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Medical Lore in the Bestiaries

Medical Lore in the Bestiaries

By Thomas R. Forbes

Medical History, Vol.12:3 (1968)

9th century image from the Physiologus
9th century image from the Physiologus

Introduction: Some time in the first part of the Christian era, perhaps as early as the second century, there emerged a curious collection of zoological fables and religious moralizations called Physiologus. It may have begun as a group of tales about animals and their attributes. The number of different creatures originally was about forty. The Physiologus was copied repeatedly and, in time, was greatly expanded, clerical compilers adding to the moralizations, which became more and more elaborate-and lengthy. Because such a manuscript was a kind of ‘book of beasts’, it acquired the name bestiarium or bestiary. Physicians took a hand with it, which was not surprising, since in the Middle Ages educated medical men were also clerics. They were familiar with the ideas of Pliny, Solinus, Placitus Sextus, Isidore, and others about animals, their habits, and the supposed virtues of animal preparations in medicine. As a result, some of the special curative powers described by classical authors were gradually attributed to certain of the bestiary animals. Finally the moralizations disappeared from the bestiaries and there was left a welter of fact and fiction, hearsay and imagination, about a whole zoological garden of real and supposed creatures ranging from ants to dragons to elephants, as well as about healing plants and stones. From all this eventually emerged, thanks to the labours of indefatigable if credulous encyclopedists, the first zoology books since the classical period. Such, for example, were the De animalibus of Albertus Magnus in the thirteenth century, the Buch der Natur of Conrad von Megenberg in the fourteenth century, and Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium in the sixteenth century.

Authorities agree that the bestiaries were widely read. The original Greek Physiologus is lost, but its earliest descendants, a sturdy progeny, exist today in manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, Georgic, and Arabic, most of these versions and translations having been made by the fifth century. The Syriac may be the oldest which now survives. In the Middle Ages there appeared versions in Saxon, Old English, Old High German, Middle High German, Icelandic, Anglo-Norman, French, Romance and Proven9ale dialects, Italian, and Spanish. It has been estimated that the popularity of the bestiary may have been second only to that of the Bible. James suggests that the bestiary pictures, crude though they were, were chiefly responsible for its great appeal. As he says, such a work could make small claims on a literary or scientific basis.

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Nevertheless, the simple tales of animals and their strange attributes have a certain charm. That the beasts and birds and reptiles were much in educated as well as popular minds is evident when one observes the prominence of these creatures in medieval heraldry, architecture, art, and literary allusion (‘crocodile’s tears’, ‘lick him into shape’, ‘swan song’), as well as their direct influence on the later encyclopedists. The moralizations of the bestiaries recommended them to the clergy, who found here simple anecdotes and allegories to support much learned exegesis. Even the unsophisticated churchgoer, overwhelmed by a sermon inspired by a bestiary tale, could seek relief by gazing up at a unicorn in the stained glass window or resting his head against a lion carved on the end of the pew.

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