Right, so this is not a straightforward topic. Nothing much concerned with religion ever is! The first premise of the Bestiary is that every beast was created with an ulterior motive of teaching morality to sinful man.
It was a constant theme amongst the earliest Christian fathers that really mankind was a pretty awful piece of work, horribly and eternally tainted by that dreadful Adam who had fallen into temptation and copulated with Eve. Actually, as that breathtaking masochist St Augustine of Hippo had propounded, the real sin was to have enjoyed it. Sex, Augustine, had argued, should have been a pleasure-less mechanical act of procreation and Adam had spoiled it for everyone. Christianity has had a pretty severe view of sex for the best part of two thousand years. In fact, when you read early texts, it was a major preoccupation. It’s not hard to see why. Human beings might conceivably be able to resist stealing, murder, the worship of graven images and even of coveting one’s neighbour’s ass; but who never feels sexual desire? So it was a pretty convenient peg on which to hang the hat of “You are all sinners and, therefore damned”. Augustine reckoned that Adam’s sin was transmitted from generation to generation via sperm. Thus it is only recently, in historical terms, that the Roman Catholic church abandoned its doctrine that even a baby, if unbaptised, was bound for hell.
So the beasts of the field, real and imagined, were there as morality tales for us all. The Greeks did their bit, describing the various behaviours in pretty fantastical fashion but it was the Christians who really got stuck into it all. It started with a work called the “Physiologus” written sometime between the second and fifth centuries AD. It was written in Greek in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Alexandria was a centre for Christian theology. In the unedifying politics of Christianity at that time, Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople were constantly at odds over theological doctrine. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was himself its bishop at one time and the leading light in its school of Christian thought. Bizarrely then, you may feel, while the Christian fathers were arguing the toss with each other about weighty philosophical matters such the nature of the Trinity and whether God and Christ were one, two or the same beings, somebody else was writing the Physiologus in which the behaviours of birds and beasts were translated into morality stories for Christians. Sometimes these stories were reinforced by scriptural references but the authors must have been maddened by the fact that these references were far from consistent so some animals had both Christian and diabolical significance; and these had to be reflected in the bestiaries.
This being the time before Easy Jet and Ryanair, the author knew little about their real behaviour or even what they looked like. Indeed, the behaviours were described much as the Greeks had described them centuries before. The Physiologus, nevertheless, was a runaway success. From that work all future bestiaries emerged. One bestiary would use another as its basis and might add a few local folk stories and legends of its own but fundamentally they all trace back to the Physiologus. The one I quote from here is a synthesis of two documents of between 1220 and 1250. Bestiaries were widely translated and nearly all had already been translated from Greek into Latin so the documents were likely to be unreliable, to say the least.
We can see in Widecombe Church that the Bestiary was still in allegorical usage in the fifteenth century. The Pelican in her Piety is widely used in churches and is an especially popular theme for misericords. The Bestiary has informed masons and carvers, it seems, throughout the second millennium and perhaps before. When confronted with a mass of indecipherable carving at a church, however - especially a Norman church - some people like to airily proclaim “of course it would all have come from the Bestiary”. I am a sceptical about this claim. Books were extraordinarily rare and precious objects pre-Caxton and it passes belief that ordinary church masons would have had access to them. Some suggest that the masons would have been informed by educated monks and that was surely sometimes true. That might account for the pelican’s popularity on misericords: misericords were the furnishings of monastic churches. Very few images on ordinary parish churches can be definitely identified with the Bestiary, however, beyond the everyday images of, for example, lions, eagles and dragons. I suspect that the Bestiary was rather less influential in church carving than is generally supposed.
There is a constant theme in mediaeval church studies: the concept that imagery we find indecipherable today would have been instantly recognisable and would have had meaning to the illiterate mediaeval peasant. I even possess a splendid book of Romanesque imagery that is called “The Villeins Bible”. Really? I can buy the fact that the Last Supper around a font, the imagery of Adam & Eve and the Tree of Life, Christ’s baptism to mention but a few would indeed be recognisable to the the church-going “villeins”. Wall paintings of the Last Judgement, St Christoper, the martyrdoms of Catherine and Edmund - I can buy those too. Our villeins would surely have been aware of those stories. Many of the others I see are, however, obscure even to today’s scholars. Mary Curtis Webb’s findings about the basis in Platonic philosophy of some Norman font carvings prove the point that some carvings were only decipherable to the educated tiny minority - surely by design.
My endless exploration of churches and especially their carvings convinces me that if a carving looks obscure then it probably was just as obscure to the common man when it was carved! Should we really be surprised? Today many of us would say that a lot of art speaks only to other artists and to critics. Artists like Jack Vettriano speak to ordinary people and he’s justifiably proud of it.
So what of our Widecombe ibex? Did the tin miner know it was an ibex and, if he did, did he know what lesson he was to draw from it? You know, I doubt it very much! At that height and without spectacles he probably wouldn’t even have been able to see it!