Introducing the Medieval Ass

Author(s) Kathryn L. Smithies

Language: English

Genre(s): History

Series: Medieval Animals

  • September 2020 · 128 pages ·198x129mm

  • · Paperback - 9781786836229
  • · eBook - pdf - 9781786836236
  • · eBook - epub - 9781786836243

About The Book

Introducing the Medieval Ass presents a lucid, accessible, and comprehensive picture of the ass’s enormous socio-economic and cultural significance in the Middle Ages and beyond. In the Middle Ages, the ass became synonymous with human idiocy, a comic figure representing foolish peasants, students too dull to learn, and their asinine teachers. This trope of foolishness was so prevalent that by the eighteenth century the word ‘ass’ had been replaced by ‘donkey’. Economically, the medieval ass was a vital, utilitarian beast of burden, rather like today’s ubiquitous white van; culturally, however, the medieval ass enjoyed a rich, paradoxical reputation. Its hard work was praised, but its obstinacy condemned. It exemplified the good Christian, humbly bearing Christ to Jerusalem, but also represented Sloth, a mortal sin. Its potent sexual reputation – one literary ass had sex with a woman – was simultaneously linked to sterility and, to this day, ‘ass’ and ‘arse’ remain culturally-connected homophones.


'In the medieval world, the ass’s reputation – sacred or profane, derided or acclaimed – was codified in fact, fiction and image. However, unusual its binary nature may seem to the modern-day reader, paradoxical rhetoric was a common feature in medieval beast genres, and the fact that the ass had contesting reputations offers multiple avenues for analysis.' - Read more about this on page 3 of the Booklaunch



‘This lucid and informative book describes the role of the ass in the natural world, in the philosophical reflections and in the literature of the Middle Ages. By combining different scholarly perspectives, it pays an apt tribute to a dumb beast of burden that is also a symbol of true humility.’
-Emeritus Professor Paul Wackers, University of Utrecht

‘If the title seems to announce a narrow subject, Introducing The Medieval Ass offers a rich gallery of surprises from natural history to philosophy and literature. The cultural image of the ass proves to have a versatile history, which Smithies scrutinises in a well-researched, but easily readable study.’
-Professor Baudouin Van den Abeele, Université catholique de Louvain

Listen to Kathryn L. Smithies introduce her book on 'The Other Animals' Podcast 28 minutes in

'We always think of the ass being associated with the poor: it would carry packs and people, turned the millstones, pulled wagons… It was a working animal but every social class took advantage of the ass.'
- Click on the link to read the interview with Alicia Guerrero Yeste and Kathryn Smithies

Click on the link to listen to Kathryn Smithies discuss her book Introducing the Medieval Ass on History Extra Podcast


List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1: The Natural World of the Ass
Chapter 2: The Religious Ass
Chapter 3: The Scholastic Ass
Chapter 4: The Ass in Literature
Post-script: The Medieval Ass in the Post-Medieval Era.

About the Author(s)

Author(s): Kathryn L. Smithies

Kathryn L. Smithies is a medieval historian, and research and teaching associate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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