Chapter 5 – Doing History: Medieval European Texts

Hans Peter Broedel

Bestiaries, books about animals, often lavishly illustrated, were among the most popular of medieval texts.  The following extract about the mole is from an anonymous thirteenth-century example, largely copied from earlier very similar treatises.

“The mole is so called because it is condemned to perpetual darkness because of its blindness.  It has no eyes, and always digs the earth and turns it over and eats the roots.  The mole… is the image of pagan idols, blind, deaf and dumb; or even their worshippers, wandering in the eternal darkness of ignorance and folly… The mole is also the symbol of heretics or false Christians who, like the eyeless mole which digs in the earth, heaping up the soil and eating the roots beneath the crops, lack the true light of knowledge and devote themselves to earthly deeds…” (Bestiary, Bodley M.S. 764.)1


Compare with this description of the mole from roughly the same period in Albertus Magnus’ work, De Animalibus (About Animals).  Albert was a famous Aristotelian scholar and theologian who taught at the Universities of Paris and Cologne.

“[The mole] is a small animal that belongs to the class of rodents and is sometimes called “earth mouse” or “blind mouse.”  It has very short legs and sharp claws, with five digits on its forefeet and four on its hind feet.  Black in color, it has soft fur which is short in length but densely distributed.  In place of eyes it has tiny bare spots bereft of hair.  It feeds on grubs, but I have also watched it eating frogs and toads.  In fact, I once saw a mole which, from its underground burrow, captured a large toad…  The mole also consumes earthworms…  It depends a great deal on its sense of hearing and can detect the movement of worms through the soil at some distance.  However, this may be less a function of its auditory acuity than it is the transmission of sound through the displaced earth.  By way of illustration, if one constructs a long tunnel underground, one can hear with great clarity the spoken voice of another person, even though he is situated far away at the other end of the tunnel…” (Albert the Great, De Animalibus, 22.143) 2


From these extracts, how would you characterize the purposes of each author?  What are they trying to provide their readers?


What does each author think are the mole’s most important characteristics?


How does the mole’s blindness influence the authors’ accounts of the creature?  (The European mole is not, in fact, blind, but has tiny eyes buried under its skin.  Albert went so far as to dissect a mole looking for them, and found tiny “bead-like structures” in its head containing fluid, but could not identify them as eyes.) 3


Where does each author get his information?  How important to each author is the accuracy of his account?


How do you think the bestiary author might have altered his description of the mole if he had read Albert’s?  Would Albert’s claim that moles mainly ate worms and grubs have mattered to the bestiary author?


1 Richard Barber ed. and trans., Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1999), 110-111.

2 Albert the Great, Man and the Beasts: De Animalibus (Books 22-26), trans. James J. Scanlan (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1987), 179-180.

3 Scanlan, 24.


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History of Applied Science & Technology Copyright © 2017 by Hans Peter Broedel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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