Overheard at the Bestiary


Gossip is a pretty primitive form of personal knowledge. At least, if one were to use the history of literacy as an analogy—and if one were to take a generically progressive view of history (which I currently will, as long as it serves my purposes)—then gossip is perhaps a medieval mode of understanding another person. In the optimal cases some kind of genuine knowledge, approaching mastery of the subject, has come passed down to new apprentices of the person in question, so that whatever was original and firsthand has become layered with many and sometimes untraceable adulterations. Scribal errors are inevitable. Indeed, at its worst, gossip is a verbal means of making someone handle-able, so that the person no-longer-in-question can be passed around and manipulated (notice the handy mani– in there) whatever way the gossips please.

Even at its most innocuous, gossip invariably leads to misunderstanding and therefore iniquity. This sounds like a judgmental statement—the kind of pronouncement found in any puritan code of conduct (see The Snake in the Grass, or Understanding the Satan in YOU, being a treatise on human suckiness and pursuant of at least something approaching God’s gracious indifference)—but think about it: any talk about someone will fall short of its subject, even if it comes from the subject him- or herself, and any brief talk will only fall shorter. Since gossip usually happens in those little corners and closets of time in the midst of daily life, I think it’s safe to say the arrow falls very close to our feet.

Oftentimes, in my experience, gossip leads to the making of monsters. I use the term in the more original, less sensational sense, meaning “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.”[1] Whenever I have overheard or participated in gossip, the persons of skewed interest become strange creatures indeed: beastly humans with elephantine flaws, alien habits, and devilish tempers. It’s an act of taking someone’s situational action (or reaction) as his or her permanent trait—and, at least within the confines of the conversation, his or her defining characteristic. It glosses over or plainly ignores the circumstantial nuances surrounding that person; it flattens the greater depth of him or her with a gargoyled appearance.

It also gives a kind of provisional-absolute authority to the tittle-tattler. “I heard he broke up with her at In-N-Out . . . over a double-double . . .” But were you in the car with them? Did you hear every conversation they had leading up to that fresh-never-frozen beef? “I saw her going home with him”—as if the moment the door closed she cloaked herself in horny darkness.

Gossip is a form of social bestiary. (Bestiary, not . . . that other thing.) Back in the Middle Ages, when someone wanted to know about an animal near or far, a person[2] would look into their bestiary. There they would find an odd menagerie of real and imagined creatures—quite a few of them a mixture of fact and myth, and almost all of them invested with some theological truth. It was a strong impulse in the medieval period to systematize—hence the very idea of a compendium of animals—and to allegorize—hence, in the everyman’s eyes, a goat could symbolize lasciviousness because the species are “so full of lust that they look sideways.”[3] But because of the smallness of the world (miniscule by today’s standards), due largely to difficulties in travel and technology that I probably need not mention, scientific knowledge could advance only by book and academic word-of-mouth (i.e. teaching, lecture). Due to the slow, painstaking, collaborative nature of bookmaking in scribal culture, the majority of books a reader came across were likely copied from other copies.[4] Add to this the fact that only a sliver of the population was making books at all—at least before 1100, this was the monastic, clerical class—and you have very few authorities on any subject: “the text [was] taken from the auctores, writers recognised as authorities on the subject. It is as if each description began ‘I have it on good authority . . .’”[5] Peer reviewing, so to speak, was on the much more passive, receptive side. This is all to say that most zoological information came second- or third-hand—very far removed from its source.[6] Literary hearsay and spiritual speculation had an unquestioned veracity in the reading of a bestiary.

For us nowadays—or for me anyway—the reading of a bestiary can be a fun and intriguing experience. It can also be smugly satisfying—the same way overhearing small children attempting to relate the plots of movies to each other can make one feel like a master of cinema.

