Towards a Cultural History of the Beaver
I have been taking care of some pressing deadlines, so this week I am going to share an old essay of mine that has already appeared in various places. Some readers will likely have seen it before, but for most it will be new.
Please see the bottom of this essayletter for news and announcements.
Unlike talk of, say, badgers or ermine, talk of beavers seems always to be the overture to a joke. So powerful is the infection of the cloud of its strange humor that the beaver is no doubt in part to blame for the widespread habit, among certain unkind Americans, of smirking at the mere mention of Canada. Nor is it the vulgar euphemism, common in North American English and immortalized in Les Claypool’s heartfelt ode, “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” (1995), that entirely explains this animal’s peculiar symbolic scent. The crude term for a woman’s genitals, “beaver”, itself builds on a long history in which the figure of the animal is held up as a mirror and a speculum of human venery, and also of the transcendence of this condition through virtue.
For most of its history the beaver, hunted for its medicinal castoreum, was sooner associated with male testicles, and with the horrible yet paradoxically emboldening prospect of their loss. Later, it was taken up as the very model of the social animal, living in imagined New World dam communities constructed through the ingenious collaborative labor of these hominoid rodents. Beavers, the “busy” American animals, embodied the work ethic so many thought necessary for the transformation of that wild continent.
It is worth considering the extent to which these two images of the beaver —the one focused on its hind parts and their perceived virtues and vices, the other on its industry— are but two chapters of a single continuous history.
Castor fiber, or, The Old World
The Eurasian beaver, one of only two species in the Castor genus, with an eight-chromosome distance from its American counterpart, had been hunted nearly to extinction by the beginning of the modern period. It was valued for its fur, but far more importantly for the purported medicinal powers of the odoriferous secretions of its anal sac. These had evolved for the purpose of territorial scent-marking, but an unanticipated consequence (for in truth evolution anticipates nothing and has no purposes) was to mark the beaver out too well in turn, to place it within the sights and olfactions of human hunters, who likely supposed anything that smells that pungent must have some remarkable powers indeed. Castoreum was used as an abortifacient and an anti-inflammatory, against headaches and fevers, and as an ingredient in antidotes against poison. Johannes Marius relates in his Castorologia of 1685 that “a Jew” once told him of the memory-enhancing powers of the secretions of beavers. The same author also reports that it cures bad breath, paralysis, gout, and sciatica, among many other conditions.
It bears repetition: the secretion in question comes from a specialized sac located on the perineum, near the anus, which biologically speaking is something quite distinct from the testicles. Yet at least into the late middle ages, knowledge of beaver anatomy among hunters, merchants, and naturalists remained as imprecise as the infantile belief, beloved of psychoanalysts, in a streamlined maternal cloaca. Etymology does not support the obvious suggestion that castor and castrate share a common origin (the Greek kastor comes from a Hebrew root for “musk”, while castration has an Indo-European pedigree, going back to an ancient verb meaning “to cut”). But one could easily be forgiven for growing attached to this spurious word history, for to do so would be to follow the great Isidore of Seville. In his seventh-century masterwork, the Etymologies, the Spanish polymath maintained, wrongly as usual, but no less wonderfully for that, that “castor comes from castrate. Indeed their testicles are included in the composition of medicines. What is more, when they sense the presence of the hunter, they castrate themselves and cut off their virility with their teeth.”
A similar account of beaver behavior had been discussed and rejected already in Pliny the Elder’s first-century-CE Natural History, and after him, rather more credulously, in Aelian’s On Animals of the early third century. It is difficult to say by what route this bit of ancient lore would in turn be picked up in medieval Christendom as a moral exemplum, but by the thirteenth century Pierre de Beauvais, in his Bestiarium, had come to identify the figure of the hunter with the devil, and the testicles with sin. “The man who wishes to observe the commandments of God,” Beauvais writes, “and to live in purity, should tear away his testicles, that is to say all of his vices, and throw what was formerly his into the face of the hunter, that is to say the Devil, who pursues him unceasingly.” Guillaume de Normandie and several other northern French bestiary authors give similar accounts.
