The relationship between humans and bears, which Michel Pastoureau investigates with his newest monograph The Bear: History of a Fallen King, could rightly be characterized as historically fraught. Once upon a time, bears reigned as kings of the beasts. Understood as such within premodern pagan Germanic and Scandinavian societies, bears were venerated for their power, their hirsuteness, and their ferocity. Yet they also were conceptualized as being close to man in both physiology and temperament and, as such, occupied an uneasy place in many medieval people's reckoning. From the eighth through eleventh centuries, Pastoureau asserts, Christianity increasingly read the bear through a diabolic lens and eventually triumphed over the beast. In conjunction with secular authorities who manifested and defined their puissance by hunting ferocious animals, the Church systematically persecuted, killed, and, ultimately, dethroned the bear and, by the twelfth century, replaced its pride of place among animals with the lion and the stag. Pastoureau suggests this elite-driven persecution of the bear and what it was believed to represent trickled down to influence a general popular contempt for the bear in the premodern past.
A specialist in cultural history, Pastoureau has written widely on the history of medieval heraldry and colors. As the vibrancy and variety of the animal world features heavily in heraldic and artistic traditions alike, his present book thus functions as a natural outgrowth from his earlier and extensive publication record on these subjects. Largely focusing his energies on the medieval past, Pastoureau argues for, and demonstrates, the viability of the bear as a topic for historical inquiry. Utilizing the scholarship regarding the relationship between man and beast generated by anthropologists, historians, and literary scholars to analyze documentary, iconographic, and heraldic sources, Pastoureau thus applies an interdisciplinary approach to his study.
In the first of three parts, Pastoureau traces humans' perceptions of and encounters with bears over a wide span of time, from thirty thousand years before the present through the eleventh century C.E., to reveal how bears have played a central role in the human experience. Over the course of these many millennia, the bear, once venerated as a living god, becomes increasingly hated and despised in Pastoureau's assessment. After a brief introduction, Pastoureau dedicates the first chapter to question the bear's role as the first god of humanity. The 1994 discovery of the Chauvet cave in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in Ardèche is central to his reading the bear as such. The cave, which features Paleolithic paintings of a variety of fauna, including bears, also houses a devotional site centered on a bear skull, suggesting the possible veneration of the animal. Pastoureau then jumps forward to the classical era, in order to show how the Greeks and Celts worshipped the bear in their own ways, eliding the space between human and beast. The Greeks called the priestesses of Artemis arktoi, or little she-bears. Bears figure prominently in narratives about the Greek goddess of the wild who, in some accounts, was responsible for the metamorphoses of the humans Callisto and Arcas of Arcadia, land of the bears, into the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. The Celts had a comparable female divinity, Arduina, in their pantheon who also protected both hunters and wild animals and whose iconography was linked to the bear. Chapter two regards the bear as the erstwhile king of the beasts. Despite the bear's strength, which imparted upon the animal a totemic status for pagan warriors who "looked on it as an animal apart, made it the central figure in their bestiary, and worshiped it in various manners" (37), it was no match for the Church's relentless persecution, according to Pastoureau. Germans, Slavs, Balts, Lapps, and Celts read the bear martially and often incorporated, in naming their children, some aspect of the term "bear," in their respective languages, to impart better the power of the animal upon their progeny. Chapter three goes into depth in studying the uncanny similarities between men and bears, from their appearances, to their methods of walking and standing, to their omnivorous diets. The resemblances between men and bears were such that some extended the comparison into the realm of sexuality. Pastoureau's analysis of the sexuality of the bear stands as an important component of his argument (68-82). Unlike other animals, ancient and medieval natural philosophers believed the bear to mate more hominum, by lying down, embracing, and facing each other, unlike all other quadrupeds. That alone did not earn theologians' ire. Rather, Pastoureau claims, it was the perception of "the bear's lewdness, its love of debauchery, and its supposedly abnormal sexuality that helped to demonize it" (69). Although some thirteenth-century encyclopedists suggested that mother bears did not mate during pregnancy and thus abandoned their newborn, nearly stillborn, cubs to slake their lust and engage in congress once again, other medieval authors crafted the mother bear with more sympathy. Indeed, the image of the mother patiently licking her cubs, shaping and breathing life into them, protecting them until they were strong enough to survive on their own, might function as an allegory for the resurrection and provided her no small honor in some medieval bestiaries. But that alone was not enough to protect the bear. Male bears, in particular, were believed to have a proclivity for kidnapping and raping human women and the offspring from these unholy unions, half-human and half-bear, were celebrated as founders of royal lineages.
