Beasts of wonder: reading animals in the Middle Ages

From bees and crocodiles to mythical dragons and phoenixes, animals both real and imagined captured the medieval imagination. Here, PhD student Hetta Howes explores the creatures most written about in medieval bestiaries – pseudo-scientific writings that sought to both educate and entertain…

From bees and crocodiles to mythical dragons and phoenixes, animals both real and imagined captured the medieval imagination. Here, PhD student Hetta Howes explores the creatures most written about in medieval bestiaries – pseudo-scientific writings that sought to both educate and entertain…“Every creature of the world/Is like a book and a picture/To us, and a mirror,” writes 12th-century French theologian and poet Alan of Lille. His words evoke a pervasive belief of the Middle Ages: that every stone, plant and animal, however humble, played a part in God’s grand design of creation. Humans could read nature, like a book, to help reveal and interpret spiritual truth. While some animals, like domestic pets, agricultural beasts and the creatures of English woodland were familiar, others were a distant wonder, described second-hand by travellers or those returning from the crusades.

A huge number of these animals, from the miraculous unicorn to the pesky fly, found their home in the medieval Latin bestiary, which became a bestselling genre by the 12th century. These pseudo-scientific compilations drew on folk legend, classical sources and patristic writings to create descriptions of individual animals that also incorporated Christian allegory and moralisation.

Observing the behaviour of a fox, it was said, could help readers escape the tricks of the devil. Widows should take example from the turtle-dove, a bird that never remarries but always pines after its first love. Bestiaries, often beautifully illustrated, were highly entertaining, but they could also be used to educate – preachers could lift material for their sermons, and the manuscripts could be used to teach children in schools.

It is debatable whether all medieval people really believed that animals like the fearsome manticore [a creature that had the body of a red lion, a human head and three rows of sharp teeth, and sometimes bat-like wings], actually existed, although some certainly did. What was more important, according to St Augustine, was what these animals symbolised and what they could teach us.

Here’s a run-down of 10 of the most weird and wonderful animals that can be found in the medieval bestiary and in encyclopaedias of natural history. Some are the stuff of legends, but others are more familiar beasts with surprising associations…

 

1) Lion

The lion is the king of the animals. Most medieval descriptions and legends about him hinged upon his strength and ferocity, with one big exception – lions are reportedly terrified of white cockerels.

Bestiaries recorded the ability of lions to sleep with their eyes open, a trait that is used to encourage vigilance in readers and to allegorise Christ – Christ slept corporally on the cross but kept his divinity awake, just as the lion sleeps but never lets his guard down entirely. Similarly, bestiaries described how a lioness gives birth to dead cubs but after three days the father will return and roar over the cubs, or the mother will breathe over their faces, to revive them.

Such associations of lions with Christ and resurrection have led to the creation of one of the most celebrated lions in modern literature: Aslan. In a famous scene from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis, King Aslan sacrifices himself to save his people only to later rise from the dead to reclaim the kingdom of Narnia.


Woodcut from ‘Poetica astronomica’ (Poetical astronomy), published in Venice in 1488 and attributed to Hyginus. It was frequently copied and illustrated during the medieval period. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

 

2) Unicorn

One of the most famous animals from the medieval bestiary, the unicorn is a small, fierce animal with a horn in the centre of its forehead. The most enduring and popular belief about the unicorn is that it cannot be caught by a hunter. So, how do you catch a unicorn? According to medieval bestiaries you have to lead a female virgin to the middle of the woods and leave her there while you hide and wait nearby. The unicorn will fall prey to your trap by leaping into the virgin’s lap.

But while modern retellings largely emphasise the positive qualities of the unicorn, in the Middle Ages the associations attached to this creature were less clear-cut. For example, in a ‘bestselling’ medieval compilation of saints’ lives, called The Golden Legend, the unicorn became an allegory of death, pursuing mankind ceaselessly.

 

3) Crocodile

The yellow crocodile, which hails from the river Nile, is a four-footed animal armed with fierce teeth and claws as well as incredibly tough skin. Its appearance in medieval manuscripts is very changeable, largely because authors and illustrators had to rely on second-hand information. Although some churches did import and exhibit naturalised crocodiles as mirabilia (wonders), they presented them as dragons rather than crocodiles, which added to the confusion.

Crocodiles were usually made to look as terrifying as possible but images varied from something that looked like a serpent to a long-eared canine or a hog with cloven hooves. Medieval bestiaries and encyclopaedias said that crocodiles were cruel and had man-eating tendencies, and they used the beast as a symbol for hypocritical people. In fact, the famous saying about crocodile’s tears originates from this association: apparently crocodiles can’t resist eating any humans they come across, but they will always shed hypocritical tears over the fate of their prey.

One positive, however, was that the dung of crocodiles was said to create a luxurious beauty cream, which old and wrinkled prostitutes could apply to their skin like a face mask.


Crocodile killing a man. Manuscript illumination from a 12th-century English bestiary. (Granger, NYC/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

4) Bee

Though small, the bee captured the imagination of writers in the Middle Ages. Classed as birds rather than insects, bees were known to be skilful at making honey and designing their living space with military precision. They were known to have hundreds of children, create armies and produce warriors. Everything for the bee was shared – children, labour, food and flight.

According to medieval bestiaries, bees may be subjects to their king but they also enjoy the privilege of choice, as they select the king themselves. In many ways, bees were the model society for thinkers in the Middle Ages. In more practical terms, the honey they make – one of the only sources of sugar in medieval England – was essential to daily life, as it was said to possess healing properties.

 

5) Manticore

The manticore was a truly terrifying addition to the medieval bestiary. With a man’s face and beard, a body the size of a lion, blue eyes and three rows of teeth, the creature was said to come from India and had a horrible voice – a cross between a panpipe [pan flute] and a trumpet. It had the tail of a scorpion with stingers on each side, and it was said to strike so quickly with this weapon that anyone approaching it faced certain death.

One option for a medieval person encountering the manticore was to attack from a distance – but you would need to be careful, as the manticore could use its tail as a handy bow and arrow too. Swift as a deer, the creature was cruel and craved human flesh. Only the elephant could survive its poison, so one way to defeat the manticore was to charge at it with an army of elephants while shooting it with arrows.


A manticore, c1250. (© Liszt Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

6) Fox

One of the most popular animals in literature of the Middle Ages was the fox. Red or bluish in colour, he always had a bushy tail and was frequently illustrated with a bird in his mouth. He had speedy feet and never ran in a straight line, which made him seem crafty and deceitful. When he was hungry and couldn’t find anything to eat the fox rolled in red soil so that he appeared bloody and held his breath – playing dead. Then, when birds landed on him, he took the opportunity to gobble them up.

Bestiaries drew parallels between this imagined fox practice and the actions of the devil, who lulled Christians into a false sense of security and then drew them to sin with temptation. Images of foxes proliferated in the second half of the medieval period, largely because of the popularity of stories about Reynard the Fox, who is the main character in a popular cycle of medieval fables. A version of Reynard even makes its way into Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where a devious fox tricks Chauntecleer the cockerel into singing for him with his eyes closed, so that he can capture him.

In humorous marginal illustrations from medieval manuscripts, the fox can often be spotted in the garb of a knight or a clergyman, satirising courtly society and corruption of the Christian church.

 

7) Phoenix

The phoenix was a fabulous mythical bird, purplish-red in colour, with a (sometimes gold) crest and plumage. It lived in the regions of Arabia and was therefore associated with the exotic wonders of the East. Many sources described the phoenix as the size of an eagle, but its most distinctive characteristic was immortality. After 500 years, when the bird feels itself ageing, it builds a funeral pyre and uses the sun to set itself aflame. On the ninth day, it rises from the ashes.

Fans of Harry Potter may well remember the beloved phoenix Fawkes, who is a companion to, and defender of, Albus Dumbledore. Fawkes helps Harry to defeat Slytherin’s basilisk (a crested snake that can kill a man with a single glance, and which appears in medieval bestiaries as king of the serpents). Fawkes is immortal, but J K Rowling enhanced the bird’s medieval properties by also giving him healing powers and the ability to attack the basilisk – in her stories he pecks out the creature’s eye.


A 13th-century illuminated manuscript of a phoenix on its funeral pyre, which was lit by the rays of the sun above. (© Photo Researchers, Inc/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

8) Weasel

The humble weasel was a surprisingly popular animal in medieval encyclopaedias, illustrations, fables and bestiaries. Shrewd by nature, some said that the weasel conceives through its ear and gives birth through its mouth, while others attested the reverse. Either way, most agreed that weasels could conceive without having sex, and they therefore became a perfect allegory for the Christian figure of the Virgin Mary.

The weasel was also used to represent preaching: according to some medieval sources it procreates through the mouth, just as a talented preacher can ‘create’ good Christians through verbal performance.

However, like many medieval animals, the weasel is ambiguous because some sources associated the animal with sexual licence – Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, describes the wanton, adulterous Alison in The Miller’s Tale, as a weasel. The weasel was supposedly skilled in medicine and so she could revive her dead children; the German abbottess Hildegard of Bingen prescribed a mixture of weasel heart and melted wax for deafness and ear infections.

Significantly for Harry Potter fans, according to medieval legend the weasel is the only animal that can defeat the basilisk, although the serpent can also be killed if it looks in the mirror, and it is scared of the crow of a rooster.

 

9) Vulture

The vulture is one of the most surprising animals in a medieval bestiary’s repertoire. As it feeds on the dead flesh of humans and can apparently smell corpses even across expanses of water, you would expect it to possess negative associations. However, most medieval descriptions and images of this bird are positive. It was believed that female vultures, like weasels, procreate without any help from the male, and they therefore became a symbol of chastity. They were also said to be gifted with powers of predestination – if vultures follow an army out to battle, then it is predicted that many men will fall. The offspring of these birds live for a very long time – as long as 100 years – and according to some medieval sources their blood could be used to heal leprosy.

 

10) Dragon

The medieval dragon, believed to be the largest animal on Earth, was more like a serpent than the toothy, fire-breathing beasts of the modern big screen. Crested, with a small mouth and narrow pipes through which they drew breath and flicked out their tongue, the power of the dragon was not in its teeth but rather its tail. It was not poisonous but killed by strangulation or a lash of its hefty tail.

The dragon was said to come from the air but lived underground and was terrified of water. Its main enemy, the elephant, gives birth in water to protect its babies from the dragon’s clutches. Classified as both a beast of prey and a diabolical animal, the dragon often appeared in medieval bestiaries as the adversary of Christians and particular saints.

In one famous legend, Saint Margaret of Antioch was imprisoned by a spurned suitor and was attacked by the devil in the form of a dragon. He swallowed her, but the cross she was wearing irritated his throat so much that he had to regurgitate her and Margaret emerged triumphant. However, medieval dragons were also a common feature of chivalric romances.

So there you have it: a small sample of the range of animals that can be found in the medieval bestiary. Quite a few of them you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley – or a well-lit alley, for that matter. If the medieval world is like a book, then animals like these can help us to read it.

Hetta Howes is writing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London on the subject of water and religious imagery in medieval devotional texts by and for women.

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