And now for something a little different. As a brief diversion from our adventures in medieval dating,[1] I’m going to take you by the hand, dear reader, and guide you through how medievals thought about animals and human-animal relations. Specifically, the gross kind of relation: people who pork with the animals.

The first thing that we have to bear in mind is that medieval people thought about this in a different way to us. The key metric for the average medieval Joe would be that of good and evil; and this is how bestiality is most commonly theorised throughout the period. But bestiality was not actually that great a sin according to early medieval legislation, which put bestiality on an equal level to masturbation. We read this, for example, in early Irish penitentials such as that of Saint Columbanus (c.591) and the Cummean (c.660). For instance, Columbanus writes that if a man has sex with an animal, he should do penance for a year if he has a wife. And if he doesn’t? Half a year should do it. Columbanus specifies that this is the same punishment for jacking off – at that point considered as “defiling” oneself. Only a few paragraphs earlier doe Columbanus write that if a man has sinned by “effeminate intercourse with a male” then he should do penance for seven years.[2]

It was only later in the Middle Ages, by the eighth century when bestiality became related to homosexuality, that the beast was transformed from “object” to something with agency and intent. This in turn transformed the act of bestiality into something more serious. When bestiality joined homosexuality as an “unnatural” act, the punishment became more harsh. We can see this in Burchard of Worm’s Corrector (mentioned all too briefly in my last instalment on medieval Germany); check out his 126th question to would-be penitents:

“Have you fornicated against nature, that is, you have mated with men or with animals, that is, with a mare, a cow, a donkey or any other animal? If thou hast done this once or twice, and if thou hast no wife with whom thou canst satisfy thy pleasure, thou shalt do penance forty days for bread and water, which is called Lent, for the seven following years, and you will never be without penance again. If, however, you have a wife, you will do penance ten years on the appointed days. But if you are accustomed to do this crime, you will do penance fifteen years on the established days. If this has happened in your youth, you will penance a hundred days for bread and water.”[3]

Pretty extreme stuff. But then again, Burchard suspected that men could find ways of getting off on just about anything. Even trees.[4] What is interesting to know is that if you were younger when you shagged an animal, your penance was substantially less. I guess Burchard put this kind of behaviour down to the frivolities of youth. Or something. Another intriguing point, for both the earlier and the later penitentials, is that if a guy had a wife, his punishment would be more. Maybe the added punishment is proportionate to the added guilt that the penitent should feel, since he technically had a bit on the side,[5] and that bit on the side had four legs.

While penitential writers were keen to de-naturalise the animal and increase the distinction between human and non-human, in literature of the High Medieval period, writers began to use animals as examples of good human behaviour. Emma Campbell posits that this troubles “an already unstable distinction between human and animal.”[6] Considered alongside the penitential literature, there is thus a tension between proximity and distance between the human and the animal. One of the 12th century lais (poems performed to music) of Marie de France, Bisclavret, is a case in point; Bisclavret, by the way, is apparently Breton for werewolf. That’s right, we’re talking werewolves. Werewolves in High Medieval courtly literature, such as Melion and Guillaume de Palerme, were presented not as evil beasts, but victims of malevolent magic. Indeed, Melion is one of king Arthur’s knights, and you had to be pretty chivalrous indeed to get that gig.

Bisclavret, a noble baron about court, is an interesting kind of guy who inexplicably disappears for three days every week, to the bemusement and intrigue of the other courtiers. Not even his wife knows where he goes. Eventually, she presses him on the matter (as you would, I guess), and he confides in her that he is, in fact, a werewolf. The catch is that he needs a spare set of human clothes in order to shift back into a human form – so he leaves a set under a tree. This obviously has interesting implications for the wife, who is suddenly repulsed by her lupine lover. She thus concocts a plan to keep him in wolf form by stealing his clothes when he’s out as a wolf. She then runs off with another baron because you can’t be a single lady in a courtly poem without being a witch or old. What is interesting about this lai, and others like it, is that whereas the animal is courtly, it is the humans that are monstrous. In these excerpts, when Bisclavret is hunted (and then saved because of his humanlike demeanour), we can see the courtly qualities of the animal:

Seignurs, fet il, avant venez!

Ceste merveillë esgardez,

Cum ceste beste s’humilie!

Ele ad sen d’hume, merci crie.

Chaciez mei tuz ces chiens ariere,

Si gardez que hum ne la fiere!

Ceste beste ad entente e sen.

Espleitiez vus! Alum nus en!

A la beste durrai ma pes,

Kar jeo ne chacerai hui mes.


Tuz jurs entre les chevaliers

E pres del rei s’alout cuchier.

N’i ad celui ki ne l’ad chier,

Tant esteit francs e deboneire;

Unques ne volt a rien mesfeire.

U ke li reis deüst errer,

Il n’out cure de desevrer;

Ensemble od lui tuz jurs alout:

Bien s’aparceit que il l’amout.


“My lords,” he says, “come, come here!

