Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Medieval Bestiary: My New Favorite Website (13th-15th century)

Good morning!

Man, have I got a headful of hammers this morning-- not enough sleep and too much Jack Daniels makes Lisa an irritable reference associate of an AM shift! It couldn't be helped-- we were over at Ciciley and Bobby's apartment yesterday kickin' butts at Mario Kart (see photo) and tellin' it like it was up until way later than my normal bedtime, but paying the devil his due was worth the good times, laughs, and UHmazing vegan dinner Ciciley made-- they are good hosts!! :) Several Jack and Diets into the night, I hazily remember trying to explain to them the hilarious thing I'd found on the internet during my last shift at the nonfiction desk yesterday. "It's this thing where," I began eloquently, "They take all these medieval texts and put them together to show what medieval scholars knew about animals. And then sometimes there's an allegory to it, and sometimes, I think they just make stuff up. WAIT UNTIL YOU SEE THE ONE ABOUT THE BEAVER."

Does that make sense to you? It's about to. Folks, have you heard the good word about medieval bestiaries?

Caption: "The fox plays dead to lure birds to within reach of its jaws." Oh, right, sure. (source)
It started innocently enough yesterday afternoon when I read on Facebook that our friend English Rob was running a 10k in the winter...I was trying like heck to find a tapestry or medieval drawing of a man running from a tiger, bear, or other animal to illustrate what his training must look like (because Rob is English, it never stops being funny to me to discuss his birthplace as if my only knowledge of that culture is a cross between Hogwarts and Arthurian legend). As I was searching tapestries, my coworker Carole suggested that I look up mosaics as well. Google image search turned this up when I searched "medieval lion", and I about died for how pleased I was with this result:

Better than even this charming illustration is the description on the website that follows, culled and compiled from several different medieval sources that are both quoted and cited at the bottom of the entry
The lion has three natures: when a lion walking in the mountains sees that it is being hunted, it erases its tracks with its tail; it always sleeps with its eyes open; and its cubs are born dead and are brought to life on the third day when the mother breathes in their faces or the father roars over them. Some sources add more natures: a lion only kills out of great hunger; it will not attack a prostrate man; it allows captive men to depart; it is not easily angered; the lioness first has five cubs, then one less each year...A sick lion cures itself by eating an ape, eating on one day and drinking the next; if the meat does not digest properly the lion pulls it out of its stomach with its claws. Lions are harmed by scorpions and killed by snakes.
What exactly had I stumbled across? sounds like a website that would get you kicked off the network at work, but is in fact a delightful online compendium of medieval publications on the subject of animals. As per their introduction:
Animals had been written about for centuries before the Christian era, but it was Christianity that took the stories and made them into religious allegories. The first known text to do this was the Physiologus, written in Greek in Alexandria in the second or third century CE. This collection of animal lore is explicitly Christian; it briefly describes an animal, and continues with an Christian allegorical interpretation. The Physiologus was a "bestseller" that was translated into most of the major languages of Europe and western Asia; it is said that it was the most widely-distributed book in Europe after the Bible. [...] When the Physiologus combined with the [zoological text] Etymologiae and other texts, the book known as the bestiary was born.
The bestiary, or "book of beasts", is more than just an expansion of the Physiologus, though the two have much in common. The bestiary also describes a beast and uses that description as a basis for an allegorical teaching, but by including text from other sources it goes further; and while still not a "zoology textbook", it is not only a religious text, but also a description of the world as it was known.
So pretty much, bestiaries would combine what was known, scientifically, about the creatures of the world, and combine that information with allegorical teachings. At the time, this would be a natural match, as the Bible encourages learning from nature, as it is made by God: "All of Creation was said to reflect the Creator, and to learn about the Creator one could study the Creation." I'm not very up on my biblical knowledge, but I am OBSESSED with the quaint, sweet, plain-spokenness of these 15th century and earlier entries about what, exactly, different members of the animal kingdom are like and do.

Let's start, for example, with the ape:

The female ape always gives birth to twins, one of which she loves and the other she hates. When she carries her young, she holds the one she loves in her arms, but the one she hates must cling to her back. When the ape is pursued by a hunter, she tires from running while carrying her two children; when she is in danger of being caught, she drops the child she loves in order to escape, but the one she hates continues to cling to her back and is saved....Apes are happy at the new moon but grow sad as it wanes. At the equinox they urinate seven times. Apes are said to be ugly, dirty beasts with flat and wrinkled noses; their rear parts are particularly horrible.

Imagine the new mother ape going, "This one, I love. This one...not so much. Take a hike, kid!" to her twin baby simians, the lesser of which clings to her back in spite of its  rejection. Also, the thing about their rear parts made me laugh out loud. As I was reading the description to Matthew, he asked for me to determine exactly what kind of animal he was based on these bestiaries, and I put the entry on "ape" as one of the forerunners in that competitive category. How funny is the somber tone? We were cracking up over each animal more than the last.

