Comparing Meerkats

February 20, 2012

So I’m reading Apes and Ape Lore by HW Janson. I love this book! I’ve read it before but I got it out of the library again because there was a tiny reference to marginal snail combat in it that I was trying to truffle out. I ended up reading a lot of it again. It’s an exhaustively detailed catalogue of the history of the portrayal of the ape in medieval and Renaissance times. Much of it is a very careful working out of a taxonomy of ape motifs. The book as a whole expresses very well the virtue of going so deep into one relatively minute subject that it starts to blossom into all sorts of strange areas and become paradoxically inclusive. There’s plenty of room for anecdote: I particularly like the the Spanish-Galician story that relates how a man climbed into a tree in order to frighten the Saviour and found himself changed into an ape.

The chapter titles are very enticing as well:

Figura Diaboli: The Ape in Early Christianity

The Ape as Sinner

Similitudo Hominis: The Ape in Medieval Science

The Ape and the Fall of Man

The Fettered Ape

The Ape in Gothic Marginal Art

and so on. And of course it’s all related in a dry, droll academic style of the specialist.

I found a footnote that well expresses the soothing poetry of this sort of writing, with its German citations, the rather Quixotic romanticism of the pursuit for historic truth through MSS, the careful and accurate-feeling balance of assertion and doubt. In the main text, I was reading:

The Ecbasis captivi, probably the earliest animal epic of the Middle Ages (c.940), mentions the ape (simia deformis) and the monkey (cerula catta maris) in a few lines as keepers of the king’s bed and light, but does not let them take any part in the action of the story.50 <—————– footnote.

CANNOT RESIST THE FOOTNOTE. Even if it is an end-of-chapter note requiring the sort of digital dexterity normally only required for Fighting Fantasy books.

footnote——————> 50 Ed. Ernst Voigt (Quellen u. Forschungen zur Sprach- und Kulturgeschichte der GermanischenVölker,  VIII) Strasbourg, 1875, lines 654, 656. Erdman (Dtsch. Archiv. IV, 2, 1941) suggests a date of c.1040 for the epic. The term catta maris is of particular interest, since it is obviously a translation of the German Meerkatze (guenon) and thus represents the earliest reference to the latter word, at least a century before Hildegard of Bingen, who is cited in Grimm’s Wörterbuch and other dictionaries as the first datable instance of the term. The fact that the word was interpreted to mean “(trans)marine cat” as early as the tenth or eleventh century, would seem to throw further doubt on its proposed derivation from the ancient Indian markata, already protested by Fr. Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch d. Dtsch. Sprache, Berline-Leipzig, 1934.  

In case you’re wondering about the modern application btw:

Etymology:  < South African Dutch meerkat (Afrikaans meerkat ), transferred use of Dutch meerkat a long-tailed monkey of the family Cercopithecidae

The forms mier-cat , mier-kat , mierkat reflect the Afrikaans variant mierkat (with the first element altered by folk etymology after Afrikaans mier ant, termite).

Actually I’ve spent most of the time writing this trying to remember which Half Man Half Biscuit song has the line MEERKATS ARE CLICHED at the beginning. It seems to be from a live performance of You’re Hard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1999, but I can’t find any recording although I’m pretty certain it was broadcast on Radio 1 at the time.

I know it’s not the same, but here’s some Hildegard of Bingen chawn. Although like most medieval writers and philosophers she was more of an aggregator than originator, in her Physica she was one of the first people Classical or Medieval to emphasise the shared menstrual cycle of the primates with humans, singling this feature out from a more or less mystical/magical 6th century tract by the Egyptian Horapollo. Of course Nigel Blackwell transmutes the intense sadness of modern England to the gold of wry humour that enables us to get to the end of our natural life without recourse to our own hand. Nevertheless he can take a back seat for once:

lol the start of that video’s pretty odd.


The Cologne School of Ear Wiggling School

February 5, 2011

Concerning the physical features of the head in man, pygmy, and ape, he [Albertus Magnus] observes that these three are the only animals incapable of wiggling their ears.

Apes and Ape Lore – Horst Woldemar Janson

Albertus Magnus Trying to Wiggle His Ears

I can picture it now – Albertus Magnus hurrying across The Stone Bridge in Regensburg, being barracked by a young layabout, ‘Oi! Bert! Look! – *weke-weke – weke-weke* – Where’s yer innovative not to say revolutionary synthesis of diffuse Aristotelian anatomical information and current animal psychological and moral data via the form of religious exempla and encyclopedic aggregation, now! Eh! Your anti-Augustinian stance that reason is in fact, to a degree, linked with physical form, is not only potentially a most dangerous heresy, but at least partly based on a dodgy datum! Eppur si muove!’ (Big Bert could, I suppose, have answered that although incapable was perhaps rather strong, he was in fact referring to the comparatively small accessory nucleus, responsible for an ability to move the ears in humans, apes, and pygmies, in the brain stem. Furthermore, young fella-me-lad (he might have continued),what’s your name? Aquinas? Furthermore young Aquinas, I’ll have you know that although the data in my works of aggregation and synthesis may eventually be revealed to be on occasion somewhat shaky not to say backasswards, the processes by which I go about such works of synthesis and aggregation will maintain. My discoveries, although not always ‘true’ by the lights of a future age, will nevertheless break fruitful ground, which is to say the ground I break will be the ground in which much of the seeds of the development in the thought of man will be sown, something those responsible for the Scientification of Culture in the 21st century, with their near-deification of the Enlightenment, would do well to remember.)

Go on, give it another go, Albertus:

Nope? D’aw.