Adam, agate and amulets: a medieval general knowledge quiz

What is the connection between Adam’s navel and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s left ear?

This was the first question that was asked in the first episode of the long-running British comedy quiz QI, which has been producing one series for each letter of the alphabet since the A-series in 2003.  Of course, the whole point of QI is that the guests are asked questions so impossible to answer that points are awarded for producing knowledge that is quite interesting, rather than answering the original question.  The answer to this question, as it happens, both are purely decorative: the then Archbishop is deaf in one ear, while Adam and Eve, of course, were created by God’s own hands, and therefore any navels they may have had served no function.

One of my favourite genres of medieval text, if you can call it a genre, is the ‘quite interesting fact’ – little snippets of knowledge included, for what purpose we can sometimes only guess, in large compendia, often scattered amongst religious and literary works.  Some of these snippets are really only a few lines long.  Others are longer treatises about the nature of the world, such as De temporibus anni, a work on the seasons, weather, and heavenly bodies, which I wrote about in a recent post.


So, did Adam have a navel?

This Anglo-Saxon artist was perfectly happy to depict him with one, and Eve too:

Adam and Eve Jun11.31r
Oxford, Bodleian Library Junius MS 11, fol. 31r

That’s from the Old English Genesis poem in the Junius Book in Oxford.  This collection of poetry based on Biblical stories is illustrated with a number of line drawings like this.  Although it is quite unusual for a literary manuscript to feature so much artwork, it is not the only one …


What looks like a man, runs like a donkey, and speaks like a bird?

And why wouldn’t an artist depict Adam with a navel?  Everyone else has one – including the fantastical homodubii, as the Old English Wonders of the East tells us:


After this place there is another region … where the ‘men of doubt’ are born, who have the shape of a man up to the navel, and in the remaining part of the body are similar to an ass, with long feet and the gentle voice of a bird, but when they see a man from afar, they flee.

Wonders of the East is a kind of literary travel through faraway parts of the world of which the Anglo-Saxons knew little, a compendium of tall tales.  This beautifully-illustrated copy, in Old English and Latin, is found in the eleventh century miscellany London, British Library Cotton Tiberius B. V/1.


Why did the two-faced woman go to India?

Wonders of the East tells of a number of beings who, like the homodubii, are of a twofold nature.  Like this man:


And there, there are born men who have a height of 15 feet, having a white body, and having two faces on one head, with red knees, a long nose, and black hair.  When the time has come to give birth to them, they are taken (by their hands) across to India and there they produce their offspring.


What was Christ’s cross made out of?

Wonders of the East has an interesting preoccupation with the height of the people described.  Why might this be?  I’m not sure; but in other situations, length and height were evidently important for the creation of amulets and healing.  In earlier blogposts, I have discussed the eleventh-century manuscript Ælfwine’s Prayerbook: this contains this little fact about the length of Christ’s cross:


This figure multiplied by seven makes the length of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ and was taken from the precious wood of the Lord.  The cross of Christ was made from four kinds of wood, which are called cypress, cedar, pine and box.  But box was not in the cross, other than in the placard of that wood which was over Christ’s forehead, on which the Jews had the inscription written, ‘This is the king of the Jews’.

It has been suggested that an earlier copy of the text, in a different manuscript, had a picture of the body or cross of Christ, which was supposed to be scaled up to give his actual height.


How do you close the doors of hell, open the doors of heaven, and protect yourself from demons?

The cross of Christ was often associated with protection, both from earthly and spiritual dangers, in Anglo-Saxon prayerbooks and medical compendia.  As discussed in previous blogposts, the manuscript known as Ælfwine’s Prayerbook also contains some information on how honouring the holy cross can protect you:

4 causae TitDxvii70r
London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii, fol. 70r

These are four reasons why the holy cross is adored.

The first reason is, whoever approaches seven crosses in one day, or adores one cross seven times, seven doors of hell are closed to him, and seven doors of paradise are opened to him.

The second reason is, if your first act for yourself is to the cross, all the demons, if they have been around you, would not have been able to harm you.

The third reason is, whoever does not bow to the cross does not receive the passion of Christ for himself; but whoever does bow has accepted it and will be saved.

The fourth reason is, as much land as you walk on when approaching the cross will be as much as your own inheritance which you offer to the Lord.


What protects you from poison, wards off witchcraft, and gives you a smoother body?

The sign of the cross was the usual form of protection from harm in Anglo-Saxon England.  But the Old English Leechbook, a medical compendium, also recommends the precious stone gagates, agate or possibly jet, as a form of protection from poisons and from one’s enemies, perhaps including devils:

Agate Roy12Dxvii108r
London, British Library Royal MS 12 D. xvii, fol. 108r

Of the stone which is called gagates, it is said that it has eight powers.

One is: when there is thunder, it does not harm him who has the stone with him.

The second power is: on whoever’s house it is, an enemy cannot be within it.

The third power is that no poison can harm the man who has the stone with him.

The fourth power is that the man who secretly has the hateful enemy on him, if he takes some amount of the shavings of the stone in water, then it will soon be evident in him which was hidden before.

The fifth power is: he who is afflicted by any illness, if he consumes the stone in water, he will soon be well.

The sixth power is that witchcraft cannot harm him who has it with him.

The seventh power is that he who consumes the stone in a drink will have a smoother body.

The eighth power of the stone is that the bite of no kind of snake can harm the man who tastes the stone in water.


What is green and looks like it has stars shining in it?

Why would agate, or any precious stone, be believed to have all of these wonderful properties?  Maybe because the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem itself will be made from twelve precious stones.  The manuscript London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A. iii, a kind of miscellany of knowledge which I have written on before, is full of gems like  this:

12 gemstones TibAiii101v
London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A. iii, fol. 101v

Here begins [a work] about the twelve precious stones and gems which we learned about in the book of Apocalypse.

The first kind of gem, which is shining and green and the colours are both mixed together and are [sic] called jasper by name.

The second is sapphire, which is like the sun, and golden stars like that are found in it.

The third is called chalcedony: it is like a burning lamp.

The fourth is emerald: it is very green.

The fifth is called sardonyx: it is most like blood.

The sixth is called onyx: it is brown and blue.

The seventh is called carnelian: it is like clear blood.

The eighth is called beryl: it is like clear water.

The ninth is called chrysoprase: it is like green lece and so green stars shine from it.

The eleventh is topaz: it is like gold.

The twelfth is called carbuncle: it is like burning embers.

(No idea what the tenth was called, sorry.)


Somehow, we have managed to get from Adam to the Apocalypse, from Genesis to Revelation, in this random assortment of medieval curiosity.  There are many manuscripts like this, which preserve odd little snippets of practical knowledge, Biblical learning, and ideas about the world.  Some of these ‘facts’ are slightly less than factual!  But these are some of my favourite parts of medieval manuscripts.  It is in these little works that we can best see how very excited medieval people were about knowledge: so much so that, even when they were copying liturgical texts and guides to confession, scribes just couldn’t resist slipping them into their work.

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