Medieval Europe + Byzantine
- Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history
- The lives of Christ and the Virgin in Byzantine art
- The life of Christ in medieval and Renaissance art
- How to recognize the Four Evangelists
- How to recognize saints
- Architecture and liturgy
- The Bestiary
A book of beasts
Have you ever heard that elephants are afraid of mice? Or that foxes are deceptive? These characterizations of animals come from a medieval book called the Bestiary, or Book of Beasts. Though these books are not known to many today, you are likely familiar with some of their content. The magical beasts in the Harry Potter series come directly from medieval bestiaries. Descriptions of unicorns, phoenixes, basilisks, and centaurs are all included in the text, but misspell “bestiary” in a Google search and you will likely regret it.
The phoenix from folio 56 recto of the Aberdeen Bestiary, written and illuminated in England around 1200. The Bestiary describes this magical bird as building its own funeral pyre and then rising from the ashes.
The Bestiary is a medieval encyclopedia that identifies a selection of animals, plants, and precious stones. Some really exist in nature and others do not. Each entry includes a physical description, an overview of the animal's supposed characteristics, and a run-down of its moral qualities. Many versions of these books include illustrations. Its worth keeping in mind that Bestiaries pre-date the printing press. They were copied by hand at different times and places, resulting in a wide range of variations.
The beaver from folio 11 recto of the Aberdeen Bestiary, written and illuminated in England around 1200. The beaver shows off his testicles to escape the hunters.
From a Christian perspective
The lack of scientific information in each entry makes them entertaining to read. For example, the Bestiary text describes the beaver as a gentle animal whose testicles are valued for their medicinal properties. If a beaver senses that he is being hunted, he will bite off his testicles and throw them to the hunter to save his own life. If a beaver has already done this and is hunted again, he will stand on his hind legs and show the hunter that his testicles are already missing and the hunter will let him go. The text then goes on to give a Christian moralization of the beaver, stating that “every man who heeds God's commandment and wishes to live chastely should cut off all his vices and shameless acts, and cast them from him into the face of the devil” (source).
The Bestiary text is made up of several components. The bulk of the text comes from the Physiologus, a second century Greek text by an anonymous author. Relevant comments by other ancient authors such as Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Aelian are also included. The Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, the late fifth and sixth century Archbishop, constitute a significant portion of the text. Layers of Christian commentary and moralizations were added to those earlier texts.
Adam names the animals from folio 5 recto of the Aberdeen Bestiary, written and illuminated in England around 1200
The Bestiary begins with a retelling of the creation story from Genesis. An important event is Adam, the first man, naming all of the animals. This scene is often included in illustrated Bestiaries. Isidore of Seville believed that the names of animals were significant. He believed that an etymological study of each animal’s name would reveal something about the nature of each animal.
The content of the Bestiary, particularly the moralizations on the animals, is echoed in many medieval texts, from sermons to stories. Chaucer’s "Nun’s Priest’s Tale," an animal story from the Canterbury Tales, makes use of the Bestiary. The main characters are a sly, deceptive fox and Chanticleer, a foolish and egotistical rooster.
The Bestiary was an enormously popular book in the Middle Ages and more than 130 medieval copies survive today. These copies come from all over Western Europe. The earliest manuscripts date from the tenth century and many survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Many illustrations were drawn by artists who had never seen the relevant animal, but used the physical descriptions as a guide. The Bestiary text was influential, but these portable illustrations of animals were equally influential and likely served as models for animals in other manuscript illustrations, stone carving, wall painting, stained glass, and other media.
Text by Dr. Nancy Ross
Want to join the conversation?
- So could this mean the creatures in the book are or were real??(13 votes)
- I think they were real in the sense that people believed in their existence. If you are a medieval person you are likely to die in the surrounds of where you were born, so the only way an European person could ever know about elephants was through stories of travelers or such books, some were real like the elephants but most of the mythological creatures were as real as they are today.(30 votes)
- But what do they mean by "misspell “bestiary” in a Google search and you will likely regret it"?(10 votes)
- Would it be possible that a dinosaur skeleton was the inspiration for a dragon?(9 votes)
- In China, yes! Wikipedia says:
"The Chinese, whose modern word for dinosaur is kǒnglóng ("terrible dragon"), considered them to be dragon bones... Villagers in central China have long unearthed fossilized "dragon bones" for use in traditional medicines, a practice that continues today."
