “because the devil is the king of pride”; and “lurks on the path which elephants use because the devil lays the coils of sin in the path of all those who make their way towards heaven and kills them when they are suffocated by sin.”    

The same symbolic fight between Christ the lion and Satan the dragon is illustrated in the page decorations of The Alphonso Psalter, c. 1284-1316 (British Library Add MS 24686, folio 12r), below left, and The Taymouth Hours, 1325-50 (British Library Yates Thompson MS 13, folio 13r), below right.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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In bay C on the north wall is a man with a winged dragon and a large bird. As we see in the two views above, the man’s right arm and dragon are replacements. This work was done by the mason John Percy Baker who, between 1895 and 1912, repaired the vandalism of the 16th-17th Puritans, reuniting broken parts and making new parts to fill gaps (described in the first article). It is not possible now to know what fragmented remains, if any, Mr. Baker had to work with to indicate what was missing, but we can be sure he was right in making a new dragon to go with the original bird. John Baker was presumably familiar with such iconography as we see in the De Lisle Psalter (British Library Arundel MS 83), c. 1308–c. 1340. From it, on the right is The Tree of Virtues, folio 129r, below left a detail from the foot of that page, and below right a detail of a similar image from folio 135r. Here, as in Beverley Minster, we see the white dove representing the Holy Spirit on one arm, and the dragon representing Satan on the other: the choice between good and evil.  

What should one do with such a choice? The same as the figure in bay A on the west wall (below): kill the dragon. This man, with a Baker replacement head, is a visual representation of the Christian duty to defeat evil. If he is a particular figure, he could be one of four dragon-slaying saints: Saint Philip the Apostle; Saint George; Saint Theodore of Amasea; or Saint Michael the Archangel.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

The Satanic he-goat

In medieval and renaissance art, there are several methods for a person’s soul to travel from the world of the living to either heaven or hell: a small naked version of the dead person emerges from the mouth, which is then carried off by angels or devils; or the soul floats bodily upwards, unaided; or the soul is carried off bodily by a demon; or the soul in human form ascends a ladder to heaven, the unworthy souls picked off by demons, pushed off to fall down into hell.

Another method of transportation to the afterlife is for the blessed soul, represented as a naked person, to be carried by angels or a saint in a large sheet to heaven. This is probably a winding sheet, used to wrap the dead, now used as a means of haulage. This is seen in three representative examples below. Below left, Saint Michael carries souls to God in The Shaftesbury Psalter, England, 1125-50 (British Library MS Landsdowne 383, folio 168v); below right, angels place souls in “Abraham’s bosom”, a Biblical term for the heavenly resting place of redeemed believers, in The Psalter of Saint Louis and Blanche of Castile, France, c. 1200-30 (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS Latin 1186, folio 171); …   

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… and, below, a soul is carried to heaven in a sheet held by two angels, with two more angels playing citole and vielle, from The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-20 (British Library Royal 2 B VII, folio 301v).

We see the same idea in bay C of the north wall of Beverley Minster, carved a decade or two after The Queen Mary Psalter was illustrated: a huge man-goat hybrid carries two nuns in a large sheet. In this case, their destination is not heaven, but the other place. The nuns’ arms and crosses are Baker replacements, as is the goat’s head, and the rest is original.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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In Greek mythology, Pan was a hybrid man-goat, the god of wild, untamed nature, of lust, sex and fertility, and of shepherds and pastoral music. Archaeological finds collectively make clear that Pan was numerically the most popularly-worshipped in the Greek pantheon, in almost every case depicted with an erect penis, the sign of his libidinous vigour and virility. This is the idea expressed in the carving on the right from the Villa of the Papyri, a private house in the Roman city of Herculaneum, now southern Italy, recovered from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.

The history of the Christian association of goats with sin begins with the common parlance notion of a scapegoat being someone who is undeservedly blamed, to whom the sins of others are transferred. This comes from a Jewish ritual on the Day of Atonement (in Leviticus 16: 20–22), in which Aaron laid his hands on the head of a goat while confessing his people’s sins. Those sins now symbolically transferred to the goat, the hapless animal was sent into the wilderness. At this point, the goat wasn’t evil, but an innocent scapegoat carrying others’ sins. By the time The New Testament was being written in the 1st century, a shift had taken place. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31–41) the sheep are analogous to the faithful who are rewarded with heaven for giving food and drink to the hungry, giving homes to the homeless, for visiting the ill and those in prison, and the goats are analogous to the faithless who did none of this, to be punished in “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” for being pious hypocrites. The idea is that sheep follow faithfully and wilful goats do as they please, sinful in their selfishness and neglect of others.

The full identification of the man-goat with Satan was to come in the early 4th century. In 312 CE, under the Emperor Constantine, the Christian faith became the state religion. To establish its power, the newly-recognised church sought to clarify and communicate its distinctiveness from the beliefs and practices of the non-Christian milieu it sought to change. Foremost in this vanguard was Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea Maritima from c. 314 and writer of Preparation for the Gospel, usually known by its Latin title, Praeparatio evangelica. One of Eusebius’ targets was Pan, who he made identical to the devil, the god-man-goat representative of the sins of the flesh, of lustful and ungodly nature.

The Beverley carving of two nuns embracing inside a sheet carried by the Devil depicted as Pan is one of many medieval representations of Eusebius’ theological legacy. Thus the 13th century English bestiary MS Bodley 764 explains that the “he-goat is a stubborn, lascivious animal, always eager to mate, whose eyes are so full of lust that they always look sideways … The he-goats are those who follow the depravities of the devil and clothe themselves in the shaggy hide of vice.” As we have seen, the idea of the goat as lustful and lascivious is much older than Christianity, but in Christian theology the goat became moralised and associated with Satan, a personification of luxure, meaning lust, lasciviousness or lechery. The sin of these unfaithful nuns is clear in the mind of the 14th century viewer, as is the destination of their eternal souls.  

