Middle English Bestiary


This manuscript contains a copy of the Physiologus, a collection of stories about animals and plants. It is the basis for many later medieval bestiaries.

The Physiologus was written in the 2nd century CE by an anonymous Greek author in Alexandria. The work was very popular in the Middle Ages and many manuscripts of it survive. This one is unusual because it is a version that has been translated into Middle English verse, in rhyming couplets.

What is the Physiologus?

The Physiologus is a kind of zoological text (although its purpose is very different from modern zoology). It contains descriptions of animals both real and fantastical. These descriptions are used for a moral purpose, as the author relates the attributes of the animals to the attributes of Christian believers. The author describes the habits and characteristics of the beasts, and then outlines their spiritual significance. The Middle English version of the text in this manuscript is from an 11th-century Latin intermediary source of the Physiologus by Thetbaldus.

What is in this manuscript?

This manuscript contains texts in Latin, English and French, which testifies to the multilingual culture of England in the 13th century. The texts in this manuscript are a mixture, including a dialogue between two monks on the difficulty of learning church music (digitised image 8), a poem on the Devil’s works in Anglo-Norman (digitised images 5 and 6) and a life of the wizard Merlin in Latin (image 7). In the 14th century this manuscript was in the possession of Norwich Cathedral, and it seems that the manuscript was copied not far from there – the dialect of Middle English that the bestiary poem is written in can be localised to west Norfolk. 

The third and fourth images digitised here feature a poem about the whale. Here you can see, in red ink, two headings, ‘natura cetegrandie’ [the nature of the whale], in the bottom right-hand corner of the third image and then ‘significacio’ [the significance] in the right-hand margin in the fourth image. The poem describes how the whale deceives sailors who think it is an island, whereupon they anchor their ships to it, before discovering their terrible mistake when they are sunk. This story about the whale also appears in an Anglo–Saxon poem called The Whale in the Exeter Book.

View a more images of this illuminated manuscript.

Full title:
Devotional miscellany, including the Creed in English, a bestiary, Apollonius of Tyre (ff. 41-61); Henry of Sawtrey's De purgatio Sancti Patricii (ff. 73-8
Middle English
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Arundel MS 292

Full catalogue details

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