Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Beavers
  • Creator:
  • Description: This illumination depicts a group of hunters pursuing beavers. It appears in an English medieval bestiary, a compendium of animal lore, iconography, and proto-zoological illustrations. In this image, one beaver is castrated, and he is bleeding freely. His genitalia are located in the hand of one of the hunters. A hunter aggressively gestures with his hand and spear towards the other beaver who is in the act of castrating himself with his teeth. According to a myth which dates back to Aesop, the beaver was a peaceful creature whose testicles were key to the preparation of many remedies. This meant that it was regularly the prey of hunters. However because the animal knew why it was being pursued, it would mutilate itself and throw its genitalia in the face of the hunter in order to keep from being killed. If the animal was hunted again after its castration, it would stand upright or lie on its back to display its castration scar, thereby causing the hunters to lose interest.

    The castrated body of the beaver was frequently linked to Christian ideas. Church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome likened the ambiguously gendered body of the castrated beaver to that of a eunuch. They chose to understand the beaver’s behavior as a metaphor for choosing spiritual chastity. The beaver also became a symbol for cloistered devotees who renounced worldly goods. This idea is lent support by the Physiologus text which stated: “You also, Christian, render to the hunter what is his. Prostitution, lust, and greed are within you. Remove from yourself these vices, and give them to the devil hunter, and he will leave you alone, so that you too can say: ‘Our soul hath been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers.’” Larissa Tracy also suggests that medieval interest in the beaver’s disfigurement may stem from mutilation concerns. During the medieval period, castration occupied a central place in religious, legal, and popular discourses. Tales of mystical or spiritual castration were recorded in the lives of various historical figures, and mutilation was a popular topic in narrative accounts of revenge, war, and crusades. Court systems and secular law codes were also created to set up and carry out castration penalties for such crimes as rape, homosexual activity, and sins against nature. All of these thing created a heightened sense of anxiety about sexuality and the male body.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Open access
  • Subject (See Also): Allegory Beavers Castration Hunting Medicine Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 13
  • Date: second quarter of 13th century
  • Related Work: Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=8797&CollID=8&NStart=4751
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Harley 4751 f. 9v
  • Original Location: England, S. (Salisbury)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 205 cm/140 cm/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Heck, Christina, and Remy Cordonnier. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press. 2012. Pg. 219-221.; Tracy, Larissa. Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages. Boydell & Brewer. 2013. Pg. 263-279.