sam thomson

Downside Unicorn Hedging

An examination of information asymmetry and the relations between mercantilism, Christian Empire, and Christian Doctrine.


The following paper emerged from an interest in the origins of the Unicorn as a heraldic device, and a theory that narwhal horn was sold by north-European Protestant countries to south-European Catholic countries during the medieval and early modern period, as a counterbalance to Spanish gold from the Americas.  Simultaneously, a trade in rhino horn to the east of Europe appears to capitalise on the importance of the Unicorn mythos to noble Christian households, and in the example of the Cathars, the transmission of knowledge about the Eastern trade appears tied up with a willingness to doubt the orthodoxy of Roman doctrine.

I believe this is an important lesson in understanding how information a-symmetries can work against an imperial power, and how it is in the interest of parties on the periphery of power to construct ignorance within that power as a means of survival.

References are available on request.

Unicorn Origins

Finding an origin for the unicorn mythos is not easy, but it perhaps begins as a case of mistaken identity.  It’s mentioned by both Strabo and Pliny the Younger, and it’s also mentioned in some versions of the Bible.  Some commentators simply take it to be a rendering of the Rhino, or in some cases, an oryx.  However, the difference is often glossed over.  In 1382, when Wycliffe translates the Latin bible into middle-English, he uses the word “Unicorn” a dozen times:

The Lord God ledde hym out of Egipt, whos strengthe is lijk an vnicorn;

– Numbers 23:21-23

When Christian Crusaders left Europe and headed to the fertile crescent to invade and capture Jerusalem around 1100 AD, they probably saw stylistic images of two-horned animals drawn in profile, appearing to have only one horn.  They then brought back to Europe a lot of Greek and Hebrew texts that could barely be translated, and discussed a powerful, one-horned animal (a rhino again), that they may have not seen in the wild, instead synthesising these descriptions with the profile pictures of leaner gazelles and antelope.

It may be enough to say that the myth emerged with tales told by a bunch of religious fanatic soldiers, staring at pictures of goats in the desert, and desperate to work out why they felt so disconnected from the zoological references in their favourite text.  Their over-zealous readings of the material at hand variously connected this elusive creature through a web of allegory that included Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Gabriel, the immaculate conception, the Jesus-Bloodline theory, the crucifixion and salvation, courtly love, chivalry and gender relations.

One notable nexus of these beliefs occurs in the Cathar communities of the Occitanie region of France.  This dissenting sect were heavily influenced by returning soldiers from the Second Crusade, before being labelled as heretics and brutally supressed by the Roman Church.  The 13th Century chronicler, Pier vaux de Chernay, claims that the Cathars were massacred for suggesting that Mary Magdalen and Jesus were lovers, and the Cathars gave Mary much greater credit for spreading the word of God than other Catholics.  Female preachers were accepted within Cathar communities and women could deliver the sacraments.  Nearly 10% of approximately 13,000 watermarks collected in the Languedoc region from bibles and other medieval works such as the Romance of the Rose and the Song of Roland are of unicorns.

How to Spot a Unicorn

The allegorical connection of this animal to Christ was problematically expressed in one of the most widely referenced characteristics of the Unicorn, that also explained why so few Europeans had seen one: they were, wild, elusive, and independent beasts, that generally couldn’t be tamed – except by a virgin.  Once tamed, the unicorn is brought into a kind of hedged-in garden, before a bunch of men jump out with spears and stab it to death.  This allegory was called the Hunt for the Unicorn and it recalled the incarnation of Christ, and his crucifixion.

It is unclear why Christian symbolism has so persistently drawn on animalistic allegory, notwithstanding the simple mnemonic importance it may have had for the often-illiterate European populace, and as a way of uniting the vast array of European cultures that prevailed at the time.  In the conflation of Jesus, the Unicorn, and the virgin, it’s tempting to conflate the immaculate conception with Greek stories of Zeus impregnating mortals in the form of other charismatic animals.  It’s a way of hammering a definitive origin into an infinitely expanding world.

Just as Jesus could heal the sick, the horn of the Unicorn was a universal antidote to poisons.  This helped the regal image of this creature, because poisoning was a method of assassination feared almost exclusively by the wealthy.  Poison was hard to acquire and hard to administer, and the main reason to use it was because the target of the poisoning was influential enough that the assassin wanted to remain anonymous.  Being poisoned was a status symbol, and protecting yourself against poison was the ultimate status symbol.

According to Laurens Catelan in the 17th Century, the Unicorn would naturally dip its horn into water when it drank, absorbing poison from the water that had been secreted by resident serpents.  This action caused the Unicorn great pain, but as the only way to sate the pain was to drink more water, the Unicorn’s corporeal form made benevolence inescapable, and suffering inevitable.  Just as Jesus saved the world from Adam and Eve’s sin, life for the Unicorn was a performance of salvation.

Just as the unicorn’s horn absorbed poison from water, so the unicorn story specifically, and allegory in general, were ways of absorbing the many aspects of pre-Christian mythos that were either too well loved, or too deeply ingrained in language, to simply refute.

The Allegorical Sciences

Popular intellectual life in early-modern Europe aspired to a total allegorical worldview where everything was a reference to the bible, because the bible referenced everything.  This analytic method ran into difficulties when it butted up against philological issues, like the Unicorn’s mistaken identity, that resulted from an over-assurance in the ability of language to retain meaning in transmission and across context.

