The Regional Impact on Medieval Text and Image: Exploring Representations of Anti-Semitism in English and Northern French Medieval Bestiaries
By Sarah Elizabeth Spencer
Honors Capstone Project, University of Syracuse, 2012
Abstract: This thesis endeavors to explain the variations in representations of anti-Semitism between medieval bestiaries. Medieval bestiaries, compilations concerning animals and their moralized characteristics, were a type of medieval literature commonly produced throughout Western Europe. In order to make a more concrete analysis, this study focuses on two particular medieval bestiaries comparable in both date and style – The Aberdeen Bestiary from England and Le Bestiaire from northern France. Both date from the early 13th century and are classified as Second-family moralizing bestiaries, that is, they both derive from the Latin text Physiologus.
The analysis of these two bestiaries will focus specifically on how they reflect medieval stereotypes of Jews and anti-Semitic themes. First, both bestiaries are individually examined for depictions of medieval anti-Semitism. The Aberdeen Bestiary focuses on the medieval perception of Jews as potentially dangerous and terrifying “others,” who allegedly prey upon Christians, while Le Bestiaire focuses on the perception of Jews as a religious threat in need of conversion. As these two bestiaries are comparable in both date and format, the question arises, why do they vary so significantly with regard to anti-Semitic representations? While both The Aberdeen Bestiary and Le Bestiaire originate in northwestern Europe shortly before the period of mass Jewish expulsion, the particular regions of medieval England and northern France differed significantly in political, economic, and societal environments. Therefore, by analyzing the regional character of anti-Semitism in medieval England and in northern France the variations in the anti-Semitic representations appearing in The Aberdeen Bestiary and Le Bestiaire become comprehensible. Consequently, this thesis argues that there is a strong regional impact on medieval text and image, as understood through an analysis of representations of anti-Semitism in medieval bestiaries.
Some of the most fascinating and fantastical literature produced during the Middle Ages was a genre of text known as bestiaries. Medieval bestiaries were often illustrated compilations concerning animals, both common and exotic, and their characteristics. This type of medieval literature was produced throughout Western Europe and was extremely popular, as evidenced by the number of manuscripts that survive. In particular, this study will focus on the genre of moralizing bestiaries that flourished in northwestern Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These moralizing bestiaries emphasized not the realistic behavior of animals, but rather a moral interpretation of each animal’s behaviors. While these moralizing bestiaries common throughout northwestern Europe were similar in content, they varied significantly in theme and focus.
In order to evaluate and understand these variations, this paper will focus on the differences in content between two of these moralizing bestiaries –The Aberdeen Bestiary from England and Le Bestiaire from northern France. Both date from the early 13th century and are classified as Second-family moralizing bestiaries. The classification as Second-family bestiaries indicates that they both essentially derive from the Latin text Physiologus, meaning that they fall into the same category for basic format and content. The classification as moralizing bestiaries denotes that both these bestiaries focus their content and style on a moralized explanation of each animal’s behavior as a way of teaching medieval Christian values. This contrasts significantly in both tone and content with the later bestiaries of love that began appearing during the thirteenth century. Therefore, both The Aberdeen Bestiary and Le Bestiaire arise from the same traditions of content and style and, consequently, provide an acceptable basis for comparative analysis.