Tag Archives: God

Beauty of the Bestiaries

As David Attenborough once observed, ‘Animals were the first thing that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But Animals’ (Amazing Rare Things, p. 9). They are there in the earliest cave paintings, they are there in the cultures of antiquity, and in every subsequent age through to the present day, but no period in history has portrayed them so frequently in its art and literature, or attached such a diverse range of meanings to them, as the Middle Ages.

Book of Nature BNF MS Français 22971 f 15v

The Book of Nature: Bibliothèque National de France, Français 22971, f. 15v.

The medieval interest in animals extended from the real relationships that man had with them in day to day life – the ox that pulled the plough, the cat that kept the mice away – to the view that they were allegorical pieces in a divine jigsaw that helped define what it meant to be human in a fallen world.

Man was God’s favourite creation, but he had to work hard to redeem his sinful state. For many this meant pondering the wonders of creation and looking at nature for insights into how to live and die well. To the medieval mind, animals had been there from the start, even before Adam was created, so for the wise men and women who studied their appearance, their characteristics, and their activities, these little pockets of wisdom running across the face of the earth, swimming in the depths of the ocean, and soaring in the heavens, were constantly revealing God’s secrets.

holkham creation

Creation in the Holkham Picture Bible: British Library MS Add. 47682.

Of all the medieval artists and writers that took delight in drawing, writing about, and contemplating the secrets that animals could expose, the authors and illuminators of the Bestiaries, or Books of Beasts, were the most influential. Imbued with Christian symbolism, and blending biblical exegesis, natural science, fantasy, and humour, these encyclopaedic books were packed with descriptions of real and fantastic creatures. Each entry outlined an animal’s supposed appearance and characteristics, then provided a moral interpretation of what the beast represented. In this way, the Bestiaries functioned as schoolbooks, homiletic source material, and devotional aids in monasteries and noble households to help man unlock the secrets of creation.

Here’s an example of an entry for the (rather grumpy looking) elephant below.

elephant Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 54r

Grumpy elephant in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, f. 54r.

‘Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls. Unable to rise, the beast cries out, and a large elephant tries to lift it up, but fails… Finally a small elephant comes and succeeds in raising the fallen one… Male elephants are reluctant to mate, so when the female wants children, she and the male travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows. The female elephant eats some mandrake, and then gives some to the male; they mate and the female immediately conceives. When it is time to give birth, the female wades into a pool up to her belly and gives birth there. If she gave birth on land, the elephant’s enemy the dragon would devour the baby. To make sure the dragon cannot attack, the male elephant stands guard and tramples the dragon if it approaches the pool. The elephant’s life span is three hundred years. They travel in herds, are afraid of mice, and courteously salute men in whatever way they can.’

elephant Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 114v

Elephant giving birth in Bibliothèque Nationale deFrance MS Lat. 14429, f. 114v.

‘The elephant and its mate provide an allegory of Adam and Eve. When they were still without sin in the Garden of Eden, they did not mate, but when the dragon seduced them and Eve ate the fruit of the tree and gave some to Adam, they were forced to leave Paradise and enter the world, which was like a turbulent lake. She conceived, and ‘gave birth on the waters of guilt.’ The big elephant represents the law, which could not raise up mankind from sin… Christ is the small elephant who succeeded to raising the fallen’. Source of description here.

That’s a lot of hidden meaning in one grumpy elephant!

Here’s another for the wolf.

wolf British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 29r

Man and Wolves in British Library Royal MS 12 F xiii, f. 29r.

‘If a wolf sees a man before the man sees the wolf, the man will lose his voice. If the man sees the wolf first, the wolf can no longer be fierce. If a man loses his voice because the wolf saw him first, he should take off all his clothes and bang two rocks together, which will keep the wolf from attacking.

The wolf lives from prey, from the earth, and sometimes from the wind. When the wolf sneaks into a sheep fold, it approaches like a tame dog and is careful to approach from upwind so that the farm dogs do not smell its evil breath… If a wolf is caught in a trap, it will mutilate itself to escape rather than allow itself to be captured.

Wolves have strength in their feet, and anything they trample dies… Their eyes shine in the dark like lamps. At the tip of a wolf’s tail is a tuft of hair that can be used for love potions; if the wolf is about to be captured, it bites off the tuft so that no man can get it… Wolves mate only twelve days in the year. The female gives birth at the beginning of spring, in the month of May, when it first thunders.’

wolf Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 62r

Wolf in Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS KB, KA 16, f. 62r.

‘Like the wolf, the devil always sees mankind as prey and circles the sheepfold of the faithful, that is the Church. As the wolf gives birth when thunder first sounds, so the devil fell from heaven at the first display of his pride. The shining of the wolf’s eyes in the night is like the works of the devil, which seem beautiful to foolish men… Like the man who, because of the wolf has lost his voice, can save himself by removing his clothes and banging two rocks together, so can the man who is lost in sin be saved by stripping off, through baptism, his worldly self and then appealing to the saints, who are called “stones of adamant”.’ Source of description here.

