Ten Strange Medieval Ideas about Animals

Ten Strange Medieval Ideas about Animals

In the Middle Ages, one could find out information about various animals (real and imagined) in books known as Bestiaries. Mostly based on ancient writers and medieval legends, these books offer some very strange descriptions of beasts. Here is how one 13th century Bestiary – Oxford’s Bodleian Library MS 764 – details the unusual attributes and characteristics of ten animals.

Additional 26968 f. 207

1. Lions

The nature of the lion is such that he is not enraged by men if he is not harmed by them…The merciful nature of lions is confirmed by numerous examples; they will spare men lying on the ground, and will lead captives whom they meet to their home. They will attack men rather than women. They only kill children if they are exceptionally hungry.


2. Beavers

Royal 12 C XIX f. 10v

There is animal called the beaver, which is quite tame, whose testicles are excellent as medicine … When it realises that hunters are pursuing it, it bites off its testicles and throws them down in front of the hunters, and thus takes flights and escapes.

Harley 4751 f. 60

3. Vipers

The viper is so called because it gives birth under duress. For when its belly feels the pangs of birth, its offspring do not await their natural release in good time but bite through the mother’s body and break out, killing the mother. It is said that the male puts his head in the female’s mouth in order to release his semen; she, in her sexual ecstasy, bites the male’s head off; and so both parents die: the male in mating, the female in giving birth.

Harley 1340 f. 11v

4. Bears

The males respect the pregnant females, and if they live in the same cave, they occupy separate lairs. The time of childbirth is accelerated with them, because the womb is freed of its burden after thirty days. And this rapid pregnancy produces formless creatures. They give birth to little formless lumps of flesh, white in colour and without eyes. They shape them by gradually licking them with their tongue, warming them in the meanwhile on their breast, so that the heat of the embrace brings them to life.

5. Deer

Harley 3244 f. 41v

Stags are the enemies of serpents; as soon as they feel the symptoms of illness, they entice snakes out of their holes with the breadth of their noses, and overcoming their harmful poison, feed on them and are cured.

6. Tigers

Harley 4751 f. 3v

If a tigress finds her lair robbed of its cubs, she set out at once in pursuit of the thief. When the latter, even if he is mounted on a swift horse, realises that he is being overtaken by the speed of the beast, and has no other means of escape, he will use this ingenious deception. As soon as he sees that the tigress is near him, he throws down a glass sphere. The tigress is deceived by the image in it, and believes it is her cub. She halts in her tracks and tries to pick up the cub. Delayed by the false appearance, she redoubles her speed in pursuit of the rider, spurred on by her fury. But he throws down another sphere, which delays her again, because the memory of the deception is overcome by her maternal instinct. She turns the hollow image and sits down as if to suckle her cub. So the intensity of her motherly love betrays her, and deprives her of both her revenge and her cub.

7. Foxes

Royal 2 B VII f. 99v

It is a clever, cheating animal. If it is hungry and cannot find anything to eat, it rolls in red earth, so that it seems as if it spotted with blood, and lies on the ground holding its breadth, so that it is hardly breathing. The birds see that it is not breathing, and is lying there spotted with blood with its tongue hanging out, and think it dead. They fly down to perch on it, and it seizes them and devours them.

Royal 12 C XIX f. 68v

8. Salamanders

The salamander is so called because it is proof against fire; it is the most poisonous of all poisonous creatures. Others kill one at a time; this creature kills several at once. For if it crawls into a tree, all the apples are infected with its poison, and those who eat them die. In the same way, if it falls in a well, the water will poison those who drink it. It is the enemy of fire and alone among animals can put out flames. It lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed; not only does it not burn, but it puts out the flames.

Harley 3244 f. 44

9. Wolves

The wolf is a ravenous beast, and thirsts for blood … if it has to hunt it prey by night, it slinks up to the sheepfold like a lame dog, and, so that the dogs do not catch its scent and wake the shepherds, it goes upwind. And if a twig breaks under its foot and makes a noise, it punishes that foot by biting it. Its eyes shine in the night like lanterns; its nature is such that if it sees a man before the man catches sight of it, it can deprive him of his voice, and it will then take no notice because it has won this victory over his voice.

10. Panthers

Harley 4751 f. 4

When he has eaten and is full, he hides in his lair and sleeps. After three days he rouses himself from sleep, and lets forth a great roar; and out of his mouth comes a very sweet smell that seems to contain every kind of scent. When the other animals hear his voice they gather from far and near, and follow him wherever he goes on account of the sweetness of his breath. Only the dragon, hearing his voice, hides in terror in the bowels of the earth. There it lies in a daze, because it cannot bear the sweet smell, and remains motionless, as if it were dead.


Learn more about medieval animals and bestiaries:

Animals in the Middle Ages: The Elephant

The Beauty of the Bestiary

Preventing ‘Monkey Business’. Fettered Apes in the Middle Ages

Pet Care Advice from the Middle Ages

Animals in Medieval Sports, Entertainment, and Menageries

Ten Strange Medieval Ideas about Animals