As we have seen, many medieval Latin interpretations of the camel reflect the insights of patristic exegesis. At least until about 1200, indeed, it is possible to speak of a consensus amongst religious authors that the camel was primarily a symbol of Christ – particularly on the basis of the two great parables discussed above (see the many examples from the Patrologia Latina listed in Harris 2007). Nevertheless the Fathers’ alternative interpretations of these and other passages also had an influence, as did comparisons between the treasure-bearing camels of the Queen of Sheba and the patriarchs and prophets (see Bruno of Segni PL 165, 1051), and between the camels mentioned in Is 21 and the multitudes who will follow the Antichrist (see Herveus Burgidolensis PL 181, 207).
Interesting summaries of the camel’s spiritual meanings in the earlier and high Middle Ages are provided not only by Rabanus Maurus (see above), but also in the Liber in distinctionibus dictionum theologicalium of Alanus ab Insulis (PL 210, 687–812, here 727) and the Allegoriae in universam sacram scripturam (also known as the Angelus, PL 112, 849–1088, here 882). In both of these Christ is mentioned first (though in relation to Mt 23 rather than Mc 10, whose camel Alan sees as a »peccator pondere peccatorum oneratus«); but the Angelus also associates the camel with »tortitudo vitiorum« (on the basis of Gn 24), »populus huius saeculi« (Is 60, 6) and »dispositiones rerum terrenarum« (the 3,000 camels of Iob 1, 3).
The large-scale exemplum collections of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – based as they were on the relatively new encyclopaedias of authors like Thomas or Bartholomaeus – expanded considerably the previously rather limited range of characteristics of the camel submitted to spiritual interpretations. These were often still used to signify Christ, as for instance are all three camel exempla of Ulrich von Lilienfeld’s Concordantiae caritatis (c. 1351). Here, the camel’s (supposed) ability to restrain its anger until an opportunity for vengeance arises is compared to Christ’s reining in his anger until Doomsday (see Munscheck p. 338); the compassionate readiness of a group of camels to forswear food when one of them is ill is equated with his willingness to sacrifice himself for the Jews (Munscheck p. 342); and, still more implausibly, the ability of a young camel to eat greenery immediately after birth is linked with Christ’s instinctive bearing of our sins (Munscheck p. 354). Further examples of rather far-fetched christological interpretations can be found in the Reductorium morale of Petrus Berchorius (c. 1300; see 10, 17, pp. 359a–360b): Petrus states for instance that the camel’s desire for solitude in the mating season reflects the solitude of Christ’s life on earth, and that the hot-bloodedness, dryness, and leanness of a camel’s body is reminiscent of Our Lord’s charity, purity, and penitence.
The Reductorium morale, however, along with roughly contemporary works such as the Summa de exemplis et similitudinibus rerum of Joannes a San Geminiano (5, 20, 51, 63, 83, 104, 113) and the Proprietates rerum moralizate sometimes attributed to Marcus de Orvieto (Clm 8809, 102rb–vb, 106vb–107rb) were also responsible for expanding the range of spiritual meanings with which the camel was associated. Between them, for example, Petrus and Joannes interpret the camel as meaning spiritual fervour, obedience, chastity, pride, holy men, common sinners, the Christian soul, patience, and impatience; and the Proprietates rerum moralizate compares eight characteristics of the camel to a just man, and four of the dromedary to a good priest or monk. Such a wide spectrum of characteristics and meanings inevitably sometimes inspired these authors to exempla of ingenious, indeed bizarre intricacy: the camel’s four stomachs, for example, are compared in extraordinary detail by Joannes (5, 20) to the four ways in which (according to the four types of allegory) spiritual food must be ingested and digested, and by Petrus (p. 359a–b) both to the four stages of sin and to their four corresponding remedies.
Petrus Berchorius’s use of the camel as an image of pride (p. 359a, the two main sub-species of camel respectively signifying visible and invisible pride) can also be seen as typifying an increasingly prevalent later medieval trend towards interpreting the camel in malam partem as one of the Seven Deadly Sins – as often as not with anger or avarice, rather than pride. This is not particularly surprising given the contemporary fashion for using all manner of natural phenomena to connote sin, but one wonders whether a certain ›natural symbolism‹ may also have been at work, in that these are the three moral qualities with which Westerners increasingly familiar with real camels might instinctively have associated the beast. In any event, alongside occurrences in the visual arts, the dromedary is an emblem of pride and the camel of anger in the Etymachia treatise (Harris 1994, pp. 108, 124); and the camel represents avarice in, for example, a Palm Sunday sermon by Conrad Holtnicker (no. 99) and a complex textual and pictorial tradition, related to the Etymachia, from late-medieval Austria (see Harris/Newhauser).
Lit.: N. HARRIS: The Latin and German Etymachia. Textual History, Edition, Commentary, 1994; ID: The Camel in Medieval Literature: Perspectives and Meanings. In: S. HARTMANN (ed.): Fauna and Flora, 2007, 131–51; ID/ R. NEWHAUSER: Visuality and Moral Culture in the Late Middle Ages. In: R. NEWHAUSER (ed.): In the Garden of Evil, 2005, 234-76; H. MUNSCHECK: Die Concordantiae caritatis des Ulrich von Lilienfeld, 2000.
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