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Medieval Beasts : Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! Fun Trivia Concerning Medieval Beliefs about Animals. Dr. Wheeler Honors Lecture Carson-Newman College 4 December 2008. So, where do we go to find out what medieval folk believed?.
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Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! Fun Trivia Concerning Medieval Beliefs about Animals
4 December 2008
In the case of travel narratives, themore extraordinary the claim, the more likely it would catch the attention of scribes and be recopied into multiple manuscripts, thus spreading the belief.
Thus, we have above a Blemeya, a “headless man” with his face in his chest, as
depicted here in the Anglo-Saxon text called The Wonders of the East, as
found in The Nowell Codex.
Many manuscripts also include Patagonians (men or women with ears that are so big they can flap them and fly through the air).
Left to right: A monopod of the Antipodes, a Cyclopean woman, an Ettin child, a Blemeya, and a Canocepahlus. From the Harold Manuscript 1554a.
Images of a satyr, a monopod, and a hydra from Hrabanus Maurus’ guides to
wildlife in the Antipodes.
Again from Hrabanus Maurus, we have from left to right (1) a Canocephalus (also spelled Cynocephalus), (2) a cannibal Cyclops, and (3) two Blemeyas.
In the reign of the Emperor Diocletian,a man named Reprobus (the "scoundrel") was captured in combat against tribes to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica. (Probably one of the Berber tribes.) Because Cyrenaicae was closely related to the Greek word for dog, mistranslations appeared calling these people “dog-headed giants.”
In the legend, Reprobus meets the infant Christ child, regretted his former behavior, and received baptism. Christ rewarded with a human appearance, and gave him the name Christopher, whereupon he devoted his life to Christian service and became an athlete of God, according to (Walter of Speyer’s Vita et passio sancti Christopher martyris, 75).
Portrait from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, showing Saint Christopher
One legend has St. Andrew and St. Bartholomew preaching in Canaan. Because Canaan sounded like the Greek word for dog, it was though to be inhabited by an abominable and cannibalistic race “... whose face was like unto that of a dog." The Canaanites were believed by medieval monks to bark and eat human flesh. After receiving baptism, however, their leader (known only as “The Abominable”) was released from his doggish visage.
But there’s nothing terribly interesting on a scholarly level about the travel narratives. They are like images of Bat Boy in The Weekly World News.
They don’t show much about the medieval world-view, or how medieval people perceived nature around them.The really interesting material is by medieval monks.
Common ant diagrammed in a modern encyclopedia
Vade ad formicam, o piger,et considera vias ejus, et disce sapientiam!!
[Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways, and be wise!]
Gwysaney Vulgate Bible,
Northern France, ca. 1250, fol. 170r.
University of Houston Libraries Special Collections
read and interpreted on
multiple levels at once--
An ant was thus a lesson in hard work.
A pig was a lesson in gluttony.
A spider was a lesson in satanic traps, and so forth.
Nature was thought to be simply an expression of moral allegories. Factuality and physicality of the animal did not seem to matter. You “read” animals the same way you read bible verses.
In the best Latin style….
the right-side of the class will be “Team Dexter.”
the left-side of the class will be “Team Sinister.”
According to the Welsh monk Geraldus Cambriensis, what unusual aquatic fauna inhabit Dublin Bay?
B. Mermaids with beards
C. Sailor-devouring Sea-Serpents
D. Women who turn into swans
E. Sharks that recite biblical verses.
B. Mermaids with beards
Gerald advises travelers to look out for them in Dublin Bay
in his famous guide, Topographia Hiberniae
(The Topography of Ireland).
According to The Physiologus, how does a panther capture his prey?
With the sweet smell of its breath
B. By hiding in pits and covering itself with
leaves and foliage
C. By using its claws to cut down fruit as
D. By praying to God for sustenance
E. By reciting biblical verses
A. With the sweet smell of its breath
According to Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon monks who transcribe The Physiologus, the Panther emits a rose-like scent from its breath that lures prey to it from miles away. This allegorically represents the sweetness of the Good News, spread by word of mouth, which Christians read and then become filled with hope, no longer fearing death. After the panther eats, it sleeps for three days before it rises, representing Christ’s descent into the tomb for three days before his resurrection.
According to the Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de
Voragine, when Mary Magdalene traveled to France, she was protected by what animal?
An eagle with golden eyes
B. A seven-headed hydra
C. A one-legged dwarf
D. A white lion
E. A flying donkey
D. a white lion
The lion also guarded her burial site after she died.
According to The Physiologus, why should sailors be afraid of whales?
Whales are demon-possessed.
B. Whales pretend to be islands.
C. Whales are terribly flatulent.
D. Wicked whales make bets with each other
to see which one can capsize boats.
E. Whale-ivory is often sinfully used as
a replacement for true unicorn horn.
B. Whales pretend to be
The Physiologus warns us that the whale represents the tricks of the devil.
Whales will floating motionlessly for years until dirt and vegetation accrue on
their backs. Foolishly sailors will try and land there, and the whale will then
suddenly dive under water so the sailor drowns. In the same way, Satan deceives
the sinner into thinking they walk on solid ground, then betrays them.
