Medieval Understanding of Animals

I'm dealing with MuCo(An) stuff. I have a few questions I'm having trouble answering via Google. Maybe someone here knows. How did medieval scholars believe the following worked?

  1. Bat's sonar. I could imagine them blinding a bat and releasing it to discover it could still navigate.
  2. Sea stars' and salamanders' regeneration. (And others for that matter) I suppose this isn't "how" to much as "to what extent." Did they know sea stars and salamanders could regrow limbs?


Wikipedia tells me that it wasn't discovered until the 18th century that bats navigated by sound. Exactly how it worked wasn't established until the 1930s. I guess a medieval scholar might just be able to figure out that sound was being used by the bats --- but they'd probably be a bit flummoxed to explain how it all worked.

Medieval tales of salamanders seem to concentrate more on its abilities to do with fire. Although, of course, it is never very clear precisely what actual creature is being discussed in medieval descriptions. Certainly, I think it was generally believed that some creatures "regenerated" limbs and heads (at least under some circumstances).

I always thought it might be funny if bat sonar was one of those things Magi actually knew about thanks to magic.

Aurora: Hey hows that new bat familiar going Chiropterous?

Chiropterous: Great! do you know they really can't see in the dark? They actually get around by hearing where things are. It all very complicated.

Aurora: Hearing where things are. Wow hey mayby thats how I could get my Eyes of the Air spell to work in the dark.

Chiropterous: Ears of the Air then?

Aurora: No I'll keep the Eyes bit in the title wouldn't want to confuse anyone. I'll just change out the air part for bats.

Chiropterous: So Eyes of the Bat, an intellego auram spell that targets hearing. You took incomprehensible as a flaw didn't you.

Aurora: Ha your genre aware fourth wall aside means nothing to me.

A maga probably can tell information like this via suitable InAn spells. Or, possibly, by just turning herself into a bat, and reporting the experience.

I wasn't sure how prevalent empiricism was. Certainly, though developed especially well by Euclid, logic still wasn't used so perfectly until much, much later. For example, Rene Descartes did some beautiful mathematical work and then started bungling his logic when he switched to philosophy. And that was far later, well after the subconscious religious influence on reasoning had started fading.

It would not have been so difficult for an interested person at this time to blind some bats and let them fly around, noting that they could "see" without eyes. The hardest part of it would have been catching the bats in the first place. Taking a further step and making them deaf would probably lead one to believe they hear spaces. But would anyone have done that?


I think they would. After all technology did progress during the dark and middle ages and there was in astronomy at least one observational science with widespread interest. In the OoH experiment is known to be a route to power and the Order, being widespread bibliophiles, would have had early access to islamic and indian research and to examples of empirical work like Aristotle's Zoology which is full of close first hand observation and dissections. Not to mention as wizards they can use intellego spells rather than need instruments that will take centuries to devise and/or muto spells to directly experience any creature's sensorium.

Also my own, far from systematic, knowledge of the period suggest that the medieval catholic church was far more liberal than commonly pictured, especially in matters of magic or science, and did not get really intolerant until its authority was threatened by the reformation.

Sometimes very. But because a lot of things were hard to observe, it often got sidelined.
You can look at history and find empiricism alive and well in almost any century, even in those where it gets overshadowed by pseudoscience and worse. Essentially, you can probably use it in as much presence as you wish.

Dont take that idea too far, remember that many of the most indirectly(and even directly) critical of "religious influence on reasoning" were in fact very much part of the church themselves(its actually a bit surprising there weren´t more schisms in the christian church). To an extent this is more of a semimodern influence over perception of history than history. Not completely, there certainly was "religious influence on reasoning"(although i definitely wouldnt call it subconcious in the vast majority of time), but rather than something all pervasive and ever affecting, it was more a matter of individual nuances more or less offset from mainstream, or perhaps one should rather call it average as even the official religious stance were rarely truly generally accepted mainstream.

Indeed, and with shapeshifters hardly being restricted to Hermetic magi, in Hermetic Europe its very likely something known among any with the slightest interest in the subject. Might even be common knowledge as it will have had plenty of time to spread even if only a single shapeshifter sometime back in history had spoken seriously about it.

I think i have read about speculation about it being quite old (pre-medieval), but without any evidence(or at least not any evidence that was convincing enough for someone to write it down as "this we know").


Quite so.

A lot!

One problem is that new knowledge was really slow to disseminate. All the centers of learning had a few copies of the Classics, but if magus Chiropterous discovered by experimentation (or any other method) that bats used their ears to navigate in the dark, it may well be that 50 years later, you could still count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who knew that fact: himself, his two filii, and the one other member of his covenant he managed to corner long enough to bore with the details of his experience.

Unless it is part of the lab notes for the popular spell Eyes of the Bat, in which case a good number of mages has probably read about it while reinventing this popular spell.

Tell that to the Cathares ! Or the muslims for that matter :slight_smile:

While you´re quite correct that knowledge tended to be slow moving...

You assume that absolutely noone have done it before. Shapeshifting didnt appear with the Order of Hermes.
The same goes for magic in general. So its more likely to be hundreds or thousands of years old knowledge, quite possibly knowledge that has been gained independently by more than one person over time.

Business as usual... :smiling_imp:

I idea that "bats are blind" certainly seems to be older. OED has a written English quote from the 16th century --- so it may have been in spoken idiom / other languages earlier. So, I suppose it is logical to guess that if bats are blind, that they must therefore be using another sense to navigate.

