Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brother Bear, Rightful King

"The eminent medieval historian Michel Pastoureau's recent book, The Bear: History of a Fallen King (Harvard University Press)" reviewed by Justin E.H. Smith — Our Animals, Ourselves. An excerpt:
    Pastoureau's choice of research focus was widely dismissed as childish when he took it up in the 1970s: It is children who pay attention to Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear, the French historical establishment declaimed. Adults should turn their attention to adult matters—which is to say human matters. The bear accordingly grew plush, diminutive, and migrated to the crib in the form of the teddy bear. This destination serves as the end point of Pastoureau's study, and while this chapter of the bear's social history is not nearly as interesting as its medieval incarnation (or its Paleolithic one), it does serve to illustrate how far the king of European beasts has fallen.

    Falling, humiliation, abasement: This is the story Pastoureau wants to tell, of a creature that was, in pre-Christian Europe, an exalted double of the human warrior; that in the high Middle Ages was displaced by the lion as the king of beasts; and that by the modern period was best known as a broken, muzzled circus curiosity. By the 14th century, the bear would be "forced to obey not saints or heroes but a mere jongleur or a vulgar animal showman with a monkey on his shoulders or hares popping out of his clothing." Yet throughout its fall into dishonor, Pastoureau believes, the bear remained one of us: Even when it is abased, we see not some poor creature; we see what could easily be our own fate as well.

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