Category Archives: British

The Early Extinction Date of the Beaver (Castor fiber) in Britain: paper now available

Species: Beaver (Castor fiber)

Source: My paper looks at an exhaustive list of reliable historical documents, selected depending on their reference to other wild species of mammal.

Date: The texts range from  c.1200-1607 in south Britain and 1526-1684 in Scotland. Beavers are only found in those at the start of each period.

Highlights: If beavers were still around in south Britain after 1300 and Scotland after 1600 they must have suddenly started hiding-out.

beaver by river

Photograph of European beaver by Harald Olsen, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

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Is medieval British artwork naturalistic or derivative? : Lions in Insular British Manuscripts

The portrait of St. Mark in the Lichfield (St Chad) Gospel.

The portrait of St. Mark in the Lichfield (St Chad) Gospel.

In 2013 I had an academic paper accepted by the Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture (JLARC). The journal is open access and you can read it here (link to pdf in the right hand column). I found that the manuscript animals were copied from manuscript to manuscript by closeted scribes, and were not based on real animals (e.g. lynxes, cats, wolves).

Species: The manuscript images were all derivative and made up a coherent, although unrealistic tradition of depicting lions (Panthera leo) not lynxes (Lynx lynx), wolves (Canis lupus) or cats (Felis catus; Felis sylvestris).

Source: Some of the oldest manuscripts in Britain: The illuminated gospels.

Date: 650-1000 A.D.

Highlights: One lion, that from the Lichfield (St Chad) Gospel (above) provoked a great deal of interest. It only had the stub of a tail and the scribe’s style made its body looked speckled. However in every other respect the lion was drawn in a derivative way to the mainstream tradition, and the answer is probably that the scribe simply forgot to paint the rest of the lion’s tail.

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Salmon, Sea Eagles and the earliest Welsh story

Atlantic Salmon photo

Atlantic Salmon (S. salar) photographed by Hans-Petter Fjeld, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species: Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) AT WAR.

Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ the oldest native (not imported) Welsh prose story.

Date: The version we have most probably c.1100 A.D., but some plot lines of the story also found mentioned in text from 828 A.D.

Highlights: The supposedly pointless oldest animals episode in Culhwch actually makes perfect sense, if you read it like a medieval person, with a knowledge of the species being discussed.

Click the “more” button below to read this post…

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Mystical Apple Trees in the Black Book of Carmarthen

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris)

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris) by Katy Wrathall licensed under CC-BY-SA-ND.

 Species Mentioned: A series of crab apple trees (Malus sylvestris).

Source: ‘Yr Afallenau’, a series of  Old Welsh prophetic verses found in the Black Book of Carmarthen and Peniarth 3.

Date: Pre-1138. Suggested earliest form c.800-899 A.D., but little evidence for this.

Highlights: Myrddin the Mad is the literary inspiration for THE Merlin you’ve heard about. He goes to live in the woods and gives prophecies to a series of apple trees. He believes some of these are magic and they hide him from “his enemies” (possibly just friends trying to get him to come down from that tree and put some clothes on.)

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Seagulls (Larus argentatus?) in ‘Canu Taliesin’ (The Singing of Taliesin)

Herring Gulls

Herring gulls drinking, picture taken by John Haslam and licensed for use under CC 2.0.

Species Mentioned: A group of  less than stellar warriors are compared with a flock of mewling seagulls (Larus argentatus). Sorry guys.

Source: A poem by the historical Taliesin, one of the most famous Welsh bards ever to live. This is impressive since (i) he may not have been Welsh (ii) he would have taken offence at the term ‘bard’ (iii) he may never have existed.

Date of Source: Traditionally c.550-600, but perhaps centuries later.

Highlights: The comparison with seagulls is not a flattering one for the Cumbrian heroes but Taliesin tells it like it is: ‘They didn’t fight well, there’s no point denying it’. Ouch.

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Sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) in ‘Canu Heledd’ (the Singing of Heledd)


sea eagle fishing

Sea eagle by Jacob Spinks. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Species mentioned: Two bloodthirsty white tailed (sea) eagles (H. albicilla).

Source: ‘Canu Heledd’, a depressing but beautiful Welsh cycle of poetry.

Date of Source: Most likely c.850-900 A.D. but uncertain. Manuscript date: 1250.

Highlights: eagles eat the carrion of dead soldiers. Two eagles in particular seem to embody the genius loci (spirit of the place) where they live. They are seen in coastal woods, eating carrion and fish like real life sea eagles.

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