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‘By/On the Hand of an Ape’: Monkey-Men and Ape Falconers

“By/On the Hand of an Ape”: Monkey-Men and Ape Falconers

By Leor Jacobi

English Version of the Hebrew Presentation given in the Art Department Colloquium at Bar-Ilan University, May 26, 2015

In the course of examining falconry scenes in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, discussed in a previous lecture, the subset of the monkey falconer was observed in the London miscellany, where an ape falconer rides a grotesque goat, and in the Cervera Bible, where an ape wears a falconer’s leather glove from which, presumably, the raptor was sent who is seen catching a bird on the left.

The monkey falconer was a popular motif in illuminated medieval manuscript marginalia and apes and birds share a ‘sympathetic’ connection, as stated by Horst Janson in his monumental “Apes and Ape Lore” (which much of our talk today is based upon).

Ape Falconer Luttrell Psalter

What is the ape falconer all about? The connection between the ape and birds is already found in ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology. The Arabic collection “Bidpai” contains an account of birds who gave good advice to a monkey who promptly killed them, didn’t follow the advice and, you can imagine. In the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen wrote that when an ape sees a bird, he imitates it and tries to fly, and loses his nerve over his lack of success. According to Janson, the monkey was viewed as Lucifer, who fell because he tried to fly higher than his capabilities. It was known that monkeys often dwell in trees and this too was taken as a sign of their desire to fly like a bird. However the monkey symbolizes the physical side and is weighed down to earth as opposed to the spiritual bird in the heavens. The monkey in his rage tried to trap or kill the bird, almost invariably without success. But sometimes he catches him!

There are three types of birds commonly depicted with monkeys in Gothic Marginal Art: Pelicans, Owls, and Sparrows. In the 12th century, the Christian theologian Honorius of Autun wrote that these three are suggested in the Psalms 102:

I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am like an owl of the desert.
I lie awake; I have become like a sparrow alone on a roof.

According to Honorius, the pelican, one of the birds prohibited in Leviticus, is inferior and represents the pagan idol worshippers. The owl is more eerie and represents the Jews and sinners who dwell in darkness and do not recognize the light of Christ. The kosher sparrow represents the Christians whose pure spirituality soars in divine contemplation.

The monkey resembles the pelican and wrestles together with him as a mischievous comrade. The owl, however, is the monkey’s best friend as they are both grotesque and try to catch the spiritually pure sparrows.

In this vein we can understand why the typical monkey falconer in Christian Gothic Art sports an owl. Monkey in place of man, owl in place of human, goat in place of horse. “The Dark Side”.

In Hebrew manuscript illustrations, we do not find examples of the monkey falconer with an owl, which makes sense if the association of the owl with the Jews was understood. It should be noted, however, that many of the monkey falconers in Christian Art sport falcons, not owls. An owl may be found in Machzor Nuremberg directly opposite a monkey admiring his handsome reflection in a mirror, but it’s not clear if it’s an owl or a falcon.

Cervera Bible 444v-445 - ZOOM

Before the revolutionary theory of evolution in the 19th century, the ape was not viewed as an animal entirely distinct from man. He too belongs, in some way, to the sixth day of creation. However, this view is diametrically opposite to that of evolution. The monkey was viewed as a fallen man, the Descent of Man.

Also according to Islamic tradition, the monkey is viewed as a degenerate human. The Quran explicitly states that Jews who sinned and transgressed the laws of the Sabbath were punished and transformed into monkeys.

Now let’s examine roots of this conception of the monkey and his relation to man in illustrative Talmudic selections.

According to Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, there were three groups involved in building the Biblical Tower of Babel. One of them was rebelling against God and they were punished by being transformed into monkeys, spirits and demons. According to this legend the connection between man and ape is unique, not shared by other animals. This conception is also expressed in Jewish Law. The Talmudic Sages decreed recitation of a special blessing upon seeing a human with a genetic deformity, a monkey, or other animal with particularly human-like properties: “Blessed is the one who varies his creations.” The term for ‘creations’, ‘briot’ is commonly used to refer to human populations, to which the monkey is here considered an adjunct member.

These two sources from the Babylonian Talmud are difficult to date or place geographically, but an additional source clearly stems from an earlier Palestinian tradition. In Tractate Yadayim of the Mishna we find a tannaitic dispute as to whether one’s hands are considered ritually pure if a monkey poured the water on them. These laws reflect an ancient practice of having one’s hands washed by another, especially by a waiter or butler at meals, rather than the common modern practice where each person washes their own hands. A remnant of the ancient practice is found in the modern synagogue, where Levites wash the hands of Cohanim before their blessing. The Tannaim discussed such a monkey ‘Levi,’ if you will. This ancient dispute was never resolved, with Rambam and Ra’avad taking opposing sides in the 12th century and Maran R. Yosef Karo and the Rema, R. Moshe Isserlis following in their footsteps at the beginning of the 16th century.

Detail of a miniature of a woman in conversation with a monkey in the guise of a courtly nobleman; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 62r.The grounds of the dispute, not explicitly stated, are traditionally explained as revolving around the issue of ‘koach gavra’, a requirement that a human effect the pouring of the water. According to Rabbi Yosi, a monkey’s pouring is disqualified as he is not human. However, a comparison of the Mishnah with a parallel Tosefta, which only discusses humans, shows that the issue is the intentionality of the one pouring. The primacy of the Tosefta in relation of the Mishnah is discussed in depth by my teacher Shamma Friedman in his book “Tosefta Atiqkta”, and I would argue that this is also the case here. From the Toseftan ether of the man pouring without intentionality, the Mishnah generalizes, naturally transposing and adapting him into the monkey, who generally lacks intentionality for performing commandments. The Tanna Kamma, who upholds the purity of hands washed by a monkey, may also require human ‘koach gavra’, but the monkey has enough of that.

In the Talmud and in later strands of rabbinic literature there are discussions of the suitability of the monkey to perform other tasks related to human commandments. In addition to washing of the hands, we find a monkey leaving eruv techumim outside of the city limits, enabling extension of the Sabbath travel limits, payment of usury via a monkey courier and delivery of a divorce contract. Thus, I selected ‘al yedei kof’ as the Hebrew name of this talk, because of its double entendre. It can be understood as “by the hand of a monkey” as in these legal cases; or as “on the hand of the monkey”, the raptor and the falconer’s glove.

We’ll conclude today’s presentation with another scene from the Cervera Bible, one which has been the topic of scholarly discussion by Marc Epstein and others mentioned in my previous lecture. Recently, Veronica Vives completed a doctorate on the Masora of this manuscript and in a separate article, ‘Los Animales como Decoración,’ she discusses the transposition and adjustment of several animal motifs from Christian Art to Jewish Art. In the image of the pages spread before us three characters trying with all of their might and military technology to catch a measly raven, one of the least valuable birds to hunt, because not only is it not kosher, but it doesn’t taste so good (not speaking from experience).

Janson points out (not in relation to the Cervera Bible) that an iconographically similar illustration in the Ebo Gospels was borrowed from prior scenes featuring apes trying to catch birds, according to the motif we discussed earlier. In my opinion, the Cervera Bible, prominently featuring comic monkeys in several illustrations just a few pages previous to this one, including the ape falconer, here portrays humans “monkeying around”. Just as human activities can be done “By the Hand of an Ape”, so too in Jewish Art here gentiles are portrayed engaging in “monkey business”.

Read more of Leor Jacobi’s research on his Academia.edu page 



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