The Bestiary: Medieval to Modern
April 16, 2014 | Posted in: Modern Bestiary
“We typically think of bestiaries, if we think of them at all, as creations of the medieval mind: delightful for their bizarre and beautiful images illuminated in gold and precious pigments from far-off lands… But there is more to bestiaries than this. Along with zany pictures, bizarre zoology and religious parables, they contain gems of acute observation: attempts to understand and convey how things actually are. Undaunted by (and unaware of) the limits of the knowledge of their time, they celebrate the beauty of being…”
Caspar Henderson, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.”
Biblical verse, Book of Job 12:7-10
Some of the earliest paintings known to humankind grace the Chauvet Caves in France. Estimated at 30,000 years old, the paintings consist entirely of animals: lions, horses, stags, bison, mammoths, among others. These stone canvases were painted with such great care for detail and accuracy that we can be certain the ancient people who created them spent a great many hours observing the animal species that shared their ecological home. This level of detail is even more surprising when one considers what is absent from the stone walls: landscapes, the sun, moon, stars, rivers, and plant life make no appearances at all. Humans themselves are only rarely present, mostly far off in the distance with hardly any detail given. Among all the glories of our planet, it was the beasts that captured the artistic impulse of these ancestral humans.
And this fascination with our animal relatives has continued unbroken through human history right up to today:
“For much of human history attempts to understand and define ourselves have been closely linked to how we see and represent other animals. Methods of representation may change but a fascination with other modes of being remains… what we know about animals and what we don’t, the amazing things they can do and the things they can’t, the ways they never stop being strange or surprising, feature constantly among the most shared articles and video clips on the web.” Henderson
Artistic representations of animals have perhaps never seen such a frenzied and resource-heavy devotion as in the medieval times with the explosion in popularity of the bestiary: a book whose aim was to accumulate humanity’s understanding of the beasts of the world into rare and precious volumes. These books, many of which have survived in excellent condition up to today, are of priceless worth when one considers the sheer labor of love that went into their creation: the pages were crafted of animals skins upon which scripts were written with perfect calligraphy, further embellished with inks made of gold and other precious minerals. Artistic renderings of animals fill the bestiaries pages. These books were of such value that they were often made either as gifts for the wealthy elite (most often bestowed upon kings and queens) or became sacred texts protected within the walls of monasteries.
The bestiaries based much of their proclaimed knowledge of nature on past natural histories, some dating as far back as the third century. But these books went beyond mere description of the creatures within their covers, for in the medieval times animals took on a moral role in the minds of the intensely religious Europeans:
“Animals had been written about for centuries before the Christian era, but it was Christianity that took the stories and made them into religious allegories… In the Christian west, it was commonly believed that the natural world, the so-called ‘book of nature’, had been arranged as it was by God to provide a source of instruction to humanity… Animals were said to have the characteristics they do not merely by accident; God created them with those characteristics to serve as examples for proper conduct and to reinforce the teachings of the Bible. As the pelican revives her dead young after three days with her own blood, so Christ ‘revived’ humanity with his blood after three days in the grave… As doves are safe from their enemy the dragon as long as they stay in the shelter of the peridexion tree, so Christians will be safe from their enemy Satan as long as they stay in the shelter of the Church… All of Creation was said to reflect the Creator, and to learn about the Creator one could study the Creation.”
David Badke, Introduction to The Medieval Bestiary Site
Any modern reader of a medieval bestiary will quickly notice that a whole circus of fanciful beliefs were regarded as true concerning the beasts, birds, and precious stones filling up the pages of these books. Even the illustrations of the animals were generally far from reality, for in many cases the artist in question had never even seen a live example of the creature being drawn. Rather, they worked from the drawings of others, many of whom must have either lacked talent or suffered from a terribly over-active imagination. Indeed, some of the creatures listed in the bestiaries are complete fabrications, like unicorns and basilisks.
Whether real or fictitious, an animal included in a bestiary was fated to be fantastically described: given powers, habits, and physicalities far too bizarre to believe they were literally believed. Bees, for instance, were described as being born from the corpses of oxen and lived as a collective of warriors ruled over by a King Bee; the hive engaged in battles and feared smoke and loud noises.
