(Un)Expected Animals in (Un)Expected Places in the Middle Ages & the Early Modern Period: A brief account of an excellent meeting

On May 6th and 7th, 2014, the Medieval Animal Data-Network held its 3rd International Meeting at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. The event was hosted by the Medieval and Renaissance Research Group (MEDREN) with financial support from the University of Louisville Liberal Studies Project, the Department of History, the Hite Art Institute, and the Commonwealth Center for the Humanities. In addition, the Archives and Special Collections Department at Ekstrom Library, organized a special exhibit titled “Animals in the University of Louisville Rare Book Collection.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  The first session “Of Animals, Monsters, Idolatry, and Hybridity,” featured three papers by Jennifer Westerfeld (“Golden Calves and Sacred Snakes: Sings of Idolatry in Christian Egypt”), Hayley Humphrey (“Enigmatic Animals: Human-Animal Hybrids on the Irish High Crosses”), and Zhou Shiting (“Monsters and Propaganda in the German Reformation Woodcuts”).

Dr. Westerfeld discussed the use of animal imagery in the works of late antique Christian authors. She considered in particular the ways in which these references of animals in hieroglyphs were used to construct a picture of traditional Egyptian polytheism that corresponded to the idolatry condemned in the Old and New Testament. She made use of the writings of Shenoute of Atripe, especially his sermons, in which he described the hieroglyphs in a local temple, as a perfect example of how these “animal-pictures” were unmistakable signs of idolatry, to be literally wiped from the walls and replaced with Christian scriptures.

Dr. Humphrey focused on the presence of a horned figure that has a human face, human body, and possible tail, flanked by unclothed, feline figures that stand on their hind legs and whisper into the central figure’s ear, located on the Market Cross at Kells, County Meath, Ireland. She identified the figure as the devil with a human face and she examined it in order to determine its relationship with traditional representations of animals in the Temptation of Saint Anthony scenes, as well as its relationship with a depiction of Daniel in the lions’ den. She argues that many of the animals or animal-hybrids in the Irish high crosses, appear as a personification of temptation and evil. Her proposal for the meaning of the “devil” scene created a very intense discussion afterwards. I will not reveal the extent of her innovative interpretation until it comes out in print in the forthcoming publication of the proceedings of this meeting.

Dr. Shiting could not attend the conference, but she sent us a video with her presentation so that we could still benefit from her knowledge and insights on the way that Protestant propagandists during the Reformation used visual images as a powerful weapon in the battle with Rome. She argued that printers and publishers produced large amounts of woodcuts to tempt the interest of the buying public with, on the one hand, benign representations of Luther as a doctor, an apostle and a common man; and, on the other hand, with the production of witty, satirical, and bawdy portraits of the pope and his clerical minions in the guise of dragons, wolves, pigs, cats, goats, and dogs. This negative imagery made use of a range of animal associations from popular culture and prophecy from the Bible.

After the first session we had a short coffee break, and the discussion previously held inside the Chao Auditorium, spread to the hallways were one could hear the different groups of people commenting and discussing what they had heard in the first session. This trend continued throughout the meeting.

The second session “Of Wolves and Dogs in Textual Sources” also featured three papers by Melissa Sartore (“Hunting the Wolf0s Head: The Outlaw as an Animal in Land, Law, and Literature in Medieval England”), Alison Ganze Langdon (“The Nose Knows: Encountering the Canine in Bisclavret”), and Xochiquetzalli Cruz Martínez (“The Wolf as “Moral Mirror” in Medieval Hispanic Sources”).

For those of us with a soft spot for Robin Hood, Dr. Sartore brought a paper where she discussed the outlaws in Medieval England and their relationship with wolves. The Anglo-Saxon sources actually identifies the outlaws with these animals because the price for the life of a wolf’s head was the same than that of an outlaw. After all, the outlaw and the wolf were outside of the protection of the law and they both lived in the forest. And so, references to wolves and the “wolf’s head” can be found in the outlaw legends of Fouke Fitz Waryn, Gamely and Robin Hood, among others.

