The mouse that ransomed her sister

Field mouse from a medieval manuscript - Morgan Library MS M.500 fol. 53v

Although this story isn’t quite about medieval warfare, it’s just too good not to write about it.

It is probably not surprising that chroniclers from the Middle Ages wrote about the exploits of animals - strange tales that could be amusing or offer a morality tale can be found scattered over many cultures.

A recent article by Yehoshua Frenkel of the University of Haifa examined how historians from the Mamluk period described interactions between animals and humans. Among the several anecdotes he recounts is one by the Ibn Sasra, a chronicler from Damascus in the late fourteenth-century:

A man was sitting, spending the night awake on some business of his, and by his side there was a cup. Suddenly two mice appeared from somewhere and came to him repeatedly. When they became too much for him, he took that cup and threw it over one of them. She attempted to escape from under the cup and tried to get out, but could not. The other mouse came to her and went around the cup as if attempting to release her, but could not. When she lost her patience, her strength failed and she knew that no escape remained for her sister; she went to her hiding place and entered it. She came out with a dinar in her mouth, approached and threw it to the owner of the cup, then went to the cup, circling around it. The man left his work, took the dinar and rejoiced over it, and watched her for a while. Then she went to her hiding place, brought another dinar and threw it to him, and went to the cup, circling around it for a while as he was watching amused. He said, to himself: Perhaps she will bring me more. Then she went away, remained absent for a while, and then brought a dinar and threw it to him. She continued doing this until she had brought about twenty dinars. The man abandoned his work to watch how she transported the fold, but he did not release her sister. Then she went away, was absent for a while, and brought an old bag, which she threw to him; whereupon the man knew that she had nothing left. She had treated him fairly, and so he arose, took the cup off her sister, and she took her, went and did not come out thereafter. This is extraordinary.

We will leave it for our readers to decide how much of this story was accurate. However, Frenkel’s research does show that medieval writers were seemingly just as a fascinated with funny animal tales as we are.

The article, “Narratives of Animals in Mamluk Sources,” by Yehoshua Frenkel, appears in Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras VII: Proceedings of the 16th, 17th and 18th International Colloquium Organized at Ghent University in May 2007, 2008 and 2009, edited by U. Vermeulen, K. D’Hulster, and J. Van Steenbergen (Peeters, 2013)

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