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"Ask the beast and it will teach thee, and the birds of heaven and they will tell thee."
In contemplating God's creatures, the medieval mind sought allegorical interpretations and symbolic, rather than causal, 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.
Studies that 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 often represent both good and evil, Christ or the Devil, depending upon its biblical reference, a dichotomy that often was subtle and complex. Portrayed most often by the medieval artist, the lion is an example of these seemingly contradictory connotations. Because lion cubs were thought to be born dead until, on the third day, they are brought to life, the lion was symbolic of the Resurrection. Never closing its eyes, it also represented the vigilant guardian and defender of the faith. The image of the lion attacking a goat, for example, was understood to be the sinner devoured. It appears in the story of Saint Jerome and the lion (a medieval retelling of the classical fable of Androcles) and is emblematic of Saint Mark. The representation of 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: to 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 (VI.16-28) and Samson (Judges XIV.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 Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (d. AD 636), who in Book XII of this 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 thought to sweep away its tracks with its tail, to sleep with its eyes open, to spare both the prostrate and the captive, but to be afraid of white cocks
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.
The detail above is Tigris the Tiger and has been taken from the Aberdeen Bestiary, one of the few luxury manuscripts illustrated with large, fully painted images on gold grounds. Compare this illumination with the representation of the tiger in three other luxury bestiaries.
Pliny speaks of the tiger, renown for its speed, in his Natural History, where he relates how the hunter, if pursued by the tiger and about to be overtaken, abandons the stolen cub to its mother and so makes his escape. In Isidore, there is a more ingenious ruse: the hunter throws down a mirror or glass ball instead. The tiger, mistaking its own reflection for that of her cub, is distracted and remains beside it, allowing the hunter to keep his prize. Although the tiger's loss tends not to have an allegorical association, the mirror may suggest the cost of vanity and pride.
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.
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