Bestiary – what is it?

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


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!)

Animals in music

Starting a #Tunesday series, staff from the Music Library look at music of all forms through their Musical Alphabet – this week we begin, naturally, with A!

There are many sources of musical inspiration and the animal kingdom is no exception. Many composers past and present have used their works to depict animals, use animals as allegories or as educational tools. With so many examples to choose from, Natasha from the Music Library looks at a selection:

Front cover artwork of the Carnival of the Animals CD.

The Carnival of the Animals – Camille Saint-Saëns
When mentioning animals within music, it is not unreasonable to guess that Camille Saint-Saëns’ suite The Carnival of the Animals would be the first thing to spring to most people’s minds. Written in 1886, Carnival was published posthumously in 1922 upon request in Saint-Saëns’ will that it would not be made available during his lifetime for fear that the humorous suite would damage his reputation as a ‘serious’ composer. Aside from a handful of semi-private performances, only the cello solo The Swan was published before Saint-Saëns’ death, in an arrangement for cello and solo piano.

The suite is a fun, light-hearted work, having been written after Saint-Saëns had completed an unsuccessful concert tour of Germany. The suite is not written for a full orchestra: it contains only one of each instrument present except for two pianos and two violins; there are no brass instruments and no bass instruments from the woodwind section; the only percussion featured is a xylophone and the unusual glass harmonica is featured. Saint-Saëns uses this orchestration to great effect, perfectly capturing the essence of the animals depicted, whether it be the woodwind mimicking birds, the double bass relaying the weight of an elephant’s movement, or the cello mirroring a swan gracefully moving on water. Saint-Saëns also added musicians to his menagerie, with a movement that shows pianists practising their scales; the original edition of the score has editor notes informing performers to resemble the awkwardness of beginners.

Despite Saint-Saëns’ reservations, Carnival is arguably his best known work, with several movements such as Fossils, The Swan, Finale and Aquarium often used within the world of film and TV; indeed, the latter inspired Alan Menken when writing the opening theme for the 1991 film Beauty and the Beast. Verses have also been added to the suite, including words written by Ogden Nash in 1949 and a version released last year with poems by Michael Morpurgo, recited by himself and Olivia Colman, with the music performed by the wonderfully talented Kanneh-Mason family.
Listen to Carnival of the Animals on Naxos

Peter and the Wolf – Sergei Prokofiev
A commission for a musical symphony for children requested by Natalya Sats, the director of the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow, Peter and the Wolf  was written by Sergei Prokofiev in two weeks in 1936. The piece utilises a narrator to tell the story of Peter and his encounter with a wolf after ignoring his grandfather’s warnings about such dangers. Other animals – a bird, a duck, and a cat – assist Peter in overcoming their foe before hunters who have been tracking the wolf succeed in capturing it.

Each character within the piece is represented by a particular instrument in the orchestra, allowing children to easily recognise both character and sound. Prokofiev stated in performance notes for the piece that children should be shown the instruments and have the character’s leitmotivs played to them before the performance begins so the young audience are able to distinguish between them. Peter and the Wolf was also written to convey other messages, chiefly the ideological struggle between Peter and his grandfather, the taming of nature, and not being afraid to take risks.

Peter and the Wolf is one of Prokofiev’s most popular works and has been recorded many times with very famous names fulfilling the role of the narrator, including David Bowie, Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Christopher Lee, Sir David Attenborough, and Jacqueline du Pré. Prokofiev also performed the work to “le papa de Mickey Mouse”, Walt Disney. An animated version was released by Disney’s studios in 1946, six years later than planned due to World War II. The Disney version does deviate a little from the original, most noticeably in its ending: the duck avoids being eaten whole by the wolf in order to make it more child-friendly.
Listen to Peter and the Wolf on Naxos

Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks – Modest Mussorgsky
A movement from his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is one of Modest Mussorgsky’s musical interpretations of works by his close friend, the Russian architect and painter Viktor Hartmann. The work in question for this particular movement was a sketch showing a child wearing a large eggshell costume and a canary head headdress, which Hartmann had produced for the ballet Trilby.

