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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Zoos with Halos: The Medieval Bestiary

Originally written for a medieval journal, Dec 2002.

What Exactly are Bestiaries?

Quickly explained, a bestiary was a medieval manuscript that acted both as a zoological record of animal life and as a religious text. Bestiary authors would collect tales of animals (some of whom we now know never existed, such as the phoenix) and would compare each animal’s attributes (real or imagined) with those of God, Jesus, the saints and the devil. Bestiaries as we know them began to appear in the 12th century, though they were based on earlier writings, especially the 4th century Greek work by Physiologus.

Why Were they Written?

To the medieval European everything revolved around religion. It was everywhere. It didn’t matter if you were a 10th Century Norse, a 14th Century Englishman or a 17th Century French woman, your life was dictated by religion. Shamans and churches exerted great control over the populace, and for a long time the only texts that were produced were those that had ‘religious merit.’ Remember too that for much of period in Europe only the upper class and the clergy were literate. Most texts produced were produced and transcribed by hordes of ink-stained monks.

The bestiary was a chance for the church to preach through the ‘secular’ written word. (Other popular genres of writing at this time were hagiographies—the lives of the saints—and lapidaries—essentially bestiaries with stones instead of animals.) The church never missed an opportunity to preach (much as nowadays corporations never miss a chance to advertise). As the Aberdeen Bestiary says, they were didactic tools “to improve the minds of ordinary people, in such a way that the soul will at least perceive physically things which it has difficulty grasping mentally: that what they have difficulty comprehending with their ears, they will perceive with their eyes” (Aberdeen MS 24, f25v).

Examples of a Bestiary dear to a Septentrian’s Heart—the Wolf and Bear

Below are two examples of bestiary entries taken from the Aberdeen Bestiary. They are for the wolf (to us the symbol of Ealdormere) and the bear (to us representative of Septentria).

Of the bear. According to the Aberdeen Bestiary (folio 15r and 15v) the bear gives birth to a formless blob of flesh that the mother then licks into shape. The reason the cub was born in such a state was because it was always born prematurely, thirty days after conception. The head of the bear was seen as being weak, its true strength being in its arms and loins (blue yarbles to us Septentrians). They were seen as at least partly intelligent, for they knew how to heal themselves with natural materials (for this same reason North American Natives considered the bear to be wise). When mating they mate more like humans than other quadrupeds, for they embrace each other. Mating generally happens in the winter, as this season arouses them. After which, they will sleep for three months. The enjoy honey and will eagerly attack beehives to get it. If they eat mandrake they will die, but if they then eat ants they will be saved. When attacking a bull they go for the horns and nose, as they know it is the bull’s most sensitive area. (This entry is unusual in that it does not compare the bear to any saintly virtues or sinful vices.)

Of the wolf. The wolf was seen as capricious and greedy, and for this reason whores were called she-wolves as they would strip their lovers of their wealth. The wolf’s strength was thought to be in its chests and paws, and had weak loins. The wolf was a cunning predator that would stay upwind of dogs guarding flocks. If a wolf saw a man it stole his power of speech, but if the man spies the wolf first the wolf looses its fierceness. A patch of hair on a wolf’s tail was thought to be a love charm, and the wolves knew it. If they knew they were going to be captured, they would tear this piece of fur from their body, as this would destroy the charm. The devil was then compared to the wolf as the devil looks on mankind with an evil eye and continues to stalk the sheepfold (the Church) looking for prey. The fact that the wolf’s eyes were luminescent at night meant his eyes were like the Devil’s whose works seem beautiful to blind and foolish men. The bestiary then goes on for about three more pages comparing the wolf to the Devil. (Condensed from the Aberdeen Bestiary, folio 16v, 17r, 17v and 18r)

What Animals were included in the Bestiaries that did not Really Exist?

There were many, but I’ll list a few quickly, along with their dominant characteristics. The Bonnacon was an Asian ox-like animal that expelled burning dung when chased. The satyr, that goat-like, lewd forest dweller is familiar to most of us. One of my favourites is the Yale, a horse-like creature with an elephant’s tail and a boar’s jaw whose long horns could swivel about is head to meet danger from any direction. (The Yale is also a European heraldic animal.)

Are Bestiaries Still Written Today?

Indeed they are. I have seen bestiaries from the colonial period and modern day ones containing creatures of local folklore. The biggest difference to the bestiary is the lack of religious allegories, and its audience. We are a more ‘civilized’, cynical lot. When I crack the cover of A New World Bestiary and read of the chat-huant (a creature that was half cat and half owl) I do not believe that it really existed. In period when they read of Yales they truly believed that somewhere these strange beings really existed. Remember, most Europeans rarely traveled, so they were not very worldy. When those who did travel returned with tales of giraffes (which they called cameleopards) the stories were deemed fantastic but true. (In the case of the giraffe, it was. In the case of the gryphon, it wasn’t.) Today we have people claiming to see sasquatch and aliens and they are generally laughed at.

Sources and Further Reading


The Aberdeen Bestiary Project, http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/
This is your number one stop on the web for researching or reading bestiaries. It contains a complete, scanned manuscript with typed transcription (in the original Latin) and an English translation. It also has many close-up scans of the individual illuminations.

Bladick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1990.

Preminger, Alex, ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Enlarged Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

White, T. H., trans. and ed. The Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1984.
This is T. H. White’s translation of the same source manuscript as the Aberdeen Bestiary. Unfortunately it does not have reproductions of the original illuminations, but rather has White’s drawings based on those illuminations.

Further Reading
Hamilton, Mary. A New World Bestiary. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985.
A collection of creatures once thought to live in Canada, The US and Mexico during the time of French, English and Spanish exploration.

Hunt, Jonathan. Bestiary: An Illuminated Alphabet of Medieval Beasts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
This book has been making the rounds of the SCA lately. The drawings unfortunately aren’t really illuminated.

Robinson, Alan James and Laurie Block. An Odd Bestiary or, a Compendium of Instructive and Entertaining Descriptions of Animals, Culled from Five Centuries of Travler’s Accounts, Natural Histories, Zoologies, &c. by Authors Famous and Obscure, Arranged as an Abecedary. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
A colonial-age bestiary with excellent illustrations.

The Yale: Heraldic Beast, http://www.kwantlen.bc.ca/~donna/sca/yale/
Lots of info on one of my favourite heraldic beasties.

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