Richard de Fournival distinguishes himself around the same time by offering a precious alternative version of the beaver’s radical gesture: not as an expression of Christian virtue, but as a lesson in romantic love, tearing away the source of his passion the way a lover might tear out his enflamed heart to deliver it to his beloved. Fournival’s version may be read as an echo, in idealized form, of an earlier tale of saintly castration, and indeed one grounded in historical fact: the gelding of Peter Abelard.
Who does not know, in broad outline, what this man lived through with his dear Héloïse? The two were lovers, in every sense, beginning around 1115. Already a charismatic star of learnèd Paris, Abelard had sought out a place in the residence of her uncle Fulbert, ostensibly in order to teach her letters, but in fact just to be closer to his beloved. Fulbert found out, and Abelard was expelled. Héloïse gave birth to a child, a baby boy, and called him “Astrolabe”. Abelard sent mother and son to stay with his own family in Brittany. In order to reunite the family, Abelard eventually pressured her to marry him. But Héloïse denied the reality of the marriage when Fulbert publicly announced it. Abelard sent Héloïse to a convent, purportedly to protect her, but also perhaps, as Fulbert suspected, to be rid of her. Fulbert, fulminant, sent a band of men to cut off Abelard’s balls.
And this is when the love story properly begins. Abelard becomes a monk and urges Héloïse to take orders as a nun. They separate for some years, but meet again in 1129, and the following year Abelard begins to serve as abbot of a religious community, the Paraclet, of which Héloïse is the head nun. They take up a new collaboration, producing among other things a collection of their own correspondences on matters of love and faith, which have by now, for them, merged into one. Abelard reflects in a post-castration letter to Héloïse (citing here an early English translation): “My Misfortune does not loose my Chains, my Passion grows furious by Impotence, and that Desire I still have for you amidst all my Disgraces, makes me more unhappy than the Misfortune itself.”
In the Hall of Guards of what is currently the Paris Conciergerie, located on the west side of the Île de la Cité, we find a number of striking bas-relief sculptures dating to the late middle ages. One of them is a representation of Abelard and Héloïse, facing away from each other, touching only at the back of their heads and their shoulders, and yet still, somehow, revealing their undying love. Strikingly, Héloïse is holding in her left hand what is plainly a rather large cock-and-balls, presumably those severed from her lover Abelard.
These have of course been noticed and commented on extensively throughout the years. What is rather less striking in this composition, unless one is familiar with the medieval iconography of the animal that has occupied our attention here, is that somewhat to Héloïse’s left the sculptor has chiseled one such, a beaver, facing away from the couple, evidently indifferent to their unquenchable passion. Like Abelard, the beaver presumably has lost an important part of him, and that is why the artist placed him there. But unlike Abelard he seems the better for it. He has thrown his testicles/sin to the Devil and got on with a virtuous life.
Abelard could make no such clean break.
Castor canadensis, or, The New World
A story of love can, sometimes, survive significant anatomical adjustments, even if on radically new terms. And so with the story of the beaver.
The French anatomist Claude Perrault was the first person to properly locate the site of production of castoreum, and to return the beaver’s testicles to their proper place and function. In a 1669 study he announces: “It can be seen from the exact description that we have just made that [the perineal sac] is not the beaver’s testicles, as many distinguished naturalists have imagined.” He tells the story of Pliny’s mockery of Sextius, who had believed the old tale of the beaver’s self-castration, while Pliny for his part insists that this is impossible, since “this animal has its testicles attached to the spine of its back,” and thus, presumably, cannot reach them with its teeth. “But he refuted one error with another,” Perrault continues, “for in the beaver we dissected, the testicles were no more up above than they were in the [perineal] sacs; they were simply a little higher up, toward the external and lateral parts of the pubic bone in the region of the haunches.”
Perrault shifts the beaver in another important way as well: not just anatomically, but geographically. C. canadensis, or the American beaver, had started to surpass C. fiber in the global trade in fur and medicine already by the end of the sixteenth century, due largely to diminishing stocks of the Eurasian beaver from centuries of overhunting. But Perrault is among the first to explicitly note that his beaver is the North American variety, and to draw his observations of it from a distinctly North American reality (of which of course he had only second-hand knowledge).
