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

søndag 12. oktober 2014

The Secret Life of Beavers

The beavers (castor) is so named from being castrated. Beavers are hunted for their testicles, which are good for medicine; when a hunter comes near they bite off their testicles to save themselves.
- Etymologies, Isidore of Seville
(quote from here)

[The beaver] puts more trust in paths through the water than through the earth
- Historia Norwegie (translated by Peter Fisher)

The myth of the self-castrating beaver is very old and can be found already in the fables of Aesop. Through the conduit of the ancient writers like Pliny the Elder and Cicero, this legend remained vibrant in the Middle Ages and were repeated by such various figures and the encyclopedically minded Isidore, the admonitory Bernard of Clairvaux and the journalistic Gerald of Wales – not to mention the numerous bestiaries. The latter has brought us one of the most expansive and detailed accounts of the life of the beaver in his Journey Through Wales. In this blogpost, however, I will present an account of the beaver as rendered in the anonymous 12th-century Historia Norwegie.

Beaver escaping the hunter
MS Royal 12 C XIX, 1st quarter of 13th century, English bestiary
Courtesy of British Library
The History of Norway, or Historia Norwegie, was written sometime in the 12th century. The Norwegian medievalist Inger Ekrem favours an early date, placing it in the first half of the 12th century, before the establishment of the Archbishopric of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) in 1152/53.(1) The most recent translator, Peter Fisher, favours instead the third quarter of the 12th century. (2) It falls beyond the scope of the present blogpost to engage in this discussion, but it is important to keep in mind that this work, which survives in an incomplete form, makes the claim to be the first Latin history of Norway. This claim, to my recollection, is not countered by Theodericus Monachus, who wrote his Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium sometime in the period 1177-89. There are many fascinating things to say about Historia Norwegie, and in future blogposts I hope to do so. Presently, however, I will confine myself to the account of beavers given in chapter four of book 1, a chapter chiefly concerned with Finns. The translation is by Peter Fisher, printed in Inger Ekrem and Lars Boje Mortensen (eds.), Historia Norwegie, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2003.

BL MS Royal 12 F XIII, 2nd quarter of 13th century, English bestiary
Courtesy of British Library
This last creature is astonishingly wary and because it is often pursued by hunters with their hounds, it digs itself three underground tunnels leading to the water. As the water rises it keeps to the middle or the upper one, but as the level subsides and the dogs get near, it sets a slave at one entrance, leaving it to confront the pack, while it seeks the lowest lurking-place with its female and pups as if this were its home, since from that point there lies easier access to the water. It puts more trust in paths through the water than through the earth. When the beavers have sweated a good deal gathering their winter provisions, they saw round lofty elms with their teeth (they are particularly fond of chewing the bark of this tree), and load the wood on to one of their slaves, who lies on his back holding a log between his forepaws; in this way, using him as a cart, they drag home a large stack of timber, for by gripping the log with their jaws on each side, they help to drag their porter along. You see, there is a certain menial type of beaver, very poorly valued, whose fur is worn quite threadbare through the incessant repetition of this drudgery.
Besançon - BM - ms. 0551, 13th century, Miracles de Notre Dame by Gautier de Coinci
Courtesy of enluminures

This account is in certain ways similar to that of Gerald of Wales, and both draw on commonplace ideas of how beavers live. One of the perhaps most interesting distinctions, is that while Gerald invokes three sources for his knowledge – Cicero, Isidore of Seville and Bernard of Clairvaux – the anonymous author of Historia Norwegie does not mention any source to this knowledge. Furthermore, both these authors remarks that some beavers are used as vessels for timber, but while Gerald notes that these live vessels are “obeying the dictates of nature” when they give themselves up as rafts (quoted here). The anonymous author of Historia, however, calls them slaves and presents a hierarchy of labour in the world of the beavers, a hierarchy emphasised by the role of some beavers as dispensable when danger lurks. Most significantly, however, is that the anonymous author does not include the widely-circulated myth of the self-castrating beaver.

Although the author of Historia Norwegie presents an image of the beaver similar to much of what has been handed down by tradition, he also adds some traits whose sources are not clear. That he does not talk of the etymology of the beast and does not refer to its legendary self-castration, could suggest that his sources are not written as he neither confirms nor counters this belief. However, the many similarities between his account and that of Gerald of Wales is a strong argument against this. Whether he relies on oral accounts and eye-witnesses is probable, but can not be ascertained. Nonetheless, that this is included in an account of the many weird and wonderful things of the Northern part of Norway, gives us an interesting window into the minds of a twelfth-century writer.

Self-castrating disguised, as it seems, like a deer
 BL MS Sloane 4016, c.1440, Italian herbal
Courtesy of British Library

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