Bestiaries, or books of beasts, were very popular in England in the 1100s and 1200s and contain descriptions and illustrations of various mammals, birds, reptiles – both real and legendary – and sometimes mythical human races as well. What we think of as the natural sciences didn’t really exist in medieval England but the bestiaries could be seen as early works of natural history because of their interest in identification and categorisation. A number of the creatures that appear in them may seem fantastical to us, yet many of them can be read as composite creations inspired by real characteristics of living animals. Whether their audience genuinely believed in their existence or not, they fulfilled a pedagogical as well as an encyclopaedic purpose. To the bestiary compilers nature was a book that could be used to illustrate spiritual truths.
I’m not knowledgeable enough to give you a very detailed account of the genre’s intellectual roots, but some of its most important textual influences are the 2nd century Physiologus (and through it classical Greek thinkers), Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, and, much later, the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. In England bestiaries were produced in large quantities in both Latin and the vernacular to suit a variety of buyers and budgets. They were frequently mined by clergy for sermon inspiration and could also be enjoyed as picture books, but it’s difficult to imagine them being used for a field guide as the illustrations even of well-known animals are often so unrealistic a good argument can be made for their being intentionally so.
To read the bestiaries, even in translation, is an education in how central Christ is to the medieval understanding of the world; he is the lodestar and lynchpin of their universe and everything in it either reminds them of him or something to do with the spiritual life. Many of the descriptions of the ‘good’ beasts, like the lion, panther or unicorn, are designed to highlight different aspects of his role in the drama of salvation. Some of its most popular legends are well-known, like the phoenix rising from the ashes (a symbol of the resurrection) or the pelican drawing its own blood to feed its young; others seem not only remote but bizarre to a modern reader, like the legend of the beaver biting off its own testicles to escape from hunters (see illustration above). Yet even these stories have some parallel in Christian ethical teaching if not in the natural world (in this case the taking of drastic measures to avoid sin).
If these portraits can offer valuable glimpses of what is most inspiring and endearing in medieval Christianity, the descriptions of the ‘bad’ beasts often reveal its cruelties as well, like the anti-semitism that was so prevalent in medieval Europe. At times the compilers seem to be proffering tenuous or distorted readings of their texts in their eagerness to arrive at a moral (the children’s author T.H. White parodies this tendency rather wonderfully in the Reverent Sidebottom’s laboured explanations of the Gesta Romanorum in The Sword in the Stone). At its best, however, this moralising spirit finds some lovely echoes in the speech of the banished duke in As You Like It:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Naturally, I’d like to think this project takes its inspiration from the bestiaries at their most enchanting, but between the books and the biscuits, I fear the biscuits will always come first…
The University of Aberdeen has made its beautiful 12th century bestiary (Univ. Lib. MS 24) viewable online here with digitised images, contextual notes and translations in English. You could also have a look at this lovely 13th century example from the British Library’s Turning the Pages project (BL Royal MS 12).