Medieval Bestiaries

Totus enim mundus diversis creaturis plenus est; quasi liber scriptus variis litteris et sententiis plenus in quo legere possumus quicquid imitari vel fugere debeamus.

For the whole world is full of different creatures, like a book written with various words and full of sentences in which we can read what we should imitate and avoid.

~ Thomas of Chobham (d. ~ 1236),  Summa de Arte Praedicandi 7.2

During the Middle Ages, nature was believed to have been created by God specifically for humans and therefore all creatures were considered to be lessons in morality and faith (BBC, 2010). Bestiaries were manuscripts cataloging all of the natural and supernatural animals believed to interact with the earthly world.  Lions, owls, gryphons, and unicorns roamed the Medieval world, providing tales of caution and highlighting paths to follow as a Christian. Beasts were thought to reveal God’s plan for mankind and bestiaries were used as guides to understanding what animal behavior revealed about how humans should behave.

Northumberland Bestiary, c. 1200 AD, J. Paul Getty Museum

Northumberland Bestiary, c. 1200 AD, J. Paul Getty Museum

Medieval Drawings of Animals

Bestiaries were full of drawings and descriptions of not only common animals such as dogs, cats, fish, and birds but also of fantastical creatures born of the medieval imagination. While a browse through a medieval bestiary will reveal creatures unfamiliar with to the modern reader, the artistic depictions of extant animals may also baffle some. The drawing of animals, especially those from faraway lands, was not based on a visual reconstruction but rather based on artistic conventions of the time (Jeffs, 2017). With many of these drawings, something always seems a bit off about each of them.

This owl is recognizable but the face is rather human in appearance.

An owl being attacked by other birds, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century,Harley MS 4751, f. 47r, British Library

An owl being attacked by other birds, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century,Harley MS 4751, f. 47r, British Library

This elephant looks like a cross between a wolf and an elephant with the tusk emerging from the jaw like fangs and claws on the feet.

Herbal manuscript, Italy c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 50v, British Library

Herbal manuscript, Italy c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 50v, British Library

While this elephant looks weary and misshapen.

Liber medicinae ex animalibus, Southern Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 1585, f. 67v., British Library

Liber medicinae ex animalibus, Southern Netherlands,
3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 1585, f. 67v., British Library

Supernatural Creatives in Medieval Manuscripts

Supernatural creatures were presented as existing alongside earthly creatures such as this anphivena, an animal with two heads, one at the tail.

England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 62r, British Library

England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 62r, British Library

The manticore was said to have “the face of a man, the body of a lion, a triple row of teeth, the tail of a scorpion, and ‘delights in eating human flesh’ (Biggs, 2014).

Bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v, British Library.

Bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v, British Library.

Spiritual Lessons from the Medieval Natural World

This image of the beaver also shows that drawings of animals were also often depicted in a setting reflecting the allegorical tale. The testicles of beavers were prized for their perceived medicinal value. This scene of the beaver self-castrating in order to flee its hunter was a cautionary tale that humans should shed their vices in order not to be pursued by the devil. This drawing of a beaver self-castrating to escape a hunter looks more like a bizarre dog/large cat hybrid than the buck-toothed, flat-tailed beavers we are used to seeing.

Add MS 11283, f. 4v, Late 12th century, British Library

Add MS 11283, f. 4v, Late 12th century, British Library

Common Animals in Medieval Bestiaries

Here Begins the Book of the Nature of Beasts. Of Lions and Panthers and Tigers, Wolves and Foxes, Dogs and Apes. 

~ Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200

Bestiaries were not intended as a comprehensive catalog of all animals living in the earthly and supernatural realm.  Rather, animals were selected based on the spiritual lessons they presented.  Both real and fantastic creatures make this list.  Lions, boars, owls, dragons, serpents, and dogs were among the many animals commonly found in bestiaries.

Since bestiaries were intertwined with theological teachings, most bestiaries contained an image of “Adam naming the animals” (BBC, 2010).  This image from the Aberdeen Bestiary shows Adam with his arm raised while the animals look attentively as they wait for their names.  This image was meant to show the intimacy of the relationship between God, nature, and mankind (Peverly, n.d.).

Adam Names the Animals, f. 5r, Aberdeen Bestiary, c. 1200 AD, Aberdeen University

Adam Names the Animals, f. 5r, Aberdeen Bestiary, c. 1200 AD, Aberdeen University

Lions earned a placed of honor in bestiaries, usually appearing first in the manuscript.  The lion represented Christ through many aspects of their nature (Royal project team, n.d.).   This illustration shows lions breathing life into their cubs, evoking Christ’s resurrection.

Bestiary from central or northern England, c. 1200-10, Royal 12 C. xix, f. 6, British Library

Bestiary from central or northern England, c. 1200-10, Royal 12 C.
xix, f. 6, British Library

The hunted beaver self-castrating was a common illustration as a tale warning of the dangers of being hunted by Satan over vanity (Eddy, 2012).

Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 14r, British Library

Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 14r, British Library

Unlike the attribute of wisdom one typically thinks of with owls, these birds were considered as ominous signs during the Middle Ages. Rabanus Maurus, a Benedictine monk from the 800s declared, ‘The owl signifies those who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness’ (Aberdeen, n.d.)

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1444b, Folio 243r

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1444b, Folio 243r

The most common supernatural creature was the dragon, a representation of Satan.  Dragons were seen as the opposite of all that was considered good and holy (Biggs, 2014a).

Dragon attacking an elephant, Bestiary from England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r, British Library

Dragon attacking an elephant, Bestiary from England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r, British Library

Medieval Beasts in Marginalia

The marginalia of bestiaries often contained sketches and drawings of beasts along with rubrics (instructions). This page from a late 12th century bestiary shows drawings done with brown ink and colored mostly with blue and green inks. In the upper right, a notation about the virtues of the bird being discussed has been highlighted with an outline of red ink and three red dots. Red ink was frequently used to highlight text. In fact, the word rubric stems from the Latin word rubric meaning “red ochre”).

Clark's Second-family bestiary, England, late 12th century, Add MS 11283 f.22v, British Library

Clark’s Second-family bestiary, England, late 12th century, Add MS 11283 f.22v, British Library

References

Abderdeen University.  (n.d).  Folio 50r – the blackbird, continued. De bubone; Of the Owl. Retrieved from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/ms24/f50r

BBC Worldwide Ltd., Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), & Films Media Group. (2010). Inside the Medieval Mind: Knowledge. New York, N.Y: Films Media Group.

Biggs, S.  (2014a).  The anatomy of a dragon [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/04/the-anatomy-of-a-dragon.html

Biggs, S.  (2014b, June 14).  Weird and wonderful creatures of the bestiary [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/06/weird-and-wonderful-creatures-of-the-bestiary.html

Eddy, N.  (2012, November 7).  Beavers on the run [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html

Jeffs, A.   (2017, August 10).  Pouncing beasts [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2017/08/pouncing-beasts.html

Peverly, S.  (n.d.).  Beaty of the bestiaries [Blog post}.  Retrieved from https://sarahpeverley.com/2015/11/17/beauty-of-the-bestiaries/

Royal project team.  (2012, Feburary 9).  The king of beasts [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/02/the-king-of-beasts.html

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