Travellers’ Tales in the Otia Imperialia of Gervase of Tilbury.

Dedicated to Meg T who introduced me to Gervase and all his best stories.

This post is only an introduction to the good stories, which will follow in other posts.

Sometime at the end of the twelfth century, one Gervase, an Anglo-Norman, possibly from Tilbury, went to Bologna to study canon law, and from there to a career as jurist and administrator in England, Sicily and France.   At some point he made time for his own mission to educate, inform and entertain, aimed in particular at the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV.  The large resulting book is the Otia Imperialia (Leisure Reading for an Emperor).  The copy I am using is edited and translated by S. E. Banks and J.W. Binns for the Oxford Medieval Texts series  For copyright reasons, I shall use my translation , but for obvious reasons, it will be not unlike that in the edition.  And so I add this disclaimer: quod apud illustrissimos Banks et Binns optime legendum est, hoc loco minore arte Anglice redditum expono, ut in reti quoque narrationes Gervasii abundent.

Leisure is not something you would readily associate with Otto IV, who spent a great deal of time battling for his throne, and ultimately losing it.  But in case he had spare time, Gervase provided him with three volumes.  Book I chronicles the world from creation to the time of Noah.  Book II continues the history up to the Norman kings of England.  And Book III, on marvels of the world is where the best stories are, many of them based on Gervase’s travels.

The history of travellers’ tales in European literature is long and fascinating.  Homer’s Odyssey might be a good place to start.  Herodotus is the obvious next main stop on the line – the man who gave us the sheep with such fat tails that they have to pull them around in little carts.  The important thing about travellers’ tales is that they have to be believed to be true information about the real world.   And, apart from being really entertaining, they are seriously interesting in many ways.  It isn’t that they ‘have a grain of truth in them.’  Some of them do, others are absolutely true, although often oddly expressed, others are utterly insane.

Self-castrating beaver from Bibliotheque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B folio 5v

Here, for example, not from Gervase, but from bestiaries throughout the Middle Ages, and going back at least to Hierocles the Stoic in the 2nd century AD is the self-castrating beaver.  There already is a blog about this entertaining critter here.



I may come back to the beaver, whose non-existent behaviour proves many things about God and the universe.  But for now my heart is with Gervase and the search for knowledge in a very unreliable world.

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