Despite Mediaeval – and also contemporary – Christian anthropocentrism, a concealed, subversive, animalistic spark smouldered in Christianity during the Middle Ages, pleading the cause of animals. Members of this movement included, for example, St John of Chrysostom and St Basil of Caesaria, both in the 4th century (R. Ryder, 2000). In that process, some of them such as, for example, St Francis of Assisi, still did not manage fully to prevail over their own Christian anthropocentrism (cf. P. Singer, 1975; A. Linzey, 1994).
Nonetheless, these were the thinkers who undermined the monolithic nature of the Church’s views and the scala naturae that placed Man at the very hierarchical peak, which has been maintained right up to the present day, immortalised by the authority of St Thomas Aquinas, who re-established the Aristotelian view of human superiority over nonhuman animals and Nature, or, in his words: ‘According to the Divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves, but for man’ (Summa Theologica, II, Question 64. Murder, Article 1).
Drawing upon several years experience as curator of a small zoological museum, I propose to trace the roots of modern taxonomy,via Linnaeus, back to the Middle Ages, to the first evidence of a movement away from the influences of Aristotle and Christian theology and towards an empirical, objective approach to living organisms. Exemplifying this will be the writings of Albertus Magnus and his followers, and the works of Friedrich the Second of Hohenstaufen as accurate systematic observations of the natural world (e.g. his book on falconry). Thus the reputation of medieval thought as derivative and theologically dominated may be reconsidered.
The depiction of nature and animals in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry both decorate and illuminate the narrative. They also show the influence of Byzantine, Scandinavian, and Anglo-Saxon art in the design of the Tapestry. The animals are also derived from many sources such as the fables of Aesop and Marie de France. They have a life of their own outside the main narrative of the embroidery.