Hairy wild men in the margins

Hairy wild men in the margins
More hairy wild men in the Rothschild Prayer Book
10 April 2015

As you may recall I wrote some time ago about the Hairy Wild Man from Botany Bay who is currently residing in the Treasures Gallery—see also the December NLA Magazine. You may also have seen publicity connected with the ambitious recent acquisition, for a record price of the Rothschild Prayer Book by Australian businessman and collector extraordinaire Kerry Stokes AC. 

Now this extraordinary volume is to be lent to the National Library from May to August this year for display along with some highlights of our medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the Treasures Gallery. In perusing images online from this exquisitely illustrated Flemish Renaissance prayer book I was delighted to find on one of the pages some hairy wild men.

Folio 212 of the volume features a scene of a hairy wild man battling an armour-clad monstrous knight figure floating on water. In the background, exiting a cave, four club-wielding hairy wild friends are surging forward, to support him in battle. The principal hairy wild man seems to be astride a floating golden bird and battles a demonic knight with his club whilst hiding partially behind the bird’s topknot of feathers. The knight seems to have morphed from a dragon-like, almost mechanical creature, and in its rather foreboding darkness possibly was meant to be read as being involved in a battle of evil versus good. Good which could be understood to be symbolised by the hairy wild man. Of course it could be read the other way. The hairy wild men, though primitive, are at least obviously human and are banding together to fight the invading and lethal looking knight.

The scene illustrates the margins of a text about St Thomas which sits opposite the image of him in a church. We can see him holding his lance, a symbol of his martyrdom. Occasionally he was also depicted holding a set square, another of his symbols, as he was a builder and considered to be a builder of the church. He is more often depicted examining Christ's wounds as he was said to have doubted his resurrection, hence the 'Doubting Thomas' tag. Thomas is also believed to have been responsible for spreading Christianity in India as it is said he sailed there in 52 AD to Kerala and then moved his ministry east to Mylapore near Chennai.

Whatever the symbolism potentially attached to St Thomas and the hairy wild men illustrated within the rich imagery of the Rothschild Prayer Book, visitors to the Library's Treasures Gallery from Friday 22 May will be very privileged to see one of the most spectacular and valuable illuminated books in the world and to see it in good company alongside some of our medieval collection items including one from collector Rex Nan Kivell's large collection of medieval manuscript fragments.        

More of the extraordinary images from the prayerbook can be found on Wikipedia.