A Note on the "Supposition Dragon"



The image here and on the Home Page has a story that goes with it.

In the summer of 1980, I was privileged to be on the teaching staff of the Summer Institute on Medieval Philosophy held at Cornell University under the direction of Norman Kretzmann and the auspices of the Council for Philosophical Studies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. While I was giving a series of lectures on supposition theory, I went to my office one morning, and there under the door some anonymous wag from the Institute had slid the pen and ink drawing you see in the graphic. It represents "Supposition" as a dragon, making a rude face at the viewer. The tail of the dragon is divided — not entirely accurately, as it turns out — into the various branches and subbranches of supposition. If the details are not altogether correct, the spirit is certainly understandable. I have absolutely no idea who the inspired artist was, but I have the original framed on the wall in my office.

Would you like some information on what the inscriptions actually are in the tail of the Supposition Dragon? If so, click here. Please note: Your browser must recognize JavaScript and be able to handle PNG image files in order to view the explanations. (Recent versions of both Internet Explorer and Netscape will work fine.) Press your browser's "Back" button to return to this page.

If you would like a scanned copy of the Supposition Dragon for your very own, suitable for framing in your office too, you can download it on the [Download] page (either GIF or TIFF format). You can also view the full-sized original (Suppgif.gif, 68,241 bytes), in all its detail, before I reduced it to a size suitable for decorating Web pages. You can see, for example, all the labels inscribed in the tail (in palaeographical abbreviations, no less). You won't be able to see the whole thing at once, of course, and will have to scroll around on the screen.

(Note: For a rather similar pen and ink sketch, click here.)

Background lore: I recently found out that the ananymous artist was not altogether as original as I had supposed. While glancing one day — don't ask why — through the charming A Coloring Book of the Middle Ages (San Francisco, Cal.: Bellerophon Books, 1969), I turned a page and was startled to find this very creature leering out at me! The inscriptions in the tail and at the bottom were not there, but otherwise there he was! A note at the top of the page said "From the Treatise of Walter de Milemete, De Nobilitatibus Sapientiis et prudentiis Regum, Oxford, Christ Church Library, MS. E. 11 about 1326–27."

I confess I had never heard of Walter or his book, but of course I couldn't leave it at that. After some detective work in the library, I found a very informative description of the manuscript in Lucy Freeman Sandler, Gothic manuscripts 1285–1385, ("A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles"; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), volume II: Catalogue, pp. 91–93. It turns out that the manuscript is now identified as: Oxford, Christ Church MS 92. Master Walter of Milemete (fl. 1326–73), it seems, was King's Clerk and afterwards Fellow of King's Hall, Cambridge. His book, of this this manuscript is the unique copy, was designed to instruct "the soverign on his varied responsibilities in relation to religion, government, learning, administration, entertainment, financing of armies, and on the moral virtues appropriate to a kind" (Sandler, p. 91). Here is some more of Sandler's discussion (pp. 91–92):

Milemete wrote his book as an offering to Edward III at the end of 1326, after the deposition but before the murder of Edward II in 1327. It was intended as a companion volume to the copy of Pseudo-Aristotle's De secretis secretorum ..., which Milemete had also prepared for Edward III. [Note: Sandler also describes this manuscript in her immediately following entry. It survives as London, British Library MS Add. 476].

An ambitious project, the text ... is dominated by the decorative by the decorative borders, crammed with heraldry, contorted hybrids, ... combats between man and man, man and best, half-man and half-beast, human monstrosities, e.g. the courting wildman and wildwoman ..., the axe-bearing dwarf ..., hunting scenes, and tournaments.

By a stroke of good fortune, it happens that the manuscript was actually published in 1913 in a limited-edition monochrome reproduction by Montague Rhodes. James (well known to all searchers of manuscript catalogues). Here are the particulars: The Treatise of Walter de Mielmete De nobilitatibus, sapientiis, et prudentiis regum Reproduced in Facsimile from the Unique Manuscript Preserved at Christ Church, Oxford, together with a Selection of Pages from the Companion Manuscript of the Treatise De secretis secretorum Aristotelis, Preserved in the Library of the Earl of Leicester at Holkham Hall, [Oxford:] Printed for the Roxburghe Club [at the University Press, by H. Hart], 1913. M. R. James included a long and detailed description in an introduction to the volume.

Apparently this limited edition was distributed only to then members of the Roxburghe Club. There is list of members included in the preliminary matter in the volume, and each member's copy has his name printed in red in that list. It turns out that the Lilly Library at Indiana University (our rare-book library) has the copy produced for a certain Michael Tomkinson, Esq. And, sure enough, there on fol. 31v (p. 62), in the lower left corner, is our grinning monster. It appears in Ch. 7 (De regis gratitudine) of the treatise.

Just to head off potentially awkward questions, I hasten to add that the "supposition dragon" that was slipped under my door is not simply a marked-up xerographic copy of the sketch that appears in A Coloring Book of the Middle Ages. The latter's jaws are slightly open, for instance, so that the upper teeth do not quite meet the lower ones; my dragon has his teeth clenched. No, although my dragon was obviously inspired by the Coloring Book, it was drawn separately. Again, there are veins in the tail of the Coloring Book's sketch, whereas my dragon lacks them (to make room for the writing). Again, neither sketch shows the shadings and the backgroun pattern visible in the Roxburghe Club's printed volume.

A color microfilm of the original manuscript may be purchased from World Microfilms (see also my [Links] page) as part of Reel 2 of their collection "Illuminated Manuscripts at Christ Church Oxford.)

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Last updated May 23, 2004 , by
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A Polish translation of this page may be found at http://www.pkwteile.de/wissen/uwaga-na-przypuszczenie-smoka, courtesy of Andrey Fomin.

A Czech translation may be found at http://www.autoersatzteile.de/blog/poznamka-na-predpokladu-dragon, courtesy of Valeria Aleksandrova.

A Russian translation of this page may be found at http://softdroid.net/obratite-vnimanie-na-predpolozheniya-drakona, courtesy of Vlad Brown.