Gorgeously illuminated, the Bestiaries shaped subsequent depictions of animals in literature, sermons, art, tapestries, church architecture, sculpture, furniture, wall paintings, stained glass, and heraldry. Though some of the real bestiary animals bear little resemblance to their living counterparts (many of the artists had never seen the beast they were drawing!), they continue to captivate and delight audiences today.

Take the crocodile for instance. If the beauty tip in the bestiary’s account of the crocodile isn’t enough to make a reader want to delve further into its secrets – to enhance your beauty, smear its excrement (or intestinal contents) on your face and leave it there until sweat washes it off – then perhaps the strange image of its bird-like beak, upside-down head, or lizard-like spikes might do the trick.

croc Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 110v

Crocodile in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 14429, f. 110v.

croc Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, Folio 64r

Crocodile in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, f. 64r.

croc Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, Folio 24r

Crocodile in Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, f. 24.

croc Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 12v

Crocodile in Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, f. 12v.

In Genesis the privilege of naming the animals is reserved for the first man, who is given the task of assigning them identities. This special gift to Adam, his sovereignty over all living creatures, is reflected in the opening pages of the Aberdeen Bestiary, whereby the parallelism between the three images depicting God’s creation of the animals and Adam’s naming of them, underlines the closeness of God to animals, man to animals, and man to God. Together, they form a perfect trinity: divine, human, and animal.

Animals then, were seen as being imbued with certain characteristics because God intended them to provide examples of proper or improper conduct to reinforce his laws. At first, man and animals were created to live in harmony, but after the Fall, new creatures, such as lice and fleas, were believed to have appeared to trouble man and make his life on earth uncomfortable. Animals became something to be feared if they could not be tamed. Two divisions appear with regards to the medieval view of animals, they could either serve man or hurt man: be tame or untame. This is similar to medieval perceptions of the landscape, whereby civilised, controlled spaces were (for the most part) considered to be safer places, while untamed landscapes, wildernesses, forests, and wastelands were perceived to be marginal, liminal places were wild, bad things dwelt. Living in a world full of threat and danger (physical and spiritual) became part of what it meant to be human.

There will inevitably be aspects of our ancestors’ use and love of animals in stories and artwork that we will perhaps never be able to fully understand, but we can be certain that they were used exhaustively in medieval culture to offer another view of the world. In attempting to elucidate aspects of the human condition through animals, the bestiaries express our fears and desires; they speak to man’s insatiable quest for knowledge and comprehension of the world he lives in. Perhaps this is why their influence is still widely felt today in the accepted ‘wisdom’ that lions are the king of beasts, elephants are scared of mice, dogs are loyal, or foxes are cunning, and, more spectacularly, in the creatures that inhabit the imaginary realms of popular series like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.

Read more about Bestiaries and their animals here.

View the Aberdeen Bestiary here.

View English Bestiaries in The British Library here.

The Chester Noah Play: Directing Silence and Rain

This month I directed The Chester Noah Play with The Liverpool University Players for the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival at The Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Noah and his Family n the 'Ark' (lent to us by Spike Theatre)

Noah and his Family in the ‘Ark’ (lent to us by Spike Theatre)

Part of a larger ‘cycle’ of medieval plays telling the story of Christian history from Creation to Doomsday, The Chester Noah Play was originally performed in the fifteenth century by the Waterleaders and Drawers of Dee, a professional guild responsible for bringing water to the citizens of Chester from the River Dee. The connection between the subject matter of the play and the guild’s work with water is deliberate, and helps to underscore the symbolic connotations of water as a salvific element with the power to destroy and redeem. By producing and performing the play, the Waterleaders and Drawers demonstrated their own piety and desire to be saved and helped spectators acknowledge the importance of redemption in their lives. While the actors adopt the role of God’s chosen few, those watching unwittingly become representatives of sinful mankind; they stand outside the ark in the space occupied by the flood, symbolically drowning as they watch God cleanse the world of sin.

Noah's children enjoy an anachronistic moment in the ark

Noah’s children and their wives enjoy an anachronistic moment in the ark

Other notable features of the play include information about medieval shipbuilding, a comedic but moving portrayal of Mrs Noah, who refuses to get on the ark if her ‘gossips’ (friends) can’t be saved too, and detailed directions revealing how the medieval actors staged the boarding of the animals and created the illusion of Noah sending forth a raven and dove (a prop bird attached to a cord on the ark’s mast).

An angel returns the dove to Noah with an olive branch

An angel (Mary-Jayne Cooper) returns the dove to Noah with an olive branch. Japhet’s wife (Charlie Wilson) makes it ‘fly’

Featuring as part of a family-friendly event, our production was never intended to be an academic exercise to gain insights into early stagecraft, but using the original script and stage directions, and performing outdoors to an audience who were free to move around in close proximity to the actors, nevertheless taught us a great deal about the power and appeal of the medieval drama.

