University of Nottingham: Leonardo’s bear sheds light on history of bears in European culture

A beautiful sketch of a bear’s head by Leonardo da Vinci goes up for auction at Christie’s in London this week. Described as ‘one of the most important works from the Renaissance still in private hands’, the drawing is expected to fetch at least £12 million.

But Leonardo’s ‘Head of a Bear’ has more to it than a hefty price tag, aesthetic merits and a substantial art historical pedigree, says University of Nottingham archaeologist, Dr Hannah O’Regan. Bears provide a long-overlooked insight into the everyday cultural world of the so-called ‘Renaissance’ and reminds us of the place of animals in a history we so often think of as human.

Hannah’s collaborative research project, Box Office Bears, is focusing on the medieval and post-medieval period when Leonardo da Vinci was working. It brings together archaeologists and literary and cultural historians to learn more about the origins, experiences, and importance of this animal in Tudor and Stuart England.

Sackerson the most famous bear at a bear-baiting match in a bear garden in England (circa 17th century) from the Works of William Shakespeare. Vintage etching circa mi
As the excitement builds before this historic Leonardo auction, Hannah and her co-researcher Dr Callan Davies from Roehampton University, paint the following picture of the rich history of bears in western culture which could have inspired the great Italian master to portray this wonderful creature…

Box Office Bears

The Leonardo sketch arrives in London ahead of its public sale. In doing so it follows the footsteps of many of the kinds of bears it represents, who also passed through the English capital as “goods” for a public audience. Although they had been extinct in Britain for at least eight hundred years, there were many imported bears living in this country.

These animals were unwilling actors in one of the most established elements of early modern England’s leisure industry—bearbaiting. This blood sport involved tying a bear to a stake and setting one or more dogs on the animal through a series of “courses” on which spectators would bet. Bearbaiting rivalled theatre as one of the country’s most popular pastimes. The game took place before paying audiences at “Bear Gardens” on Bankside in London, in alehouse yards, and before royalty in palaces, including Whitehall’s Banqueting House.

Bears like Leonardo’s are an often forgotten part of the global history of migration. They came from Europe and perhaps even farther afield before they reached England. A record from 1488 documents a payment to “a bearward of ynde,” a traveller from South Asia labelled broadly, in early modern parlance, “India.” The term “bearward” described those responsible for one or more bears and their so-called “game.” Many were socially ambitious individuals able to make a significant fortune from the sport, while others may have had few economic prospects. Legal crackdowns documented astonishingly young individuals, such as the fourteen-year-old “entrepreneur” John Mort, who had no craft and was illegally “wandering” the north-west as a bearward.

Even as part of the bearbaiting industry in England, these bears were seasoned travellers – both official and unlicenced bearwards travelled the country. Bears like Leonardo’s were part of the everyday traffic of early modern England, and everyone from field worker to prince would have known them. Angry neighbours issued lawsuits and complaints, in which they objected to this frightening mammalian movement across their private pathways or expressed irritation at the mundane “soiling” of public streets. The diary of a bearward from 1608 allows us to reconstruct a two-month journey from London through Reading, down to Salisbury, up to Gloucester, and round to Maidenhead. Expenses for food and lodging detail a packed schedule of travel and performance. Bears accordingly help us map travel and trade routes and the road systems that underpinned the socio-economic order of early modern England.

Dr Hannah O’Regan, Department of Classics and Archaeology
Historical records and archaeological remains can help recover some agency and individualism for these well-travelled bears. Our Box Office Bears project brings together twenty-first-century ancient DNA analyses and contemporary eyewitness descriptions to find out what the bears of the past were like. Several assemblages of sixteenth-century bear and dog bones were discovered during excavations on London’s Bankside – a rare instance in which archaeological material is matched with a substantial extant documentary record. Our ongoing scientific study will tell us what species these bears were, what they ate, and where they came from. Contemporary visitors to Bankside help put these details into painful context; dramatist Thomas Dekker expressed the “pity” moved in his breast at witnessing a blind bear whipped at the stake, drawing proto-Marxist parallels about the conflict between rich and poor and society’s inhumane treatment of the homeless. A German visitor to Bankside in 1584 recalled an immersive performance, involving animals, women, and men, punctuated by exploding giant flowers and raining fruit.

Such records demonstrate how central animals were to the Renaissance. They encourage us to look beyond Leonardo’s arrestingly curious but literally disembodied object of anatomical enquiry and start to suggest Renaissance bears’ behaviour, personality, and celebrity. Although England’s bears likely arrived from elsewhere, they were quickly made part of national and regional culture. Many were celebrities: we hear about the fame and notoriety of Harry Hunks, Sackerson, and George Stone. Many were also closely associated with particular English locations, such as Judith of Cambridge or Ned of Canterbury. These geographical names suggest early regional fan cultures. Records from Cheshire show individuals arrested for asserting the town pride of Congleton in matters of blood sport, as well as the regulation of participants; one bearbaiting stipulated that “no Chester men” could carry staffs, but that “a Countryman indifferent for them” should be responsible for managing dogs active in sport. Elsewhere, explicit competition between Lancastrians, Shropshiremen, and Londoners suggests that animal sport drew the kind of place-based fan culture we now associate with football.

At its centre were the personalities of the bears. These are hard to recover at a distance and through the human cruelty that frames the historical record. Yet bears are often depicted as “brave,” and sometimes commentators emphasise the “old” age of longstanding bears, emphasising their enduring cultural presence. Similar language was applied to bulls, also part of the baiting industry: William Faunt of Leicestershire wrote fondly of his old “Star of the West,” “a very easy bull.” Here we have a sense of early modern animals as individuals with agency and personality. The 1608 bearward’s diary also suggests something of how such personality may be expressed, with occasional payments for “the harme which the bears did” (presumably to the surroundings) or for an oil to apply to and care for a blind bear.

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