Reynard the fox

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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Above are two views from bay C of a fox dressed as a priest, carrying a crosier (stylised clerical staff) and wearing a vestment (clerical robe), with three birds at his side. This is Reynard the fox, whose tales first appeared in writing in France in the late 12th century, collected together as Roman de Renart (Romance of Reynard). The 14th century Beverley carving would have reminded a contemporary observer of these internationally popular stories. By this time, the English word foxly meant crafty or cunning, to fox was to trick, and to play the fox was to behave cunningly. 13th century English bestiaries associated foxes with the devil and, by the 14th century, the scene of Reynard preaching as a bishop, a monk or a pilgrim was common in English carvings and manuscript art. The image was a warning to any type of person, represented by a variety of birds, not to be led astray by foxly devilish preachers who would gain their attention only to devour their souls.

Above we see the same scene, depicted in The Queen Mary Psalter (British Library Royal 2 B VII, folio 157v), 1310-20, a decade or two before the Beverley Minster carvings. Below is the scene again in a French manuscript now in the British Library (Royal MS 10 E IV), similarly dated 1300-40. In these two examples, Reynard stands on his hind legs, holding a bishop’s crozier (ecclesiastical staff with a crook) and wearing a bishop’s mitre (ecclesiatical hat). In Beverley Minster, the crook of the crosier and the head of the fox are John Baker replacements, so it is possible that the original 14th century head of Raynard wore a bishop’s mitre. The birds in attendance in the English manuscript are a goose, a falcon, a duck and a stork; in the French manuscript they are two falcons, a hen, a swan, five geese and a stork; and in the Beverley carving they are a goose, a hen and a cockerel.

A significant detail on the Beverley carving marks it out as different to other depictions: instead of being passive and gullible victims, taken in by Reynard’s preaching to become food for the fox, these birds are fighting back: the hen and cockerel peck at Reynard’s left arm and shoulder, while the goose pecks at his elbow with wings outstretched in an attacking stance. This is a more proactive image, shifting the viewer from fear of the power of the fox to identification with the defensive power of the birds.     

John Wycliffe, by an anonymous member of the English School of painting, 16th century.

John Wycliffe was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire (Beverley is in the East Riding) in c. 1330, very near the time this carving was made. By the middle of the century his criticisms of the church and calls for reform had given rise to a new movement. Wycliffe and his followers denied transubstantiation, the literal physical presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, a central Catholic tenet of faith; they called for churches and monasteries to renounce their privileged holding of land, wealth and tax exemptions at the expense of the poor; they promoted the vernacular reading of The Bible, rather than it being heard in church only in Latin, a language not understood by the majority of congregants; and stated that the authority for Christians was The Bible, not the papacy. Thus it was that John Wycliff and his associates translated the whole of The Bible into English, completed in 1382.

Detractors called John Wycliffe and his followers Lollards, from the Middle Dutch lollaerd, meaning someone who mumbles or mutters, in this case mumbling prayers and hymns, i.e. they were accused of false piety. It was a word first used in the Low Countries from c. 1300 as a pejorative term for reforming sects who emphasised Christian faith in action, the care of the sick and poor. Transferred to late Middle English, the word was applied to Wycliffe and his followers, and became a general term for individuals and groups who challenged the authority and doctrines of the Catholic Church.

The Beverley carvings were made between 1330 and 1390, contemporaneous with John Wycliffe and the English Lollards. The feelings of injustice expressed by the Lollards and felt by the general populace were to erupt in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The wily Reynard preaching to the birds, only in order to keep their attention long enough to eat them, was used in the 14th century to characterise the preaching of Wycliffe’s followers devilishly leading the foolish flock astray, devouring their eternal souls with false doctrines. The same image was likewise used by critics of the Catholic Church: the flock should be aware that Catholic clergy are the corrupt, cunning and devilish Reynard, concerned only for themselves, holding the congregants’ attention only to consume them.

After the Peasants’ Revolt, the Lollards were denounced as heretics by the Catholic Church. Since King Henry IV felt Lollard beliefs posed a threat to his authority, in 1401 he passed De heretico comburendo (The burning of heretics), which did not specifically ban Lollardy, but prohibited translating The Bible into English or owning such a translation, and it authorised the execution of heretics by burning. John Badby was the first to be burned alive in 1410, followed by others in the 15th century and into the 16th century. The Lollards’ criticisms of the Catholic Church, their emphasis on ridding the church of financial and spiritual corruption, the centrality of the authority of The Bible rather than the papacy, were exactly the tenets of 16th century Protestantism which, in 1534 under Henry VIII, became the state religion. 


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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In bay D is a woodwose or wodewose, a wild man or woman of the woods. Both arms and both legs of the Beverley woodwose are Baker replacements, as is the woodwose’s dragon, which we see in detail below, showing that it has two heads, one at the front on its neck and one at the back on its tail. This reveals it to be an amphisbaena and, since there is an original amphisbaena in the Minster (described below), John Baker would have used it as his model.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Wild men, women, and whole wild families were popular figures in medieval visual art and entertainment. During the 12th century, an artistic convention developed to show woodwoses with full body hair, and they continued to appear in European art in this form into the 17th century. Woodwoses also appeared in literature: for example, in Norman-Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), c. 1150; in the anonymous Konungs skuggsjá (King’s mirror), a Norwegian manuscript to educate King Magnus Lagabøte, dated c. 1250; and Gawain comes across woodwoses in the Wirral, northwest England, in the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, c. 1390.

Konungs skuggsjá (King’s mirror) gives a flavour of beliefs about the wild wo/man: “It once happened in that country (and this seems indeed strange) that a living creature was caught in the forest as to which no one could say definitely whether it was a man or some other animal; for no one could get a word from it or be sure that it understood human speech. It had the human shape, however, in every detail, both as to hands and face and feet; but the entire body was covered with hair as the beasts are, and down the back it had a long coarse mane like that of a horse, which fell to both sides and trailed along the ground when the creature stooped in walking.”

Professional dancers dressed as woodwoses in Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, Vol. IV, part 2,
Bruges, Netherlands, c. 1470-72 (British Library Harley 4380, folio 1r).

Left: Jacob van Maerlant, Der Naturen Bloeme, Flanders, c. 1350 (The Hague, KB, KA16, folio 42v).
Right: Luttrell Psalter, Lincolnshire, England, 1320-40 (British Library Add MS 42130, folio 70r).

