Sunday, 24 April 2016
Apologies for a two-week absence of posts. This was due to the arrival of Poggle the Puggle puppy! This week a short post about the character of cats and how they made good illicit pets (at least in medieval times!)
In the Middle Ages pet keeping was frowned upon. This was because animals were seen as servants of man, as adorned by God and set out in the Bible, and to ‘spoil’ them went against nature. There was also the argument that in times of terrible hardship, keeping a pet took food out of the mouths of the starving poor.
Indeed, noblemen did keep pet dogs and overfed them, since obesity was seen as a way of showing off your wealth and that you had so much food you could feed it to the dog.
However, cats were hunters which meant they could fend for themselves and not eat valuable rations. This meant in medieval times many people who had no reason to keep a working dog, could justify contact with a cat. Indeed, working animals were usually kept outside, but the nature of mice meant the cat was allowed indoors, which provided another contact point between people and potential pet.
Women who lived and worked in the home, those in religious orders, and scholars spent a lot of time indoors. The quiet nature of cats meant that those in religious orders could pet a cat without being found out, and cats suited the reflective nature of scholars.
"I have seen in my own order, some lectors who despite being highly learned and of great sanctity had a blemish [pet-keeping] on account of which they were judged frivolous men."
In religious orders especially, it was considered saintly to love wild animals, but frivolous to keep them as pets. The Cistercian order banned keeping of animals for pleasure.
“Cats, dogs, and other animals are not to be kept by nuns as they distract from seriousness.”
But how do legislate against showing affection to the kitchen cat? In reality, a blind eye was often turned when it came to cats, because of their quietness and use as hunters.
Sunday, 3 April 2016
What is a bestiary?
A bestiary is a book about beasts (a sort of early natural history volume); they were popular in the middle ages and reached peek interest Victorian times. Bestiaries were the “Discovery Channel” of their day, offering people a glimpse into an exotic world of fearsome and extraordinary animals that they might otherwise not encounter.
Then as now, people were hugely curious about animals, and a richly detailed bestiary was a source of endless fascination. Indeed, in the 1730s the first children’s natural history book was published and promised to ‘entertain and engage’ attention such that children would develop a reading habit for life.
But the details included were not always what we expect to read in the modern day. For example William Wood’s bestiary of 1792 included descriptions of the animal’s appearance and behavior, but it also described what they tasted like when eaten. The Capybara (a large, guinea pig like rodent from South America) was described as tasting: “Fat and tender…with an oily and fishy taste.” And Edward Topsell’s ‘History of Four-Footed Beasts’ described cat meat as having “poisonous qualities”.
Bestiaries also held another, perhaps less obvious function. In the 16th and 17th century the animal kingdom had yet to be categorized into families, species, and genus. In other words all of animal creation was largely a disordered jumble. To bring order to this chaos writers of bestiaries sometimes ordered their subjects alphabetically, or by location, or by features such as what they ate (carnivore or herbivore) as the author saw fit. By grouping animals together within the pages of the bestiary, this fulfilled a perceived right of man, as top of the creation tree, to assert his superiority over other species.
However, the divisions within a bestiary were not always “scientific” to say the least. One 17th century book divided animals into “Those that are hard to draw” (including the lion, unicorn, horse, and rhinoceros) and “Rough and shaggy haired” (such as dogs).
Alternatively, they might be grouped as to the satisfaction they gave the hunter. Beasts that were hunted included the duck, fox, roe, and marten, whilst beasts that gave “Good sport” included the badger, otter, and wild cat.
It was work by men of thought such as Ray, Buffon, and then Linnaeus who began a movement to group animals according to scientific terms, rather than appearance or moral grounds. This wasn’t without problem though, with some authors of bestiaries apologizing that monkeys appeared too close in relation to man.
“…hoped the no specialist reader would pardon the repugnance we feel to place the monkey at the head of the brute creation, and thus to associate him with man.”
However, other people took an alternative view that the new-fangled scientific groupings helped to emphasize man’s supremacy and his pre-eminence and supremacy in creation. With whatever wry smile we might be tempted to think of bestiaries in the modern age, it remains a fact that they had undying appeal to an audience for whom this was the only way to gaze upon extraordinary creatures and marvel.