A Newcomer’s Guide to Bestiaries » Explorersweb


We think of the Middle Ages as an era before science, dominated by religion. However, the era also inspired some of the most beautiful and mysterious manuscripts in the world. The literary genre of 12th century bestiaries is one of them.

A unicorn in the Oxford Ashmole 1511. Photo: Oxford Bodleian Library

A bestiary, or “book of beasts”, is a collection of real and imaginary animals. These Christian manuscripts, usually made of parchment or vellum, featured elaborate images of animals. The adjoining text described the creatures’ allegorical appearances and roles.

These bestiaries reflected the belief of the time that nature was a “book” to be read. Animals were not just creations of God with their own qualities. They also served as allegories. Bestiaries allowed humans to learn from these animals, which carried virtuous or evil connotations. While the bestiaries served as religious instruction, some people simply read them for leisure.


Some texts that inspired the bestiary came from centuries earlier. One of the main ones was a 2nd or 3rd century manuscript called physiologist. Written by an unknown author, it described the appearances of 50 different creatures and their moral symbolism. It also included plants and rocks. Animal, plant and stone each have their own section in which descriptions, biblical passages and allegorical interpretations are presented. Some examples include, “On the Mermaid and the Onocentaur”, “On the Aspidoceleon”, and “On the Unicorn”. Obviously, the beasts could be both mythical and real.

Bestiaries also built on Isidore of Seville Etymologies. It was a 7th century AD encyclopedia that included not only animals but also reading, grammar, arithmetic, medicine, astronomy, religion, geography, and many other disciplines. physiologist and the bestiaries were also based on one of the world’s earliest natural history books, Naturalis Historypublished in 77 AD.

How they were made

Twelfth-century bestiaries became the most popular version of the genre. The images were drawn with ink and various types of metal foil. Artists have also used paint pigments from plants, rocks, or soil.

This process made the texts quite shiny – illuminated. They exuded luxury. The images reflected real animals like lions as well as fantastical beasts from Greek and Roman mythology like griffins and mermaids. The text was in French and Latin, as usual at the time. All the bestiaries were made by hand.

Medieval interpretation of hedgehogs

Hedgehogs go to their holes in the Rochester Bestiary. Photo: British Library

Some famous bestiaries include Oxford Ashmole 1511, Aberdeen Bestiary, Rochester Bestiary and Harley Bestiary. They reside in the Bodleian, Aberdeen University and British Library respectively. Historians have grouped the manuscripts into “families”, based on their language. Over 50 manuscripts have survived to the present day.

People in the Middle Ages saw the natural world in a very profound way. Naturalists believed the lionesses gave birth to stillborn cubs and breathed life into them three days later. This has prompted religious comparisons to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A famous interpretation of the unicorn states that a virgin could tame it by drawing it onto her lap. This symbolized the conception of Jesus Christ within the Virgin Mary. Described as vain and proud, the mermaids warned people to stay humble and modest. Themes like repentance and chastity were also discussed.

The class played a big role in his development. The highly detailed and illuminated images overwhelmed the text alongside. Since the majority of the population could not read, the artist tried to convey the overall message through the image. Those in the upper echelons of society often purchased and collected bestiaries. King Henry VIII was one of a long line of Aberdeen bestiary owners.

Medieval worldview

While bestiaries were hardly accurate from a modern perspective, natural historians of the time often referred to them. They influenced the way people viewed nature and by extension, the world at that time. Imaginary and mythical creatures appeared in part to supplement knowledge of distant lands.

Bestiary images became so popular that they appeared beyond manuscripts. Mosaics, walls of churches and monasteries, and tapestries all exhibited similar renderings. The exciting idea of ​​a “book of beasts” has inspired some modern designers to come up with their own versions. The book of imaginary beings by Jose Luis Borges and Michael Largo The Big Bad Book of Beasts are two examples. The unknown continues to draw us to this day, despite developments in zoology.

Can we buy an original bestiary?

Yes, as long as your budget can support prizes of $500,000 and above. As usual, the price depends on age, rarity and provenance. Auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold bestiaries from monasteries all over Europe. Some private collectors regularly acquire medieval manuscripts. Fortunately, many remain available to the public in museums and university libraries.


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