Here, for instance, is the lion, an animal that we have all known about since childhood—and that many of us have seen first-hand in zoos—but which the medievals still knew largely through a thick muddle of legend and rumor: “There are three kinds of lion; of these, the short ones with curly manes are peaceful, the long ones with smooth hair are fierce; their brow and tail show their temperament.”[7] It seems that the spacious ignorance surrounding the lion has bred a bloated nature: “Naturalists tell us that the lion has three chief characteristics. The first is that he loves to roam mountain-tops. If it so happens that hunters come in search of him, the scent of the hunters reaches him and he wipes out his tracks with his tail . . . His second characteristic is that he seems to have his eyes open when he sleeps . . . His third characteristic is that when the lioness brings forth her cubs, they come into the world dead. She watches over them for three days, until on the third day the father comes, blows in their faces, and awakens them to life.”[8] Again it would seem that sheer ignorance has done most of the work here. In this case it is a rather beautifying ignorance, but it is still closer to fantasy[9] than fact.

But actually each of these three characteristics comes from a greater theological presumption about the world. Inside the above anecdotes are leaps from natural-scientific observation or hearsay to natrual theological truth or reality. It’s as if the author of the bestiary had said to himself, “I know that the Bible refers to God as the lion of Judah; furthermore, I have read that the nature of the divine is proceeds from the nature of creation. Ergo, that which the lion does may reflect upon the Divine.” Of course, these people knew what cats are like, and many knew their Plato and Aristotle—that is, they knew not to confuse the higher with the lower, the Hand with the paw. Theology in this period became the discipline of the day; it gained its systematic-ness in Aquinas. It’s no surprise, then, that Bestiarists started with sophistication as they saw it. In this mode of reading biology backwards—this analogia entis (analogy of being) before Aquinas—medieval readers could see in the behavior of lions the God who “hid the tracks of His love” in the line of David, so that the Devil would not find the Christ-child, “He who keepeth Israel [who] shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4) who breathed life into all of God’s children through the nostrils of Adam.

In cases like these, the bestiary serves to prove solely spiritual truth to the reader. It gives reminders of the doctrines they should not forget. Medieval people seemed less concerned about the natural world than about the sustenance of their soul. Indeed, if the lion is inflated beyond recognition to our eyes, it is not a purely empty creation. It is empty of existence, but it is filled with essence. In the medieval hierarchy of things, this was the superior substance in the scheme of creation.[10] The lion was hence a soul balloon. The beasts in the bestiary were the original spirit animals.

Other examples are more curious and less edifying. Again nature is bloated, but in a truer sense: nothing but light falsehood, or just pure gas, has filled the animal’s strange shape. Having heard of the elephant’s enormous size, for instance, someone somewhere down the line seems to have assumed that this sheer, imponderable ponderousness just had to completely preclude recovery from any earthward movement: “His nature is such that, if he falls down, he cannot stand up again. Yet he will fall if he leans against a tree in order to sleep.”[11] This poor, self-cumbersome juggernaut makes turtles and cows seem disproportionately graced.

Some of the beasts are downright fictional. Their descriptions seem to have completely ditched the hieratic didacticism and embraced a juvenile wonder, even a sensationalism. Here, for instance, is the dipsa:

“The dipsa is said to be such a small snake that you do not even see it when you tread on it; its poison kills you before you feel it. Those who die this instant death have no trace of sadness on their faces.”[12]

I may be imagining it, but I can just hear the thrill of this bizarre, fearsome creature in the author’s voice. I remember a kid on the playground once telling me something similar of the cobra: “It’s like—you blink and you’re dead! Like—faster than a second!” [Snaps his fingers.]

Here is an even stranger creature called the “parander,” which seems to be a deliberate mix-and-match made from the many barrels of animal parts:

“Ethiopia is the home of a creature called the parander, as large as an ox, with the footprints of an ibis, branching horns, the head of a stag, the colour of a bear and the same thick pelt. They say that the parander can change its shape when it is frightened, and if it conceals itself it becomes like whatever it is near, whether it is a white stone or green foliage, or whatever else it may happen to be.”[13]

And here, finally, is the salamander, a creature we thought we all knew—but did you know . . .

