The Bear History of a Fallen King, Michel Pastoureau (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 2011) translated from the French by George Holoch.
I found this an interesting book for several reasons. It is only marginally about real flesh and blood bears. It is a subject historians do not ordinarily spend much time pursuing (the history of animals), and it deals with periods of time about which I know very little. Similarly, it might as well have been sub-titled Bears versus the Catholic Church, something I would never have thought of at all until I read this book. The author is a cultural historian specializing, I believe, in the Middle Ages.
I knew, of course, there was a long history of the association of bears with humans. I had read A. Irving Hallowell’s work on Bear Ceremonialism in the Americas, and I was also aware of the importance of the bear among the Ainu, the ancient people of Japan. This work deals primarily with bears as they appear in European folklore, myths, ceremonies, the iconography and hagiography of the Middle Ages and somewhat before. It is obviously exceedingly well researched, the author clearly has command of the relevant materials, and it is a fine job.
Reduced to the bare essentials, bears, prior to about the year 1000, were thought of as closely related to humans, and were considered to be the king of the animals, as such they featured in rituals that more often than not had a religious connotation. They were the largest and fiercest animals on the European continent. They were also quite humanlike in their behavior as they could stand on their hind legs, use their paws much like hands, be taught to dance and do other tricks, they were omnivores, and in general resembled humans more than any other creatures. More importantly, in the folklore and myths of the time they were (erroneously) believed to engage in ventral/ventral copulation like humans and to lust after young women. There were many stories about bears capturing young women, taking them off to their dens and raping them, thus producing offspring that were part human, part animal. It was also believed that women were sexually attracted to them, partly because hair was believed to be sexually attractive to women. Bears, in short, had a mythical god-like aura and were venerated in different ways.
With the rise of Christianity, Catholicism, this came to pose a serious problem for the Church which could not tolerate animals, especially bears, to be compared with humans and worshipped. Thus the Church began a movement to not only eliminate bears by encouraging them to be deliberately killed, but also to insure they could not have a place in any way equal to humans. Bears that had been for centuries considered kings were now portrayed as inferior to humans. There were many stories of how bears had been dominated by Saints and had come to serve them in different capacities, as companions, beasts of burden, and helpers of various kinds, always because of the superiority of Saints that made it possible for them to overcome and make bears do their bidding. At the same time the Church was working constantly to get people to abandon their various forms of bear worship and trying to destroy any idea that bears were like humans. Bears were common in the menageries kept by Kings and came to lose their mystique and reputation.
After many years of this, and beginning about the year 1000, the lion slowly became considered the king of beasts. Where the bear had been featured on family crests, flags, banners, seals, and so on, they were slowly replaced with images of lions. Where formerly a man was ideally to prove his manhood by besting a clever and vicious bear in hand-to-hand combat, this theme disappeared and bears came to be seen as rather slow, dumb, obese, awkward creatures, that were no match for humans at all. Bears were demeaned, turned into entertainers, dancing, and doing tricks for people, greedily consuming sweets given to them, and acting as all around entertainers. Their position in the animal kingdom fell below that of stags, boars, eagles, and most other creatures.
And so it was that after hundreds of years the Church managed to replace the bear as king with the lion (that did not have the same human features as bears and were foreign to Europe as well). The destruction of the bear as quasi-human was very successful and bears even to this day are thought of as clowns rather than as kings. The bear mystique was always much stronger in Northern Europe than in the South, apparently because there were more bears in the North and they were much larger than those in the South (apparently these smaller bears were found as far south as Tunisia).
Pastoureau suggests the bear may have achieved a measure of revenge with the creation of the Teddy Bear, now beloved by children everywhere. As you may know this creation came about after an incident in which Teddy Roosevelt, an avid hunter, refused to shoot a tethered bear, saying that had he done so he would not have been able to look his children in the eyes. A family that had as their business making stuffed animals made a bear, asked the White House if they could call it a Teddy Bear, received permission, and the result, as you know, has been a monumental success.
There is, of course, much more to The Bear than I have been able to cover here. If you are interested in folk tales, hagiography, iconography, and the literature of the Middle Ages, you will find this book of more than merely passing interest.