Session 2: Reception, Memory & Identity
“The Mark of the beast: revisioning the medieval bestiary in the 20th century”
Raina Polivka (Indiana University)
The medieval period was an era of uncertainty – medieval people gave thought to how they applied their presence to the natural world. Bestiaries assigned a moralization of behaviour and served a pedagogical function. Bestiaries were also meant to entertain and teach; they included fish, animals, mythic beasts and plants.
What is meant by the term bestiary? It responds to the Augustinian belief that nature around us provides allegorical lessons to learn from and link with spiritual teaching. An interesting note – Animals never speak in the morals but simply appear to illustrate a lesson.
Who were the patrons of medieval bestiaries? Were they intended for a common or monastic audience? Scholars have tried to solve the riddle of where they came from and who they’re for, most believe they were created by monks. However, the common man was considered the true audience of the lesson of the bestiary. Bestiaries were at times considered a debased form of science and natural history because they included fantastical creatures like satyrs or unicorns. Bestiaries are considered uncomplicated texts and were also used to teach the fundamentals of Latin to children.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, writers revisited the bestiarygenre. Polivka presented a few modern texts that are modeled on the medieval bestiary, “The Academic Bestiary” by Richard Armour, “An American Bestiary: Notes of an Amateur Naturalist” by Jack Schaefer and “A Bestiary” by Richard Wilbur (1955).Wilbur’s book provides windows into the essence of the natural world but uses taboo images much like those seen in medieval bestiaries; for example, animal genitalia were displayed prominently and overtly. Beasts were outlets for the realm of the taboo in the Middle Ages.