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"Medieval Bestiaries and the Birth of Zoology"
by Aura Beckhöfer-Fialho

Aura Beckhöfer-Fialho is a new media designer for an animal rescue organization based in the UK. Her interactive master's thesis, "HYPERWHAT?!—Designing Meaningful Hypermedia Systems," won a Certificate of Merit at the Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada (AMTEC) 1998 Media Festival.


A bestiary is, quite simply, a book of beasts. In medieval Europe, bestiaries were extremely popular and respected by all who consulted it.1 After the Church appropriated it for its own purposes around the 6th century, the bestiary became a book of learning which used examples of animal lore to teach Christian values. Mixing fact and fiction with a dab of moralization, bestiaries became incarnations of the medieval mind which so preoccupied itself with salvation that it could scarce look beyond its horizon without seeing it through God-tainted glasses.

The bestiary was an odd compilation, even to today's standards. It combined observations from nature, zoological commentaries, imaginative illustrations and a good dose of moral and religious lessons to bind it all together. In a time where there was no distinct separation between church and science, it seems almost natural that a book like the bestiary evolved from such an unlikely union.

The importance of the bestiary cannot be understated. As a matter of fact, we owe to the bestiary and its predecessor, the Physiologus, the most enduring animal iconography of all times. But what did the bestiary have to do with medieval zoology? Could the bestiary be considered a zoological treatise, or did it stand its own ground as a symbol of Christian beliefs? Let's hope that there will be a light at the end of this essay which will answer whatever questions we may still have regarding the role of the bestiary in the evolution of zoology.

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The creator, the user, and nature

Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee;
And the fowls on the air, and they shall teach thee;
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee;
And the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. (Job 12.7,8)

To put the bestiary into proper context, we must first take a good look at medieval man's attitudes towards nature, how they came about, and his perception of man's role within the grand scheme of things.

Several factors contributed to medieval man's view of nature: among them, religion played a major part, as well as Greek philosophy and Roman literature. In the Middle Ages, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were held in the highest regard; their scientific approach to nature was respected and their writings were considered definitive. Basically, if Aristotle stated a fact, no matter how ludicrous, then it was good enough for the medieval philosopher, who never stopped to wonder why.

Unlike medieval man's God-fearing observation of nature, the ancients showed an objective and scientific approach to it. Indeed, the faults which we find in their writings today were mainly due to the fact that they were unable to gather the information themselves and had to rely on second-hand accounts, which often led them astray. This was the case with Aristotle who greatly counted on hunters and soldiers to provide him with the information he required.2

The Romans made it a bit easier for their natural philosophers to study nature (or at least animals) up close. For one thing, they set up vivaria and aviaries. Most importantly, however, they were the first to publicly display collections of exotic animals. Incidentally, so great was their interest in lions that they went so far as to remove their claws and teeth in order to keep them as pets.3

Although medieval natural philosophers tried to approach nature objectively, they found it inconceivable that nature could be studied independently from God, its creator, and Man, its user. As a result, nature came to be viewed as an endless source of examples of morality lessons from which sinful mankind could learn and certainly benefit from. The consequences of such an approach resulted in an overactive medieval imagination which not only derived moralistic sermons from all that it observed from nature, but also derived spiritual fulfillment from the creative act of imagination itself! To further confuse the issue, although man perceived nature as a teacher of God's will, he also saw himself as being separate from it and certainly superior to it. In his mind, nature was there to be used as he saw fit, and its value was purely heuristic.

One of the greatest problems with medieval natural history is that in trying to understand nature, medieval thinkers relied more on theoretical discussions than empirical observation and experience. This indirect approach led to a wide range of symbolic explanations of what was actually being observed. Further fueling the medieval imagination, were the traveler's tales which told of the accounts of fabulous beasts in faraway lands. Since there was no way of verifying any of the information which was provided, medieval man had no choice but to accept Unicorns, Griffins and "wonder-people" as fact.

It was also in the Middle Ages that man started incorporating elements from nature in his language, so that animals became descriptive of his every day life. Thus, to be boorish meant that a person was crude and wild, like a boar. To this day, we still use animal expressions to describe characteristics and behavior such as "horsing around" and looking "foxy."

