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Books of Beasts in the British Library: the Medieval Bestiary and its context

Introduction English Bestiaries
and their Beasts
Beast Studies and
Beast Stories
Beasts in the
Margins
Further Reading



The origins of the medieval bestiary

Physiologus
Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis
Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae

Though medieval bestiaries do not reproduce a single uniform text, they do share several direct and indirect textual sources. Foremost among these is the Latin translation of the Physiologus, an early Christian moralising treatise on animals. The classical encyclopaedia of Pliny the Elder provided an important source for late antique and medieval writers, including Isidore of Seville, whose Etymologiae is excerpted in all versions of the medieval bestiary. Other early sources include the Collectanea rerum memorabilium of Solinus (third century) and the Hexaemeron of Ambrose, archbishop of Milan (c. 339-97).

Physiologus

The Physiologus constitutes the primary source for medieval bestiaries. Drawing on observed or reported characteristics and behaviours of animals, the Christian author of the Physiologus used this information as the foundation for moralisation, extracting allegorical meaning and Christian doctrine from the natures and habits of familiar and fantastic creatures. The original Greek Physiologus was written in Alexandria between the second and fourth centuries. By the late fourth century, the text had been translated into Latin, and it was from Latin versions of the Physiologus that medieval bestiaries derived their central content and their moralising bent.

Royal 6 A. xi, f. 144v
Coloured initials introducing three characteristics of lions and other animal descriptions, England, 3rd quarter of the 12th century, 290 x 185 mm.
Royal 6 A. xi, f. 144v

Sloane 278, f. 48v
Elephants, a dragon and a mandrake, Northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, 265 x 180 mm.
Sloane 278, f. 48v

Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis

The Historia naturalis of Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) represents a different approach to the study of animals and another influence on bestiary texts. The Historia naturalis is an early encyclopaedia and in it Pliny draws on myriad classical sources to document the knowledge of the classical world. Writing in the third century, Solinus adapted Pliny’s Historia extensively in his Collectanea rerum memorabilium, a compilation in the form of a travel guide. Most medieval bestiaries derived their Pliny excerpts from Solinus’s Collectanea.
Arundel 98, f. 85v
Initial 'S'(equitur) made up of a hybrid creature with wings and a horned human head, at the beginning of Book 10 of Pliny the Elder's Historia naturalis, Southern England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century, 430 x 310 mm.
Arundel 98, f. 85v

Harley 2677, f. 1
Pliny the Elder writing in his study beside a landscape populated with animals at the beginning of Pliny’s Historia naturalis, Central Italy (Rome), c. 1457-58, 415 x 280 mm.
Harley 2677, f. 1


Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae

The Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) is a vast encyclopaedia based on a number of classical sources. In this monumental work Isidore sought to connect the names of things to what was known of their natures and characteristics. Thus, for example, Isidore writes that dormice derive their Latin name, glis, from the fact that they swell (gliscere, in Latin) and grow fat when they sleep for the entire winter. Though full of far-fetched etymologies connecting animals’ names to their natures, Isidore’s text does not derive any moralisations from the natural world. Extracts from Isidore’s Etymologiae were combined with the Latin Physiologus to formulate the earliest versions of the bestiary text.


Royal 12 F. iv, f. 21
Initial 'D'(omino) with an image of Isidore of Seville, at the beginning of a preface to his Etymologiae, Eastern England (East Anglia?) 3rd quarter of the 12th century, 280 x 180 mm.
Royal 12 F. iv, f. 21

Burney 327, f. 12
Puzzle initial 'B'(estiarum) near the beginning of Book 12 of Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, France, 1st half of the 13th century, 225 x 150 mm.
Burney 327, f. 12



Introduction English Bestiaries
and their Beasts
Beast Studies and
Beast Stories
Beasts in the
Margins
Further Reading

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