Live unicorn discovered in Italy!

A living unicorn has been discovered in the Tuscany region of Italy – that is, if you define “unicorn” as a beast with a single horn.

Unicorn deer

Italian unicorn deer.

ROME – A deer with a single horn in the center of its head — much like the fabled, mythical unicorn — has been spotted in a nature preserve in Italy, park officials said Wednesday. The 1-year-old Roe Deer — nicknamed “Unicorn” — was born in captivity in the research center’s park in the Tuscan town of Prato, near Florence, Tozzi said. He is believed to have been born with a genetic flaw; his twin has two horns. Single-horned deer are rare but not unheard of — but even more unusual is the central positioning of the horn, experts said. “Generally, the horn is on one side (of the head) rather than being at the center. This looks like a complex case,” said Fulvio Fraticelli, scientific director of Rome’s zoo. He said the position of the horn could also be the result of a trauma early in the animal’s life. (MSN-AP, June 11, 2008)

Apparently the mother deer was injured by a car while pregnant with the twins, possibly causing the horn to be shifted to the middle of the head. The deer may not be a “unicorn” for long; it will soon shed its horn, as deer generally do, and it is not certain that the single horn will regrow as it is. A good video of the deer in the Tuscany park can be seen, with useful commentary, on the Discovery Chanel web site.

Unicorn goat

Otter G’Zel and Lancelot, the unicorn goat.

Other unicorn animals have been created, notably the unicorn goat produced by Morning Glory and her husband Otter G’Zell, in the 1980s. The exact technique was not revealed, but it most likely involved surgically removing one horn bud and moving the other to the center of the head, while the animal was very young. This may be what happened accidentally to the Italian deer.

In the early 1900s several Nepalese one-horned sheep were given to the Prince of Wales and exhibited at the London Zoological Gardens in 1906. It is thought that these were also surgically manipulated in an effort to make them more valuable.

In the 1930s, Dr. W. F. Dove of Maine University did unicorn experiments with a bull. According to The Unicorn Garden:

Unicorn bull

Dr. Dove’s unicorn bull.

In 1933 Dove took a day-old Ayrshire calf, surgically removed its horn buds, trimmed them to fit together and replanted them in the centre of its forehead. As the young bull grew, the buds fused and produced a single solid, straight and pointed horn a foot or so in length which proved equally useful for fighting and uprooting fences, far superior in fact to the usual brace of curved ones when it comes to confronting a rival. Dr Dove’s Unicorn bull became the leader of its herd and was very rarely challenged by other males. Which is not altogether surprising if you think about it. When bulls charge each other the main aim (as with male deer) is to crack skulls until one or other can take no more. Charging towards an enemy who has a spike aimed right between your eyes is a different game altogether. So effective was the single horn that one almost wonders why evolution did not do Dr Dove’s work for him. An interesting side effect of the experiment was the nature of the bull’s temperament. Being secure in his strength led him to become unusually gentle and mild mannered, echoing what has so often been said of the true Unicorn’s nature.

Dr Dove published the results of his experiment in an article titled “The Physiology of Horn Growth” in the Journal of Experimental Zoology (Jan 1935, Vol 69, No 3); and another “Artificial Production of the Fabulous Unicorn” in Scientific Monthly (May 1936, Volume 42; pages 431-436).

So perhaps we can add to the more commonly assumed sources of the unicorn legend – the rhinocerus and the narwhal – this sort of natural or artificial “unicorn”, ordinary horned beasts that sometimes, by accident or by design, produce only a single horn.

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The wall of beasts

Imagine you are standing in front of a wall. If you look to your left or right, you can see that the wall stretches out far into the hazy distance. On the wall are arranged a series of pictures, all of bestiary beasts. If you move closer, you can see more detail, and a note appears below the picture to explain what you are seeing. You can walk along the wall in either direction, and as you do, more pictures come into view. You can stroll along looking at the beasts, stopping to examine one here and there.

