Category: Documents

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The Unicorn in Fabyn’s Cronycle

Robert Fabyan (1455? – 1512) was a draper, sheriff, and author of Fabyans cronycle. The Cronycle recounted English and French history covering the time period from the legendary first king of England Brutus of Troy to the Tudor Henry VII.

A unicorn appears in Fabyans cronycle. The early medieval king of the Salian Franks, Childeric (440-482), was exiled for seducing his followers’ wives. During his eight years in exile, he was taken in by King Bisinus of Thuringia. Over time, lusty Childeric seduced Bisinus’ queen, Basina. Childeric eventually returned to his kingdom and Basina left her husband and accompanied her new lover Childeric to Tournai.

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Unicorns in Shakespeare

William Shakespeare mentioned unicorns three times in his plays: Julius Caesar (1599), Timon of Athens (1605), and The Tempest (1610).

In Julius Caesar, Decius described how a unicorn could be caught by a tree, “That Unicornes may be betrayed with Trees,” – insinuating that a unicorn would charge a hunter who would then sidestep at the last second causing the unicorn to lodge his horn into the tree.
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The Unicorn in Laurence Andrew’s The Noble Lyfe / Hortus Sanitatis

Cover of Laurence Andrew The noble lyfe and natures of man of bestes serpentys fowles and fishes that be most knoweu

Laurence Andrew (fl. 1510-1537) was a printer and translator active in Antwerp. Not much is known about him and many of the works he translated and/or printed have not survived into present day.

However, one book that did survive was The noble lyfe a[nd] natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles a[nd] fishes [that] be moste knoweu published in Antwerp. The date of publication is unknown, but historians of the book regularly date the book to 1527. The noble lyfe is a translation of portions of the Hortus Sanitatis, a natural history published in Germany in 1485.

The entry for the unicorn read:
“Monocheron yt is a vnicorne for it hath but one horne standinge in his forhede & it is so sharp yt what so euer it touchet wt his horn it tereth it a sonder or rõneth it thrugh / & it is a beste wt iiij. fete feringe nothere yron nor stele / & it feghteth oftentymes agaynst ye oliphant & thursteth hym in ye beli wt his sharpe horne & so ouercõmeth hym.”

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Martin Luther and the Unicorn Horn

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Melchior Adam, The Life and Death of Dr. Martin Luther (London, 1643), 109.

Martin Luther, the leading figure of the Protestant Reformation, spent his last three days on earth working. He delivered a sermon that in part encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity or be expelled from German lands. The following day Luther traveled to negotiate for the protection of his family’s copper trade.  Luther fell ill the day after the negotiations were completed and he continued to feel poorly through the day and evening.

According to the sixteenth-century German historian Melchior Adam, that “after supper, when he [Luther] went aside to pray, as was his custome, the paine in his breast began to increase: whereupon by the advice of some there present, he tooke a little Vnicornes horne in wine.”

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Alicorn

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Sea Unicorns from The History of Barados, St. Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the rest of the Caribby-Islands (London, 1666).

One of the first pieces of Anglo-American exploration literature to be translated and circulated to a wider European audience was Dionyse Settle’s 1577 account about Martin Frobisher’s second voyage entitled A true reporte of the last voyage…by Capteine Frobisher. The account was typical of others in the period.  It narrated the path of the ship, described the natural resources found in northern North America, and highlighted English encounters with Native Americans in both trade and war.  Unremarkably for the period, Settle encountered the physical remains of a sea unicorn.  Settle described seeing two shorelines, Asia in the east and America in the west.  On the western shore of America, the men of the Frobisher expedition “found a dead fishe floating, whiche in his nose a horne streight & torquet, of lengthe two yeardes lacking two inches, being broken in the top…we supposed it to be the Sea Unicorne.” The account of this event was casually sandwiched between a straightforward description of icebergs, and an encounter with Native Americans.

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The Unicorn in the Physiologus and Bestiaries

Medieval Christian scholars across Europe read the Physiologus making the book’s circulation second only to that of the Bible.” The Physiologus was based on Indian, Hebrew, and Egyptian legends that later were passed on into Greek and Roman literature, folklore and art. Eventually, these myths were written down in Alexandria, Egypt by an unknown author between 100 and 300 CE. The stories in the book are about plants, minerals, and animals – including the unicorn.

The author fused the ancient tradition of using moral allegories about nature with Christianity to reflect the teaching of the Apostle Paul, echoed in the Bible when Paul said, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The analogic structure of nature and divinely created symbols described in the Physiologus provided the Christian world with the tools to bridge the visible and the invisible worlds. The unicorn was one such symbol.

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A unicorn being killed in the lap of a virgin. Harley MS 3244, Bestiary, Unicorn, 1236-1250. British Library.
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Ancient Authorities on the Unicorn

 

Many early-modern Europeans believed in the existence of unicorns, in part, due to the writings of ancient authorities.

Ctesias (ca. 400 BCE), the Greek physician who served the Persian ruler Artaxerxes II, examined the unicorn.  In his work entitled On India, Ctesias referenced the unicorn which he called the wild ass of India.  It was roughly the size of a horse and had one horn.  It also had pharmacological benefits because its horn was an antidote to poison, and those who drank from the horn could not be harmed.  The beast could only be killed by bow and javelin. Furthermore, according to Ctesias, unicorn flesh was inedible on account of its bitterness. From roughly 400 BCE onwards, an animal in the shape of a horse with one horn existed in the minds of people, and its horn had the pharmacological benefit of being an antidote to poison.