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On the Wonders—and Dangers—of Exotic Beasts

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.

The Land of India / Flemish  
A detail of the doglike elephant from The Land of India, Flemish, about 1475  
We take for granted rapid access to resources about animals, ranging from Wikipedia and Google Images to the Knut Photo Gallery (devoted to the new baby polar bear at the Berlin Zoo) and the Octopus News Magazine Online (yes, it really exists). But for those in the Middle Ages, the world beyond the immediate boundaries of their hometowns was almost completely unknown except through the descriptions and images found in books.

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.



Re: On the Wonders—and Dangers—of Exotic Beasts

Note to self: For info on bestiaries, go to the Getty, not a computer search engine! Hilarious...and fascinating! Looking forward to checking out the exhibition.

Re: On the Wonders—and Dangers—of Exotic Beasts

It's interesting that when a writer doesn't understand something, there is always the option to omit the topic. But with visual artists, they HAVE to show something. I've found examples from the middle ages where artists hid animals like griffins behind rocks, with only the head sticking out. Pretty smart!

Re: On the Wonders—and Dangers—of Exotic Beasts

Thanks for the post.

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