Bestiary – what is it?

This month’s blog from the Art and Design Library is on the

Bestiary.

Today, the word bestiary, is loosely defined. Pretty much any collection of animals – descriptions of animals, or stories about them – can be understood as a bestiary. But more specifically, what was a medieval bestiary? (And what is it that is so compelling about bestiaries; why do the pictures and the stories sit so strongly in our imaginations?)

The relationship between humans and animals is as old, complex, and interwoven, as time. All people everywhere, throughout history, have thought about what that relationship might be: the hows, the whys, the whats, of looking at animals. What are we looking at when we look at an animal? What do we see, what do we feel and think? How do we value animals, and how then do we act towards them (or how do we not act?)

All big fat questions, especially in an age where the natural world is so threatened, and the climate crisis so real…

To think our way back into a medieval mind and a medieval conception of how animals sit in the world, is, of course, a difficult thing to do. So what can bestiaries tell us about that medieval mind, or the mind of a medieval somebody who was aristocratic or royal. (The medieval somebody would need to be aristocratic or royal, to be able to own an expensive and elaborately decorated book like a bestiary…)

What is a bestiary?

A bestiary is a medieval encyclopaedia of animals – of sorts. It was both a natural history text and a religious text. Animal symbolism was very important in the middle ages, and the central question when encountering an animal (or a rock or a plant; some bestiaries included these too), was: 
How is this animal significant to your inner moral world? And how does its behaviour and characteristics throw light on your understanding of the Christian faith? This hedgehog here, the one the picture is making you think about, curled up, bundled up, the wind blowing as you watch it. What does it tell you about God?

British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(The balls on the hedgehogs’ spines are grapes (or maybe figs or apples). The story goes they carry them away at harvest time to feed their young. Other stories: they curl up when people approach and creak like a cart. A cooked hedgehog could be made into medicine; and when the north wind blows a hedgehog will close the hole to its lair.)

Bestiaries were also extremely popular. They were full of religious allegory, but they were light and comic too, they were entertainment.

The real and the fantastical

Bestiaries contain entries on animals that are both real and fantastical. The unicorn sits alongside the lion which sits alongside the owl which sits alongside the griffin. No distinction was made between the real and the fantastical.

If a medieval prince looked at our lives, steeped as they are in technology and an online world, would they find the real life/fantastical relationship we lead equally as strange as we find theirs? Perhaps.

The origins of the medieval bestiary

There are a number of sources for the bestiary. One principle source is a Greek natural history text called the Physiologus which was written in Alexandria between the 2nd and 4th centuries (and by the late 4th century, a Latin translation was also available).

Other thinkers significant to bestiaries were Saint Ambrose, Isidore of Seville, and Rabanus Maurus. And so what developed in 12th century Europe was a large compilation of different texts. The texts were not set in any way, and the order and number of animals would change from bestiary to bestiary.

And for some beasts and stories…

The Lion

The lion is the king of the beasts, and it’s one of the animals with the most stories. Here are a few of them.

When a lion’s cubs are born, they’re born dead, but three days later they are brought to life by the mother breathing on them and the father roaring at them. That lion’s mouth is a fearful thing – breath, life, roooooarr! We learn to roar like a lion as toddlers. Our conception of the importance of lions (and similarly dragons) starts early. This story is, of course, about the crucifixion and the resurrection. All bestiary stories come with meanings.

Other lion tales.

When a lion is in the mountains and notices it is being hunted, it rubs out its tracks with its tail.

It always sleeps with its eyes open.

A lion is frightened (not unsurprisingly) by hunters and spears, and so looks at the ground. Lions are afraid of the sound of creaking cartwheels, fire, and seeing a white cock.

There are more…

The Whale

Two Fishermen on an Aspidochelone in a bestiary, about 1270, unknown illuminator, possibly made in Thérouanne, France. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 7 1/2 × 5 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 3, fol. 89v.
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Unknown French illuminator, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The whale is so enormous it can be mistaken for an island. It can lie on the surface until plants grow on its back. When sailors land on a whale, and when they light a fire, the whale feels the heat, and then – splash – down it dives, deep into the sea, taking the sailors with it.

When a whale is hungry and it opens its mouth, the smell is so sweet that little fish are drawn towards it. They swim inside, and the whale swallows them down.

The Christian allegory follows. The whale, tempting and luring, represents the devil, which drags those he deceives down to hell.  

Here’s a link to a great little animation. (And a lot of other interesting things.)

The Unicorn

Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, BL Royal 12 F xiii, f. 10v. Held and digitised by the British Library.
British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The unicorn is a wild creature. It is strong and fast, and resembles a small goat or an ass or a horse. It has a long straight horn in the middle of its head with a spiral groove running up it. To capture a unicorn, a young virgin girl must sit by herself in a forest, and the unicorn will come and lay its head on her lap. Sometimes it suckles from her breast. Then, out of the wings, come the hunters, and they kill or capture it.

The horn of the unicorn can be used to detect poison. If you dip a unicorn horn in a poisoned drink, it purifies it. Powdered unicorn horn is also an aphrodisiac.

And the allegory? The unicorn represents the incarnation of Jesus in the virgin Mary’s womb – and his subsequent capture and death. Its fierceness and wildness is the inability of hell to hold him. The single horn represents the unity of God, and the unicorn’s small size, Christ’s humility in becoming human.

The Kingfisher

There are kingfishers in the Botanic Gardens. I always look out for them, and I always find seeing them an amazing thing. They are streaks of blue that dash low over the water. Their call is a soft rapid high-pitched squeaking.

In the bestiaries, kingfishers lay their eggs in the middle of winter, when the storms are at their strongest. They lay them in the sand, and for seven days they hatch them. They then look after them for a further seven days. All the while they are nurturing them, the sea remains calm, unseasonably so for the time of year. And because (one of) the Latin names for a kingfisher is halcyon, sailors call this time the “halcyon days”.

Incidentally, other phrases we use that come from bestiaries are “crocodile tears”, as a crocodile always weeps after eating a man. And “licking into shape”: bear cubs are born shapeless, and are literally licked into shape by their mothers.

How many are there?

Lots. In 2019 the J. Paul Getty Museum put together an exhibition, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World and it’s still possible to explore it online. Many bestiaries were made! See the Wikipedia list here.

What is it that is so compelling about a bestiary?

Who knows. They are about wonder, they do all the things that a picture and a story does – wonderful things. The animals we meet in bestiaries are animals that sit in trees and on mountain-tops, but they also include animals that don’t; fantastical animals. The real animals sit side-by-side with the fantastical animals. The fantastical feels real, and the real fantastical. And that feels pretty wonderful.

Some further links I came across researching this blog:

Some blogs from the British Library – on the medieval bestiary; and another one of beastly tales (again there are lots). 

A London Review of Books article of the exhibition publication for the J. Paul Getty exhibition mentioned above, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond (Yale University Press; 2019).

A link to a project on the Aberdeen Bestiary.

A compilation of digitised material on medieval bestiaries.

And a few books from the library…

If you’ve enjoyed reading about these bestiaries, please do come and explore our collections.

Browse our catalogue or come on into the library. (And of course, we have many books on many things… Please do come and take a look!)

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