The instrumentation features percussive moments to indicate the chicks tapping their shells with their beaks, or perhaps their chirping after hatching. The piece is written in a higher register, much more appropriate for dainty, newborn birds, and the trills featured certainly conjure images of fluffy little feathers fluttering around as the chicks scurry about. The result is a thoroughly charming piece that can’t help but raise a smile. Though Mussorgsky originally wrote the suite for piano, Maurice Ravel’s 1922 version of Pictures at an Exhibition, written for full orchestra, is probably the iteration we are most familiar with. Ravel’s Ballet heavily utilises the woodwind section to convey the jollity of the music, whilst the strings help give a light, feathery feel.
Listen to Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks on Naxos

The Lark Ascending – Ralph Vaughan Williams
Inspired by the 1881 poem of the same name by George Meredith, The Lark Ascending is one of Ralph Vaughan William’s best known works. Originally composed in 1914 for violin and piano, the piece wasn’t performed until 1920 and the original manuscript has since been lost. Vaughan Williams reworked the composition for solo violin and orchestra, and the first performance of this version – the version that we are most familiar with – celebrates its 100th anniversary this year on 14th June. Marie Hall, to whom the piece is dedicated, was the soloist in both premieres.

Meredith’s poem is pastoral in nature and Vaughan Williams echoes this in his score, inspired by British folk tunes that he cared for so deeply. The orchestra provides the rolling British countryside against which the lark, portrayed by a soaring violin solo, dances in flight above. There is a sense of nostalgia and freedom attached to the work, having been written and first performed against the backdrop of World War I and its aftermath; Vaughan Williams was temporarily arrested as it was thought he could be a German spy when he was spotted making notes for the piece. This also gives cause for the piece to be incredibly moving, the beauty of the lark gliding in the air and disappearing into the sky above serene countryside being a stark contrast to the horrors endured through war.

The Lark Ascending has proved hugely popular, consistently topping polls for the public’s favourite piece of classical music. It’s easy to see why.
Listen to The Lark Ascending on Naxos

Flight of the Bumblebee – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Composed in 1899-1900 as an orchestral interlude for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Flight of the Bumblebee has become a classical music staple despite only ever being intended to be incidental in nature. Flight of the Bumblebee closes Act 3, Tableau 1 of the opera, after the magic Swan-Bird transforms the Tsar’s son into a bumblebee so he can fly away to visit his father. In the opera, the soprano Swan-Bird sings during the first part of the piece, though this line can be omitted quite easily.

The way the strings hum during this piece depicts the distinct buzz of a bee so clearly, whilst the frenetic tempo and continuous runs of chromatic notes found in the melody draw the unpredictable insect’s flight path. The piece continues to gain momentum, never dipping in tempo. Consequently, it is often seen as a test of players’ technique, now somewhat of a showpiece to demonstrate incredibly fast playing. This has resulted in the piece becoming a little maligned in some circles; its charm and musicality often being sacrificed at the hands of world record-seeking speedsters. That said, when played well, Flight of the Bumblebee perfectly captures the image of a bee’s movement so clearly that you can easily picture one hovering around flowers on a spring day, or frantically tapping against a window when it has accidentally flown into your home.
Listen to Flight of the Bumblebee on Naxos

Horse Racing – Huang Haihuai
Composed around 1960 by Huang Haihuai, Horse Racing is a piece for the erhu – a bowed instrument with only two strings, introduced to China from modern-day Mongolia and Russia over a thousand years ago. Inspired by the Mongolian folk song Red Flag Song, the piece depicts the horse racing event in the traditional Mongolian Naadam Festival. The lack of a fingerboard behind the strings on the erhu allows for skilled players to create an interesting range of effects, some of which are demonstrated in variations of Horse Racing. Different percussive styles of playing using both the players’ fingers and the bow imitate horses’ hooves as they gallop, whilst some versions include the erhu uncannily mimicking a horse’s neigh at the end of the piece. This contrasts with calmer, legato sections which depict the grasslands the riders travel through. A famous performance of Horse Racing was given at Carnegie Hall in 2003 by Lang Guo-ren, an accomplished erhu player, when he made a guest appearance at a concert given by his son, the renowned pianist Lang Lang.
Listen to Horse Racing on Naxos

The Lamb – John Tavener
Animals also feature as religious symbols within music, as demonstrated within Sir John Tavener’s unaccompanied choral piece The Lamb. Often performed at Christmas, the piece is a setting of William Blake’s poem of the same name which features in his collection Songs of Innocence from 1789. The text addresses a lamb, with the first stanza asking the animal if it knows who created it, giving it its soft coat and tender voice. The second stanza states the answer is also a lamb, though this lamb is Jesus Christ, the lamb of God.

Composed in 1982, Tavener’s setting is unusual as the piece has no time signature, with full bar lines only given at the end of each stanza and broken bar lines placed at the end of each line. This was one of several rhythmical features Tavener included to allow the work to be “always guided by the words”. The piece is based around the melody used within the first two phrases, with Tavener using inversions in the harmonies to create dissonance. Tavener’s works were often sacred in nature, having converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977; The Lamb is one of his best known pieces.
Listen to The Lamb on Naxos

Rejoice in the Lamb – Benjamin Britten
Another piece that uses animals in a religious context is Benjamin Britten’s cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb. Commissioned by the Reverend Walter Hussey to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton, the text is from Christopher Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno. Smart, a deeply religious man, wrote the poem between 1759-1763, at which time he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in London, after a ‘Commission of Lunacy’ had been taken out against him by his father-in-law, the publisher John Newbery. The poem was first published in 1939, with Britten setting the text to music in 1943.

