A Mediæval Naturalist

WHEN, in 1121, Henry “the Fine Scholar,” the first of his name to sit on the English throne, wedded Alice, “the Fair Maid of Brabant,” the accomplished Matilda of Scotland had a worthy successor in the royal household. Queen Alice was not so demonstratively religious as Henry’s first wife, but she was gentle, beautiful, and young; and, although not half the age of her husband, was evidently attached to him and desirous of pleasing him to the best of her ability. A liberal education enabled her to share the literary tastes of the “ Beauclerc,” and at her court, as at that of Matilda, the scholar and the poet were always welcome. Matilda had been prodigal of gifts to those who could make verse, especially of a religious character, and could sing their productions in a pleasing voice. Henry generously favored scholarship of all kinds, and when Matilda died, those who had shared her bounty were permitted to remain at court and continue to bask in the sunshine of royal favor. So when the young and handsome Alice crossed the seas to be Henry’s second queen, she found a number of trouvères ready to laud her beauty and her wisdom in Anglo-Norman rhymes. In her they found a generous mistress, and were always ready to do her bidding.

About the time of this second marriage, Henry had gratified his love for animals by establishing an extensive menagerie at Woodstock. Natural history was not a strong point in the accomplishments of Queen Alice, but she wished to become familiar with a study which so deeply interested her husband. No compendious work on the subject existed in the vernacular of the court, — the Anglo-Norman, —although several fragmentary treatises in Latin had been written at various times and scattered among the convents.

Among the trouveres encouraged, if not supported, by her bounty, was Philippe de Thaun, who had shown his skill and learning by the compilation of a rhymed treatise on astronomy, the Livre des Créatures. He was clearly the man for the occasion; and Philippe de Thaun was directed to embody in a single poem all the wisdom of the age concerning the strange beasts of the field and the forest, the fowls of the air, the monsters of the deep, and such other matters as might be of interest and instruction to the royal amateur zoölogist. The poet-naturalist, who seems to have been of a serious turn of mind, “ improved ” the recorded traits of the animals in such way as to enforce the tenets of the church and the doctrines of Christianity. It is not easy to decide whether the characteristics ascribed to the several animals, or the edifying morals appended to these characteristics, are the more amusing. As Queen Alice lived a blameless life and died in the odor of sanctity, it is to be hoped the preachings of Philippe de Thaun were of more benefit than his teachings in zoölogy.

In performing his allotted task, De Thaun drew the largest part of his materials from the Latin treatises in existence at that time, adding something from other works that probably have perished, and supplying something of his own. That the poem is, in great part, a translation from Latin Bestiaria, he admits at the outset; but no Latin manuscript now extant contains so much of De Thaun’s Bestiary as to fairly claim the credit of being its original. But one manuscript copy of the Anglo-Norman poem has come down to our own time, and that is now in the British Museum. Thirty years ago Mr. Thomas Wright edited this, and a few other fragments of mediæval science, for the Historical Society of Science, a body that closed its very brief existence with the collection of these curious relics of past knowledge or ignorance.

The language of this Anglo-Norman Bestiary is not inviting, and its translation is a work of prodigious labor, there being neither dictionary nor grammar of the period. A specimen of the opening will probably be sufficient to satisfy the reader on that head, although presenting few of the difficulties to be found farther along in the poem.

“ Philippe de Taun en Franceise raisun Ad estrait Bestiaire, un livere de gramaire, Pur I'onur d’une Semme, ki mult est bele femme, Aliz est numée, reine est corunée, Reine est de Engleterre, sa ame n'ait jà guere ! En Ebreu en verité est Aliz laus de Dé. Un livere voil traiter, Dés sait al oumencer ! ”

Freely translated, that is to say: “Philippe de Thaun has translated into the French language the Bestiary, a book of science, for the honor of a jewel, a very handsome woman. Alice is she named, and queen is she crowned—the queen of England, may her soul never be troubled! Truly, iu Hebrew, Alice means praise of God. A book I will make; God be with its beginning!”

