In those heady, far-flung pre-Internet days, there was an annual French publication called Quid that contained every conceivable fact pertaining to mainland France. One fact that always used to catch my eye was the estimated population of mice in the nation. Naturally, it exceeded that of humans but it does beg the question of the use of such a statistic. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived in learning an apparently useless fact and, indeed, one person’s pointless piece of data could prove to be a gem of information to another one. It’s all a question of perspective. I suspect that the inclusion of this annual musine poll had something to do with considering the diminutive animal as vermin. And yet the humble house mouse has been with us for as long as we have lived in houses, though there is a recent theory that the Vikings unwittingly transported them to the British Isles, which had been mouse-free until the marauding pillagers brought havoc, destruction, and quite possibly a species of rodent with them.
Not unlike the rodent, the Vikings ended up seeking stability, a desire that was to have enormous repercussions on the English-speaking world. Thoroughly fed up with successive and incessant Viking incursions into France and the Paris region, the French king offered their leader, Rollo, a prize which turned out to be irresistible: respectability. Rollo was created Duke of Normandy and given the region as his personal possession in 911 in exchange for being the vassal of the French sovereign. Rollo assumed the name of Robert and dropped his Scandinavian roots. His descendant William (seen above in the Bayeux Tapestry, a remarkable piece of artistic propaganda that still awes almost a millennium later), conquered the English throne in 1066 and obsessed with status, as only former bandits made good could be, promptly set about ensuring the stability of his dynasty. The most permanent result of this is the stone buildings that replaced the Anglo-Saxon wooden dwellings. Durham Cathedral (below), which dominates the city in which I spent nine happy years obtaining three degrees, is unquestionably the most striking cathedral in the world, not least of which for its magisterial location on a peninsular.
Yet this magnificent Norman building was seen by many of the local populace during its construction as a symbol of foreign dominance and oppression, for a centuries-old church was razed to the ground to make way for the new edifice, which would be staffed by Norman clergy. The brilliant medievalist Jacques Le Goff states on the very first page of La civilisation de l’Occident médiéval (1961) that the West owes very little to the Romans. The Romans, he argues, were profoundly conservative and did not produce any major invention, not even in warfare. There is an amusing scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian concerning the question of “What have the Romans ever done for us?”. The Romans were masters of appropriation as seen with their wholescale theft of Hellenistic culture. It was the fusion of different societies produced by the Barbarian influx into Europe that produced the artistic achievements of the Middle Ages. The Normans are part of this story.
Back to the mouse! The modest mouse has always had a place in churches, not only literally but also figuratively. The mouse has long been held to be emblematic of the soul, perhaps because it is one of the most tenacious animals known to us. It can adapt to any conditions and somehow seems to survive even the severest and harshest trials that nature can offer. St Gertrude of Nivelles is always pictured with mice, sometimes crawling up her crozier or, as in the sixteenth-century Book of Hours below (which is the Carnegie Museum of Art), crawling around her cell.
The hagiographic legend relates that she was distracted from the outside well by occupying herself with weaving. So caught up was she with this pastime that she lost track of time. Suddenly, when she glimpsed all of the mice running around her monastic confine, she realized that spring had arrived and ventured outdoors to enjoy the garden. She is, thus, the patron saint of gardeners. She is also, by a strange turn of events, in charge of cats. The mouse possesses paradoxical symbolism, as it also is held to symbolize lust, since it is remarkably fertile. Pliny, whose observations range from factual to fantasy, wrote that even embryonic mice could be pregnant. Musophobia, or fear of mice, is one of the most universally experienced phobia, perhaps explaining the negative connotations that the rodent has attracted throughout the ages.
Mice have always been with us and one of my earliest memories is of a mousetrap and being appalled at its barbarity. Despite the fact that are widely considered to be a pest, mice are also reassuring -since they are our constant companions- and they are also very cute creatures. Who can resist their scampering and scavenging behaviour? They have played a significant role in folklore and fairy tales, with my personal favourite being the positively weird Grimm brothers’ tale of The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage, which narrates the domestic bliss of these unlikely bedfellows, until, that is, they decide to swap their roles. A sausage should know its place, after all. On that score, I personally find sausage to be the most ridiculous-sounding word in the English language. How can anyone utter this term without some degree of risibility?
Today’s cufflinks are crafted out of sterling silver by the sought-after Mexican silversmith Silmex, carrying its maker’s mark and bearing the city of Taxco, home to many fine jewellers during most of the twentieth century. The artisanship of the pair is breathtaking, with a three-dimensional mouse in relief, a raised border, and patterned faces. Their surprising subject reminds me of the work of Robert Thompson (1876-1955), a British furniture maker whose products always contain a trademark carved mouse, operating as his quirky signature; as a result the carpenter became known as Mouseman. His work now fetches eye-watering sums at auction, giving a whole new meaning to being poor as a church mouse. Finally, the shape of the animal gave rise to something we use almost without thinking: a computer mouse, now very much removed from its original form that resulted in the association.