The Beauty of the Bestiary

Animals had been written about for centuries before the Christian era, but it was Christianity that took the stories and made them into religious allegories. The first known text to do this was the Physiologus, written in Greek in Alexandria in the second or third century CE. This collection of animal lore is explicitly Christian; it briefly describes an animal, and continues with an Christian allegorical interpretation. The Physiologus was a “bestseller” that was translated into most of the major languages of Europe and western Asia; it is said that it was the most widely-distributed book in Europe after the Bible. Many variations on the text appeared over the centuries. The original Physiologus text, describing less than 50 animals, continued to evolve, accumulating more beasts and additional moral interpretations. Around the seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologiae, an encyclopedia of which part was about animals, derived from the books of Classical authors such as Pliny the Elder. When thePhysiologus combined with the Etymologiae and other texts, the book known as the bestiary was born.

The bestiary, or “book of beasts”, is more than just an expansion of the Physiologus, though the two have much in common. The bestiary also describes a beast and uses that description as a basis for an allegorical teaching, but by including text from other sources it goes further; and while still not a “zoology textbook”, it is not only a religious text, but also a description of the world as it was known.

The Aberdeen Bestiary, created in England in around 1200 and first documented in the Royal Library at Westminster Palace in 1542 is a lavishly illustrated medieval book which once belonged to King Henry VIII 

The bestiary manuscripts were usually illustrated, sometimes lavishly, as for example in the Harley Bestiary and the Aberdeen Bestiary; the pictures served as a “visual language” for the illiterate public, who knew the stories – preachers used them in sermons – and would remember the moral teaching when they saw the beast depicted. Bestiary images could be found everywhere. They appeared not only in bestiaries but in manuscripts of all kinds; in churches and monasteries, carved in stone both inside and out, and in wood on misericords and on other decorated furniture; painted on walls and worked into mosaics; and woven into tapestries.  – David Badke, editor, The Medieval Bestiary Index

A bat is not a noble bird. It is unlike other birds in that it gives birth to live young instead of laying eggs, and it has teeth. Bats gather together and hang from high places like a bunch of grapes; if one falls, all the rest also fall. Source: Aberdeen Bestiary
Cranes fly in order, with the leader guiding the flock with a shrill voice; when the leader becomes tired or his voice gives out, another takes his place. They fly high in the air so they can see the lands they seek. At night cranes take turns keeping watch for enemies. The one who is on duty holds a stone up with one claw; if the watcher falls asleep the stone will fall and wake him. If the wind is strong cranes swallow sand or carry stones for ballast. Cranes are the enemy of pygmies, with whom they are constantly at war. Source: British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 39r

As described by Pierre de Beauvais in his Bestiaire, the cricket likes to sing so much that it forgets everything, loses its appetite, lets itself be hunted, and dies singing. Source: Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 308, Folio 88v 

The crocodile is a four-footed beast, about twenty cubits long, that is born in the Nile River. Its skin is very hard, so that it is not hurt when struck by stones. It spends the day on land and the night in the water. It is armed with cruel teeth and claws; it is the only animal that can move the upper part of its jaw while keeping the lower part still. Its dung can be used to enhance a person’s beauty: the excrement (or the contents of the intestines) is smeared on the face and left there until sweat washes it off. Crocodiles always weep after eating a man. Despite the hardness of the crocodile’s skin, there are two animals that can kill it. The sawfish (serra) can cut the crocodile’s stomach, and the hydrus can crawl into the crocodile’s mouth and kill it from the inside. Source: Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 12v
The lion is the king of the beasts, and as such is usually the first beast described in the bestiaries. The lion chapter is generally one of the longest and most complex.
The lion has three natures: when a lion walking in the mountains sees that it is being hunted, it erases its tracks with its tail; it always sleeps with its eyes open; and its cubs are born dead and are brought to life on the third day when the mother breathes in their faces or the father roars over them. Some sources add more natures: a lion only kills out of great hunger; it will not attack a prostrate man; it allows captive men to depart; it is not easily angered; the lioness first has five cubs, then one less each year.
There are two kinds of lion: one is timid, has a short body and curly hair; the other has straight hair and a long body and is fierce. A lion’s strength is seen in its chest, its firmness in its head, and its courage in its forehead and tail.
Lions are frightened of the sight of hunters with spears, so they look at the ground when surrounded. They also fear the sound of creaking cart wheels, fire, and the sight of the white cock. A sick lion cures itself by eating an ape, eating on one day and drinking the next; if the meat does not digest properly the lion pulls it out of its stomach with its claws. Lions are harmed by scorpions and killed by snakes.
When a lion is hungry it treats other animals with anger, leaping on them as it does on the ass. A hunting lion makes a circle with its tail around other animals, which do not dare to cross the line and so become its prey. The roar of a lion is alone enough to make other animals weak with fear.
Lions do not like to eat the previous day’s prey, abandoning the remains of their last meal.
Unlike most animals, lions mate face to face. The lioness give birth to five cubs the first time, then four the next, and three the next, until after the birth of a single cub in the fifth year, they become sterile. Source: British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 6r
The spider is industrious, never ceasing to build its net from a long thread drawn from its body. It is an aerial worm that takes its nourishment from the air. Its web is fragile. It is said that if a spider (or a snake) tastes the saliva of a fasting man, it dies. Source: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 130r

Search the Medieval Bestiary Index

Long form articles:

Medieval Monsters

Damien Kempf, Maria L. Gilbert

Published by British Library Publishing, United Kingdom(2015)

ISBN 10: 0712357904 ISBN 13: 9780712357906

Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages. The Bestiary and Its Legacy

Clark, Willene B. And McMunn, Meradith T., Editor

Published by Univ. Of Pennsylvania, Phila. (1990)

ISBN 10: 0812230914 ISBN 13: 9780812230918

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