Our Medieval Monsters Are Home!

In June of 2019, around sixty of the Morgan's most treasured medieval manuscripts were sent to Cleveland and Austin as part of the tour for our exhibition Terrors, Aliens, Wonders. Lending these treasures is a great way for us to share our collection with a wider audience, especially those far afield from New York City, but we miss them nonetheless. Last month the manuscripts returned, and so I sat down with Joshua O’Driscoll, our Assistant Curator of Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts, to discuss why we love the medieval monsters, and what is so special about having them back home. The exhibit examines how monsters were used in the Middle Ages to depict the alien, the terrifying, and the wondrous, all themes that continue to excite us today.

We discussed some of the most significant objects from the collection that have recently returned to the museum. Below is a series of the most exciting highlights.

Depiction of Crete as a land of dragons and other beasts, from a French book of the wonders of the world (ca. 1460).


MS M.461, fols. 20v

From the same manuscript, the Land of the Hellespont (modern day Turkey and Greece) is depicted as a magical place, with people who can heal through touch, and also a lascivious one, with couples romantically cavorting in public. Truly a land of the body.

Land of the Hellespont (modern day Turkey and Greece) is depicted as a magical place, with people who can heal through touch, and also a lascivious one, with couples romantically cavorting in public.

MS M.461, fols. 25r

An amazing depiction of a hellmouth in a thirteenth-century English apocalypse, in an exquisite hand-drawing technique typical of English Gothic Art.

depiction of a hellmouth in a thirteenth-century English apocalypse, in an exquisite hand-drawing technique typical of English Gothic Art.

MS M.524, fol. 20r.

From the same manuscript, a depiction of the famous image of death riding a pale horse, emerging from a hellmouth (bottom register)

depiction of the famous image of death riding a pale horse, emerging from a hellmouth

MS. M524 Seal VI Pale Horse

A striking image of a siren snagging aspiring princes, meant to be a lesson that women too can be monsters from the medieval male perspective.

A siren snagging aspiring princes.

MS M.42, fol. 15, Pierre Gringore, Les abus du monde. Rouen, France, ca. 1510.

Yona Benjamin
Columbia University Class of 2020
Communications and Marketing Department