This article discusses medieval bestiaries and their influence on modern culture.
A bestiary, or bestiarum, is a compendium that describes animals, or animals. In the Middle Ages it was a special category of book collecting short descriptions of animals (real and imagined), together with moralizing explanations and references from the Bible. Other types of collections focused on other aspects of the natural world, though the concept was similar. The lapidaries collected descriptions of the properties of rocks and minerals collections focused on other parts with a similar theme focused on the supernatural and moral properties of rocks and minerals. Herbaria described the virtues of plants from a medical perspective, but they too strayed into the realm of morality and legend, and were of little botanical or medical value.
The remote origin of these texts, which have no scientific value, is to be found in the ancient Greek work, Physiologus (meaning “the physiologist”; that is, the student of nature) that offered a symbolic and religious interpretation of the animals and their characteristics. So, for example, the lion – the king of beasts, is associated with Christ. The text was translated into Latin and throughout history has been enriched by details and images developed in later bestiaries. Other sources are to be found in Latin authors such as Pliny the Elder, Gaius Julius Solinus (a Latin Grammarian), and Saint Ambrose. Although birds were usually included in the bestiaries, they sometimes formed the subject of separate books dedicated exclusively to flying animals, both real and imagined. Books dedicated to the description of birds were technically called aviarii. As with bestiaries, the aviarii contained a great deal of fanciful descriptions; even when a real bird was described, the medieval authors would often ascribe imaginary behaviours or qualities to it.
Bestiaries were published primarily in France and England during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, although there are later examples later. These more recent bestiaries are not as elaborate and are of lower artistic quality. One of the best known and most beautiful bestiary is The Aberdeen Bestiary a Twelfth Century illuminated manuscript.
Bestiaries were an attempt to describe the natural world through a moral lens. Although the descriptions bear little resemblance to any real natural history, bestiaries are nonetheless an important artifact serving to cast light on the beliefs and superstitions of the medieval mind. It is important to note that bestiaries were not written as works of fiction or fantasy; the authors and their readers believed them to be true descriptions of unicorns, dragons and other bizarre and often grotesque monsters and beasts — for just outside the narrow ambit of the walled village or hamlet, the world was an unsafe and frightening place. Men and women rarely traveled more than a few miles from their homes during their entire lifetimes, and so their knowledge of the outside world depended on the stories from stories and tall tales from travelers, that had been embellished by many retellings.
Creatures from Bestiaries
Unicorns, half men/half horses, humans with dog heads, plant men, flying snakes, giant birds that hunt elephants by picking them up and dropping them from the sky.