The Lion in Medieval Western Europe: Toward an Interpretive History

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

107 Downloads (Pure)


Several scholars have studied meanings attributed to the lion in the western European Middle Ages, but their accounts have tended to be partial and fragmentary. A balanced, coherent interpretive history of the medieval lion has yet to be written. This article seeks to promote and initiate the process of composing such a history by briefly reviewing previous research, by proposing a thematic and chronological framework on which work on the lion might reliably be based, and by itself discussing numerous textual examples, not least from German, Latin, and French literature. The five categories of lion symbolism covered are, respectively, the threatening lion, the Christian lion, the noble lion, the sinful lion, and the clement lion. These meanings are shown successively to have constituted regnant fashions that at various times profoundly shaped people's understanding of the lion; but it is demonstrated also that they existed alongside, and in a state of creative tension with, a ground bass of lion meanings that changed relatively little. Lions nearly always, for example, represented important, imposing things and people (for example, kings); and the New Testament's polarized presentation of the lion as either Christ or the devil proved enormously influential both throughout and beyond the Middle Ages. As such any cultural history of the lion-and indeed of many other natural phenomena-must be continually sensitive to the co-existence and interaction of tradition and innovation, stability and dynamism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-213
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Fordham University.


  • Physiologus
  • animal symbolism
  • courtly romances
  • didactic literature
  • emblems
  • lion
  • vices and virtues

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Religious studies
  • Philosophy
  • Literature and Literary Theory


Dive into the research topics of 'The Lion in Medieval Western Europe: Toward an Interpretive History'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this