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Beauty in The Bestiary


Who doesn’t enjoy a chuckle at the mistaken beliefs of the past? Whether it’s the mermaid imprisoned at Orford Castle in 1167 which was clearly a seal or the incredible success of Matthew Hopkins the self-appointed Witchfinder General, it’s hard not to smirk sometimes. But we would be foolish not to notice similarities with our own time, or to look for the essential components of human nature, be that interpreting things with an inflexible hypothesis, in the case of the Orford mermaid, or succumbing to mass-hysteria in the instance of Hopkins. Nowhere is this strange intersection between absurdity and the fundamentals of human behaviour more apparent than in the medieval bestiary.

Bestiaries were richly-illustrated medieval books, discussing the lives of both mythical and real beasts and their allegorical meaning. This was, after all, a strongly-credulous period (if you’ll forgive the generalisation of a period of more than a millennium) that looked for God’s message in the world around them. Bestiaries were meant to teach people about the world around them – created for the pleasure and use of man, if you recall Genesis – and to see the work of God within it.

The idea of the bestiary dates back to a second-century Greek text known as the Physiologus, which summarised the teachings about animals found in the works of Aristotle, Herodotus and Pliny, amongst others. The Physiologus was adapted by Isidore of Seville – whose monumental work, Etymologiae (‘Etymologies’), was very much the error-strewn Wikipedia of the Early Medieval period – to provide Christian teachings about the natural world. This was the basis for the first English bestiary, the Old English version of the Physiologus (c. 10th century). In this Anglo-Saxon version, which seems to be a truncated version of a now-lost text, three animals are discussed, and a moral drawn from their lives. For instance, it is said that the whale deliberately mimics an island in order to lure sailors into weighing anchor and going ashore. Once the men have settled down, the whale plunges to the depths of the ocean, thus slaying the unsuspecting crew. This was thought to be a real behaviour exhibited by whales, and turned into nautical tales of the kraken. The anonymous author of the text then draws a lesson for Christians: ‘such is the way of demons, devils’ wiles: to hide their power, and stealthily inveigle heedless men, inciting them against all worthy deeds, and luring them to seek for help and comfort from unsuspected foes, until at last they choose a dwelling with the faithless one’ (translation my own). Bestiaries were to flourish in the later medieval period, before being replaced as the first port of call for naturalists by scientific volumes.

Despite their aim to provide a moral lesson from the behaviour of animals, bestiaries also included copious field notes about the (supposedly) observed behaviour of beast and bird. The beaver, for example, knows that ‘his testicles make a capital medicine... [so that] when he notices that he is being pursued by the hunter, he removes his own testicles with a bite, and casts them before the sportsman, and thus escapes by flight’ (translation T. H. White). Utter nonsense, of course, but I’ll warrant that you’ll never look at a beaver again without wincing. As well as this sort of hokum, we also encounter more scientific thinking in bestiaries, such as this quasi-Darwinian interpretation of monkeys: ‘they are called monkeys (simia) in the Latin language because people notice a great similitude to human reason in them’ (Ibid.). The observation is however tempered by a later note that ‘a monkey has no tail (cauda)... the Devil resembles these beasts; for he has a head, but no scripture (caudex)’ (Ibid.). The overriding purpose of providing Christian morals ultimately triumphed over more rational observation of animals, facilitating the etymological gymnastics in this example.

The most astounding description, in terms of accuracy, is that of the crocodile, made all the more remarkable given the lack of crocs in Europe, where the bestiaries we have been discussing originated. ‘It breeds in the River Nile; an animal with four feet, amphibious... so great is the hardness of its skin that no blow can hurt a crocodile, not even if hefty stones are bounced on its back. It lies in the water by night, on land by day. It incubates its eggs in the earth’ (Ibid.).  This suggests that either the denizens of North Africa were better at observing animals, or that the crocodile was so ghastly in itself that it needed no exaggeration: ‘hypocritical, dissolute and avaricious people have the same nature as this brute... pretending in the sight of men to be upright and indeed very saintly’, asserts one bestiary, on account of the crocodile’s habit of diurnal sunbathing. Never smile at a crocodile, indeed.

