Medieval monsters: from the mystical to the demonic

Medieval monsters

  • Article written by: Alixe Bovey
  • Published: 30 Apr 2015
Men with dogs’ heads, creatures with giant feet, griffins, sirens and hellish demons can all be found in the illustrated pages of medieval manuscripts. Dr Alixe Bovey delves into the symbolic meaning of a variety of monsters to understand what they can teach us about life and belief in the Middle Ages.

Peraldus' Theological Miscellany

Dragon

A representation of a red dragon, from Peraldus' Theological miscellany (Harley MS 3244, ff. 58v-59r)

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Numerous documents from antiquity tell of monstrous people living at the edge of the known world. In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder described extraordinary races of humans living in India and Ethiopia: these included mouthless hairy creatures called Astomi, who had no need of food or drink; men with dog's heads; and one-legged creatures who could hop at incredible speed and use their giant feet as umbrellas to protect them from the sun. 

Rutland Psalter

A web-footed sciopod is shot in the bottom by a hunched man

A marginal illustration of monsters, from the Rutland Psalter (Add MS 62925, f. 87v)

View images from this item  (4)

Pliny was himself repeating ancient authorities, and his account of these marvellous races was in turn influential throughout the Middle Ages, during which antique monster lore became part of a Christian framework.

Winchester Psalter

The damned are swallowed by a hellmouth

A representation of the Last Judgement, with the damned swallowed by a hell-mouth, in the Winchester Psalter (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r)

View images from this item  (20)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

For Christians, the monstrous races tested not only their credulity, but also their ethics. St Augustine of Hippo, writing in the 4th century CE, was not convinced that these monstrous races existed, but considered that if they did the vital question was whether or not they were human, descended from Adam, and therefore ‘rational and mortal.’ If so, they were worthy of salvation.

Monstrous illustrations

Interest in monstrous races endured through the Middle Ages. In 10th century England, descriptions of such creatures were gathered together into a text known as the Marvels of the East. Illustrated copies of this text enabled readers to marvel at pictures of the wondrous beings it described.

Anglo-Saxon miscellany

A blemmyae (man with its head in its chest), as described in Wonders of the East

An illustration of a blemmya, a man with its head in its chest, from an Anglo-Saxon miscellany (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r)

View images from this item  (3)

Similarly, a giant 12th century Bible made at Arnstein in Germany, contains a page of drawings of the monstrous races, and the 13th century English Rutland Psalter includes depictions of monsters in its margins. Another Psalter made in England c. 1260 includes a small but highly detailed map of the world with the monstrous races arrayed along its eastern edge.

Map Psalter

Psalter World Map, f9

A detailed map of the world, from the Map Psalter (Add MS 28681, f. 9r)

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Public Domain
Held by© British Library

The East was not the only habitat for monsters: in his account of Ireland, Gerald of Wales (c. 1146–1223) recounted tales of a talking werewolf, a bearded woman, creatures that were half-man and half-ox, and a fish with three gold teeth.

Demons in Christianity

Such monsters were exciting and exotic, but since they were located at the periphery of the known world, they did not seem to cause their medieval audience much anxiety. Another type of monster, however, was believed to lurk around every corner, and so aroused intense fear: these were the demons, often depicted with furry bodies, cloven hooves, leathery wings, and faces in strange places, that tried tirelessly to tempt, thwart and harm.

Dante's Inferno

Dante's Satan, a giant chewing sinners with each of his three mouths

An illustration of Satan, from a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, made in Naples (Add MS 19587, f. 58r)

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

According to medieval Christian belief, these creatures were fallen angels, whose dark, hairy, winged bodies were a perversion of the angelic form. Though not always visible they were nevertheless believed to be ever-present. A diagram of the universe in a 14th-century Book of Hours shows these demons raining down from heaven towards Satan, bound in chains below the cosmos.

