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The Beauty of the Bestiary

By Danièle Cybulskie

Medieval people would have loved the Internet. At the click of a mouse, all the world’s information is accessible, neatly categorized, and complete with pictures. Failing the Internet, medieval people would have loved the Encyclopedia Britannica. Without medieval people’s thirst for knowledge, we may not ever have developed these styles of categorizing and storing knowledge. After all, it was in the Middle Ages that books started to become tailored to the search for knowledge, as tables of contents were inserted, information was presented in alphabetical order, and space was left on pages to allow for readers to write their own notes and references in the margins.

Beauty of the Bestiary - Harley 3244, folio 39v, Elephant and dragon . Bestiary (ff. 36-71v)

Many of the most popular books of the Middle Ages (we know they were popular judging by the number of copies that survived through the ages, and by the references to them in other books) were encyclopedic collections of known facts. The topics could be as diverse as philosophy and travel. My favourite examples of medieval non-fiction, though, are the bestiaries.

bestiary - Monoceros and Bear. Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, The Ashmole Bestiary, Folio 21r, England (Peterborough?), Early 13th century.Bestiaries were encyclopedias of animal life, complete with descriptions of the animals, their places in the world, and often their symbolic relationships to Christianity. They were often well-illustrated, too, which makes them a treat to read. While much of the information is (we now know) incorrect, much is also based on observation of true animal behaviour. For example, a bear‘s cubs are described as being “unformed” when they are born, though they are “licked into shape by the mother.” This seems to have derived from someone having seen a mother bear licking a newborn cub, although the conclusions drawn weren’t quite correct. (The description of the beaver is even more far-fetched, most likely deriving from its Latin name – “castor” – and never fails to make me laugh, juvenile as I am.) Aside from real animals and their behaviour are the mythical animals, such as the griffin and the unicorn, with descriptions just as thorough as those for real animals.

Since we do have the Internet available to us, I’m passing along these links to a website that has compiled information from several medieval sources into one, big, online bestiary, not surprisingly called The Medieval Bestiary. Take your five medieval minutes this week to browse this site, and ask yourself how you would describe, say, a giraffe to a person who had never seen one, or marvel at how deeply symbolic the figure of a unicorn could be. I hope you’ll find yourself as enchanted, and amused, as I am.

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See also:

The Mark of the beast: revisioning the medieval bestiary in the 20th century, by Raina Polivka

Medieval French bestiaries, by Elizabeth Lindsey

The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art, by George C. Druce

Doubts and Ambiguities in the Transmission of Ideas in a Medieval Latin Bestiary: Canterbury Cathedral Archives Lit. Ms D.10, by Diane Heath

The Bestiary of Anne Walshe, by David Badke

Sloane 278, folio 48v, Elephants, dragon, and mandrake

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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