Medieval Beasts:
Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
Fun Trivia Concerning Medieval
Beliefs about Animals
Dr. Wheeler
Honors Lecture
Carson-Newman College
4 December 2008
So, where do we go to find out
what medieval folk believed?
•Travel Narratives (Geraldus Cambriensis,Marco Polo,
Mandeville’s Travels)
•Scriptural Glossation and Marginalia in Bibles
•Medieval Cookbooks and Recipes
•Codices on Magic (especially in Italy)
•Medieval Encyclopedias
•Medieval Grammar Guides (especially etymologies)
•Proceedings of the Royal Society (17th century)
•Beast Fable Collections (Marie de France, Renart the
In the case of travel
narratives, the
more extraordinary the
claim, the more likely it
would catch the attention
of scribes and be recopied
into multiple manuscripts,
thus spreading the belief.
Thus, we have above a Blemeya, a “headless man” with his face in his chest, as
depicted here in the Anglo-Saxon text called The Wonders of the East, as
found in The Nowell Codex.
Here’s a Patagonian woman, second from the right.
Many manuscripts also include Patagonians (men or women with ears that are
so big they can flap them and fly through the air).
Other travel narratives had similar fanciful critters….
Left to right: A monopod of the Antipodes, a Cyclopean woman, an Ettin child, a
Blemeya, and a Canocepahlus. From the Harold Manuscript 1554a.
Images of a satyr, a monopod, and a hydra from Hrabanus Maurus’ guides to
wildlife in the Antipodes.
Again from Hrabanus Maurus, we have from left to right (1) a Canocephalus
(also spelled Cynocephalus), (2) a cannibal Cyclops, and (3) two
Christopher the Dog-Headed Saint
In the reign of the Emperor Diocletian,a man named
Reprobus (the "scoundrel") was captured in combat
against tribes to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica.
(Probably one of the Berber tribes.) Because
Cyrenaicae was closely related to the Greek word for
dog, mistranslations appeared calling these people
“dog-headed giants.”
In the legend, Reprobus meets the infant Christ
child, regretted his former behavior, and received
baptism. Christ rewarded with a human appearance,
and gave him the name Christopher, whereupon he
devoted his life to Christian service and became an
athlete of God, according to (Walter of Speyer’s Vita
et passio sancti Christopher martyris, 75).
Portrait from the Nuremberg
Chronicle of 1493, showing
Saint Christopher
St. Andrew preaching to a band of warlike canocephali.
One legend has St. Andrew and St. Bartholomew preaching in Canaan. Because
Canaan sounded like the Greek word for dog, it was though to be inhabited by an
abominable and cannibalistic race “... whose face was like unto that of a dog." The
Canaanites were believed by medieval monks to bark and eat human flesh. After
receiving baptism, however, their leader (known only as “The Abominable”) was
released from his doggish visage.
Wood Wooses: the medieval equivalent of bigfoot
But there’s nothing terribly
interesting on a scholarly
level about the travel
narratives. They are like
images of Bat Boy in The
Weekly World News.
They don’t show much about
the medieval world-view, or
how medieval people
perceived nature around
them. The really interesting
material is by medieval
Bat Boy from Weekly World News,
Marginalia is also a rich source of biological information.
Glosses in Latin Bibles almost always comment on any animals
mentioned in a verse, whether that verse be about an ant or an
Common ant diagrammed in a modern encyclopedia
Vade ad formicam, o piger,et considera vias ejus, et disce sapientiam!!
[Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways, and be wise!]
--Proverbs 6:6
Arguably, accurate biological information in a
scientific sense wasn’t even the point.
Gwysaney Vulgate Bible,
Northern France, ca. 1250, fol. 170r.
University of Houston Libraries Special Collections
For medieval thinkers, the point of studying
nature was spiritual enlightenment. For God
wrote two books.
(1)The Bible
(2)The World.
Both were meant to be
read and interpreted on
multiple levels at once-allegorically
typologically and
An ant was thus a lesson in hard work.
A pig was a lesson in gluttony.
A spider was a lesson in satanic traps, and so forth.
Nature was thought to be simply an expression of moral
allegories. Factuality and physicality of the animal did not
seem to matter. You “read” animals the same way you
read bible verses.
So, a game of trivia.
In the best Latin style….
the right-side of the class will be “Team Dexter.”
the left-side of the class will be “Team Sinister.”
Question #1:
According to the Welsh monk Geraldus
Cambriensis, what unusual aquatic fauna inhabit
Dublin Bay?
A.Dog-faced fish
B. Mermaids with beards
C. Sailor-devouring Sea-Serpents
D. Women who turn into swans
E. Sharks that recite biblical verses.
Answer #1:
B. Mermaids with beards
Gerald advises travelers to look out for them in Dublin Bay
in his famous guide, Topographia Hiberniae
(The Topography of Ireland).
Dublin Bay.
Question #2:
According to The Physiologus, how does a
panther capture his prey?
A. With the sweet smell of its breath
B. By hiding in pits and covering itself with
leaves and foliage
C. By using its claws to cut down fruit as
D. By praying to God for sustenance
E. By reciting biblical verses
Answer #2:
A. With the sweet
smell of its breath
According to Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon monks who transcribe The
Physiologus, the Panther emits a rose-like scent from its breath that lures
prey to it from miles away. This allegorically represents the sweetness of
the Good News, spread by word of mouth, which Christians read and then
become filled with hope, no longer fearing death. After the panther eats, it
sleeps for three days before it rises, representing Christ’s descent into the
tomb for three days before his resurrection.
Question #3:
According to the Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de
Voragine, when Mary Magdalene traveled to
France, she was protected by what animal?
A. An eagle with golden eyes
B. A seven-headed hydra
C. A one-legged dwarf
D. A white lion
E. A flying donkey
Answer #3:
D. a white lion
The lion also guarded her burial site after she died.
Question #4:
According to The Physiologus, why should
sailors be afraid of whales?
A. Whales are demon-possessed.
B. Whales pretend to be islands.
C. Whales are terribly flatulent.
D. Wicked whales make bets with each other
to see which one can capsize boats.
E. Whale-ivory is often sinfully used as
a replacement for true unicorn horn.
Answer #4:
B. Whales pretend to be
The Physiologus warns us that the whale represents the tricks of the devil.
Whales will floating motionlessly for years until dirt and vegetation accrue on
their backs. Foolishly sailors will try and land there, and the whale will then
suddenly dive under water so the sailor drowns. In the same way, Satan deceives
the sinner into thinking they walk on solid ground, then betrays them.
Whale showing its fluke.
Question #5:
According to Hrabanus Maurus and other sources
including Oxford Manuscript 1511, where do baby
bears come from?
A. Clay
B. Storks
C. Bear Excrement
D. Pocket Lint
E. India
Answer #5:
A. Lumps of clay
“Female bears spurn male bears. Instead, when they want to
reproduce, they take a lump of clay out of the earth and lick it
into the shape of a bear using their tongue until it comes to life.”
--Hrabanus Maurus
Question #6:
According to Anglo-Latin and French bestiaries,
what do baby Pelicans eat?
A. Unbaptized babies
B. Their mother’s blood
C. Bear Excrement
D. Pocket Lint
E. The hair of unchaste women
Answer #6:
B. Their mother’s blood
According to medieval bestiaries, the pelican’s sacrifice of her
own blood allegorically represents the Eucharist, in which Christ,
like the pelican, gives his own flesh and blood to nourish his
children--the church.
Question #7:
According to Italian and French bestiaries, how
does the porcupine feed its offspring?
A. By begging pigs for food
B. By rolling in grapes
C. By communal cooperation in a harvest
D. By tricking birds into dropping worms
E. It does not feed them. God has blessed
this species with no need to eat.
Answer #7:
B. By rolling in grapes.
“God has blessed the porcupine with many pointed quills. When
it hath the need to nourish its younglings, it doth roll in a grapevine so that its thorny hide hath pierced a dozen fruits, and in
this manner it strideth back to its lair with its foisson.”
Question #8:
According to Italian books of magic, why
were mandrake roots particularly dangerous?
A. They were poisonous
B. They caused dissension among women
C. They stirred up “manly lusts”
D. They screamed when harvested
E. They attracted infernal attentions
Answer #8:
D. They screamed when harvested.
According to medieval books of magic, when plucked by moonlight, an evil spirit inside the root would make a horrific scream
that would either strike men dead, insane, or deaf (depending upon
the version of the legend).
Close up view
Question #9:
According to monastic writers,
two animals had unusual
defenses against hunters. How
did the bonnacon and the
beaver respectively get rid of
hunters who wanted their pelts?
A.The bonnacon’s used speed and the
beaver used a vicious tail-slap.
B. They both dove underwater and held their breath
for three days, three nights, and three hours.
C. The bonnacon sprayed its excrement and the
beaver tore off its own body parts as a distraction.
D. They both dressed in rags and pretended
to be lepers.
Answer #9:
“The bonnacon would turn its hindquarters to the hunter and
a most foul effluvia upon its foes. The beaver, when pursued by
the hunter, would stop and use its sharp teeth to castrate itself,
and fling its generative organs on the trail behind it. The hunters’
dogs would be distracted by the cast-aside testicles, while the
beaver would escape safely to its lair. . . .”
“In this, the beaver represents the wise monk. He casts aside his
sexuality so he may avoid his hunter, the devil, and seek his
Question #10:
According to medieval hunting guides, how does
one capture a unicorn?
A. With the bible
B. With a mirror
C. With a chain of rose-garlands
D. With silver chains
E. With a virgin woman as bait.
Answer #10: E. With a virgin woman
The unicorn was far too fierce for any hunter to overcome with
strength, and far to swift to catch with speed, and far too wild
to be captured by guile. So, in the legends, (next slide)
…the virgin would sit quietly in a meadow and sing, and
attracted by her innocence, the unicorn would come and
lay its head in her lap, where it could be betrayed to the
Kongelige Bibliotek,
Manuscript 51633 4
Folio 5 verso
Modern scholars see the unicorn horn as a Freudian symbol, but
medieval interpreters saw this action as a typological symbol for
Christ submitting to the Virgin Mary, only for the beautiful unicorn
To be betrayed and crucified. Medieval tapestries often show the
unicorn hunters carrying a spear or three nails.
We end with a quotation:
“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
--Charles Lamb 1775-1834, modified from the Talmud.
We must distinguish
between the physical world
of biology and the ways in
which we use nature as a
way of thinking.
Lamb is not talking about solipsism….
. . . just that different ways of thinking lead us
to value the physical world in radically
different ways.
Consider how differently these examples
use nature. . . .
Native American folktales
Of Coyote and Raven
The Disney
19th Century Romanticism
Aesop’s Fables
The Environmental Movement
“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”
Darwin’s Origin of Species
18th Century Enlightenment
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment
thinks of nature as something chaotic to be
“tamed” or controlled by human reason.
In Native American legends, nature
functions etiologically as an explanation for
rituals, genealogies, seasons, originstories, etc.
In early nineteenthcentury Romanticism,
the idea of a loving,
caring “mother nature”
appears, where nature
is associated with
Edenic innocence in
contrast with corrupted,
soul-killing civilization.
William Blake, “The Blossom” from
Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience.
Twentieth-century animated cartoons return to
us the beast fables of old, where entertaining
stories with animal characters teach simple
moral lessons (or humorously subvert them!)
Accordingly,don’t think of medieval beliefs as….
or superstitious.
Think of them as a window
into the medieval
Sources that combine all of this
theology and folklore?--bestiaries!
•The texts grew out of medieval encyclopedias such as
Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (written in the 700s).
•They rarely contain original material--most simply copy
information from older sources, often lost.
•Their contents usually overlap a great deal with
herbaries, lapidaries, and astrology guides. In medieval
thinking, these categories overlap in content.
•They are intensely allegorical rather than factual.
Famous Examples:
The Physiologus (anonymous, many languages)
The Etymologiae (by Isidore of Seville)
Le Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaon (at the National Library
of Denmark)
The Bestiary of Anne Walshe (At the National Library of
The Aberdeen Bestiary at the University of Aberdeen.
Le Bestiaire de Guillaume le Clerc (Norman Codex)
Older Classical
Aristotle's Historia Animalium
Lucretius’ De Res Natura,
Pliny the Elder,
Isidore of Seville.
Rarely, if ever, was first-hand observation available for distant species. Keep in
mind,in a world without rapid communication and transport, the vast majority of the
population never traveled more than fifteen to thirty miles from where they were
born. Of those folks who were literate, the majority were monks bound by vows
never to leave the monastery walls, That meant naturalist studies and observation
were rarely feasible, and distortions were bound to occur.
Explicit Presentatio!
Works Consulted:
Benton, Janetta Rebold. (1992) The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in
the Art of the Middle Ages.
Clark, Willene B. and Meradith T. McMunn. (1989) The Bestiary and its
George, Wilma and Brunsdon Yapp. (1991) The Naming of the Beasts:
Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary.
Hassig, Debra (1995) Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology.
---., ed. (1999) The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art,
Life, and Literature.
Payne, Ann. (1990) Mediaeval Beasts.

Slide 1