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.
Any underlined word or phrase
takes you to a link. Enjoy!