Behold this marvel, see this wonder.

How this beast bows down to me!

Its sense is human. It begs for mercy.

Drive me those dogs away again,

See that no-one strikes a blow!

This beast understands, feels like a man.’


Among the knights, close to the King.

Every man thinks it a precious thing,

For it’s so gentle, well-bred, polite,

It never would do what isn’t right.

Wherever the King might go

It didn’t want to be separated, so

It went along with him constantly.

That it loved him was easy to see.[7]

Bisclavret is tame at the side of the king, that is, until he sees his wife at court. Upon catching sight of his unfaithful wife, the wolf leaps up to her and tears her nose off. She is later forced to reveal who the wolf is and why it has such serious beef with her. Fascinatingly, after she and her new husband are exiled, Marie mentions that the female children that she bears are marked with a monstrous disfigurement:

Plus li duna ke jeo ne di.

La femme ad del païs ostee

E chaciee de la cuntree.

Cil s’en alat ensemble od li

Pur ki sun seignur ot trahi.

Enfanz en ad asez eü;

Puis unt esté bien cuneü

E del semblant e del visage:

Plusurs des femmes del lignage,

C’est veritez, senz nes sunt neies

E sovent ierent esnasees.


The lady, now, they expell

From that realm, from that time forward.

He goes with her, as well,

For whom she betrayed her lord.

She had plenty of children; grown,

They were, all of them, quite well-known,

By their looks, their facial assembly:

More than one woman of that family

Was born without a nose to blow,

And lived denosed. It’s true! It’s so![8]

Emma Campbell notes that the animality of Bisclavret is in fact eclipsed by the monstrosity of his deceitful wife, who comes to be linked with a “disturbing cohabitation of humanity and animality”.[9] Matilda Bruckner furthermore posits that “it is as if that knowledge [of Bisclavret’s secret], previously suppressed, now acts as a contagion unleashing and revealing the wife’s own capacity for bestiality, her own dual nature…”[10]  Thus when the wife’s nose is ripped from her face, her inner monstrosity becomes outwardly visible. This is passed down through her children, who inherit a shameful reminder of her nature inscribed on their faces. So really, who is more animal here?

One can’t help but feel sorry for those poor noseless children, but elsewhere in medieval literature, being the child of an animal could actually be considered a good thing. Well, if you were Alexander the Great it could be. There are multiple legends of how Alexander was conceived; for example, according to Plutarch in his biography of the leader, suggested that while his father, king Phillip of Macedonia, was descended from Heracles, his mother Olympias was a member of a snake-worshipping cult. Now there’s some in-your-face phallic symbolism! Indeed, Plutarch states that one night

“[…] a serpent was once seen lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept, and we are told that this, more than anything else, dulled the ardour of Philip’s attentions to his wife, so that he no longer came often to sleep by her side, either because he feared that some spells and enchantments might be practised upon him by her, or because he shrank for her embraces in the conviction that she was the partner of a superior being.”[11]

I guess this is a natural reaction to seeing your wife sleeping with a snake. Yet more myths abound about the freaky stuff Olympias got up to with animals! A lot of these centre around the various forms of a character called Nectenabo. Nectenabo was actually a pharaoh who ruled in Egypt c.360-342 BC, but it became legend that he may have been the father of Alexander, having travelled to Macedonia in the guise of an Egyptian magician. While king Phillip was away on campaign, Nectanebo allegedly told Olympias that the god Amun was to come to her and she would have his child. But then sneaky Nectanebo, disguising himself as Amun, slept with Olympias himself! And this was way before family therapists or Jeremy Kyle so I’ve no idea how you’d deal with the fallout from that.

Over time, this image of Nectenabo transformed into different animals, such as a dragon, or a ram-headed dude. In the Qur’an, it’s interesting that Alexander is referred to as Dhul-Qarnayn, “he of the two horns”.[12] In the Anglo-Norman Roman d’Alisaundre, he has been transformed into a dragon:[13]

Par artimage fist icele conjuncion,

Desqe le lit est venuz rampant cum dragon.

La dame le esgarde devant tuit environ,

Ne quideit qe ceo fut si Amon le dieu non. (ll.261-264)[14]


Using his magical powers, he engineered this union

Then came to the bed crawling like a dragon

The woman looked at him closely

Convinced that he could only be the god Amun.[15]

As you can imagine, illuminators and artists of the medieval period had a field day with this one. Here we have a late 14th century French image of Olympias and Nectanebo in the form of a half-ram half-dragon in Vincent de Beauvais’s Speculum Historiale, (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Nouvelle acquisition française 15939, fol. 110v).

And here, the dragon is copping a feel. This is the “Conception of Alexander the Great”, Les faize d’Alexandre, Bruges ca. 1468.



And here’s a Flemish image, c.1475 (MS Ludwig XIII 5, V2, fol.1V).

And, here is an example painted by Guilio Romano (1499-1546). Honestly, I don’t know what Nectenabo is meant to be here, or why there is an eagle.

