The exhibition and catalogue Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World explore the realm of medieval animal symbolism. Here art historian and catalogue contributor Debra Higgs Strickland explores some of the bestiary’s ominous images in their medieval cultural context. —Ed.
The splendidly illustrated bestiaries displayed in the exhibition Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World and described in the accompanying catalogue tell us much about medieval fascination with all of Creation: beasts, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, plants, and even stones. Far more than books about natural history, though, bestiaries explain how the natural—or more often, invented—habits of beasts show humans how to live an upstanding moral life. For example, the elephant who mates only once in its lifetime teaches the honor of marital fidelity; stags who help each other swim across the river demonstrate the virtue of friendship; and law-abiding bees who protect their king and work hard for their hive-dwelling community are held up as model citizens.
But not all animals behave virtuously, and so the bestiary also includes ominous themes. One of these is the ever-present threat of the Devil and his ceaseless attempts to trap good Christians and win their souls for hell. Consider the bestiary fox, who deceives birds by playing dead, and then suddenly jumps up and devours them when they come close to investigate. Pity the predicament of sailors, who drop anchor and build a fire on the back of the whale—disguised as an island!—who then drowns them in the depths of the ocean. Both stories warn bestiary reader-viewers to be alert to the Devil’s tricks or risk death and eternal damnation.
Anti-Semitism and Homophobia
Other bestiary stories begin on a positive note but then take a sudden turn to the dark side. One of these concerns the phoenix, an imaginary bird familiar today from the Harry Potter series of books and films. According to the bestiary, after 500 years, the one and only phoenix ends his life by incinerating himself on a burning pyre. But after three days, he rises from the flames, alive and intact.
The miracle of the phoenix’s rebirth is first compared to Christ’s death and resurrection, as described in the Christian Bible. But the bestiary goes on to state that Christ’s ability to rise again “so angered the Jews that they wanted to stone him.” Medieval Christian readers would have understood this statement in relation to the Church’s teaching that Jews were to blame for the death of Christ, which in turn fueled tense relationships between Christian and Jews in medieval societies.
Even more sinister is the story of the hyena, a filthy creature who feeds on corpses and reportedly changes sex from male to female and back again. According to the bestiary text, the sex-changing hyena symbolizes the “duplicitous” Jews who are said to worship idols.
A thirteenth-century English copy of the bestiary of Guillaume le Clerc, a version of the bestiary in French, places exceptional emphasis on the anti-Jewish messages of the hyena and other animals by including a whole set of additional illustrations featuring unflattering depictions of medieval Jewish figures representing the rejection of Christian beliefs alongside the usual bestiary images.
It is also possible to find a homophobic message in the hyena story, in relation to medieval theological warnings against the sin of sodomy, which bestiary artists referenced with extremely graphic representations of the hyena’s genitals.
The most popular of the anti-Jewish bestiary creatures was the owl, whose story is represented in many other types of medieval art, such as church sculpture. In the bestiary, the owl’s daytime blindness and vulnerability to attack by smaller birds is compared to the “spiritual blindness” of Jews, who are said to prefer the darkness of their own religion to the light of Christianity.
Bestiary images of owls attacked by smaller birds, therefore, were understood by medieval reader-viewers as symbols of the supposed triumph of Christianity over Judaism. More ominously, such images also reference the real-life attacks and persecutions suffered by medieval Jews all over Western Europe that were still going on at the time—and in the very places—bestiaries were produced.
It is important to recognize that such negative bestiary stories, which are so offensive to modern sensibilities, in fact reflect Christian ideas about Jews and Judaism that were widely echoed across medieval art and literature. These ideas were expressions of prejudice and ignorance, to be sure, but they were also religiously motivated. More specifically, they reinforced, through simple-to-grasp animal stories, the medieval Christian belief that Judaism, known as the Old Law, was overturned and replaced by the New Law of Christianity. It is also true that the related and very damaging belief that Jews were responsible for killing Christ was a contributing factor to the climate of anti-Semitism that shadowed Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
Women were another bestiary target. Because the Christian Bible states that Eve was the first to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree in Paradise (Genesis 3), medieval Christians were taught that Eve was a disobedient temptress responsible for bringing lust, sin, and death into the world. Further, it was believed that Eve’s guilt passed to her female descendants—meaning all women for all time.
Throughout the Middle Ages, women were largely considered mentally and physically inferior to men, and also dangerously seductive—even if they were nuns! Such attitudes were loudly voiced by early Christian theologians, such as Tertullian, whose famous third-century rant included in his book On the Apparel of Women condemned all women as “the Devil’s gateway.” Little wonder, then, that the bestiary story of the fire stones—stones that burst into flames when brought close together—compares them to burning lust between men and women, condemns Eve, and warns men to keep away from women for the sake of their immortal souls. All three of these ideas were communicated artistically in bestiary images of naked male and female figures, evocative of Adam and Eve, surrounded by flames.
Ocean-dwelling sirens—half woman, half bird or half fish—are identified in the bestiary text as aquatic whores who lull sailors to sleep with their sweet singing, only to rip and tear them to pieces. The accompanying images provided artists with an excuse to depict female nudity to lend the story a more lurid, or perhaps enticing, dimension.
The bestiary viper, meanwhile, demonstrates her dangerously lustful nature by biting the head off her male partner after mating with him; she is compared in the bestiary text to wives who abuse and injure their husbands and refuse to recognize male authority.
But the most expansive collection of bestiary misogyny of all is the Bestiary of Love, composed in the thirteenth century by the French troubadour Richard of Fournival, who rewrote the entire bestiary into a mean-spirited love-plea that fixates on women’s wicked ways.
Misogyny in bestiaries was acceptable to medieval reader-viewers for two reasons: first because it was a feature of their own societies in which women had very limited rights, and second because it reinforced medieval Christian ideas about women and the dangers of sexual lust that people learned by listening to sermons and reading other types of religious stories.
Violence and Animal Cruelty
The bestiary was a bleak place even for some of its animals. Typical images of the unicorn depict the one-horned beast cradled in the lap of a virgin while being ambushed by one or more armed hunters. The unfortunate beaver is shown running from hunters seeking to kill and castrate him for the medicinal value of his testicles, which the beaver was said to bite off himself to save them the trouble and to save his own life. In other images, men use slingshots to shoot birds out of trees; and animal babies, such as tiger cubs, are heartlessly stolen from their mothers.
Such images make it all the more satisfying to see the bestiary bonnacon, an imaginary, ox-like creature with flexible horns, wreak his terrible revenge by blasting hunters with his burning excrement! The violence against animals pictured and described in the bestiary can be traced to the very ancient belief, still held by some people today, that humans are superior to all other creatures and therefore have a natural right to own, use, consume, or kill non-human creatures however they see fit.
It may seem very surprising, if not unnerving, that these charming books of beasts contain so many disturbing messages. But we should remember that the ideas they express were extremely widespread across medieval Western Christian societies and may be found in many other types of medieval art and literature. As products of their time, bestiaries reinforced fear of the Devil, sanctioned violence against animals, and promoted erroneous and harmful ideas about Jews and women. But you wouldn’t necessarily know this just from looking at the pictures. Then as now, bestiary artists often matched beautiful images to ugly messages, and we need to pay attention to both to fully appreciate how these fascinating books were understood by their medieval reader-viewers.