The introductory flattery disposed of, the poet-naturalist plunges into his subject without further delay, and first, of course, he brings into view the lion, the king of beasts. And just here we may express regret for the great loss zoölogical science has sustained by the absence — probably through the negligence of some lazy illuminator — of the figures of animals that should have illustrated the manuscript, and which are frequently alluded to in the text. The missing pictures would have helped us to a better realization of the ideas entertained by mediæval naturalists. The description of the lion shows that its appearance was not unfamiliar, — probably King Henry’s menagerie at Woodstock contained one or more specimens, — but of its habits in a wild state there was great ignorance. It is described as having a frightful face, a great hairy neck, the breast square, hardy, and “combatant,” slender flanks, a large tail, flat legs, large cloven feet, and long claws. When hungry or illtempered, it has an omnivorous appetite, devouring animals without discrimination. But the ass, of all creation, seems to be alone credited with spirit enough to demur to this leonine peculiarity. With true asinine obstinacy it “resists and brays,”

“Cum il cest asne fait, ki rechane e brait,”

kicking up its heels in dissatisfaction and lifting up its voice in resonant protest. But if the lion of those days was not much unlike its relative of the present age, it had some peculiar ways unknown to Jules Gérard and the other famous lion hunters of this generation. When hungry, Leo trotted to a convenient place, traced out a wide inclosure by dragging its tail on the sand, leaving an opening which it watched from a neighboring lurking-place. It is a peculiarity of the lion’s tail mark — at least we have Philippe de Thaun’s word for it—that no beast can cross it. So the unsuspecting victim walks into the charmed enclosure, the lion rushes out, closes the entrance with a draggling sweep of its tail, and then settles accounts with its prey in true leonine fashion. Nor is that the only use of the lion’s tail. When the hunter pursues it closely, the cunning beast swings its bushy appendage lustily about, wiping out its foot-prints as it dashes onward. The lion has several other peculiarities. For some occult reason it has a great dread of a white cock, and distinguishes its crow from that of a barn-yard fowl of colored plumage. Either in fear of the white cock, or for some other cause, it sleeps with open eyes. When the lioness brings forth a dead cub she holds it until the lion comes. He goes about it, crying and lamenting, when the cub is restored to life and the old lions resume their business of slaughter.

“Now,” says the poet, passing from the character of naturalist to that of sermonizer, “hear without doubting the meaning of this.” By the lion is symbolized the Son of Mary, who is king of all men. The fierceness of the beast typifies his wrath when he judges the Jews for crucifying him. The square breast of the lion signifies the strength of the Deity, its slender flanks the divine humanity, the tail his justice; the cloven foot shows that God will clasp the world and hold it in his fist; the claws indicate the vengeance he will execute on the Jews. The Jewish race is typified by the ass, obstinate and foolish, which can only be kept by main force from straying from the right path, as the Jews can be converted only by forcible means. Of such methods of conversion the unhappy Jews of that day knew more than they desired. Passing to the peculiar habits of the lion, it is shown that the tail, when marking an inclosure on the sand, represents Holy Scriptures tracing the bounds of Paradise and leaving an opening for human souls to find entrance when worthy. The print of the lion’s feet in the sand represents the incarnation, and its erasure by the swinging tail shows how God became man so slyly that even the angels were unaware of it and the devil was completely outwitted. The white cock signifies the men of holy life, the prophets of the Old Testament, who announced beforehand the shameful death upon the cross. Jesus, in his character of man, feared that death and shuddered at the voice that proclaimed its necessity. The days that the lion’s cub lies dead and its revival on the third day are, of course, explained as typifying the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. And here, too, occasion is taken to explain the canonical hours, or the devotional services marking the clerical divisions of the twenty-four hours. Matins are chanted in the morning because then was God judged, beaten, and bound; prime at sunrise because then he was raised and recovered us from death; tierce, for that then he was punished and raised on the cross; at midday because at noonday was it darkened when Christ was pierced with a spear; nones, for that then the Saviour died and the rocks were rent in twain; vespers in the evening, that being the time his body was placed in the sepulchre; and then, all being completed, follow silence and sleep, when the devil sees his advantage and roams about the world until dawn brings with it morning prayers and sends him to his retreat.

