Sunday, October 25

Medieval Royal Beasts

Collections of exotic and curious animals have a long history, with Menageries known from ancient times. Yet most medieval people had never seen such animals in real life. They knew they existed, having heard of them from the Bible, or seeing them represented in carvings or pictures. The other source of knowledge about animals came from bestiaries. A Bestiary is a collection of descriptions of a wide variety of animals, birds and fish- real and imaginary. And because this was the medieval period, each description contained a hefty dollop of moralising explanation (of which more later).

Yet from the 12th century, people were looking increasingly to other lands. The Crusades, long-distance pilgrimages and international diplomacy, along with ever-expanding trade routes made for experiences that were out of the ordinary. And this applied to animals, too.

Elephant & Hare

Now those creatures that had previously been out of reach could be brought back to Europe from far-flung countries. Their rarity made them a luxury and a means to display huge amounts of wealth and the highest status. These displays of exotic animals were not something to be shared with the public in many cases, but to impress other rulers or aristocracy who came to visit.

Medieval royal menageries existed in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland- and England. William the Conqueror had a collection of exotic beasts. But it was his son, Henry I, who would house the collections at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. What he held there may surprise you. In around 1110, Henry enclosed a park to keep lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and a porcupine.

Norman Lion on Cloak
(C) E.M. Powell

I did mention earlier that, for the medievals, each animal had to be put in a moral context as well as a physical one. Lions were on the A-list. They were used as symbol for God and of course a winged Lion is used to represent St. Mark, one of the four Evangelists. They were often shown in pictures as sleeping with open eyes, an image which implied vigilance and to symbolise Christ’s continued life after the crucifixion.

Norman Lion on Cloak
(C) E.M. Powell

Lions of course were also the ultimate status symbol. The lion was believed to rule the animal kingdom. The Aberdeen Bestiary (written and illuminated in England around 1200) states with great authority:
“The lion is the mightiest of the beasts; he will quail at the approach of none.”

So if you were a man who could keep a lion, captured and within your power, then it must surely have added to your powerful image. (Perhaps a bit like the modern equivalent of driving a very expensive, fast car.) To be said to have lion-like features was to signify bravery. In Arthurian romances, the lion is presented as being a suitable companion for a chivalric knight.

Leopards and female lions were often confused with each other in their pictorial representation. But as regards their moral context: lions, they are not. The Aberdeen Bestiary has this:
“The leopard is a spotted wild animal who is very swift.”


So far, so good.  Then:
It is produced by the adultery between a lioness and a pard. Of the pard: the pard is a species which has a mottled skin, is extremely swift and thirsts for blood; for it kills at a single bound… Their mating produces a third species. As Pliny says in his Natural History: the lion mates with the pard, or the pard with the lioness, and from both degenerate.
Many of you will be asking, what’s a pard? My only answer can be Leo + pard. See? And it was all going on in those pens at Woodstock. Woodstock, where we also had lynxes in the pens.

Today, we know lynxes as members of the cat family. They are traditionally linked with keenness of sight. The expression lynx-eyed is recorded from the late 16th century. For a medieval knight with excellent eyesight, the lynx was an ideal animal to put on his coat of arms.


But the lynx was known to the medievals for something else, too: the lynx stone. A lynx stone (or Ligurium/ Lyngurium) was used in an obscure type of medieval and early modern medicine: the therapeutic application of gemstones. Now, curing yourself by deft application of a diamond or two sounds like it might be quite nice.  Unfortunately, the lynx stone was a gem stone made of frozen lynx urine.

The Aberdeen Bestiary knows all about it:
Ligurium comes from the urine of the lynx. You can see through the middle of the stone as through glass. The beast hides its urine in the sand lest it should be found. The virtue of ligurium is that it takes away stomach-ache and staunches.
In case anyone has tummy trouble and are thinking of heading for the nearest lynx: please don’t. Although the lynx is represented over and over with its little gem of wee beneath its hairy self, the lynx stone *whispers* isn’t real.


