Wild Reddit Question Appeared!
When monks and scribes draw a bestiary, do they believe the animals depicted all existed? Were horses, zebra, unicorn and giraffe considered essentially the same class of beasts? [Question by u/Aoditor: link to the original reddit post]
It all started with the Physiologus…
The literature of bestiaries evolved substantially from the 5th to the 15th century. The founding stone of this literature is nonetheless the Physiologus, written in Greek in the 2nd century and translated into Latin in the 4th or 5th century. This work consisted in 48 descriptions of animals, real or imaginary, such as the lion or the unicorn, mostly based on fables and literary tales. The success of this book cannot be underestimated. It was only rivalled by the Bible. It also counted amongst the first work translated into vernacular language around the 11th century.
Then Isidore of Seville pitched it…
Though the Physiologus was read generation after generation as surely as the Bible or saint Augustine’s works, and even though the Physiologus was translated and adapted to many literary format (an unknown “Thetbaldus” made a metrical Latin version of 13 of its sections), scholars slowly added on it and developed a literature of bestiaries that became a genre in itself. It all began, of course, with Isidore of Seville (c. 556-636) and his renowned Etymologiae, and etymological encylopedia that was a sum of knowledge every scholar deserving the name would study and learn by heart in the next centuries. The Etymologiae had a very specific goal: explain the nature of every single thing known to mankind by looking at the origin of the words used to designate them. This tend to offer somewhat funny statements: “The Tigris is so called because the fowl of panic and flight, for this is what they call the Persians and the Medes at an arrow. It is a beast with various markings, and the speed of the power of wonderful by whose name the river is called the Tigris, and it is the most rapid of all rivers.” (Isid. Etym. 12:2,7) [link to source] Isidore describes indeed the tiger as one of the fastest animal there is and justify this assertion by stating that its name derives from the Tigris river (located in the Middle East), which is “the most rapid of all rivers”. But more on the tiger in a moment…
And later medieval scholars pretty much repeated what Isidore wrote…
When writing on animals, Isidore used the Physiologus but multiplied his sources, quoting Pliny and many others. Scholars writing after Isidore would only reinforce that method. By the 13th century, Thomas Cantipratensis wrote a sum of his own, the De Natura Rerum, which renders Isidore’s work totally obsolete. Thomas names his sources systematically and adds many to those used by Isidore. Meanwhile, he also pushes the symbolic interpretation of animals much farther.
A common trait of medieval scholarship was to assume that our world was only the reflection of a higher reality: God’s own realm. This idea was summed up in the concept of “speculum” or “mirror”. Therefore intellectuals had the difficult task to uncover the hidden meaning of everything around us, through some sophisticated symbolic reasoning that was guided by faith and the word of God.
Meanwhile the tiger became a forgotten animal!
More on the tiger now. And I will basically sum up Clara Wille’s article “Le Tigre dans la tradition latine du Moyen Âge”, adding here and there some information of my own. This will help us understand how the literature of bestiaries evolved from the 5th to the 15th century.
The tiger was a well-known animal in India and it is notable that the Physiologus has a distinct Indian influence. The animal was introduced to the Roman world in the first century when Augustus received some tigers as a gift from an Indian embassy. It quickly became a famous pattern for mosaics and we often find it depicted as Bacchus’ personal steed.
Tigers totally disappeared from Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. We have to wait 1475 for Greeks to showcase tigers in Italy. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if medieval scholars totally misrepresented the tiger in their works. By the 12-14th century, the tiger is either depicted as a kind of dog, big cat or some fantastic creature, but looks nothing like the actual animal we know (and love).
