“The Forgotten Beasts in Medieval Britain: a study of extinct fauna in medieval sources” Ph.D thesis by Lee Raye

Over the course of my September posts on extinct species in Ireland, the importance of archaeology and literary scholarship in determining which species have been extant in Ireland is striking. I came across this in Kieran Hickey’s Wolves in Ireland, with its analysis of medieval trade records in pelts.

Via Medievalists.Net, I came across this 2016 Ph.D. thesis from Cardiff University by Lee Raye

Here is Raye’s summary:

This thesis identifies and discusses historical and literary sources describing four
species in the process of reintroduction: lynx (Lynx lynx), large whale (esp. Eubalena
glacialis), beaver (Castor fiber) and crane (Grus grus). The scope includes medieval and
early modern texts in English, Latin, and Welsh written in Britain before the species
went extinct. The aims for each species are: (i) to reconstruct the medieval cultural
memory; (ii) to contribute a cohesive extinction narrative; and (iii) to catalogue and
provide an eco-sensitive reading of the main historical and literary references. Each
chapter focuses on a different species:

1. The chapter on lynxes examines some new early references to the lynx and
argues that the species became extinct in south Britain c.900 AD. Some hardto-reconcile seventeenth century Scottish accounts are also explored.

2. The chapter on whales attributes the beginning of whale hunting to the ninth
century in Britain, corresponding with the fish event horizon; but suggests a
professional whaling industry only existed from the late medieval period.

3. The chapter on beavers identifies extinction dates based on the increasingly
confused literary references to the beaver after c.1300 in south Britain and
after c.1600 in Scotland, and the increase in fur importation.

4. The chapter on cranes emphasises the mixed perception of the crane
throughout the medieval and early modern period. Cranes were simultaneously
depicted as courtly falconers’ birds, greedy gluttons, and vigilant soldiers.

More generally, the thesis considers the levels of reliability between eyewitness accounts and animal metaphors. It examines the process of ‘redelimitation’ which is triggered by population decline, whereby nomenclature and concepts attached to one species become transferred to another. Finally, it emphasises geographical determinism: species generally become extinct in south Britain centuries before Scotland.

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