I was planning to let Alsace rest for a while, but prompted by the discussion in Nick Pelling’s latest post, I decided to cover in some greater detail why I believe certain images of lobsters in Alsatian manuscripts to be of importance. Beforehand I’ll state once again that I want to demonstrate some link with Alsace, but I leave the nature of this link open. I believe it most likely these VM figures and Alsatian imagery have a common ancestry, while Nick prefers a model where the VM images were copied from an unknown Alsatian calendar or similar document. 

The Alsatian workshops had a specific method for mass-producing images, which resulted in a recognizable, relatively homogeneous style. It’s usually not hard to recognize a manuscript from the “1418 workshop” or Diebold Lauber, especially those made by the so-called “Malergruppe A”. Just do a google image search for Diebold Lauber manuscript and you will know. Hence, it needn’t surprise that some stylistic distance exists between images which were actually made by the workshop and related images produced by someone else.

But now, on to the main course: misshapen lobster in a sauce of mystery

First, some biology

Before we can compare lobster images, we must first learn what a real lobster looks like. Trust me, this will help. It will enable us to spot the transmission of anomalies and copying errors.

Number of legs: Lobsters, crayfish, crabs, shrimp… are all decapods, which means they have ten legs. Even in modern depictions this is often forgotten, as the blog Lobsters Have Ten Legs attests. All legs grow on the abdomen (front part), not the tail.

Modern lobster images often forget a pair of legs.

Out of the ten legs, six bear claws – two large claws in front, followed by two smaller pairs. The four hind legs have no claws. To make matters worse, there are eight swimmerettes on the tail, which look like smaller clawed legs. In smaller species like crayfish and shrimp, these are closer in size to the real legs.

Name: the only easy criteria to tell lobsters and crayfish apart are their habitat and size. Lobsters live in the ocean, while crayfish live in rivers and are significantly smaller. Placed side by side, size may be the only way to tell them apart for the average observer.

Color: both lobsters and crayfish turn a bright red when cooked, which is why in popular culture we often imagine them in this color. However, the live creature can have many different colors, with brownish green being the most common. According to this site, only “around one in ten million lobsters are naturally red before cooking”. The same goes for crayfish, though some American species are naturally red. Red crayfish in Europe are a recent invasive New World species, threatening local varieties.

The VM lobsters/crayfish

JKP has drawn attention to the fact that the VM crustaceans’ legs are on the tail instead of on the abdomen. There are four pairs of legs and one pair of large claws, which would be the correct amount, but they are placed on the wrong part of the body, and not for lack of space. The gap between the front claws and actual legs looks strange once you pay attention to it. All four pairs have little claws, which might be a generalization of the 2-2 division in nature. 

There are four fins at the end of the tail, while in nature the end of the tail would be a fifth lobe. The number of vertical sections on the tail is hard to count but looks surprisingly correct.

The “face” has been drawn with three peaks and, if you remove all extra lines from connections and surrounding glyphs, each critter has two antennae, which is nice.

One lobster is green with brown spots, while the other is reddish brown. Both can be seen as approximating the natural appearance of the creature, though it might be significant that two different colors were chosen. This is in line with the other doubled animals in the sequence, which also have different shades.

The misplacement of the legs on the tail have long been regarded as an error unique to the VM critters, and only recently other examples have been found.

Homard à L’Alsacienne

The status of the VM lobster as the Medieval period’s only leg-tailed crustacean ended in September when I was scouring Diebold Lauber’s manuscripts. In one of his Buch der Natur manuscripts (the one held in Frankfurt, c. 1440), a lobster is pictured with similar anatomical problems. Here shown in between the VM beings:

Compared to an anatomically correct lobster, there are a few additional anomalies; it’s missing a pair of legs and a section of the tail. Also different than the VM, it’s got three “lobes” on the tail, which looks closer to the natural appearance of the animal. Similarly to the VM, all legs have claws.

In later images, Lauber does present lobsters with correctly placed legs. If only we had an earlier one!

Luckily we do, only slightly. There is a Lauber manuscript dated to 1438-1440 which contains a green-red lobster with faulty leg placement.

This – presumably just a bit earlier – lobster has more in common with the green VM creature: four fins instead of three; the same amount of sections in the tail; green with red “shading”. In the VM and the earlier Lauber there is also a separation line between head and body, which is missing from the Buch der Natur version.

After that, Marco Ponzi and Rene Zandbergen found a good amount of additional examples of crayfish with similarly misplaced legs. Have a look at the forum thread here. In my opinion though, many of these examples underline the proximity of the VM drawing to the Alsatian ones.

Rene was kind enough to summarize what Ulrike Spyra wrote about the lobster drawing, and she believes it to have come from an astrological images. If the VM lobsters came from the same source as the human figures, then this source must have been created between 1400 and 1430. I hope with this post I have provided a benchmark for checking any future finds, and perhaps a guideline for further inquiries, since several potentially interesting manuscripts are not available online.

So in short, the next step should be to find out where Lauber got his Lobsters, which is something Lauber specialists themselves don’t know.