One of the more vexing questions in medieval animal symbology – and one barely addressed in our readings for the week – is the tension between universal values (in Western Europe, primarily but not solely Catholic Christianity) and local cultures (delineated on a variety of ethnolinguistic and political bases.) Symbolic discourse allowed the latter to prosecute varying degrees of distinction from or assimilation with the former through the use of multivalent symbols. Part of our difficulty in interpreting these representational exchanges is determining the extent to which both the general and particular readings might operate upon a specific image at the moment of production or reception. These readings are complicated by a huge diversity of contextual factors – literacy, medium, ecology. We should not, for instance, necessarily assume a clean relationship between the symbolic lions of authors who knew such creatures only from Bibles and bestiaries, and those of writers such as al-Isfahani (in reference to Saladin, mentioned on Cuffel, 214), for whom lions were a significant feature of the local fauna. By the same token, we should not let our modern empirical bias lead us to assume that the former were more susceptible to rigid and formulaic interpretations than the latter.
One ubiquitous source of medieval animal system was heraldry, which may have begun with the totemic beasts of the Germanic and Asiatic tribes who invaded the dying Roman empire but by the High Middle Ages had blossomed into a pictorial language encoding history, lineage, and moral quality. As a test case of symbology, heraldry is particularly useful, with its vast menagerie of beasts, real and imagined, standing in for clearly defined sociopolitical entities (noble families, towns, nations, religious orders, etc.).
Devilish dragons and serpents were frequent heraldic devices – often, as Samantha Riches notes in our readings for Thursday (“Encountering the Monstrous,” 98) as emblems recalling a historic combat between a knightly ancestor and a savage beast, but not always. Y Ddraig Goch, Wales' red dragon, whose pedigree goes back at least to the ninth century, is rather explicitly identified as an emblem of the Welsh (rather than as an enemy conquered by them). Boars and pigs, however derided they may have been in Cuffel's intrareligious polemics, were incredibly popular choices, linked to bravery and fertility. Sows with piglets – the visual basis for the incredibly demeaning Judensau trope – were rare but not unknown. They survive on the town blazons of Morcote in Switzerland and Albano Laziale in Italy, in both cases representing “abundance and fertility.” Morcote's town website even claims that the sow and piglets were the emblem of a religious order, the Antoniani Friars.
In some cases, it is impossible to distinguish reality from insult. A heraldic legend dating back to at least the thirteenth century claims that upon converting to Christianity, the fifth-century Frankish king Clovis relinquished his former shield, which sported three black toads. Does this reflect a genuine tradition of ancient French toad reverence? Or were “three black toads” the sort of stereotypical – even caricatured - symbol that a medieval Christian thought might appeal to a godless pagan? Taking the tale even further, some ingenious, if fanciful, commentators have speculated that herein lies the origin of various amphibian insults that the English apply to the French.
Names are another site of contested symbolic meaning. Modern English naming practice has shed many of its old beastly terms in favor of Hebrew-derived theophorics, though it was once rich with them – Eadwulf (fortune-wolf), Eoforhild (battle-boar), Osborn (god-bear). (One does have the impression that most Anglo-Saxon names consisted of a combination of two nouns that the parents considered cool). Actually, one of the only survivals of these Germanic creature names is “Rudolph” – which of course has its own animal associations in English now. It and its Saxon cognate Hrodulf mean “fame-wolf.” And in a direct repudiation of the notion of universal symbolism, even within Western Europe, a cross-cultural look at names does not reveal a clear typology of positively and negatively associated creatures. Most animals that became commonplace indicators of evil or witchcraft – pigs, goats, rabbits, canines – have, in one language or another, made for popular and desirable names. “Son of a bitch” makes canine ancestry an insult; yet that is nearly the exact meaning of Mac Con, the honorary epithet of an ancient Irish king. And naming could also move fluidly between signifier and signified – Thibert began as a common Germanic name, became so deeply associated with the cat in the Roman de Renard that it was virtually synonymous with “cat” (as “Renard became fully synonymous with “fox,” replacing the Old French goupil almost entirely), still remained an acceptable personal name, and yet could be freely punned on with insulting feline allusions (as Mercutio does in Romeo and Juliet).
Given this plethora of associations attending any one creature in any one cultural context, we might ask whether animal symbols were too overdetermined to have meaning outside of any specific instance of use (such as Sara Lipton identifies for her heretical cats in “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisée”). Yet it seems that naming, heraldry, and moralistic interpretations could and did come together. Perhaps the best example is William Colyngbourne's famous 15th century rhyme: “The cat, the rat, and Lovell our dog / rule all England under a hog” (quoted in Gray, 196). The “cat” and “rat” are puns on the first syllables of William Catesby and Richard Ratcliffe's last names; a silver dog was the heraldic emblem of Lord Lovell; and the “hog” is a derisive reference to King Richard III's white boar badge. Catesby and Ratcliffe, we might assume, were born with names rather than destinies, and the silver dog and white boar were symbols chosen and worn with great pride by Lovell, Richard, and their supporters. Yet the rhyme requires a double vision, understanding the positive identifications of these animals while attaching to them the moral censure of a different symbolic system, in which they are vermin and foul beasts, and the natural order has been so perverted that a gross pig rules “all England.” At least in this instance, different interpretations of beasts not only could bleed together but needed to do so for meaning to be constructed. It is perhaps this model, rather than more reductive approaches, that offers the most productive prism for understanding the creatures of reverence and insult in the diverse collective of medieval Europe.