By the 9th century, several works had been produced which dealt with nature and the universe. Among the more important ones, were Beda's Natura Rerum and Johannes Scotus Erigena's De Divisione Naturae. Despite these grand titles, what we find within the pages of these books are basically philosophical elaborations on the theme of the Creation.4

Charles Raven summed it up best when he stated that: "The whole attitude towards nature was emblematic. . .men sought in nature not knowledge, but edification; not enlightenment, but the exemplification of preconceived ideas."5

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The Physiologus, ancestor of the bestiary

The medieval bestiary is thought to have evolved from a strange little compilation of writings on animals (and corresponding Christian moralization) known as the Physiologus (which roughly translates as "the Naturalist"). We first hear of the Physiologus in the 5th century, when it is quoted by Rufinus of Aquileia. Although its value as literature is practically non-existent, and its scientific value minimal at best, the Physiologus' influence and popularity carried it well into the 14th century.6

It has been said of the Physiologus that "with the exception of the Bible, there is perhaps no other book in all literature that has been more widely current in every cultivated tongue and among every class of people".7 The origins of the Physiologus remain to this day uncertain. It is widely accepted that it first originated in or near Alexandria in the 2nd century, and was based on an original Greek text. The Physiologus also combines other earlier sources such as Aristotle's Historia Animalium, and the writings of Pliny and Solinus.8 Its immense popularity can be deduced from the number of languages it was translated into. We find translations in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Ethiopian, Old High German, Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic and Provençal; basically, wherever you found Christians, you found a copy of the Physiologus. Why was the Physiologus such a popular book? When it comes down to it, we as people have always loved tales of fantastic beasts and exotic places; and if there was a moral to it, all the better for the soul!

The standard form of the Physiologus contained on average 49 chapters which dealt mostly with animals (some real, some fictitious) and some natural objects (such as the stones of the Apocalypse). There was an order to be followed, and so the Physiologus generally started with the lion (since it was, after all, king of beasts) and ended with the ostrich.9 Since most of the material found in the Physiologus was derived in blind faith from older sources (most of which could not be verified from within the boundaries of early medieval Europe), it comes as no surprise to us that we find in it numerous accounts of fabulous beasts which were accepted as fact.

At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelas deemed the contents of the Physiologus heretical and consequently had it condemned (an act which had no effect on its popularity whatsoever). After Christian moralizations were added to it, in the 6th century, the Church accepted the Physiologus as a means to teach the ways of the Church and Gregory the Great (who loved to quote from it) lifted the sanction.10

Throughout the centuries which followed, the Physiologus was in a constant state of change. One of the reasons for this is that it was basically an anonymous work. Therefore, each scribe who would translate it exercised no restraint in adding to or modifying it as he pleased.

In its earlier form, the Physiologus was a rather modest compilation of "edifying metaphors"11 in which each section started with an excerpt from the Bible, followed by a description of an animal (in most cases just as fanciful as the animal itself), and ending with a moral. Later on, the scriptures were replaced by the statement: "Physiologus says. . .". This consequently led people to believe, wrongly so, that Physiologus was the name of the author!12

As time went by, additional sources were added to the Physiologus, such as Saint Ambrose's Hexaemeron and Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae (considered the authoritative book on natural history). By the 12th century, the Physiologus had been expanded to include more than one hundred entries which had been reorganized and classified by an anonymous English author. At this point in its development, the Physiologus could boast a 90% reality rate in its animal contents.13

The Physiologus was ultimately responsible for the propagation of such symbolic icons as the Unicorn and the Phoenix, and although it fell from grace with the onset of the Renaissance, it nevertheless left a legacy which lived on through the bestiary.

