Katherine Tachau on the portrayal of astrologers and logicians in the Bibles Moralisees.

November 8, 2007

A few days ago Fordham’s medieval studies program hosted famous medievalist Katherine Tachau who delivered a fascinating lecture about the depiction of astrologers/astronomers and logicians in some illustrated paraphrases of the Bible from the early 13th century called ‘Bibles Moralisees’. Tachau’s thesis is that these elaborate texts were commisioned by conservative religious groups and given to French nobility to surreptitious combat the influence of the new pagan learning.

The texts of the Bibles Moralisees contain eight small circular pictures. Each page is concerned with one particular bible story and the last two pictures reveal the spiritualized meaning of the story. One example regarding the story of the tower of Babel. The seventh picture has a group of pagans using an astrolabe and taking measurements while the construction of the tower goes on behind them. The eighth picture has a contemporary university master conducting astronomical research in precisely the same pose. The implication: the universities, by opening their doors to pagan learning, have been tempted into vana curiositas and they will get their recompense from God for their arrogance just like the Babel tower builders.


 An interesting  tidbit. Abelard and Heloise named their son ‘astrolabe’. I take that to the logician’s way of striking back at the conservatives.

Another interesting tidbit–besides the scholastics, the Bibles Moralisees  also often abuse the Cathars. Modern scholarship opines that the name ‘cathar’ comes from the greek ‘katharos’ = “clean, purified”. However in the Bibles Moralisees the Cathars are always pictured worshipping a small cat-shaped idol. According to Tachau this is because Alain of Lille was confused about the etymology of the name and assumed that they were called ‘cathars’ because they worshipped cats. (“Th” was pronounced as  ‘t’ in medieval french just like in modern french.)