Feeling Crabby

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June 20, 2013 by Gail Armstrong

And now, as promised, a celebration of the mediaeval crab…or, more specifically, illuminated depictions of Cancer, the crab, second zodiacal sign of June.

If you’re wondering, as I did, why the sign is called Cancer, the explanation is simple: the ancient Greeks saw a resemblance to a crab in the constellation and so named it Karkinos (or Carcinos).  If you’re wondering why the dreaded disease shares the name, it’s because when the disease cancer was first identified (apparently by the ancient Egyptians), the cut surface of a tumour was thought to resemble a crab, with “the veins stretched on all sides as the animal the crab has its feet, whence it derives its name” (Hippocrates).  Another interesting fact I didn’t know:  “zodiac” apparently means “circle or zoo of animals”.  Makes sense once you think about it…

Anyway, herewith a parade of quite endearing Cancerian crabs…

This one for example:

crab1

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=11322 – the Shaftesbury Psalter, England, second quarter of the 12th c.]

What’s not to love about this strangely anthropomorphic crustacean who has apparently complained till he’s literally blue in the face about that creepy extra arm above his head.

Or this strangely bewildered little creature:

crab2

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=5128 – Astronomica, Germany, late 12th or early 13th c.]

His expression is exactly like the one I have if someone snaps my photo unexpectedly…”wait, you’re painting me before I’m ready…I didn’t get a chance to smile, or polish my shell, or anything!”

By contrast this fellow looks supremely self-possessed:

crab3

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=33698 – Francesco Roseti of Verona, Poem on Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins, dedicated to Henry VIII, Italy, 2nd quarter of the 16th c.]

And that’s in spite of the Gemini twins approaching from behind and Leo the lion nipping at his heels.  That’s one cool crustacean.

And then there’s this guy:

crab4

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=52827 – Joseph Kara, Festival Prayer Book for Shavuot and Sukot, Germany, c. 1322]

It’s just a guess but I’m willing to bet the artist just possibly, maybe, perhaps had never actually seen a crab.  Probably lived well inland, that’s my bet….or perhaps he just got his crabs and armadillos mixed up.  Remember, Mr. Google wasn’t around to help you sort your crabs from your armadillos in the 14th century.

Ditto your crabs and lobsters:

crab5

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=5727 – Book of Hours, Use of Paris, France, c. 1410 – 1420]

I particularly like that this shows Monsieur Crab near his watery habitat, by night no less….

A few little known facts about the French crab:  apparently, in addition to being bright red and lobsterian, they’re also ginormous and capable of levitation.  Well, that’s what you’d think if you relied on mediaeval depictions rather than Mr. Google for your information.

Here’s a very stylish, and stylised, fellow:

crab6

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=7002 – Psalter with Old English Gloss, England, 3rd quarter of the 11th c.]

Love the little pearls along the outside of his shell.

And here’s a gilded beauty:

crab7

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=22845 – Matfres Eymengau de Beziers, Breviari d’amor, France, 1st half of the 14th c.]

Check his very human-looking eyes and his little toes!

And last but not least, this little charmer…

crab8

[http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=718 – Albumazar, Treatise on Astrology, Netherlands, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th c.]

Can’t you just see him scurrying along the beach about his crabby business?

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