Animals have escaped into the museum! We have to find them before they damage any delicate artefacts! Right? Animals don’t belong in museums! 

… Or so you would think! It turns out that some of our domestic animals have actually been hiding around our exhibitions this whole time. It makes a bit more sense when you think about the fact that animals have been alongside us since we domesticated them as early as 10,000 years ago. Since then we have enjoyed them as food, as company and as transport and so it stands to reason that they made lasting a lasting impression on our culture throughout history.   

Therefore we can use the collection of animals we have in our museum to teach us a little bit about how people in the area of Jarrow and St Pauls Monastery felt about their animals throughout time, as well as what they were used for.  

Anglo-Saxon Period

To learn about animals in the Anglo-Saxon period, we can use the writings of the Venerable St Bede who was a great historian during the later period; he wrote a lot about how the Anglo-Saxons divided up the year with months dedicated to farming practices. November was known as the Blood Month, where cattle were brought in to slaughter and meat was prepared for the coming winter, while May was known as the Milking Month or the Month of Three Milkings where the cattle grazed so much on the spring grass that they could be milked three times. 

As such, we know that Anglo-Saxons relied a lot on their animals- but the animal in our museum go even further in telling us about their significance- beyond just food and farming. 

These fragments were found at St Pauls Monastery like many other items in the collection. They were part of the delicate and detailed stone friezes which would have decorated the church building. Birds were particularly important to the Anglo-Saxons – they would have kept ducks and chickens for meat and eggs, although these birds would have had more differences in size and colour as of course our standard modern breeds were not yet developed. Yet the bird in our collection shows that they also had religious importance. 

 Before Christianity, birds were associated with the Anglo-Saxon pagan God Woden (similar to Odin) as he was accompanied by ravens in the mythology. As such, the pagans thought that birds were messengers to the Gods and that they could predict the future. 

Birds and Christianity

After the spread of Christianity in Britain, many Christians combined their existing art and culture with their new religion. This is seen in Bede’s writings as he tells the story of King Edward’s decision to fully become a Christian where a bird is central to the story. As the tale goes, King Edward of Northumbria was considering converting to Christianity but only decided to fully leave behind his pagan Gods due to a story told by one of his chief men; where he tells a tale of a sparrow in winter- briefly flying into a warm building and then out again. He explains that a man’s life is like this sparrow- he is comfortable and secure when he is alive but it is so short and small compared to what we can’t understand: the ‘cold unknown’ of what was before our life or what comes after. He reasons that if the new religion of Christianity gives a better understanding and more information of this unknown then it is only right to adopt it. King Edward agrees with this and then decides to become a Christian. Bede tries to use this story in order to teach people why Christianity was better than the old religions, and he uses the metaphor of the bird as a symbol that people would have already been aware of in the culture. 

This shows how although birds were no longer a literal messenger to the Gods, their importance remained as a sort of symbol of faith, and an important religious teaching tool in Christian Anglo-Saxon England. 

 The bird as a symbol that represents both old and new Anglo-Saxon culture is further shown in the craftsmanship of our object. Although it was found at St Pauls’s Monastery, which was originally built in a very Roman style, the bird has a more pre-Christian/ Celtic shape which was unusual as it did not fit into that type of architecture. Therefore, even as Christianity took over the land, animals such as birds remained important in the lives and culture of Anglo Saxons 

Medieval Period

People during Medieval times used their animals in some similar ways to the Anglo-Saxons- primarily for food, clothes and farming. However, animals were also heavily featured in popular culture such as tales and bestiaries.  

Horses in particular were very significant in medieval times as riding animals- not just as transport but for war and sport as well. This is seen in the fact that people told horses apart by how they were used rather than by being a specific breed. For example, one of the most famous medieval horses was the Destrier, which was known for its speed and strength that was prized by knights for war and jousting. However, horses would have looked slightly different than today- they were smaller and would not have yet developed distinctively into the modern breeds we recognise. 

Horse’s Head Corbel 
Horse’s Head Corbel 

This horse here may look a little intimidating at first- but it is only because they held a very important place in part of church.  It would probably have been one of a pair looking down on a cloister as corbel (a decorative stone corner joining the roof and wall).

Most likely, it was part of the rebuilding of the Monastery around 1074 that took place around the medieval period. Aidwin, Prior of Winchcombe, was inspired by life and work of St Bede to restore the abandoned monastery to its ‘former glory’. This rebuilt monastery was probably quite intricate, as it would have contained meaningful designs such as the horse head carving, beyond just a general foundation of a church. 

What do you think? 

So, we hope that now you’ve seen our animals inside the museum, you can agree that they are just as cool and curious as our animals outside of the museum. Both our animals in our Anglo-Saxon gwyre (farm) and on display can tell us about what life was like around St Paul’s monastery in the past and how our relationship to our most beloved animals has changed over time. Please do keep a look out for them the next time you go around the museum and see how they compare to the way we think about our animals today! 

Written by volunteer Maria Ciortea

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