“The salamander is so called because it is proof against fire. . . . It is the enemy of fire and alone among animals can put out flames. It lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed; not only does it not burn, but it puts out the flames.”[14]

It is a wonder that more fire departments don’t have a medieval library on hand. Surely salamanders are more portable and cost-effective than those long hoses and all that wasted water. They could even save from buying suits if they invested instead in slingshots. (At the very least, here, at last, is irrefutable proof of the absolute utility, nay, necessity, of the humanities.)

It may seem like I have gotten sidetracked—and at certain points I have—but I still believe in my analogy. To gossip is to speak with bestiary-level knowledge of someone.

To deal with the sensational first, on a superficial level, gossip is obviously fun and exciting. The thought that something extraordinary, unusual, deviant, or scandalous has happened within the ordinary or usual, has occurred at the hands of an average or upstanding individual—this has an allure like hope, but it is a negative hope. It is the desire for change turned to harmful ends. It can germinate in flat boredom—the “nothing better to do” plane of existence, the small town street-corner of being—or it can spread from buzzing pollinators—those who personally feed off of the seeds of doubt they drop. I have been proficient in both of these forms.

There is a kind of wonder on the face of gossips: “How could they do that?” as in “How can they be this way?” How can a person be such a monster? How can they have such gargantuan flaws? How can their spiritual nose so protrude from the rest of their soul? I myself can be mean sometimes, I can have bad moods, but how can they be meanness, how can they so singularly incarnate it? Oftentimes for me this sharpens into a kind of fear, like looking a tiger in the face. I can’t look away, but I won’t say a word. In theological terms, this is the mind making someone else into absolute sin—an absolute impossibility. It would look like a caricature if we were not so afraid of them. A spiritual grotesque.

To a great extent, this is a personal-epistemological problem. The way I come to a better understanding of someone is usually a process of social-emotional untangling. I find inside of myself a dissolute council of thoughts and feelings, ideas and opinions, memories and associations—yea, a truly unruly committee of brains, with ostensibly none of them vested with absolute plenary power over the others. No matter what I might eventually will or choose to think, no matter what my better habits are poised to preempt or perform, the moment I hear something said by another person’s person—the moment I see their eyes seem to turn towards me—some part of my mind has made up. If I can hazard a universal observation, this seems to happen most phantasmically in those harrowing moments called “first impressions,” in which each concerned party gossips in private with (and often in secret from) him- or herself about the nascent acquaintance, who is still almost infinitely a stranger. It is really a gift of human sight that we can see so much without seeing inside. What we lack is insight: “Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art: / They draw but what they see, know not the heart” (emphasis mine).[15]

And so the tid-bitting of someone is more than a misinterpretation, taking more than literally the exaggerated figure of a person’s seeming. It seeks to preserve the soul as if it were a body—that is, as if it could be harmed by the mere appearance of another. If fervent charity covers a multitude of sins,[16] then social bestiary teaches very faulty lessons.

Of course, much of the gossip I have witnessed in others and myself comes from hate or something like it. But I think at bottom any hate-driven gossip is still essentially fed by fear. It is perhaps a semi-shrewd primitivism in the human mind that it can make a threatening person into an absolute danger all in order to keep itself safe.[17] Better to err on the side of caution than to risk that person doing something definitely harmful. This has the unintended consequence of interprellating the person into a kind of predator: they prowl amongst our thoughts and prey upon our deeds before we even do them. My brain, at least, seems even to have advanced in the sinister direction: as long as this person is a monster, I am a human, or at least some kind of victim; better to keep them a demon than to risk them showing any sign of likeness to me or someone better. So many times, entirely on my own, I have given people more horns and scales and fangs than they could ever have. The person in question has become my evil spirit animal.

