Reality x Fiction: The Image of the Tiger in the Bestiaries of Medieval England

Reality x Fiction: The Image of the Tiger in the Bestiaries of Medieval England

By Eduardo Consolo dos Santos

Published Online (2014)

A hunter capturing a tiger cub and distracting its mother with a mirror, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm. Royal 12 C. xix, f. 28

Abstract: The present article intends to make an analysis of the way that how the tiger, an animal native from Asia, was represented in the bestiaries of the Medieval English literature (XIIth to XVth centuries), in a time that the European knowledge about Asia still was very loose.

Introduction: In the human imaginary the big cats was among the animals that at the same time most fascinated, feared and interest the humans. Notorious predators, his biggest member is the tiger (Panthera tigris), characterized by his solitary habits and living in forested environments. According to John Vaillant, the tiger have first appeared during the Pleistocene (2 million to 10 thousand years ago), with his fossils being encountered in China and dated from 2 million years ago. Indigenous from the Asian Continent, originally they were found from Yakutia in the Russian Far East to the Bali Island in Indonesia and from the shores of the Black Sea to the delta of the Amur River. About the original historic distribution of the tiger, John Vaillant take the following consideration:

The tiger’s historic range was vast, spanning 100 degrees of longitude and 70 degrees of latitude, and including virtually all of Asia with deep inroads into Siberia and the Middle East. Five hundred years ago, large predators that were almost certainly tigers were reported in the Volga and Dnieper river valleys, just a few days‟ travel from Kiev, Ukraine.

In all of this extension a great variety of environments were populated by tigers, from snowy conifer and oak forests in Siberia to hot and humid equatorial forests in Indonesia, as well savannahs, steppes, tropical and subtropical forests, mountainous areas, riparian swamps, among others.

As like the lion in West and the jaguar among the people of Central and Southern pre-Columbian America, the tiger too was symbol of power and greatness and at the same time of despotism and cruelty in Asia (where he is part of many legends and myths), commonly associated with kings, emperors, aristocrats, warriors and even hermits and mythological gods, like the case of Durga in India, San-Shin in Korea and Chang Tao-Ling in China.   In places of Asia like China and Korea the tiger and not the lion is seen as the king of beasts (Jackson 1990: 61-62), to the point that the ideogram Wáng Dà (王大; Great king), being associated with the marking of the tiger’s forehead. Furthermore, in Siberia the tiger appears in the coat of arms of many cities, like Vladivostok, Dalnerechensk, Lesozavodsk and Khabarovsk in the kraya of Khabarovsk and Primorskiï, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude and Barguzin in the region of the Lake Baikal and Zhigansk in the Republic of Yakutia.

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