The panther is no less wonderful in its ways than the lion. It is a mild and gentle beast, much loved by all the animals except the dragon, which unlovely and unloving monster hates and fears it. The appetite of the panther is easily gratified. It eats all kinds of meats, and after a good meal turns in for a three days’ nap. On the third day, again feeling hungry, it goes to the entrance of its den and utters a great cry. With the cry issues an odor as of balm, and all the animals that hear the cry, be they far or near, assemble and follow the smell which the panther makes. Whether the panther then takes its pick from among its admirers and feeds on its loving victim, we are not told, but a grievous fate befalls the dragon. On hearing the cry and smelling the odor, it falls on its back and commits hari-kari by disemboweling itself, dying universally detested. In the “application” of this story, Christ is the panther, and the dragon is the devil. When Christ rose from the dead and called his people, the astonished devil turned over on his back and concluded all was lost.

For the benefit of those who never met with a dragon, it is proper to say that it had the form of a serpent, crested and winged, was furnished with two feet and a full supply of teeth, and, moreover, had a tail that was its weapon of offense and defense. And there is a moral to that tale. “Tail,” said the theologians quoted by Philippe de Thaun, “ means end,” and the fatal swishing of the dragon’s tail means that the devil will make an end of those who will not leave their evil courses.

As for the idrus, it is not easy to say what animal is meant. Snake-like in form, it lives on an island and swims with great swiftness. The purpose of its existence is to kill the crocodile, which it hates. When the crocodile is asleep with distended jaws, the idrus covers itself with mud, creeps slowly up to its foe, and crawls into the crocodile’s mouth. The saurian awakes and swallows the morsel already in its throat. Then comes the opportunity of the idrus. It cuts and rends the bowels of the crocodile, and tears its way out, leaving the scaly reptile to perish in agony. The only good thing to be said of the crocodile is that when it had devoured a man it manifested some pity for his fate, shedding crocodile tears over the hard necessity that compelled him to make a meal of so noble an animal.

The stag of those days had a trick which its modern descendants have forgotten. Being fond of snake-hunting, it sought a hole where the snake was concealed, blew water from its mouth into the hole until his snakeship was forced out, and then stamped the reptile to death with its hoofs. A relative of the stag, though it is not easy to identify it under the name of “ aptaleon,” was so fierce, that no one cared to undertake the adventure of capturing it except when the animal had involved itself in difficulties that rendered it powerless. It had a pair of curved horns, so sharp, though slender, that with them the animal could fell large trees. But when moved with a powerful thirst, that no water could slake save that of the Euphrates, flowing from Paradise, the aptaleon ran to the river bank, entangled its horns in a peculiar bush, and uttered a great cry of distress, which notified the hunter of its strait, when “ Li veneres la prent, si l'ocit en turment,”—the hunter takes it, and kills it in torment. A long moral is appended to the story, the gist of which is, that wine and women place many a man in the clutches of Satan.

The ant, its provident care for the winter, and its preference of wheat over barley, figure, of course, in the pages of our naturalist, and the moral that has been enforced from Solomon downwards, finds its accustomed place. A peculiar species of ant found in Ethiopia deserves more especial mention. In one of the rivers of that distant country are found grains of gold. The ants on the bank are very jealous concerning those treasures which they gather with their feet and store up. They suffer none of this gold to be taken, and as their bite is instant death, there is no desire to attack them boldly for the rich prize in their keeping. Strategy is called into play. A number of mares that have newly colted are kept without food and sent hungry across the river to the meadows where the ants resort. There the mares remain, feeding on the rich herbage, until they are satisfied. In the mean time the ants build their cells in baskets strapped on the backs of the mares and fill them with golden grains. When the mares are filled with food and their baskets laden with gold, they hear the whinnying of their colts and rush across the stream. The current washes away the ants, and the mares come to their owners with the golden sand.

Our old acquaintances, the centaur and the siren, of course make their appearance among the strange beasts in this collection. The centaur is after the classical pattern, a man to the waist and animal the inferior half, with the difference that the ass, instead of the horse, furnishes the hind quarters. The change seems to have been made to suit the “ moral,” which is that man is at least half an ass. The siren is woman to the waist, and the remainder made up of bird and fish, having the legs of a falcon and the tail of a fish. Its chief peculiarity is that it sang at the approach of a storm and wept bitterly in fine weather, and that the singing was fatal to the navigators who neglected the precaution of the wily Greek sailors who stuffed their ears with wax.

