The Roles and Perceptions of Women in Medieval Europe, As Reflected in a Medieval Bestiary
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To the modern reader, medieval bestiaries can appear amusing and often downright funny. They were never written to be scientific truth, even at their time. Most people likely would not have countered the information found within, but in part, that is because bestiaries are not about animals. They are about medieval theology and society, and were meant to be used as a tool to understand how the natural world reflected the various ways in which society was and was not meant to work. The purpose of the bestiary is, without a doubt, to teach. The question, however, lies in who exactly they were intended to teach. Ron Baxter makes the argument that bestiaries were used much like other devotional texts of the era, since "the texts that Baxter found to be shelved or bound with bestiaries were more theological." Monks, nuns, and other literate people who were inclined towards religious meditation could read about how God showed his presence throughout the natural world and meditate on those ideas. There are two compelling pieces to this concept. The first is that the etymology sections of entries are reminiscent of the idea of meditating on religious texts by reading them one word at a time and concentrating on each word individually. This was another devotional practice that placed a high value on the etymology and history and possible meanings of words, which reflects how the etymologies are written. The second part of this idea lies in the illustrations. Both Baxter and De Hamel argues that the bright coloring of many illustrations is not because the people illustrating did not know that a tiger was not blue, per se, because the goat is also blue, and it was, of course, commonly known that a goat was not blue. Instead, the animals are colored vividly in order to stick in the mind better. Even-after someone shelved the manuscript and went on to other tasks, they could still linger on the pages in their minds' eye and use the illustration as an anchor to try and remember the rest of the page and its contents. The most interesting facet of the informational use of bestiaries is that the targets of much of their moralizing were not their intended audiences. The targets of the majority of the moralizing are the usual targets of medieval European society: women and Jews. This paper will, for the most part, focus on women's roles in the bestiary as opposed to that of the Jews.
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