And one more from the British Library (Royal MS 13 B VIII), featuring genuine camel toe.

It’s safe to say that myths surrounding the conception of Alexander were pretty awesome, and fed into his godlike status. But more often than not, the imagined offspring of these human-animal relations were pretty grim. Take Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland to us non-latinate folk), which tells the tale of a man-monster

“[…] the whole of whose body was human, except the extremities, which were those of an ox; they having the shape of hooves, from the joints by which the hands are connected with the arms and the feet with the legs. His whole head was deformed by baldness […] but instead of [hair there was down in a few places. He had large eyes, round and of the colour of those of an ox.”[16]

This ox-human hybrid is said to frequent court of a Maurice Fitzgerald In Wicklow, eating his food “between the fissures of his coven hooves, which he used as hands”.[17] Ultimately, this man is put to death as a consequence of the jokes the other young men about court make about the natives of Ireland who shag cows and produce such children. To my mind, reader, that all feels a little bit unfair.

Gerald follows this up with a story of a cow who birthed a man-calf in the mountains of Glendalough “that tribe being especially addicted to such abominations”. This creature follows its cow-mother, and acts in the same way as a cow, even though it has “more of the man in it than of beast”.[18] Interestingly, this provokes a debate about whether the slayer of such a creature should be called a murderer, or who can associate with an “irrational animal” that lacks both speech and reason, yet who can deny the humanity of a creature “which stands erect, laughs, and goes on two feet”. Gerald doesn’t push this much further, however, concluding that nature’s eccentricities are to be feared.[19]

What is important to note is that these are supposedly tales of what the Irish got up to before the conquest of the Normans, and what the Normans found upon their arrival in Ireland. Rather than considering these stories as true (c’mon, when’s the last time you saw a man cow?) this text should be regarded more as a justification for colonisation, and the apparently “edifying” power of the coloniser.

Love is blind (British Library Royal MS 13 B VIII)

Other stories to delight and entertain in the Topographia Hibernica include that of a woman who tricked a goat into satisfying her “unnatural lust”. In her defence, the goat was really hot. Gerald vents that animals were created for “use” and not “abuse”. He then makes a detour to Paris, where a lion was in the habit of “having bestial intercourse with a silly girl, whose name was Joan”. [20]  I wouldn’t dwell too long on that mental image. Ultimately, Gerald says that everybody involved deserves to die.

So, after this whistle-stop tour through Medieval thought on bestiality, what have we learned? The big take away is that thought on this area changed with the conceptualisation of the animal throughout the period. When animals were thought of as mere objects, bestiality was about as taboo as using a fleshlight. However, when animals started having agency and human qualities attributed to them, that’s when bestiality became more problematic for medievals. Bestiality, and the animal itself, often became appropriated for political needs, to establish godlike status (in the case of Alexander), or to justify invasion (in the case of the Normans in Ireland).

That’s your lot for this month, folks! I will be back with more of the usual (human) medieval dating next time. Until then, don’t fuck animals.


[1] Advice has already been given for finding love in Anglo-Norman Britain:

The Icelandic Sagas:

And medieval Germany:

[2] The Irish Penitentials, ed. Ludwig Beiler (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1975): 103

[3] François Gagnon, Le Corrector sive Medicus de Burchard de Worms (1000-1025) : présentation, traduction et commentaire ethno-historique, (unpublished thesis),, p.135.

[4] And that’d be twenty days’ penance for that little indiscretion. Don’t believe me? A bilingual French/Latin edition is available online (link in the previous footnote).

[5] Adultery, to use the proper word

[6] Emma Campbell, ‘Political Animals: Human/Animal Life in Bisclavret and Yonec’, Exemplaria, 25:2 (2013), 95-109

[7] Translations by Judy Shoaf, 1991-96, The original text can be found in many good editions, but I pulled this from Ingvil Brügger Budal, Strengleikar og Lais: Høviske noveller i omsetjing frå gammalfransk til gammalnorsk, unpublished PhD thesis, Universitetet i Bergen (2009).

[8] Bisclavret, trans. Judy Shoaf,, p.9

[9] Emma Campbell, ‘Political Animals: Human/Animal Life in Bisclavret and Yonec’, Exemplaria, 25:2 (2013): 99

[10] Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, ‘Of Men and Beasts in Bisclavret’, Romanic Review, 81.3 (1991), 251–69: 258

[11] Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, (Loeb Classical Library, 1919), 227. This is also available online at*/3.html

[12] Surah 18 verses 83-101 available here

[13] The key question here is, which is more death metal?

[14] The Anglo-Norman ‘Alexander’ (‘Le Roman de Toute Chevalerie’), ed. B. Foster, and I. Short, (London: Anglo Norman Text Society, 1976)

[15] Translation my own

[16] Giraldus Cambrensis: The Topography of Ireland, trans. Thomas Forester (Cambridge, Ontario: In Parentheses, 2000): 47

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid. 48