Thursday, April 05, 2012

New Non-fiction; The Bear: History of a Fallen King

The Bear: History of a Fallen King by Michel Patoureau

The lion was not always king. This is a fascinating look at the varied relationship that has existed between humans and the bear over the long course of our cultural and social history. It begins with a discussion of the oldest piece of sculpture known to man, fashioned some fifteen to twenty thousand years ago. It is a representation of a bear. In ancient and pre-Christian cultures, the bear was once central to cultural mythologies, and was a venerated symbol. He was deposed in the hierarchy of the primordial bestiary by the advent of Medieval Christianity. St. Augustine delivered the verdict around which Christian symbolism of the bear was constructed, deciding that “the bear is the Devil.” The early church was concerned about pagan legends of the bear’s power, particularly the widespread belief that male bears were sexually attracted to women and would violate them, producing half-bear half-human beings who were invincible warriors and founded royal lines. There was widespread massacre of bears during the Middle Ages.

The major focus of this social history is the symbolic place of the bear in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the Renaissance the demonic place of the bear in Christian allegory was largely assumed by the goat, the bat and the owl as the Devil’s new familiars. Bears went from a place of veneration and nobility in human culture to demonization, to finally marginalization and humiliation, becoming entertainers in the marketplace, performers of humiliating tricks, or muzzled and devoured by packs of dogs for the entertainment of humans, returning finally, from their unfortunate exile in human affairs to a central place in the hearts of children in the late 19th and early 20th century as the beloved Teddy Bear.

This book illustrates for us an extended example of the symbolic uses that humans make of animals and how that symbolism we create reveals important values and mythologies of a culture at any given point in history. This becomes, after all, not a book about the natural history of bears but a book about important aspects of Medieval and Renaissance culture and thinking. The book includes a wonderful array of illustrations, in full color, mostly drawn from illuminated manuscripts and the early history of printing.

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