Why are there camels carved on this late medieval tomb?

In past posts I’ve written about my fascination with grave markers and the depictions of animals and plants that are sometimes featured, or their dual use as both tombstone and bird bath. It’s part of my broader interest in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, and specifically biodiversity and culture. I’m intrigued by what taxa we choose to use as decoration and symbolism, and conversely those species that are rarely or never a part of the human cultural expression of life on Earth. Graveyards and churches are prime hunting grounds for this sort of enquiry, and I find it difficult to walk past an old cemetery without at least a quick visit.

During our recent Christmas family gathering in Glastonbury Karin and I briefly dropped into St John’s Church and I spotted an intriguing late medieval tomb decorated with what are clearly Bactrian camels.

I have not previously seen camels depicted on a tomb – even the grave of the famed desert explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton can only manage a Bedouin tent. Also, the date of the tomb – 1487 – seemed very early for such an exotic depiction. So I did a little sleuthing on the topic of camels in medieval Britain and came across Dr Caitlin Green’s blog post asking “Were there camels in medieval Britain?“. The answer is yes, and as Dr Green’s research has shown, they were often depicted in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stained glass and other media, at dates even earlier than the late 15th century.

But why are there camels on this particular tomb? The memorial belongs to John Camel and I suspect that the carvings are simply a play on his name – a sculptural pun. John is described as a lay treasurer for Glastonbury Abbey and may also have been involved in legal work, all of which sounds very dry and prosaic. But if it was John himself who commissioned this tomb, or his family that wanted a memorial which reflected his personality, it suggests to me that he certainly had a sense of humour.

“Camel” is a common place-name element in the south west of England: there’s both a river and a hill with that name, and of course King Arthur’s Camelot is reputed to be located here. The etymology of camel in this geographical sense is varied and sometimes obscure, but one thing is certain: it’s nothing to do with the even-toed ungulate mammals of the genus Camelus.

As I was writing this post it occurred to me that Burton’s Sufi-inspired poem The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî includes some fitting lines on which to end:

“All other Life is living Death, a world where none but Phantoms dwell,
A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice, a tinkling of the camel-bell”

5 thoughts on “Why are there camels carved on this late medieval tomb?

  1. spamletblog

    Camulus, as in Colchester, was a Celtic deity, also featured in Stargate SG1, which trawled through all of mythology for the names of its parasitic Goa’uld aliens. Quite fitting to turn up on a sarcophagus (body eater: though used for reviving in the series) in the Mecca of the New Age’s star children! 🙂

    Reply

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