A new book from Dr Kathryn Smithies, called Introducing the Medieval Ass, reveals how the ass became synonymous with human idiocy – a comic figure representing foolish peasants, students too dull to learn, and their asinine teachers. In an interview for the HistoryExtra podcast, she revealed the many weird and wonderful uses the ass was put to in the Middle Ages.
Before we start, you might be wondering what the difference between an ass, a donkey and a mule is. Smithies has the answer:
“An ass is a donkey, they are exactly the same animal. In the English-speaking world, we prefer the term ‘donkey’ today. And that’s because in the 18th century, there were variations in the pronunciation of the letter ‘a’. It was either a long or short ‘a’ so we had ‘ass’ and ‘ahss’ depending on regional variations.
“To avoid any embarrassment of using a word in polite company that sounded like bottom, the word ‘donkey’ was adopted. But in the medieval world, the ass was known by its Latin name asinus, hence the word ‘ass’. As for a mule, that’s the result of crossbreeding between a female horse and a male donkey. The mule has hybrid vigour and it takes the best from both worlds. So it’s got the endurance of the donkey, but requires less food than a horse.”
So, what could you do with a medieval ass? You could use it to…
Carry your stuff
“The ass is basically a pack animal,” says Smithies. “It’s known for its sturdiness and its surefootedness. So it was the ideal animal to carry people and loads across the Alps, or along major trading routes, in the medieval period. It would carry loads to local markets and to regional fairs. The donkey would also turn grinding stones for milling. There’s some evidence that in some places the donkey might even have pulled a plough.
Get to heaven
“Many people in the medieval period writing their last will and testament would leave their ass to their local church or abbey as a way of ensuring salvation and saying: ‘If I give you my ass, you in turn must pray for me when I’m dead and help me get to heaven.’ This suggests that the ass had some monetary worth as well.”
“In the medieval period there was a taboo against eating donkey meat, there were decrees against it. But some societies in medieval Europe did consider it a delicacy. These were really very localised and they were the minority.
In desperate times, however, people would eat their donkeys and it’s well recorded in, for example, the accounts from the first crusades. Food was in such short supply, especially during the siege of Antioch (1097–8), that the crusaders resorted to eating the horses and then the donkeys. In fact, they ate basically anything they could lay their hands on.”
Make shoes out of it
“There is archaeological evidence in parts of France for the existence of tanneries, and that those tanneries were skinning ass hides,” says Smithies. “We also know that Albertus Magnus (also known as Albert the Great), the 13th-century Dominican theologian and eventual saint, wore shoes made from donkey leather, and that the leather was particularly tough. So I think donkey leather was being used just as any other leather would have been.”
Rid your house of vermin
“Albert the Great had quite a bit to say on this. He had one recipe to get rid of vermin in a house. He recommended that if you used the burnt lungs of an ass to smoke out the house, it would get rid of the vermin. In reality, it would probably smoke everybody out of the house. The smell would have been unbearable.”
Fix up your hair
“Albert the Great offered beauty treatments as well,” says Smithies. “There was one for a medieval perm. If you wanted curly hair, this is what he said you needed to do: anoint your straight hair with the dung of a wild ass, and then grind it up with some bile of oxen. I doubt it would have given you curly hair, it would probably have made it fall out!”
Be a better Christian
“The ass had religious attributes in the medieval period,” says Smithies. “It was associated with humility, with patience, and with faithfulness. It became known for its humble and patient nature. So the ass became an exemplar of ‘the good Christian’. If we take that a bit further, when Christ had his disciples fetch the donkey to ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he specifically asked for a donkey, and an unbroken one. The symbology there is that the donkey willingly submitted to Christ’s authority, just as good Christians submit to God.”
Win an argument
“In the 12th and 13th centuries there was a rise in cathedral schools and also the start of medieval universities. The idea of reason became central to intellectual thought in western medieval Europe. And so we saw debates about rationality, and about the difference between humans and animals. And then, from the encyclopaedic tradition, the ass was presented as the most irrational of all the beasts. So it became a really useful foil for debates on rationality. The donkey’s irrational, stupid nature was used particularly in this scholastic world. It was also used for personal slights. So medieval scholars, when they were trying to debate their opponents and put them down, they called them an ass.”
Mock your enemies
“Politically, the ass provided a really useful metaphor,” says Smithies. “It was used to criticise political rivals and those in positions of authority. This trope of stupidity or ‘the asinine’ really came to the fore. King Richard II of England, for example, came in for quite a bit of censure and his political rivals gave him the title the ‘Crowned Ass’.
“The same thing happened during the reign of his successor, Henry IV: Henry’s supporters attached this ‘Crowned Ass’ symbol to Richard because Henry had assumed the throne in dubious circumstances, and they wanted (or needed) to justify Henry’s kingship. So they needed to downplay Richard as an effective king. This ‘Crowned Ass’ idea indicated an ineffective ruler.”
Dr Kathryn Smithies is a medieval historian and research and teaching associate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her new book, Introducing the Medieval Ass (University of Wales Press), is out now. You can listen to the full podcast interview below: