During the Middle Ages (which lasted from the years 500–1500), people were as fascinated by animals of all stripes as we are—from snails to elephants to mythical beasts like unicorns and dragons. Animals represented themes and lessons from Christianity and were important characters in allegorical tales; for example, elephants and dragons battled as mortal enemies as a symbol for the struggle between good and evil, while unicorns had a penchant for maidens in the forest, an allusion to the birth of Christ from the Virgin Mary.
Illuminated images and descriptions of animals were joined together in the bestiary, a kind of medieval encyclopedia of animals. Illustrations helped readers visualize familiar creatures and helped them understand animals they may have never seen before, but the bestiary also provided stories about how animals could be seen as symbols of morality and Christian doctrines.
Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts, and Larisa Grollemond, assistant curator of manuscripts, went to work finding the answers. Check out their responses below. You might never look at these critters the same way again.
What animals did people have as pets in the Middle Ages?
The most common pets were cats and dogs, but we also know of people who kept more exotic animals like birds and monkeys.
One pet cat name we know of from a medieval text is Cruibne (little paws). I think I might use that the next time I get a cat! Look closely at this image and you can see Alexander petting his cat underwater!
Any pet fish?
In this image, a knight and his wife lament over the fact that the fish who live in the moat of their castle have many offspring, while they are left childless.
Did they domesticate wild animals like tigers or even alligators?
One of the most popular medieval legends was about how to catch young tigers (presumably to keep them). You should throw a mirror at the mother tiger so she is distracted and thinks her own image is her cub. Then you can run away fast with the cub! We have some evidence of exotic animals being kept in royal menageries, but not much else to suggest that such animals were “domesticated.”
Which societies viewed black cats as tokens of luck/good will?
According to the medieval bestiary, “the cat is a full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry, and leaps and rests on everything that is before him. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratches and rends the other grievously with biting and with claws. And he makes a horrible noise and ghastly, and is unhurt when he is thrown down off a high place.” So that would be ill will!
Any particularly badass medieval animals?
The phoenix was a celebrated animal in the Middle Ages (inherited from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology). It lives for 500 years and then flies into a fire, whereupon it is re-born from the ashes.
There are also hybrid creatures called griffins, who had the front half (wings, talons) of an eagle and the hindquarters of a lion. They were thought to be so big and powerful that they could carry off a whole ox or a man to feed their young.
Was the myth of dragons created because someone in the Middle Ages found dinosaur bones?
We don’t have any record of people finding dinosaur bones in the Middle Ages, but that didn’t stop people from believing in dragons. You can find dragons in Antique works of art as well, like this 5th century BC object.
What do dragons symbolize in medieval history?
The dragon, as king of the serpents, usually symbolizes the idea of evil or the devil. The bestiary talks about how the dragon’s ability to topple elephants by winding themselves around their feet is like how the devil tries to bring down righteous people on the path to Heaven.
Why do medieval Europeans put dragons in a negative light in comparison to other cultures?
Because a dragon appears as a representative of Satan in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, and Christianity was such a powerful religion in medieval Europe, the dragon was closely associated with evil (see below left image).
I have often wondered if dragons were always evil and unicorns always a sign of purity?
It was usually true that dragons were seen as “bad guys” and unicorns as “good guys” in a symbolic sense, but these animals also often appeared as decorative elements that had less meaning. See this example (below right) where Saint Michael fights a dragon in the main image, but the margins contain several decorative dragons.
Which animals were the most popular to eat and which ones were the most “taboo” to eat?
We know of medieval people eating the same kinds of animals we still do today—beef, pork, and fish were common. Rich folks had a more…varied diet; for example, we know that King Richard III feasted on exotic birds including swans and egrets.
Where did the idea of flanking an entrance with lions come from?
Lions were seen as symbols of nobility and power, so they were often incorporated into family heraldry. Those symbols were then incorporated into tapestries, sculpture, and other decorative arts that were part of domestic and public spaces.
What did they think about snakes?
Snakes and other serpents usually had negative symbolic connotations, often standing in for the idea of evil or temptation to sin (as the serpent tempted Eve in the Bible), but the bestiary also describes how they shed their skin as a lesson to people to be willing to cast off their old selves on the path to salvation.
What’s the deal with all the snails in medieval manuscripts?
There’s a great blog post from the British Library all about this subject!
Why is there a red dragon on the flag of Wales?
The dragon was frequently used in medieval heraldry, and the red dragon has been associated with Welsh cities (like Cardiff), and with British heraldry more generally, for centuries.
Strangest animal that you see in a painting?
The strangest animal from one of our manuscripts is actually a creature you’d think would be familiar, the elephant. But in this image, it looks a bit like a giant Labrador retriever blowing a horn!
What weird powers did people believe animals had?
According to medieval legend, a dog would attack the murderer of his master at the funeral.
Was there any concept of megafauna (giant turtles, enormous horses, etc.) in the Middle Ages?
One animal that was thought to be exceptionally big was the griffin. It could carry away an entire man in its claws. This “griffin claw” (really an ibex horn) was seen as proof.
Why did they think cats were familiars of witches?
The association of cats with witches actually happens more after the Middle Ages, but is related to the idea that cats are nocturnal (the bestiary talks about how well cats can see in the dark). Medieval cats have a great reputation for being excellent hunters!
Were there any beliefs about animals that would completely shock us?
One of my favorite stories about an animal from the Middle Ages is the crocodile. According to medieval legend, it weeps after eating a man, which is where we get the phrase “crying crocodile tears!”
Is the western dragon related to the eastern?
The conception of the dragon in Western Europe is really different than in the East. The Western dragon tends to represent evil, while in Eastern traditions, especially in China, the dragon represents luck and other auspicious things.
Why did they think salamanders were fireproof?
The bestiary discusses how salamanders are so cold that they can withstand fire; they were seen as symbolic of righteous people, who could withstand the trials of the devil.