Our industrious friend, the beaver, is credited with a performance that can scarcely be put down as the result of mere instinct. It was hunted for a portion of its body considered a “ sovran remedy” in the mediæval pharmacopœia. The beaver was well acquainted with the fact, and when hard pressed compounded with the hunter by biting off the coveted portion and throwing it to him; then making its escape unmolested. If the same animal were hunted afterwards, it fearlessly ran in front of the hunter, showed that it had been mutilated and was therefore worthless, and thus secured immunity from further harm. Modern beavers can make dams and build huts, but the ancestral beavers were far ahead of them in knowledge and cunning devices.

In no age has the hyena had a good name, but according to De Thaun it was a very unlovely beast, a stag-wolf, savage and malodorous. The law very unnecessarily forbade its use as food. But fierce, filthy, and generally disagreeable as it was, some good was obtainable from it. In its eye was concealed a rare and precious stone. Whosoever secured that stone and concealed it under his tongue would possess the gift of divination.

The elephant is a beast of understanding,— “est beste entendable,”—goatshaped and huge of bulk, with teeth of ivory. So powerful is this beast that it can carry a castle on its back. Having but one joint in its legs it cannot lie down to sleep, because it would be unable to rise again. It therefore rests its back against a wall or tree and sleeps in this posture. But here is its danger. The hunter comes along, and secretly undermines the wall or cuts a slit in the tree. The elephant breaks down its treacherous support and falls with it, thus becoming an easy prey. When elephants mate, which they do at very rare intervals, they make a long journey to Paradise where Adam and Eve were first placed, and there repeat the incidents of the temptation and fall, the female eating the fruit of the mandragora instead of the tree of knowledge. The period of gestation is two years, and the young are brought forth in deep water. The age of an elephant is three hundred years.

The fox of the twelfth century was as sly and cunning as its successors, — perhaps a little more so. When hungry it powdered itself with red earth and lay as if dead, with its mouth open and tongue out. The unsuspecting bird flew to the seemingly dead fox, alighted on its tongue, and commenced pecking it A snap of Reynard’s jaws immediately settled the fate of the foolish bird. The hedgehog was also gifted with ingenuity. At the time of the wine-harvest it climbed the trees around which the vine was twined, and knocking down the ripest clusters of grapes impaled them on its bristles and carried them off to its young. The wild ass was not such an ass as to be ignorant of the days and the seasons. On each twenty-fifth of March it lifted up its voice and brayed piteously twelve times, thus proclaiming that night and day were divided into equal lengths of twelve hours, and mourning therefor, having an objection to short nights.

A mediæval zoölogical catalogue would be incomplete without an account of the salamander, sometimes called the grylio. It is a small lizard-shaped creature, of a nature so cold that it extinguishes fire immediately on touching it. Besides thus supplying a domestic fire-department, it was handy to have about because no trouble could happen where it was. But there were inconveniences connected with its presence, the salamander having a reprehensible habit of climbing apple-trees and poisoning the fruit, and also of falling into wells and poisoning the water.

A more remarkable creature than the salamander was the serra, a nautical beast that terrified ancient navigators as the sea-serpent now makes some excessively credulous Jack Tars gaze apprehensively at every huge sea-weed. The serra was winged like a bird, had the head of a lion and the tail of a fish. It was the foe of the seaman, because of the practical joke it enjoyed playing on him. When the serra espied a ship it made straight for it, and rising to full height with outstretched wings it took the wind from the ship’s sails and so held her becalmed. The serra having enjoyed its little joke sufficiently, plunged to the ocean depths and rewarded itself with a hearty meal of fish.

The whale is credited with a trick probably unknown to the hardy sailors who chase it with poised harpoons in the Arctic regions or in the Southern seas. It covers its back with sea-sand and lies dormant on the water like an island. The sea-farer, anxious to stretch his legs ashore and cook his meal over a camp-fire, lands on the seeming island, kindles a flame, and sits down to prepare a feast. When the whale feels the heat on its back, it plunges into the watery depths, carrying with it cooks, messkettle, and fire, greatly to the astonishment of those left on board ship. The question concerning the food of the whale, which has furnished some modern naturalists with a topic of discussion, is satisfactorily settled in the Bestiary. Its process of provisioning itself is that of the panther, already described. It breathes a sweet odor which attracts myriads of little fishes, and these are devoured in shoals as they come up for a sniff at the perfume.

