Narwhals or Unicorns?

“We should not project onto the past that which relates to our present day knowledge, conceptions or taxonomies”
– Pastoureau (1999)

Recent research into human-animal relationships in the Middle Ages has stressed the importance of acknowledging medieval systems of classification, rather than using those developed by Linnaeus and others in the 18th century. Animals were conceptualised differently in the past than in the present, and one cannot map the taxonomic paradigms of the latter onto the former. In medieval European writings, animals were broadly classified according to their elemental status: birds to air, whales to water, etc… This ordering of the natural world was inherited from Classical tradition and was reflected in religious art, alongside other systems of distinguishing and grouping animals such as in terms of behaviour, ownership, function and edibility.

The presence of live exotica from the 11th to the 15th centuries across medieval Europe is predominantly indicated by written sources, although archaeological remains can occasional be found to support these. With the exception of monkeys and non-indigenous birds that were owned by individuals, the majority of live exotica were housed in a limited number of royal, seigneurial or civic premises, which since the 18th century have been referred to as ‘menageries’. The most popular animals maintained by these facilities were the large felids – lions, leopards and cheetahs – whilst others such as elephants, polar bears and porcupines were less frequently encountered. Rabbits and fallow deer, which were introduced, managed and bred on a huge scale in western Europe, can be differentiated from such exotica in that they represent the deliberate and widespread introduction of foreign species fully incorporated into the practical elements of, in this case, elite hunting culture, rather than maintained in ecological isolation solely for the sake of ownership and social display.

Body parts, which were embellished rather than modified and retained many morphological features, may imply that the identity of the animal to whom they had originally belonged was important. Skins of exotic species such as leopard were transported from outside Europe via major Mediterranean outlets such as Majorca, Valencia and Lisbon through to northern Europe. Feathers are likewise documented in written and artistic sources. Horn-shaped objects are more frequently preserved in archaeological contexts, elephant, walrus and narwhal tusks and horns of bison and aurochs all being extant. These were used for display and a range of ceremonial activities in both secular and religious contexts.

Raw materials, those derived from exotic animals but which retained few diagnostic traits, were processed into artefacts. The most common raw material was ivory. The specific animal origins of ivory was not always recorded, although there is no reason to doubt that traders and artisans were aware of the differences, evident from shape, size and texture of tusks. Consumers would have recognised the materials, but even if they were able to or inclined to identify the source species, the removal of the distinct morphological traits shifted the focus from the animal to the subject of the new product.

Case Study: Narwhal Tusk into Unicorn Horn

The narwhal tusk is an elongated left upper incisor found in the jaws of adult males (and exceptionally females), which can grow up to 3m in length. Restricted to Arctic waters, the largest population, and almost certainly the primary source for medieval western markets, was located in the waters around Greenland, most likely Baffin Bay and Kane Basin. The extend of medieval narwhal hunting is difficult to gauge, but was probably infrequent and dangerous. Fragments of narwhal are rare in archaeological contexts.

Transported via major trade routes across the Atlantic, they reached the British Isles, Scandinavia and the Baltic. In this new cultural context they were appropriated as unicorn horns. Seigneurial interest in unicorn products for visual display is illustrated by documents recording the feast given in honour of Margaret of York and Charles the Bold of Burgundy in 1468. These describe unicorn horns being placed on the sideboard. As recognised wards against poisoning, one function of these objects may have been to discourage assassination. Narwhal tusks were also used in the staffs and crosiers of ecclesiastical personages.

Western knowledge of the narwhal as an animals appears to have been restricted to Scandinavian mercantile and courtly circles, the origin being obscured by subsequent exchanges. As narwhal tusks they were, therefore, culturally redundant. Their new identity as unicorn horn was deliberately constructed and maintained.


In an important sense, animals are human constructions. Interpretations offered by archaeologists concerning human interactions with animals in the past represent a hermeneutic compromise between current and past understandings of the natural world. The integration of present and past taxonomies is one example of this process.


Pluskowski, A. 2004. Narwhals or unicorns? Exotic animals as material culture in medieval Europe. European Journal of Archaeology 7 (3): 291-313


One response to “Narwhals or Unicorns?

  1. Pingback:   Narwhals or Unicorns? by swiftda

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