The Bear: History of a Fallen King by Michel Pastoureau (Translated by George Holoch) - review by Christopher Lavers

Christopher Lavers

Where is the Bear?

The Bear: History of a Fallen King


Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 343pp £22.95

Enquire of British children about the King of Beasts, and they will know to talk about the lion. That is odd: ever since humans have lived in Britain, lions haven’t. Ancient Britons would have had to travel a long way to see a lion, would have had no obvious reason to go, and probably would not have got there. So why is the lion king?

It wasn’t always. For many of our forefathers, the brown bear was king. Bears may even have been worshipped by some European peoples, though prehistorians disagree on this. But whichever role the bear took in our ancestors’ imaginings, the animal was respected. No doubt it was also feared. The Romans in their depravity liked to see the bear and the lion fight, though they soon got bored of the spectacle because the bear always won. It is sensible to fear bears.

In later medieval times respect turned to suspicion, and then intolerance. Venerating mere animals was not Christian, and celebrating them with feast-days out of the question. The persecution of bears began straightforwardly, with slaughter. Charlemagne organised huge massacres in the late eighth century and other nobles piously followed his example.

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