Beasts, Birds and Other Fauna: Animals and Their Meaning in the Early Middle Ages

Beasts, Birds and Other Fauna: Animals and Their Meaning in the Early Middle Ages

Klaudia Karpińska (University of Rzeszów,

In the Early Middle Ages (the period from 6th to 12th century) animals accompanied human societies. Birds started every day with a choir of their songs, big mammals were hunted (or bred) for meat and skins, and dogs were kept for protection. Several animal species held important roles during the various pre-Christian rituals, and after the conversion some of them become symbols linked to Christian religion.

Recently, during excavations on archaeological sites in Europe, numerous bones of inter alia mammals and birds have been discovered in various contexts. They were found on settlements or on the beds of lakes (or rivers). Moreover, their bones have also been discovered in various inhumation and cremation graves of men, women and children. After Christianisation, these creatures were no longer present in the graves, but their depictions appeared in ornamentations on grave monuments (e.g. hogbacks or shrines).

The variety of  animals, as well as fantastic beasts or fauna, were depicted in simplistic or more detailed way on numerous artefacts. They were part of the complex pre-Christian ornamentation on weaponry, jewellery and Christian art (e.g. illuminated manuscripts, liturgical paraphernalia, architectonic details).

This session will explore different aspects of human-animal relations in Europe in the Early Middle Ages. Its aim is to discuss the roles of animals in pre-Christian and Christianised societies (e.g. Anglo-Saxon, Vendel Period, Viking Age or Western Slavic societies) from interdisciplinary angles. The meaning of various fauna in farming, craftsmanship, trade and rituals will be taken into account.


Key words: art, animal studies, animals, Early Middle Ages, pre-Christian rituals, Christian symbolism.



Hunting for Pleasure or Enlightenment?

Sue Stallibrass (University of Liverpool,;

Elusive wild animals move between known and unknown worlds, and the act of hunting them is often accompanied by ritual protocols and divine permissions. At the NW edge of the Roman Empire (Central Britain) in the pre-Christian period, wild animals were regarded with many different, ambiguous or even self-contradictory emotions. Different types of evidence are used in this talk: animal bones, writing tablets, funerary architecture, epigraphy and art. These illustrate and emphasise the multiple roles of wild animals and their relevance to philosophy, religious beliefs, and social and political hierarchies. When Christianity arrived in the later Roman period, it did not replace these attitudes, but adapted them. Hunting continued as an elite pastime, but the search for, and pursuit of, elusive wild animals simultaneously morphed from a ‘chase’ of tangible real animals to an allegorical ‘quest’ for the transcendental.


The Birds of the Manx Crosses

Dirk H. Steinforth (Independent Researcher,

After the Vikings settled in the Isle of Man, they gradually became Christian, and in the middle of the 10th century adopted the local custom of erecting memorial stones for their dead. They enthusiastically adapted this new medium to their taste and created intricately carved monuments – the so-called Scandinavian ‘Manx Crosses’.

Apart from interlace and runic inscriptions, they frequently feature scenes with human figures and animals, which have constantly been a challenge to scholarly interpretation, as despite of the ever-present Christian cross clearly the old pagan images had not been forgotten.

Among the animals in the carvings are a number of birds, many of which can be identified zoologically with some certainty. Being carved on gravestones, at least most of them appear to have religious significance – and to be illustrating both Christian and pagan traditions and thought, respectively: the doves of Christ meet Óðin’s ravens. It seems, however, that regardless of spiritual background they may have been small parts of a common message, indicating the transitional character of both the cross-slabs and Manx society in the mid-/late 10th century, when (formerly) pagan Vikings and the Christian Manx mixed.


Birds of Battle? Myths and Materialities of Eagles and Ravens in the Old Norse World

Kathryn A. Haley-Halinski (University of Cambridge,

It is often accepted among scholars that eagles and ravens were viewed as being in some way sacred by the Old Norse peoples of Scandinavia. This is largely based on the prominence of these birds in the Prose Edda and in eddic poetry, particularly their connections with the god Óðinn. This interdisciplinary paper will draw upon the field of Human-Animal Studies to investigate the nature of this apparent sacred nature by inspecting sources beyond eddic materials to model how humans interacted with eagles and ravens. This will include sources such as laws against eating them in the law codes such as Grágás, and a search for marks indicative of human interference, such as hunting, butchery, or captivity on skeletal remains of these birds from Viking Age finds. This will aim to model a more complex and holistic image of how Old Norse peoples perceived and interacted with eagles and ravens.


Through Fire to the Otherworld: Viking Age Cremation Graves with Bird Remains

Klaudia Karpińska (University of Rzeszów,

In Viking Age Scandinavia, cremation burials were very complex. During ‘culminating moments’ of these rituals, the dead were burnt directly on the pyres (or on the decks of ships) with different artefacts (e.g. combs, jewellery, tools, weaponry). Beyond that, on their journeys to Otherworld, they were accompanied by domestic or wild animals. Among this fauna were also various species of birds.

