Bestiaries, or ‘Books of beasts’, provide an account of the characteristics and habits of a variety of animals, both real and fantastical, together with their associated allegorical and moral lessons. This work is one of a number of lavishly illustrated bestiaries, which were produced in England during the early medieval period (others include Harley MS 4751 and Royal MS 12 C XIX).
The Rochester Bestiary contains 55 images of birds and beasts, painted in gold and bright colours, though the spaces left blank in the book suggest that 126 illustrations were originally intended to accompany the text. French instructions to the manuscript’s illuminator appear in the margins beside these images, describing the subjects that are to be depicted. The volume also contains a lapidary written in Anglo-Norman French, which details the properties and virtues of precious and semi-precious stones.
The book is known as the Rochester Bestiary because it was once owned by the Benedictine monks of the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. An ownership inscription at the beginning of the manuscript suggests that it remained in the possession of the cathedral priory until at least the 14th century. The book subsequently passed through the hands of various owners, and ultimately became part of the Upper Library at Westminster Palace by 1542.