And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 20. mars 2013

The Variegated Beast

Every creature of the world,
like a picture, or a book,
is to us a mirror
- De Incarnatione Christi, Alain de Lille (c.1116/17-1202/03), my translation

 Lynx, from MS Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º (England, 15th century), taken from this website, courtesy of the royal library of Copenhagen.

People in the Middle Ages understood animals differently than we do today. To the medieval man and woman an animal consisted not solely of its beastly qualities, but also provided a metaphor for the Christian religion. It would of course only be natural if God the maker had put such examples on earth in order to guide mankind towards the truth of dogma, and to explain these examples they relied on the beautifully illustrated bestiaries, which relied more on tradition than actual experience, and these books became keys to decode the book of nature, which Alain de Lille spoke of in the 12th century. In this blogpost I aim to present how the lynx, known as lynx or chama in Latin, fared in three medieval texts.

The Bestiary of MS Bodley 764

This bestiary was composed around the mid-thirteenth century and has been translated in an abbreviated form by Richard Barber. It is this translation I have used in the quote below. As is proper in a book of beasts, the author explains its allegorical quality and its natural properties with the proper reference to authority, in this case Pliny.

The Lynx is so called because it is counted as a kind of wolf (lupus). It is a beast marked with spots on its back like those of a pard, but it resembles a wolf: its urine is said to harden into a valuable jewel called ligurius. The lynxes know that this is valuable, as is proved by the exceptional care with which they cover it with sand: they are naturally jealous, and cannot bear it to fall into the hands of man. Pliny says that lynxes only bear cubs once. This beast typifies envious men who, in the hardness of their hearts, would rather do harm than good and are intent on worldly desires: even things for which they have no use and which might benefit others they render useless.

From MS Bodley 764

As is shown by the above and the introductory pictures, the lynx was commonly depicted in the act of making a ligurius. The claim that its name is etymologically connected to the wolf is set forth by Isidore of Seville, who, although a man of great qualities, was not always correct in his assertions, and may very well be wrong in this case also.

The Romance of the Rose

Cats are known for their good eyesight, and in The Romance of the Rose this property is used to illustrate how Chastity and Beauty have always been at war, because men, not possessing the eyesight of the lynx, fails to see beyond Beauty and discover the veiled truth.

The Romance of the Rose was written by two authors of separate generations. The first installment was composed between 1225 and 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris, and the book was completed between 1269 and 1278 by Jean de Meun and is presented as an allegorical dream vision in the manner of Dante's Comedy. The extract below is taken from Frances Horgan's translation.

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, from MS Stowe 947, France, c.1314-1340, courtesy of British Library.

But if men had the eyes of a lynx, and had looked carefully at them [i.e. pleasant adornments], no sable mantles, surcoats or skirts, no braids or kerchiefs, dresses or cloaks, no jewels or precious things, no false smirks or shining and seemingly artificial exterior, no garlands of fresh flowers could make them appear beautiful. For the body of Alcibiades, which had been so well shaped by Nature as to be extremely beautiful in colour and form, would have been considered very ugly by anyone who could have looked inside it; so Boethius, that wise and most worthy man, tells us, and he calls Aristotle to witness when he says that the eyesight of the lynx is so good and sharp and clear that he sees quite plainly the exterior and the interior of everything that he is shown.

I do not know if the ancient tradition the speaker invokes also considered the lynx a symbol of envy, or whether this property is solely a medieval belief. Nonetheless, the idea of the lynx's good eyesight fits very well with the idea of a jealous individual, for jealousy unmasks exterior things very easily. However, whether this connection was made in the Middle Ages is beyond my knowledge.


The last work is the most famous one, namely Dante's first book of the work known as The Divine Comedy. The work was written during Dante's exile from Florence in the early 14th century, and the passage containing the lynx is taken from the first song, where Dante has lost his way and encounters three beasts blocking his way. The passage is well-known, but there are differing opinions among translators what beast Dante is facing. The Italian text is taken from this website, which also provides the first English translation.

Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l’erta,
una lonza leggera e presta molto,
che di pel macolato era coverta;

And lo! almost where the ascent began,
A panther light and swift exceedingly,
Which with a spotted skin was covered o'er!

Charles Sisson, translates the passage differently:

And, almost at the point where the slope began,
I saw a leopard, extremely light and active,
The skin of which was mottled.

Dante meeting the first beast, by Gustave Doré. Image is taken from this website.

Dante himself uses two words to describe this animal. The first time, as shown above, he uses the word lonza, which resembles the Modern Italian lince, which means lynx. The second time he only refers to the animal as a gaetto, a cat. As we have seen, translators have differed in their identification of this beast. As seen above the translators have chosen panther and leopard, but Magnus Ulleland, who translated the Comedy into New Norse in 2000, identified the beast as a lynx. According to David Higgins, writing the notes to Sisson's translation, the early commentators of the Comedy saw this animal as an allegory of sexual promiscuity, not of envy, but whether they were right is difficult to assess.

Whether Dante's
lonza was indeed meant to identify a lynx, or whether the used this for the sake of rhyme and merely as a different way to say leopard or panther must be unanswered. Dante describes the beast as maccolato, or spotted, and fiera, or beautiful, but this is not of much aid. However, if the early commentators were right in their allegorical interpretation, it is tempting to dismiss panther as an option since this animal is traditionally identified with Christ. On the other hand, tradition also described the lynx as wolf-like, but it may of course be that Dante did in fact know how a lynx actually looks. In the end we are left with speculation, but for the sake of this assemblage I decided to include it.


Alighieri, Dante, Den guddommelege komedie, trans. by Magnus Ulleland, 2000

Alighieri, Dante, The Divine Comedy, transl. by Charles Sisson, 2008

Barber, Richard (ed. and transl.), Bestiary, 2006

Lorris, Guillaume de and Meun, Jean de, The Romance of the Rose, transl. by Frances Horgan, 1994

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