The Medieval Bestiary: the Eale

The Bestiary – or Book of Beasts – was a medieval compendium of animals, categorised into beasts, birds, reptiles and fish.  These manuscripts were at the height of their popularity during the C12th and C13th.  The majority of them were produced in England and were written in Latin. 

Modelled directly on the Physiologus, with inclusions from early writers such as Herodotus and Pliny and the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, the Bestiary authors would never have seen many of the creatures they were describing or illustrating.  Although some of the animals were real, others were imaginary – or at least initially appear to be.  However, it was of no concern to the writers of the Bestiary whether animals existed or not; what was more important was the message that they could convey.    

Many of the animals had Christian moralisations attached to them, so the Bestiary can be viewed as both a didactic text and a treatise on nature.  Its main purpose was to show how God’s creations could instruct mankind in righteous conduct.  Some of the animals symbolized Christ and His good works and behaved in ways that should be emulated by man, whilst others signified the Devil and care had be taken not to act as they did.

In this article, I am going to look at the Eale, (pronounced yale), which at first appears to be a fabulous beast, but whose identity has a firm grounding in reality.

In the Bestiary, the Eale was described as a creature the size of a horse, with the tail of an elephant and the tusks of a wild boar.  It had outlandishly long horns that were not rigid and set in place, but were flexible and could be moved at will.  When fighting, the Eale extended one horn and laid, or curled, the other behind it, so that if the extended horn was damaged in any way, the second horn could be unfurled to take its place.

The entry on the Eale was brief and had no moralisation attached to it.  The illustrations that accompanied the text usually showed an elegant, black antelope-like creature with small tusks and long, thin horns, often pointing in different directions or with one curled up.  Occasionally, a much stockier creature was depicted.

The Eale was first described by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) in Book 8 of his Historia Naturalis.  He stated that the Eale was found in Ethiopia and that it was the size of a hippopotamus, with an elephant’s tail, the jaws of a boar, and moveable horns more than a cubit in length that were  used alternately in combat.  It was black or tawny in colour.

It was later mentioned by Solinus, another Roman writer (early C3rd AD) in his Collectanea Rerum Mirabilium.  Solinus relocated the Eale to India and stated that it had the body of a horse but otherwise followed Pliny in his description of the beast, although he added that like the hippopotamus, it was very fond of water.

These texts provided the source for the Eale of the Bestiary, but what could the peculiar horse-like, hippopotamus sized creature with long, flexible horns, found in either Ethiopia or India actually have been?

If we consider the details, a likely candidate for the ‘real’ Eale is the buffalo, either the Cape buffalo, if we place it in Africa, as Pliny did, or the water buffalo if we place it in India, as Solinus did.

Neither species, of course, has mobile horns.   African Cape buffalo have heavy, hook-like horns that typically curve downwards, then upwards and backwards.  Wild Indian water buffalo have long, crescent shaped horns, and domestic river buffalo, shorter, more tightly curled horns.  There are many instances, however, when buffalo have horn deformities in which one or both horns grow straight upwards or backwards, or curl abnormally, completely against their natural growth pattern.  Such an instance of horn deformity, coupled with the aggressive nature of the Cape buffalo in particular, and its propensity for fighting, may well be the basis for the Eale battling with moveable horns.  It may also be that the head swinging motion of fighting buffalo gave rise to the idea of the horns being flexible.

Pliny’s reference to the hippopotamus implies the heavy build of the buffalo.  Solinus’ statement that the Eale loved water also brings to mind the buffalo, which loves to wallow.

Various African antelope may also have been an influence.  The sable antelope sports an impressive pair of backward curving horns and is a member of the Hippotragus genus – the ‘horse-like’ antelopes.  The males are black and the females a chestnut-brown, which fits Pliny’s colouring perfectly.  The oryx family have spectacularly long, thin horns and although not fitting the colour description, can show remarkable horn deformities, with horns growing horizontally instead of upwards, or one curling round or pointing backwards, just like in the illustrations of the Eale in the Bestiary.

It is difficult to account for the mention of the boar’s tusks, but if the sable antelope, with its black coat and long horns has played a part in the identity of the Eale, it may be possible that the markings along the side of its face were at some point misconstrued as tusks.

One French Bestiary included a variant of the Eale, called the Centicore.  This also had long mobile horns and was described as having a barrel-like head, body and feet of a horse, thighs and breast of a lion, an elephant’s tail, and, curiously, a voice resembling that of a man.  It was said to have a great enmity with the Basilisk (a deadly serpent, another Bestiary beast, usually depicted with a cock’s head and clawed feet, and most likely to have been the cobra in reality).  On finding the Centicore asleep, the Basilisk stung it between the eyes, whereupon the Centicore swelled up and its eyes popped out of its head and it died.  This tale included a rather convoluted moralisation, which, in brief, saw the forward pointing horn as being the covetous heart; the resting horn, the soul; the Basilisk, the devil, and the death of the Centicore as the blinding of man by mortal sin.

The Eale may have arisen from some garbled accounts of buffaloes and antelope, but in our imaginations, and the pages of the Bestiary, it can live on as a mysterious beast in an exotic, faraway land.

Illustrations by Varla de Milo.                                                                                                                  

 Varla de Milo is a ceramic artist and illustrator with a particular interest in the Medieval Bestiary and its depictions of animals.

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