Recently, cremated bones of different species belonging to the Aves class (e.g. chickens, cranes, hawks) were discovered in the cremation layers or urns which were located under mounds or flat ground. Several cremation graves also contained several unburnt bones (or whole skeletons) of domesticated birds.

The main aim of this paper is to present and analyse Viking Age cremation graves from Scandinavia. It will also consider what meanings in cremation rituals these ‘airborne’ creatures might have had. Moreover, it will also discuss meaning of birds in the various medieval written sources.


What Did This Sheep Mean to You? Animals, Identity and Cosmology in Anglo-Saxon Mortuary Practice

Clare Rainsford (Freelance zooarchaeologist,

The inclusion of animal remains in funerary contexts was a routine feature of Anglo-Saxon cremation ritual, and less frequently of inhumations, until the introduction of Christianity during the 7th century. This paper considers the roles of animals in mortuary practice between the 5th-7th centuries across eastern England in both cremation and inhumation rites.

The funerary role of animals is argued to be based around broadly consistent cosmologies which are nevertheless locally contingent in their expression and practice. Animals were a fundamental and ubiquitous part of early medieval society, and their contribution to mortuary practices is considered to be multifaceted, existing at the intersection of belief, identity and individual lives. It is proposed that integration of funerary data with secular and historical evidence can provide a broader insight into animal lifeways and the effect of changing beliefs and worldviews on the human-animal relationship in the Anglo-Saxon period.


Dead Dogs are so Ninth Century: Challenging the Dramatic Turn in the Interpretation of Viking Mortuary Animal Sacrifice

Thomas Davis (University of Glasgow,

My research looks at specific acts of ritualised mortuary violence enacted on objects, animals, and people by Vikings in the British Isles, and aims to develop a new interpretative framework with which to consider them. Utilising examples from Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man this paper will outline the challenges in interpreting the use of animals in furnished Viking graves. Recent scholarly trends in the interpretation of Viking mortuary practices have highlighted the performative and dramatic in mortuary ritual. However, death rituals also have highly conservative aspects.  Close analysis of the archaeological evidence of Viking burials, especially from antiquarian excavations, often produces opaque results- yet artistic recreations and scholarly narratives of those same graves can imply graphic and emotive death-scenes. We are left with a question- what if such sites are in fact the product of continual reworking and reuse of places of burial, rather than single, discrete, dramatic events? Were these sites of climactic, transformative ritual or arenas for the conservative repetition of practices- already considered ancient in their own time? Does this help explain the speed with which such rituals were dropped by Viking-age settlers in Britain and Ireland, where despite mass migration from Scandinavia, the tradition of animal sacrifice is confined to the geographical fringe and quickly dies away?


The Badger in the Early Middle Ages

Shirley Kinney (University of Toronto,

When envisioning the most popular animals of early medieval culture, images of horses, lions, and even unicorns might be the first to come to mind. The role of the humble badger is much less clear, since this animal is not usually mentioned in scholarship about the Middle Ages. Despite its lack of exposure among scholars, the badger appears in many fascinating medieval texts, from bestiaries to legends, and was even the subject (and main ingredient) of a very popular and widespread medical treatise from the early medieval period. Zooarcheological and place-name evidence demonstrate a medieval awareness of badgers and their habitats, while material evidence of early badger paw amulets are still extant today. With a focus on the insular world, this paper will examine textual, archaeological, and iconographical evidence of the badger during the early middle ages in order to uncover medieval perceptions and use of this animal.


Shifting Baselines of the British Hare Goddess(es)

Luke John Murphy (University of Leicester, and Carly Ameen

(University of Exeter,

Life in the Middle Ages was inherently connected to both the natural world and complex and shifting religious ideologies. Studies of past religions tend to fall into one of two camps: tightly-focused empirical examinations of a particular religious culture, or wide-ranging phenomenological studies divorced from any local context. Little scholarship engages with the middle ground of longue durée development of particular phenomena within the same geographic region or ecological niche. This interdisciplinary paper seeks to prove the value of just such an approach by examining the worship of female beings that negotiated the relationships between humans, animals, and their shared environment. Employing a combination of archaeological and textual evidence, we examine three female beings associated with hares in the British Isles: an anonymous Romano-British figure, the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre – whose name shares an etymological root with “Easter” and its lagomorph attendants – and the medieval Welsh St. Melangell, the Catholic patron saint of hares. We propose that these figures’ key roles and attributes may have been significantly different, but that they nonetheless show remarkable continuity in their secondary characteristics. This evidence is used to argue that the temporally-local concerns of each society found expression in “the same” figure of the British Hare Goddess, whose origins and “meaning” is today frequently discussed on online internet fora – perhaps reflecting the Digital Age’s own anxieties regarding the flow and reliability of information.