Gerald of Wales on the Beaver

There’s quite a bit more interest in beavers among the readers of the Virtual Stoa than I think I had anticipated. So, to attempt to sate your demand for round-the-clock beaver-blogging, here’s chapter 19 of Gerald of Wales’s 12th century classic, The History and Topography of Ireland (which featured in the Virtual Stoa eighteen months ago). Don’t be misled, by the way, by his remark about how “Ireland has badgers but not beavers” into wondering why the beaver features in a book about Ireland. It’s not that kind of book. It’s not the bit about the testicles, that I clearly misremembered in comments below. Perhaps that’s Pliny, or some Roman writer.

The beaver and its nature

Beavers use a similar contrivance of nature [to that of badgers, discussed earlier – Ed.]. When they are building their homes in the rivers, they use slaves of their own kind as carts, and so by this wonderful means of transport pull and drag lengths of wood from the forests to the waters. In both kinds of animal (badger and beaver) the slaves are distinguished by a certain inferiority of shape and a worn bare patch upon their backs.

Ireland has badgers but not beavers. In Wales beavers are to be found only in the Teifi river near Cardigan. They are, in the same way, scarce in Scotland.

One should remark that beavers have wide tails, spread out like the palm of the human hand, and not long. They use them as oars in swimming. And while the whole of the rest of their body is very furry, they are entirely free from fur on this part, and are quire bare and slippery like a seal. Consequently in Germany and the northern regions, where beavers are plentiful, great and holy men eat the tails of beavers during fasting times – as being fish, since, as they say, they partake of the nature of fish both in taste and colour.

But about these and their nature, how and with what skill they build their settlements in the middle of rivers, and how, when pressed by an enemy, by the loss of a part they save the whole – a contrivance most commendable in an animal – will be more fully explained when we come to deal with the geography and description of Wales and Scotland, and the origin and nature of the people of each. We shall find another opportunity of doing this, and to another purpose, with God’s help and if life be spared…

[Gerald of Wales snippet from the Penguin ed., translated by John O’Meara, pp.48-9.]

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