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. c. 1236), Summa de Arte Praedicandi 7.2
A bestiary is a book of real and imaginary beasts, though its subjects often extend to birds, plants and even rocks. Long perceived merely as rudimentary natural histories, medieval bestiaries actually reflect the belief that the natural world was designed by God to instruct mankind. They describe the physical nature and habits of animals in order to elaborate on the moral or spiritual significance of these characteristics.
The sequential arrangement of animals in bestiaries lends itself well to illustration, and medieval bestiary manuscripts are among the most vividly illuminated books of their era. In contrast to most contemporary encyclopaedias and beast tales, bestiaries typically contain abundant depictions of animals that reinforce or add to their description in the text. Word and image work together and individually to communicate morally edifying material, such as might be included in medieval sermons, in an appealing and accessible manner.
While most medieval bestiaries were produced within a relatively brief period, ranging from the late twelfth to the mid thirteenth centuries, their captivating portrayals of animals continue to compel the imagination. Modern ‘bestiaries’, compendia of creatures to which moral significance need not adhere, have been produced by well-known writers including Guillaume Apollinaire, T.H. White, Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges, all of whom found in the medieval bestiary an enduring source of literary inspiration. The natural world remains a book we feel compelled to read.