The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art

The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art

By George C. Druce

Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute, Vol. 76 (1919)

Introduction: Among the larger wild animals the elephant has always held a leading place. As the lion has aroused admiration and fear in man, so has the elephant aroused curiosity and wonderment; and this is not surprising when we consider its great size and striking appearance. Visits of elephants to this country in the middle ages are but rarely recorded. The most interesting is that of the elephant presented by Louis of France to King Henry III in 1255, as related by Matthew Paris. It was kept at the Tower and lived four years, and we are told that many people flocked to see the strange sight. It has been preserved to us pictorially, for there is an excellent illustration of it in MS. Parker 16 at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and others not so good in MS. Nero D i. and MS. Julius D vii. at the British Museum. The miniature in the MS. at Corpus (plate I) shows us an elephant of the African species standing fastened to a stake by the ankle, together with its keeper who holds a knotted club and is feeding it. It is very fairly drawn, being well proportioned, the ears large and tusks projecting from the upper jaw as in nature. Its trunk also is natural, but its feet hardly so satisfactory. On the ground of the miniature is written the name of its keeper, Henry of Florence, and a statement that the size of the beast may be measured by the height of the man.

The texts of these manuscripts give a lengthy description of elephants, including many details taken from Aristotle and Pliny, and quotations from Bernardus Silvester and Horace. Illustrations of elephants are fairly numerous in medieval manuscripts, especially the bestiaries and manuscripts of Alexander’s Romance; and they occur freely in ecclesiastical carving and heraldry. The preference is given to the elephant with the castle on its back, which is perhaps natural in view of the frequent references in early writers to the use of elephants in war, and the general popularity of this form. The elephant and castle as such, however, plays no part in the legend as told in the bestiary, although it figures largely in the illustrations.

It is intended in this paper to give an account of the legend and its sources. It offers some attractive features, and an important Sermo or religious interpretation is founded upon it. The legend of the elephant also brings us into direct connexion with the legends of the serpent called Draco and the mandrake. Further, it is our object to show how the elephant was treated in illuminated manuscripts and ecclesiastical and heraldic art in the middle ages.

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