Dr. Langdon presented a wonderful paper on Marie de France’s Bisclavret. In this story, the main protagonist, a werewolf, took revenge on his treacherous wife by biting her nose off, a condition that she passes on to her descendants. Instead of following the usual trend where the werewolf protagonist appears as a representation of the purely human, Dr. Langdon took the animal-turn approach and analyzed the way in which canine behavior might give insight into the reasons why the werewolf bit off the wife’s nose. This state of noselessness, Langdon argued, was a marker of human failure of perception. It signified human overreliance on forms of communication that were much more susceptible to distortion and misrepresentation: mouths can lie, ears and eyes can be deceived, but the nose cannot.

Miss Cruz Martínez could not be with us either, but we got to listen to an audio recording of her presentation discussing the way in with the wolf appeared as part of a moral mirror in the Medieval Hispanic sources, especially in the Book of Exemplos by a.b.c., a work at the summit of medieval Spanish teaching in the 15th century. She argued that in these exempla, by rhetorical figure of simile, the wolf is a polyvalent symbol because it has virtues of cunning, shame, and gratitude, or vices such as deception and anger. Cruz Martínez then concluded that the animal was a symbolic example of what was morally expected.

The third, and last session of the first day, “Of Birds and Insects in Material Culture, Literature, and Art” combined three papers by Alice Choyke (“In the Wings of an Eagle: Bone Flutes in Medieval Hungary”), Wendy Pfeffer (“Birds and Bees and Blandin de Cornoalha”), and Eileen Yanoviak (More than Marginal: Insects in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy).


Dr. Choyke gave a very lively presentation regarding the find at Visegrád-Alsóvár in Hungary of two bone flutes that were made from the ulnae of golden eagles. This identification came as a surprise to archaeozoologists because the majority of finds of flutes and pipes from the medieval period were made from goose ulnae. These eagle pipes seem to date from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and it is possible that they originated from the Ottoman village that was established at Visegrád after the Ottoman conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary. Dr. Choyke examined the nature of the extreme wear on the flutes and she compared it to flutes made from the bones of domestic fowl. She also presented the ethnographic context and she examined the possible connections between the choice of the raw material of the flutes and the bird species they were taken from.

Dr. Pfeffer brought a fascinating account of the use of birds in the 14th century courtly romance Blandin de Cornoalha, written in Occitan. She gave significant attention to the use of a domesticated hawk with somewhat magical powers, whose capture allowed the hero, Blandin, to release a princess from a magic spell, in order that the two may wed. Pfeffer discussed the presence of this bird in the romance, the way in which different characters referred to and interacted with the bird, and how the anonymous author of Blandin de Cornoalha succeeded in turning a hunting bird into a bird of love.

Mrs. Yanoviak’s presentation revolved around the presence of bees, moths, flies, butterflies, dragonflies, and grasshoppers in the margins of the late 15th century Hours of Mary of Burgundy (also known as the Vienna Hours) and the Hours of Englebert of Nassau. Yanoviak analyzed these insects painted during the burgeoning of the Flemish scientific revolution, and she proposed that these may be seen as reflecting popular cultural attitudes and they should be understood as religious, moral, and social metaphors.


With this the first day of the MAD Meeting concluded, but not before visiting the wonderful exhibit organized by Delinda Buie from the University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections Department at Ekstrom Library and having some delicious food, first at the reception and then at the speaker’s dinner in downtown Louisville.

The second day was just as exciting as the first day with two final sessions before wrapping everything up. The fourth session, “Of Shepherds, Sheep, and Other Animals in Christian Symbolism,” featured two papers by Blake Beattie (“Animal Imagery in Fourteenth-Century Curial Sermons”) and Martha Robinson (Sheepish: An Investigation of Ovine Tropes and Art Historical Precedents.”)

Dr. Beattie presented a paper on a collection of liturgical sermons (Valencia, cat. Bilb. Ms. 215) that were delivered by cardinals and other Church dignitaries during pontifical celebrations in the papal chapel at Avignon. He focused on the use of animal imagery in these sermons and he argued that there was an imprecision regarding the sources where the preachers got their material (besides scriptural citations or other Christian or Classical sources) when they cited them. This imprecision seems to indicate that they did not obtain access to their animal imagery by means of preaching aids or other “research” materials at Avignon, but that such imagery was in fact an established part of the moral and spiritual symbolic vocabulary of 14th century curial culture.

Mrs. Robinson brought a diachronic study of the imagery of the sheep with its rich metaphorical content and how it appears in the work of contemporary artists despite a distance from both liturgical texts or the agrarian past that would make tropes of sheep, shepherd and lamb intelligible. She argued that many contemporary iterations of sheep and lamb are synchronous with the animal-turn in art, yet anchored in a millennial-long history of embedded anthropomorphic representation.

The fifth, and final, session featured three papers by Anne Koenig (“The Role of Animals in the Cause and Cure of Medieval Madness”), Gerhard Jaritz (“Creating and Modifying in Unexpected Ways? The Visual Image of Animals in the Hortus Sanitatis”), and Genevieve Carlton (“Sea Monsters and the Wonders of the Arctic Ocean: Natural History in the Carta Marina”).

Dr. Koenig’s research centered on the role of animals in medieval madness, as seen through the written sources in late medieval Germany. These sources pointed out that when a person went mad, he or she was less than himself, having lost that part that gave him or herself agency and independence. Cities such as Nuremberg or Munich, passed new town laws for the protection and management of those deemed mad. A number of sources mentioned active treatments to cure madness that involved, for the most part, praying and herbal concoctions. But other sources mention the use of animal-based remedies, such as the use of lion skins, puppies, or cocks. She examined these treatments not only from the logic of Galenic therapy but also in light of the fact that animals could cause the madness and that madness itself was a state nearer to that of the beast.

Dr. Jaritz gave a very insightful paper on the Hortus Sanitatis, one of the most important encyclopedias of the natural world printed in a large number of editions from the 1490s onwards. Jaritz discussed the animal images found on these manuscripts and early printed books by first analyzing their development from the first editions until the ones of the mid-16th century, and then by offering some examples of how readers of the book reacted to the images by adding modifications. He concluded that these manuscripts were especially collected for the edification that the images brought to their owners.

Dr. Carlton’s paper centered around the Carta Marina created by Olaus Magnus in 1539 in Venice and the terrifying and foreboding monsters that appear in the Arctic waters represented there. Yet, according to Carlton, Olaus Magnus was not trying to create an image of medieval terror of the unknown, but a catalog of Scandinavian knowledge of animals of the Arctic Sea. Carlton argued that the map itself became a visual representation of both, the European fear of unknown waters and a celebration of the extent of current and classical knowledge about these ocean regions on the edge of the continent, while making a compelling case for the connection between wonder and knowledge.

With this last session the 3rd MAD Meeting came to an end. There were some parting words from the organizers as well as from one of the founders of MAD, Alice Choyke, that emphasized the importance of these multidisciplinary meetings in the academic pursue of knowledge and understanding of the role of animals in the Middle Ages. These fascinating and enlightening discussions should continue in the next MAD meeting in 2016.


Check out the 3rd MAD Meeting on Flickr!

To cite this post : Mónica A. Walker Vadillo, “(Un)Expected Animals in (Un)Expected Places in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period: A brief account of an excellent meeting”, Medieval Animal Data Network (blog on Hypotheses.org), May, 16th, 2014. [On line] http://mad.hypotheses.org/274

Mónica A. Walker Vadillo holds a Ph.D. (Cum Laude) in the History of Art (Medieval) from Complutense University (Madrid, Spain) as well as two M.A.s in Medieval Studies from the Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) and Art History from the University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida). She was the recipient of a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Digital Humanities in 2011 at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and now she is Assistant Professor (Term) of Medieval Art History at the Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville (Kentucky). Her research interests are focused on medieval iconography and manuscript illumination, more specifically on the iconography of women, animals and space. In addition, she also studies the way contemporary culture has appropriated and transformed medieval art and culture in areas such as comic books and graphic novels.

Personal webpage : http://louisville.academia.edu/MonicaAnnWalkerVadillo

Monica Walker-Vadillo’s other posts

Cite this blog post
Mónica Ann Walker Vadillo (2014, May 16). (Un)Expected Animals in (Un)Expected Places in the Middle Ages & the Early Modern Period: A brief account of an excellent meeting. Medieval Animal Data-Network. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/r5f9

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