Saturday 8 April 2017

'The Bishop of Butterflies' by Karen Maitland

King Arthur, 13th Century Illustration
Recently, I stumbled across a delightful legend recorded in the chronicles of Lanercost Priory, Cumberland written around 1216. It tells how Bishop Peter of Rochester was hunting in a forest, but became separated from the huntsman. Lost, weary and hungry, he was relieved when he stumbled upon a palace in the forest and was offered food and shelter. He discovered that his mysterious host was none other than the immortal King Arthur.

Awe-struck, the bishop told the great king that no one would ever believe him if he said that he had seen and talked with King Arthur. Arthur told him to close his right hand and then open it. When the bishop did so, a beautiful butterfly flew from his palm. Arthur told Peter that as a remembrance of their meeting, whenever the bishop wanted to see a butterfly he only had to close and then open his right hand, and one would appear. The bishop returned to his duties and fame of this miracle soon spread, so that whenever men or women knelt before the bishop to ask for his blessing, they’d also ask for a butterfly, and the bishop would open his hand to release another butterfly into the world. Bishop Peter became known as the Bishop of the Butterflies.

1503-1508, by Jean Bourdichon
Page from the beginning of
St. John's Gospel. 'In the beginning...'
It is just a fable, of course, but these legends can be wonderful insights into medieval mind. And I love the idea that a blessing could take the form of a butterfly. Many ancient cultures saw the transformation of the earth-bound caterpillar into a chrysalid of death then its rebirth as the aerial butterfly, as a symbol of death and resurrection, or of the transformation of the spirit. Butterfly wings were said to resemble the flickering of firelight. 

The Celts likened the soul of a baby waiting to enter woman to be born, to a butterfly hovering around her. Although, we should not assume that they thought butterflies really were souls. In the same way, during the medieval period, the spirits of the departed were likened to butterflies, but that does not mean that the majority of people believed butterflies were spirits. Nevertheless, this did later solidify into a superstition in some country areas that it was unlucky to kill a butterfly, because they were the spirits of the recently dead who had not yet entered purgatory and were hovering close to the living, unwilling to depart this earth, or that they were the souls unbaptised infants who could enter neither heaven nor hell.
1410, by Jean Malouel. Madonna and angels
with butterflies hovering above.

In places such as Somerset, the first butterfly of the year was hunted and killed to prevent it ‘coming again’, in other words returning to ‘haunt’ the living. And this perhaps is linked to the idea that the souls of dead children could re-enter a woman’s womb over and over again, preventing her from giving birth to a living child. In Lincolnshire, butterflies were said to symbolise the enemies who were planning to harm you, both known and unknown, and so the first butterfly you saw, you killed and crushed to powder, so that your enemies would be defeated for the rest of the year.
14th century. Children playing and catching butterflies.

One of the minor frustrations of writing novels set before the 17th century, is that our medieval forbears were far more pragmatic than we are. Naming plants and fungi was essential to survival, because they had to be able to identify different plants for healing, food and poisons, and in many cases the name they gave the plant, such as lungwort, told you exactly what its use was for man. But there was no practical function in being able to distinguish one type of butterfly from another, so there was no reason to invent different names for them.

Labels such Red Admiral and Tortoiseshell butterfly only came into use once people started to collect butterflies for scientific interest. So, unlike mentioning flowers in the novel where the medieval novelist can easily find and use the old names of the period, if we want to specify a type of butterfly in the story we can only refer to its colour. But maybe that’s no bad thing. It reminds us that classifications and names are man-made, and encourage a human-centric outlook on the world. And occasionally, we should stop and enjoy the blessings of a creature just for the beautiful thing that it is.

Thistles and Butterflies
by Otto Maseus Van Schrieck. (1660's)

1 comment:

Katherine Langrish said...

What an utterly gorgeous story, Karen! Thankyou!