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The Medieval Bestiary

"Ask the beast and it will teach thee, and the birds of heaven and they will tell thee."

Job 12:7

In contemplating God's creatures, the medieval mind sought allegorical interpretations and symbolic relationships. Animals, both real and imagined, wild and domestic, were thought to have significance beyond themselves. They provided moral instruction and their place in nature was studied, not for its own sake, but to learn the proper conduct of one's life. There was an edifying purpose to creation, and in the beasts, birds, and fishes that inhabited it. Like everything else, even their names meant something, which is why there is such emphasis on etymology in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was not so important that an animal even exist as that its existence have a didactic, redemptive purpose. As Augustine himself declared: "Faith is a means by which those things that are not seen may be believed. We may believe whatever it signifies to us, not troubling as to how true such things might be" (Enarratio in Psalmum, "Expositions on the Psalms," LXVI.10).

An attempt to identify the fabulous creatures described in a medieval bestiary with their living counterparts, such as equating the Bonnacon with the European bison, miss this point. Too, the same creature might represent both good and evil, Christ or the Devil, depending upon its biblical reference, a dichotomy that often was subtle and complex. The image of a lion attacking a goat, for example, was understood to be the sinner devouredthe goat emblematic of lasciviousness and lust (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XII.1.14-15). And yet, because it favored high mountains and had sharp eyesight, the goat also could symbolize a lofty, all-seeing Christ who foresaw his betrayal.

Portrayed most often by the medieval artist and usually the first to be described, the lion too could have contradictory connotations. Because its cubs were thought to be born while asleep (or dead) and not awakened until the third day by the roar of their father (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, IX.2.5), the lion was symbolic of the Resurrection. Watchful even in sleep, with one or both eyes always open, it also represented the vigilant guardian, cf. Psalms 121:4, "Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." And, in brushing away its tracks with its tail so to thwart the hunter, it, like

Jesus "the Lion of the tribe of Juda" (Revelation 5:5), hid itself. The lion appears in the story of Jerome removing a thorn from its paw (a medieval retelling of the classical fable of Androcles) and also is emblematic of Mark, the evangelist and patron saint of Venice, who is symbolized by an ancient winged lion in the Piazza San Marco. A lion at the foot of a funeral effigy symbolized both the nobility and courage of the deceased, who died for the cause, as well as hope for the afterlife. These associations also extended to heraldry: the earliest heraldic shield (that of Geoffrey Plantagenet), the familiar lion rampant, and Richard Coeur de Lion, the Lion's Heart.

But passages in the Psalms also associate the lion with the Devil, as when Christ is said to "tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet" (XCI.13). And, of course, there are the biblical stories of Daniel (6:16-28) and Samson (Judges 14:5-9), in which the lion is an instrument of evil.

The medieval bestiary or "book of beasts" derives from the Physiologus ("The Natural Historian" or "Naturalist"), an anonymous Greek text probably written in the second century AD in Alexandria. There, the imagined habits of some forty or so animals were described (virtually all of which were native to northern Africa) and the significance of each given a moralizing Christian interpretation. By the sixth century, the Physiologus had been translated into Latin and later supplemented by the Etymology of Isidore of Seville (d. AD 636), who in Book XII of his encyclopedic compilation sought to elucidate the true nature of birds and beasts by relating the etymology of their names to their natural habitats and physical characteristics. So the elephant was named because of it mountainous size and the lion because it was the king of beasts.

This deference to auctores (authorities) and dependence upon exemplars continued with the addition of northern fauna, new entries that were familiar to the English reader. MS Bodley 764, for example, includes the sow and hare (and such curiosities as the yale and tragelaphus). And, for the first time, come stories taken almost verbatim from Gerald of Wales' Topography of Ireland of the badger, barnacle goose, and other Irish birds such as the Aurifrisius (osprey) and Martineta (water ouzel).

