CREATIVE PROJECT BY DEXTER LIN (’23)
Inversion of the Known
Visual Art / Literary Art
Creative Bestiary Entry
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
THE MEDIEVAL KINGFISHER BESTIARY
A warrior-horse chimera breathes fire upon a man. These creatures appeared one day on our shores, following the fair faced men (which also forms the top half of this chimera) as they wreak havoc on our lands. They are accompanied with a less fearsome cousin, who carries a device. A thing like a ball of stone comes out of this device’s entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire.
This artwork attempts an inversion of the known and unknown in medieval depictions of animals. Animals are depicted with varying levels of accuracy in relation to their ‘real’ form (as they exist in reality). This is––on average––dependent on the geographic proximity of said animal to the person who drew it. For instance, even the more savage depictions of the wild boar still largely stay true to reality.
On the other hand, animals such as the whale are portrayed in a much less accurate way. This was due to the fact that the only mode of painter-animal contact was through written descriptions or carvings that the painter had seen before. The results were considerably more mythical in nature, even as they were based on real animals that existed.
What seems to be a giant fish represents a whale in the process of toppling a boat.4
These bestiary images provide a valuable insight not only into how medieval Europeans drew animals, but also their level of interaction with specific animals.
With this in mind, I attempted to move the bestiary outside the European context: how would the native peoples of the Americas have portrayed the foreign creatures that came to their shores alongside the violent project of colonization? By replacing the illustrations of fantastical animals (i.e., animals that existed far from the scriptoriums of Europe) with horses and donkeys (animals closely tied to Spanish expansion in Latin America) in bestiaries, we can gain a deeper understanding of the cultural impact of colonialism on both the colonizers and the colonized.
The horse was not only ubiquitous, but often seen as an equal partner to the medieval man. Of the horse, Paul Rogers writes that “it would be difficult to find such an omnipresent and universally positive portrayal of a beast in [medieval] times.”6 Indeed, one reason for this omnipresence in representation was the permeation of the horse at multiple levels of medieval European society. The Aberdeen Bestiary names three categorizations of horse, each with their specialization: “One is the noble war-horse, capable of carrying heavy weights; the second is the everyday kind, used for drawing loads but unsuitable for riding. The third is born from a combination of different species, and is also called bigener, hybrid, because it is born of mixed stock, like a mule.”7 Interestingly, the horse is not reserved for the nobility––there were horses for everyday needs, and an implied lower-class horse in the mule. The horse was ubiquitous in literature precisely because it was ubiquitous in the lived experience of the medieval man. This likely led to its standardized portrayal, one that was very similar to its real-life form.
Like the horse, donkeys (or asses) were similarly portrayed in a realistic fashion. Indeed, this is likely due to the frequent contact between the average medieval European and the ass. Isidore of Seville writes that: “The ass (asinus) and the small ass (asellus) are so called from sitting (sedere), as if the word were asedus. The ass took this name, which is better suited to horses, because before people captured horses, they began by domesticating the ass. Indeed, it is a slow animal and balks for no reason; it allowed itself to be domesticated as soon as mankind wished it.”9 This implies that the connection between medieval Europeans and the donkey was a collaboration strengthened through centuries of cohabitation and cooperation.
Unlike the medieval Europeans, however, the native peoples of the Americas had not such contact with either the horse or the ass. Compare the earlier descriptions of the horse in the Aberdeen bestiary with an Aztec account of the horses that accompanied Hernan Cortes in 1519. Addressing their emperor Motecuhzoma, Aztec messengers described the Spanish conquistadors: “Their trappings and arms are all made of iron. They dress in iron and wear iron casques on their heads. Their swords are iron; their bows are iron; their shields are iron; their spears are iron. Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house.”10 Nahua chroniclers placed accounts of men on horses in between the purely fantastical: “A bird was captured in the lake, and a strange mirror was found on its head. Motecuhzoma looked in the mirror and saw people coming forward on the backs of animals resembling deer. Increasing the people’s fright, monstrous beings were seen in the city, deformed men with two heads.”11 These descriptions are as fantastical as some of the descriptions of faraway animals in European bestiaries. The ass, too, was transformed from an innocuous and lazy animal that existed solely as a docile creature to be exploited into a tool for imperialism: Donkeys (in the form of four jacks and two jennies) arrived in the Americas in 1495 to support Spanish colonies.12 Just over a century later, these donkeys would be critical to the colonial economy of exploitation as they delivered wood for mining tools and Paraguayan maté herbal tea to Potosí, exchanging them for Peruvian textiles and Spanish manufactures imported via Lima.13
It is this fear and apprehension that I hope to transmit in my entry. Through using the lens of indigenous Americans, I transform the horse from the ordinary into the extraordinary. While medieval Europeans would have seen the horse as an everyday companion, Amerindians saw them as beasts, like the whale in Ludwig XV come to life. Through this piece, I hope to question what is seen as normal. What is deemed normal is only normal when viewed through one particular lens. The horse, a faithful companion and symbol of fraternity in Europe, was likely seen as an apocalyptic beast of destruction to 16th-century Amerindians. To the indigenous peoples of America, they would have been more equivalent to bestiary crocodiles or manticores.
Explanations for some details of this artwork are as follows:
- The Chimera
- The scales of the horse are based off the leftmost horse of an artwork by Winfield Coleman. The knight breathes fire, as primary sources indicate that native warriors were stumped by firearms: one account cites several messengers fainting at the sound of cannon fire.14
- The Donkey
- Atop the donkey is a cannon. Aztec primary accounts mentions cannon and firearms used by the Spanish—it is incredibly likely that they were pulled by donkeys: even in the 18th century, donkeys were instrumental to the United States army’s subjugation of the Native American populations of the West.15
- The gold was used in bestiaries such as the Aberdeen bestiary. Colours were informed by bestiaries as well, with the horse taking on an aggressive colour like that of the crocodile in several different bestiaries.
1 Miguel León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Beacon Press, 2006), 30.
2 Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden, BPL 1283 (Herbarius / De medicamentis ex animalibus), folio 56r.
3 Arnamagnæanske Institut, AM 673 a 4º (Icelandic Physiologus), folio 5r.
4 Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig XV.
5 Royal 12 C. XIX, folio 28.
6 Paul H Rogers, “Rediscovering the Horse in Medieval French Literature,” Neophilologus 97, no. 4 (2013): 638.
7 Aberdeen Bestiary, folio 23r.
8 Kongelige Bibliotek, GKS 1633 4° (Bestiary of Ann Walsh), folio 25v.
9 Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Edited and translated by S. A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and O. Berghof, Cambridge University Press, 2006, 2009. Book 12, chapter 1, section 38.
10 León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, 30.
11 León-Portilla, 190.
12 Peter Mitchell, “New Worlds for the Donkey,” in The Donkey in Human History: An Archaeological Perspective, ed. Peter Mitchell (Oxford University Press, 2018), 189, https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198749233.003.0013.
13 Mitchell, 212.
14 León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, 26.
15 Mitchell, “New Worlds for the Donkey,” 210.