Learning about Learned Medieval Women with Dr. Megan J. Hall

This week, we’re looking back at an earlier episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” In late 2022, we chatted with Dr. Megan J. Hall, Assistant Director of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. We spoke with her about women’s literacy and learning in medieval England, the trials and tribulations of writing an academic article, and why impromptu bell-ringing can reveal the true value of scholarship.

Studying history can show us the bigger picture. It can help to explain why nation states behave as they do, why complex geopolitical situations emerge, and how entire landscapes have been shaped over time. But it also allows us to connect with the past on a local level. It can show us where we come from. Speaking with Dr. Hall, we were reminded several times that through historical research, people can identify with those who came before. Moments of identity like that can drastically reshape our relationship with the past. Dr. Hall’s meeting with a group of bellringers in rural England is a perfect example. During this surprise encounter, she was able to share her own work with the group and participate in a tradition of bell ringing which has centuries of history. Her work prompted one of the group to ask ‘so, could women read in the Middle Ages?’ Dr. Hall was able to correct a common misconception of women and the possibilities open to them in medieval England. Yes, some women could read! Some books were written specifically for women! This revelation changed the questioner’s view of medieval women, and was a triumphant ‘I knew we could!’ she experienced a moment of solidarity with them.

Dr. Hall’s story, as has been the case for so many of the conversations we’ve had on Meeting on the Middle Ages, is also a reminder of the privilege that medievalists have. We are able to visit museums, archives, libraries, and go beyond the public spaces. We can consult ancient materials. We don’t have to rely on facsimiles (well, sometimes we do). We can work with the original, turning it over in our hands and connecting with its creator. In doing so, we become another link in a chain that has been forged over centuries. With the Ancrenne Wisse it begins with the object’s creator, perhaps the scribe or composer of a manuscript. It binds together dozens of men and women who received the text and used it in their lives. Dr. Hall is part of that chain. And in telling her story, we all become a part of it too.

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Imagining the Medieval Bestiary

Medieval bestiaries, which flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly in England, are compendia of brief descriptions of various animals (sometimes plants and stones are included as well), which offer moral or allegorical lessons, and are often colorfully illustrated.

Basic modern definitions often suggest a sort of binary, ontological taxonomy for the creatures in these texts: bestiaries feature “real” animals (or “actual” or “factual” ones, such as dogs, crocodiles, beavers, and elephants), but also “imaginary” ones (or “mythical,” “legendary,” or “fabulous” ones, etc., such as unicorns, phoenixes, and manticores).

Unicorn from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f15r).

Bestiaries themselves don’t appear to distinguish between “real” and “imaginary” animals, in terms of the arrangement of entries or the way that creatures from these two categories are verbally described or artistically depicted;[1] the distinction is a modern and anachronistic one. Furthermore, bestiaries’ inclusion of hard-to-believe anecdotes about well-known creatures who actually do exist (e.g., the stag’s alleged habit of drowning snakes) renders the boundary between “real” and “imaginary” animals, as we might consider it, less firm in these texts. At stake in the discourse of the “real” versus the “imaginary” in bestiaries is our view of medieval thinkers.

One approach to the “imaginary” animals in bestiaries—a very old approach to interpreting mythical creatures, in fact—is rationalistic: positing that even the legends have some basis in reality, and that real animals were, through a combination of misunderstanding and literary transmission, rendered (almost) unrecognizable. Notable proponents of this view in modern times have included T. H. White (1954), and more recently, zoologists Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp (1991).

Phoenix from Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, f68r).

Bestiaries, for these scholars, can be read as works of natural history, albeit flawed ones, and we should perhaps extend some generosity to their creators, in light of the limitations of their knowledge. George and Yapp characterize the bestiary as “an attempt, not wholly unsuccessful or discreditable for the time at which it was produced, to give some account of some of the more conspicuous creatures that could be seen by the reader or that occurred in legends.”[2] They suggest, for instance, that the manticore—described in bestiaries as a creature with a man’s face, a lion’s body, three rows of teeth, and a tail like a scorpion stinger—was based on the cheetah; that the unicorn could actually be an oryx; and that the half-human, half-fish siren could be a Mediterranean monk seal.

Reading bestiaries as genuine, sometimes highly faulty attempts at something comparable to modern natural history is not a popular position amongst medievalist scholars of bestiaries. However, the idea of bestiaries as failed pre-modern zoology lingers in some sources aimed at popular audiences. The entry on bestiaries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, claims that the “frequently abstruse stories” in these works “were often based on misconceptions about the facts of natural history.”

Manticore from Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, f22v).