By the late twelfth century, creatures were grouped according to family and many more added and illustrated, the images based on the iconography of earlier models. Now known as a bestiary (from the opening words, Bestiarum vocabulum), it was most popular in medieval England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the forty or so manuscripts produced there attest, before being supplanted by books of hours.

Aside from the Phoenix (there was only one), Sirens (and their companions, the Onocentaurs), Dragons, and Unicorns, there were—

Leo the Lion, which, as king of the beasts, was presented first in the bestiaries and, aside from its three defining characteristics (to sweep away its tracks or spoor with its tail, to sleep with its eyes open, and to animate its insensible cubs) also was thought to spare the prostrate, weak and captive; to be afraid of white cocks—and to urinate (and procreate) retromingently, i.e., backwards.

Tigris the tiger, renown for its speed, ferocity, and maternal devotion

Panthera the Panther, the fragrant breath of which had the scent of allspice, which it used to attract its prey—all except the dragon, which detested the smell

Antalops the Antelope, thought to have long horns by which it could cut down trees but which also got entangled in the branches; bellowing as it struggled to get free, it was easy prey for hunters

The Ibex, throwing itself from a mountain, it landed unhurt on it strong horns

The Bonnacon, unable to defend itself with its inwardly-curved horns, it drove the hunter away by expelling its flatulence and dung over several acres, the heat of which set even trees afire

Ericius the Hedgehog, which at harvest time rolled on the ground, gathering grapes on its spins and taking them back to its young

The Griffin, which had the body of a lion and the wings and head of an eagle, and was particularly hostile to horses

The Manticore, with the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and the head of a man

The Yale, as big as a horse but with the tail of an elephant and the tusks of a boar, and able to move its horns at will, like ears, folding one back if damaged while fighting with the other

The Cinomolgus, which built its nest of cinnamon, prized above all other commodities, which was knocked down and sold

The Caladrius, a completely white bird found in the courts of kings which, if it turns away from the one who is sick, meant that person would die; looking upon the person, however, it drew the infirmity upon itself and flew towards the sun, burning up the sickness and dissipating it

Pelicanus the Pelican, devoted to its children, pecking at its own breast to revive them with its blood

The Crane, filling itself with ballast to avoid being blown off course when migrating, it held a large pebble in its claw in the event that, if it fell asleep while guarding the flock, others would be alerted by the fallen stone

The Basilisk (or Cockatrice), with the body of a serpent and the head and wings of a cock, the most deadly of serpents, able to kill merely by its breath or glance

The Amphivena (or Amphisbaena), which had a head at each end of its body and could roll along the ground like a hoop

Cocodrillus the Crocodile, crocus colored, the dung of which made an ointment by which old women and whores were made beautiful again, it was said to weep after eating a man

Ydrus the Hydrus, a water snake and deadly enemy of the crocodile, which it killed by coating itself with mud and sliding down the crocodile's throat, splitting it apart

Salamandra the Salamander, which could extinguish fire and not be harmed by the flames, poison fruit, and contaminate water

Virtually all the creatures of the bestiary have religious significance. The elephant, symbolic of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge and thereby losing the ideal of proper conjugal relations, can serve as an example.


This detail from the Aberdeen Bestiary shows God's creation of the animals—here the elephant, hare, squirrel, and cat.


References: The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (1954) edited and translated by T. H. White; Medieval Beasts (1990) by Ann Payne; Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology (1995) by Debra Hassig; The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature (1999) edited by Debra Hassig; The Middle English Physiologus (1991) edited by Hanneke Wirtjes (EETS); The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages (1992) by Janetta Rebold Benton; The Naming of the Beasts: Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary (1991) by Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp; The Bestiary and its Legacy (1989) edited by Willene B. Clark and Meradith T. McMunn; Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764 (1993) translated by Richard Barber; The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (2006) by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof; Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (1905) by Robert Steele (translated about 1397 by John Trevisa, a contemporary of Chaucer).

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