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The Forgotten Beasts in Medieval Britain

The Forgotten Beasts in Medieval Britain: a study of extinct fauna in medieval sources

By Lee Raye

PhD Dissertation, Cardiff University, 2016

Crane – British Library MS Royal 12 C XIX f. 40

Abstract: This thesis identifies and discusses historical and literary sources describing four species in the process of reintroduction: lynx (Lynx lynx), large whale (esp. Eubalena glacialis), beaver (Castor fiber) and crane (Grus grus). The scope includes medieval and early modern texts in English, Latin, and Welsh written in Britain before the species went extinct. The aims for each species are: (i) to reconstruct the medieval cultural memory; (ii) to contribute a cohesive extinction narrative; and (iii) to catalogue and provide an eco-sensitive reading of the main historical and literary references. Each chapter focuses on a different species:

1. The chapter on lynxes examines some new early references to the lynx and argues that the species became extinct in south Britain c.900 AD. Some hard-to-reconcile seventeenth century Scottish accounts are also explored.

2. The chapter on whales attributes the beginning of whale hunting to the ninth century in Britain, corresponding with the fish event horizon; but suggests a professional whaling industry only existed from the late medieval period.

3. The chapter on beavers identifies extinction dates based on the increasingly confused literary references to the beaver after c.1300 in south Britain and after c.1600 in Scotland, and the increase in fur importation.

4. The chapter on cranes emphasises the mixed perception of the crane throughout the medieval and early modern period. Cranes were simultaneously depicted as courtly falconers’ birds, greedy gluttons, and vigilant soldiers.

More generally, the thesis considers the levels of reliability between eyewitness accounts and animal metaphors. It examines the process of ‘redelimitation’ which is triggered by population decline, whereby nomenclature and concepts attached to one species become transferred to another. Finally, it emphasises geographical determinism: species generally become extinct in south Britain centuries before Scotland.

Click here to read this thesis from Cardiff University

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