In Pictures: Medieval Elephants

Kate Wiles | Published 09 March 2015


Trade routes across the medieval world were wide-ranging, even during the Anglo-Saxon period, with manuscripts showing inks made from materials as far-reaching as lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan. However, that does not mean that exotic animals like elephants were anything more than a myth for most manuscript producers of medieval England.

In 1255, though, the first elephant, a gift from Louis IX of France, arrived in England and was kept in Henry III’s menagerie in the Tower of London. It was the first elephant in Britain since the invasion of the Emperor Claudius in AD 43.

After this, pictorial representations of elephants produced in England became more accurate as people flocked to see it, including the chronicler Matthew Paris who both described and drew it. Visitors could see first-hand that, for example, elephants had knees, debunking the long-held belief that they slept standing, leaning against a tree, because they had no knees to help them up from the ground.

All images from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.


The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5