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

Introduction The Origins of the
Medieval Bestiary
English Bestiaries
and their Beasts
Beasts in the
Margins
Further Reading



Beast studies and beast stories

Animals in medieval encyclopaedias
Animal tales
Bestiaries translated and transformed
Vernacular bestiary manuscripts at the British Library

At the time that the Latin bestiary was flourishing, there were different textual traditions in which animals were depicted and described. The great medieval encyclopaedias shared some common sources with the Latin bestiaries, notably the works of Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville, but developed along different lines. Drawing on more sources, including Aristotle, their scope extends beyond that found in bestiaries. Animal tales ranging from the wondrous accounts of Gerald of Wales to humorous animal fables and fabliaux share the bestiary’s moralising tone, but their moral lessons tend to remain grounded in earthly, rather than spiritual, concerns. As bestiaries were translated into the vernacular, their form and content were appropriated and redirected in works like Richard de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amour, a complex literary work in which bestiary creatures are used to explore the ironies and ambiguities of courtly love literature.

Animals in medieval encyclopaedias

Animals populated the pages of medieval encyclopaedias. Indeed, some encyclopaedias were excerpted in bestiaries and some used bestiaries as sources. Isidore’s Etymologiae provided the foundation for De rerum naturis, a ninth-century moralising encyclopaedia written by Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856). The twelfth-century De natura rerum of Alexander Neckam (1157-1217) continued in this moralising strain, but moralisations became less common over the course of the thirteenth century, which saw the writing of the immense Speculum maius of Vincent of Beauvais (1189/94-c. 1264) and the popular De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomaeus Anglicus (d. 1272).

The De proprietatibus served as an important model for later encyclopaedists, including James le Palmer (b. 1327), who not only derived material from the work, but also followed Bartholomaeus Anglicus in claiming to make knowledge available to the young and the uneducated. Writing in French and Italian, Brunetto Latini (1220-95) turned to the vernacular to render his encyclopaedias, Li Livres dou Trésor and Tesoretto, more broadly accessible.

Royal 12 G. xiv, f. 6
Initial 'P'(rimum) inhabited by human figures and animals at the beginning of Book 1 of Hrabanus Maurus’s De rerum naturis, Southern England (St Albans), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century, 420 x 285 mm.
Royal 12 G. xiv, f. 6

Royal 15 E. iii, f. 11
The author, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, conversing with falconers and surrounded by birds, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), 1482, 470 x 330 mm.
Royal 15 E. iii, f. 11

Royal 6 E. vi, vol. 1, f. 104v
Initial 'T'(ria) inhabited by a man herding domestic animals in James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, South-eastern England (London), c. 1360-75, 455 x 310 mm.
Royal 6 E. vi, vol. 1, f. 104v

Royal 17 E. i, f. 2v, detail
The author, Brunetto Latini, reading, France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, 405 x 280 mm.
Royal 17 E. i, f. 2v, detail

Animal tales

Within bestiaries and without, animals inspired medieval writers as sources of wonder, entertainment and moral instruction. Observations of the creatures that populate Ireland fill the pages of the Topographia Hiberniae of Gerald of Wales, and he includes many creatures in his accounts of marvels that had been seen and recounted in the land. It is not surprising that some of these accounts found their way into bestiaries, which feature creatures both familiar and exotic.

The animal fables of Aesop (sixth century BC) draw morals from short and entertaining accounts of creatures whose susceptibilities and wiles are all too human. Fabulists like Aesop found in the natural world a mirror that offered both instruction and entertainment. Marie de France drew on Aesop and other sources when writing her Anglo-Norman verse Fables in the twelfth century. At a time when bestiaries were taking lessons from animals on how salvation might be achieved through virtuous living, Marie’s Fables offers morals applicable to navigating the vagaries of one’s life on earth. Equally earthbound is the Roman de Renart, a series of tales that began circulating in the twelfth century. The Renart stories feature the rivalry of the wily fox, Reynard, and his foe, Isengrim the wolf. These tales sometimes have a serious side, satirising the abuses of both church and state.
Royal 13 B. viii, f. 8v
A crane and barnacle geese in the margin of the Topographia Hiberniae, Northern England (Lincoln?), c. 1196-1223, 275 x 190 mm.
Royal 13 B. viii, f. 8v

Royal 13 B. viii, f. 18
A priest of Ulster administering communion to a she-wolf in her den in the margin of the Topographia Hiberniae, Northern England (Lincoln?), c. 1196-1223, 275 x 190 mm.
Royal 13 B. viii, f. 18

Harley 978, f. 40
Initial ‘C’(il) at the beginning of Marie de France’s, Fables, Central England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century, 190 x 135 mm.
Harley 978, f. 40

Royal 10 E. iv, f. 55v
Reynard the Fox, dressed as a palmer, being led on a rope before a lion, Southern France (Toulouse?), c. 1300, South-eastern England (London), c. 1340s, 450 x 280 mm.
Royal 10 E. iv, f. 55v


Bestiaries translated and transformed

Bestiaries in the vernacular survive from as early as the beginning of the twelfth century. Between 1121 and 1135, the Anglo-Norman poet Philippe de Thaon used a Latin First-family bestiary as the source for an Anglo-Norman verse translation, Li Bestiaire, which he dedicated to Adeliza of Louvain, the young wife of Henry I. Nearly a century later, Guillaume le Clerc produced a longer and more popular rendition of the bestiary in French verse, the Bestiaire divin. Around the same time, Pierre de Beauvais produced a French prose bestiary.

The Physiologus in its various forms was also translated into the vernacular during this period. Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, a Norman poet, Gervaise, translated an adaptation of the Latin Physiologus into French verse. A Middle English verse translation of the Physiologus is thought to have been composed by the middle of the thirteenth century.

The French prose bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais provided the primary source for the Bestiaire d’amour, an ambiguous and lyrical ‘love bestiary’. The Bestiaire d’amour takes the form of a bestiary while posing as, and subverting, courtly love literature. Written in French by churchman and bibliophile Richard de Fournival, this work draws as well on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the poetry of Ovid.


Egerton 613, f. 36
A phoenix collecting twigs for its pyre in a Bestiaire divin, South-western England, 1st half of the 13th century, 225 x 145 mm.
Egerton 613, f. 36

Arundel 292, f. 4
Coloured initials introducing three characteristics of the lion and other animal descriptions in the Middle English Physiologus, Eastern England (Norfolk, Norwich?), last quarter of the 13th century, 205 x 135 mm.
Arundel 292, f. 4

Harley 273, f. 72v
Ink drawings of a bird picking out the eyes of a human corpse and a lion fighting with a man in a Bestiaire d'amour, South-western England (Ludlow?), between 1314 and 1328, 220 x 135 mm.
Harley 273, f. 72v

Harley 273, f. 78
Ink drawings of a huntsman and his dog chasing a female ape and a mermaid and a ship in the sea in a Bestiaire d’amour, South-western England (Ludlow?), between 1314 and 1328, 220 x 135 mm.
Harley 273, f. 78

Vernacular bestiary manuscripts at the British Library

Additional 28260 (Gervaise, Bestiaire)
Arundel 292 (Middle English translation of the Physiologus)
Cotton Nero A. v (Philippe de Thaon, Li Bestiaire)
Cotton Vespasian A. vii (Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiaire divin)
Egerton 613 (Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiaire divin)
Harley 273 (Richard de Fournival, La Bestiaire d’amour)


Introduction The Origins of the
Medieval Bestiary
English Bestiaries
and their Beasts
Beasts in the
Margins
Further Reading

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