Although many of the claims made by bestiaries are unintentionally comical, we would be doing them a disservice merely to laugh. In the first place, they achieve their stated goal of providing Christian messages from the behaviour of animals. It is not the fault of the monastic writers that their source material is so flawed in its natural history. And we can see in the very purpose of the bestiary one of man’s most natural urges: to anthropomorphise nature. Today, we still see the best and worst characteristics of our species in the behaviour of animals: some people are as greedy as a pig, others as cunning as a fox. Underlying such assertions is the mistaken assumption that animals are doing something wrong: biologically, pigs need plenty of sustenance, foxes have flourished by merit of the most intelligent individuals surviving to reproduce in natural selection. Likewise, most people still call morning birdsong ‘the dawn chorus’, despite scientists having known for many years that this is in fact birds telling each other to ‘eff-off’, identifying an altruism that simply isn’t there.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with making such anthropomorphic judgements, so long as no harm comes to the animals themselves as a result. When we cease to make anthropomorphic judgements about the animal kingdom – whether that comes down to admiring the indomitable spirit of one creature or the cuteness of another – we are confronted only by organisms made of the same decaying carbon as everything else. To stop incorrectly judging the animal kingdom would be to rob it of some of its magic. Misunderstanding animals is an essential part of man’s experience of the natural world, and always has been. We should read bestiaries not merely for amusement, but to add to our appreciation of the natural world, and to understand our own species a little better.

The Strange Case of Jacco Macacco, the Simian Champion of Nineteenth-Century Dog Fighting


I have been unable to write a new post for the last few weeks, as I have been finishing the first draft of my novel. This task now completed, today I would like to discuss a strange case from nineteenth-century London, which provides a heady-blend of mystery and moral outrage: the career of a fighting ape.

My training in historical and literary scholarship has taught me to remain detached from the topics I study. This is not always possible, however, and I have never been able to remain detached from the plight of some of Hardy’s characters, for instance. When it comes to animal cruelty, my feelings are somewhat more complex. Although I can dispassionately read lurid accounts of animal suffering and cruelty from the medieval period, in more recent history I find it utterly distasteful. Whether this hypocrisy is due to the greater remoteness or more widespread brutality of the medieval period, I am uncertain, given that the nineteenth century, which we will be discussing today, had its own egregious inequalities and suffering.

For readers of a more innocent bent, dog fighting involves the pitting of two or more dogs against each other in an enclosure, in which they either fight to the death or until one is unable to continue due to the seriousness of its injuries. In the nineteenth century the sport was popular amongst the hoi-polloi and riff-raff alike, as vast sums of money could be won by betting on the outcome of the fights. The ideal fighting dog was an ancestor both of some of today’s most feared breeds - the American Pit Bull Terrier, the Dogo Argentino, the Japanese Tosa – and some more cuddly modern iterations - the Bulldog, the Pug, the Boston Terrier – and was usually a medium sized, muscular canid with a strong and persisting bite.

Into this vilest of bloodsports came the diminutive figure of Jacco Macacco, an ape whose fighting record is alleged to have involved fifteen victories over more common denizens of the dog fighting ring. According to William Pitt Lennox, an army officer and sporting writer, Jacco was brought from Africa to Portsmouth, where he was immediately pitted against some provincial curs, before being taken to the wider audience of London (in a manner resembling theatre directors trawling through local theatres to pinch the best talent, notes Lennox). He won a reputation as a fighter, but turned on his own master, and was sold to the proprietor of the Westminster Pit, one Charles Aistrop. Aistrop gives a differing, more entertaining, account as to the animal’s origin, however. He claimed that Jacco had been imported as an exotic pet, but turned on the sailor who owned him over a saucer of milk, lacerating three of his fingers. The sailor sold Jacco to a silversmith from Hoxton, named only as Carter, who soon wearied of the ape’s ceaseless attempts to attack him. Carter took Jacco to a field and set a dog on him, which the ape killed with little difficulty, before dispatching two further would-be canine assailants. Sensing a use for Jacco’s aggression, Carter pitted him against a fighting dog at Bethnal Green, after which inevitable victory his reputation grew, and he fell into the hands of Aistrop. Prior to the event discussed below, Lennox tells us that Jacco had fourteen victories, and killed most opponents within minutes by tearing out their throats.

Jacco’s fame culminated in a match against the unusually-named Bull and Terrier bitch Puss, another celebrated fighter on the London circuit, in June 1821. This bout was very much the ‘Thriller in Manila’ of its day. The exact outcome however is unknown, as we have several conflicting accounts. According to Lennox, Puss ‘shared the same fate that fourteen canine predecessors had suffered, and was obliged to knock under to the champion of that animal which so closely resembles the human form’. No more is said of Jacco. The fight attracted wider interest, and was discussed in parliament by Richard Martin, MP for Galway, a passionate advocate of animal rights whose work contributed to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later patronised with Royal approval, forming today’s familiar acronym RSPCA) and the outlawing of bloodsports altogether. According to Martin, the fight lasted for half an hour before Jacco severed Puss’s carotid artery, and in return had his mandible severed. Both animals died within two hours. This account was disputed by the owner of the Westminster Pit, who claimed that Puss was killed in two-and-a-half-minutes, and Jacco died of an unrelated illness fifteen months later. Nevertheless, Martin’s 1822 account of the fight led to his bill preventing mistreatment of horses, cattle and sheep being passed.

