Monthly Archives: July 2018

The tale of three panthers and their teeth

st gall pantherFor long and weary I have kept a postcard on my wall which I acquired on a visit to St Gall several years ago. It comes from a ninth century manuscript of a well-known sixth century educational work by Cassiodorus called ‘The Institutiones’, which set out the plan he had for the education of the monks at the monastery he founded at Vivarium and it is only one of several diagrams in the work.[1] I love it and I have always called it ‘the panther’ although the official description is ‘a panther-like animal’. His function is to show the four divisions of the subject of Mathematics in the traditional ‘Seven Liberal Arts’, a kind of medieval syllabus for monks. It is part of the Quadrivium, the higher level of learning to be undertaken once the basics of Grammar had been mastered. The four divisions are here represented by the four feet of the panther, each labelled appropriately.

But it’s much more than that. Time and effort have been put into the drawing. The panther has a collar and lead and what seems to be a coat and if you are so inclined, it would be very easy to imagine that he is smiling at us. It would fit very happily into a school textbook, even a story book for young children. Did they do picture books in the ninth century?   And what do we know about the presence of panthers in the Carolingian Empire? Not a lot it seems. So I bought the postcard and kept it.

Some years later I started my PhD, which uses a group of ninth century manuscripts from the Abbey of St Gall and its close neighbour, the abbey of Reichenau. Cassiodorus cropped up again and, to my surprise, so did the panther.[2]

panther aug perg 241

A slightly posher version, with red detailing and the various titles of the four divisions in boxes hanging from cords attached to his feet, but still with a collar (albeit plain not spotted) and lead and a differently patterned back. His tail is also different: at Reichenau it forms a jaunty ‘S’ shape, at St Gall it is a passive downward slope, and he has two ears, one pointed and one rounded like the St Gall one. What is really striking however, is that this one is showing his teeth. If you look closely, both beasts have three teeth, but the way they are arranged is different – cheery grin for St Gall, threatening growl for Reichenau.  So I went looking for enlightenment and found Michael Gorman.

Michael Gorman does not apparently share my love of the panther but he does know about diagrams in Cassiodorus manuscripts. 3] Sadly, he hasn’t managed  to track back to the original but he has tracked the diagrams back to the eighth century, to what he think is the archetypal manuscript, namely Bamberg Patr.61, the text of which was used for Mynors’ printed edition in 1937.[4] The gap between the printed versions and the manuscripts becomes clear at this point. The manuscript has a total of 37 diagrams but Mynors only reproduced eight of them in his book. The text thus quickly became disassociated from the diagrams. Gorman points out quite rightly that this omission is actually quite a serious one: my panther is not an optional extra, he carries the names of the four sub-divisions and if he is removed, they are too.  But it is only now, when we can all look at lots of original manuscripts without leaving our desks, that we are rediscovering the diagrams. [5]


And I rediscovered another panther in Harley 2637, another ninth century manuscript of the Institutiones, which is readily available online from the British Library. It originates from either Western Germany or Eastern France and was first recorded at Cues on the Moselle. Whilst it cannot be traced back to a Carolingian centre, its panther clearly relates to the two examples from Lake Constance.

harley 2637 panther

The main difference between this panther and the other two is the increased use of colour, which seems to take the beast into the realms of fantasy and magic. The collar and lead here are important enough to split the heading into ‘Divisioma’ and ‘thematicae’, whereas in the other two diagrams the heading stands aloof, with a conventional gap between ‘divisio’ and ‘mathematicae’. The tail has the Reichenau curve, but with a tuft at the end which is missing both at Reichenau and St Gall, as if the model for both the Carolingian versions was somehow cut off at the end. But other features are the same. The three teeth are Reichenau style, but somehow look even meaner because the mouth is smaller, the boxes around the four headings are also Reichenau style. It has one ear, like St Gall, but it is pointed like Reichenau. The coat, if such it is, is divided from the lower body by a straight horizontal line, as is the case at Reichenau, whereas at St Gall, it curves down between the back legs. The Harley tail is plain, the Reichenau tail is coloured red and the St Gall tail has a zigzag pattern. There is clearly a relationship between them all and each has at least one unique element, but the St Gall exemplar is clearly distinctive.

These diagrams matter because they imply a different kind of reading from what we expect of ninth century abbeys.  You cannot read a panther aloud,  although you could perhaps read the manuscript alongside a student.  But this is not for use with a group.  These texts were intended for private reading.

That conclusion alone is worth bothering with.  But there is more.  The latest bit of the jigsaw comes from Sven Meeder’s contribution to the recent book of studies in honour of Rosamund Mckitterick.[6] Meeder points out that Bamberg Patr.61 is a ‘sister manuscript’ to St Gall 855, the original object of my interest, and uses this connection to support the view that the two manuscripts had a common ancestor, probably from either Monte Cassino or somewhere in northern Italy. Further, he demonstrates that a relationship exists between the St Gall manuscripts containing Mallius Theodorus’ ‘De metris’ and other multi-text manuscripts containing the same text which have their origin in centres south and north of the Alps. Checking out these manuscripts for evidence of panthers may well be worthwhile.

For now, the lesson for me is that although much energy and ink has been devoted to the investigation of textual links between manuscripts and this is right and proper, we might still, from time to time, spare a thought for the guys who drew the panthers.

[1] Cod Sang 855, p.276

[2] Aug Perg 241 p53

[3] M. Gorman ‘The Diagrams in the Oldest Manuscripts of Cassiodorus’ Insitutione’ in Revue Benedictine vol 110 Issue 1-2 January 2000 pp27 – 41

[4] Ibid. p28

[5] Ibid. p29 Sadly we don’t always manage to find the right places to read them. Mynors apparently pointed out that the diagrams existed in a total of six manuscripts, the ones under discussion here and  Bamberg Patr. 61, Paris Mazarine 660 and Berlin Phillips 1737. These are the ones I have not yet got access to.

[6] ‘Monte Cassino’s Network of Knowledge: The Earliest Manuscript Evidence’ in ‘Writing the Medieval West’ ed. Elina Screen, Charles West. Cambridge 2018 pp 141 – 142



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