The woodwose is not a hybrid – like a mermaid, part woman, part fish; or a gryphon, part eagle, part lion – but a hirsute humanoid who lives in woodland. A natural question for medieval Christian scholars was: What is the moral and religious status of the wild wo/man? Does the woodwose have a rational mind, and therefore a soul, and therefore capable of belief in God and being saved by Christ?

Medieval writers drew heavily on early church theologians such as Saint Augustine. In the 4th century, in his City of God, Augustine addressed the question of rationality for all the humanoid forms which were believed to exist: “however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form or colour or motion or utterance, or in any faculty, part, or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from one man who was first created.” Augustine was suggesting that all humanoids were descended from Adam and Eve, and therefore held out the possibility that they could be saved. German author, Heinrich von Hesler, put the other side of the argument in his Apocalypse, 1260-1335, his rhymed version of the last book of The Bible, combined with his own theological lessons and those of other Christian commentators. Heinrich wrote that woodwose are “shaped like humans but are so crude and wild that they have never heard God’s word”, i.e. they have no innate rationality so are incapable of faith in God. The uncertain status of woodwose in God’s order was never really settled and, even though Heinrich stressed their lack of comprehension, suggesting they are not truly human, he concluded, “Whether they shall be saved or whether they shall be lost and fare with the devil, that will have to be left to God’s mercy.”

As King’s mirror, Saint Augustine and Heinrich von Hesler collectively suggest, the woodwose occupied an ambiguous space in the medieval order between humans and beasts. We see this ambiguity in the varied ways in which woodwoses appear in iconography. In a sequence of scenes in The Taymouth Hours (British Library Yates Thompson MS 13), an English manuscript dated 1325-50, a woodwose representing unbridled passion grabs and carries off an unwilling woman, as we see above (folios 62r–62v). Then a man with a spear appears and kills the woodwose to rescue the woman, as we see below (folios 63r–63v). The same sequence is played out in The Smithfield Decretals (British Library Royal MS 10 E IV), c. 1300-40, on folios 72r–74v.

Conversely, a 15th century misericord in Toledo Cathedral (below top left, photographed by Carolyn Whitson) depicts a woodwose attacked by a bear, which may suggest the woodwose is on the side of God, since the bestiary MS Bodley 764 states that the “bear signifies the devil, ravager of the flocks of our Lord”. Similarly, a misericord in Carlisle Cathedral (bottom left) gives the impression of the woodwose as an agent of God, fighting a dragon as Christ the lion does, with a lion on each side. The etching by Master E with a unicorn lovingly held by a female woodwose (below right) further reinforces the theme. MS Bodley 764 states that “Our Lord Jesus Christ is the spiritual unicorn”: its single horn represents the oneness of God the Father and God the Son, its swiftness represents the inability of the world and the devil to capture Christ’s power, and the unicorn is attracted by purity: it can only be caught by a female virgin to whom the unicorn is attracted and in whose lap the unicorn will sleep. The fact that, in Master E’s etching, a woodwose plays the part of the sexually pure virgin seems to indicate that the woodwose is not, after all, soulless like the beasts, but is human enough and can be spiritually pure enough to attract a creature symbolising Christ’s power. 

Two 15th century misericords in Saint Mary’s Church, Beverley (below), employ lion and dragon symbolism alongside woodwoses. (The dragons on both these misericords are wyverns or wiverns, two-legged winged dragons.) The first example has the woodwose between two lions, standing on two dragons, which appears to associate the woodwose with the triumph of Christ the lion over Satan the dragon.

The second example has two woodwoses holding each others’ ears. In classical Roman art and literature, a foundation of both medieval and renaissance learning, ear-holding signified a request for attention, and the ear was considered the seat of memory (which is why Roman lovers’ mementos were gems carved with a hand holding an ear, signifying being held in the lover’s memory). With the woodwoses’ bodies facing each other, heads turned to the viewer, and the dragons facing away, this misericord appears to appeal to viewers to remember to shun the devil.

It seems that, just as the dog can represent holy love, faithfulness and healing, or diabolical affluence, status, and idleness, so the woodwose may represent different meanings in different contexts, either wild brute force from which women need to be defended, or lion-like strength to defeat the Satanic dragon, or pure virginal gentility. The woodwose inhabits a malleable region between the soulless wild beast and the rational man or woman whose soul can be saved. The wild wo/man seems an apt metaphor for medieval angst and uncertainty over the fate of the eternal soul: will I, ultimately, be saved?

Therefore, if the Beverley Minster woodwose did originally hold an amphisbaena, a double-headed dragon, it may have been intended to signify that the woodwose has the power to tame Satan, signifying that Christian viewers should likewise use their power to tame sin. Conversely, it may have been a warning about our irrational brute nature being too friendly or familiar with sin, like the woodwose with the dragon.


Photograph left © Ian Pittaway.

In bay G on the north wall is a barefoot man (above left) with a pilgrim’s staff, pulling his beard.

Saints in Christian iconography have visual identifiers. For example, Saint James, son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, known as James the Great or Greater, is visually signified by carrying a pilgrim’s staff and/or by wearing a distinctive wide-brimmed pilgrim’s hat, associating him with his pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela. The hat may have on it his pilgrim’s badge in the shape of a scallop shell, since he was a fisherman. Often he is shown barefoot, the symbol of the penitent pilgrim. Only one signifier needs to be present, so it is possible that the Beverley Minster carving represents Saint James. By the 13th century, only pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem were more important than the faithful’s journey to James’ shrine at Santiago de Compostela.

On the right, left picture, is a pilgrim from The Luttrell Psalter, England, c. 1320-40 (British Library Add MS 42130). We can see from the shell-shaped badge in his hat that he has journeyed to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of Saint James in Spain. Often the features we see here signified that the figure was Saint James himself, as we see on the right – only the addition of the halo shows the difference between pilgrim and saint. This image is from Les Grandes chroniques de France, France, 1332-50 (British Library Royal MS 16 G VI). The detail of bare feet in both images here – and in Beverley Minster – signifies an act of penance.

