By Cameron Lindley Cross
Undergraduate Paper, 2004
Introduction: Although easily dismissed for its casual attention to detail, poor scholarship, and flair for the fantastic, the medieval bestiary offers a wealth of information – not, perhaps, about animals themselves, but about the people who wrote about them. A critical examination of a bestiary, with special attention to the order of the catalogue and the kind of details that were recorded, can return a vivid image of the medieval European cosmology, shedding light on how Europeans distinguished themselves from animals, whether they believed animals were a positive or negative aspect of their world, and similar issues. It can provide insight on the evolution of Christianity, a factor that cannot be given too much importance in the medieval world.
Upon first reading, the bestiary comes across as hopelessly disorganized, as if the author chose his animals and penned the words as they entered his head. The common and exotic, the real and fictional all intermingle haphazardly, with entries jumping from felines to equines to enormous mammals to small ones without any discernable division. However, it is possible to identify certain patterns which may explain how the author viewed the animal kingdom. Firstly, I would say that the author moves from what we might have deemed the ‘great beasts’ to the humbler, the more mundane. Lions, tigers, and panthers were the socially accepted kings of the animal world, antelopes were the swiftest of beasts, and unicorns, lynxes, and griffons were all distinguished by their nobility, power, or savagery. In fact, all of the animals in the first section of the bestiary (until the sermon after number 28) possessed unusual (or, in our modern view, supernatural) characteristics. The elephant has no desire to copulate and does so facing away from his mate for shame; the bear gives birth to a formless mass that she then gives form with her tongue; even the local wolf possesses a patch of aphrodisiac hair on its backside.