Man has endeavoured to tame beasts from time immemorial. More frequent still, beasts used to be caged and displayed, be it as a gift. Far from being a mere object of curiosity – or study – caged beasts become especially significant when you consider the social rank and political prestige of their proud owners. Historians are interested in taking that perspective, for such connections are very telling in terms of ideological and symbolic behaviour. More generally, caged beasts provide precious evidence to ponder the question of otherness.
Attitudes towards animals went through many evolutions during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What species were offered as presents by ambassadors or else aristocrats varied a great deal depending on periods, places or social hierarchy. Wild boars, bears and lions were the obvious choice in the Middle Ages, but not so at the dawn of the Renaissance, when a growing variety of animals from Africa, Asia or simply Europe were offered to grandees.The polar bear King Henry III was offered had made a strong impression when bathing in the Thames. From the sixteenth century onwards, the discovery of the Americas meant even more exotic animals could be introduced to Europe.
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