Medieval bestiaries

Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary

Legends of animals helped readers in the Middle Ages to make sense of the living world. Elizabeth Morrison delves into the wondrous and delightful stories of the medieval bestiary.

In Disney’s The Lion King, little Simba grows up to become the ‘King of Beasts’, but did you ever wonder where the whole idea of the lion as king of beasts comes from? The answer lies in the medieval bestiary, along with a host of other wondrous and exciting discoveries.

Early illustrated bestiary

Add MS 11283, f. 1r detail

An illustration of a lion from a 12th-century bestiary (British Library, Add MS 11283, f. 1r, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

All manner of animals, ranging from the noble unicorn to the humble hedgehog, inhabit the medieval bestiary, a type of manuscript containing descriptions of over a hundred animals. The lion is the first animal to appear in the bestiary, as described in the text: ‘Now leo in Greek is translated to king (rex) in Latin, because he is the ruler of all beasts.’ That concept is now so well-known that it even forms the basis for a Disney movie, hundreds of years later. However, although the bestiary was the closest thing to an early medieval natural history encyclopedia, unlike modern resources such as Wikipedia that explain the habitats, scientific classifications, or eating preferences of animals, creatures in the bestiary were explained in terms of their place within the Christian worldview. The text devoted to the lion goes on to explain that lion cubs are born dead. On the third day, the father lion breathes on them, bringing them to life. This was seen as a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection three days later. The animals of the world were interpreted in the bestiary as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world, as he placed behaviors and characteristics into the animals at the beginning of time to mirror Biblical truths.

Origins of the bestiary

The bestiary was based on a Greek text of the second century called the Physiologus. It contained only a few dozen animals in no discernable order, as well as a small number of trees and rocks. Every natural phenomenon was interpreted as a reflection of an aspect of Christ’s life or Christian doctrine. Sometime probably in the 11th century, information was added from a text called the Etymologies by Isidore of Seville (b. c. 580, d. 636), Archbishop of Seville. The text was the most popular early medieval encyclopedia of universal knowledge, including almost 250 individual animals. One of Isidore’s primary forms of analysis was explaining how the origins of a particular word helped elucidate its meaning (a good example is the word ‘lion’ mentioned above), hence the title given to the work. Isidore’s text was usually only decorated with simple pen initials.

10th-century copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies

Latin 7585, f. 143r

Decorated pen initial ‘O’[mnibus] opens Book XII of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (BnF, MS lat. 7585, f. 143r)

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In contrast to Isidore’s text, the bestiary was largely an illuminated tradition, especially in certain versions. The bestiary was not a single text, in fact, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order. Both because less was known about the world’s creatures than in our information-rich society and also because the bestiary was intended to show God’s wondrous power, the bestiary contained not only domestic animals like cats and cows, as well as more exotic beasts like tigers and crocodiles, but also animals we scoff at today as imaginary or fantastic, like griffins, sirens, and phoenixes. One version of the bestiary was often illuminated, and its animals were reorganized into categories established in Isidore’s Etymologies: land animals, birds, serpents, and sea creatures. The earliest copy of this version is illuminated with pen drawings, some with colored highlights, but later copies contained fully colored illustrations. The land animals start with the lion, and continue on with other wild animals, such as the unicorn.

Early illustrated bestiary

Add MS 11283, f. 3r detail

An illustration of a unicorn from a 12th-century bestiary (British Library, Add MS 11283, f. 3r, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Christian allegory and humorous legends

According to the accompanying text, a unicorn is a savage beast that can only be caught via a clever stratagem. If a virgin sits alone in the forest, the unicorn will come willingly to her lap and lay down its head. A hunter can then safely approach and kill the beast. The story was seen as a Christian allegory for the Incarnation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and his subsequent vulnerability as a human at the hands of men. The unicorn was thus seen as a natural-world counterpart for Christ. In this illustration, the maiden grasps the unicorn by its horn, which was valued for its miraculous ability to purify water. The woman puts up her finger in a gesture of warning to the approaching hunter and sits on a throne, likely in reference to her link to the Virgin.