Such was the fame of Jacco that he was not only mentioned in Parliament, but immortalised in Lewis Strange Wingfield’s novel, Abigail Rowe. Wingfield included an account of a hundred-guinea fight between Jacco and ‘Belcher’s celebrated dog Trusty’. Pierce Egan also included a scene involving Jacco in one of his Tom and Jerry stories, which was illustrated by the eminent George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank. Jacco’s fight with Puss was also the subject of an etching by Thomas Landseer (brother of Edwin, painter of Monarch of the Glen and sculptor of the lions in Trafalgar Square), which I have used to illustrate this post. A less-accomplished illustration of Jacco was made by Thomas Sutherland, based on an original by Henry Thomas Alken, which shows the creature with a disconcertingly human face. In the first two of the afore-mentioned illustrations, Jacco’s favoured tactic of attacking the throat is depicted.

The exact species of Jacco is uncertain. Jacco’s surname, Maccaco, is misleading, as it may lead one to suppose him to be some sort of macaque, when in actual fact the term ‘macaque’ was used at the time to refer to any sort of monkey. Lennox ascribed his origins to Africa, describing him to be ‘of a cinerous or ashy colour, with black fingers and muzzle’, and believed him to be a member of the gibbon family. Neither gibbons nor macaques are particularly renowned for their aggression, and it seems unlikely that either would have the strength to kill a larger, trained fighting dog. Umberto Cuomo has suggested that Jacco may have been a Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx), the largest monkey in the world, which seems to me more plausible. Mandrill fur is the same ashen colour Lennox ascribes to Jacco, and the size and aggression of the species is also a good fit. Mandrills, however, are known for their colourful faces and backsides, which parts on Jacco occasion no comment from Lennox. Mandrills, though, are sexually dimorphous in this respect, and only males exhibit these colourful features, which makes it likely that if Jacco was indeed a mandrill, ‘he’ was, in fact, a female. Yet the creature depicted in the first-hand illustrations we have discussed – excluding Sutherland’s human-faced chimera – seems most like the smaller baboon, specifically the Olive Baboon (Papio anubis) which matches Lennox’s description and is also a good fit for the character of Jacco. Both the mandrill and baboon would also support Aistrop’s story about the pet that became unruly, as an inexperienced naturalist could easily be duped into assuming the endearing young of either species would stay at a manageable size. His species will, nevertheless, remain a mystery.

Having reviewed this awful episode in the history of Victorian London, then, what can we deduce? Given the role of Jacco’s exploits in the ultimately-successful animal rights campaigns of Richard Martin, perhaps the suffering of the poor animal was not in vain. I would like to finish however by drawing a comparison between the society which subjected this unfortunate animal to such violence and our own. I am sure that all my readers have shuddered at the thought of dogs fighting one another, and even apes, for human entertainment, and reflected how fortunate they are to live in a more civilised time.

However, dog fighting is still lamentably a pastime in some communities around the world to this day, including the UK, where specially-trained animals are smuggled into the country to fight one another for entertainment. Though far less mainstream, and now a criminal offence, it still goes on, as does badger baiting and illegal fox hunting with dogs, to say nothing of less-specialised forms of cruelty to beasts and birds. There are still some today who have not shorn themselves of the cruel, baser instincts that led to the widespread enjoyment of bloodsports in the Victorian period and thitherto. And, yet, perhaps this is not surprising, given that Britain has the one of the shortest sentences for animal cruelty in Europe. Such anachronisms should not be allowed to prosper in our more enlightened age, and we should all support Battersea Dog & Cats Home’s NotFunny campaign to increase sentences for animal cruelty.

Place and Narrative: Thoughts on Silent Pool, Surrey


I grew up in the Surrey Hills, on the border of West Sussex. Surrey, as the locals will tell you, is beautiful, with many well-preserved listed buildings and the highest density of trees of any English county. However, as anyone who isn’t from Surrey will tell you, this natural beauty comes at a price: very little of historical significance actually happened here, which allowed the county to preserve its ancient buildings and woodland. Others would also pithily note the county’s proximity to London, and long history of being the pleasure garden of the Big Smoke’s richest denizens, as a contributing factor to the preservation of the area.

Surrey, however, is rich in local history and narrative. People have, after all, lived in the area since the Iron Age and, like all people, created and shared stories about their surroundings. Perhaps it is because I grew up surrounded by what may be deemed a paucity of history and folklore by the standards of other counties, but I remain enchanted by the tales of the county, and none more so than that of Silent Pool, located roughly four miles from Guildford in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

To give the unassailable facts about Silent Pool, it is a spring-fed lake surrounded by a glorious wood of deciduous and evergreen trees. It shines a marvellous blue in summer, and archaeologists suggest that it was probably dug out around 1662. Today, it is located off the A25 and has a generous car park from which visitors can follow a narrow, wooded path to a viewing platform. It is a haven for aquatic life, and spotting a kingfisher is an uncommon but joyous event. When Agatha Christie disappeared in December 1926 at nearby Newlands Corner, it was feared that she had drowned in Silent Pool. Fortunately, of course, she hadn’t, and materialised at a hotel in Harrogate.