Sound like fun? Well, now you can do it! Virtually, anyway. The Medieval Bestiary is now Cooliris enabled, giving you the wall of beasts.

Cooliris? What’s Cooliris, you ask plaintively. Cooliris is a browser extension that lets you browse a set of images displayed on the virtual wall of beasts described above. The extension is free, easy to install, and safe. It is available for Windows and Mac (sorry, penguinites, no Linux version yet), and for the more common browsers (Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari). Of course the highly intelligent readers of this blog only use Firefox, but if you are forced by unfortunate circumstances to use the inferior Internet Explorer, it will still work.

The bonnacon does not like Internet Explorer!

The bonnacon has asked me to allow him at this point to express his opinion of Internet Explorer. The opinion expressed is that of the bonnacon, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Beastmaster, though it almost certainly does.

Get Firefox

Anyway, the Firefox logo shows a fox with its tail on fire, which is something that could readily happen to Reynard, and thus Firefox is the right browser for this site. QED.

Back to Cooliris. You can download and install it from the Cooliris site; instructions are here. Once you have it installed (mere seconds for blissful Firefox users, longer for sad Internet Explorer users), you can go to the Beasts index page (the only page Cooliris enabled so far), then click the Cooliris icon in your browser’s toolbar or click the Cooliris icon near the bottom of the page. The wall of beasts will appear;  the pictures are in alphabetical order by beast name, from Amphisbaena to Yale. You can “walk” along the wall by dragging the slider at the bottom of the page. When you see a beast you would like more information about, click the picture to zoom in and see the notes; you can also click the “Jump to page” icon near the bottom of the screen to zip to the main page for that beast.

More pages will be Cooliris enabled in the future. Problems? Tell the Beastmaster!

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Magical Beastie Bits! (Part 1)

A surprising number of medieval animals were thought to have a magical body part, or to have a magical object embedded in them, or to be able to produce a magical object. These magical beastie bits were, of course, much sought after, and often doomed the beastie that had them. In this ?-part series, we will examine some of these magical thingies.

Asp and carbuncle
Asp eying a large carbuncle, which
clearly did not come out of its head.
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16.

Asp (or adder): The asp, aka adder, was said to have a blood-red, glowing stone in its head, called the carbuncle. “Carbuncle” means something like “little glowing coal”; it may have been the garnet or almandine. Exactly what the carbuncle was used for is not stated, but that its use was magical is implied by who is said to seek it: conjurers or enchanters. Magicians, in other words. According to some accounts, the carbuncle was said to be in the dragon’s head — there was general confusion between dragons and other serpents — and that it had to be taken from a live dragon, since it would turn to dust if the dragon/asp stopped breathing. Taking a stone from the head of a live, breathing dragon — or a venomous asp, for that matter — would have been a bit impractical, so the beast had to be put to sleep. For the dragon, this was done by burning drugged grass outside the dragon’s den; for the asp, the enchanter would sing or recite a spell in the asp’s hearing. The asp knew full well what those tricky magicians were after and how they meant to get it, so it would press one ear to the ground and plug the other one with its tail to avoid falling under the spell and losing its carbuncle. A good strategy for a beastie with no thumbs to stuff in its ears.

Eagle and geode
Imperious eagle with a geode.
Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º.

Eagle: Some kinds of eagles have a stone called the eagle-stone (aëtites or gagites) built into their nests; this stone can survive fire without loss of virtue, and is useful in many cures. The stone is large and has another stone inside it, which can be heard to rattle when shaken. It may be the geode, which is hollow and can have loose rattly things in it. Says CW King in The Natural History of Precious Stones and Gems (1865): “The best kind were asserted to be only found in the nests of eagles, which could not breed without their aid; hence their name. They, for this reason, were of the greatest benefit to women in labour; a notion which even Dioscorides appears to endorse. The substance itself … was one of those calcareous hollow concretions, sometimes white, sometimes tinged with iron, well known to geologists; and which appear to be accidental for­mations, not petrifactions of older organised bodies.” The eagle-stone was called the pregnant stone, because of the second stone inside it, and was said to promote successful birth. The stone is also useful, according to Dioscorides, in detecting thieves: bread is made containing the stone, or sprinkled with powder made from the stone, and suspected thieves are made to eat the bread; the guilty one will be unable to swallow even a mouthful.

