In a previous blogpost I talked about the appearances of bearded women on the peripheries of the medieval world, and I lingered a bit on their mention in the encyclopedia De Natura Rerum, compiled by Thomas de Cantimpré (d.1272). This encyclopedia is a treasure-trove of medieval knowledge, and a great window into how the world was understood by the learned of the Christian west. One recurring feature in the learned litereature of the Middle Ages is of course the weirdness of the world's peripheries, the monsters and hominids of the far north and far east, perhaps best known to modern readers through Marco Polo's Il Millione or The Travels of John Mandeville. This weird world in earth's remote corners - figuratively speaking, because as we know, people in the Middle Ages did NOT believe the world was flat (see here, and here) - was a source of wonder to lay and learned alike, and make great reading even today.
One of the many delightful entries in Thomas de Cantimpré's De Natura Rerum deals with how the elephant is hunted, as shown by the illumination below. It was believed in the Middle Ages that the elephant had no knees and could therefore not bend down or lie down when sleeping. To make up for this defect, it was said, elephants spend their nights leaning against a tree where they slept. To hunt the elephant, therefore, you had only to chop down the tree, either before the elephant went to bed or while he was sleeping (although in the illumination below he seems to be wide awake). When the tree was sawed in two, the elephant would have no support, lose balance and fall helplessly to ground where he could be killed.
Elephants hunted by saw
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.051v, De Rerum Natura, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr
This belief in the jointless animal sleeping against a tree is a very old one, and the perhaps most famous instance is perhaps the description of the moose in Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, which is also said to be hunted by the same method: Hunters follow the tracks to the moose's sleeping-tree, and when this has been found they undermine the roots or cut into the tree so that it can't support the weight of the mighty moose.
The two motifs are most likely connected, but how I do not know. Both these texts, however, have that in common that their respective authors are writing about their peripheries. Caesar wrote about the Gaul and Germania, a transalpine world which he had visited and in which he had held battle, but about whose nature and history he was ignorant and had to rely on local stories and tales, some no doubt exaggerated or invented, perhaps knowingly pulling the Roman imperator's leg while laughing behind his back.
When Thomas de Cantimpré applies this motif to his encyclopedia, he becomes part of a long tradition, repeating only what is well known about elephants in learned circles, supported by classical authority and the conviction of repetition rather than any eye-witness stories. Few learned men in the Middle Ages had ever seen an elephant, but of Thomas had seen one, he might have changed his mind about its appearance, as did his contemporary Matthew Paris, when he saw the elephant of Henry III in the Tower of London.