Had poor Agatha indeed found a watery grave at Silent Pool, she would have shared in the fate of a much older lady said to have drowned here during the reign of King John (1199-1216). The story goes that a beautiful maiden, the daughter of a local woodcutter, was bathing in the pool when she was happened upon by the much-maligned King and his band of ruffians. Gazing upon her naked body, John pursued her with lecherous intent, forcing her to flee to the centre of the pool, where she drowned. In consequence, the maiden’s vengeful spirit haunts the lake, and in memory of the tragedy it is said that no birds will sing there anymore.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will note a discrepancy in dates here. Silent Pool has only existed since the mid-seventeenth century, long after the days of King John. If you have ever visited, you will know that the woodland birds do indeed sing as usual around the pool, which is thus anything but silent most of the year. Around 2006, it also dried out entirely, becoming no more than a shallow, sun-baked depression in the middle of a wood, disregarding its allegedly-enchanted nature. I have also found no records of a ghostly maiden seen standing in the middle of the brittle earth. Yet, could this be a folk-memory of some other, terrible incident of sexual harassment and death that took place centuries after the legend?

Alas, the story in fact dates from the nineteenth century and is just that, a story. The tale forms an incident in Martin Tupper’s Stephan Langton (A Romance of the Silent Pool). Tupper, reputed to be one of the worst poets of all time, was from the nearby village of Albury, and wrote the novel (perhaps with Surrey’s limited historical significance in mind) ‘to add a new interest’ to the county. The titular character, Stephan Langton, was a real person, probably born in Langton by Wragby in Lincolnshire and served as Archbishop of Canterbury between 1207 and 1228. His election to the Archbishopric led to the conflict between King John and Pope Innocent III and, subsequently, the signing of Magna Carta. Despite this, local Surrey legend holds that he was, in fact, born in the still-tiny hamlet of Friday Street, where a timbered gastro-pub bears his name. In the novel, the drowning incident took place in Langton’s pre-Archbishopric days, and led to Langton assembling the rebel barons in a long campaign against the king and forcing John to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede. Again, the garbled dates and facts do not bear much resemblance to the historical record. It is also likely that the name ‘Silent Pool’ was invented by Tupper.

In the romantic pre-internet age in which I grew up, I had no way of verifying the facts of the folklore as told to me by my parents and others. When I did realise the dubious basis for the story, and the lake’s relative youth, I must confess to feeling disappointed. Although I never entirely believed that King John had actually caused a maiden to drown in Silent Pool, at a more credulous age I did believe in spectres and curses and suchlike, and the possibility that there might be a grain of truth was irresistible. Interestingly, though I am in full possession of the facts and no longer believe in phantoms, whenever I take someone to Silent Pool, or describe it, I never omit the associated folklore. Though I know the truth of the alleged incident, the narrative enlivens the little body of water, and I have not ceased to think of it when visiting.

My reaction to the disappointment, as I attempt to assess my own behaviour objectively, has suggested some interesting things about place and narrative. I know the story to be untrue, and even the name to be a piece of clumsy antiquarian bricolage, but it is still inextricably linked to the lake, and I persist in retelling it. The rapidity with which Tupper’s name was adopted by the general public suggests that I am not alone in this oxymoronic act. Locals who read the novel would surely have realised that, despite Tupper’s claims to veracity, the lake’s name was new and the story previously unheard of, and yet seem to have persisted with it. Clearly, once a narrative is told about a place, it is a human condition not to drop it, regardless of plausibility.

Most adults will indulge their children with preposterous facts and stories which they themselves surely do not believe, from headless horsemen to Father Christmas, ostensibly to encourage their offspring’s imagination, but I think there is a deeper underlying urge being satisfied. Telling tales about a place brings it to life, and satisfies the ageless human urge to share stories and information, which dates back to the dawn of civilisation: the works of Homer but one example of narrative poems originally related by mouth. This inherent urge to tell stories is preserved in the microcosmic narratives behind many of England’s place-names: to use a Surrey example, Hascombe comes from the Old English Hægscombe, meaning ‘Vale of the Witch’. How do you feel about the village now that you know its etymology? Local legends bring a place to life, and their discovery brings countless new possibilities for the interpretation of the smallest settlements.

We only have to look at the internet’s ridiculous corpus of urban legends, from Slenderman to the comical Maryland Goatman, to see that little has changed in human psychology. And, besides, Silent Pool without its name and origin-story is just a small lake near the A25.

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