Totus enim mundus diversis creaturis plenus est; quasi liber scriptus variis litteris et sententiis plenus in quo legere possumus quicquid imitari vel fugere debeamus.
For the whole world is full of different creatures, like a book written with various words and full of sentences in which we can read what we should imitate and avoid.
~ Thomas of Chobham (d. ~ 1236), Summa de Arte Praedicandi 7.2
During the Middle Ages, nature was believed to have been created by God specifically for humans and therefore all creatures were considered to be lessons in morality and faith (BBC, 2010).
What are Medieval Bestiaries?
Bestiaries were manuscripts cataloging all of the natural and supernatural animals believed to interact with the earthly world. Lions, owls, gryphons, and unicorns roamed the Medieval world, providing tales of caution and highlighting paths to follow as a Christian.
Beasts were thought to reveal God’s plan for mankind and bestiaries were used as guides to understanding what animal behavior revealed about how humans should behave.
Medieval Drawings of Animals
Bestiaries were full of drawings and descriptions of not only common animals such as dogs, cats, fish, and birds but also of fantastical creatures born of the medieval imagination.
While a browse through a medieval bestiary will reveal creatures unfamiliar with to the modern reader, the artistic depictions of extant animals may also baffle some. The drawing of animals, especially those from faraway lands, was not based on a visual reconstruction but rather based on artistic conventions of the time (Jeffs, 2017).
With many of these drawings, something always seems a bit off about each of them.
This owl is recognizable but the face is rather human in appearance.
This elephant looks like a cross between a wolf and an elephant with the tusk emerging from the jaw like fangs and claws on the feet.
While this elephant looks weary and misshapen.
Supernatural Creatives in Medieval Manuscripts
Supernatural creatures were presented as existing alongside earthly creatures such as this anphivena, an animal with two heads, one at the tail.
The manticore was said to have “the face of a man, the body of a lion, a triple row of teeth, the tail of a scorpion, and ‘delights in eating human flesh’ (Biggs, 2014).
Spiritual Lessons from the Medieval Natural World
This image of the beaver also shows that drawings of animals were also often depicted in a setting reflecting the allegorical tale. The testicles of beavers were prized for their perceived medicinal value.
This scene of the beaver self-castrating in order to flee its hunter was a cautionary tale that humans should shed their vices in order not to be pursued by the devil. This drawing of a beaver self-castrating to escape a hunter looks more like a bizarre dog/large cat hybrid than the buck-toothed, flat-tailed beavers we are used to seeing.
Common Animals in Medieval Bestiaries
Here Begins the Book of the Nature of Beasts. Of Lions and Panthers and Tigers, Wolves and Foxes, Dogs and Apes.~ Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200
Bestiaries were not intended as a comprehensive catalog of all animals living in the earthly and supernatural realm. Rather, animals were selected based on the spiritual lessons they presented. Both real and fantastic creatures make this list. Lions, boars, owls, dragons, serpents, and dogs were among the many animals commonly found in bestiaries.
Since bestiaries were intertwined with theological teachings, most bestiaries contained an image of “Adam naming the animals” (BBC, 2010). This image from the Aberdeen Bestiary shows Adam with his arm raised while the animals look attentively as they wait for their names. This image was meant to show the intimacy of the relationship between God, nature, and mankind (Peverly, n.d.).
Lions earned a placed of honor in bestiaries, usually appearing first in the manuscript. The lion represented Christ through many aspects of their nature (Royal project team, n.d.). This illustration shows lions breathing life into their cubs, evoking Christ’s resurrection.
The hunted beaver self-castrating was a common illustration as a tale warning of the dangers of being hunted by Satan over vanity (Eddy, 2012).
Unlike the attribute of wisdom one typically thinks of with owls, these birds were considered as ominous signs during the Middle Ages. Rabanus Maurus, a Benedictine monk from the 800s declared, ‘The owl signifies those who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness’ (Aberdeen, n.d.)
The most common supernatural creature was the dragon, a representation of Satan. Dragons were seen as the opposite of all that was considered good and holy (Biggs, 2014a).
Medieval Beasts in Marginalia
The marginalia of bestiaries often contained sketches and drawings of beasts along with rubrics (instructions).
This page from a late 12th century bestiary shows drawings done with brown ink and colored mostly with blue and green inks. In the upper right, a notation about the virtues of the bird being discussed has been highlighted with an outline of red ink and three red dots.
Red ink was frequently used to highlight text. In fact, the word rubric stems from the Latin word rubric meaning “red ochre”).
Abderdeen University. (n.d). Folio 50r – the blackbird, continued. De bubone; Of the Owl. Retrieved from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/ms24/f50r
BBC Worldwide Ltd., Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), & Films Media Group. (2010). Inside the Medieval Mind: Knowledge. New York, N.Y: Films Media Group.
Biggs, S. (2014a). The anatomy of a dragon [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/04/the-anatomy-of-a-dragon.html
Biggs, S. (2014b, June 14). Weird and wonderful creatures of the bestiary [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/06/weird-and-wonderful-creatures-of-the-bestiary.html
Eddy, N. (2012, November 7). Beavers on the run [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html
Jeffs, A. (2017, August 10). Pouncing beasts [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2017/08/pouncing-beasts.html
Peverly, S. (n.d.). Beaty of the bestiaries [Blog post}. Retrieved from https://sarahpeverley.com/2015/11/17/beauty-of-the-bestiaries/
Royal project team. (2012, Feburary 9). The king of beasts [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/02/the-king-of-beasts.html