In medieval visual symbolism, beard-pulling is a sign of potency. The Beverley pilgrim pulling his own beard as a sign of power is also presented in the late 12th century French statue of Moses attributed to Nicholas of Verdun (1130-1205), now in the Ashmolean Museum, shown above right next to the Beverley pilgrim.

Another Beverley Minster carving, in bay H on the north wall, illustrates that the beard-pulling theme, like that of dogs and woodwoses, can have a variety of meanings, depending on context. Below we see two figures in what looks like the roughest of wrestling matches, the figure on our left pulling the beard downwards and the hair upwards of the figure on our right. The shaggy hair on the back of both figures’ upper arms, their bulbous eyes and exaggeratedly large noses disclose that these are not ordinary men, but fighting demons, their beard-tugging and hair-pulling a sign of their strength, potency and their fight for dominance, one over the other.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

We see a similar scene in a contemporaneous manuscript of c. 1360–75, a 14th century encyclopaedia called Omne Bonum (Every Good Thing) by James le Palmer, shown below (British Library Royal 6 E VI, folio 491r), in which the demons not only have shaggy arms but all-over body hair, clawed knees, wings, and a tail or face on their rears.

Another scene of fighting with beard and hair pulling, but between two mortal men, appears on folio 25v of a French manuscript created 1041-60, seen below. This is a mid-11th century copy (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 11685) of a 9th century work, De laudibus sanctae crucis (The praise of holy cross) by Benedictine monk, writer, poet, and Archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus or Raban Maur, who lived c. 780–856. On the left is the entire folio 25v of De laudibus sanctae crucis. The work is characterised by painted pages consisting of grids of letters forming poems. Below right is the first picture panel from the bottom of the left vertical, showing beard-pulling and hair-pulling men in a scene similar to that carved 1330-90 for the north wall of Beverley Minster.

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Another scene of beard-pulling is painted in The Forty Saints Monastery (Rrënojat e Manastirit të 40 Shenjtorëve) in Sarandë, Albania, shown below. Both the monastery and the painting date from the 6th century. Christ is pulling the beard of his disciple Saint John, on a fresco from the monastery’s cubiculum (small room or chamber for burial) numbered B18, and this beard-tugging is decidedly one-sided.

Before the delineation of Biblical canon in the final third of the 4th century, later-to-be non-canonical or apocryphal books about Jesus circulated widely. One such book was The Acts of John, written in the 2nd century. It remained popular after it was excluded from official canon, as evidenced by its place in many monastic libraries, including in The Forty Saints Monastery in Sarandë, Albania, in the 6th century, two centuries after it was declared non-Biblical.

The painting of Jesus the beard-puller is from chapter 90 of The Acts of John, which reads: “And at another time he [Jesus] took with him me [John] and James and Peter to the mountain where he was wont to pray, and we saw in him a light such as it is not possible for a man that uses corruptible [mortal] speech to describe what it was like … we saw him at a distance praying. I, therefore, because he loved me, drew near to him softly, as though he could not see me, and stood looking upon his hind parts: and I saw that he was not in any way clad with garments, but was seen by us naked, and not in any way as a man, and that his feet were whiter than any snow, so that the earth there was lighted up by his feet, and that his head touched the heaven, so that I was afraid and cried out, and he, turning about, appeared as a man of small stature, and caught hold of my beard and pulled it and said to me, ‘John, be not faithless but believing, and not curious.’ And I said to him, ‘But what have I done, Lord?’ And I say to you, brothers, I suffered so great pain for thirty days in that place where he took hold of my beard, that I said to him, ‘Lord, if your pulling when you were playing has given me so great pain, what would it be if you had given me a pounding?’ And he said to me: ‘Let it be yours from now not to tempt him that cannot be tempted.’”

This story indicates that beard-pulling was not solely an artistic convention to signify power, but a real physical practice. Two further facts confirm that this cubiculum painting depicts this Acts of John episode: the adjacent story in Acts of John, that of the calling of John and James, is also the adjacent scene in the same burial chamber; and John’s physical appearance in the cubiculum, a man in middle years with a black beard, is contrary to his usual depiction in church art but the same as his description in Acts of John.   

One-sided beard-pulling is also seen on a capital (decorated top of a column) in the collegiate basilica of Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand, France, dating from the 11th century, shown on the right, in which an angel pulls the beard of Joseph, betrothed of the Virgin Mary.

The story is from the Biblical Gospel of Matthew 1: 18-21, about Joseph doubting Mary’s faithfulness, since she was pregnant with Jesus and he knew he wasn’t the father: “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” There is no mention in Matthew’s Gospel of the angel pulling Joseph’s beard: this detail was added by Robertus or Rotbertus, the 12th century sculptor who signed the work, as a sign of the power, dominance and authority of God’s angel over Joseph.

Photograph centre is © Dr. Alison Stones (Professor Emerita M. Alison Stones, Ph.D., University of
Pittsburgh) and is taken with thanks from the University of Pittsburgh Digital Collections.
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Other instances of medieval beard-pulling to signify dominance and authority are more sinister and punitive. Above left, from the Eglise Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Thiviers, Dordogne, France, 12th century, we see two men beard-pulling and hair-pulling a man they are planning to kill: the figure on our right has the shovel ready to dig his grave. In the centre is a decorated 12th century capital in the Benedictine abbey church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay, France. (This is a copy, the original now in Musée Zervos, or Vézelay Museum). It shows two demons dominating a man, one by grabbing his beard, the other his cloak. On the right, from the outside of Saint-Malo Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse de Saint-Malo), Dinan, Côtes-d’Armor, France, 12th–15th century, two creatures of hell pull the beard of a damned man.

In summary, beard-pulling signifies either a single person’s sacred power and potency, as seen in the carvings of the beard-pulling Beverley pilgrim and Moses, or one person’s power, potency and dominance over another, as seen in the fighting demons of Beverley Minster and the Omne Bonum manuscript, fighting men in De laudibus sanctae crucis manuscript, and the beard-pulling power of Jesus over disciples, angels over humans, murderers over victim, and demons over the damned.

