Ape
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Source: British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 11r


 

Ape

Latin name: Simia

Other names: Callitrix, Cerocopithecus, Cynocephalus, Guenon, Satyrus, Singe, Sphinx

Called "simia" because it is similar to humans

 

 
General Attributes

The female ape always gives birth to twins, one of which she loves and the other she hates. When she carries her young, she holds the one she loves in her arms, but the one she hates must cling to her back. When the ape is pursued by a hunter, she tires from running while carrying her two children; when she is in danger of being caught, she drops the child she loves in order to escape, but the one she hates continues to cling to her back and is saved.

There are five types of apes. The first is called cericopithicus and has a tail. The second, with rough hair, is called sphinx, and is docile, not wild. The third is cynocephalus, with a head like a dog and a long tail. The fourth, the satyrus, is lively and has a pleasant face. The fifth, called callitrix, has a long beard on its pointed face, and has a wide tail.

Apes are happy at the new moon but grow sad as it wanes. At the equinox they urinate seven times. Apes are said to be ugly, dirty beasts with flat and wrinkled noses; their rear parts are particularly horrible.


Allegory/Moral

The ape is usually equated with the devil. It is said, that just as apes have a head but no tail, Satan began as an angel in heaven, but "he lost his tail, because he will perish totally at the end". In Philippe de Thaon's Bestiaire it is said that the devil mocks evil-doers and will carry them in front of him to hell, while the good remain behind his back with God.


Sources (chronological order)

Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] (Aesop: The Complete Fables (London, 1998) Temple 307): Apes give birth two two children. One the mother loves and cares for, the other she despises and neglects. However, the one the mother loves she holds in so tight an embrace that it suffocates, while the neglected child survives.

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 80): Apes are cunning animals. It is said that they put on as shoes the nooses set out to snare them, imitating the hunters. According to Mucianus the tailed species of apes can detect at a glance false nuts made of wax, can play at draughts, and are depressed at the waning of the moon but are delighted with the new moon. Apes are affectionate toward their young; they sometimes accidentally kill their babies by hugging them. The ape called cynocephalis is fierce, but the one called satyris is gentle. Apes cannot live anywhere but in Ethiopia, their native country.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:30-31): Apes (simiae) take their name from a Greek word meaning "with pushed in noses", because of their ugly noses. Others say that that the name is from the perceived similarity to humans, but this, says Isidore, is false. Apes rejoice during the new moon but are sad when it is in other phases. They love their children and carry them in front of themselves; if a child is neglected it clings to its mother. There are five species of ape: ceropitheci have tails; sphynxes have shaggy hair and prominent breasts, and are gentle; cynocephali have a dog-like face; satyrs have a pleasant face but are restless; callitriches are unlike the others in almost all of their features.

Richard de Fournival (Bestiaire d'Amour 19, 3): The hunter knows that the ape likes to imitate what people do, so he makes a show of putting on and taking off his boots when he knows the ape is watching. He then hides, leaving a boot behind. The ape puts on the boot, and the hunter catches the ape before it can take off the boot and escape.


Illustration

Most illustrations show the mother ape with two children, one held in front and the other clinging to her back. The story of the ape trying on boots is also sometimes illustrated. Apes are often used in marginal illustrations in manuscripts, where they are shown imitating some human behavior; common scenes show the ape as a knight riding a horse, or examining a flask of urine in mockery of a medieval physician.


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