By Lisa Kiser
A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age, ed. Brigitte Resl (Oxford, 2007)
Introduction: In John Trevisa’s translation (1398-1399) of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ magisterial encyclopedia of natural history, De proprietaibus rerum, we learn that there are four purposes for animals. Some beasts, writes Trevisa, provide humans with food, such as sheep and deer; some offer service to humans, such as horses, asses, oxen, and camels; some bring proper humility to humans, such as fleas, lions, tigers, and bears, and some are for “mannys methe, as apes and marmusettes and popingayes.” In other words, to Trevisa and his Latin authority of a century before, the divinely ordained role of some animals was to supply amusement for their human counterparts. Indeed, we shall see that apes, marmosets, and popinjays were hardly the only kinds of animals pressed into service as entertainers for medieval people, for virtually every common European animal – and a large number of exotic imported species as well – took some part, large or small, in games, spectacles, menageries, performances, tournaments, and displays. Between 1000 and 1400, the period of time this chapter will cover, medieval Europeans not only witnessed animal-centered entertainment inherited from the classical and early medieval worlds, but they also added many of their own. Some of these forms of entertainment had regional distributions (certain kinds of horse racing, for example, were largely found in Italy, and ritualized bullfighting had its greatest prominence in Spain); some had strong affiliations with certain social classes (private menageries were maintained by the wealthy, for example) or with specific genders and ages (boys were the primary participants in cockfighting games). Nonetheless, animal entertainers in general would have played a large part in every medieval person’s experience, for their variety and wide distribution insured that everyone would have seen them at some time in their lives.
Unfortunately, evidence documenting some kinds of animal entertainment is scarce from this period. At times, the only evidence we have are entries in account rolls, cryptically noting payment for some form of entertainment about which nothing is said. At other times, we only have records from ecclesiastical sources that criticize, and prohibit, the game or the pastime. And finally, sometimes we need to turn to literary texts to augment our information, in spite of the fact that literature, though rich in cultural attitudes, is sometimes unreliable as historical record. In short, records from this period are complex, as well as sparse, with strengths and weaknesses we must carefully assess.