As for the ontological status of “imaginary” bestiary creatures to medieval readers, i.e., whether they believed unicorns, etc. actually existed, this is hard to ascertain, and perhaps of less interest to many scholars than the prospect of examining the messages these rich works articulate on their own terms. Still, the unsupported assertion that bestiary stories were “generally believed to be true” in the Middle Ages, as the Wikipedia page for bestiaries claims, is very much in line with widespread perceptions of the period.

It is an appealing contemporary fantasy, not so much to believe in dragons or unicorns, but to believe that people really believed in them, once—a sort of vicarious experience of enchantment, accomplished not simply by imaginatively engaging with medieval works that depict fantastic animals, but by imagining more credulous medieval readers, and perhaps even by imagining oneself in their place.

Dragon from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f65v).

To take both “real” and “imaginary” bestiary creatures as the texts present them—not seeking to sieve the factual from the fabulous, not seeking an ordinary, well-known animal behind the remarkable verbal and visual depictions that bestiaries offer—allows for, amongst other things, a certain defamiliarization of the natural world we inhabit.

Playing on the fertile ambiguities of bestiary accounts is a project by The Maniculum (a podcast series which brings together medieval texts and modern gaming, co-hosted by E. C. McGregor Boyle, a PhD Candidate at Purdue University, and Zoe Franznick, an award-winning writer for Pentiment). On the Maniculum Tumblr, readers are offered “anonymized” selections from the Aberdeen Bestiary (i.e., the name of the animal being described is replaced with a nonsense-word to disguise its identity). Contributors are invited to create artwork inspired by the bestiary description itself, rather than their knowledge of what the animal is “supposed” to look like. The results are diverse; the “hyena” entry, for instance, yielded representations of creatures resembling everything from pigs to predatory snails, in a wide range of styles.

Hyena from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f11v).

Bestiaries continue to fascinate and inspire, centuries after their creation. Below are some medieval bestiary facsimiles and related resources to explore:

  • The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24), written and illustrated in England ca. 1200. Digital facsimile, accompanied by commentary, and Latin transcriptions and modern English translations of each folio.
  • The Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511), early 13th century, England, possibly derived from the same exemplar as the Aberdeen bestiary. Digital facsimile.
  • The Worksop Bestiary (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.81), ca. 1185, England. Digital facsimile.
  • The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages, a website on bestiaries by independent scholar David Badke. Includes indices of bestiary creatures, cross-referenced with manuscripts and relevant scholarship, as well as galleries of medieval illustrations.
  • Into the Wild: Medieval Books of Beasts, YouTube video by The Morgan Library & Museum.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Pamela Gravestock, “Did Imaginary Animals Exist?” in The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature, ed. Debra Hassig (New York: Garland, 1999), 120.

[2] Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp, The Naming of the Beasts: Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary (London: Duckworth, 1991), p. 1.

Weigh Your Books! An Interview with Dr. Andrew Irving

This week, we’re revisiting the first published episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” Back in 2022, we sat down with Dr. Andrew Irving, assistant professor of religion and heritage at the University of Groningen. We spoke to him about his journey to Medieval Studies, his work on the 11th century Uta Codex, why one should always weigh their books, and why liturgy is like a Wagnerian opera.

Dr. Irving’s story is one of a truly international scholar. A native of New Zealand who moved to the US to study for his PhD at Notre Dame, he now works in Europe on a broad range of medieval subjects. His stories of archival work highlight some of the unexpected challenges that researchers can face: limited access to resources, unconducive weather (it helps to examine books in “raking light”), or flat out denied permission to consult a manuscript. Traveling to another country to visit a library and examine its rarest materials can be intimidating, especially for young scholars. But Dr. Irving demonstrates that a personal connection and diligent preparation can pave the way for a smooth experience. It’s an instructive tale for young scholars, and sheds light on a part of scholarly work that may seem mysterious to the uninitiated.

Dr. Irving’s work is about place. His career has taken him all over the world, of course. But the place in which texts exist is also paramount. Through his work on texts like the Uta Codex, he provides some great examples of how a manuscript has to be considered in terms of its home. Where was it kept? What was the environment? What was the history of that home? Was it ever destroyed, raided, burned? If it was a written document, was it read aloud? To whom? Was it carried about? How much did it weigh? All of these questions must be asked to get at the truth of an object. A text has to be wrestled with on its own terms—in isolation—but this is only half the story. Each historical artifact is living history: it was created by someone for someone or something. We have to be prepared to engage with it in a multitude of ways. We must be historians, linguists, theologians, art historians, literary critics, and more. That is what it is to be a medievalist.

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare