What is the meaning behind the dog-man conjoined twins in the Nuremberg Chronicle?

Keywords: Monstrous Births, Portents, Papacy, Muslim Turks, Crusades

Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) described a monstrous birth that was born with a face of a dog on their back. The artist interpreted this description based on conjoined twins as the birth was portrayed with two heads, one human and one canine, and a shared body. As the chronicle included the portrayal of a cynocephalus in the similar vein, it was most likely a construction based upon foreign otherness. Like the cynocephalus, the canine head resembles a wolf with its pointed ears and long snout, yet the text maintains that it represents a dog.[i]  If not for the written context and long flowing robes and shoes that the hybrid ‘creature’ wears, the depiction of this monstrous birth could have been construed as a monstrous race. While the monstrous birth was described as having been born in the twelfth century, its representation appears to be original to the Nuremberg Chronicle.

In small, framed woodcuts on the same page were symbols of unrest that occurred during the year of 1128 in Europe, along with the monstrous birth, thereby emphasising the hybrids birth’s role as a portent. These include stars falling in the sky, blood rain, and the moon turning blood red. Other momentous events that were included in the text, but were not illustrated, included a pig born with a human face and an earthquake occurring in Italy for forty days. With the monstrous birth dressed in clerical robes and the earthquake in Italy, such ‘acts of God’ appear to have been contextualised within the questionable actions of the Church.

Hartmann Schedel, Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten. Tr: Georg Alt, Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493, fol. CXCVIII,
German edition
Munich, BSB
ID: Is00309000

The account of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who was ordered to preach the Second Crusade by Pope Eugene III (d.1153), was retold on the same page just above the multiple accounts of portents. The French abbot was illustrated at the top of the same page as a Bishop, which was likely due to the chronicles frequent re-use of woodcuts to portray multiple figures.[ii] During this period, Bernard stayed in his cell to study theology in his monastery, while most of the men he sent to fight died at the hands of the Muslim Ottoman Turks. In response, Bernard was accused of being a false prophet and in retaliation declared that the army was ‘composed of such a vile, insubordinate, irreligious crew, that they did not deserve divine protection.’[iii]

The canine motif appears linked to the textual description at the top of the page that stated when Clairvaux’s mother was pregnant with him, she saw a white dog with red on its back and took it as a sign that a slanderous attack would occur against her son and the Church.[iv] The story of Bernard with the subsequent accounts of natural disasters was not directly linked in the text. However, by following the account of the deaths at the hands of the clergy with acts of natural disasters, the intention of the author becomes clear. The natural disasters were a sign of the unscrupulous nature of the Church, which was underscored by the print of the monstrous birth in monkish robes. The description and woodcuts illustrating blood rain on the same page symbolised the shedding of blood.[v] As described in the Nuremberg Chronicle, the Crusaders went to war with the Muslim Turks and could, therefore, symbolise the destruction of the Christian crusaders at the hands of the dog-headed Turks.

The connection with dog-heads and Muslims has been illustrated in representations of the dog-headed cynocephali. Debra Higgs Strickland compellingly argued that dog-headed cynocephali were used to represent Muslim Ottoman Turks in her study of iconography in medieval illuminated manuscripts.[vi] John Block Friedman also argued that the cynocephali depicted in scenes of the Pentecost (the gathering of nations in Jerusalem) were representative of Muslims.[vii] As Muslims considered dogs impure, they had long been characterised by the canine motif. Muslims were often regarded in early Christian writing as ‘a race of dogs’. Eulogius of Cordoba (c. 810-859), for instance, linked dogs with the prophet Mohammad.[viii] Muslims also transformed into dogs in literature in the Middle Ages. Muslims in the French poem, The Song of Roman (c.1140-1170),yelped like dogs as well as the dog-headed Muslim army in Kyng Alisunder (c.1275). They were also described as enemies in the English version of Richard Cœr de Lion as ‘heathen hounds’.[ix] The Muslim ruler, Saladin (1138-1193), is depicted with the head of a dog in Alexander of Bremen’s (d. 1271) thirteenth-century illuminated Expositio in Apocalypsim (‘Exposition of the Apocalypse’) from Saxony.[x] In another image in the same source, Muhammad is represented as a dog standing on his hind legs next to the Devil.[xi]

Alexander, Expositio in Apocalypsim. Saxony, c.1249-1250,
University of Cambridge, MS Mm.V.31, fol. 85, University of Cambridge Digital Library. 

The small print of the dog-human conjoined twins made an impression as it was reproduced in Konrad Lykosthenes’ wonder book twice. However, the print was taken out of its original context and reproduced to illustrate separate and unrelated apocalyptic signs. Lykosthenes further appeared to have reproduced the conjoined twins as young children in the Latin edition. In this woodcut, the dog-head had been portrayed as a fully-formed dog as stated in the written description. The conjoined twins were again re-contextualised, thereby re-using the iconography to serve as an apocalyptic warning for all occasions.

Konrad Lykosthenes, Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon quae praetor naturae ordinem, motum, et operationem, et in superioribus & his inferioribus mundi regionibus, ab exordio mundi usque ad haec nostra tempora, acciderunt, Basil: Henricus Petri, 1557, fol. 405, 666.

[i] ‘A woman bore a monster, double-bodied, having a human face in front, and the face of a dog in back.’ (‘Ain weib gepare ein wuder gestalt zwifachs leibs. Vornen eins menschen vnnd hindten ein hundes’). Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum, 1493. Trans. by Walter W. Schmauch. Morse Library, Beloit College, 2010, folio CXCVIII recto. Trans. by Walter W. Schmauch. http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nur;cc=nur;view=text;idno=nur.001.0004;rgn=div2;node=nur.001.0004%3A8.219, accessed 03 October 2021.

[ii] S. H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2017, p. 114. For the 596 portraits, only 72 woodblocks were used, therefore woodblocks were re-used with different captions.

[iii] Schedel, 1493, folio CXCVIII recto, http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nur;cc=nur;view=text;idno=nur.001.0004;rgn=div2;node=nur.001.0004%3A8.21,

[iv] Schedel, 1493, folio CXCVIII recto, http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nur;cc=nur;view=text;idno=nur.001.0004;rgn=div2;node=nur.001.0004%3A8.219,

[v] Robin Bruce Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988, p. 88.

[vi] See, Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003; Debra Hassig, ‘The Iconography of Rejection: Jews and Other Monstrous Races,’ in Colum Hourihane (ed.), Image and Belief: Studies in Celebration of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[vii] John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 62-69.

[viii] Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews, 2003, pp.159-16.

[ix] Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews, 2003, p.160.

[x] See for example, ‘The Beast and his image as Saladin and Muhammed’ (Alexander, Expositio in Apocalypsim, Saxony, c.1249-1250, Cambridge University Library, MS Mm. V. 31, fol. 185v), illustrated in Strickland, 2003, p. 223. University of Cambridge Digital Library http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-MM-00005-00031/374 accessed 3 October 2021.

[xi] See for example, ‘The Beast of the Earth, his image, and Henchmen’ (Alexander, Expositio in Apocalypsim. Saxony, c.1249-1250, University of Cambridge, MS Mm.V.31, fol. 85), illustrated in Saracens, Demons, & Jews, 2003, p. 224. University of Cambridge Digital Library.  http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-MM-00005-00031/173 accessed 3 October 2021.

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