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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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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
So, where do we go to find outwhat medieval folk believed?
  • Travel Narratives (Geraldus Cambriensis,Marco Polo, Mandeville’s Travels)
  • Scriptural Glossation and Marginalia in Bibles
  • Medieval Cookbooks and Recipes
  • Codices on Magic (especially in Italy)
  • Medieval Encyclopedias
  • Medieval Grammar Guides (especially etymologies)
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society (17th century)
  • Beast Fable Collections (Marie de France, Renart the Fox)
  • Bestiaries

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.

here s a patagonian woman second from the right
Here’s a Patagonian woman, second from the right.

Many manuscripts also include Patagonians (men or women with ears that are so big they can flap them and fly through the air).

other travel narratives had similar fanciful critters
Other travel narratives had similar fanciful critters….

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.

christopher the dog headed saint
Christopher the Dog-Headed Saint

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

st andrew preaching to a band of warlike canocephali
St. Andrew preaching to a band of warlike canocephali.

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.

bat boy from weekly world news 1998
Bat Boy from Weekly World News, 1998.

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.

Glosses in Latin Bibles almost always comment on any animals mentioned in a verse, whether that verse be about an ant or an eagle.

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!]

--Proverbs 6:6

arguably accurate biological information in a scientific sense wasn t even the point
Arguably, accurate biological information in a scientific sense wasn’t even the point.

Gwysaney Vulgate Bible,

Northern France, ca. 1250, fol. 170r.

University of Houston Libraries Special Collections

For medieval thinkers, the point of studying nature was spiritual enlightenment. For God wrote two books.

The Bible

(2)The World.


Both were meant to be

read and interpreted on

multiple levels at once--



typologically and


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.

so a game of trivia
So, a game of trivia.

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.”

question 1
Question #1:

According to the Welsh monk Geraldus Cambriensis, what unusual aquatic fauna inhabit Dublin Bay?

Dog-faced fish

B. Mermaids with beards

C. Sailor-devouring Sea-Serpents

D. Women who turn into swans

E. Sharks that recite biblical verses.

answer 1
Answer #1:

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).

Dublin Bay.

question 2
Question #2:

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

answer 2
Answer #2:

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.

question 3
Question #3:

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

answer 3
Answer #3:

D. a white lion

The lion also guarded her burial site after she died.

question 4
Question #4:

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.

answer 4
Answer #4:

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.

question 5
Question #5:

According to Hrabanus Maurus and other sources including Oxford Manuscript 1511, where do baby bears come from?

A. Clay

B. Storks

C. Bear Excrement

D. Pocket Lint

E. India

answer 5
Answer #5:

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.”

--Hrabanus Maurus

question 6
Question #6:

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

answer 6
Answer #6:

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

children--the church.

question 7
Question #7:

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.

answer 7
Answer #7:

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.”

question 8
Question #8:

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

answer 8
Answer #8:

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).

question 9
Question #9:

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.

answer 9
Answer #9:


“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

question 10
Question #10:

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.

answer 10
Answer #10:

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.

Kongelige Bibliotek,

Manuscript 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 end with a quotation
We end with a quotation:

“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.

lamb is not talking about solipsism
Lamb is not talking about solipsism….

. . . just that different ways of thinking lead usto value the physical world in radically

different ways.

consider how differently these examples use nature
Consider how differently these examples use nature. . . .

Native American folktales

Of Coyote and Raven

19th Century Romanticism

The Disney


Aesop’s Fables

The Environmental Movement

“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”

Darwin’s Origin of Species

18th Century Enlightenment

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinks of nature as something chaotic to be “tamed” or controlled by human reason.
In Native American legends, nature functions etiologically as an explanation forrituals, genealogies, seasons, origin-stories, etc.

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!)

accordingly don t think of medieval beliefs as silly primitive or superstitious
Accordingly,don’t think of medieval beliefs as…. silly, primitive, or superstitious.

Think of them as a window into the medieval worldview.

sources that combine all of this theology and folklore bestiaries
Sources that combine all of this theology and folklore?--bestiaries!
  • The texts grew out of medieval encyclopedias such as Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (written in the 700s).
  • They rarely contain original material--most simply copy information from older sources, often lost.
  • Their contents usually overlap a great deal with herbaries, lapidaries, and astrology guides. In medieval thinking, these categories overlap in content.
  • They are intensely allegorical rather than factual.
famous examples
Famous Examples:

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)

older classical sources
Older Classical Sources
  • Aristotle's Historia Animalium
  • Lucretius’ De Res Natura,
  • Herodotus,
  • Pliny the Elder,
  • Solinus,
  • Aelian,
  • Isidore of Seville.

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.

works consulted
Works Consulted:

Explicit Presentatio!

  • Benton, Janetta Rebold. (1992) The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in

the Art of the Middle Ages.

  • Clark, Willene B. and Meradith T. McMunn. (1989) The Bestiary and its


  • George, Wilma and Brunsdon Yapp. (1991) The Naming of the Beasts:

Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary.

  • Hassig, Debra (1995) Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology.
  • ---., ed. (1999) The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art,

Life, and Literature.

  • Payne, Ann. (1990) Mediaeval Beasts.