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The medieval bestiary

For every virtue and for every sin there is an example drawn from bestiaries, and animals exemplify the human world. (Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose)

The transition between the Physiologus and the bestiary is not a clear one. In fact, no one seems to agree as to when the Physiologus came to be known as the book of beasts. All we do know is that from the Physiologus emerged the bestiary, a name derived from the former's opening line: "Bestiarum Vocabulum".14

There is agreement, however, on how the bestiary differs from its predecessor, the Physiologus. For one thing, the bestiary expanded upon the Physiologus' 49 chapters and drew into itself as much information as it possibly could. It was therefore not unusual to have a bestiary of over one hundred and fifty animals. Furthermore, unlike the Physiologus, the bestiary was, more often than not, illustrated. The bestiary also distinguished itself from its predecessor in the treatment of its subject matter. While the interpretations in the former appear more theological in nature, the bestiary seemed to deal with the interpretations of animal lore in a more ethical and moral fashion; making it a noticeably more didactic piece of literature than its antecedent ever was.15

Much like the Physiologus, the bestiary was a popular nature book with people of all ages and walks of life. Part of this appeal was certainly due to its relatively small size and its availability.16 Another reason for the bestiary's popularity lay in the fact that it made moral instruction easy to remember: it was very descriptive, blunt in its message, and, most of the time, illustrated.17 There were basically two types of bestiaries being produced in the Middle Ages. One was the luxurious Latin version, and the other, a more modest vernacular one. Production of Latin bestiaries reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries, while the vernacular versions continued growing in popularity well into the 15th century.

The bestiary, as the Physiologus before it, never ceased to change. The very nature of this work lent itself to numerous additions and modifications, as well as omissions (sometimes willful, sometimes accidental). As a result, although we can trace certain manuscripts back to the originals from which they were translated, we cannot treat them as mere copies, since every scribe which brought forth a new version seemed to have been compelled to add his own personal touch to it.18

Considering that the medieval bestiary had been around (in one form or another) since the 2nd century, it is surprising to see how little its contents had evolved in all this time. To say that its scientific progression was deplorable would be missing the point, however. Although the bestiary had its roots in late classical treatises on animals, the moment that information was appropriated and symbolically interpreted, it lost all hope of becoming a zoological treatise and neatly fit into the realm of Christian dogma. An interesting consequence of this stagnation of knowledge acquisition is that in many cases, the medieval philosopher seemed to forget what the ancients had known; and so, not only was there no advance in the study of nature, there even seemed to be a regression!

All creatures found dwelling within the bestiary pages were treated on equal footing; whether they were fictitious or real mattered little, for the moral of the story was what medieval man was to focus on, and hopefully learn from. Besides, with no real means of verifying facts, there was no reason for the reader to doubt the existence of creatures whose accounts originated from such noble sources as Aristotle or Pliny.

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Five french bestiaries

The bestiary was, from the very beginning, a popular genre in France; and in the 13th century, five important bestiaries were produced there. The first, by Philippe de Thaon, was created around 1211 and contained, in the old Physiologus tradition, 38 chapters. The unusual feature in Philippe's bestiary is that throughout the text, there are references to the images, where they should be, and what the reader should understand from them. Unlike the other bestiaries before it, Thaon's bestiary shows an interdependence between text and image.

Shortly after, an author by the name of Gervaise created his bestiary. Although it is a short piece of work (about 1280 lines), it is nevertheless important because the bestiary's text was rhymed for the first time. Unfortunately, this bestiary didn't have much else going for it since its illustrations were, if not crude, inexistent!

Following in Gervaise's footsteps was Guillaume le Clerc, whose Bestiaire Divin perfected the rhymed verses which were more artfully composed than his predecessor's. Guillaume's bestiary was obviously a success: there are 25 manuscripts extant both in England and France today; most of which are carefully illustrated. Guillaume was, more than his contemporaries, preoccupied with the moral aspect of his bestiary. As a result, the illustrations which we find in it are so allegorical that without the text, they are practically incomprehensible!

Around 1218, Pierre de Beauvais produced his bestiary. What is interesting about this one is that it was available in two versions: a short one of 38 chapters, and a long one, which contained 71 chapters. Furthermore, he expanded the bestiary to contain additional animals, the sources for which have yet to be discovered.52

Finally, there was Richard de Fournival's Bestiaire d'Amour, produced in the middle of the 13th century and certainly demonstrating the greatest amount of creativity. Richard basically merged two literary styles into one: he took the animal lore from the bestiary and combined it with a comical courtship scene from contemporary love literature. Needless to say, his bestiary created quite a sensation and scholars today still argue over his intended meanings and parody.