For the second part of his book, Pastoureau delves deeply into the Church's attack against the bear. His chronological scope is considerably narrower than the first part, focusing on the period from Charlemagne to Saint Louis. For some clerical authors, disconcerted by the bear's similarity with humans, two principal approaches were needed to depose the bear from its throne: first, in conjunction with secular authorities, great hunts and massacres of the bear were organized, as seen in Pastoureau's referencing Charlemagne's organization of great bear hunts from 772-773, 782-785, and 794-799 to wipe out pagan cults. Second, writers and artists undercut the bear's ferocity deliberately to depict the bear as a submissive and tame animal, as in the vitae of wilderness saints, including Saint Columban, Saint Gall, and Saint Eligius, among others, whose hagiographies are replete with ursine imagery. A manifest demonstration of the medieval saint's holiness is his or her ability to defang, so to speak, wild animals like bears, thus tempering their ferocity and forcing them into lives of servitude as beasts of burden. In the fifth chapter, Pastoureau investigates the diabolical reading of the bear, which began in earnest in the high Middle Ages. Later theologians used the negative assessments of the bear that first appear in the works of Pliny the Elder and Augustine of Hippo as foundations for their condemnations of the beast, eventually going as far as to link the animal with Satan himself. Dreaming of huge, hairy, brown bears had, by the twelfth century, become a hard and fast indicator that Satan lurked nearby, ready to ensnare the unwary dreamer's soul. Chapter six turns to the lion's triumph as king of the beasts with the dawning of the eleventh century. For Pastoureau, the medieval authors who engaged in the systematic denigration of the bear applied their abilities to craft carefully their concomitant lauding of the lion, despite Augustine of Hippo's distaste for the great cat, which he saw as bloodthirsty and violent. Over the course of the high Middle Ages, Pastoureau sees a steady rise in leonine imagery in heraldry in both northern and southern Europe, as well as their increased physical presence in princely menageries. By the end of the high Middle Ages the transformation was complete as the lion stood proud, the bear debased.
The final part of Pastoureau's book regards the bear from the later Middle Ages to the modern era. For the seventh chapter, Pastoureau unpacks further the bear's utter humiliation as the bear "fallen from his throne, left out of Noah's Ark and princely menageries, forgotten by kings, replaced or overtaken by the lion" (159), became the buffoon in both daily and literary life. Objects of derision, bears are characterized as slow, stupid, and connected with the deadly sins of gluttony and lust. In the Roman de Renart cycle, compiled between the final quarter and first half of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, respectively, these vernacular animal fables recount the exploits of a wily fox, Renart, "a fractious and perverse vassal who both amuses and annoys" (165) the king of the beasts, the lion Noble. Another of Noble's vassals, Brun, the bear, receives the brunt of Renart's myriad tricks in these tales, some versions of which result in the bear's death. Brun's downfall occurs due to his gluttony and girth, his dimwitted obstinacy, his awkward foolishness, all of which imply a merited disgrace for the bear. Chapter eight has Pastoureau grapple with the courtly demimonde in which the demands of princely self-fashioning intersected with the ritual of the hunt, resulting in a bloody end for many an early and high medieval bear. By the later Middle Ages, however, bears were devalued for the hunt and, instead, replaced with the stag, for whom no faults could be found. Yet for some elite families, most notably that of Jean, Duc de Berry, the bear was still valued. Jean de Berry surrounded himself with all types of bear imagery throughout his life, a passion, in Pastoureau's estimation, that continued well after his death. Pastoureau suggests that Jean de Cambrai, whom Jean de Berry commissioned to carve the funerary image for his crypt, knew well his patron's love of bears and thus chiseled Valentin, the duke's beloved pet bear, to accompany him in the afterlife. The ninth and final chapter regards the bear during the later Middle Ages and early modern era. Pastoureau reiterates much of what he argues from earlier chapters, as in his reference to the diabolical side of the bear, purportedly one of the animal forms that Satan could adopt when attending a few early modern witches' Sabbaths. By the early modern and modern eras, diabolical readings of the bear largely disappeared and naturalists, museum curators, and ethnologists exhibited a clinical fascination with the bear and its products.