Woodstock had camels, too. Because of the Crusades, these animals were becoming increasingly well-known. Many Crusaders appreciated them as a working animal.  This writer of a bestiary was still a bit sniffy about them however: “Camels can become unrestrained with lust.”


Even our last named resident at Woodstock, the porcupine, wasn’t let off the hook. Most of the accounts in bestiaries claim that porcupines simply spear fruit to bring home to their families. Others prefer a more robust use of porcupine quills. One is that the quills can be symbolically pointing towards one’s enemies. The other is that the porcupine is a symbol for sin, and just as when a sinner is challenged and presents denial, the porcupine rolls into a ball and presents even more sharp points.  It says a lot about the medieval mindset that even a poor old porcupine can be drafted in as a representation for sin. (I do hope hedgehogs were let off.)

But it was all change in 1210. For here, we find that the Royal Menagerie is setting up shop at none other than the Tower of London and the first lions are recorded here in that year.

The Tower of London
(C) E.M. Powell

In 1235, King Henry III received three lions from the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. These three beasts were soon depicted on the King of England’s arms, but were referred to as leopards, not lions. They were most likely lions, as Norman lions were not usually depicted with manes.

It wasn’t only lions at the Tower. King Haakon of Norway sent Henry III a ‘white bear’ in 1252, and it is believed that this was a polar bear.  The bear was taken to the Thames to swim and to catch fish.

Even if it was a polar bear, many medieval people were still familiar with bears as animals, either as animals to be hunted or used in the hideous amusement of bearbaiting. One could not say that the new arrival in Lent 1255 was in any way familiar: a male African elephant, gifted to Henry III by King Louis IX of France.

Benedictine chronicler Matthew Paris hastened to the Tower to witness this astounding beast for himself, along with those who flocked to see the novel sight.” According to Matthew the elephant was:
ten years old and ten feet high, was greyish-black, and had no fur but a very hard, rough hide. It was ponderous and robust, and indeed was a prodigious and monstrous animal. It used its trunk to obtain food and drink, and had small eyes in the upper part of its head.
He then drew it, too.

Elephant, by Matthew Paris

The Aberdeen Bestiary also has its say on elephants: “The elephant strikes fear into bulls, yet fears the mouse.” And charmingly, if strangely: “The little elephant has this characteristic, that when some of its hair and bones have been burnt, nothing evil approaches, not even a dragon.” Phew.

But whatever the fate of a little elephant, its big brother at the Tower did not survive for long. It is recorded that he died on 14 February 1257, just two short years later. One cannot imagine that his ‘grooms’ (despite being extremely well-paid) had much of an idea of how to properly care for him. His life in his cramped surroundings must have been bewildering and wretched. It can’t have been much better for the polar bear, led to swim in the crowded and noisy Thames, or for any of the other creatures who lived there.

Royal Beasts- Polar Bear
Jonathan Cardy- Public Domain

Regrettably, none of the Menagerie’s animals lived for very long, although the Menagerie itself continued to grow over the centuries. In the 1830s, it finally left the Tower for its new home at Regent’s Park. In 2011, Historic Royal Palaces commissioned artist Kendra Haste to recreate some of the animals in sculpture. The installation, Royal Beasts, will be in place until 2021. The beasts are back.


The Aberdeen Bestiary: (Note: you can view the whole Bestiary online & I highly recommend it.)
Cassidy, Richard & Clasby, Michael: 
Curl, James S, & Wilson, Susan, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Oxford University Press (3rd ed) online 2015
Historic Royal Palaces: Experience the Tower of London (2013)
James Stevens  and Susan Wilson
Resl, Brigitte, ed., A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Berg (2007)
Walton, Steven .

All images are in the Public Domain
Note: I first published this post (or an edited version of it) on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on September 17th 2015.

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