Animals > Bears & Mandrakes
This late medieval oak panel depicts a bear and a hooded man (the bear master) dancing round a post, whilst behind them two dogs are jumping up at another post. The pillar shafts are chip-carved resembling the diamond pattern commonly found on early bedposts and staircases. The chip-carving on either side of the panel is the familiar dog-tooth design.
The subject of the panel is bear-baiting, a popular sport in the Middle Ages. A 16th-century bear-baiting post still stands outside The Queen’s Head public house near the town hall in Newark, Nottinghamshire. As a performing animal the bear would wear a collar round its neck. When chained to a post such bears were forced to ward off hunting dogs that were sent in to goad the creature into a fury. Bets were placed as to which animal would win the contest. A grizzly end for one or more of the animals was certain, but the sport provided great entertainment for the spectators. The bear was sometimes muzzled as well as chained; because of this subjugation it came to represent in Christian allegory a person whose natural desires were kept under control.
Bears can be found in an ecclesiastical context on misericords and other parts of choir stalls, but this little figure, also wearing a collar, was more probably part of a heraldic device. It was once painted and the scratched-out detail of the fur can still be clearly seen. Its smooth, worn surface recalls the lore of the medieval bestiaries which, in describing the birth of a bear’s cubs, relates that they are born in a formless mess that the mother has to lick into shape, an activity that has given rise to the common phrase. For the Church this mirrored the Christian’s ability to reform human nature by licking the world into shape.
The bestiaries also state that bears die from eating the fruit of the mandrake plant unless they quickly eat a pawful of ants before the poison has had time to work.
The mandrake is a long-leaved plant with small bell-shaped flowers that eventually fruit into small orange-coloured berries known as Satan’s apples, which give off a strong apple scent. These are the berries that the medieval bear found irresistible and lethal.
Various superstitions were associated with the mandrake. It was believed that anyone trying to uproot the plant would have to endure its piercing shrieks of resistance. Harvesters were, therefore, advised to starve a dog for several days, tie it to the plant and then throw down a piece of meat. As the ravenous dog leapt towards the meat the mandrake was uprooted while the harvester blocked his ears, though the dog usually died from fear. This performance was worthwhile for all but the dog as the root had many uses.
From classical times onwards the root was used as an anaesthetic when it was given to patients to chew before an operation. The root of the mandrake is 3 or 4 foot long, sometimes single, sometimes forked, roughly resembling the human form. For the superstitious the root was carved into small figures to be kept in the house to bring prosperity and good fortune to the occupants and to aid fecundity in a woman. The Bible refers to Leah acquiring mandrakes so that she would more readily conceive Jacob’s child.
In the Elizabethan/Jacobean period the mandrake, known also as mandragora, was used as a narcotic. Cleopatra, in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, says:-
Give me to drink mandragora...
That I might sleep out this great gap of time
My Antony is away.
However, in some places by the 17th century possession of the mandrake root aroused suspicions of witchcraft. In France and Germany various women were executed or hanged for harbouring the root.
On this panel the mandrake clearly has a life of its own. It is part human, part plant, and is warding off evil spirits in the form of a serpent in the manner of a Christian saint. It is a good example of the way ancient pagan beliefs were subtly assimilated into Christian life and symbolism.