“Although we have only proposed in this treatise to speak of what we have noticed in the dissection of the beaver,” Perrault writes, “it will not be out of place to relate what we have recently written about Canada touching upon Castoreum. They say that the Beavers make use of this liquor to give themselves appetite when they are wanting of it; that they cause it to come out by pressing the vesicles that contain it with their paw; and that the Savages rub it on the traps they set for these animals, in order to attract them.” Even in the course of their annihilation, Native American knowledge systems served to disrupt old preoccupations. The Europeans had long sought out castoreum for themselves, but they never realized they could use castoreum to bring them more of it. And while the question of the position of the testicles is still deemed worthy of some discussion, the question of what this might mean for human morality has by now disappeared into the dark abyss of history.
But surely the most telling change, as we move across the ocean and from one species of Castor to another, lies in the new attention to and appreciation of dam construction, as the outward sign of the beaver’s singular greatness. This change cannot be fully accounted for by specific differences between the two species in question. Eurasian beavers do generally build smaller dams, but this is an ecological consequence of their tendency to choose smaller bodies of water; the dams themselves are not any less complex than those in America, which in turn vary greatly in size.
In the Castorologia, already cited above, the author dwells on something that had been absent in medieval castorology: the incredible and frightening power of the beaver to bring down trees. He marvels at “this animal with a horrible and terrifying aspect, with sharp and long teeth, that bites into everything it comes across, that fells trees.” In the Garden of Cyrus, or, The Quincuncial Lozenge of 1658, the eclectic English author Thomas Browne declares of the beaver that “we cannot but wish a model of their houses, so much extolled by some Describers: wherein... we might examine their Artifice in the contignations, the rule and order in the compartitions; or whether that magnified structure be any more than a rude rectangular pyle or meer hovell-building.” But Marius and Browne make no distinction as to species or geographical region. “The beaver” is for them something with only a generic reality, and as Aristotle already understood, something that exists only as a genus but not as a species is no more able to exist as an individual, and thus cannot be part of reality.
By the following century the majority of authors reporting from Canada had converged upon the view that the dams and lodges of C. canadensis were indeed magnificent structures, and no mere hovels. Nowhere is this clearer than in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France of 1744, which collects letters and journal entries from Québec of several previous years. In a letter to the Duchesse de Lesdiguières of March, 1721, Charlevoix writes that “the beaver [Castor] was not unknown in France before the discovery of America; we find among the old Titles of the Hatmakers of Paris the rules for the fabrication of beaver hats [Chapeaux Bièvres]: for the beaver and the castor are absolutely the same animal, but whether it is because the European beaver has become extremely rare, or because its fur is not of the same quality as the American beaver, we seldom speak anymore of any other than this latter.” Charlevoix surveys the anatomy of the American beaver, and declares its tail to be its most remarkable feature. He repeats Perrault’s correction, complaining that the ancients were ignorant of the “true testicles” of the beaver.
Eventually the author turns to the “industry and works of beavers”, not only describing the work they do, but also enthusing about the model that this work might provide for the French settlers in their precarious life in that hostile new land:
Here, Madame, is everything that the beavers might help to bring to this colony for [the improvement of] commerce: their industry, their planning, the concertedness and the subordination that we admire in them, their attention to outfitting themselves with comforts whose sweetness we did not previously know beasts to be capable of experiencing-- all of this furnishes to man even better instruction than the ant, to whose example the Holy Scripture sends the lazy. They are, at least among quadrupeds, what the bees are among the flying insects. I have not heard it said by educated people that they have a king or a queen; nor is it true that, when they work in a group, there is a leader who commands, and who punishes the lazy ones. But by virtue of that instinct given to animals by Him whose providence governs them, each one knows what it should do, and does it all without confusion, without complication, and with an order that one cannot but admire.
Charlevoix describes the construction of the beaver lodge or “village” [Bourgade], declaring that it would not be out of place to call it a “little Venice”. In order to obtain the needed wood, “three or four beavers position themselves around a large tree, and end up bringing it to the ground with their teeth. And that’s not all: they take their measures so well that it always falls in the direction of the water... One might say,” he concludes, “that these architects have foreseen everything.” In the construction of the dam, “the ruler and the compass are found in the eye of the great master of arts and sciences... In a word it would be difficult for our own best workers to construct anything more solid and more regular.”
