I can still feel myself blushing at the memory of the unpropitious start to my inquiries into the realm of medieval beasts, the focus of the current manuscripts exhibition Medieval Beasts. I had begun my research with the bestiary, a medieval collection of texts describing animals both real and fanciful. Unfortunately, site after site on my computer kept coming up as "Restricted Access, Contact the ITS HelpDesk." Puzzled, I called and explained my difficulty in accessing sites devoted to bestiaries. The ITS Help Desk guy on the other end of the line said in a shocked voice, "You can't look at THAT kind of thing at work!!!"
Apparently, the word "bestiary" had been red-flagged, along with a word deriving from the same Latin root, but with quite a different meaning. The mix-up was rapidly resolved, but ironically, the nature of beasts in the Middle Ages was almost as misunderstood as the nature of bestiaries is today.
|A detail of the doglike elephant from The Land of India, Flemish, about 1475|
Just as in the case of my researches, understandable but hilarious results sometimes ensued. In the case of the work represented here, for example, the artist clearly had heard of elephants with their elongated noses and seen ivory products, but of course had never personally encountered such an exotic creature. A little fuzzy on the details, the artist cobbled together what he could, and ended up with an oversized dog sporting tusks and a beautifully carved horn for a nose. Although we may find the artist's representation somewhat unlikely, it nonetheless achieved its intended purpose. The image comes from a portion of text describing the wonders of India, and its medieval readers no doubt oohed and aahed over the mystery and exotic appeal of this far-off land.
It seems to me that we still do the same today when we marvel at the mixed-up nature of the platypus or argue over the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. Then or now, we all want the wonder and excitement provided by fantastic beasts.