Neville of Hornby Hours

Demons rain down from heaven into hell

An illustration of the universe and the spheres between Heaven and Hell, with God and angels at the top, and falling angels becoming devils, from the 'Neville of Hornby Hours' (Egerton MS 2781, f. 1v)

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Countless medieval stories describe the cunning of Satan and his army of demons, who were able to disguise themselves and to lure people into sin. Saints, and especially the Virgin, were able to recognise and to defeat such creatures.

Demonising difference

Monsters were often used to define boundaries and to express a distinction between morality and sin – or conformity and nonconformity. Those perceived as sinful were often portrayed as physically deformed. This tactic was used to demonise perceived enemies of Christendom, such as Jews, Muslims and Tartars, to whom inhuman practices (such as cannibalism) were sometimes attributed. Medieval artists often gave non-Christians exaggerated or deformed features, believing that their immorality could be expressed visually through monstrosity.

Aviary and bestiary

Sloane MS 278, ff. 50v-51r

Illustrations of a lizard or dragon ('lacerta'), a saw-fish ('serra'), and vipers ('vipera'), from a 13th-century Bestiary and Aviarium (Sloane MS 278, ff. 50v-51r)

View images from this item  (3)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Bestiaries

The natural world was also interpreted as the expression of a moral system. One of the best examples of this was the Bestiary, a type of book that gathered together descriptions of animals, ranging from ordinary creatures such as goats and bees to fantastical beasts including griffins, mermaids and unicorns.

Bestiary, with extracts from Gerald of Wales

A phoenix rising from flames

A representation of the phoenix, from an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 45r)

View images from this item  (9)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Collections of animal legends helped to explain the living world. Inspired by a story in an early medieval illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751), this animation explores the life of the crane.

In most Bestiaries, these animals are interpreted in relation to Christian morality: the creatures themselves were not as important as the moral truths revealed in their explication. Sirens, for instance, were said to have the upper body of a human and the lower body of a bird or fish (or even a combination of the two); they sang beautiful songs to lull sailors to sleep, and then attacked and killed them. The moral: those who take pleasure in worldly diversions will be vulnerable to the devil.

Aviary and bestiary

A siren lures a man to his death

A siren, depicted as a woman with the tail of a fish, lures a sailor from a boat, in a 13th-century Aviarium and Bestiary (Sloane MS 278, f. 47r)

View images from this item  (3)

Not all monstrous creatures were ugly, nor were they all bad: according to the Bestiary, the unicorn is a symbol of Christ, and its horn denotes the unity of God.

Flowers of Virtue and of Manners

A unicorn

An illustration of a unicorn, from the Flowers of Virtue and of Custom (Harley MS 3448, f. 36v)

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

This manuscript has an illustration showing a knight stealing a tiger cub from its mother. The text above indicates that a tiger can run faster than a man on a horse. The knight overcame this problem by throwing a mirror to the tigress, who stopped and looked at the reflection, thinking she was looking at her own cub.

Bestiary, with extracts from Gerald of Wales

Illustration of a tiger and a knight

An illustration of a tiger, from an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 3v)

View images from this item  (9)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Learn more about bestiaries on our Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.

The Whale was the terror of the seas, a danger to sailors who often mistook it for an island and anchored their ships on its back. Inspired by a tale from an illustrated medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751), this animation explores the life of the sea-creature beneath the waves.

Illuminated monsters

Deluxe manuscripts were often decorated with images of monsters. Serpentine bodies with biting heads were twisted into splendid initial letters and borders; strange hybrid creatures, made up of body parts from two or more creatures, were painted in the margins; and images in miniatures and margins often showed the defeat of a monster by a saint or hero. The presence of such monsters is often playful, and sometimes in startling contrast to the seriousness of the text. Yet the morally charged interpretations of such monsters in other contexts hints that while medieval viewers might have taken delight in such images, they could also have seen them as symbolizing the dangers that lurked beyond the limits of Christian belief.

Luttrell Psalter

Illuminated monsters in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter

A marginal illustration of a monster, in the Luttrell Psalter (Add MS 42130, f. 197r)

View images from this item  (9)
  • Alixe Bovey
  • Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years; she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.