The Middle Ages on the block: animals, Guilds and meat in the medieval period
By Krish Seetah
Breaking and Shaping Beastly Bodies: Animals as Material Culture in the Middle, edited by Aleksander Pluskowski (Oxbow Books, 2007)
Understanding the place of butchery in the medieval period requires a more in depth appraisal of the place of animals in medieval English culture. Fortunately, this period is perhaps one of the most interesting in terms of the lines of information available for this assessment. The rich historical evidence has led to research detailing the manufacture and uses of tools; the animals acquired and eaten in a number of different social contexts and accounts relating to the organisation of butchery.
From artist sources it would appear that animals played an integral part in medieval society with fauna portrayed in an array of genres. This ranges from depictions of animals within everyday settings, in some instances showing slaughter and processing of common domestic species, to the more fantastical. What is perhaps most remarkable is the sheer magnitude of illustrations and illuminations that have some faunal component included, many of which depict imaginary creatures or composites.
During the medieval period images of animals as part of the ‘bestiary’ becameincreasing popular with a vast array of mythical as well as more common speciesincluded in this inventory (Baxter 1998; Hassig 1995). There is also the extensive useof animals in medieval heraldry from the 12th century (Pastoureau 1997). While bothof these were context specific and portrayed highly stylised representations of animals, their impact as a form of visual display reinforcing human-animalinteractions must have been a strong one. Representations of fauna as beings withmythical powers may indicate that on a cultural level some animals were imbuedwith a sense of the numinous. The most important symbolic role of animals waswithin the Christian paradigm – animals could be used to represent a force of good(e.g. a saint or Christ) or evil (e.g. the Devil), and sometimes both forces could actthrough animals in the real world.