Through these five innovative artists, the bestiary reached new heights and, perhaps for the first time in history, showed potential as a literary genre. In doing so, Thaon, Gervaise, le Clerc, Beauvais and Fournival all contributed to the growth and popularity of the medieval bestiary and opened its pages to a far greater audience.

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Bestiary illustrations

The majority of bestiaries were illustrated. The reason for this may have been that since the bestiary was intended as an instructional tool, it made perfect sense that its teachings be made available to everyone, whether educated or illiterate. Its content also lent itself very easily to illustration, which at times leaned more towards the imagination rather than observation. As previously mentioned, the bestiary, in its heyday, was available in Europe in two forms: the richly illustrated Latin version intended for the upper class, and the crude vernacular version, whose audience was often illiterate and consequently less discriminating. Since the illustrations were a leading factor in the bestiary's popularity, we should therefore take a closer look at what made this book one of the leading picture books of the Middle Ages.

In studying the illustrations of the bestiary, one of the first things we notice is that exotic animals were illustrated with as much imagination as had been put into the text itself. On the other hand, domestic animals gave the artist almost no flexibility. An interesting point which should be mentioned here is that birds, whether exotic or familiar, showed an overall generic depiction.19 Although it was not unusual to see the same illustration of an animal being used repeatedly for several others within the same bestiary, this happened more frequently with birds.

There is also a discrepancy between bestiary manuscripts on how certain creatures were depicted. For example, depending on which bestiary one consulted, a Siren could, among other possibilities, be half fish and half human (mermaid) or half bird and half human (harpy). This would probably lead us to generalize that since the Siren was fictitious, there was no real way the artist could draw it from life and therefore having to rely on the description alone. This in turn would lead us to assume that this situation would have occurred more frequently with imaginary beasts than "real" ones. There are two obvious problems with these conclusions. For one, upon a closer look at bestiary illustrations, we are faced with the fact that very often, not only does the illustration not match other bestiary illustrations of the same creature, it does not even match the description! Furthermore, although the Unicorn is an imaginary animal, its depiction throughout the bestiaries is amazingly consistent. The moral: a hasty conclusion is no conclusion at all.

Most Latin bestiaries contain rich amounts of red, green, blue and gold; the shades of which were not particularly known for their descriptive qualities of nature. But then again, naturalism wasn't exactly a priority for the bestiary illuminator. To produce these richly illustrated manuscripts took a lot of time, effort and talent. In the vernacular versions, on the other hand, copies of the illustrations could be created with a minimum of effort by pricking the outlines from a drawing and then, by pouncing it with a small sac of charcoal dust, transferring it onto another piece of paper.20 This method of mass producing illustrations certainly contributed to the propagation of the belief in mythical creatures throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.

Let us now for a moment imagine what it must have been like for an artist in medieval Europe to be faced with the task of illustrating exotic animals with which he was not familiar. How did he go about it?

For starters, he could try to get his hands on another bestiary to see how someone else had dealt with this creature. If that didn't prove feasible, he could always turn to zoological treatises or artists' model books. If he was a bit more ingenious, he could go to the market and take a look at the imported Eastern textiles which were often illustrated with animals such as lions, gazelles, and leopards. And if all else failed, he could always try to get access to the personal menageries of emperors, kings, or other noblemen who often made it a point to travel with their collections of exotic animals. These menageries, on special occasions, were open to the general public for viewing.21 From the 13th century onwards, it became increasingly easier to get a glimpse at some exotic animals in royal collections. This taste for the menagerie was cultivated and heavily promoted by the emperor Friedrich II of Hoenstaufen.

With the onset of a scientific revival in the 13th century, artists benefited in particular from an increased contact with menagerie animals and as a result, a growing concern with naturalism emerged. A good example of this break with traditional bestiary illumination is seen in Villard de Honnecourt's drawing of a lion "from life".22 While there is still an ornamental quality to this drawing, it nevertheless shows an attempt at naturalistic drawing. Villard, unlike other artists before him, actually looked at a lion before drawing it!

