Perceptive Beavers: How Science Challenged the Myth

By Rebecca H.

The English Renaissance reveals a significant change in approaches to anatomy and artistic realism.  Science changed from a theoretical science to a more methodological process. The ideas of Francis Bacon became the standard for researchers who used his scientific method to challenge common myths (Fudge 92).  In the Baconian way of thinking, “tangible proof becomes central and the methods of experimentation are used to avoid the potential failings of the human mind acting alone” (Fudge 92).  Experiments became accepted as factual evidence more than popular beliefs.  A clear example of this move toward actuary science and representation is the image of  “The Hunted Beaver”.   Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 6.52.21 PM
Prior to the Renaissance, images of animals were not always anatomically correct.  This image demonstrates the changes the Renaissance brought to the artistic depiction of beavers. Beavers were commonly depicted as dogs, but this image shows the shift toward realism in the visible difference between the dogs and beaver (Acheson 36).  This illustration shows the shorter legs and tail that differentiates the beaver from the dogs.  Another indicator of the move toward realism is the presence of water in the picture: the natural habitat of beavers (Acheson 36).  Previous illustrations of Aesop’s fables depicted the animals in androgynous scenes.  The move toward artistic realism was facilitated by anatomical discoveries. 
The story behind the image demonstrates the importance of anatomical knowledge. While Aesop’s fables were written previous to the Renaissance, they were still hunted and the subjects of poetry and paintings.  Beavers were hunted for the medicinal purposes of their testicles and the fable claimed that beavers would bite off their testicles to save their lives (Acheson 33-34).  During the Renaissance, beavers were hunted for their testicles that contained the castoreum used as a painkiller.  In 1688, Claude Perrault’s journal shows the impossibility of a beaver biting off its testicles.  Perrault describes the dissection of a beaver in which it was discovered, “the testicles of the Castor are concealed in the Groins” (Perrault 87).  There were “four great pouches fixed underneath the Os Pubis,” two of which were sacs for holding the castoreum (Perrault 86).  Using the scientific method, scientists realized it was impossible for beavers to bite off their testicles because they were under the skin and, furthermore; castoreum did not come from the testicle, but separate sacs. 
This discovery challenged what Early Modern people believed about beavers.  In the fable, the beaver knows why he is being hunted and knows what to do to survive.  Beavers were given human reasoning, and the lines between human and animal were blurred.   Learning the anatomy of beavers gave humans the power of understanding and the perceived capabilities of beavers were no longer believed.  Francis Bacon believed, “[h]uman knowledge and human power meet in one,” and the new knowledge about beavers returned the ability to act on danger back to humans (Fudge 93).  Thus, anatomical knowledge changed people’s perceptions of beavers and how they were depicted.    
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Rebecca is a junior studying English Literature at Ball State University.  Through this performing humanity project, she has learned how interest in animal and human relations spurred science and art movements. 
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Image: Barlow, Francis. “The Hunted Beaver.” Illustration. (1666). “THE PICTURE OF NATURE: 
Seventeenth-Century English Aesop’s Fables”.  JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2014.
Acheson, Katherine. “THE PICTURE OF NATURE: Seventeenth-Century English Aesop’s Fables.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9.2 (2009): 25-50. JSTOR. Web. 1 May. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20798268>.
Fudge, Erica. “Calling Creatures by their True Names: Bacon, The New Science and the Beast in Man.”  At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies and Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period.  Eds. Erica Fudge, Ruth Gilbert, Susan Wiseman. Basingstoke: Macmillan (1999):  91-109.  
Perrault, Claude. “Memoir’s for a Natural History of Animals: Containing the Anatomical Descriptions of Several Creatures Dissected by the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris”.  Science and Technology, (2011): 83-90. University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.  Web. 1 May 2014.  <http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/HistSciTech.Perrault>.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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