The summer we met – wonder if you remember? – I was working on the Bestiary manuscript. We were taking pictures, transcribing the text, to make it all available online. It’s been a while, but I remember one of my favourite folios in that manuscript was the one with the description of the Bear.
It says the Bear licks her cubs into shape, because when they are born, they are formless lumps of raw matter; it’s only when the Mother Bear licks them that she gives them form as Baby Bears. The artist of the Bestiary manuscript has seen them as red, round lumps of paint. But what happens to the Bears that don’t get licked? What if one of them manages to escape?
The artist didn’t draw any fully-formed cubs, only the red lumps and the mama-bear stooping down to lick them. Medieval artists didn’t often bother with unity of space and time: they would often squeeze two consecutive moments within the same miniature. We could have seen the shaped bear cubs. This way, instead, we can’t be sure they will become bears.
The second reason is that the scribe, on the same page, at one point, goes off and doodles. Imagine her (right, historically it must have been a he, but imagine, for just a second, it was a she) getting sick and tired of these boring texts, of the painful black letters. Maybe the light has grown dim but she can’t leave the scriptorium yet, she needs to finish that page for the day.
Imagine she gets discouraged, maybe she’s grown frustrated and overcome by the thought of the amount of work she still has to do, and wonders, just for an instant, what the point of it all is. She stops, she can’t work anymore. She puts the black quill down and takes up, just for a fancy, the blue inkpot. The blue is precious, she most definitely should not be using it, but to hell. It’s dusk, the light floating from the thin window is somehow benevolent, lenient. Yes, go on then, they won’t notice a few drops missing. So she dips the quill in the ink and slowly, freely, thinly sketches out a line starting from the initial and stretching all the way between the rows of words – and then off! It jumps! Out, into the wild open margin! It dips, and turns into an elegant head – a wolf, a dog, quite possibly a bear, tongue sticking playfully out – except it’s not a tongue, it’s a thin blue elegant line. Her hand drags it all the way down to the bottom of the page, plummeting along the text – a furrow, her hand a plough. Birdsong outside – a blackbird. She hasn’t heard a bird all winter. She adds another colour now, vermilion red. On the page, it’s summer already – the line blossoms into crops of wheat, red and blue.