Whenever I need reminding why I study the Middle Ages–and when you’re knee-deep in thesis, you need a lot of reminding–I go to the Aberdeen Bestiary. For the non-medievalists who are here because of my occasional posts about Britney Spear’s vagina,* a bestiary is a book about beasts that medieval people used when they needed to know how a given animal signified Christ in some way.** Christ-signification notwithstanding, the medieval account of any animal you care to name is much more interesting than what you’ll find in today’s fact-obsessed encyclopediums and nature programs.
For instance, take the beaver. Modern beavers have a pretty good rep, I have to admit. They are industrious. They build dams. On occasion, they befriend children who’ve wandered nearby and serve them tea and rolls. If frightened, they might say something cute like, “Oh, my ears and whiskers, we’re out of rolls. Perhaps you’d like me to gnaw down a tree for you?”
Now consider the medieval beaver. His testicles are valued for their medicinal properties. Knowing this, when he sees a hunter, he does not offer him a jam sandwich. He’s a man of action. Here’s the Latin first***: Quia cum vena torem se insequentem conovit, morsu testiculos sibi abscidit, et in faciem vena toris eos proicit et sic fugiens evadit. Yes, Virginia, when dealing with enterprising hunters, the medieval beaver bites off his own testicles and throws them at the hunter’s face.**** And lest you worry that this is, at best, a one-time-use defense, should it meet another hunter, the beaver lifts its legs to show the hunter that it has no testicles, so that the hunter will, naturally, lose interest.
Now, granted, this medieval picture of a beaver lacks many of the characteristics that a beaver actually has, like the buck teeth or the big flat river-slapping tail. But if you’re going to have to make a choice between drawing an “accurate” beaver and drawing one ripping off its own testicles, I think the right decision is clear. So what if the end-result is some sort of cloven-hooved wolf? Give the people what they want.
Of course, this raises larger questions, particularly with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, alluded to earlier, from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. C.S. Lewis was a medievalist and a pretty good one at that. It’s impossible for me to believe that when he and Tolkien were trading ideas at the pub the subject of the testicular hijinks of the medieval beaver didn’t come up at least once a month. Yet he chose not to mention it when he started writing medieval-inspired beaver fantasy novels. It boggles the mind. Five minutes after reading it, I told everyone I’d ever met. Yes, my sixth grade teacher was a little confused about a 2AM call to discuss beaver genitals, but she came around. And now she has people to call, too.
*I haven’t actually posted that one yet [UPDATE: I did!], but did you know that Google searches for the month of January were dominated by Britney Spears’ vagina? You don’t get to be history blog of the week without adding a few good Google search baits to your blog. Incidentally, don’t you enjoy watching Paris Hilton fight the I.R.S. over the Super Bowl’s use of Viagra to overcome American Idol’s obvious Harry Potter obsession? Also, boobs.
**For example, lions signify Christ because they sleep with their eyes open. Vultures signify Christ because they sometimes die when they fly too fast en route to eating a corpse. Ah, Christ, our ever-watchful, ravenous zombie lord.
***Superfluous Latin builds suspense and makes me look like a legitimate medievalist.
****This makes more sense if you know that the Latin word for beaver is castor, which kind of looks like castrando, the word for castrate. Not much more sense, but that’s how it worked back then.