Two principle attitudes toward animals existed during the Middle Ages: scientific and allegorical. The scientific view involved the actual study of animals through observations and study of its behavior and anatomy. On the other hand, the allegorical view was concerned with pointing out a spiritual moral; and the actual physical animal was of little importance. In this blog entry, I will use parts of Nona Flores’ article, “The Mirror of Nature Distorted,” to briefly explore the allegorical viewpoint—to highlight why it existed, subsequent consequences of the trend, and how it selectively incorporated some aspects of the scientific approach to argue that the scientific and allegorical viewpoints are not mutually exclusive.
The scientific approach requires direct observation and accurately recording the information observed. Clearly, medieval artists were capable of creating realistic depictions. For example, the “Hastings Hours” shows a lifelike picture of two butterflies and flowers. Medieval artists were aware of animals’ true anatomy and could represent animals accurately, but often chose not to. Nonetheless, medieval artists who worked on bestiaries likely relied on observation. Menageries provided them with the opportunity for close examination of animals, which would have been more difficult if animals were in their natural state. The menagerie even promoted scientific study. Observation could be even keener: “Some of the bestiary artists observed birds carefully and almost certainly drew them from recently dead bodies” (Flores). While watching a History Chanel documentary this summer, I learned that some people have speculated that observation of fossils may have created a scientific basis for the vision of mythical creatures such as griffons and unicorns which, of course, were not available for actual scientific study. The zoologist Wilma George has attested that illustrations in bestiaries were fairly accurate, especially “in describing and illustrating the natural history of animals from both the Near East and western Europe” (Flores). Thus, it seems that scientific observation was used in the examination of animals and the creation of bestiaries even when these sources were also presented in an allegorical light.
However, during the Middle Ages, the influence of authority often outweighed the importance of direct observation of animals (Flores). For example, mythical beasts like the unicorn were discussed by church officials and written about in bestiaries. Therefore, it makes sense that people believed in these ecclesiastical sources. Thus, there was a perpetual belief in the physical reality of mythical beasts in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, as a result of the emphasis on the spiritual value of creatures, artists inevitably produced art that distorted natural forms to better emphasize the animals’ supernatural meaning. The spiritual meaning of the nature of animals became more important than the scientific study as it provided important spiritual links between man, animals, and God in a way that could be illustrative to the people of the Middle Ages. Animals allegorically presented a means by which people could better understand the spiritual dimension of life and could offer special meaning to the physical realities people confronted. Thus, there is a scientific basis stemming from animal observation that found representation in the bestiaries and corresponded to the allegorical analysis of animals in the Middle Ages.