I was looking at the award winning photograph of the Amur tiger a couple of nights ago and that got me wondering about medieval depictions. The Amur used to be Siberian but the new name Amur reflects their decreased territories. This led me to looking at bestiaries with their strange mix of fact and fantasy. The fantastic animals, unicorns and manticores and suchlike, existed as part of culture and as with so much in the medieval world they became a tool to provide an insight into morality. And of course God created all the animals so their study was yet another way for mankind to get a bit closer to understanding God, the Cosmos and mankind’s place within it.
I’m not sure why the tiger was blue. Come to think of it I’m not totally sure why the tiger has spots rather than stripes other than because Isidore of Seville wrote that this was the case.
The illustration is based on a story by Pliny – so for those of the History Jar readers who have ventured into the medieval world of this autumn’s Zoom classes there is a neat rehearsal of a familiar pattern. We know for example that Pliny’s story appeared in Latin format and ultimately a French text before crossing The Channel. The knowledge of the Greeks arrives in medieval hands by circuitous routes. A key text in the evolution of bestiaries is the bestiary of Isidore of Seville who wrote in the seventh century – so back to one of those transition points for information to move from the Arab to the Frankish world.
The hunter in the story is attempting to steal tiger cubs. He makes his get away by dropping one cub at a time to distract the irate parent. In medieval minds tigers were very fast moving animals and dangerous if angry. (again thanks to Pliny) In the thirteenth century an additional element crept into the story when the story teller arranged for the hunter to drop something shiny so that the mother seeing her own reflection believed it to be her cub – clearly not aware of the sensitive olfactory moggy snout! Clearly the hunter gets away, either because the mother tiger is busy looking after her abandoned cubs or licking her own face in a mirror of some description.
The Northumberland Bestiary is in the hands of the Getty Museum https: //www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/240115/unknown-maker-northumberland-bestiary-english-about-1250-1260/. Unsurprisingly given it’s origins it was originally owned by the Duke of Northumberland. It contains 112 illustrations.
As you might expect the British Library is the home for many medieval bestiaries:
Sergey Gorshkov’s winning photograph of the Amur Tiger. I should note that medieval writers were thinking about the Asian tiger and would sometimes note that the River Tigris was named for the tiger.