There is one final aspect of medieval beard-pulling. Some stone carvings in churches across Europe have men tugging their beards with one hand while holding an oversized erection with the other. Beard-pulling, in this case, signifies the sexual aspect of potency. One instance in a manuscript is in The Gorleston Psalter (British Library Add MS 49622), 1310-24. Alongside the serious religious subjects depicted are wonderfully silly drolleries, grotesques and hybrids. The religious art and the fanciful comedy are created with equal care and attention, and the fantastical is in the majority. One of the artistic themes in its pages is naked clerics. It is clear, as we see below, that no one involved in its commission or creation thought that bare brothers, nude nuns or farting friars were beyond the pale.

The Gorleston Psalter, 1310-24: folios 63r, 82r and 97v above; folios 151v and 194r below.

Nakedness in medieval art had a range of meanings, depending on context (as this article explains under the heading, Artistic symbols and signifiers of sin). None of the nakedness in The Gorleston Psalter above is sexual, nor is any of the nakedness erotic on other pages of the manuscript, with one exception, folio 98v below. It seems to be a mark of the power of erotic beard-pulling that this is the only censored image in the manuscript. It is probable that the monk below had the oversize erection typical of sexual beard-pullers carved in stone in churches, some of which remain undamaged. At some point, someone either working on or in possession of The Gorleston Psalter thought this image needed to be partially removed.     

The amphisbaena

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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The next magnificent Minster carving has to be seen from several angles to be fully appreciated. In bay H a man is struggling in the grip of a long-eared, two-headed monster. Its largest humanoid head is at the front, shown on the underside, with protruding fangs and spots of dark red paint, the last traces of the colours that once completed its appearance. On each side of its largest head, its clawed feet face forward as it tightens its grip on the man. Protrusions on the head represent bony ‘armour’ (osteoderms or scutes), such as alligators and crocodiles have, making these reptiles all the more tough and dangerous. They go all the way down its back, past its two wings, and onto the smaller head on its tail, which is biting onto one of its own wings to further strengthen its grip on the helpless man. The man’s mouth shows his physical strain, his eyes show his fear. His left foot is on the back of the monster’s head, his right foot on its neck in a vain attempt to escape, his hands powerless to do anything but hold on to the beast. 

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This two-headed creature is the amphisbaena (anphivena or other variants) of Greek mythology, which we have previously seen made by John Baker, held by the woodwose, copied from the present carving. The amphisbaena made its first recorded appearance in Agamemnon by Aeschylus in the 5th century BCE. In the story, Athena had punished the beautiful Gorgon, Medusa, by turning her hair into a lair of venomous snakes and making her appearance have such power that anyone who saw her directly would turn to stone, to ensure that no man would ever lust after her again. Medusa’s ‘crime’ was to have been raped in Athena’s temple, a classic(al) case of blaming the victim. As if that were not enough, she was then decapitated by Perseus, who flew with Medusa’s severed head over the Libyan Desert. As he did so, drops of blood fell and spawned the first amphisbaena.

Amphisbaena comes from the Greek for ‘walk both ways’ and it is “so called”, says the 13th century Bodley 764 bestiary, “because it has two heads, one in the right place, the other on its tail. It goes in the direction of both heads, and its body forms a circle.” Unusually, medieval bestiaries and the earlier sources they drew on are interested only in the history, habits and medicinal qualities of the amphisbaena rather than its divine allegorical message for humanity. In the 1st century BCE, Diodorus Siculus stated in his Bibliotheca Historica (2.58, 2–4) that the blood of the amphisbaena can glue back and heal a severed limb, as long as the limb is not vital for sustaining life. Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historiae (Book 8, 35), before 79 CE, commented that it has two heads, “as though it were not enough for poison to be poured out of one mouth”, that wearing a live amphisbaena ensures a safe pregnancy, that wearing a dead one is a cure for rheumatism, and that eating its meat acts as a powerful aphrodisiac, making the eater irresistible to the other sex.

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Medieval depictions of amphisbaenae vary in manuscripts and misericords, from simple two-headed snakes to various forms of dragon, some with a large head and a smaller second head on the tail, others with two equal-size heads, and some with scaled claws and feathered wings. Italian artist Margarito or Margaritone d’Arezzo painted The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes in c. 1263–64, the whole of which is above, the bottom right panel shown on the right. The panel shows a scene from the life of Saint Margaret of Antioch. A collection of hagiographies (saints’ lives) by Archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine, is contemporaneous with this painting, and is possibly its inspiration. The Golden Legend, compiled in c. 1260, tells that Margaret was ordered to marry Olybrius, Governor of the Roman Diocese of the East, with the demand that she renounce her Christian faith to do so. When she refused, she was tortured and then swallowed by Satan in the guise of a dragon. She escaped this because the crucifix in her hand acted as an irritant to the beast, which burst open and released her, as we see illustrated above. Though The Golden Legend describes this last event as “apocryphal and not to be taken seriously”, Margarito chose to paint it, depicting the dragon as a two-headed amphisbaena.  

The same indication that the creature represents Satan is seen in the church of Saint Anno in Llananno, Wales, where there is a late 15th or early 16th century rood screen (above). It shows an amphisbaena with both its heads devouring a vine. Since The Bible makes numerous references to God or Christ being the owner of a vineyard and Jews or Christians being the workers in it, the allegory is clear from the religious context: the amphisbaena is the devil attempting to devour Christ and the Christian church.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

It is clear, then, that the amphisbaena, shown in church iconography from the 12th century onward, was identified with Satan by medieval and renaissance believers. Serpentum et Draconium Historiae by Ulisse Aldrovandi (Ulysees Aldrovandus), Bologna, Italy, 1640, states in writing that the amphisbaena represents the Devil, the two-faced deceiver, whose motives are always selfish and in his own cause and, though Aldrovandi was writing 300 years after Beverley’s struggling man, the idea was clearly present in the 14th century. The Minster man’s distinctive broad-brimmed hat shows that he is a pilgrim, but a different type of pilgrim to the barefoot beard-tugger: he has strayed from the true path, his pilgrimage of no avail since his piety is without sincerity, and thus he has succumbed to the Devil’s grip, ensnared, helpless and weighed down by his sins. The image reflects the words of Hugh of Saint Victor (died 1142) in De bestiis et aliis rebus (The beasts and other affairs): “the Devil is the king of pride … the Devil lays the coils of sin in the path of all those who make their way towards heaven and kills them when they are suffocated by sin.”   

