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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

For the modern reader, the medieval bestiary or "book of beasts" charms by its imaginative illuminations and naive stories. But 800 years ago, these luxurious manuscripts, which flourished principally in England from the early twelfth century to the end of the thirteenth, had a moralizing purpose—one that was made all the more beguiling by their vivid images. As declared in the Aberdeen Bestiary: "In painting this picture I intend to improve the minds of ordinary people, in such a way that their soul will at least perceive physically things which it has difficulty in grasping mentally; that what they have difficulty comprehending with their ears [as it was read to them], they will perceive with their eyes" (f.25v).

Most medieval bestiaries belonged to ecclesiastical libraries, their allegories and exempla intended to provide lessons in Christian thought and behavior. The Aviarium (Aviary) of Hugh of Fouilloy, for example, is a mid-twelfth century manuscript on birds that was written specifically for a community of lay brothers, "for whom the simplicity of the pictures would not please, at least the moral teaching of the text might do so." The Worksop Bestiary, too, was given (as an inscription indicates) to that priory for the edification of its monks.

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. In providing moral instruction, 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 the creatures that inhabited it. Indeed, it was not so important that an animal even exist as that its existence have a didactic, redemptive purpose. The creatures presented in the medieval bestiary need therefore only be what they were thought to be. As Augustine himself had 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).

The beautiful Panther with its varicolored coat, relates the Cambridge Bestiary, leaves its den after three days, emitting in its roar a sweet smell like allspice, an aroma so enticing that the other animals follow the animal wherever it goes. And so Jesus is "the true Panther." There are other examples: the unicorn laying its head in the lap of a virgin is like Jesus in its mildness, its single horn signifying that "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30); the Goat inhabiting the mountain top and able to discern anyone from afar is like Jesus who knows all; the Caladrius, a spotlessly white bird that turns away from the dying patient (the unbelieving Jew) but faces the living (the true Christian), taking its infirmities upon itself and dispersing them in the air.

(What is intriguing is whether the medieval mind understood these attributes to have been deliberately instilled by God at the moment of creation, so as to prefigure events in the New Testament, or whether they were given such an interpretation subsequently. For the allegory of the Lion to make sense—for example, that it breathed life into its cubs three days after being born—it would have had to be accorded such a nature before Jesus was resurrected.)


Although an account of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it, the medieval bestiary was not a zoological or naturalist's handbook. The descriptions of beasts, birds, and fishes seldom derived from direct observation, even if they could readily be observed in the monastery garden or fishpond. Rather, they acquired their legitimacy from auctores (authorities) such as Pliny (as conveyed by Solinus) and Aelian, who had written about them in the past. The most significant of these venerable accounts was the Physiologus, an anonymous Greek text written in Alexandria, Egypt—possibly as early as the second century AD but no later than the fourth, when the story of the tigress and the glass ball was quoted by Ambrose in his Hexaemeron (VI.4.21). The imagined habits of forty or so animals are described (virtually all of them native to North Africa) and each given a moralizing Christian interpretation. Although Physiologus usually is translated as "Naturalist," perhaps for simplicity's sake, the word is more nuanced and means someone who sought to understand the natural world in a moral, metaphysical, and even mystical sense.

By the late fourth century, the Physiologus had been translated into Latin (of which there are several versions), and it is from them that the bestiaries took their moralizing content, supplemented by the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (d. AD 636), from which the descriptions of many animals are taken almost verbatim. There, in Book XII (De Animalibus), he sought to elucidate the true nature of birds and beasts by relating the etymology of their names to the creatures' natural habitats and physical characteristics. Like everything else, even their names meant something, which is why there is such emphasis on the meanings of words in the Middle Ages. For "when you have seen whence a word has originated, you understand its force more quickly. Indeed, one's insight into anything is clearer when its etymology is known" (Etymologies, I.29.1–5). So the tiger is named because of its great speed.

As the etymology of a word revealed something of its nature, the terrestrial world offered an analogy of the heavenly. Origen, for example, in his celebrated commentary on the teachings of Paul (cf. Romans 1:20; II Corinthians 4:18), says that "the invisible things of God are understood by means of things that are visible, and that the things that are not seen are beheld through their relationship and likeness to things seen. He thus shows that this visible world teaches us about that which is invisible, and that this earthly scene contains certain patterns of things heavenly" (Commentary on the Song of Songs, III.12). By understanding this mystical correspondence between the earthly and its divine archetype, between the created and the creator, the nature of God is made manifest.

This deference to authority and dependence upon exemplars continued with the later addition of northern fauna, new entries that were more familiar to the English reader. MS Bodley 764, for example, includes the sow and hare. And, for the first time, there were stories from Gerald of Wales' Topography of Ireland of the badger and barnacle goose, the osprey and water ouzel. By the late twelfth century, as more creatures were added, they were grouped according to their kind—just as they were created, birds on the fifth day and beasts on the sixth.


The lion, "the king of all the beasts," was characterized by the Physiologus as having three natures: that it covers its tracks with its tail to thwart the pursuing hunter whose scent has been detected, that its eyes remain open and watchful even while asleep, and that its cubs are stillborn until revived on the third day by the breath of their father (as illustrated in the Ashmole Bestiary above).

For each of these characteristics, the Physiologus provides an allegorical interpretation. In sweeping away its tracks to remain undiscovered, so

Jesus, "the Lion of the tribe of Juda" (Revelation 5:5), conceals his divine nature from the unbelieving Jews. Watchful even in sleep, Jesus himself, although physically asleep on the cross, still keeps divine watch ("Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep," Psalms 121:4). And in reviving its dead cub on the third day, the lion is symbolic of the Resurrection ("Judah is a lion's whelp...who shall rouse him up," Genesis 49:9).

