Bartholomew the Englishman

On Bats

Introduction by Juris Lidaka

Bartholomew says: "The bat gets its name from the time of day, because it flees the light and flies around in the evening (vespertinus) dusk with its rapid motion checked, suspended on the delicate membranes of its arms. It is an animal like a mouse, sounding not so much like a voice as a whistle. Its appearance is at once like a bird and like a quadruped, and is rarely found among other birds. Thus far Isidore [Etymologies 12.7]."

Original Latin

A much-talked about creature

Bats . . . creatures of the night . . . Dracula . . . “I vahnt to drink your blooood!”  (Where is Bela Lugosi when you want him?) 

Modern myth has it that vampire bats can change into the human living dead. And the myth is powerful, even though we were all taught that bats eat mosquitos (and thus can be great friends of ours ), as well as other bugs and fruit.

"Are bats birds?"

Bartholomew believes bats are indeed birds and provides three kinds of information about them.

  1. He gives a fairly accurate scientific physical description.
  2. He discusses some bat behaviors and compares bats with "other" birds.
  3. He describes a medical remedy using bat blood. 
Bartholomew begins this article like many others with a quotation from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies. He assumes that the first thing people want to know is how bats got their Latin name, vespertilio.  Bats are called evening (vesper) creatures because they fly in the evening, vespertinus.  Notice here Isidore's misgivings about classifying bats as birds.  Borrowing from Jerome, Isidore observes that bats look a little like mice and seem almost to whistle.
Isidore himself  remarks on the unusual appearance of their wings, which struck him as very important.

Sometimes it is fun to compare medieval and modern descriptions -- see for example Batworld or Wikipedia .  Here are some questions to keep in mind:
  • What things did medieval scholastic authors have right?
  • What did they have wrong? Why? 
  • How far can simple observation get you? 
  • What factors can interfere with the accuracy of observation?

Connections past and present

Almost as if by serendipity, there is an interesting connection between bats, Bartholomew, and books.

1. Bartholomew the Englishman wrote his encyclopedia early in the thirteenth century (probably the 1230s). 

2. Late in the fourteenth century (on Feb. 6, 1398/9), John Trevisa finished translating Bartholomew's encyclopedia for his employer, Thomas Lord Berkeley. 

3. Almost 200 years later in 1582, Stephen Batman (no batcave, no batmobile, and unfortunately, no sidekick Robin) revised and expanded Trevisa's edition.  A very religious protestant who lived during the English Reformation, Batman had already written some pious works, such as

  • The Doome Warning All Men to the Judgement (1581), or in modern English: Doom: A Warning to All Men of Good Judgment
  • The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577), or Golden Book of the Leaden Goddess, a Christian introduction to pagan myths. 
The immediate response of the Reformation to medieval learning had been simple: “The old church and its old ways (and books) are evil, so they must be destroyed.”  When Henry VIII began dissolving the monasteries in England, their gold, silver, jewels, and other valuables were seized because they were worth something.  But the libraries and books were seen as having no value, because they presented the thoughts of the old church before the protestant reformers.

Later, when the initial emotional zeal had moderated with time and thought, many people realized that "old" did not necessarily mean "bad."  Just as new things could be bad, so old things could be good.  As those responsible for dissolving the monasteries went about their business, some began collecting the old books, and Stephen Batman was among them.  In one book, he wrote a fascinating comment on the attitudes of his immediate predecessors:

In many places of this Stimulus amoris (this Pricke of Love [the work Batman was using as an example]) are very good & sound documents of scripture, and what the rest are, . . . consider the time: he is no wise man that - because spiders, scorpions, or any other annoying things are in his house - will therefore set the whole house on fire, for by that means he voids himself of his house.  And so do men by rash burning of ancient records lose the knowledge of much learning.  There be means and ways to preserve the good corn by gathering out the weeds.

There are no bats mentioned there, but the idea is plain: A person who burns his house because a bat or spider is inside destroys not just the pest but also the whole house.  Similarly, those who rashly burn or destroy old books to get rid of minor errors in them destroy greater knowledge - there are better ways of keeping knowledge while removing misconceptions.

4. Finally, take a look to your left at the image of the monks and the devil on this very webpage.  They come from a book in Corpus Christi College's Parker Library - the library of books that belonged to Archbishop Matthew Parker.  Stephen Batman served under Parker during the Suppression of the Monasteries.  Hence, you are looking at images that might very well have been rescued by Stephen Batman himself.