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‘Look at this hilarious gif of a cat with an octopus stuck on its face.’
This is not an unusual demand when my flatmate is on Tumblr. Before the internet, who could have imagined the level of instant access we’d have to images of bulldogs in raincoats and videos of elephants painting flowers? We can instantly learn about animals we never dreamed existed, like the aye-aye or the star-nosed mole.
In his Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson describes the Internet as ‘an everyday electronic bestiary’. He writes, ‘From giant squid to two-faced cats, what we know about animals and what we don’t, the amazing things they can do and the things they can’t, the ways they never stop being strange or surprising, feature constantly among the most shared articles and video clips on the web.’ Whether procrastinating over a cup of coffee or killing time on the bus, the internet is there to introduce us to the strange and wonderful world of unexpected creatures.
Living in London, the only nonhuman critters I come into contact with on a regular basis are pigeons, magpies, the odd squirrel or—if I’m really lucky—a fox scrounging through garbage on a twilit residential street. I’ve never seen a pink fairy armadillo, neither in a zoo nor in the wild, but I’m convinced of its existence from a blog post on Bored Panda. I never knew about the eating habits of the aye-aye, but thanks to zefrank, I know all about the utility of their long middle fingers.
So what about Henderson’s electronic bestiary? A bestiary is a compendium of beasts, the earliest being the anonymous Greek Phyiologus from the 2nd century. Although originating from classical times, bestiaries became popular in the Middle Ages in the form of illustrated manuscripts. Henderson writes, ‘We typically think of bestiaries, if we think of them at all, as creations of the medieval mind: delightful for their bizarre and beautiful images illuminated in gold and precious pigments from far-off lands. The Ashmole Bestiary, a thirteenth-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is a good example. In one picture, a man dressed in red is watching a pot on a fire he has made on a small island in the sea, unaware that the island is actually the back of a huge whale.’
This story of the island-whale (a.k.a Fastitocalon) appears in medieval literature as well as in visual art.
The Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book contains a poem about the whale in Old English. Here is the Anglo-Saxon description of this extraordinary creature translated by Elaine Treharne:
He is often encountered accidentally,
dangerous and savage to sailors
in each attack; to him, floater of the oceans,
is the name given, Fastitocalon.
His appearance is like a rough rock
that crumbles by the water’s edge
surrounded by sand-dunes, the largest bank,
so that seafarers believe
that they have observed some island with their eyes.
The poetic description continues with the seafarers mooring their ship on the ‘island’ and building a fire, ‘weary and longing for rest’. It is then that the whale, ‘crafty in his deceit’ dives down into the deep waters, taking the unfortunate sailors to the ‘halls of death’ below.
As well as being a captivatingly strange creature, one rarely if ever seen by this poem’s medieval audience, the whale tells a moral story. One should beware Satan who deceives those whom he drags down into hell. Those of weak faith, like the seafarers, may submit to the temptation of those false shores to the detriment of their souls.
A few months ago I started tweeting an Old English Word of the Day via @OEWordhord. I was curious to see which words people would find the most interesting, which ones would get retweeted or elicit responses. The most popular tweet by far was the word ‘fastitocalon’, and I think it is no coincidence that people are drawn to this image. Henderson says, ‘Along with the zany pictures, bizarre zoology and religious parables, [bestiaries] contain gems of acute observation: attempts to understand and convey how things actually are. Undaunted by (and unaware of) the limits of the knowledge of their time, they celebrate the beauty of being and beings.’ As humans we are drawn to these mysterious and beautiful creatures, part real and part fantasy, animals that terrify, charm and edify all at once. As Henderson states succinctly, ‘…we are only fully human when we act as if the life beyond us matters.’
Is it any wonder then that the amazing creatures of medieval manuscripts are becoming increasingly shared via social media like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr? Blogs like the highly popular Sexy Codicology, the Medieval Animal Data Network and the British Library’s Medieval Manuscript blog (check out ‘Lolcats of the Middle Ages’) are evidence for this boom of marginalia sharing and swapping. There is even a website called The Medieval Bestiary, which catalogues the animals that appear in medieval bestiaries complete with manuscript images, attributes, allegorical meanings and sources.
But our love of bestiaries goes further than that. Not only do we copy the traditional ‘bestiary’ form, people like zefrank create new ways of sharing the animal encyclopaedia/imaginarium on YouTube. Zefrank’s popular ‘True Facts’ series delights the international community of YouTubers with videos—in the words of Chaucer—‘of best sentence and moost solaas’, videos with meaning and significance (i.e. the ‘true facts’) as well as pleasure and entertainment. Not only do we learn about the aye-aye’s bizarre eating habits in ‘True Facts about the Aye-Aye’, we imagine the creature—in the words of zefrank—as ‘a cat that was bitten by a vampire, then halfway through the transformation just said screw it’.
Video games and RPGs play with the idea of the bestiary as well. In the iOS game Plants vs Zombies, there is a stunning array of marvellous plants and zombies, carefully catalogued with their important attributes, strengths and weaknesses, as well as illustrations. A bestiary can be central to a game’s plot, as in the Pokémon series.
So the next time you’re killing some time on the internet, looking to be educated on the swimming abilities of pigs or delighted by the cuteness of kittens, consider those medieval monks at work on their bestiaries. Is it any wonder we still like to imagine a narwhal as a unicorn?
Henderson, Caspar, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (Granta Publications, 2012)
Treharne, Elaine, ed. and trans., Old and Middle English c. 890-c.1450: An Anthology, 3rd edn. (Blackwell Publishing, 2010)