Bestiaries & learning about the world in the Middle Ages

In my earlier posts, here and here, I have shown how the medieval encyclopedias and travel literature used to describe the world. They were using the notion of monstrous races of people and animals. From around the twelfth century, images of mirabilia also influenced art directly related to religious themes. Herewith, in this post I will look at another literary genre. The bestiary in which the encyclopedic and moralizing approach merged.

Bestiary belongs to the didactic literature and teaches about the truths of the Christian faith through exempla i.e. examples. The essential part were descriptions of animals – real and fantastic – accompanied by an attempt to classify them and characterize their behaviors. These stories were created quite freely and were primarily the basis for introducing an instructive commentary. It explained the basic dogmas of the faith or the principles of Christian ethics, starting from the individual behavior of animals.

The cranes, Bestiary, 2.-3. quarter 13. cent., British Library,
Sloane 3544, f. 23v

The model for the medieval bestiaries was an early Christian treatise Physiologus written in the second century AD. It functions in many versions and repetitions, one of the oldest surviving copies is stored in the castle library in Bern. The author of the treatise remains anonymous, but when describing particular species of animals, plants or types of stones, each time he refers to the words of a certain Physiologus. Hence the title. Many of the stories published in Physiologus are borrowed from the works of earlier writers, including Pliny the Elder or Strabo.

Pearl divers, Physiologus from Bern, 9. cent., Burgerbibliothek, Bern

The structure of the individual chapters of the Physiologus is similar. At the beginning there is a quote from the Holy Scripture, referring to the object to which the chapter will be devoted. Then the author cites the characteristics of an animal, plant or stone, preceded by the phrase “Physiologus said about …”. The most important part is the allegorical interpretation of the story, supported by numerous biblical references and quotations from the Bible. This is to transfer moral instructions or to guide the Christian truths of faith.

Story about the Pelican, Bestiary, ca. 1200, Aberdeen University Library, MS 24, fol. 35r.

Many of the Christian symbols derive their origin from the Physiologus. One of them is the Christological meaning of the pelican. According to the legend, this bird is supposed to resurrect its dead offspring by feeding it with its own blood. Moreover, the young are to remain dead for three days and then be enlivened by the parent’s sacrifice. It is a reference both to the resurrection of the Christ and to the promise of eternal life for Christians thanks to the sacrifice of his own blood (and body).

Pattern in the background shows a pelican feeding its breed, above the God’s/Christ’s hand
Jan van Eyck (& Hubert van Eyck),
Ghen Altarpiece, detail, 1432, church of St. Bavo, Ghent

The Physiologus gave the foundation to the popularity of the unicorn myth in the Middle Ages. Here is a quote: The Psalm says: And my horn will be lifted up, like the horn of a unicorn. The Physiologus said about the unicorn that it has the following property. He is a small animal, similar to a goatling, very dangerous. He is very strong and the hunter can not approach him. It has one horn in the center of the head. So how can you catch him? They send a pure virgin straight in front of him. The unicorn jumps into her womb, and she feeds him breastfeeding and leads him to the king.

Unicorn hunting, Bestiary, ca. 1230 – 14. cent.
British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII f. 10 v

Bestiaries caused that mirabilia began to be used to illustrate religious texts. Also, monstrous races started to appear in decorations on the margins of the pages of Bible, psalters, or books of hours. However, they do not play a narrative role, they have a decorative and at the same time humorous character. One should classify them as drollies. Playful motives placed both in manuscripts and in carving or sculptor’s decorations, popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Jacob’s Ladder & bas-de-page in Rutland Psalter, ca. 1260, British Library Add MS 62925  f.83v
Monopod from decorative border in The Book of Hours, ca. 1420-1425, The Morgan Library, New York, MS M.1004 fol. 120 r

The popularity of bestiaries and the histories contained in them is part of the medieval reality. It was the time of instructive tales aimed at the broad masses of people, also through sermons. They were delivered in native languages, while the liturgy was celebrated in Latin. Preachers referred to a variety of exempla from biblical parables, bestiaries or lives of saints. A particularly important figure was Jacob de Voragine. He was a thirteenth-century Dominican, who in the Golden Legend created a compendium of such stories. But this is a completely different topic.

Jakub de Voragine preaching, Golden Legend, 14. cent.,
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

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