Bestiaries were popular medieval collections of descriptions and anecdotes of both real and mythical animals, accompanied by moral commentary that gave a Christian interpretation to the animal’s stated qualities. The view behind the format of the bestiary was that one could learn of God through the book of his word (the Scriptures) or through the book of his works (his Creation.). Thus God’s creatures were formed in a manner that taught human beings Christian truths.
   Later medieval bestiaries were based ultimately on the Greek Physiologus. A text produced between the second and fourth centuries C.E., the Physiologus contained about 50 anecdotes drawn from nature, followed by a “moralization” of the anecdotes. It was based on animal lore from much older traditions— from Indian, Hebrew, and Egyptian authorities, as well as from classical Greek students of natural philosophy like Pliny and Aristotle. The animals described in the Greek text are generally to be found in northern Africa or the Mediterranean region. By the sixth century, the Greek text had been translated into several languages—Ethiopian, Syriac,Armenian, and, most important, Latin. The Latin Physiologus was popular in western Europe, and by the 12th century writers began to expand the text, adding animals from northern Europe, for example, drawing material from ISIDORE OF SEVILLE’s popular seventh-century Latin encyclopedia, the 20-volume Etymologiae. Later bestiaries could contain as many as 150 entries—three times as many as the original Physiologus.
   Bestiaries also began to appear in the European vernacular, the earliest of which survives as an OLD ENGLISH fragment in the 10th-century EXETER BOOK, containing verse descriptions of a panther and a whale. Bestiaries became popular in French in the 12th and 13th centuries, with works by PHILIPPE DE THAON, Gervaise, Guillaume le Clerc, and Pierre de Beauvais. English bestiaries appear beginning in the 12th century; the most famous of these is known as the Aberdeen bestiary. Bestiaries from the 12th and 13th centuries are often richly illustrated with imaginative and sometimes humorous illustrations, apparently intended to teach those who could not read. Illuminated bestiaries were immensely popular, and many show similarities in some of their particular illuminations. It is possible that model books existed from which illustrators drew on exemplars for various beasts. The illuminated bestiaries also seem to have influenced other manuscripts’ illuminations, as well as animals depicted in frescoes or sculptures in church decoration.
   Bestiaries included accurate descriptions of real animals, but at the same time contained fantastic descriptions of completely imaginary animals, or myths about genuine animals, all presented with the same authority. Thus entries were included for unicorns, phoenixes, cockatrices, or manticoras (man-eating creatures with lions’ bodies, human faces, and scorpions’ tails). Some observations about actual animals may have been distortions of earlier real observations that were repeated over and over again, even, one would think, after people must have known they were inaccurate: The “fact” that the swan sings beautifully before it dies, or that the barnacle goose was hatched from an egg that hung in a tree.At the same time, the elephant might be described accurately, but the description would include an anecdote that the elephant had no knees, and therefore slept leaning against a tree. This was moralized to apply to fallen human beings, who had to rely on Christ for their support. The pelican was purported to feed its young with blood from its own breast, thus symbolizing Christ himself, who gives his children eternal life through his own sacrificial blood. Animal lore from medieval bestiaries continued to influence myths and legends about various animals through the early modern period and even into contemporary times, from the notion of the “swan song” to the popularity of mythical beasts like the phoenix or the unicorn.
   ■ Barber, Richard, trans. Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford MS. Bodley 764. With original miniatures reproduced in facsimile. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 1993.
   ■ Clark, Willene B., and Meradith T. McMunn, eds. Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages: the Bestiary and Its Legacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
   ■ Curley,Michael J., trans. Physiologus. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.
   ■ Hassig, Debra, ed. The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature. New York: Garland, 1999.
   ■ McCulloch, Florence. Mediaeval Latin and French Bestiaries. University of North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures 33. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
   ■ Mermier, Guy R., trans. A Medieval Book of Beasts: Pierre de Beauvais’ Bestiary. With illustrations by Alexandra Eldridge. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1992.
   ■ White, T. H., ed. and trans. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Dover, 1984.
   ■ Yamamoto,Dorothy. The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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