Hana Šedinová

Sea monsters in the works of Thomas of Cantimpré and Bartholomeus of Solencia, known as Claretus


In his encyclopedia De natura rerum Thomas of Cantimpré (1201-1272) intended to realize the program formulated by Augustine in De doctrina christiana, viz. to collect and classify all information about animals, plants, trees, stones and all species mentioned in the Scriptures. In comparison to the scientific work of his great contemporary Albertus Magnus, Thomas aims at a wider public. Apart from instructing his audience about the elements of human anatomy, zoology, botanics, mineralogy and cosmology, he wants to entertain them by a variety of curiosities. This aim is especially evident in the 6th book which deals with strange sea monsters. While he found most of his information on fish in Aristotle’s Historia animalium or Pliny’s Naturalis historia, he followed other Greek and Roman authors in selecting the animals with an unusual, marvellous or frightening appearance and behavior, and classified them as monsters. In this he was followed by the Bohemian encyclopedian Bartholomeus of Solencia, known as Claretus, in his Glossary (ca. 1360)

Comparison of passages dealing with sea creatures in Thomas‘ work with those of his sources that have been preserved to us shows that the author quotes many descriptions of the animals – esp. those found in Pliny, Solinus and the Latin translation of Aristotle – almost verbatim. There are several examples of minor or major inaccuracies that affected the way the medieval reader imagined a particular animal, however. Fish and other sea animals that were for the most part well known to the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean have tuned into unknown creatures whose appearance and characters entered the medival moral discourses and instigated the imagination of the medieval illuminators.

Both works employ names not unknown to the medieval reader (balaena, cetus, delphinus, hippopotamus, orcha, polipus, testudo and others), as well as less common terms that are linguistically transparent but whose meaning is somewhat obscure. Greek mythological names (Nereides, Sirenae, Scalla), and names properly belonging to a terrestial animal and transferred to a sea animal on the basis of a similarity in body or in character (draco maris, cervus marinus, canis marinus, equus marinus, monoceros, vacca maris and others) belong to this category.

Apart from these, both works employ names that are extremely difficult to interpret either semantically or linguistically and whose Greek or Latin origin is not immediately clear (abydes, ahune, barchora, caab, celethi, chylon, cricos, exposita, fastaleon, galalca, glamanez, koki, kylion, ludolacra, scinnoci, zedrosi, zydrach and zytiron). Most of them are attached to animals the description of which Thomas claims to be derived from Aristotle. Therefore, the first step to identify their meaning is to compare the descriptions of these animals with Aristotle, and then look for the origin of the strange names in the Latin translation of Aristotle’s zoological treatises. Thomas used the Latin translation  from Arabic made by Michael Scotus in Toledo around 1220. Under the title De animalibus this translation contains Aristotle’s all three main zoological treatises. The main aim of this study is to identify the language and meaning of the names of the strange sea animals (monsters) in the works of Thomas of Cantimpré and Claretus, especially those transcribed from Greek into Arabic by the Syrian translator of the Aristotle’s zoological treatises, and from Arabic to Latin by Michael Scotus. Due to phonetical differencies between these languages as well as inaccuracies and mistakes in both translations, the text of Aristotle and the forms of the original Greek names were variously modified.