Monsters and Mythical Beasts: An Introduction to the Medieval Bestiary
By David Badke
In the Middle Ages, animal stories were immensely popular throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The people of the time were, of course, dependent on wild and domestic animals for their survival, and so had an obvious interest in the animals around them. But there is more to it than just a requirement for knowledge of the animals they knew and used; there is a distinctly spiritual and even mystical aspect to the animal lore of the Middle Ages.
The medieval period was intensely religious. In western Europe, the religion was Christianity; in North Africa and the Middle East it was primarily Islam. The Jews and their religion were found almost everywhere, living among Christians and Muslims, sometimes tolerated, sometimes not. Despite the frequent violence between them, all three religions were closely related and shared many of the same spiritual and historical texts. In particular, all three considered all or most of the Hebrew Bible (called the Old Testament by Christians), which contains many references to animals, to be sacred.
In the Christian west, it was commonly believed that the natural world, the so-called “book of nature”, had been arranged as it was by God to provide a source of instruction to humanity. This idea was based, at least in part, on biblical verses such as this one from the book of Job:
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”(Job 12:7-10)
Animals were said to have the characteristics they do not merely by accident; God created them with those characteristics to serve as examples for proper conduct and to reinforce the teachings of the Bible. As the pelican revives her dead young after three days with her own blood, so Christ “revived” humanity with his blood after three days in the grave. The way the young of the hoopoe care for their elderly parents shows how human children should care for theirs. As doves are safe from their enemy the dragon as long as they stay in the shelter of the peridexion tree, so Christians will be safe from their enemy Satan as long as they stay in the shelter of the Church. As the eagle rejects any of its young that cannot stare unflinching into the sun, so God will reject sinners who cannot bear the divine light. All of Creation was said to reflect the Creator, and to learn about the Creator one could study the Creation.
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 the Physiologus 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 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.
This abundance of animal images was not to the liking of some; St. Bernard of Clairvoux, writing in his Apology around 1127, says: “What profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in that marvelous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity? To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half men, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters winding their horns? Many bodies are seen under one head, or again many heads to one body. Here is a four-footed beast with a serpent’s tail; there a fish with a beast’s head. Here again the fore-part of a horse trails half a goat behind it, or a horned beast bears the hind quarters of a horse. In short, so many and marvelous are the varieties of shapes on every hand that we are tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and to spend the whole day wondering at these things rather than meditating the law of God. For God’s sake, if men are not ashamed of these follies, why at least do they not shrink from the expense?”
Medieval animal illustrations are usually not “realistic”; in many cases the artist could never have seen an example of the beast, even of those which were not fabulous. Thus medieval European illustrators often drew the crocodile as a dog-like beast (as in British Liibrary, Royal MS 12 C. xix, folio 12v), the whale as a large, scaled fish (Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8º, folio 59v), the ostrich with hooves (British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii, folio 113v) and many serpents with feet and/or wings. The illustrator based his drawing of an unknown animal on the written description or on other illustrations or carvings he had seen. Many manuscripts have peculiar animal pictures merely because of the lack of skill of the illustrator, who may have been the most artistic monk in the monastery, but no true artist. Other manuscripts can only be described as works of art, with magnificent paintings in many colors, with a lavish use of gold.
When it came to fabulous animals like the unicorn, dragon or griffin, the illustrator had no choice but to follow the descriptions or earlier drawings. Whether medieval people believed that such creatures really existed is debatible; some undoubtedly did (as some still do today), while others recognized them as the product of human imagination. For fabulous creature mentioned in the Bible (as unicorns and dragons are), the problem became more difficult; if the Bible is acknowledged to be the true word of God, any animal it mentions must surely exist. To that is added the medieval reliance on, and belief in the veracity of, the writing of ancient authorities such as Pliny and Aristotle, who clearly say these beasts exist “in the East” or “in Ethiopia” where others claim to have seen them. In any case, whether the beasts existed or not they were as suitable as vehicles for moral and religious teaching as the more mundane animals of the European fields and forests.
A large number of bestiary manuscripts are written in Latin, in the Middle Ages the common language of scholars and clerics, with many more written in vernacular languages, mostly French. The Latin bestiary was primarily a product of England, though a few were produced elsewhere, particularly in France. Their authors or compilers are unknown, but there are several distinct groups or “families” of manuscripts. In France, several vernacular verse bestiaries appeared, in various dialects of what is now French, and in these the author usually gives us his name. Gervaise wrote his Bestiaire in the Norman French dialect around the beginning of the thirteenth century, as did Guillaume le Clerc; Philippe de Thaon wrote his in the Anglo-Norman dialect around 1121. In the early thirteenth century Pierre de Beauvais wrote two versions of a prose French Bestiaire. Many copies of the French bestiaries remain.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a series of encyclopedias appeared, by such writers as Jacob van Maerlant, Konrad von Megenberg, Thomas of Cantimpré, Lambert of Saint-Omer, Bartholomeus Anglicus, and Hrabanus Maurus, and others. These texts are not bestiaries; while they usually contain some bestiary material, they generally do not use allegory. They all have sections on beasts, birds, fish and serpents, but they also cover the whole range of the knowledge of the time, in the categories we recognize as theology, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, chronology, zoology, botany, geography, and mineralogy. The encyclopedia authors copied materials from each other and from earlier encyclopedists such as Isidore of Seville and Pliny the Elder, as well as from Aristotle, Ptolemy, and many others. The encyclopedias, writen in Latin as well as in German, Dutch and French, were widely popular; hundreds of manuscript copies still exist.
Some medieval animal lore was not at all religious, though it still sometimes had a moral message. The fables of Aesop were well known, as were other moralizing fables involving animals. One of the most popular of the fable series was that of Reynard the Fox, the “trickster” figure of the Middle Ages. Reynard is certainly no example for the proper life; the stories depict him as a schemer, a liar, a thief, and a killer, yet in the end he always gets away with his misdeeds, usually at great cost to those around him. The Reynard stories were particularly popular in the Netherlands, Germany and France, where several vernacular versions were produced.
Originally published by The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages, by David Badke, 01.31.2010, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.