Saturday, April 4, 2015

For whom was the bestiary written?

   When first reading through the Bestiary for class on Thursday, I took for granted that all of the moralization and Biblical allusions included therein were meant to instruct the lay reader of the bestiary how to better live a holy and moral life. I took the Bestiary as not so different than children's stories, or things like Aesop's Fables. It read like a text whose primary purpose was moral instruction, in the same way that The Tortoise and the Hare is moral instruction (though the bestiary is clearly and explicitly Christian in its moral instruction). Of course, it more straightforwardly has the function of instructing those who read it about beasts, as the name implies. (Of course, it is not so clear as to what should rightfully be included in a bestiary, though we discussed the inclusion of men, trees and stones and whether they fit in or not in class. That's a bit off topic from what I wish to address here.)
   However, after our discussion in class on Thursday, I left less sure about the purpose and function of the Bestiary than I arrived. A line of thought that particularly stuck with me was Katie's suggestion that the Biblical allusions and moralization were not meant to function as instruction for the lay readers of such a text, but instead that monks, who were the ones copying and commenting on such texts, were using what was familiar to them to best illuminate what these animals were like. (Most monks did not have regular contact with lions, if any, so how would they describe them?) This complicated my understanding of the Bestiary, and led me to a few interesting ideas (though perhaps they should have been obvious before this). Firstly, I had to more carefully consider what I thought of as the "purpose" of the Bestiary. Was I thinking of the purpose of writing the Bestiary from the perspective of the monks copying them down, or was I thinking from the perspective of the lay medieval reader of the Bestiary? Clearly the text would have different significance for both. Was the monk writing to instruct the lay people on the nature of the animals, or was the monk writing to moralize to the lay people who happened to be interested in animals? (Or was the Bestiary written as a repository for morals from which to make sermons, as there may have not yet been guidebooks on how to give sermons in the 9th and 10th century? Am I asking too many rhetorical questions?) Furthermore, why was the layperson interested in the bestiary? Were they interested in technical descriptions of animals? Or were they actively seeking books of moral tales? And if they were, why go to the Bestiary for them? Instead of asking an endless stream of questions, I'll examine a few entries to argue that it could have been for any number of reasons that the monk wrote the Bestiary or the layperson read it.
   Let us take the entry on the Vulture as our first example. It begins, as most bestiary entries do, with a sort of etymology; "The VULTURE is thought to have been named from its slow flight (a volatu tardo)." (White, 108) We learn that it is on account of their large bodies that they fly slowly, and that they can see cadavers from very far off. Additionally, we "learn" that they do not "go in for copulation" (White, 109), and the female vultures reproduce despite this fact. After learning of the virgin birth of the vulture, we have a break in the technical description for a dose of Christianity. The example of the vulture is used in comparison to the Virgin Mary. If people accept that vultures can produce virgin births, says the Bestiary, why is there any doubt that the Mother of God could not have done the same? I find this example (and the similarly structured example of the Phoenix, wherein the same logic of "if this animal can do X, then who would question that God could not do the same?" is used in regard to Jesus' resurrection) to be interesting in the context of the question of authorial intent on the part of the monks who are copying/commenting on the Bestiary. This kind of example seems fairly clearly to be doing the work of moralizing to the lay reader by questioning their lack of faith (and attempting to give some reason to bolster their faith). It does not seem to be doing the work of adding to the monk's understanding of the animal in question via Biblical example. That is not to say that this one example proves anything either way, of course. There are so many entries in the Bestiary that to make an overarching claim using only one as evidence would make little sense.
   For a second example, let us examine once more the entry on the Lion, as we did in our class discussion. In the description of the Lion, three major traits are outlined: first, it disguises its trail if followed in order to deceive those who track it, second, it sleeps with its eyes open, and third, a lioness' cubs lie lifeless for three days until the lion breathes life into them. For each of these characteristics, some aspect of God is invoked in comparison to the lion. For the Lion entry, it seems less like moralizing to an audience and more akin to Katie's claim in class that the monk was using the knowledge available to him to better describe a beast unknown to him. The difficulty in distinguishing between the two arises in determining why an invocation of a similarity to Christ in the case of explaining the Lion's traits is different than an invocation of similarity to the Virgin Mary for the Vulture. One then encounters the problem that one could argue, in either case, that it works for the side of the monk trying to inform the layperson or the side of the monk trying to better inform his own understanding of the animal. The easy way out of such a conundrum is to say that there is no good reason it could not easily be some combination of the two, or even both at the same time. Upon further contemplation of the problem, however, I think that the best way to frame the bestiary is as a text used for multiple purposes throughout its history, many of which have changed with its audience. What I mean by this is that if one thinks of the history of the bestiary, they will at once see that its origins are in natural histories in pre-Christian or early Christian times. At some point in the history of the bestiary, they were merely (or at least primarily) instructional books for those interested in the collection of knowledge about the natural world. However, as the responsibility of transcribing such texts fell into the hands of monks later in time, Christian instruction may have been added. If bestiaries are thought of as an evolution of the natural history, their multifaceted and complex nature becomes easier to understand. To understand the moralizing contained in these bestiaries, and the intention of the scribal authors who slowly changed and added to the texts over time, one must understand where how such texts originated.


P.S. It is entirely possible that I’m completely mis-remembering or misinterpreting how the bestiary came about, in which case my conclusions are both nonsensical and a bit embarrassing. However, I still think that our discussion on Thursday did bring up interesting questions of what exactly the purpose of the bestiary was, and it was that that I sought to unravel.

1 comment:

  1. Why are you assuming that the Bestiary was written for laypeople at all? Why could it not be a book written by monks for themselves which laypeople then found appealing and wanted copies of? But you are absolutely right: thinking about audience is key. Perhaps the monks themselves were worried about proving their faith through study. What I thought was particularly striking in Katie's suggestion about the monks knowing more about Christ than lions was that she had hit on something in the process of "unlocking" such symbolism that is important to highlight: monks knew a great deal about Christ, less about lions, but when they read about the Christ-like behavior of lions, they would enjoy the moment of recognition ("Aha! So that's why lions do that!") in much the way we do when we realize that something we thought was alien is in fact familiar. It makes the strange (the lion) seem less mysterious even as it makes the familiar (Christ) seem more astonishing. RLFB