Origen comments on this last passage in his Homilies on Genesis (XVII.5 [108]), where he refers to the Physiologus by name and the revival of the lion's cubs after three days and nights. Written in about AD 240, this is the earliest explicit reference to the Physiologus—although the passage may be a later interpolation by Rufinus, who translated Origen into Latin at the end of the fourth century.

The same leonine traits are repeated by Isidore of Seville in his Etymologies, but without their allegorical interpretation. Even when asleep, the lion keeps a watchful eye. When walking, it brushes away any tracks with its tail. And its cubs, which are said to sleep for three days and nights when born, are awakened by the roar of their father (XII.2.5). Virtually all of the Etymologies derive from earlier etymologies and encyclopedias that Isidore has excerpted or paraphrased, almost always at second or third hand. Aelian, for example, who had died four centuries earlier (circa AD 230–235), wrote that the lion erased its tracks to prevent any hunter from following its path and so discovering its lair (On the Characteristics of Animals, IX.30) And Horapollo, a fifth-century AD Egyptian priest, explained that the hieroglyph of a lion's head signifies the vigilant guardian. For this reason, the gates of Egyptian temples often were flanked by lions, "because the lion, when awake, closes its eyes, but when asleep keeps them open, which is a sign of watching" (Hieroglyphica, I.19).


Over time, additions and exclusions made it possible to categorize the various bestiaries, each with its own shared characteristics— as James was the first to do in 1928, when he reproduced the Cambridge Bestiary (MS Ii.4.26) for a private printing by the Roxburghe Club, a society devoted to the publication of rare texts. There, he offers a "Preliminary Study of the Latin Bestiary as Current in England," in which he proposed that they be classified as belonging to one of four families—a grouping later revised by McCulloch who, rather than combining the features of First and Second Families, adds a Transitional Family.

First Family bestiaries are characterized by their interpolations from Isidore of Seville, although the creatures, which begin lion...antelope, are not classified by group. By far the largest collection of manuscripts are the Second Family bestiaries, which James admits have "all kinds of irregularities, which I am quite unable to reduce to order," but which Clarke resolves simply by dividing them into subgroups. They tend to follow the order of the beasts as presented in Book XII (De Animalibus) of Isidore's Etymologies, beginning lion...tiger, and are supplemented by additional material from Solinus and Ambrose, as well as Rabanus Maurus, whose encyclopedic De rerum naturis (AD 846) is a rearrangement of Isidore, and the Pantheologus by Peter of Cornwall (1189), a sourcebook for preachers. The Second Family also is characterized by its inclusion of birds, mostly from the Aviarium of Hugh of Fouilloy (died 1174). An additional three chapters from the Topographia Hiberniae by Gerald of Wales (died 1226) are included in Bodley 764 and its twin Harley 4751, which make these two manuscripts the most comprehensive of the English bestiaries. 

Writing almost a century ago, James described the bestiary in his Introduction as "a sort of moralized Natural History illustrated with curious pictures." Indeed, "But for its pictures I do not think that the Book could possibly have gained or kept any sort of popularity. Its literary merit is nil, and its scientific value...sadly meagre." In a lecture several years later, during which time he could have reconsidered this uncharitable description, he was no less emphatic, and still contended that the bestiary had "no scientific or literary merits whatever" and would not have attracted much attention at all were it not furnished with pictures. In fact, it was as a picture book that James examined the the medieval bestiary, limiting himself only to those English manuscripts in Latin (thirty-four in all) that were illustrated. But James, in fact, is mistaken, as the editor's introduction to Bodley 764 makes clear. One of the longest chapters in that bestiary is on horses, and it offers a trove of information on the care, value, breed, color, strength, speed, and suitability that "no social historian of the Middle Ages can neglect."


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

The Elephant, symbolic of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge and thereby losing the ideal of proper conjugal relations

The Ibex, throwing itself from a mountain, it lands 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

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

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

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 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 in its own body

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

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

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

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

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


The detail (top) is from the Aberdeen Bestiary and shows God's creation of the animals—here the elephant, an attentive hare, a squirrel holding a nut, and an indifferent cat. Although the bestiary typically began with the creation and the naming of the animals by Adam, its proper introduction is the section on wild beasts, beginning Bestiarum vocabulum proprie convenit leonibus, pardis, et tigribus ("The term 'beasts' is proper for lions, pards, and tigers," cf. Harley 4751, f.1, where the passage is taken almost verbatim from Isidore's Etymologies, XII.2.1). It is from this opening line that the bestiary takes its name, wild beasts, as Isidore described them, being those creatures, such as lions, panthers, and tigers that attack with tooth and claw. And it is the lion, the Greek leo being translated as "king" in Latin, that, as ruler of all the beasts, is mentioned first.


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); Physiologus (1979) translated by Michael J. Curley; Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies (1957) translated by R. P. Lawson; The Bestiary; Being a Reproduction in Full of the Manuscript II.4.26 in the University Library, Cambridge, with Supplementary Plates from Other Manuscripts of English Origin, and a Preliminary Study of the Latin Bestiary as Current in England (1928) edited by M. R. James: The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo Nilous (1840) by Alexander Turner Cory; Patrologia Graeca (Vol. XII): Origenis in Genesim Homilia (1862) edited by J. P. Migne.

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