And he got depicted as a fantastic beast
I’ll let you be the judge of it. In the famous Aberdeen bestiary, the tiger is a blue creature with white and red spots. However what I uncovered myself were the very diverse depictions of the tiger in manuscripts that all derived from a single same source: Petrus Berchorius’ De formis figurisque deorum, written in the 14th century. This introductory chapter of the Ovidius Moralizatus indeed describes Bacchus and sits him on a tiger. Plus, the De formis figurisque deorum quickly became a manual in itself for every artist that wanted to depict the pagan gods of old. Therefore, many manuscripts somewhat related to Berchorius’ work and depicting the pagan gods display the picture of a “tiger”, Bacchus riding it. You’d expect all those tigers to look alike since they are all derived from the same written source. Think twice.
The tiger looks like an exotic our monstrous horse in this wonderful Vatican manuscript (go to folio 5v), in Conty’s Echecs Amoureux moralisés and in the Bible des Poëtes. It is obviously a wolf in the Chronique de Hainaut (sorry, I got no link for this one). But more surprisingly it is either a monstrous dog or cat, a hippogriff, or a regular horse in the various manuscripts of Ovide moralise (links: Citta del Vaticano, BAV, MS Reg. lat 1480, go to the folio 176r; Geneva, BM, MS fr. 176, f. 177r; Paris, BnF, fr. 137, f. 182v).
However, by then, the zoological aspect of the tiger had less importance for medieval scholars than the symbolic interpretation of its assumed characteristics. In the very same manner, legendary creatures were studied very seriously even if their physical aspect were deemed of little or no importance. The phoenix was certainly very popular, but mostly because of its Christological interpretation. To my knowledge, no one ever claimed to have seen or hunted one.
This leads us to the core of the question: did medieval scholars actually believed that fantastic animals existed?
For one thing, we have already stated that they had lost touch with a lot of actually existing animals. The tiger was as fantastic to them as the unicorn, even though we know today one to be real and the other to be imaginary.
It didn’t really matter though because animals were seen as “symbols” to understand a higher reality
In fact we need to consider how medieval scholars and clerics acquired knowledge. Any artisanal or physical work was forbidden to them. They were not expected to conduct experiments to validate or deny scientific hypotheses. They could only learn from books and develop their critical mind through faithful contemplation. Therefore they saw the written text as sacrosanct and they especially revered the notable authors of old. What they knew of the eagle they read it in Aristotle, Pliny, Isidore and Gregory. They never mounted or financed any expedition to track down and observe the behaviour of eagles.
Albert the Great is maybe the most interesting medieval scholar in that regard. When he wrote his own sum of knowledge on animals, called the De animalibus, he grabbed a lot of information from his student, Thomas Cantipratensis. However, whereas Thomas somehow slavishly compiled what former authors wrote on different animals and natural manifestations, Albert the Great slipped a few personal remarks in his work. Here and there we can read how he corrects Pliny or other authors according to his own personal observations. Albert the Great travelled a great deal and he had many encounters. Nonetheless his work is riddled with typically superstitious affirmations. Indeed he writes, for example, that a musical instrument with cords made of sheep and wolf bowels would never make any music for the hate between the two animals is too strong and would mute any sound coming out of it (De animalibus, book 12). Empiric knowledge was therefore not even a concept back then.
Fantastic or not, beasts had magical properties
I will conclude this overview with an early modern archbishop: Olaus Magnus. He wrote a History of Northern People that would become very influential in the 16th century. In the book 18, chapters 45-47 of this work, he writes about werewolves and one thing clearly transpires from the text in my opinion: he actually believed they existed.
In conclusion, the lack of practical zoological knowledge and the tendency to think extensively through symbols totally made it possible for medieval scholars to believe in unicorns, phoenix and werewolves, or many other superstitions related to the animal kingdom. However, it needs to be stated that they rarely expressed their own opinion openly in their works. It is therefore very difficult to assess their definitive mind-set on the subject.
And we didn’t even consider hunting manuals! However in those books there were only animals that the aspiring hunter could actually encounter that were described.
For more insight on animal knowledge in the Middle Age, I’d advise to have a look at the wonderful website that is Animaliter (even though it is still a work in progress). The articles written on this online encyclopaedia are signed by the best and brightest of animal history in the Middle Ages.