The choir begins the piece, calling forth figures from the Old Testament along with various animals in praise of God. However, the most famous section concerning creatures is the treble solo: For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. Not much is known about Smart’s time in the asylum, other than he was left alone bar his cat, Jeoffry. Smart’s words reflect on how the cat worships God in his movements and the characteristics he has been bestowed. Britten’s composition uses the instrumentation for the organ to depict Jeoffry, “wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness”. The following alto solo, illustrating a male mouse defending a female mouse from a cat, is similar in intent. The organ playing here is much jumpier than the relaxed depiction of the cat, mimicking the more frantic movement of the mouse.
Listen to Rejoice in the Lamb on Naxos

The Blue Bird – Charles Villiers Stanford
Quite possibly my favourite piece amongst this list, this partsong by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is a setting of a poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge. The poem was originally published anonymously in French (L’oiseau bleu) in 1897. When she died suddenly ten years later, Coleridge left behind many unpublished poems and The Blue Bird, amongst others, was published posthumously in Coleridge’s name the following year, 1908. Stanford, having been friends with Mary’s father – Arthur Duke Coleridge, founder of the London Bach Choir, for whom Stanford was conductor from 1885-1902 – was said to be deeply affected by her death and set eight of her poems to music in 1910, The Blue Bird being amongst them.

The poem captures in two stanzas the most fleeting of moments: a bluebird flying past the narrator. The word ‘blue’ appears several times in the text, describing a lake, the sky, and the wings of the titular bird, which allows for a simultaneous feeling of coolness and warmth when married with Stanford’s music; joy and melancholy seem to be intertwined within this piece. The choir depicts the calm setting of the lake whist the soprano line mimics the bird’s flight. The piece finishes with the word ‘blue’, a solitary note from the sopranos that repeats throughout; its final chime unresolved with the rest of the choir as the bird flies away, merging into the blue sky, leaving us at the lake below.

Stanford’s works have now been somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries such as Sir Edward Elgar and pupils of his, including Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams (whose piece The Lark Ascending shares a similar context to The Blue Bird). So haunting and ethereal in its beauty, The Blue Bird is a wondrous marriage of text and music. In amongst so many works that focus on much more grandiose subjects, The Blue Bird celebrates the ephemeral.
Listen to The Blue Bird on Naxos

You can listen to all these pieces and more animal-inspired works to create your own menagerie on the Naxos Classical Music Library.

How do animals prevent and treat disease?

Capuchins use smelly plants to prevent insect bites:

A fascinating exhibition, showing other ways the animal kingdom prevents and treats infection and disease, goes on show in Central Library from tomorrow.

Learn about how chimps use rolled up leaves to remove gut parasites; how honey bees treat infection in their hive and how humans commonly use the environment in which they live to treat and/or prevent infection, whether treating nettle rash with dock leaves or taking Aspirin – a drug originally developed from Meadowsweet.

The exhibition is on until Tuesday 15th April and there’s a related activity trail taking place in the Zoo on Wednesday between 10am and 4pm, which is free with Zoo admission.

Part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, in partnership with the University of St Andrews and RZSS Edinburgh Zoo.

The Decoration of Spring

Spring has arrived! The flowers bud, newborn animals lay in the fields; and the sky transforms from the dark grey snows of winter, to the dull grey constant rain that all other seasons in the British Isles consist of.

So to help evoke the more traditional thoughts of spring, we turn to Capital Collections new online exhibition ‘L’ animal dans la decoration’. Merging bold colours with the use of animals, French Art Nouveau artist Maurice Pillard Verneuil, created a collection of prints which show how animals can inspire design and decoration in items of furniture, papers, tiles and even outdoor items such as railings.

So let Edinburgh Libraries bring spring to you, when the rain (or snow!!) prevents you from getting out and experiencing it for yourself.

Some unusual visitors at Leith Library

Zoolab visited Leith Library as part of the Summer Space Hop Reading Challenge 2010 activities. Over 20 children and parents enjoyed this fascinating talk about insects and small animals which have survived for millions of years and who knows, may be living on another planet at this very moment.

The children had the chance to handle a range of live animals including a snake, frog, giant millipede and rat, but only looked at the tarantula in its box!