The reindeer is among my favourite creatures. Its antlers bespeak strength, yet there is an air of delicate loneliness about it that make it fit quite well in the desolate northern landscapes. With all my affection for the beast, I had no idea that there was a description of it dating back to the Middle Ages. I knew Aristotle and Caesar had described an ox-like creature which might have been a reindeer, but that was not without serious objections. I have recently learned of Albert the Great’s description of the reindeer in his De animalibus, finished in 1258. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) was a Dominican scholastic writer with a broad range of interests and knowledge, both physical and theological. A contemporary of Aquinas, his encyclopedic knowledge awarded him the title of ‘Universal Doctor’.
His description of the reindeer owes nothing – as far as I can tell – to a known prior source and seems to be based on some close observation. Albertus was born in Bavaria but he travelled extensively, as befitted a mendicant friar. However, I have not been able to trace his steps to any part of Europe where reindeer are known to have been present at that time. Anyhow, whether he himself had seen reindeer or relied on indirect observation, his account is pretty accurate. The extract below is from book 22 of De animalibus, tract 2, chapter 1 (in Stadler’s edition from 1920):
Rangyfer animal est in Aquilonis partibus versus polum archthycum generatum, etiam et in partibus Norwegiae et Sueciae, et in hiis quae sunt maioris latitudinis regionibus generatum et dicitur rangifer quasi ramifer : est enim quasi de figura cervi, sed maius corpore, et robore fortissimum et fuga celerrimum, tres ordines cornuum gerens in capite et in quolibet habens duo cornua, ita quod caput eius videtur virgultis circumpositum. Duo ex hiis ceteris maiora habet in loco cornuum cervi, et haec efficiuntur in bestia perfectae quantitatis aliquando quinque cubitorum et ramorum viginti quinque : duo autem habet in medio capitis quae sunt lata in modum cornuum damae. Sed sunt circumposita ramis multis et brevibus. Duo autem alia habet in fronte anterius versa: sed haec magis ossibus videntur esse similia : et cum hiis omnibus pugnat contra bestias adversantes. (pp. 1421-2)
The reindeer is an animal produced in the northern regions, near the North Pole as well as in parts of Norway and Sweden and in regions that have a greater latitude. It is called rangifer as if for ramifer [branch-bearing]. It has approximately the shape of a deer but with a larger body. It has very great strength and is quite swift in flight. It has three rows of horns on its head and each has two hors itself, with the result that its head seems to be surrounded with a thicket. Two of these are larger than the rest and are located where a stag has its horns. In a full grown beast, these sometimes attain the size of five cubits [2.28m] and have twenty five branches. The two in the middle of its head, however, are broad like the horns of a gazelle, and they are surrounded with many short branches. It has two others on its forehead turned towards the front, but these seem more like bone. It uses all of these to fight with beats which confront it. (On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, trans. Kenneth F. Kitchell, Jr. and I.M Resnick, 1999, p. 1533)
The reindeer antlers seem to be the focal point of this account, and we can see Albert taking great pains to describe them in good detail. This is a considerable departure from classical representations of what many still think is the reindeer, of which Aristotle’s is foremost. Antlers are never a point of interest for classical writers, making Albert’s account perhaps the first realistic zoological description of this fascinating creature.