None of this virtuosity, he maintains, is to be found in the European beaver. Charlevoix is not aware of the precise taxonomical difference between the two populations. The American beaver differs in his view from the European beaver only in this, that it lives in America, and has adapted its habits to the exigencies of that land. The beaver remains an exemplum, but no longer of chastity.
When we move ahead to the middle of the twentieth century, we find many of the themes that animated Charlevoix’s writing on beavers still in place. In the 1950 Walt Disney live-action documentary In Beaver Valley, the animal protagonist is still held up as the model of the hard worker. The beaver is contrasted with the otter: the otter as other, the “Gypsy” of nature, who is for its part, as an authoritative off-camera narrator tells us, “as frolicksome as beavers are industrious”.
But if the beaver still works hard, the very idea of work has changed almost beyond recognition. It is no longer performed by settlers to secure their very survival, but by “citizens” of an established polity. The beaver “has no use for frivolity. Nor would he even pause to pass the time of day with a fellow worker... He works the night shift too,” the narrator explains, as the camera cuts to a moonlit scene accompanied by a symphony of frogs and crickets.
Charlevoix, sharing in the utopian vision that animated so many early settlers of the American continent, saw the beavers as primitive communists of sorts, working without compulsion in the absence of kings or queens, or even foremen, in harmony with a nature that would otherwise kill them. Mr. Disney, a decade or so before In Beaver Valley, had been busy busting unionization efforts of workers at Walt Disney Studios, smearing those involved as communists and traitors. For him, beavers do not work freely or in a way that flows naturally from their essence; rather, they work in “shifts”; as “solid citizens”, they do not ask why, or whether, things might be arranged any better.
One senses they might be recruited as the perfect scabs for a certain Anaheim theme park: beavers within mouse and duck costumes within the free-market labor pool, silent about their low wages, too busy to protest, and testicles or no, far, far too busy to lapse into animal vice.
A Venn diagram featuring the busy beaver in one circle and the beaver as emblem of sexuality and its possible overcoming in the other would surely also feature, in their overlapping middle, the “eager beaver”. Eager for what? To build something? To secrete castoreum? To rid itself of its testicles? “Frolicksome” is at least a near-synonym of at least one of the senses of “eager”, yet as we have seen it may also be used to describe the shifty otter in its eternal distance from the hard-working C. canadensis. “Eager” then is the strange autoantonym that unites all the phases of the history of the beaver.
Jean-Paul Sartre enjoyed referring to Simone de Beauvoir as le castor. This no doubt in view of her remarkable industry. There is by contrast no known reason for Theodore Cleaver to take on the English version of that same sobriquet, in the American situation comedy Leave it to Beaver (1957-63), other than the fact that it rhymes with his surname, which he shares with his other family members as well. “Theodore” means “gift of God”, so perhaps here we are back in the realm of edifying exempla for the faithful.
Some German kids I once knew found it hilarious to accost me, when I came over to visit their parents, with a stuffed-toy beaver, rubbing it on me, seeking somehow to fuse it with me. “Justin Bieber!” they squealed, combining my unfortunate Christian name with the German word for the represented animal. “Justin Bieber!”
Every mention of beavers is the prelude to a joke.
 Johannes Marius (with additional commentary by Johann Francke), J. F. Castorologia, explicans Castoris animalis naturam & usum medico-chemicum, Augustae Vindelicorum [Augsburg]: Typis Koppmayerianis, 1685, 132.
 Marius, Castorologia, 137.
 Marius, Castorologia, 144.
 Marius, Castorologia, 144.
 Marius, Castorologia, 117.
 Isidore of Seville (Isidorus Hispalensis), Étymologies Livre XII: Des animaux, ed. Jacques André, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1986, 105-106.
 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume VIII: Books 28-32, Loeb Classical Library 418, trans. W. H. S. Jones, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963, 481.
 Aelian, On Animals, Volume II: Books 6-11, Loeb Classical Library 448, trans. A. F. Scholfield, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, 51. “The Beaver is an amphibious creature: by day it lives hidden in rivers, but at night it roams the land, feeding itself with anything that it can find. Now it understands the reason why hunters come after it with such eagerness and impetuosity, and it puts down its head and with its teeth cuts off its testicles and throws them in their path, as a prudent man who, falling into the hands of robbers, sacrifices all that he is carrying, to save his life, and forfeits his possessions by way of ransom.”