One of the greatest challenges in lifting the play off the page was deciding how to deal with having so many characters ‘on stage’ throughout the performance, when most hardly say a word. The play is dominated by speeches from God, Noah, and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Noah, yet Noah’s three sons and their wives are physically present throughout interacting with them.

The hardest section to direct in this respect was the opening ‘scene’ in which God justifies the deluge and instructs Noah how to build the ark. God addresses Noah after only a few lines, so the actor playing him – Alex Pardey – needed to be visible from the start; it was distracting to have Noah walk on as the speech had just begun. The family also needed to be ‘on stage’ from the start because Noah addresses them with ‘Have done you men and women all…’ immediately after thanking God for promising to save them; it seemed incongruous for them to not be in Noah’s presence until that point.

'Destroyed all the world shall be': God (Martin Poile) talks to Noah (Alex Pardey)

‘Destroyed all the world shall be’: God (Martin Poile) talks to Noah (Alex Pardey)

Having everyone on stage from the beginning prompted questions about how much of God’s speech the family is meant to hear. Do they hear the entire thing, the part addressed to Noah, or none of it? If they do hear, how do they react to the world’s impending destruction? Do they wail and cry, or remain silent and fearful?  If they don’t hear God, what are they doing on stage during his exchange with Noah? Are they silent statues, coming to life only when Noah addresses them? Are they miming activities from daily life, oblivious to the fate of the world? Though the play gives no indication, the latter seemed unlikely because Shem responds to Noah’s ‘Have done…’ by saying he is ready with the tools needed to build the ark; he does not require further explanation or encouragement. For me, this swung it. The family had to hear God’s speech.

What really surprised me was how dramatically the tone of the play changed when I experimented with different ways of directing the silent family in that crucial scene. Asking them to kneel down in prayer as God spoke, with only Noah rising to engage with Him created a very sombre tone. God and Noah became the focal point of the scene, the family were marginalised, and any human response to the flood that they might have conveyed by reacting to God’s news was lost. Though calmer, more reflective and probably more in keeping with the tone of medieval productions, I wanted the audience to connect with what was being said at a basic human level and consider how it would feel to be told that the world was going to end.

We still began with the family kneeling in prayer (demonstrating the piety that prompts God to save them in the first place), but I asked them to rise in shock and fear, gasping and consoling each other as they heard God declare ‘Man that I made will I destroy’. Aside from displaying raw emotion and prompting the audience to consider what they would do, having the actors console each other meant that Noah’s ‘Have done…’ became a way of telling his family to put their emotions aside and get on with fulfilling God’s command to build the ark.

Shem, his wife, and Mrs Noah learn of the coming flood (Madelaine Smart, Liam Hale and Rio Matchett)

Shem, his wife, and Mrs Noah learn of the coming flood (Madelaine Smart, Liam Hale and Rio Matchett)

In other ‘scenes’ directing the silent family was made easier by stage directions embedded in the dialogue and an instruction stating that the family should mime building the ark. When they help to bring the animals on board, the play states that images of the animals mentioned in their speeches should be painted on boards, so it made sense for the family to bring a series of boards on as they delivered their lines. We used a combination of boards and puppets to appeal to the children in our audience and add a little comedy as the actors mimed pushing and squeezing animals onto the prop boat that Spike Theatre had kindly lent us.

Bringing on the animals (Alex Ferguson and Geraint Williams as Ham and Japhet)

Bringing on the animals (Alex Ferguson and Geraint Williams as Ham and Japhet)

Staging the other silent star of the play – the flood itself – was another challenge. British weather being what it is, there was always a possibility that it would rain on our performance, but we didn’t want real water and the problems that it would bring: wet actors and costumes, fewer spectators, and a slippery boat! Despite the fact that medieval plays often involved interesting special effects (the fireworks coming out of the devil’s arse in The Castle of Perseverance or the withering of Salome’s hand in the N-Town Nativity spring to mind), the medieval guild may not have attempted to represent the flood. There is no way of knowing for sure. Yet I wanted to have something theatrical to bridge the two parts of the play: pre- and post- deluge.

The family celebrate as the flood ends

The family celebrate as the flood ends

I took inspiration from Mark Dornford-May’s 2001 production of The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso, which represented the flood with an actor pouring water into a bucket. Our God – Martin Poile – brought on a large watering-can labelled ‘Act of God’ and poured water into a large pot labelled ‘Earth’, while counting out the days of the flood. This allowed the family to act out a long sea voyage that made them sick and weary, contrasting nicely with their jubilation when the flood began to subside. The audience seemed to like the symbolism of the watering-can and I was delighted with the way the scene showed that God was in control.

Act of God rains down on the earth

Act of God rains down on the earth (Mary-Jayne Cooper and Martin Poile)

And how did we stage God’s final act and gift to Noah’s family, the inaudible but visually stunning rainbow? Well this image will explain far better than words can…

Sunshine on a Rainy Day: Our Rainbow

Sunshine on a rainy day: our umbrella rainbow

You can watch the play here:

Cast Interviews here:

Images from our production are available here.
Information about the original medieval play is available in our Programme.