The Library

Animals > Elephants

The elephant on this panel is reminiscent of a manuscript illumination from Flanders or Utrecht drawn by Jacob van Maerlant in the second half of the 15th century, now in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Netherlands.  Both beasts are shown with a long curling trunk, a tusk emerging from the lower jaw and a large eye.  Neither has ears.

Henry III was presented with an elephant as a gift for his menagerie in the Tower of London in 1255 by Louis IX of France.  This survived there for four years and was sketched many times, notably by Matthew Paris for his Chronica Majora.  This was the first elephant in England since the Romans had left some 1200 years previously.

The earliest-known elephant carved in wood in England appears on a misericord in Exeter Cathedral; probably dating from the second half of the 13th century, it is fairly accurately shown, apart from the feet.  Elephants also appear in church woodcarving later on in the Middle Ages with castles on their backs.  These were the results of woodcarvers’ interpretations of drawings from Persia and India where soldiers would build a wooden tower, a howdah, on an elephant’s back so that in battle they could fight from relative safety inside the tower.  This is the origin of the elephant and castle used in European heraldry.

According to bestiaries the elephant would live for two or three hundred years and the female would mate only once in that time, specifically in order to bear young.  She would lead her mate away to find a mandrake root, an aphrodisiac, that she would entice him to eat.  The Church drew a parallel with this story and that of Adam’s temptation of Eve with an apple, but it also applauded the elephant for confining its conjugal relations to the purposes of procreation.  This aspect of the beast’s behaviour was taught as the model for human relations.

The elephant was believed not to have joints in the knees so that if it fell it was unable to get up unaided.  Even when twelve adult beasts (apostles) were summoned they were unable to lift it, but one young, innocent elephant (Christ) could raise it alone.  The female would give birth in water as though baptizing her young, linking the elephant once more with Christ.

The elephant was thought to be gentle and intelligent, to have a good memory, to look after the sick of the herd.  It was immensely strong but could be killed by the evil dragon. However, it was also afraid of mice, knowing that the weak might triumph over the strong.