Saturday, 23 July 2011

The Jumart ... and Gallica

While browsing around the concept of unlikely hybrids (a spinoff from a Languagehat discussion - see Tityre-tu), I ran into the picture above. This benign-looking creature is technically a monster: the fabled "jumart".

Etymology: < French jumart, formerly jumare, < Provençal gemerre, gemarre, of uncertain origin.
A hybrid animal, erroneously believed to be the offspring of a bull and a mare or she-ass, or of a horse or ass and a cow.
1690 J. Locke Ess. Humane Understanding iii. v. 216 We have Reason to think this not impossible, since Mules, and Gimars [1714 Wks. I. 206 jumarts], the one from the mixture of an Horse, and an Ass, the other from the mixture of a Bull, and a Mare, are so frequent in the World.
- Oxford English Dictionary

Even among unsophisticated peoples, millennia of livestock farming experience ought to have been enough to dismiss the possibility of such a cross. Nevertheless, even in the 19th century, you find occasional reports of the myth persisting, and of attempts to verify its truth. The jumart, like the Indian Rope Trick, had a habit of never appearing when a reliable observer wanted to see it.

If we may credit the testimony of several persons, the ox too has its mules, the reputed offspring of a bull with a mare or she-ass, or of a horse or an ass, with a cow. These have been called jumarts. They say these monstrous productions, and, they add, extremely rare, are chiefly to be found in the burning climes of Egypt and Barbary: yet, during more than three years travelling in the east, I was never able to obtain the sight of such a creature, though I made all possible enquiry for the purpose.
The French settled at Cairo assured me, that a little before my arrival, a jumart was shewn there, said to be the offspring of an ass and a cow. But these popular reports were confirmed by no observation or particularity. I could not even obtain any knowledge of the principal outlines of the sigure of this animal; so that possibly, as well as that described by Shaw, it was nothing more than a particular variety of the ox. Thus, the pretended jumarts of Dauphiny, and the Pyrenees, are nothing but the offspring of the horse and she-ass.
- Charles Sigisbert Sonnini, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, Volume 2, 1799, pages 316-317

Vitality Of Traditions: The Jumart. —The jumart, or hybrid between the bovine and equine race, is still believed in through all the southern countries. There was a reputed jumart at Seidekene, near Smyrna, in Asia Minor, during my stay there, and I heard of another. The jumart came into Smyrna several times, and I had made preparations to get a photograph, but it always escaped me. The description fully conforms to that given in books of natural history of the alleged jumart. This one was said to be the offspring of an ass and a cow; whereas the jumarts recorded in books are said to be the offspring of bulls with mares and she asses. The existence of the jumart is doubted by most naturalists. The alleged jumarts as yet examined have been hinnies.
- Hyde Clarke. Notes and Queries. Dec 21, 1867, page 500.

I initially found the jumart picture at a French image/clipart site, Dessins (Drawings), but it tracks down to plate 199 in Illustrations de Histoire générale des animaux, des végétaux et des minéraux. Partie 1, Les Quadrupèdes de la France, a natural history book published some time in the 1700s with drawings by Jacques de Sève (engraved by  Rousselet, and with text by Buchoz).  The images, in a slightly naive style and in natural and neo-classical settings, are lovely and worth a browse: see The Cat, The Hedgehog, The Garden Dormouse, The Squirrel, The Wild Boar and Boarlets, and so on.

The scans of Illustrations de Histoire générale des animaux... are hosted at the Gallica bibliothèque numérique (Gallica digital library) - an interface to the digitised collections of BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France - the National Library of France). Gallica is a mind-blowing resource that gives free searchable access to, currently, around 1.5 million documents (books, manuscripts, maps, images, periodicals, sound recordings, and scores).  As I have work to do, I've dared only the briefest browse so far; you could get lost in there a long time.

Addendum: While looking for the Locke quotation cited by the OED, I ran into this very nice haiku error message at the University of Sussex Library site:

Server is willing
Alas, the file is crafty
It cannot be found

I did find it elsewhere. Locke had weird ideas about hybridisation; the full paragraph in his 1690 An essay concerning human understanding reads:

...for if History lie not, Women have conceived by Drills; and what real Species, by that measure, such a Production will be in Nature, will be a new Question; and we have Reason to think this not impossible, Mules and Gimars, the one from the mixture of an Ass and a Mare, the other from the mixture of a Bull and a Mare, are so frequent in the World. I once saw a Creature, that was the Issue of a Cat and a Rat, and had the plain Marks of both about it; Marks of both about it; wherein Nature appear 'd to have followed the Pattern of neither sort alone, but to have jumbled them both together.
- see The Works of John Locke, 1722, page 206

- Ray


  1. What a plug ugly chap. I'm not exactly sure what is necessary genetically for two close species to mate. Since 99% of a human's DNA is shared with an ape there are probably some necessary congruence. I think that there must have been some experiments where they annealed various species DNA to see what they come up with. But, anytime anyone starts messing around this kind of thing the Ghost of Mary Shelley starts rattling around. One might be even tempted to clone Jango Fett.

  2. i love the haiku error message!

    I shall treasure it...

  3. “And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
    The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
    Do grow beneath their shoulders.”
    (Othello, Act I Sc.3, 161-163)