Heroes and Marvels of the Middle Ages: Unicorns and other creatures
Jacques Le Goff explores wonders and oddities that caught the imagination in the past
The unicorn could only by captured and tamed by a chaste young girl.
If you are a parent of an eight-year-old girl you are likely to meet unicorns on a daily basis. Multicoloured unicorns with rainbow-hued manes and tails on T-shirts and pyjamas and drawings stuck on the fridge. Your daughter will write stories about unicorns and even have one as pet in some virtual technological world she inhabits with her friends. And when you ask what’s so great about unicorns you’ll be told, “Well, they’re magic!” But you still won’t get it.
To begin to understand, you need to go straight to the unicorn chapter of this first English translation of Heroes and Marvels of the Middle Ages by the French medievalist Jacques le Goff (1924-2014). The existence of the unicorn has been attested since classical times, including in Pliny’s De Rerum Natura, but the key text, Goff tells us, is a Gnostic treatise written in Greek in Alexandria between the second and fourth centuries AD, and soon translated into Latin, called the Physiologus: