For my final paper I am writing about the creation and history of taxidermy. As such, I have been reading a lot about the role that wonderment and exoticism played in the (mostly) late Middle Ages -- this was a concept most often manifest in collections of far-East ephemera (think crocodile heads, stuffed birds of paradise... that sort of thing). One of the best books I read was Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 by Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park.
The book chronicles the shifting form of "the mysterious" throughout western culture -- very often in the form of mythical beasts from faraway lands. The concept of wonder is located in an immense semantic field populated by many related terms that also have unstable and changing meanings: marvels, miracles, monsters, prodigies, curiosities, and relics.
Yet, the approach modifies the conventional story only expanding horizons beyond professional scientific practice throughout the Middle Ages and shows how, "The quiet exit of demons from theology coincides in time and corresponds in structure almost exactly with the disappearance of the preternatural in respectable natural philosophy" (361). Essentially, the work argues that a section of European population evolved psychologically from a culture dominated by superstition and Church doctrine, where mystery was an everyday theme, to one that placed a certain value on the unknown - eventually leading to the beginnings of modern science. Science is usually accused of having destroyed wonder, but Daston and Park reject this view, and purport it almost as an intermediary between superstition and science.
One choice quote I used for my paper to illustrate this point is from Marco Polo, as he describes the kingdom of Quilon:
"The country produces a diversity of beasts different from those of the rest of the world. There are black lions with no other visible color or marks. There are parrots of many kinds. Some are entirely white – as white as snow – with feet and beaks of scarlet. Others are scarlet and blue – there is no lovelier sight than these in the world. And there are some very tiny ones, which are also object of great beauty. Then there are peacocks of another sort than ours and much bigger and handsomer, and hen too that are unlike ours. What more need I say? Everything there is different from what it is with us and excels both in size and beauty."
This makes me wonder (no pun intended) if the shift from attaching symbolic and religious importance to the mysterious (ie: bestiaries) to the celebration of such things indeed indicates a shift in the medieval consciousness -- or, perhaps that's too enormous a claim to make.
Either way, I find it interesting that the same medieval society, or at least some portion of it, took interest in the "strange" animals from overseas without overtly questioning or attaching religious/supersticious implications to them. Is this human progress? Or is it too simplistic to say that curiosity necessarily trumps superstition in this linear manner?
Still, the culture of the early middle ages is not without its wonders -- the fact that the unicorn was chronicled alongside bears and dogs should be proof enough of that. Which makes me realize that the belief is the mysterious, the odd, and the unknown, even given it's shifting forms, persists today. Take P.T. Barnum's grotesque legacy of the traveling freak show for example, or (god forbid you ever watch it!) the History Channel's program on "Ancient Aliens." So when it comes to wonderment, it's unlikely we will ever stop finding it tempting to, "believe it," as Ripley says, "or not."
Daston, Lorraine, and Park, Katherine. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.