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Why kill the unicorn?

Unicorn and maiden
British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 10v.

So, you want to catch a unicorn. As we all know, the unicorn is a swift and fierce beast, not to be caught by ordinary means. But there is a way: find a pure and virgin girl, sit her down in unicorn habitat, hide in the bushes clutching your spear, and wait. A unicorn will come along, and charmed by the girl’s purity, will lie down with its head in her lap. Once the unicorn is nicely settled in and comfy, you leap out of the bushes and slaughter the beast.

No wonder there are so few unicorns left in the wild.

But why kill the unicorn? Wouldn’t a live unicorn give you more bragging rights than a bloody corpse? Yet in the majority of maiden-and-unicorn illustrations in medieval manuscripts, the unicorn is being killed.

It is killed with spears, it is killed with swords…

Unicorn killed with sword
Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 4v

…it is killed with arrows…

Unicorn killed with arrow
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 78 D 40, Folio 149v

…it is even killed with swords and spears and with an ax in reserve just in case…

Unicorn killed with spear, sword, ax
British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 6v

There’s got to be a reason for all this mayhem.

One possibility is the value of the unicorn’s horn. Dipped in the king’s cup of wine it would reveal the presence of poison placed there by the dastardly duke; if the king was poisoned anyway, he could be cured with the horn. Powdered horn was also known to be a powerful aphrodisiac, as rhinoceros horn is now. Useful thing, a unicorn horn, and difficult to get from a live beast, so it has to be slaughtered.

Narwhal tusk

<digression>Unicorn horns are also very beautiful. I saw and handled one once: a fellow student brought it to a Medieval Cosmology class and passed it around. Her grandfather or great-grandfather had acquired it somewhere, years before, and passed it down the generations. It was about as long as my arm, a rich ivory color, smooth and heavy, and spiraled to a sharp tip. Of course it wasn’t a “real” unicorn’s horn, though it would certainly have fooled a medieval king. It was a narwhal (Monodon monoceros) horn, which is not really a horn, but a very long tooth.

Narwhal in arctic ice
Swarming into an ice hole, males wield their tusks with care.
Photo by Paul Nicklen, from National Geographic.

How, you may be wondering, did the narwhal become confused with the unicorn? Perhaps it was like this:

Land-Narwhal from the Warehouse Comic
The Land-Narwhal, ©2008 Carl Huber at the Warehouse Comic.

“So prized was the fabled tooth of the unicorn that Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century paid 10,000 pounds for one, equivalent to the cost of an entire castle”, says Beautiful. I wanted the one I saw; I can’t image a queen or king being able to resist.</digression>

Narwhal tusk

While a medieval hunter-of-unicorns might find it expedient to kill the beast for its horn, this does not really explain the type and level of violence shown in the illustrations, and it definitely does not explain why the unicorn killers in many illustrations are soldiers. There is more going on here. The basic symbolism of the unicorn is clearly stated in the bestiary: it says that the unicorn represents Christ, who descended to the womb of the virgin Mary, was captured by the Jews, and was crucified. The unicorn’s swiftness and fierceness indicates Christ’s power, that none could take him by force, but only by his willing surrender. While some bestiary versions say the unicorn is captured and taken to the king’s palace, others don’t say what happens to it; the killing of the unicorn is only hinted at through the reference to crucification. That hint seems to have been enough for the illustrators: the unicorn is Christ, so must die violently as Christ died violently, at the hands of the Jews (depicted as civilians) and/or the Romans (depicted as soldiers).

And what are we to make of the maiden’s betrayal of the trusting unicorn? Well, we can’t be sure she was in on the trick; maybe she didn’t know the true intent of the hunters. In some illustrations, the maiden seems upset at the killing:

Unicorn killed with spear
Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 5v

“Hey!”, she says, “why you kill my unicorn?” and gives the startled hunter-of-unicorns a slap with her big left hand.

So, fair maidens, if they lead you off to the unicorn forest, watch out for guys with spears in the bushes; only you can prevent unicorn killing.

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The Fabulous Natural History of the Middle Ages

There is a new text available in the Digital Text Library: “The Fabulous Natural History of the Middle Ages” by Thomas Wright. This text was originally published as a chapter in The Archaeological Album; or, Museum of National Antiquities (pages 174-186), London: Chapman & Hall, 1845. The complete book is available on Google Books.

This short article is a general introduction to natural history in the Middle Ages. It is of interest as an early example of the nineteenth-century scholarship on animals in the Middle Ages; it also has useful information on the unicorn, elephant and mandrake, as well as some images from manuscripts.

Fifteenth-century elephant
British Library, MS. Reg. 15 E. VI.

Thomas Wright was an English antiquarian and writer. He was born in 1810 near Ludlow, in Shropshire. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1834. In 1835 he came to London to begin a literary career. Over the next forty years Wright produced an extensive series of scholarly publications. He helped to found the British Archaeological Association and the Percy, Camden and Shakespeare societies. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (F. S. A.) as well as a member of many other learned British and foreign bodies. He died in 1877 at Chelsea, at the age of 67.

Another text edited by Wright is available in the Digital Text Library: The Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon, a transcription and translation of an Anglo-Norman bestiary of the twelfth century.

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Jacob and the Mandrakes

A new text is available in the Digital Text Library: Jacob and the Mandrakes by James George Frazer, originally a paper read to and published by the British Academy in 1917. Frazer was a social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion, and is most famous for his book The Golden Bough (1880). Jacob and the Mandrakes is a wide-ranging study of the mandrake legend over the last 2000 years in areas as diverse as Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. Frazer discusses the origins of the legend, as well as the purported uses of this plant and the mythology that it has inspired. Any quotes given below that are not otherwise attributed are from Frazer’s paper.

Mandrake root
Mandrake root

The mandrake is, of course, a real plant, found around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in China. To quote Wikipedia:

Mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora belonging to the nightshades family (Solanaceae). Because mandrake contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids such as hyoscyamine and the roots sometimes contain bifurcations causing them to resemble human figures, their roots have long been used in magic rituals, today also in neopagan religions such as Wicca and Germanic revivalism religions such as Odinism. … The mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, is a plant called by the Arabs luffâh, or beid el-jinn (“djinn’s eggs”). The parsley-shaped root is often branched. This root gives off at the surface of the ground a rosette of ovate-oblong to ovate, wrinkled, crisp, sinuate-dentate to entire leaves, 6 to 16 inches long, somewhat resembling those of the tobacco-plant. There spring from the neck a number of one-flowered nodding peduncles, bearing whitish-green flowers, nearly 2 inches broad, which produce globular, succulent, orange to red berries, resembling small tomatoes, which ripen in late spring. All parts of the mandrake plant are poisonous. The plant grows natively in southern and central Europe and in lands around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as on Corsica.

The “Jacob” of the title is a character from the Judeo-Christian biblical book of Genesis, the son of Abraham Isaac, husband of Leah and Rachel. Leah’s son Reuben finds a mandrake plant during the wheat harvest and brings it home to his mother. Second wife Rachel, then childless, wants the mandrake because it is thought to aid conception; Leah trades an extra night with Jacob for the plant. Rachel eats the mandrake berries and soon conceives a child with Jacob.

While aiding conception is the mandrake’s best known use, it had several other uses. If the plant is given a coin, the next day it will return two coins, thus making the owner rich, though “you must not overwork [the mandrake], otherwise he will grow stale and might even die.” The berries of the plant were used as a soporific and narcotic; the ancient Greeks and the medieval Arabs used them as an anesthetic during surgery. Some figures made from the root of the plant were said to be “infallible love-charms, others make the wearer invulnerable or invisible; but almost all have this in common that they reveal treasures hidden under the earth, and that they can relieve their owner of chronic illness by absorbing it into themselves.”

