Rare beasts, birds, and the calaboose
The Paris Review
It was New Year’s Eve 1764, and John Wesley—founding father of Methodism, horseback proselytizer, teetotaler—stood before the structure now known as the Tower of London, accompanied by a flautist, who was, in turn, accompanied by his flute. Wesley had traveled to this sprawling complex in the hope of testing a hypothesis. Could music soothe the most savage of beasts? If it did, Wesley might clear up a burning theological ambiguity—the question of whether nonhuman animals had souls. With his contracted companion in tow, he marched through the tower, determined to find some big cats and to smother them with song.
Zoos, as we know them today, did not exist in Wesley’s lifetime—the zoological garden is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Even the London Zoo, one of the oldest “scientific” outdoor sites for animal rehoming, opened six decades after his tower trip. If Wesley wished to glean the spirituality of lions firsthand, the infamous citadel, all arched cages and grilles, was his best bet in England. (Spoiler: the reaction to a live flute performance was mostly lukewarm—only one out of five lions stirred and stood up on all fours—not quite what our preacher had been hankering for.)
For those unfamiliar with the capricious usage history of the Tower of London, it might be hard to imagine parts of the site used as a full-blown menagerie—one that lasted about six hundred years. But through its almost thousand-year history, the place has morphed like a sort of Room of Requirement, having served variously as a palace, a public-record office, an armory, a torture chamber, a private ground for beheadings, and the Royal Mint. Its most recent incarnation is as a magnet for jewel-ogling, cash-happy tourists. Today the tower’s official website reflects this diversity—it includes a Peasants’ Revolt Quiz (“Are you revolting?”), details on venue hire for weddings, and an e-shop peddling miniature armor and replica Lionheart shields.
By most accounts, the tower’s menagerie began roughly in 1204, during the reign of King John. His was not the first of its kind in England—his predecessor, Henry I, had kept lynxes and leopards in Woodstock. In fact, from at least as far back as the eighth century, menageries were all the rage among Europe’s elite, adjoined to stately courts as private sites of spectacle and amusement. There was Emperor Charlemagne, King of the Franks, whose three menageries brimmed with tokens of diplomatic benevolence: falcons and monkeys, lions and camels, a Numidian bear, and an Asian elephant delivered straight from the caliph of Baghdad. There was Otto I of Germany, with his anthology of ostriches and apes, who gleefully accepted an Easter shipment of two lions in 910. There was the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, whose prized giraffe—sent by an Egyptian sultan, along with a set of Mongol prisoners—wandered daily through his agora. In an aggressive hierarchy of potentates, it was to one’s advantage to collect exotic and rarefied creatures, to arrange them like strange, expensive ornaments. The fact they’d been obtained at all signaled a ruler’s influence in foreign territories; their very aliveness suggested vigilant maintenance by staff and slaves.
King John would have made a shrewd branding man. While the particulars of crating and transport are foggy, it’s almost certain the tower’s first-ever lion—a real-life embodiment of the Royal Arms of England—arrived on his watch. Like all medieval mascots, the lion was prized for its symbolic value, for qualities abstracted and then co-opted: it was a golden, hairy allegory, an emblem of the monarchy’s might. As William Harvey wrote, without a hint of irony, in an early history of the Tower Menagerie, “When we speak of a lion, we call up to our imaginations the splendid picture of might unmingled with ferocity, of courage undebased by guile, of dignity tempered with grace and ennobled by generosity.”
Lions were a big hit in the English court, even if no one really knew what to do with them. (In some cases, observers weren’t sure if they were lions at all. Later accounts suggest early lions were actually leopards.) Their treatment was predictably and heart-wrenchingly cruel: In 1240, the keeper William de Botton was given fourteen shillings to buy “chains and other things” that limited in-cage movement. Around the same time the cats were moved to a two-story “Lion Tower” where their movements were restricted to cramped enclosures, upstairs in daylight, downstairs at night. A few centuries later, James I would construct a platform from which he and his pals could watch staged fights between lions and dogs. (Conversely, on the tower website, a copywriter puts a hopeful spin on the care of a Norwegian polar bear: “One of the luckiest animals in the tower … [it was] given a long leash so it could swim in the river Thames and catch fish.” The reality is more sobering: while the ivory beast was allowed to fish for free food—largely a cost-cutting measure—it did so while muzzled and strung along an iron chain.)
The geographic origins of the tower’s first creatures are murky, the paperwork long destroyed. Radiocarbon dating indicates some genesis stories with certainty; we know, for instance, that two of the earliest lions shared the mitochondrial DNA haplotype of the Barbary subspecies, formerly native to North Africa. Historians have attempted to fill the other bits. In early years, most live exports likely came from North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, from the Islamic trans-Saharan trade or from spice routes—overland and maritime—that connected ports like Antioch and Alexandria. They might even, as the zoologist Caroline Grigson suggests, have been brought across Europe by Genoese and Venetian merchants, who swapped live beasts for woolen cloth at the great northern fairs of Calais and Flanders and Brabant.
More interesting, perhaps, is how they were perceived upon reaching London’s white-walled compound. These were convoluted times in human-animal relations. In medieval and early modern Europe, animals were the subject of superstitions and myths, both sentient and subservient to man. They were afforded a moral compass today’s domesticated pets are not, and even—this is true—put on trial for their crimes in specialist courts and assigned human defense attorneys. A fabled instance occurred in Savigny, France, in 1457. A hearing was scheduled after a sow and six piglets were said to have killed a small child. Eight bystanders testified, eventually admitting that, while they had seen the sow engage in physical assault, the piglets—though nearby—weren’t certain to have been involved. The judge put the sow to death and exonerated the piglets, both on technical grounds, as there were no real witnesses, and because of their relative youngness.
One medieval encyclopedia, The Bestiary, or The Book of Beasts, is testament to the citizenry’s innate desire to understand other creatures, whether real or fictitious. On the subject of mice, a twelfth-century version upheld, “The liver of these creatures gets bigger at full moon.” Elephants are recorded as having a lifespan of three centuries, and little desire to copulate. The panther, the same text explains, decamps post-meal to a private den. “After three days it wakes up again and emits a loud belch, and there comes a very sweet smell from its mouth, like the smell of all-spice.” There are quick, Tweet-like bursts of healthcare advice embedded, too—beaver testicles are praised for medicinal qualities, a lion’s ill health can be remedied by digesting a monkey whole. To lions, there are devoted several pages of wisdom: “A lion turns up its nose at yesterday’s dinner, and will go away hungry from food which has been left over”; “they fear the creaking of wheels, but are frightened by fires even more”; “they prey on men rather than on women.” On copulating weasels, it was written: “Some say they conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth. On the other hand, others declare they conceive by mouth and give birth by ear.”