At the heart of hearts, maybe all gossip comes from a profound sense of smallness—good old-fashioned insecurity. The fear that this person will consume me is really a fear that I am small potatoes. According to T. S. Eliot, most of the harm in the world occurs because we are “absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of ourselves.”[18] There’s nothing new here, really, but I personally seem to forget it with every new person.[19]

And so this is what gossip really does when we gossip: it says a hell of a lot about ourselves. Even if the gossiped-about has behaved like a devil, the gossiper remains one. Again, there is nothing new here—we just forget the wilderness inside ourselves. In the words of Makarios the Great, one of the early Christian desert fathers, “The heart itself is only a small vessel, / yet dragons are there, and lions; / there are poisonous beasts.”[20] These are the more actualized beasts in the human kingdom.

There is in the medieval bestiary a very strange creature indeed—and yet strangely familiar in a certain sense. Its name is “manticore”:

“It has a triple row of teeth, the face of a man, and grey eyes; it is blood-red in colour and has a lion’s body, a pointed tail with a sting like that of a scorpion, and a hissing voice. It delights in eating human flesh. Its feet are very powerful and it can jump so well that neither the largest of ditches nor the broadest of obstacles can keep it in.”

Do not be like the manticore. Be like the salamander.

[1] Just Google it.

[2] Of course, this common reader was actually a pretty specialized kind of “person”—especially in the early medieval period, literacy had only circulated from monastic scholarship to those plump and clean enough to afford books—and so not very common at all.

[3] Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, trans. Richard Barber, The Folio Society: p. 83.

[4] See Christopher de Hamel, Scribes and Illuminators, p. 5.

[5] From Richard Barber’s introduction to Bestiary, p. 7.

[6] C. S. Lewis, in The Discarded Image, gives a very apt illustration of this very second-hand, very bibliocentric mode of acquiring knowledge:

“Some time between 1160 and 1207 an English priest called Laȝamon wrote a poem called the Brut. In it . . . he tells us that the air is inhabited by a great many beings, some good and some bad, who will live there till the world ends. The content of this belief is not unlike things we might find in savagery. To people Nature, and especially the less accessible parts of her, with spirits both friendly and hostile, is characteristic of the savage response. But Laȝamon is not writing thus because he shares in any communal and spontaneous response made by the social group he lives in. the real history of the passage is quite different. He takes his account of the aerial daemons from the Norman poet Wace (c. 1155). Wace takes it from Geoffrey Monmouth’s Historica Regum Britanniae (before 1139). Geoffrey takes it from the second-century De Deo Socratis of Apuleius. Apuleius is reproducing the pneumatology of Plato. Plato was modifying, in the interests of ethics and monotheism, the mythology he had received from his ancestors. If you go back through many generations of those ancestors, then at last you may find, or at least conjecture, an age when that mythology was coming into existence in what we suppose to be the savage fashion. But the English poet knew nothing about that. It is further from him than he is from us. He believes in these daemons because he has read about them in a book.” (p. 2).

[7] Bestiary, p. 23.

[8] Ibid., pp. 24-5.

[9] And, in fact, it makes me wonder if that good old myth-loving medievalist C.S. Lewis had this kind of lion in mind when he first made the statue-warming Aslan.

[10] And even within this substance there was a hierarchy: the Rational Soul of humans (reason), the Sensitive Soul of animals (sentience), and the Vegetable Soul of plants (growth). (See Lewis, The Discarded Image, pp. 152-164.) Hence, Chaucer’s Pardoner admonishes that “God sholde have lordschipe over reson, and reson over sensualite, and sensualite over the body of man” (Canterbury Tales, I.262).

[11] Ibid., p. 41.

[12] Ibid., p. 193.

[13] Ibid., P. 64.

[14] Ibid., p. 194.

[15] Sonnet 24, lines 11-12.

[16] 1 Peter 4:8 (KJV).

[17] For a more extreme version of this thesis—and a very reductive account of human nature—see http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/03/your-brain-is-built-to-make-you-good-at-gossip.html

[18] T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party, p. 111.

[19] And even the old.

[20] From The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, trans. John Anthony McGuckin, p. 54.


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