Another thing I CANNOT get over in these illustrations is how either human, dog like, or dragon like each and every animal is in spite of its individual characteristics. I wish the world really looked like the pictures (OR MAYBE IT DID BACK THEN...oooOOooooh...). On the subject of hyenas, who look pretty dadgum ghoulish to me:

According to the law, hyenas must not be eaten because they are dirty. Hyenas can change their sex; sometimes they are male, other times female. They live near tombs and eat the dead bodies they find there. There is a stone in the hyena's eye (some say in the stomach of its young) that will give a person the ability to predict the future if the stone is placed under the person's tongue. Hyenas will circle a house at night, calling out words with the voice of a man; anyone who is deceived and goes out to investigate is eaten. A dog that crosses a hyena's shadow will lose its voice. The hyena's spine is rigid, so to turn it must move its entire body. The result of a mating between a hyena and a lioness is the beast called leucrota.
Hyenas cannot change their sex, to my knowledge, nor do they have a stone in their to predict the future, but I do wonder if medieval people were like "Pliny? Pliny, is that you? Are you drunk again?" to the sound of the hyena, only to be eaten by the duplicitous creature! Seriously, could the modern world even MAKE UP something I liked this much?

One of the best entries has to do with the beaver. Study this illustration closely, then read the description:

The beaver is hunted for its testicles, which are valued for making medicine. When the beaver sees that it cannot escape from the hunter, it bites off its testicles and throws them to the hunter, who then stops pursuing the beaver. If another hunter chases the beaver, it shows the hunter that it has already lost its testicles and so is spared.

This was the turning point from me going, "Oh, this is interesting," to me being 100% invested in reading every article on the website. The beaver does WHAT! And then WHAT! Again, the explanation is that this is an allegory about casting sin from you so the devil won't chase you, but I just like reading it as a straight story about this animal being like "Spare me! I have no testicles!" (God help the person who ends up at this website with those search terms...hi, bye!)


Bees are the smallest of birds. They are born from the bodies of oxen, or from the decaying flesh of slaughtered calves; worms form in the flesh and then turn into bees. Bees live in community, choose the most noble among them as king, have wars, and make honey. Their laws are based on custom, but the king does not enforce the law; rather the lawbreakers punish themselves by stinging themselves to death. Bees are afraid of smoke and are excited by noise. Each has its own duty: guarding the food supply, watching for rain, collecting dew to make honey, and making wax from flowers.

The crocodile is scary as heck in any incarnation but this one is particularly feet!
The crocodile is a four-footed beast, about twenty cubits long, that is born in the Nile River. Its skin is very hard, so that it is not hurt when struck by stones. It spends the day on land and the night in the water. It is armed with cruel teeth and claws; it is the only animal that can move the upper part of its jaw while keeping the lower part still. Its dung can be used to enhance a person's beauty: the excrement (or the contents of the intestines) is smeared on the face and left there until sweat washes it off. Crocodiles always weep after eating a man. Despite the hardness of the crocodile's skin, there are two animals that can kill it. The sawfish (serra) can cut the crocodile's stomach, and the hydrus can crawl into the crocodile's mouth and kill it from the inside.
And last but not least, the panther, which has my favorite illustration that isn't a lion of the this whole bunch.
The panther is a gentle beast; only the dragon is its enemy. It is a beautiful, multicolored animal; its coat is spotted with white or black disks. After the panther has feasted, it goes into a cave and sleeps for three days. When it wakes up it gives a loud roar, and while it is roaring a sweet odor comes out of its mouth. Any animal that hears the roar follows the sweet smell to reach the panther. Only the dragon stays away, hiding in a hole because it is afraid of the panther. The female panther can only give birth once, because the young in her womb tear at her with their claws, wounding her so that she can no longer conceive.
Here are just some illustrations of animals I would like as my album cover(s) when I do record that metal as anything debut recording of mine. See if you can figure out what animals are what (click the source to check your answers)!

Do you love, I mean LOVE, how it gets some things wrong, and some things are just...did you make this up? Where did this intel come from? I could honestly reproduce each and every entry, but that's what the original website is for! Go check it out and tell me which of the animals and their origin stories are your favorite. Can you imagine what the world would have been like back then if this was 100% scientifically accurate in each case? Which one did you laugh about the hardest (can't get over the beaver's story; won't get over the beaver's story)? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but I will see you back here tomorrow with more (hopefully endearingly?) quirky stuff that caught my eye this week. Have a great Wednesday! Talk soon.

1 comment:

  1. lisa i couldn't be more in love with this post!! i can't believe i've never heard any of those stories!!! i love the mother ape, serves her right for putting that hated baby on her back, she is going to lose the loved one when she throws it to the hunters!!



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