The source of the mandrake plant had its own rather gruesome mythology. In Germany the plant was called the “Little Gallows Man”, and it was said

that when a hereditary thief, born of a family of thieves, or one whose mother stole while he was in her womb, is hanged on a gallows, and his seed or urine falls on the ground, the mandrake or Little Gallows Man sprouts on the spot. Others, however, say that the human progenitor of the plant must be, not a thief, but an innocent and chaste youth who has been forced by torture falsely to declare himself a thief and has consequently ended his days on a gallows. Be that as it may, the one thing about which all are agreed is that the Little Gallows Man grows under the gallows tree from the bodily droppings of a hanged man.

Dogs uprooting mandrakes
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 14969, f. 61v
Uprooting a mandrake is a dangerous task, as seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, where the students take special precautions when transplanting mandrakes. The mandrake resents being pulled from the ground, and its screams are deadly, killing anyone nearby. To safely get the mandrake, you must dig all around it with a sword until it is attached to the ground by only a few small roots. Then you tie a dog which has been starved for several days to the root, and offer food to the dog from a distance; the dog, in rushing to get the food, will pull the mandrake root out of the ground. Once the root is out of the ground it is harmless and you can collected safely. It is not recommended that you use the family pet for this task, since the dog is killed by the screams of the angry mandrake. The dog, having nobly sacrificed itself so you can get the mandrake, is to be buried with honors in the place where the mandrake was. Then

all you have now to do is to pick up the plant, wash it clean in red wine, wrap it in white and red silk, and lay it in a casket. But you must not forget to bathe it every Friday and to give it a new white shirt every new moon. If you only observe these precautions, the mandrake will answer any question you like to put to it concerning all future and secret matters. Henceforth you will have no enemies, you can never be poor, and if you had no children before, you will have your quiver full of them afterwards.

It is said that if you forget to give the mandrakes their weekly bath, they would “scream like children till they got it.”

The human form of the mandrake root was particularly attractive, and since the natural root is only vaguely humanoid, some enhancement was needed:

To this day there are ‘artists’ in the East who make a business of carving genuine roots of mandrakes in human form and putting them on the market, where they are purchased for the sake of the marvellous properties which popular superstition attributes to them. Antioch in Syria and Mersina in Cilicia particularly excel in the fabrication of these curious talismans. Sometimes the desired form is imparted simply by cutting and pressing the roots while they are still fresh and juicy, or while they are in process of desiccation. But sometimes, when a root has been thus moulded into the proper shape, it is buried again in the ground, until the scars on it have healed, and the parts which had been tied together have coalesced. When such an effigy is finally unearthed and allowed to dry and shrivel up, the traces of the manipulation which it has undergone are often hard to detect. A skilful ‘artist’ will in this way turn out mandrake roots which look so natural that no native would dream of questioning their genuineness.

So watch where you get your mandrake roots, don’t sacrifice the family pet, and remember the weekly bath!

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Medieval animals called “weird”!

A comparison of defense mechanisms
A difference in defensive strategies:
bonnacon (top), beaver (bottom, not recommended)

Jennifer Lynn Jordan, author of the blog Per Omnia Saecula, says our beloved medieval animals are weird — at least on Mondays. The bonnacon would like to inform Ms. Jordan that he is not especially weird on Mondays, though he admits he is inclined to be grumpy and to have particularly poor sphincter control on that day. He does think that the ant-lion is rather weird, but ascribes that to an unfortunate choice of parents; and the beaver’s response to danger he finds altogether inappropriate, noting that a vastly superior defense was perfected by his [the bonnacon's] ancestors long since, one not so likely to lead to the extinction of the species.