Whale showing its fluke.
According to Hrabanus Maurus and other sources including Oxford Manuscript 1511, where do baby bears come from?
C. Bear Excrement
D. Pocket Lint
A. Lumps of clay
“Female bears spurn male bears. Instead, when they want to
reproduce, they take a lump of clay out of the earth and lick it
into the shape of a bear using their tongue until it comes to life.”
According to Anglo-Latin and French bestiaries, what do baby Pelicans eat?
A. Unbaptized babies
B. Their mother’s blood
C. Bear Excrement
D. Pocket Lint
E. The hair of unchaste women
B. Their mother’s blood
According to medieval bestiaries, the pelican’s sacrifice of her
own blood allegorically represents the Eucharist, in which Christ,
like the pelican, gives his own flesh and blood to nourish his
According to Italian and French bestiaries, how does the porcupine feed its offspring?
A. By begging pigs for food
B. By rolling in grapes
C. By communal cooperation in a harvest
D. By tricking birds into dropping worms
E. It does not feed them. God has blessed
this species with no need to eat.
B. By rolling in grapes.
“God has blessed the porcupine with many pointed quills. When
it hath the need to nourish its younglings, it doth roll in a grape-
vine so that its thorny hide hath pierced a dozen fruits, and in
this manner it strideth back to its lair with its foisson.”
According to Italian books of magic, why
were mandrake roots particularly dangerous?
A. They were poisonous
B. They caused dissension among women
C. They stirred up “manly lusts”
D. They screamed when harvested
E. They attracted infernal attentions
D. They screamed when harvested.
According to medieval books of magic, when plucked by moon-
light, an evil spirit inside the root would make a horrific scream
that would either strike men dead, insane, or deaf (depending upon
the version of the legend).
According to monastic writers, two animals had unusual defenses against hunters. How did the bonnacon and the beaver respectively get rid of hunters who wanted their pelts?
The bonnacon’s used speed and the
beaver used a vicious tail-slap.
B. They both dove underwater and held their breath
for three days, three nights, and three hours.
C. The bonnacon sprayed its excrement and the
beaver tore off its own body parts as a distraction.
D. They both dressed in rags and pretended
to be lepers.
“The bonnacon would turn its hindquarters to the hunter and emit
a most foul effluvia upon its foes. The beaver, when pursued by
the hunter, would stop and use its sharp teeth to castrate itself, and fling its generative organs on the trail behind it. The hunters’ dogs would be distracted by the cast-aside testicles, while the beaver would escape safely to its lair. . . .”
“In this, the beaver represents the wise monk. He casts aside his
sexuality so he may avoid his hunter, the devil, and seek his soul’s refuge in the safety of the monastery.” --Hrabanus Maurus
According to medieval hunting guides, how does one capture a unicorn?
A. With the bible
B. With a mirror
C. With a chain of rose-garlands
D. With silver chains
E. With a virgin woman as bait.
E. With a virgin woman
The unicorn was far too fierce for any hunter to overcome with
strength, and far to swift to catch with speed, and far too wild
to be captured by guile. So, in the legends, (next slide)
…the virgin would sit quietly in a meadow and sing, and attracted by her innocence, the unicorn would come and lay its head in her lap, where it could be betrayed to the hunters.
Manuscript GL.kg. 51633 4
Folio 5 verso
Modern scholars see the unicorn horn as a Freudian symbol, but
medieval interpreters saw this action as a typological symbol for
Christ submitting to the Virgin Mary, only for the beautiful unicorn
To be betrayed and crucified. Medieval tapestries often show the
unicorn hunters carrying a spear or three nails.
“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
--Charles Lamb 1775-1834, modified from the Talmud.
We must distinguish between the physical world of biology and the ways in which weusenature as a way of thinking.
. . . just that different ways of thinking lead usto value the physical world in radically
Native American folktales
Of Coyote and Raven
19th Century Romanticism
The Environmental Movement
“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”
Darwin’s Origin of Species
18th Century Enlightenment
In early nineteenth-centuryRomanticism, the idea of a loving, caring “mother nature” appears, where nature is associated with Edenic innocence in contrast with corrupted,soul-killing civilization.
William Blake, “The Blossom” from
Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience.
Twentieth-century animated cartoons return to us the beast fables of old, where entertaining stories with animal characters teach simple moral lessons (or humorously subvert them!)
Think of them as a window into the medieval worldview.
The Physiologus (anonymous, many languages)
The Etymologiae (by Isidore of Seville)
Le Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaon (at the National Library of Denmark)
The Bestiary of Anne Walshe (At the National Library of Denmark)
The Aberdeen Bestiary at the University of Aberdeen.
Le Bestiaire de Guillaume le Clerc (Norman Codex)
Rarely, if ever, was first-hand observation available for distant species. Keep in mind,in a world without rapid communication and transport, the vast majority of the population never traveled more than fifteen to thirty miles from where they were born. Of those folks who were literate, the majority were monks bound by vows never to leave the monastery walls, That meant naturalist studies and observation were rarely feasible, and distortions were bound to occur.
the Art of the Middle Ages.
Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary.
Life, and Literature.