Medieval Bestiary 3: Squirrels, Monkeys, and Wolves

Welcome back! We hope you and yours had a happy Thanksgiving. Today is Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, meaning that you’re no doubt on your way out the door in search of Deals and Steals. But before you fall prey to the temptation of every bargain in sight, take heed, gentle shopper, of the warnings delivered in the bestiaries of yore. Be not like the grasping squirrel, the covetous monkey, or the avaricious wolf.

All three animals, you see, were medieval symbols of greed. The squirrel, for example, was viewed as the ultimate winter hoarder, the kind who’d buy up the whole mall on Black Friday. According to The Grand Medieval Bestiary, edited by Christian Heck and Remy Cordonnier:

The squirrel was not viewed in an exclusively negative light. It could be an affectionate companion, as in the case of the Irish monk Saint Columbanus, recounted in Jonas of Bobbio’s biography. Still, the animal was thought to have decidedly more vices than virtues. It was considered greedy—it never stopped amassing food, to the point where it forgot where its hoards were hidden—as well as lazy, because it spent one third of the year asleep. (In the Middle Ages, people did not understand the necessity of the natural behavior of hibernation.)

Thomas of Cantimpré, De natura rerum, Dutch translation by Jacob Van Maerlant, Flanders, c. 1350
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, MS KA 16, 11 x 11 1/4 in. (27.8 x 20.8 cm)
Folio 68v: Squirrels

If the Middle Ages’ grudge against the squirrel was partly a matter of scientific ignorance, it was also a matter of guilt by association. With evil monkeys. The Bestiary editors explain: “The remarkable agility of the little rodent attracted notice, and it was compared to the monkey, a diabolical creature representing the irrational and bestial aspect of man.” Nor did these rodents’ shady ties end with our simian “friends.” According to the entry on The Monkey, the trail leads all the way back to the Bible: “Monkeys appear frequently in drolleries in the margins of Gothic manuscripts. They often carry fruit in their mouths, an allusion to original sin and evidence of their greediness, an iconography they share with the squirrel and the fool of Psalms 15 and 52 (who is shown as bald, probably to increase his resemblance to the monkey).”

Breviary of Marie of Savoy, Milan, c. 1430
Bibliothèque Municipale, Chambéry, MS 4, 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 23 cm)
Folio 319 (detail from the margin): A Capuchin Monkey

The squirrel. The monkey. The fool. It all fits together. But where does the wolf enter the picture? The authors remind us that:

In the opening canto of his Divine Comedy, Dante names the leopard as one of the three animals that symbolize the principal categories of sinners. The leopard, the lion, and the wolf represent respectively the sins of lust, pride, and greed.

Gaston Phébus, Livre de la chasse, Paris, c. 1405–10
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS fr. 616, 14 1/4 x 9 7/8 in. (36 x 25 cm)
Folio 107: Wolf-Hunting, the Crouching Method

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us too much, given the wolf’s reputation as a relentless farmyard predator. It’s all take, take, take with those animals:

The wolf is depicted in keeping with popular imagery, which sees it as, above all, a cattle thief. The most common scene shows it escaping with a lamb in its jaws, taking advantage of the shepherd’s inattention, or with the latter in hot pursuit.

We’re pretty sure we’ve seen something like this happen at CostCo. Be careful out there, gentle shopper: the Black Friday aisles are overrun with squirrels, monkeys, and wolves (oh my). Avoid being trampled by them; avoid engaging them in confrontation; but above all, avoid the temptation to join their ranks. Actually, in the case of monkeys, it’s probably best to steer cleer of them altogether:

The human activities most often imitated by monkeys in manuscripts are studying urine at a patient’s bedside and teaching. Monkeys are frequently shown playing, fighting, and mounted on roosters, foxes, goats, and mythical animals. Sometimes they are in obscene poses, placing a finger indiscreetly or getting their rumps inspected by an imaginary version of a wading bird.

Thus endeth sermon.

Click here to learn more about The Grand Medieval Bestiary, published by Abbeville Press.

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