Although Christian Scholasticism was overtly aware that a text could be interpreted in many different ways, the idea of God as an infallible originator, and the idea of perfect symmetry between the bible and the natural world, made it seem likely that an animal existed, with the capacity to heal the body, as Jesus had healed the soul. The assumptions of Christian doctrine, perhaps influenced by various trades in “medicinal” horn from animals on the peripheries of Europe, led to a very real search for a living Unicorn.  Such was the Church’s spiritual and material investment in the factuality of the Unicorn that, as with anything else in the Bible, it was considered heretical to deny its existence.  Tomas de Torquemada, the First Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, was said to wear a fragment of horn for protection, and to argue that neither the Unicorn, nor God, had to be seen to be believed.

Mercantilism and a Surplus of Evidence

There is a curious and under-examined relationship between the Protestant Reformation and mercantilism, in that the expansion of trade, and the resulting accumulation of Unicorn horn in the reliquaries of Europe, brought into doubt the scarcity and origin of this commodity, and accordingly the reliance of the Church on reliquaries as being a confirmation of faith.   The popular idea that there could only be one true, live unicorn in the world butted up against the great quantities of unicorn relics found across Europe which included:

  • The horn of St. Denis, near Paris
  • Two horns of St. Mark’s in Venice, said to have been taken at the fall of Constantinople in 1204
  • Maréchal de Brissac’s alicorn, held at thirty thousand ducats, also in St Marks
  • A horn at Milan Cathedral
  • The church at Raskeld, which had several
  • Paul’s in London prior to the Dissolution,
  • Westminster Abbey prior to the Dissolution,
  • Pope Julius III, who bought a horn for ninety thousand écus for the Vatican museum
  • The Sultan of Turkey allegedly sent twelve alicorns as a gift to Philip II of Spain, although this story was doubted by Caspar Bartholinus, who could not believe that even the Sultan was rich enough to own twelve horns at a time
  • In about the year 1560 a group of German merchants offered an alicorn for sale in Rome and other Italian cities for ninety thousand scudi, or about £18,000 to the Pope.
  • Queen Elizabeth I had one, probably received as a gift from the explorer, Martin Frobisher, and valued by Hentzner in 1598 at one hundred thousand pounds.
  • Charles V paid off his entire national debt with two, sometime before 1558
  • Grand Duke Francesco Medici’s collection
  • The Duke of Mantua’s collection
  • Ruberto Ricci of Florence’s collection
  • The King of Poland’s collection

Andrea Bacci says that in the second half of the sixteenth century there was not a prince in Italy, to say nothing of those outside of it, who had not at least a piece of the horn in his possession and a pretty standard estimation of the cost of Unicorn Horn was ten times its weight in gold. They were occasionally circulated as a form of grand currency, like gold reserves, so it’s possible that some horns in the list above are in fact the same horn twice at different times, but at the proposed prices, unicorn horn comprised a sizeable chunk of the personal wealth of the European elite.  Aside from the sheer quantity of horn, there was increasing evidence that much of it came from sources other than the animal of prior imagination.

In 1558, Conrad Gesner wrote his Historiae Animalium, an encyclopaedia which includes both a Unicorn and a Narwhal.  However, whilst he plays the Narwhal pretty much straight, his description of the Hunt for the Unicorn suggests a satirical view of the traditional methods of capturing the creature.  Rather than a traditional female virgin, he explains that it is common for a boy to be dressed as a woman and for the boy to Lure the Unicorn to its death.  He was a protestant and the Catholic Church tried unsuccessfully to ban the book.  Rabelais also has his own account of the hunt in Gargantua and Pantagruel – the Unicorn has a floppy, flaccid horn, at least until the virgin arrives in the scene.

Catholicism fought its own side for a while, and in 1555, Olaf Magnussun, a Swedish Bishop who had been living as an exile in Venice since Sweden became Protestant, published his “History of the Northern Peoples” in Rome.  The work included another account of the Narwhal, and although I’ve not managed to track this work down, it’s likely that it would have been framed as proof, rather than refutation, of the Unicorn, by invoking the widely held belief that every animal on land had a symmetric doppelganger at sea.

Magnussun was conspicuously present at the Council of Trent, a series of meetings set up by the Catholic Church between 1545 and 1563 to discuss how best to respond to the fracturing of the Christian community into a number of dissenting groups, due in part to Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis in 1517.  The event was in many ways a re-assertion of Catholic Doctrine, for example, the belief in trans-substantiation.  However, some forms of modernisation did take place, and the Unicorn was a casualty.

The last session of the Council of Trent eventually passed a loose, compromising decree against superstitious or unseemly images, also ensuring that bishops would have the authority to suppress anything that was considered confusing, unusual, or tending to excite lascivious thoughts.  It might be possible to see this as pre-emptive legislation, with plenty of wriggle-room, but Unicorns in particular were becoming a source of embarrassment for the Church.  Magnusson wasn’t the only person to write about Narwhals during the Council of Trent and it no longer seemed safe to compare Jesus to an animal, whose existence was so often doubted.  Following the council, the Church jettisoned much of its horn, the famous Parisian Horn of St Dennis passing into the hands of the French King, for example.

And without Church backing, the price of Unicorn Horn appears to decline terminally.  In 1588, a horn picked up on the coast of Wales was sold for an unspecified sum, and the prevailing source of the best horn in the North Sea was becoming hard to ignore.  About 100 years after the Council of Trent, there was such a surplus that the King of Denmark could construct a throne from his spare stock, which can still be seen today.  The Unicorn was still carried on symbolically by Humanists as a symbol of the Mind, because it couldn’t be chained, and with the narwhal looming in Scottish minds, of doubt.