Saturday 8 November 2014

'Return of the Medieval Beast' by Karen Maitland

‘Sorry I’m late,’ a family member said, rushing breathlessly into the train station late the other night. ‘I was held up by a wallaby on the road.’

If you're reading this post in Australia, this is probably an excuse you hear regularly, but we were in the middle of Devon, a rural English county not noted for its wild wallabies.
‘Are you sure it wasn’t a large squirrel?’ I asked, somewhat testily.

When we reported the sighting to the local police, I thought they might take the same sceptical line. But no, they had already had several reports of a wallaby hopping long the perilously narrow Devon lanes that evening. ‘But we don't know what we can do about it,’ they said, leafing through a copy of 'The Dangerous Dog Act' which, thanks to a Government oversight, singularly fails to cover marsupials, dangerous or not.

Devon has its fair share of strange animals, not least the fictional Hound of the Baskervilles, said to be based on the legend of the great spectral dog, the black shuck. And then there have long been rumours of the mysterious big black cats roaming across the moors, More recently warnings have been posted in several areas of Devon about what do if you encounter wild boar on walk, as they are now breeding in the forests.

But more controversially wild beavers have mysteriously returned to Devon and established a family, causing much debate about whether these creatures, should be removed before they start to change the landscape. One side argue they will cause flooding by damming streams, while others say that they will help to stop flooding by bringing back the wetlands that used to protect us.

But unlike the wallaby, beavers were native to Britain. The town of Beverley in Yorkshire derives its name from ‘beaver stream’, while Beavercoates in Nottinghamshire means ‘beaver huts’. But during the Middle Ages beavers were driven to extinction in Britain through hunting. They were killed for their scent gland which produced the valuable castoreum and also for food, because the Church declared that their tails were ‘fish’ and could therefore be eaten in Lent and on other fast days, when meat was prohibited. Recipes of the period suggest stewing their tails with ginger. After beavers were wiped out in England, a huge market grew up importing the glands and tails into England from the rest of Europe, through ports such as Bishop’s Lynn
Medieval Beaver shown with 'fish' tail
(now known as King’s Lynn) on The Wash.

The castoreum or castor extracted from the beaver gland was burned by the Romans to bring about abortions and used to help suffers of epilepsy. (This is not to be confused with the oil called castor that comes from Castor oil plant, which is used today as a food additive) In the Middle Ages, they believed castoreum from the beaver could increase the honey production of bees. There may have been some truth behind this since it has been found to have strong antibiotic properties and might have protected the bees from disease or acted as deterrent to bee-mites.

Medieval physicians also used beaver castoreum to relieve headaches, hysteria and impotency. In later centuries, it was used a basis for perfume making and often found in the bottles of quack medicine sold by peddlers in the America who would mix American beaver castor with alcohol or spices and claim it was an elixir which could cure just about anything.
Hunted Beaver biting off its own testicles

There is curious legend about beavers to be found the medieval bestiaries which is also recorded in ancient Greece. In Medieval times both the animal and its oil were known as castor meaning ‘castrated’. It was believed that this oil was to be found in the beaver’s testicles. If hunted, the beaver would chew off its own testicles and fling them at the huntsman to save its life. Thereafter, the castrated beaver would turn round, stand up and expose itself to any huntsman, so that he could see its testicles were missing and it was not worth pursuing.

In fact the castoreum doesn’t come from the testicles but from a gland near base of the tail which is used for scent marking. But the beaver’s testicles are internal so it would appear to our ancestors to have been castrated. And it is interesting that the legend not only persisted down through the centuries, but was employed by the Church who used the beaver as a symbol of chastity.

Beaver exposing himself to the huntsman to show he is castrated.

‘Every man who would live chastely must cut himself off from all vices and lewdness as does the castor and fling them in the face of the Devil. Thereupon the devil shall depart from him.

Perhaps the next wild animal that might return to Devon will be the wolf. Though last time he lived in England he fared no better than the beaver.

'If a woman does not desire you and you would arouse her and make her lust after you, take the genitals of a wolf together with the hair on its cheeks and eyebrows and burn them together. Then give the ashes to the woman to drink in such a manner that she does not suspect. Then she will desire you and no other man.'

But that’s another story.


Carol Drinkwater said...

I love this post, thank you, Karen. We have wild boars here on our Olive Farm so I know a little about those problems of the wild. However, I knew nothing about the extinction of the poor beaver from Britain. This is fascinating. I sometimes catch sight of them in the Camargue which is perfect territory for them. I am also fascinated to read about the castoreum being a protective for honey bees. In this age of ours when the honeybee is becoming endangered due to the use of Neonicotinoid pesticides, this might be an avenue worth pursuing. Thank you.

Susan Price said...

But not protecting your bees by castrating beavers, I hope, Carol!

Much enjoyed this post. Beavers biting off their own balls and flinging them at huntsmen? And subsequently exposing themselves, to prove they're not worth chasing? - I think this has a ring of lowly huntsman answering questions of enquiring scholar. The huntsmen themselves must have known it was, well, balls.

I am all for wolves, bears, beavers, lynx and boars being re-established in Britain. It would enliven country walks - as it seems it already is in Devon.

Carol Drinkwater said...

No, of course not, Susan! I meant - and did realise later while out shopping that my words might be misconstrued - that a study of the properties in castoreum might be worth investigating.
I agree, let the creatures roam free. We now have wolves up in the Mercantour National Park behind us. I realise the shepherds are not pleased and that it is a complex issue but I tend to fall down on the side of reintroducing creatures back into their habitats. Bring Beavers Back to Britain!

Joan Lennon said...

What a great post - the faces in those medieval pictures are so expressive! And the beaver come-back is alive and well and living in Scotland!

Marjorie said...

Fascinating! I didn't know that beavers were a symbol of chastity.

I suppose the wolf thing might work if the object of your desire was impressed by your ability to catch a wolf for the purpose...

Gillian Polack said...

We have more problems with kangaroos than wallabies, I suspect, and many of the big cities are sadly bereft of marsupials on major roads (though not in back gardens, if one lives on bushland). The big exception is Canberra, especially the road to Parliament House.