Pilgrimage sites sold badges to be worn on pilgrims’ hats as a testament to their devotional visit, as seen on the right worn by Saint Roche, from an altarpiece in Bad Aussee, Austria, 1475-85. Such badges should only have been sold at the pilgrimage site so their authenticity could be maintained, but in practice they were bought and sold elsewhere in order to claim fake piety. The relevance to Beverley is that, since the 8th century, the Minster had been a place of pilgrimage for devotion to Saint John of Beverley (described in the first article). The 14th century carving is a warning against feigned piety, against walking both ways and being a two-faced deceiver, which leads to being in the grip of the hellish Satanic amphisbaena.

(This amphisbaena is not to be confused with the more recently-named genus in the family of legless lizards, amphisbaenidae, which takes its name from the mythical creature, and whose common name is worm lizards.) 


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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Above and below are four two-hoofed human hybrids in Beverley Minster. The figure above left is entirely original 14th century, from bay J, and the carving above right, from bay I, has a John Baker replacement head. Below left is an original decoration on an archway next to the gittern player in bay D. These three carvings appear on the north wall. Below right is one of the more well-preserved original carvings in bay P on the badly damaged south wall.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Below we see three more of these hybrid creatures on two capitals, the decoratively carved tops of columns: on the left, two wearing fools’ hoods, one eating the branches of a tree and the other feeding him one of the branches (the meaning of which is discussed below under the heading, Foliate heads); and, right, another next to a timbrel player.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This creature is similar to the centaur of Greek mythology. A centaur has the body and four legs of a horse with the torso and head of a human instead of a horse’s head. The Beverley carvings are onocentaurs, a hybrid of human and wild ass, also known as a honocentar, onoscentaurus, uncor, or unocentaurus. Sometimes onocentaurs were depicted in the same constellation as the centaur, with a human torso and head but with an ass’s body and four legs; more commonly they have the lower body and back two legs of an ass with the upper body of a human, as we see above in Beverley Minster and in the three manuscript illustrations below.

Left: an onocentaur archer in The Rutland Psalter, England, c. 1260
(British Library Add MS 62925, folio 33v).
Centre: an onocentaur fool in The Alphonso Psalter, England, c. 1284–1316
(British Library Add MS 24686, folio 113v).
Right: another onocentaur fool, this one playing pipe and tabor in Horae ad usum Parisiensem,
a 15th century French book of hours (Bibliothèque nationale de France NAL 3115, folio 28v).

The oldest surviving French bestiary was translated from a presumably Latin copy into Anglo-Norman by the poet Philippe de Thaon (or Thaün) in 1121, and it includes the notion that the two parts of the onocentaur symbolise the hypocrite who talks as a man of good deeds but lives as an ass by evil deeds. The commonly given allegorical meaning is that men are rational in their upper part, wild and lustful in their lower part, thus the onocentaur symbolises that bestial male lust always threatens to overcome the rational mind. Since there are seven onocentaurs in Beverley Minster, this indicates that the designers of the building wanted to drive this message home.


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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Above left, in bay L, is a man carrying a heavy load, roped and strapped to him. It is significant that the burden is wool since in the 14th century, when these carvings were made, this commodity was central to the wealth of Beverley (as described in the first article). Above right is another burden-carrying figure in bay N who, rather than being carried by an ass, is carrying an ass over her shoulder. The figure below left in bay O is doing the same while playing pipe and tabor! Below right is another ass-carrier in bay O.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The feet of two of the ass-carriers are not visible, but the feet of the ass-carrier above right are shoeless, which in medieval iconography signifies an act of penance, most often seen on images of barefoot pilgrims. Since John of Beverley’s tomb was a pilgrimage destination (see the first article), it may well be that these three ass-carriers are penitential pilgrims, as it was (and remains) a staple of pilgrimage that the adherent undergoes physically difficult acts of penance, such as walking barefoot or on the knees. It may be that carrying the ass rather than riding on it symbolises just such an arduous devotional task. It may also be that the viewer was intended to be reminded by contrast of Jesus’ words about burdens in Matthew’s Gospel 11: 28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

Ass-carrying may also be in the medieval visual tradition of humorous and sometimes macabre role reversals. Other such reversals include rabbits with bows and arrows hunting people, an example of which is below, from the contemporaneous Roman d’Alexandre, 1338-44 (MS Bodleian 264).


Below are three views of the same figure in bay M on the south wall. This is Triton, merman and Greek god, son of the god and goddess of the sea, Poseidon and Amphitrite. Mermen, known in later Greek myths as tritons or tritones, are always portrayed with the upper body of a human and the lower body and tail of a fish. In classical Greek iconography, the god Triton or a creature classed as a triton is recognisable by a range of details, only one of which need be present for identification: a trident; a conch shell as a trumpet; a double fish tail or dolphin tail; wings on his jaw, his brow or, as here, his back; a beard, as here; or a pair of forelegs variously webbed, equine or, as here, clawed.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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The purpose of placing a carving of a merman on a medieval church wall isn’t at first clear. Bestiaries were more interested in mermaids, illustrated holding a mirror for the sin of pride or hubris, and a comb for the sin of luxuria, meaning sinful desire in all its senses, not only sexual lust. Triton the merman was an enforcer – he meted out punishments on humans on behalf of his father, Poseidon – so it is likely that Triton is a reminder of Christ’s role as judge on behalf of his heavenly Father.   

It is worth noting that the onocentaur and merman of Greek mythology reveal something important. They and many other characters of Greek and Roman mythology appear repeatedly in medieval European culture, demonstrating the self-promotion of renaissance Italy to be cultural hype. Leading Italian writers of the 14th and 15th century claimed that classical Roman and Greek culture had been universally forgotten since the 5th century, uniquely rediscovered by them. We have seen that bestiaries, illustrated medieval encyclopaedias of animals, manuscripts peculiar to medieval England and France, drew heavily on classical Greek and Roman sources. The writings of classical Roman poets, philosophers and theorists such as Cicero, Virgil, Catullus, and many others, were preserved by being painstakingly copied in Latin by medieval monks. Medieval scholars wrote in detail about classical Rome. For example, in his De mirabilibus urbis Romae, mid 12th century, Magister Gregorius (Master Gregory) of Oxford was so spell-bound by the splendours of ancient Rome that he not only extolled their virtues but measured the Roman ruins. Therefore the whole millennium that Italian writers named the ‘middle ages’, a period of alleged cultural darkness between the ‘forgotten’ Romans and Greeks and their renaissance ‘rediscovery’, was based on an idea that is demonstrably false. 