Diamonds were vaguely told to come from the “East”, where by night the jewels shone so bright in the moonlight they were easily discovered. A person carrying a diamond was protected from demons and all other harm, and only the blood of a male goat could dissolve the otherwise indestructible stone. The diamond was seen as an allegorical representation of Christ: like the stone, no demon could overcome the Christian savior in his devote followers eyes.
Eagles were burdened with a host of positive and negative attributes, but it was repeatedly told in various bestiaries that the eagle, when elderly and ill, would restore itself to youth by flying so high towards the sun that its feathers burnt off, whereupon it fell into water and arose youthful once more. The eyes of an eagle could stare unharmed into the sun and a mother tested her fledglings for fitness by forcing them to gaze into the blinding light. If their little eyes would water then a weakness was shown and they were quickly killed. The moral teachings of an eagle were seen as a reminder that all souls should turn towards the light and if the light causes harm, then some evil defect must be hidden within.
Whales suffered from a bestiary reputation of deception: these monsters were so large and slow, and would remain floating upon the surface for such long periods, that sand would gather upon their backs and sprout plants and trees. Unwitting sailors would land upon what they believed to be an island, light their night-time fires, and the heat would cause the whale to dive deep underwater, dragging the ship and crew to their demise. When hungry, a whale’s mouth would fill with a sweet odor that would attract prey, leading them into its waiting jaws. This imagined cunning of the whale resulted in its analogy to the devil using worldly pleasures to lure weak souls to their ruin.
“If we are to construe these [bestiary] images properly, we must remember that animals were thought to hold up a mirror to humanity. On the principle that it is easier to grasp the qualities and faults of others than of oneself, the observed or posited traits of animals were used as surrogates for aspects of human psychology. The prudence of the snake, the dog’s fidelity, the ass’s laziness, the fox’s cunning, and dozens of other characteristics associated with particular species constituted a virtual map of human traits and behaviors… [Bestiaries] made it possible to achieve an exhaustive description of the human world in the guise of the animal kingdom.”
C. Heck & R. Cordonnier, The Grand Medieval Bestiary
In more modern times, our fascination with the bestiary continues. The medieval imagery in past bestiaries is as captivating as ever, and many have been painstakingly scanned so as to be available to anyone, anywhere online. Some authors and artists continue to utilize the bestiary as fodder for their own beastly imaginations, including Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Ana Maria Pacheco, Domenico Gnoli, and David Sedaris.
Caspar Henderson has re-imagined a place for the bestiary in modern times in his exquisite work, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary. In it he posits that the current scientific discoveries of the animal kingdom are actually far more bizarre and fantastical than any of the beliefs so carefully recorded in the bestiaries of the past:
“[M]any real animals are stranger than imaginary ones, and it is our knowledge and understanding that are too cramped and fragmentary to accommodate them: we have barely imagined them.”
This endless quest to understand the ecological community and to discover our place in the great web of life is perhaps humanities oldest and most basic inquiry. Bestiaries at their heart are always an authors attempt to make known, to illuminate, the mysterious beings that share our earthly home. Each of us throughout our lives is unconsciously creating a compendium of understandings about the Kingdom Animalia. And while we may feel superior when comparing our modern understandings to the fanciful beliefs of medieval times, our ignorance of biological life on this planet still vastly outweighs our knowledge:
“Even though some 1.4 million species of organisms have been discovered (in the minimal sense of having specimens collected and formal scientific names attached), the total number alive on the earth is somewhere between 10 and 100 million… Of the species given scientific names, fewer than 10 percent have been studied at a level deeper than gross anatomy.”
E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life
The bestiary still beckons to our imagination and desire to know, with pages waiting to be filled as our knowledge grows. I’ve decided in my own small-blog-way to answer the call: slowly I’ll be going A to Z through the Kingdom Animalia, delving into the world of mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles, sharing my discoveries and musings. It will begin with Ants.
Bestiaries Available to View Online:
Wikimedia Commons Bestiary Category
British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.