Preventing ‘Monkey Business’. Fettered Apes in the Middle Ages
By Thierry Buquet
Published Online on the Medieval Animal Data Network (2013)
The practice of keeping monkeys and apes in captivity during the Middle Ages, mainly as pets, is well known. Janson, in his classical study, Apes and Ape lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Janson 1952), dedicates a chapter to this topic (“The Fettered Ape”, chap. V, p. 145-162). He has a symbolic approach (“captive ape as a symbolic figure”, p. 145) and a study on the iconography of these fettered apes. His book is not dedicated to the material culture or to the study of the presence of apes in medieval menageries or as pets. This short paper aims to give some examples of the material aspects of keeping and controlling tamed but still savage animals, to prevent them from creating a mess in the home.
Keeping apes at home as pets was known from Antiquity, and during the Middle Ages, we have testimonies from the 11th century. The first account is found in Peter Damian who lived in 11th century Italy. According to Damian, Count William, in the district of Liguria, owned a male monkey called a “maimo” in vernacular Italian. The animal was so intimate with the count’s wife that he was suspected of having had intercourse with her.
Guillaume le Clerc, in his Bestiaire divin, explains that high-ranking lords have a great affection for the monkeys (“Donc les hauz homes font chiertez”) even though this animal is unpleasant and ugly. Alexander Neckam, at he beginning of the 13th Century, writes that one could find domestic apes at the court of the rich.