Foliate heads

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The Minster’s reredos or altar screen was created in the late 1330s or early 1340s. Its inner roof is exquisitely carved with five human heads and one sheep head among foliage.

Foliate heads have a long and varied history, evident in Mesopotamia up to three centuries before Christ and in Rome in the 1st century. They began to appear in high status English churches in the 12th century onwards in the new Norman style, and then in greater numbers in Gothic churches of the 13th to 16th centuries, including Beverley Minster.

All Christian art has a purpose: to teach believers how to live a godly life, to remind viewers to avoid sin and serve God. Foliate heads were absorbed by and used in Christian art to remind viewers of the Biblical words of Job 14: 1-2, “Man, who is born of woman, is short of days and full of trouble. Like a flower, he comes forth, then withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure”; and of Isaiah 40: 6-8 (also cited in 1 Peter 1: 24-25), “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
© Ian Pittaway.

Foliate heads are often visibly associated with discomfort. Four of the six heads in the reredos (above) have their mouths painfully stuffed, two with in-growing foliage and two with roof beams. The remaining two heads (below) emerge from foliage with their tongues out, the medieval indication of foolishness: they are too foolish to understand the brevity of mortal existence, the inevitability of green life fading to grey death, of our return to the ground from which God created Adam, and therefore the need for Christian moral rectitude in preparation for divine judgement.

It is because of these associations – “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall” – that foliate heads appear in Christian churches and as death heads on tombs. Indeed, as we see on the right, the foliage-covered Beverley Minster reredos was made a death monument to Sir Michael Warton (1577–1655) in or after 1688.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Greenery represents the shortness of life and the inevitability of divine judgement in literature as well as in visual art. In an English manuscript of sermons, Maidstone Museum ms. A.13, c. 1250, a century before the Minster’s foliate heads, there is a single song, the anonymous Man mai longe him lives wene. The first verse is below, in Middle English then modern English.

Folio 93v of Maidstone Museum ms. A.13, c. 1250, the top half of which is the song, Man mai longe him lives wene. Photograph by Ian Pittaway © Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery.

Man mai longe him lives wene
ac ofte him lieth the wrench
fair weder ofte him went to rene
an ferliche maket is blench
tharvore man thu the bithench
al sel valui the grene
welawey nis king ne quene
that ne sel drinke of deth is drench
man er thu falle of thi bench
thu sinne aquench

Man may his long life expect
but often he is deceived by the trick
fair weather often turns for him to rain
and horribly/suddenly creates its game
therefore man you should reflect
all your greenery shall fade/wither
alas there is no king nor queen
that shall not drink of death’s cup
man before you fall off your bench/seat
extinguish your sin

In 1939, Lady Julia Raglan wrote an article that changed the commonly-used language and created a false but oft-repeated history. Her article, The Green Man in Church Architecture, published in the journal, Folklore, created a new tradition of, as some accurately express it, fakelore. She claimed that the foliate heads are Green Men, and that the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May and the Garland King are all variations of the same identity, signifying a semi-secret seam of nature-worshipping paganism running through the outwardly Christian populace. In so doing, she unified unrelated traditions from different centuries, lumping them together as one, then leapt to conclusions that are not justified by the evidence, and indeed are contrary to it, an exemplar of having a fixed idea and then cherry-picking ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ it.

The idea that the Green Man is a hidden pagan survival is obvious nonsense: foliate heads are public Christian art, on open display in churches and in church graveyards, not in any sense private, secret, or hidden from the church – indeed, they were commissioned by the church. Foliate heads were seen in abundance in churches, representing the shortness of life leading to death, and no medieval or renaissance writer called one a Green Man, or associated them with Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May, the Garland King, or paganism. One would expect that authors who railed against ‘ungodliness’, such as Philip Stubbes in his Anatomy of Abuses, 1583, would make a point of censuring clandestine ‘pagan activity’ centred around the supposed Green Man or any of his other alleged identities suggested by Lady Raglan, but of this he makes any mention. This not only true of Stubbes: not a single renaissance or medieval writer makes any mention of a Green Man or any of the supposed assocations made up by Lady Raglan.

Lady Raglan claimed that Green Man beliefs emerged in particular in May celebrations, an integral part of the calendar of medieval and renaissance Europe, festivities which were symbolically unrelated to foliate heads. As we have seen above, symbolic associations can change depending on the context. While the greenery of foliate heads symbolised the brevity of life, May celebrations involving greenery celebrated fecundity and new life. The authors who described May festivities, including Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400), English poet Edmund Spenser (1552/53–1599) and poet/playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), make no mention of a Green Man. But, despite the lack of evidence and the incoherence of the idea, after 1939 Raglan’s newly-fabricated meaning for foliate heads became popular and continues to have currency in the modern imagination. 

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

On the inner roof of the reredos, tucked away on the left edge of the ceiling, is the Coronation of the Virgin (above), one of the major themes in Christian art in the 13th to 15th centuries. Christ is wearing his crown denoting him King of Heaven, giving the sign of the Trinity, while an angel crowns Mary as Queen of Heaven from above. One figure is behind Jesus and another behind Mary blow long and now slightly broken horns (described in the fourth article).

The Coronation of the Virgin is not an event in the New Testament, nor is it considered by the Catholic Church to be an actual event in time, but a symbolic representation of the supremacy of the Virgin. The reredos’ profusion of foliate heads, signifying life’s central spiritual problem – the shortness of life followed by everlasting divine judgement – is visually offset by a reminder of faithfulness to the Virgin and to Christ. Mary and Jesus are not hidden in the reredos, but neither are they central nor even immediately obvious, but have to be sought out among the foliage motifs. Perhaps that, too, was a symbolic device: the believer has to seek out redemption and heaven among the abundant foliage of brief life, pain and death.  

