The University of Western Australia
The ubiquity of apes in the margins of Gothic devotional prayer books, often doing deeds that would seem blasphemous to our modern sensibilities, has long caused confusion amongst scholars. Such images may be seen in The Macclesfield Psalter, a lavishly illuminated fourteenth-century manuscript, which was brought by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2004. Apes appear throughout the manuscript several times, carrying out actions that are typically ‘human’, albeit in a humorous, often profane way. In this article I suggest that the recurrent apes in The Macclesfield Psalter may represent the vices inherent in post-Edenic mankind. First, I will discuss ape-lore more broadly, focusing on the recognised similarities between apes and men. Secondly, I will undertake a close analysis of a selection of images from The Macclesfield Psalter, where apes are portraying vices such as greed and lust: characteristics associated directly with the Original Sin. I argue that while the ape is indeed a polyvalent figure, its most popularly regarded attribute was its capacity for impersonation (or ‘aping’), manifested in its close physical resemblance to Fallen man.