Although a number of the animals featured in the bestiary have a Christian allegory attached to them, many of the others have no meaning attached to them at all. One such in the group of land animals is a beast called the bonnacon, now known to be mythical.

Bestiary, with extracts from Gerald of Wales

Harley MS 4751, f. 11r detail

The bonnacon sprays fiery dung at soldiers in an English bestiary (British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The text explains that the bonnacon has curled horns that render it incapable of defending itself. Instead, it protects itself by spraying fiery dung across a three-acre area. In this image, the bonnacon lets loose on a group of unsuspecting soldiers, who ineffectually block the effluence with spears and shields. One can only imagine that medieval audiences found the story as funny as modern ones (think of Pumbaa in The Lion King as a contemporary bonnacon!).

Birds and serpents

The birds are the next category, starting with the eagle.

Early illustrated bestiary

Add MS 11283, f. 16v detail

An illustration of eagles from a 12th-century bestiary (British Library, Add MS 11283, f. 16v, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The eagle was identified in the bestiary as the king of birds, the aviary counterpart of the lion. It looks up to the sun to renew its youthfulness. The faithful are meant to lift their eyes to God for renewal, just as the eagle looks to the sun. Here, the regal bird lifts its eyes up, the artist bringing it to life with relatively few strokes of the pen. 

One of the most intriguing birds in the bestiary is the crane, which is particularly known for its social nature and its investment in the well-being of the entire flock. Its engaging story is brought to life in the following animation.

The bestiary continues with the serpents. The king of serpents was the dragon, following in the footsteps of the lion and the eagle.

Bestiary, with extracts from Gerald of Wales

Harley MS 4751, f. 58v detail

The only enemy of a dragon is the elephant (British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The dragon was supposedly so powerful that its only enemy was the elephant. The dragon would lay in wait along the path of the elephant and then wraps itself around the elephant’s legs, eventually suffocating the huge pachyderm. Just so does the devil entangles the foolish and faithless, and strangle them with his lies. Here the elephant looks more exasperated than frightened as the dragon wends around its powerful body. Given that the artist had likely never seen either type of animal, he has rendered the floppy ears, giant tusks, flexible trunk, and grey skin of the elephant quite convincingly.

The whale

Last in the bestiary come all the fish. One of the most compelling stories involves a belua, a type of enormous whale.

Bestiary, with extracts from Gerald of Wales

Harley MS 4751, f. 69r detail

The whale is so huge that sailors can mistake it for an island (British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 69, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The whale was so big that it could lay on the surface until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would make camp on its back. Unsuspecting, they light a fire, and when the whale feels the heat, it knows it can plunge its victims to their deaths in the depths of the water. The artist has rendered all these details in the image, including the panicked faces of the desperate sailors. The size and power of the animal is reflected by the fact that the image devoted to the belua is often the biggest in illuminated copies of the bestiary.

The bestiary is one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery. Throughout history, animals have been used in stories to reflect human characteristics and emotions, a form of anthropomorphism. All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals. For me, the belua is possibly my favorite bestiary animal. The Latin word actually just means ‘ferocious beast,’ so of course, this is the name that I chose for my own ferocious beast, a chocolate Labrador retriever, who is possibly the friendliest animal on the planet. Belua and I often sit on the couch together, being inspired as we browse through images online of the entertaining, edifying, and endlessly fascinating, medieval bestiary.

  • Elizabeth Morrison
  • Dr Elizabeth Morrison is Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, beginning work there in 1996. During her tenure, she has curated numerous exhibitions including the 2010 co-curated exhibition Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500, which was a finalist for the College Arts Association award for outstanding exhibition catalogue. She has published on both Flemish and French illumination and is currently working on an international loan exhibition at the Getty Museum for the summer of 2019 on the theme of medieval bestiaries.