Animals in the Middle Ages: The Monkey

Monkeys are animals that like to imitate everything they see men doing. They feel happy when there is new moon, and with the full and waning moon, they get sad and filled with melancholy. You may know that the female always gives birth to two babies; she terribly loves one of them but hates the other.

When there is a hunter in the jungle, she holds tight the one she loves the most against her chest, holding him with her arms, and she carries the one she abhors clinging in her back, as he holds her neck with his arms. When she sees that the hunters are close and that she will not be able to escape, because of the fear of death, she drops the baby she loves the most, the one she was carrying in her arms.


Meanwhile, the other baby holds on her neck as tight, that she cannot get rid of him, and whether she likes it or not she must carry him on her back. This is how the mother and the less cherished baby escape from the danger of hunters. The Ethiopians say that in their land, there exist different varieties of monkeys, but the book will not say more than what it has already said.

~ Translation of the BOOK OF TREASURES by Brunetto Lattini (ca. 1230-1294).

Animals are a substantial part of the late classical encyclopedic writing, and along with plants and minerals, an essential part of the great cosmos, the overarching concept of the encyclopedia. Animals played an even greater role in ancient and medieval hunting and pharmacological treatises, as well as fable collections, and are featured in collections of animal lore such as the Early Christian Phisiologus. The Judeo-Christian Bible, like virtually all narratives of creation and early time, also gives a significant role to animals.


This ancient and Early Christian heritage is both the catalyst and source of lore for the animal chapters of Brunetto Latini’s LI LIVRES DOU TRESOR (Book of Treasures), which nevertheless is largely secular in content. The relatively large size of the animals section in the Book of Treasures undoubtedly reflects an increasing European interest in animals, both indigenous and exotic, that began in the 12 century and continued through the Middle Ages, producing growing numbers of royal and civic menageries, private ownership of exotic animals, and taste for animal subjects in art and literature.

In the animal chapters in the Book of Treasures, the simplicity of form and content, and the accessibility of the vernacular text to a broad audience adhere closely to the encyclopedic tradition that sought to simplify the complex discourses of scholars for the general public, and in the Middle Ages for the clergy as well.

~ Excerpt from the analysis by Willene B. Clark (Professor of Art History Emerita at Malboro College) in the commentary volume of the BOOK OF TREASURES.

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