But in Europe, no.
"In Europe, dinosaur fossils were generally believed to be the remains of giants and other biblical creatures... Scholarly descriptions of what would now be recognized as dinosaur bones first appeared in the late 17th century in England."
Awesome question!(11 votes)
- I am honestly curious, did they really believe these bestiaries? Would uneducated people who have never seen a beaver really think this is how beavers acted?(5 votes)
- Probably not, in my opinion. The ordinary uneducated farmer or hunter would probably laugh at the idea of beasts having moral quality and all that stuff, because they are the one's who hunt them and know how they really act. The rich craftsmen making the book were probably those who were of a philosophical or sentimental bent, and liked the idea of animals having moralization.(5 votes)
- so since these creatures arent real what made them come to think they were. I know they believed it but with no real evidence how would they know or not? it seemed like they really thought and believed these creatures were real.(3 votes)
- Sometimes they would hear stories about animals from other parts of the world which they had never seen, and reconstruct them based only on descriptions, which might not be very good. This resulted in a lot of mutated animals. They also might include creatures from legend, still believing in them regardless of not having seen them. Today it's very easy to find out if something really exists or not, but back then they had to just take other people's word for it. Their grasp of natural laws was pretty small. At one time the prevalent belief was that there was a corresponding animal in the sea for each one on land, so the existence of the narwhal was thought to be proof of the existence of unicorns. All of the strange creatures in the bestiary made sense according to the ideas of the time.(8 votes)
- If creatures like unicorns and dragons did not exist, how do you they ended up in the book? And would if they did exist... Or maybe they exist today but we never see them. Would if?(5 votes)
- Well, Slenderman doesn't exist, yet we see thousands of memes and games dedicated to him, and even some crazy people who believe in his existence.
Medieval people loved a good story and didn't know about all of the world's places - India, China and sub-Saharan Africa were pure mysteries to them, so geographers had to rely on rumor and fanciful myths to fill in the vacuum. Without modern systems of communication and travel, it was easy to say dragons lived in Persia without anyone being able to disprove you.
This wasn't limited to medieval people, though - the Romans had a similar love of fantastical knowledge! In his encyclopedia The Natural History, Pliny the Elder says this about people from India: “A tribe of men called the Monocoli [have] only one leg and hop with amazing speed. These people are also called the Umbrella-footed, because when the weather is hot they lie on their backs stretched out on the ground and protect themselves by the shade of their feet.”(8 votes)
- "Many illustrations were drawn by artists who had never seen the relevant animal, but used the physical descriptions as a guide."
Reading this reminded me of the artist Henri Rousseau and his autodidact style of painting lush jungles and animals that he had likely never seen. I wonder if in fact these sorts of themes will always interest our inherent taste for the wild and unknown as they seem pervasive throughout history...(4 votes)
- Testicles of female beavers, explained by 13th century scientist Roger Bacon:
"Similarly it is commonly believed that the secretions of the beaver that the doctors use are the testicles of the male, but this is not so, as the beaver has this secretion beneath its breast and even the male as well as the female produces a secretion of this kind. In addition also to this secretion the male has its testicles in the natural place and thus again it is a horrible lie that, since hunters chase the beaver for this secretion, the beaver knowing what they are after, tears out his testicles with his teeth and throws them away."
Source: On Experimental Science, 1268 (http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/bacon2.asp)(3 votes)
- I wonder what medieval explorers thought or would have thought when or if they saw a platypus.(2 votes)
- The platypus was first discovered by Europeans in 1798. A dead one was sent back to England, and many people thought that it was a hoax and that someone had sewn the beak and feet of a duck onto a beaver's body!(2 votes)
- I wonder how Chinese culture viewed animals at around the same time. Do they also have a sort of "Bestiary encyclopedia? I know many animals are eaten by Chinese people which would not be eaten by ourselves so I wonder if they also included them in a Moralistic listing so they could eat them with more savour (saveur in French).(2 votes)
- First of all, the french eat frogs for your big fat information (if you didn't know). Second of all, the Chinese culture probably does have one. Although, it doesn't say that bunnies will give you their foot for your luck; or that the bunny's foot is good for healing.(1 vote)