 Pierre de Beauvais, cited in Franco Morenzoni, “Les animaux exemplaires dans les recueils de Distinctiones bibliques alphabétiques du XIIIe siècle,” in Jacques Berlioz and Marie-Anne Polo de Beaulieu (eds.), L'Animal exemplaire au Moyen Age, Ve-XVe siècle, Rennes, 1999, 171-190, 177.
 Gabriel Bianciotto (ed. and tr.), Bestiaires du Moyen Age, Paris: Stock, 1980, 40; also cited in Laurence Moulinier, “La castration dans l'Occident médiéval,” in Lydie Bodiou, Véronique Mehl, Myriam Soria (eds.), Autour de la castration: de l'adultère à la chirurgie régulatrice, Turnhout: Brepols, 2011, 189-216, fn. 40.
 Bianciotto, Bestiaires du Moyen Age, 150-151; also cited in Moulinier, “La castration dans l'Occident médiéval,” fn. 43.
 The Letters of Abelard and Héloïse, To which is prefix’d, A particular Account of their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes, Sixth Edition, Dublin: S. Powell, 1740, 79-80.
 Claude Perrault, Description anatomique, d'un caméléon, d'un castor, d'un dromadaire, d'un ours, et d'une gazelle, Paris: Frédéric Léonard, 1669, 62-63.
 Perrault, Description anatomique, 63-64.
 Perrault, Description anatomique, 62.
 Marius, Castorologia, 14. “Hoc animal adspectu horribile & terribile ob acutos & longos dentes, quibus omnia perforat quicquid invenit, arbores excavat.”
 Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus: Or, The Quincuncial-Lozenge: Or, Net-work Plantations of the Ancients; Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically considered, revised edition, London, 1738 , 33.
 Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, Journal d'un voyage fait par ordre du Roi dans l'Amérique Septentrionale, in Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France, vol. 3, Paris: Rollin Fils, 1744, 95.
 Charlevoix, Journal d’un voyage, 98.
 Charlevoix, Journal d’un voyage, 100.
 Charlevoix, Journal d’un voyage, 100.
 Charlevoix, Journal d’un voyage, 101.
 Charlevoix, Journal d’un voyage, 101.
A number of secondary sources were of great help in writing this essay. I am particularly grateful for the illuminating work of Rachel Poliquin, Beaver, Reaktion Animal Series, London: Reaktion Books, 2015; as well as François-Marc Gagnon, Images du castor canadien, XVIe-XVIIIe siècles, Québec: Les Éditions du Septentrion, 1994.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus, from De proprietatibus rerum (mid-14th century)
Undated miniature, England
Abelard and Héloïse (with his severed genitals in her hand), La Conciergerie, Île de la Cité, Paris
Abelard and Héloïse (with a beaver to their right), La Conciergerie, Île de la Cité, Paris
Claude Perrault, Description anatomique d'un caméléon, d'un castor, d'un dromadaire, d'un ours et d'une gazelle, Paris, 1669.
Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lohantan, New Voyages to North-America, Containing an Account of the Several Nations, vol. 2, London: H. Bomwicke et al., 1703.
Now for the news and announcements.
It would take too much space to advertise everything I’ve been working on recently. I think at some point within the next few weeks I will devote an entire Substack to news and announcements in order to take care of all of this in one go.
For now, I wanted to assure you that the new podcast I’m developing for The Point Magazine, and which I advertised here some weeks ago, “What Is X?”, is indeed almost ready and will be hitting the airwaves, or whatever they call them now, very soon. I have eight great episodes recorded with eight different luminaries of our era, each Socratically investigating with me some given X they’ve spent their adult lives contemplating. It’s going to be great.
I also wanted to share the cover of my new book, which the graphic-design department at Princeton University Press has just sent me, and which I think is absolutely awesome in its mixture of boldness and ambiguity (what are those tendrils in the background exactly? An arboreal canopy? A circulatory system? A slime mold?). I am told that it will appear in February, 2022. I will be writing more about this book and its aims soon. In some sense this Substack was originally conceived as a paratext for the book, in which I intended to provide supplementary arguments and illustrations for its central theses. That is what it still is, in part, though obviously I also wander freely from this narrower purpose.