Afterall, the people experimenting with bats in the 18th century probably weren't just randomly experimenting with different animals. I imagine that they were trying to verify some kind of "folklore" about bats.

Good idea! I hadn't even thought of looking into the idiom. The 16th century already puts it more than halfway back to 1220. And for it to be quoted it probably had to have circulated a bit, so that puts it even a little further back. So we'd expect the early 1500s at the latest, perhaps much earlier. I suppose with that, with the added Intellego that magi have, and with the Auram spell, we can probably assume magi know bats have some non-visual way of sensing their surroundings, even if they don't know exactly what that way is.


And about the starfish regeneration - I don't know if the ancients knew about it as the fact that Aristotle dissected them and so the mouthparts of a sea urchin are called an aristotle's lantern clogs all my searches with modern articles on echinoderm biology. However, that does mean he knew a lot about them. And there were Greek myths featuring regeneration - the hydra's heads and Prometheus' liver.

I agree.

And I think that with the added possibility of talking to (or being) a shapeshifter, and also using magic to talk to actual bats, it is virtually certain that at least those magi who have an interest in bats, know this.

Please consider me a dissenting voice here.

As I read this thread, I cannot help but think all these magi/scholars/ignorant peasants who are talking about "seeing by sound" are crazy. What makes any of these people think that anything like 'sonar' exists in Mythic Europe?

Do any of these people question that fish are spontaneously created within bodies of water? That is the prevailing belief, at least to my (limited) understanding of Mythic Europe. What idiot would not believe this, and search for evidence that fish make babies like other animals? Fish are not animals!

(Some magi might then argue that fish are affected by Aquam, and not Animal, of course... I proposed this idea in a thread years ago, and I don't believe anyone stepped up to disagree.)

To me, the obvious answer is that bats see in the dark because they have been gifted this ability by Satan. Who could even question this? Look how they look like little flying demons!

While a farmer might not know how a bat sees at night, he has probably seen, with his own eyes (if it was dusk, or he had a torch), how bats will land on his cows and use their razor sharp fangs to drink the cow's blood. He can see the bite marks and blood drippings after the infernal creature flies away.


  • Only come out at night
  • Ugly leathery bat wings, just like demons
  • Fangs that can cut leather
  • Drink the blood of the living
  • Make horrid little screeching noises, like nails on a chalk board, when they are not silently pouncing on their prey

Can any reasonable man doubt these creatures have an infernal link?

In our 21st century pursuit of logic and understanding,
Don't forget the Magic in Ars Magica,
Don't forget the Mythic in Mythic Europe.

Xavi claps hands and cheers DC's post

Really cool post :slight_smile:


Only the ones who fly near hickory trees do this so not a Mythic Europe thing. Otherwise good post.

True, vast majority of bats live on fruit, berries, nectar and insects.

If bats have a role in your game, and if having their only source of sustenance to be blood makes your game more mythic, then just make it so.

If a player wanted his magus character to have a bat as a familiar, and he tried to tell me "Oh no, this bat doesn't drink blood. He eats only fruit and berries", I would laugh in his face. That simply does not make mythic sense to me.

As Morpheus might say to Neo...
Free your mind of the preconceptions that mundane 21st century life (i.e. The Matrix) has instilled there. The real world, the world of Mythic Europe, has different rules that you have to re-learn.

My big disappointment with Art & Academe was that there was not a whole chapter dedicated solely to the realities of Mythic Europe that we 21st century modernists need to know. I know there are nice nuggets of this material here and there, but I would have liked to see a whole chapter. Has anyone written an article for Sub Rosa, or in some other source, on this subject?

If you really just cannot let go of the idea of bats not drinking the blood of the living, then how about this?...
All bats desire to drink the blood of the living. However, some bats are not strong or crafty enough to pull it off. These bats lower themselves to eating whatever sustenance they can find, like berries. They are, of course, ridiculed by both their blood-drinking brethren and their satanic patrons.


Oh i see... That is a very... interesting claim... Perhaps you didnt know that vampire bats only exist on the American continents?
And that the 21st century mythical status of bats is an invention of 18th to 20th century.

I believe that is a, quest, that you should take up yourself.

Like say the complete lack of knowledge about bloodsucking bats in 13th century Europe?
A quick check tells me they were considered good luck animals in Poland, Macedonia, Arab lands and even better thought of in China.
While you find a connection with death in Mayan lore. ... -mythology
Bats did not really come to be thought of as spooky in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages, as folk belief became increasingly equated with witchcraft. Bats came to be regarded as familiars of witches and as a frequent disguise for the Devil. Dragons and demons would often be depicted with the wings of a bat. The association of bats with vampires-that is, the living dead-goes back only as far as the latter half of the eighteenth century, when the zoologist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon examined newly discovered bats from South America. Because the variety sucked small quantities of blood from cattle, though rarely from human beings, he called them “vampires.” At about the same time, gothic horror became fashionable throughout Europe, and popular writers discovered it was piquant to identify bats with vampires.

Later in medieval times there is the belief that witches use blood FROM bats to make with their flying.

Your game, do as you wish. But bloodsucking bats in "mythical europe" has nothing at all to do with REAL legends or myths but everything to do with 18th century literary fashion.

I disagree. Now, if he also adds "and it has nothing to do with witches or the devil at all, and it is in fact a very cuddly pet that everyone love on sight"... now I agree with you. If it's a familiar, it should be mythic in some way, and bats don't have a lot of good press in myths, certainly none that I can remember offhand.

By the way, most European bats eat insects, not fruits and nectar :wink: