What’s With Those Hilarious Medieval Portrayals of Animals?

Unknown artist, “Snail” (c. 1350), The Netherlands, illumination on parchment from Jacob van Maerlant’s Der naturen bloeme (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The internet has a voracious appetite for strange Medieval drawings. Figures engaged in odd behaviors, misshapen cats and dogs, and animals with disturbingly human expressions go viral every few months, seemingly painted a thousand years ago precisely for the purpose of becoming memes today. These Medieval depictions of fauna ranged from realistic to cartoonish to bafflingly inaccurate. What’s behind these often hilariously misrepresented Medieval creatures? We rounded up some favorites and asked two scholars to weigh in.

Take for example the mid-14th-century illuminated manuscript Der Naturen Bloeme, which includes curious renderings of a grimacing snail with cat ears and a sinister-looking fan mussel. The two works were featured in a viral thread on X listing Medieval drawings of animals whose artists appear to never have seen in person — leading to strange illustrations featuring elephants with dog paws and a beaver with a fishtail. Had these artists really never laid eyes on a snail?

A Tweet from the X account “Weird Medieval Guys,” which has 688,000 followers

“Very often, people think that they’re laughing at the Middle Ages, and they’re actually laughing with the Middle Ages,” Shirin Fozi, associate curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters, told Hyperallergic. “The artist was trying to be funny.” 

Illuminators may have seen non-native animals on occasion in royal courts, and later in zoos. Often, however, artists based their depictions on the work of others and on oral storytelling. Images of elephants with trumpets as trunks and hoofed feet abound.

Der Naturen Bloeme, where the snail and fan mussel illustrations where featured, is poet Jacob van Maerlant’s Dutch adaptation of the natural history encyclopedia De natura rerum (ca. 1230–45) by philosopher Thomas of Cantimpré. Similar types of encyclopedic manuscripts depicting mythological, imaginary, and “exotic” animals, called bestiaries, were the subject of a 2019 exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles co-curated by Larisa Grollemond. 

Unknown artist, “Fan Mussel” (c. 1350), The Netherlands, illumination on parchment from Der naturen bloeme (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Unknown artist, “An elephant” (1510–20), Greece, pen and red lead and iron gall inks, watercolors, tempera colors, and gold paint on paper bound between wood boards covered with probably original brown calf (image courtesy Getty Museum)

“[Unicorns and dragons] are as plausible and as present in the imagination as an exotic animal like an elephant or a lion,” Grollemond told Hyperallergic. “There’s not a distinction between something that we would call ‘real’ and then something that we would call ‘imaginary’: They’re all sort of on the same plane of existence.”

These books also feature familiar creatures rendered with varying levels of realism. A deer might resemble a deer, but beavers, in the words of Grollemond, often look more like “weird dogs.”

“These books use animals to tell stories about theological concepts to make aspects of Christianity more accessible, easier to understand, and memorable,” Grollemond said, explaining that anatomical accuracy was simply not the point.

A depiction of a leopard in the 12th-century Aberdeen Bestiary, shared by X user @DannyDutch in a viral thread (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Fozi pointed to the work of 13th-century British artist and historian Matthew Paris, who drew a series of elephants that range from cartoonish to naturalistic. In one sketch of King Henry III’s new beast at the Tower of London, Paris portrayed the elephant in a realistic style but depicted the animal’s handler as a caricature.

“They already know what the elephant keeper looks like because he’s just a normal guy,” Fozi said of Paris’s audience, members of the church where Paris served as a monk and historian at the St. Albans Abbey and created a decades-long chronicle of English history. “We see the same artist working in different modes, whether he’s trying to convey what the elephant looks like or whether he’s just trying to tell a story.”

Unknown artist, “Illustration of a lion, a leopard, a rabbit and an elephant” (c. 1340), Italy (© British Library Board)

As trade and travel became more prevalent, Medieval illuminators created books that imagined faraway places, filling pages with fittingly fantastical characters. In other types of Medieval manuscripts, and even in prayer books, illuminators created images in the margins — called marginalia — that also showed nonhuman creatures. (Knights fighting snails made more than one appearance.)

Grollemond said that to contemporary viewers, these types of depictions can feel more legible and less foreign than other imagery from the Middle Ages, and that to Medieval readers, they would have drawn a smile.

“We still do this,” Grollemond said. “With cat memes or whatever it is — we still find humor in animals all the time.”

As for memefied Medieval animals, Grollemond said she’s delighted as a scholar to see people engaging with her area of study, but she added that while some images in manuscripts were intended as jokes, the way we look at them now can sometimes “flatten them.”

“You lose some of that historical complexity,” Grollemond said. “Which is the really fun thing about them.”

Beavers often looked like dogs and were frequently shown biting their testicles. Unknown artist, “A beaver” (c. 1250 – 1260), England, pen and ink drawing tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment (image courtesy Getty Museum)
Unknown artist, “A Tiger” (c. 1250–60), England, pen and ink tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment (image courtesy Getty Museum)
Unknown artist, “Two Fishermen on a Sea Creature” (c. 1270), France, tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment (image courtesy Getty Museum)

Editor’s note 12/13/23: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to the mollusk depicted in Der Naturen Bloeme as an oyster instead of a mussel. The article has been corrected.

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