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Medieval French bestiaries

Medieval French bestiaries

By Elizabeth Lindsey

PhD Dissertation, University of Hull, 1976

Detail of a miniature of a lion crouched at the foot of a tree, with a rooster sitting on top.

Introduction: The French Bestiaries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked the culmination of at least two traditions of Beast Legend. The Medieval Bestiaries show clearly the influence of both the Greek Physiologus tradition, the direct ancestor and the Bestiaries, and of the Classical traditions which we have received via Pliny and Solims.

As the subject of the identity and form of the Greek Physiologus has, been broached on many occasions, without a definitive solution being propounded, we will limit our study here to a definition and then to a brief survey of the current theories on the Greek Physiologus and its possible antecedents, and of the Latin versions.

The Greek Physiologus, at least in the forms in which it is known today, is a work of symbolic nature, which poses, and tries to answer, the question: ‘what can be learned about human existence from the world of nature? ‘. The Physiologus contained approidmately 50 sections, the number varying only very slightly from manuscript to manuscript, each of which contained a physical description of a bird, animal or stone, followed by a religious interpretation of the subject, based, either on the nature of the subject viewed as a whole, or a more detailed one based on the different attributes contained in the physical description.

Later versions of the Greek Physiologus altered this basic work in two ways; firstly, by adding new subject matter, and secondly, and more drastically, by omitting the moralising factors, and reducing a symbolic work to a work on natural phenomena.

It is generally held that the Physiologus in the version we have today, or at least, a very similar versioný came into being in the. third or fourth centuries A. D. By the end of the Fourth century, its influence had spread sufficiently for Ruffinus to be able to quote from it without having to explain who or what he meant by ‘Physiologus’. This, although frustrating for modern researchers, does indicate that the Physiologus tradition was by then started, even developed and known to the point that not only was it used. for quotation, but also the reader was expected to understand and recognise the nature of the source.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Hull

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