The birds of De Thaun are as curious in form and characteristics as the animals that crawl, run, or swim. The partridge steals eggs from other nests and rears the brood as its own. But when the real parents meet the foster children, there is instant recognition, and the thieving foster-parent is left to mourn the fruitlessness of its roguery. The eagle clutches its young, and carries them up to look at the sun when it is brightest. The eaglet that stares without winking is petted and cared for, whilst the weak-eyed are sent, torn and bleeding, into ignominious obscurity. When the eagle is old and its sight fails, it mounts so high in the air that its wings scorch, and the darkness of its eyes is burned. Then it goes to the East, finds a miraculous fountain in which it bathes three times, and comes forth with renewed youth. The " caladrius,” a species of thrush, is white. When it refuses to look on a sick man, the man is doomed to die, but if it looks at him, the disease passes from the man to the bird, and the patient recovers. If a blind man takes the marrow from a great bone in this bird’s thigh, and anoints his eyes with it, the blindness will instantly leave him. The phœnix, takes its place with the other odd birds. Of course every one knows that the phenix lives five hundred years, then dips and anoints itself three times, and flies to the city of Heliopolis, to be made young again. A priest, whose sole business it is to make old phenixes young, collects spice, and burns it upon the altar. The bird descends on the burning spice and is utterly consumed. Out of the ashes comes a little worm which on the second day becomes a bird, and on the third day, when the priest comes to see the progress made, the bird bids him farewell in good Latin, and takes to its wings, good for another five hundred years.

Asida (the ostrich?) has two feet like a camel’s, and the wings of a bird. It seems to have had a knowledge of astronomy, for on seeing a certain star that appeared each July, it scooped a hole in the sand and began laying its eggs. The pelican, when fiercely attacked by its ungrateful brood, slays them in selfdefense ; then returning on the third day and finding them dead, it tears its breast so that the blood drops on the dead birds and immediately restores them to life. Concerning doves there is one remarkable story. In India is a tree so sweetly fruited that the doves from all parts of the earth fly to it and settle in its branches. A huge dragon circles the tree, not daring to come near it or to approach its shadow. When the doves remain in the tree they are safe, but as soon as they leave it and pass beyond its shade, they fall a prey to the dragon. The last of the birds in De Thaun’s aviary is the huppe, a bird of filial instincts, that takes its parents in their old age, covers them with its wings, and informs them that it does so in remembrance of the care received from them in its infancy. A singular quality of the blood of the huppe is that the anointing of a sleeper with it will cause him to dream that devils are strangling him.

Of the mandragora (mandrake) eaten by the elephants in Paradise, De Thaun says it has two roots, a male and a female. The female has the leaf of a lettuce, whilst the male is lucidly described as having leaves like its own. To gather mandragora requires skill and stratagem. To touch it growing is death. A hungry dog is tied to the plant and bread shown it. The dog jumps for the bread and breaks the mandragora root. The root in breaking sends up a piercing shriek. The dog hears it and falls dead, but the man, having stopped his ears, remains unhurt and puts the broken root triumphantly in his basket, having thus secured a cure for all diseases but death, for which, says the author sorrowfully, “ there is no help.”

Before closing his treatise De Thaun gives his royal mistress some information concerning precious stones. Turrobolen are stones of great beauty, found in the forms of men and women. When these male and female stones are kept apart, there is no other peculiarity than their shape noticeable, but the moment they are brought near each other they emit fire. A still more wonderful stone is the unio, the most precious of all gems. The unio grows in the island of Tapné, or in the sea near it. Though smooth as ice, and without crevice or flaw, it has the power of opening at its own will, and of floating on the surface of the water. Whilst thus floating open it receives a drop of dew, when it immediately closes and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Nine months it carries the dewdrop inclosed; at the end of that time, the dewdrop having changed to stone, the unio rises, reopens, and ejects the petrified dewdrop, now itself a perfect unio. He who carries that stone is secure against unchaste desires, and to drink it with dew will restore to health any one, however sick.

“And now,” says Philippe de Thaun, after having treated of beasts, of birds, and of stones, “may God bestow his majesty upon her for whom this book was made! And those who will pray for that, and say a Pater noster for it, may they have the merit of Saint John, and may they be in the bosom of holy Abraham! Unio is Father and Son, unio is the Holy Ghost; unio is the beginning; unio is the end; unio is alpha and omega; Benedicamus Domino!

J. H. A. Bone.