Medieval Bestiary Animal of the Day: The Hedgehog

Medieval Bestiary Animal of the Day The Hedgehog

Hedgehog bestiary

Just to step outside the “normal nature” box I thought I'd focus on an animal, but not just any animal, one that is a modern pet and was of interest to Medieval scholars, the prickly hedghog.

Beasts of the Middle Ages

Between the 12th-13th centuries  theologians and scholars wrote books called bestiaries all about real and imaginary animals. This time frame was the high period for the  creation of bestiaries although there are some dating back to ancient Egypt.

Bestiaries were texts with illuminated, or hand painted and drawn, pictures. The most famous bestiaries include those by Aristotle in the Historia Animalium, Herodotus, Isidore of Seville in Etymologiae (d. 636) and Pliny the Elder in  Historia Naturalis (AD 23-79).  Most bestiaries were written in Latin, hand printed and drawn, and the pictures were created with ground pigments and homemade dyes. These bestiaries were similar to today’s fairy tales with a Christian spin. Authors used animals in an allegorical way to convey meaning. They weren’t meant to be scientifically accurate because they were meant in a way similar to the symbolic stories of Aesop’s Fables.

The Hedgehog in Medieval Bestiaries

The hedgehog was discussed by Pliny the Elder (1st century CE), Isidore of Seville (7th century CE), and St. Anthony of Padua (12-13th century CE). The hedgehog was noted for its quills and spines as well as its ability to roll up into a ball. Its name is derived from the hedge where it lives and the hog like snout it sports. It is also sometimes called an urchin because it resembles the spiny sea urchin.

How Hedgehogs Were Depicted: Illuminated images usually depict the hedgehog on the ground rolling around and picking up fruit or grapes with its spines, and sometimes its shown climbing grape vines and shaking them for their fruit (Naturalis Historia). Supposedly, instead of eating the grapes when they fell off the vine the hedgehog would roll on its back to pick up the fruits to take home to its young. In the illumination below you can see the hedgehog, underneath vines eating grapes and carrying them on its quills.

hedgehog 2

The Hedgehog's Allegory or Moral of the Story:  Hedgehogs stood as symbols for stealing the “fruits” of man’s spirit or moral behavior, a warning of the strategies of the devil. On the reverse side hedgehogs were also symbolized as teaching about the nobility of humility and not boasting or being vain (Medieval manuscripts blog).

In the text, by St. Anthony of Padua, translated from “Sermons of the Middle Ages, Chronologically Arranged; with Notes and an Introduction.” We find where “Sinners are compared to Hedgehogs.”

“Note that the hedgehog is altogether full of prickles; and if any one tries to take it, it rolls itself up, and becomes as it were a ball in the hand of the holder. Its head and its mouth are set low down, and inside its mouth are five teeth. The hedgehog is the obstinate sinner, covered all over with the prickles of sins. If you endeavor to convince him of the sin he as committed, he immediately rolls himself up, and hides by excusing his fault. And thus it may be said that his head and mouth are set low down. By the head, we understand the thoughts: by the mouth. The words. While ignorance or chance, or the suggestion of the devil, or the frailty of his flesh, or the occasion given by his neighbour” (p. 246-7).

Hedgehog 3

(Photo: Flicker: Common use Paul K)

The early  poet Archilochus (c. 680- 645 BC) left us fragments of his writing, with variants of this quote about hedgehogs:

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.

The fox knows many tricks; and the hedgehog only one; but that is the best one of all.

Unfortunately though, hedgehogs have gotten a pretty bad wrap over the centuries by being aligned with the devil and witches. Even Shakespeare maligned them:

In King Richard III, Shakespeare writes:

Dost grant me hedgehog? Then, God grant me too
Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!
O, he was gentle, mild and virtuous.

While in "A Midsummer Nights Dream" you can read:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, not be seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong;
Come not near our Fairy Queen.

There were many misconceptions about hedgehogs through the centuries, from the idea that they drank cows milk (so it was legal to hunt them) to the idea that they speared fruits and food with their spines. Regardless, they're highly esteemed as pets in modern times and even featured as children's cartoon characters.

If you would like to learn more about hedgehogs and Medieval bestiaries you can check out the Medieval Bestiary online. Here is a list of all of the medieval manuscripts where hedgehog references may be found, on the Medieval Bestiary home page: