The Yule Days – Day 10 – ‘An Arabian baboon’

Wednesday 21 December 2022

The king sent his lady on the tenth Yule day,
An Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying, a bull that was brown,
Three goldspinks, three starlings,
A goose that was gray,
Three plovers, three partridges, a papingo-aye;

Wha learns my carol and carries it away? 

The baboon is surely an unlikely creature to encounter in a Christmas song.

Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) was a Swiss naturalist and physician. Between 1551 and 1558 he compiled his monumental work on zoology, Historiae Animalium. This was an ambitious work in which he collated all the existing knowledge on animals, from old sources such as the Old Testament, Aristotle, and mediaeval bestiaries, as well as from his own observations and those of friends and acquaintances. Although Gesner claimed that all the illustrations were made from life or based upon reliable sources, there are still a few mythical creatures to be found in the work, including unicorns and mermaids.

The image above appears in Gesner’s Appendix historiae quadrupedum uiuiparorum (1554), which is considered by some to be part of the edition of Gesner’s Historiae animalium liber II. de quadrupedibus ouiparis, published in Zurich under the same imprint the same year, and with which this may have been issued. Gesner referred to this animal as “De papione simiarum generis”, and the animal depicted here, with its short tail, appears to be a drill or mandrill, both species which were traditionally thought to be baboons. The image poses some questions however as Gesner also refers to the animal as ‘Hyaenam’. Later reproductions of this image, such as in Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658) (p.342 below), refer to the animal as both hyaena and papio (papio is the genus of baboons).

In Gesner’s Appendix historiae quadrupedum uiuiparorum (1554), the image from Theodore Beza, ‘De Cynocephalo’, is perhaps more similar to what we would consider to be the hamadryas baboon.


Bernardo Urbani, ‘The Seven Secluded Monkeys of Conrad Gessner’, Endeavour, 44, (2020).

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