Angel messengers

Photograph: © Ian Pittaway.
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The now headless figure holding and pointing to a scroll on the outside of the reredos or altar screen (above left) follows in a long-established visual tradition in medieval Christian art, depicting a scroll as a heavenly message from God, usually carried by an angel, but sometimes seen in the hand of a prophet or a saint. A striking example of scroll symbolism in seen in The Psalter and Hours of Bonne of Luxembourg, before 1349 (The Met Cloisters, folio 315r, above right), showing a host of angels and two praying nuns receiving their messages from God.

Usually the artist left the scroll blank, but occasionally the angel’s message was written in, as we see below in the scene of the angel visiting the shepherds in The Taymouth Hours, 1325-50 (British Library Yates Thompson MS 13, folio 89v), in which the angel carries the message, “Gloria in excelsis deo” (Glory to God in the highest). Hands are symbolically important in medieval art, and pointing signifies to the viewer the key element in the picture, usually a person, and in this case the message. Like the Beverley reredos figure, the angel points to the scroll, visually signifying the word of God. Other examples of symbolic gesture include two limp hands, showing despair, and a hand raised in front of the body, palm out, demonstrating astonishment mixed with pain. The shepherd bagpiper raises one hand at a 45° angle, representing fear and astonishment, reminding the viewer of Luke 2: 8–11: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, who is Christ the Lord.””

The lessons of Beverley Minster     

We have seen that the 14th century allegorical carvings of Beverley Minster are not merely decorative but didactic, there to give congregants optical sermons on the Christian life. They might be summarised as follows.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Like a lion, Christ battles with the devil, the king of pride who, like a dragon, lays snares on your way. So do not be morally and spiritually unaware like the woodwose, but have its strength to tame Satan the dragon.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Like the coiled grip of an amphisbaena, Satan seeks to trap and ensnare the insincere pilgrim whose heart is not pure; so do not be like the onocentaur, the hypocrite who talks like a man but behaves like a lustful ass.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Do not be a fool who does not realise that life, like green foliage, quickly fades and dies. Look to your eternal soul, and heed the message of the angels.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Beware the he-goat, Satan, who draws you into lustful luxuria and thereby carries you off to hell. And beware the false preaching that will devour your soul, just as Reynard the fox preaches to birds so that he can trick and devour them.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Carry your burden like a penitential barefoot pilgrim, and Christ will give you rest. As the self-pulled beard shows, such a faithful soul has spiritual power and authority. 

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Just as the snake leaves behind its poison when it goes to a river to drink, leave behind your carnal desires, drinking in the heavenly word of God. Love your heavenly master like a faithful dog, and be like the dog’s tongue which cleanses the wounds of sin. Live a godly life so that when Christ comes to enforce the will of his Father, as Triton enforces the will of his father, you will be on the side of the saints and angels.  


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.



The eighth and final article is a survey of and commentary on the literature to date about the medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. 

Atsma, Aaron J. (2017) Triton. Theoi Greek Mythology. Website available by clicking here

Badke, David (editor) (2010) The Medieval Bestiary. Animals in the Middle Ages. Website available by clicking here.

Barber, Richard (1992) Bestiary, MS Bodley 764. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

Benton, Janetta Rebold (1997) Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. New York: Abbeville Press.  

Boase, T. S. R. (1972) Death in the Middle Ages. London: Thames and Hudson.

Brown, Patricia (1998) The Role of Symbolism of the Dragon in Vernacular Saints’ Legends, 1200-1500. A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Birmingham for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, School of English, Faculty of Arts, The University of Birmingham, July 1998. Available online by clicking here.

Cavendish, Richard (2015) John Wycliffe condemned as a heretic. History Today. Volume 65, Issue 5. May 2015. Available online by clicking here.

Ellis, F. S. (editor) (1900) The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First edition published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, first edition 1483. Available online by clicking here.

Endoltseva, Ekaterina & Vinogradov, Andrey (2016) Beard Pulling in Medieval Christian Art: Various Interpretations of a Scene. Anastasis. Research in Medieval Culture and Art. Volume III, Number 1. May 2016.

Graham-Campbell, James (2013) The Viking World. London: Frances Lincoln.

Hayman, Richard (2010) The Green Man. London: Shire Publications. Available from Bloomsbury by clicking here.

Hearne, Kevin (1998) The Demonization of Pan. Previously available online by clicking here, now unavailable.

Husband, Timothy, with the assistance of Gloria Gilmore-House (1980) The Wild Man. Medieval Myth and Symbolism. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available online by clicking here.

J. Paul Getty Museum (undated) Cameo set in a modern mount. Available online by clicking here.

James, M. R. (translator) (1924) The Acts of John. Available online by clicking here.

Jones, Lucy (2016) Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain. London: Elliott & Thompson.

Larsen, Andrew (2006) John Wyclif c. 1331–1384. In: Levy, Ian Christopher (editor), A Companion to John Wyclif. Late Medieval Theologian. Leiden: Brill.

Larson, Laurence Marcellus (1917) The King’s Mirror (Konungs Skuggsjá). Translated from the Old Norse with introduction and notes by Laurence Marcellus Larson. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. & The American-Scandinavian Foundation

Morley, Henry (editor) (1889) The History of Reynard the Fox. William Caxton’s English Translation of 1481. London: George Routledge and Sons.

Opie, Iona and Opie, Peter (1951, revised 1973) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Parlevliet, Sanne (2008) Hunting Reynard: How Reynard the Fox Tricked his Way into English and Dutch Children’s Literature. Children’s Literature in Education. Volume 39, Issue 2. June 2008. pp. 107–120. Available online by clicking here.

Raglan, Lady (1939) The “Green Man” in Church Architecture. Folklore, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp. 45-57. Available online by clicking here.

Southworth, John (1989) The English Medieval Minstrel. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

Vojvoda, Rozana and Paranko, Rostyslav (undated) Body Language. Previously online, now unavailable.

Walker-Meikle, Kathleen (2012) Medieval Pets. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.


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