Medievalista (Jan 2021)

Medieval Naturalia

  • Chantal Stein



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The nascent global age at the close of the Middle Ages introduced exotic objects from distant lands into Western Europe. Exotica from the natural world – naturalia – were frequently fashioned into ecclesiastical and seigniorial artifacts and housed in treasuries. The materials were sometimes re-identified in their new contexts, such as narwhal tusks understood as unicorn horns, which bestowed upon them additional meanings associated with those allegorical mythical creatures. This work investigates the movement, alteration, and use of such re-identified naturalia in late medieval society leading up to the Age of Discovery. It focuses on naturalia that retained their distinct morphological features after working, following the hypothesis that the identity of the animal, as indexed by a recognizable form or set of physical characteristics, was important. It additionally considers symbolic connotations and occult properties deriving from allegorization of matter to study the role played by the ornamentation of naturalia. This paper explores the discourse between extant tangible objects and contemporary texts such as bestiaries, lapidaries, and alchemical compendia to examine how the iconography of the artifact’s form and the iconology of the ornamentation contributed to the overall signification of the naturalia.