On Wednesday I went to the University of Manchester’s Vinaver lecture, given by Professor Richard Trachsler (University of Zürich). The lecture is hosted biannually by the French department to commemorate the work of medieval scholar Eugene Vinaver, who was Professor of French Language and Literature at the University from 1933 to 1966 and is perhaps most well-known by undergraduates today for his edition of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur.
Professor Trachsler’s topic was ‘Leopards, hyenas and snakes. Or how medieval animals make sense’, and he focused on the ways in which animals in medieval bestiaries and manuscript images tell us more about medieval ideas about how the world works. In every society, animals have particular meanings, and Trachsler began his talk by thinking about how hedgehogs in England are today generally thought to be quite cute; animals that we want to encourage into our gardens.
Not in the Middle Ages, however, when the hedgehog was thought to steal grapes from the vineyard at harvest time. Akin to the devil, the hedgehog comes into the garden, steals fruit, and then hides away.
Animals, he suggests are often depicted in pairs which often represent tensions between good and evil (this is my own wildly simplistic version of what Trachsler argued for). For example, the snake is often used to symbolise the devil (as in images of the serpent in the Garden of Eden), and it is often paired with its enemy, the deer, which then adopts Christological significance and is seen to destroy the snake. A good example of this pairing can be seen in a fifteenth-century Italian herbal on the British Library website. Of course the pairing of the snake and the deer is perhaps nothing new and a quick look at bestiaries (medieval books of beasts) provides some really useful information about animals and how they made sense in the Middle Ages. David Badke’s online Medieval Bestiary is helpful. Trachsler used this famous example to establish ground for thinking about the roles played by the hyena and leopard in texts and images. The hyena is often depicted eating human corpses, and it is thought to be able to change sex. It can also mimic the human voice in order to lure men out so it can kill them, as well as being able to imitate vomiting to attract dogs for the same reason. Certainly an animal not at the positive end of the spectrum of beasts.
I was most interested by what Trachsler had to say about the leopard and its hybrid nature, however. The leopard can be regarded as a symbol of adultery, explained by its parentage: Isidore of Seville in Book 12 of his Etymologies notes that the leopard is ‘the adulterous offspring of a lion and a pard [panther]’ (Leopardus ex adulterio leaenae et pardi nascitur). Interesting then that the three ‘lions’ (lion passant guardant) on the British royal coat of arms might in fact be leopards. The leopard, Trachsler suggests, is perhaps more to be thought of as a pretender – a would-be lion – and this got me thinking about where images of leopards crop up in manuscripts, particularly in relation to kingship. Of course the lion has a Christian allegorical function, reflecting on how people should attempt to live by being slow to anger and quick to forgive. The lion also is noble, brave, and fierce; qualities that might typically be thought of as relating to the fair and just monarch – the lion is the king of beasts after all.
If the lion functions as a symbol of kingship or royal power, then what are these leopards – pretenders to the throne – commenting on at various times. Moreover, are any kings, would-be kings, or others in pursuit of power ever referred to as leopards? In what ways do medieval animals therefore make sense of contemporaneous events and historical moments? And, is a medieval animal ever just an animal?