n our modern world of concrete-and-steel surroundings and plastic-wrapped food, we can be forgiven if we forget that plants and animals share this earth with us. In the medieval world, there was no such forgetting. As with the ages before, survival depended upon the natural world—from the plants the medieval people raised for eating to the animals they relied upon for food and labor.

Even within the confines of a castle, the lowest of kitchen menials would know that the turnspit dog, confined in its wheel cage, saved him from the monotony of rotating the handle so that meat could cook over the flames. At the other end of the class structure, the lord of the castle knew that animals were created solely for his pleasure, from the horse he rode only for coursing over the countryside to the deer he hunted. And then, of course, there was his other pleasure: warfare, for which horses and dogs had been specially bred.

Meanwhile, his wife played with her lap dog.

Because animals were so integral to physical survival, it is not surprising that they played an important part in non-physical matters. Consider the seven animals in the Zodiac and the ten animals that were allowed into Heaven. Remnants of the ancient pagan doctrine of animism—that all living things have thought and will—survived to the extent that the Church had to repeatedly exhort that only mankind had souls. Despite this, the curious medieval practice of deodand persisted, by which animals that had caused the death of a human being could be found responsible for the deed and brought to trial. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the basis for this is found in Exodus 21:28: “And if an ox gore a man or woman to death, the ox shall be surely stoned.” 

A twist on this concept, as recorded in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, is the account of the dog belonging to a man murdered by one Richard of Macaire who was later “condemned to a judicial combat with the dog” because it persisted in bearing him malice for the crime. (The dog won.)

Medieval literature abounds in tales of beasts—the irreverent Reynardo the Fox, for example, as well as Aesop’s fables—which served both as entertainment and as instruction. Classical mythological tales of shape-shifting continued to appeal to the masses. At least six Christian saints (Hubert, Julian, Eustace, Giles, Petroc and Cadoc) were companioned by a deer in areas where the Horned God was once venerated; and many Celtic saints held sway over birds where goddesses had once done the same. Writings on the natural world by Pliny and other authors were always popular, one of them—Physiologus—even rivaled the Bible in popularity. Handbooks on training, breeding, hunting and fishing were also in huge demand, foremost among them Dame Juliana Brewers’ Boke of St Albans. All this fascination eventually resulted in a genre unique to medieval literature: the bestiary.

According to the website The Medieval Bestiary:

Animals had been written about for centuries before the Christian era, but it was Christianity that took the stories and made them into religious allegories [through] the bestiary [which] describes a beast and uses that description as a basis for an allegorical teaching… While still not a ‘zoology textbook’, it is not only a religious text but also a description of the world as it was known.



In his book Sun Dancing: A Vision of Medieval Ireland, Geoffrey Moorhouse writes:

The medieval bestiaries developed [as] hand-copied and well-illustrated manuals which served both to entertain and instruct a credulous society.  They were, of course, produced in the monastic scriptoires.

But there was also a dark side to the medieval world of animals. Hunting, for example, resulted in the extinction of the boar, beaver, lynx and wolf from the British Isles. This can hardly come as a surprise when, for example, Mary, Queen of Scots came home from one sortie with 300 carcasses.

Also leaving its sinister mark is the butchery of domestic animals. The word ‘livestock’ was retained for those animals under two years old who could be expected to survive the winter months; ‘deadstock’ was applied to the others. These were slaughtered wholesale, as evidenced by the word for the Scottish New Year, ‘Hogmanay’, derived from the word ‘hoggu-nott’ meaning slaughter night. The Anglo-Saxons knew November as ‘Blood-month’, and the Feast of Martinmas on November 11 was the traditional killing day.

In medieval cities, butchery went on throughout the year in specialized areas of town known as ‘the shambles’, usually located along with tanneries beside riverbanks for easier disposal of offal. If you have ever smelled the stench of a modern slaughterhouse, you will understand why Paris, for example, was required to locate its shambles—which could process over 270,000 deadstock annually—outside the city boundaries.

Not all mass killing of animals, though, was done for the sake of food. Henry VII of England, upon usurping the throne and learning that mastiffs could kill lions, the symbol of royalty, ordered that breed of canine eliminated from his kingdom. No exceptions.

In A Day in an Animal’s Life…The Medieval Chronicle will explore the medieval world of animals, both the kind and the cruel, the practical and the fantastical. Our primary source of research is a never-before-revealed series of notes discovered in a casket found in the Highlands of Scotland. Although not signed, the notes seem to have all been written by one person, perhaps the chamberlain of a castle that once stood in the Glen of Balquhidder.  Apparently his mistress, the chatelaine whose name has come down to us only as the Lady Norena, had hired a scrivener to copy a bestiary for her grandchildren in Edinburgh.


Join us with the November/December issue of TMC to see what critters will begin Lady Norena’s medieval bestiary.



Nela Leja is currently re-writing her novel about the death of James III of Scotland.  She attributes her fascination with the Middle Ages to childhood years spent partly in Cambridge, England and can remember being beset by the question of how people managed to live without electricity. Nela wrote and illustrated her first book at the age of five. With a BA in English literature, she spends her time sporadically launching a writing career between the inevitably various, challenging and grueling day-jobs. Nela is the Canadian membership co-coordinator for the Historical Novel Society. 


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