Book Review – A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age

Review of Brigitte Resl, ed. A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Volume Two of Six-volume Cultural History of Animals series. Oxford: Berg, 2011. Print. 288 pages. 57 illustrations. $120.00.

Brigitte Resl’s edited collection, A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age, is part two of a multi-volume series about animals in Western civilization dating from Roman and Greek antiquity to the modern era. As outlined in the introduction, “Animals in Culture, ca. 1000 – ca. 1400,” this volume represents a collection of essays that examine aspects of animal culture during the medieval period. Although relatively brief (under 200 pages excluding notes), these seven thought-provoking and highly informative essays provide, firstly, invaluable insight into very specific aspects of medieval animal culture, and, secondly, a strong foundation from which future study of animals in the Middle Ages can greatly benefit.


In the introduction, Resl points out the primary barrier to the study of animals in the Middle Ages: animals appear primarily in literature of the period and are largely absent in non-literary archival texts. She pinpoints language and terminology as a further obstacle. Due to the many vernacular languages in the period, modern taxonomic strategies have frequently needed to fall back on the Greek and Latin texts by Aristotle and Pliny in order to ascertain which animal the vernacular texts referenced. Resl next outlines an intriguing series of issues associated with the study of animals, from the frequency of medieval famine to the prevalence of animal imagery and fasting depicted in the Bible. She also provides the first of many manuscript images that appear in every essay in the collection, and these images constitute one of the best features of this collection. In addition, she briefly discusses phenomena such as real-life medieval bestiaries and the way animals were being conceived as less “animal” and more like “complex beasts” by the later Middle Ages (26). Resl’s term “complex beasts” refers to the way that animals were, for the first time, considered sentient beings or beings with souls during this period.


In the first essay of the collection, “Good Creation and Demonic Illusions: The Medieval Universe of Creatures,” Sophie Page argues that “attitudes to animals that contradicted the apparently stringent medieval policing of the border between human and animal can be found among all social levels” (28). Page convincingly traces this blurring of the line between human and animal across a wide range of influences, from the Biblical appropriation of animal imagery as a means to underscore the struggle between good and evil, to the influence of the travel writings of Marco Polo and John Mandeville. Page ultimately concludes that “the boundaries between God, animals, and demons were thus relatively firm in medieval culture [but] the border between humans and animals was more fluid and hence a site of anxiety” in the period (57).


Three of the essays discuss how humans subordinated animals for their own use. In the first of these essays, “Medieval Hunting,” An Smets and Baudouin van den Abeele offer a survey of medieval hunting varieties and practices. Their discussions of falconry, venery (hunting with hounds), archery, and trapping are very informative and are imperative for scholarship concerning medieval hunting. These essays also provide a topical survey of textual sources, both literary and non-literary. Esther Pascua’s essay, “From Forest to Farm and Town: Domestic Animals from ca. 1000 to ca. 1450,” explores domesticated animals in this period by “scrutinizing what we now consider domestic and farm animals” through the perspective of the “system of domestication in the Middle Ages” that “made a clear distinction between animals according to their physical proximity to human beings and their role as working or edible animals” (81). Pascua’s exploration moves fluidly through a discussions of pigs, the most commonly owned animals in the Middle Ages, to records in the Domesday Book, which show the displacement of pigs by sheep on medieval farms. Pascua argues that the work of animals, much like that of humans, became more commoditized, and that “working animals were more confined to specific spaces than before, [as] their lives [were] controlled more tightly by human beings” (102). The implication here is significant: animals became subject to more stringent control first, but humans would soon follow in the early modern period. In her essay entitled, “Animals in Medieval Sports, Entertainment, and Menageries,” Lisa J. Kiser offers an account of the human use of animals for entertainment in the Middle Ages, arguing that “animals have histories too, and those histories have only begun to be recorded” (104). Starting with medieval menageries, Kiser’s essay also explores the use of animals in processionals and civic spectacles, equestrian war games, bullfighting, horse racing, and animal-to-animal combat, and as trained performers.


The next two essays analyze animal culture in the context of religion and philosophy. Pieter Beullens’s essay, “Like a Book Written by God’s Finger: Animals Showing the Path toward God,” argues that “the search for similitudes was the predominant characteristic of zoological research as it was carried out for most of the Middle Ages” (131). Beullen traces these attempts to find similarities among animals by comparing accounts of bestiaries and aviaries with medieval texts, including new translations of texts by Aristotle, Pliny, various encyclopedias, and a topically organized series of medieval authors who wrote about animals. In their essay, “Animals and Anthropology in Medieval Philosophy,” Pieter De Leemans and Matthew Klemm argue that medieval philosophers “found room for [. . .] issues concerning continuity and discontinuity, similarity and difference, between the animal organism and the human organism in the psychology of Aristotle” (154). Their article also explores the influence of Aristotle on medieval taxonomies and encyclopedic treatises on animals. They intriguingly and successfully steer the discussion towards the medieval discussion of the intellect of man and animal, as well as the influence of Aristotelian discourse on late medieval naturalism.


In the final essay of the collection, “Beyond the Ark: Animals in Medieval Art,” editor Brigitte Resl provides numerous figures of artistic works that illustrate her thesis that any understanding of the presence of animals in medieval art must rest on a fundamental understanding of Christian artistic imagery. Like some of the other essays in this collection, Resl’s essay refers to texts by Pliny and Aristotle, but the essay does so with a unique perspective. The essays comprising this volume fit extremely well together, in that the inevitable gaps in one essay are filled by the content of another. Taken together, the volume covers every immediately imaginable aspect of the basic subject matter of these seven essays, animals. This collection is well-conceived and comprehensive despite its relatively small page count and is recommended for any scholar doing research on medieval animals.

Dan Mills

Dan Mills is a PhD candidate at Georgia State University where he is writing his
dissertation on early modern utopian literature.  His other research interests
include medieval literature, critical theory, and history of the book and
bibliography.  He has had articles published in the journals Pedagogy and Cahiers
Elisabethans and has an article forthcoming in an edited collection published by the British Library.

Creative Commons Licence
Book Review – A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age by Dan Mills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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