An Arabian Baboon

I follow quite a number of blogs, including the University of St Andrews Special Collections blog which deals with the rarer early printed books in their collection.

Every year in the run up to Christmas they do a series of Christmas themed posts based on the collection. One year it might be early photographs of winter in St Andrews, another it might be medieval music. This year it’s based around the Yule Days, a versions of the more common 12 days of Christmas, first published in 1847.

The published poem is in English, not Scots, but includes words such as papingo – the early modern Scots word for a parrot, suggesting there might once have been a version in Scots.

However, if there was a Scots original it’s been lost to us.

One of the more striking lines is

Screenshot 2022-12-22 164639

which of course begs the question of how a baboon got to Scotland.

Well, nowadays baboons are not known on the Arabian peninsula, but they are known on the opposite coast in what is now Eritrea and Somaliland, lying on the major medieval spice trading route to and from India and Sri Lanka. (Arab traders would take advantage of the monsoons to sail to and from India via the Horn of Africa or Aden, and then return to sell their spices in Alexandria, where they were sold to Venetian or earlier, Byzantine traders. The Spice Market in Istanbul is still sometimes called the Egyptian Bazaar.)

So, even though baboons are pesky vicious and smelly, it would be possible for a few to have reached Scotland on the back of the trade in spices and eastern exotica, just as cockatoos reached renaissance Italy as curiosities, just as 3000 years earlier, a langur may have reached Knossos.

It’s interesting that studies of baboons mummified by the ancient Egyptians suggest that they were captured in the Horn of Africa region, leading to the suggestion that it was the semi-mythical Land of Punt.

Likewise, there is some evidence that the semi-mythical Ophir referred to in the Bible was also in the same area.

So perhaps John Masefield was more right than he realised, and trading ships, if not exactly quinquiremes of Nineveh carried apes and peacocks back to Palestine …


About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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