Ms. Jordan has been commenting on “weird” medieval animals in the Weird Medieval Animal Mondays (or WMAM) section of her blog for some time now. The comments are witty yet often insightful, and since Ms. Jordan so kindly refers to the Beastmaster’s own The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages site, he [that is, David Badke, aka the Beastmaster] and the bonnacon are inclined to forgive the slightly pejorative term “weird” and recommend Per Omnia Saecula to readers of this blog.

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Badke’s Bestiary

I was doing a vanity search on Google for “badke” and “bestiary”, just to see who was linking to my site, when I was surprised to see a reference to “Badke’s bestiary”. While I do write about the bestiary, I don’t recall ever having written one myself. Yet there it was, on the Temeraire website:

“It is a dragon egg, then?” Laurence said. It required an effort to restrain the triumph in his voice.

“Oh yes indeed, Captain, the size alone shows that.” Mr. Pollitt had wiped his hands on his apron and was already brushing more straw away from the top, trying to see the extent. “My, it is quite hardened already; I wonder what they can have been thinking, so far from land.”

This did not sound very promising. “Hardened?” Laurence said sharply. “What does that mean?”

“Why, that it will hatch soon. I will have to consult my books to be certain, but I believe that Badke’s Bestiary states with authority that when the shell has fully hardened, hatching will occur within a week. What a splendid specimen, I must get my measuring cords.”

His Majesty's DragonThis excerpt is from His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, part of the Temeraire series, a historical fantasy series set in the Napoleonic era. The storyline is like the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian of the British Navy vs. Napoleon, crossed with the Dragonriders of Pern series of novels by Anne McCaffrey. This is a well-written series of novels with a clever and interesting use of dragon lore, along with more-or-less accurate historical details; imagine the Napoleonic wars with both sides having an air force consisting of various breeds of large, intelligent, speaking dragons ridden by crews of men and women. An entertaining series; if you like dragons and O’Brian novels, you will like these.

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Elephant vs. mouse

Elephants afraid of miceThe idea that elephants are afraid of mice has been around for a long time, and persists today. Pliny (first century CE) says that elephants “hate mice and will refuse to eat fodder that has been touched by one.” Eustathius (fifth century CE) says “one is not so greatly amazed at the vast size of the elephant as at the mouse which is such an object of fear to the elephant.” The idea was repeated by Isidore of Seville (seventh century CE) and in later bestiaries. Disney brought the idea to modern audiences, and the image of an elephant terrified of a mouse has been a staple of cartoons ever since.

In the scientific age this idea is laughed at. Why would an elephant fear a mouse? One thoroughly discredited explanation is that the elephant is afraid the mouse will crawl into its trunk; another more plausible explanation is that elephants instinctively react to movements they can’t clearly see or sounds they can’t locate, as of a mouse scurrying around underfoot. It seems that domesticated elephants have no interest in mice (based on an experiment done at a Barnum and Baily circus), but what about wild elephants?

The TV show Mythbusters set out to test the idea. In a wildlife reserve in Africa, where the elephants are somewhat used to seeing humans but are not domesticated, the Mythbusters team hollowed out a ball of elephant dung, put a white mouse under it, and rigged a string that would cause the ball to tip over, freeing the mouse. This rig was placed on a path the elephants often traveled. When an elephant approached, the ball was tipped, the mouse came out, and to everyone’s surprise the elephant stopped abruptly, backed up, and made a wide circle around the mouse. The experiment was repeated without the mouse to see if it was the movement of the dung ball that spooked the elephant; the elephant ignored the ball completely. The experiment (with mouse) was tried again with a different elephant, and it also saw and avoided the mouse. At no time did the elephants show real fear of the mouse, but they definitely and clearly avoided the mice by a wide margin.

Another (longer) version of the video shows the experiment in more detail, and there is also a video of the Mythbusters guys discussing the event.

So are elephants actually afraid of mice? Perhaps there is a little truth to this tale after all!

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Blog and other stuff

The bestiary blog is now online (duh! like, you’re reading it, aren’t you?), though there are no articles in it yet, just the old “What’s new” data. Two articles are in preparation.

There are also a couple of new digital texts available, and some other general updates.

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