Although his style is undeniably engaging and his thesis provocative, there are some problems with Pastoureau's study. Throughout the entirety of his book, he makes claims that pique one's curiosity, yet border on the incredulous. For just one example, take his allegation that Godfrey of Bouillon's leadership role in the eleventh-century crusading movement was due to "more than his successes against the enemies of the Christian faith, it was his victory over a bear that definitively turned him into the sole leader of the crusade, then the defender of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, and finally after his death a legendary figure" (40). The Historia Ierosolimitana of Albert of Aachen, written between 1120 and 1130, references Godfrey of Bouillon's physical superiority over a massive and savage bear in extensive detail. Although Pastoureau recognizes it as a rhetorical strategy on Albert's part, it is nonetheless difficult to accept his claim that it was principally this deed that elevated Godfrey to the throne as first sovereign of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, ultimately vaulting him into the ranks of the medieval Nine Worthies. More problematically, Pastoureau offers wildly speculative scenarios that the documentary record simply does not bear out. Examples of this occur throughout the course of the book, but this appears most notably in his discussion of the Bal des Ardents (204-208), which borders on the offensive. In January 1393 elite youths, playing the bear at a masquerade ball, were set ablaze when Duke Louis of Orléans grabbed a nearby torch to see them better and accidentally ignited their animal costumes, killing four of them. Charles VI survived the accident only because Jeanne de Boulogne, the Duchess of Berry, had the presence of mind to cover him with her dress, thus protecting him from the flames. Pastoureau proposes that, "Perhaps because the young woman, far from being revolted by the six wild men bursting into the ballroom, had rather been attracted, more or less consciously, to these hairy creatures full of life and strength...[she] did not hesitate to take the immodest step of lifting her dress to cover the unfortunate man" (207). His reading of the Duchess of Berry as drawn to the hybrid actor/bears solely by an unspoken ancient desire for the bear and who therefore was, by being in the right place at the right time, able to prevent the death of Charles is unfounded and, as he himself admits, "scabrous" (208). By approaching the history of the bear in this manner, Pastoureau undermines the strength of the intriguing and important questions that drive his book.
Another issue appears when Pastoureau carries his analysis into the modern era with his epilogue on the "Revenge of the Bear" (247-252). While the bear faced an inexorable decline in status, respect, and treatment since the early Middle Ages, it is in the modern era when the animal receives redemption. Over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the bear regained acceptance in the form of a child's boon companion: the teddy bear. Pastoureau, who provides a lovely overview of the history and popularity of the teddy bear, which ultimately appeared in "every house, every bedroom, in the form of a toy" (247), suggests this beloved toy facilitated the bear's restoration. But this is hardly the only example of the restoration of the bear in modernity. Many businesses, schools, and universities have appropriated the image of the bear to serve as their mascot, softening the beast's ferocity to create a palatable consumer logo, simultaneously sanitizing and commodifying the wild animal. Other groups, like the "bear" community, a subset within the collective of men who identify as gay or bisexual, have assumed ursine imagery and perceived characteristics towards their self-fashioning. Although there is vociferous debate regarding both the definition and history of the movement the bear community, which tends to favor stouter male bodies and the secondary sexual characteristics of body and facial hair, appeared roughly in the final quarter of the twentieth century, in response to a perceived dominance of youth-based aesthetics within the gay community. By the twenty-first century, the bear community has become much more visible in mainstream Western culture and, what with Pastoureau's reading and referencing of the bear sexually, it would have been easy, pertinent, and, frankly, relevant, for Pastoureau to discuss the rise of the modern bear movement and its members' conscious adoption of the animal's image.
Yet I do not wish to criticize Pastoureau for a book he did not write. Despite my critiques, I found The Bear a genuinely interesting read from which I learned a great amount. He sheds considerable light on the intersection of medieval popular and elite discourses about the natural world and his book is crammed full of new and intriguing information surrounding the bear and its place within European history and culture. The selection of color plates, which includes images from a variety of illuminated manuscripts, including masterpieces like the Codex Manesse and the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, was particularly judicious. They function as a parallel narrative that accompanies and accentuates, yet is never directly referenced within, the text of the book and the effect upon the reader is striking. Pastoureau permits the bear, "itself a subject of history" (5), to lumber into the spotlight to receive significantly more sympathetic treatment than it had for centuries. For that alone, his book, a loving tribute to all things ursine, is both most valuable and welcome. Ultimately, many scholars of medieval culture, the environment, and the natural world will find much that is profitable contained between the book's covers.