While Villard was working in France, his contemporary, Mathew Paris, was also making drawings of animals "from life".23 Unlike Villard, however, Paris did not have access to such exotic menageries, which were especially popular in Turkey, France and Italy. In fact, most English illustrators were at a disadvantage for quite some time since there were no Royal Zoological Gardens in England until the 19th century!24 Nevertheless, Paris managed to draw several times the first African elephant ever seen in England. The unfortunate animal had been a gift from King Louis IX to Henry III, and despite the cold English weather, managed to live four years in the Tower of London, where an elephant house had been built for it.25

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Bestiary animals

What business have these ridiculous monstrosities, those amazingly freakish beauties and marvelously beautiful freaks in the cloisters right in front of the eyes of the monks who are supposed to be reading or meditating? You see one head with many bodies or one body with many heads. Here you have a serpent's tail attached to a quadruped and there a mammal's head attached to a fish's body. . . Great God, if they do not feel shame about the nonsense they produce why don't they at least shun the expense! (Saint Bernard)

Each entry in the bestiary was usually presented in two parts: First, the animal's physical attributes, habitat and habits were presented. These were then interpreted symbolically in order to teach a moral lesson to the reader.26 An exception to this rule is the Bonnacon: a fictitious animal described as a horse with a bull's head. This animal, uncharacteristically has no Christian symbology attached to it. The reason for this soon becomes clear once we look into it. Since the Bonnacon cannot defend itself from hunters (its horns are curled inward), it resorts to the following defense mechanism:

However much his front end does not defend this monster, his belly end is amply sufficient. For when he turns away, he emits. . . the contents of his large intestine, which covers three acres. And any tree that it reaches catches fire.

The Bonnacon being an obvious exception, the presence of animals in the bestiaries was simply heuristic, coinciding with man's view of nature at the time. From every animal mentioned in the book, there was a moral to be learned, and, very often, the facts were twisted so that the moral was made clearer to the reader, usually to the detriment of natural science. A good example of this lies in the account of the weasel from a 12th century bestiary:

Some say they conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth. On the other hand, others declare that they conceive by the mouth and give birth by the ear.

The bestiary goes on to say that this relates to people "who willingly accept by ear the seed of God's word, but who, shackled by the love of earthly things, put it away in the wrong place".27

Arguably the most popular of bestiary creatures is the Unicorn. Legend has it that only a virgin maiden can capture a Unicorn, who, attracted by her purity, then places its head on her lap and goes into an enchanted trance; only to be killed by hunters. To this, the bestiary adds that "Our Lord Jesus Christ is also a Unicorn spiritually, about whom it is said: 'And he was beloved like the Son of the Unicorns'."28 An interesting point about the Unicorn is that some bestiaries state that the Greeks referred to it as a rhinoceros. Thus, we can see how a description of an existing animal may have actually spurred the creation of a fictitious one. It's not unlikely that the description of a rhinoceros and a Unicorn may have gotten confused; especially since in both cases, the most distinctive characteristic is the horn in the middle of the forehead. Other fabulous creatures may have also arisen from misunderstandings, such as the "ant-lion" from a Greek word meaning "lion among ants", and the centaur, from a misunderstanding of the word for horsemen (cavalry).29

Creative rendering and interpretation was not solely reserved for fictitious beasts, however. A good example of this is the elephant, which, within a same bestiary, could get both classified as an animal and a reptile.30 Furthermore, the unfortunate elephant was said to be jointless and that if, by some misfortune, it should fall, it could then never get back up again. This, the bestiary reasoned, was the reason why an elephant leaned on a tree while sleeping.31 To further add to his misery, the elephant did not reproduce sexually. Rather, when the time came to conceive, the female and the male would approach a mandrake tree and each would in turn eat from it. This, the bestiary concluded, would result in conception.32

The bestiary always reserved the place of honor for the lion. But even the king of beasts was not immune to fanciful interpretations. For example, the bestiary stated with conviction that all lion cubs were born dead. Three days after birth, the almighty lion breathed on them and brought them to life. This, of course, was symbolic of Christ's resurrection.33

Considering how exotic and imaginary beasts were dealt with, it is interesting to note that domestic animals were treated in a relatively factual manner. Thus, the bestiary spoke highly of the dog, from which it was said that it was the most perceptive and faithful of animals, and the only one who recognized its name.34

What is interesting about the medieval bestiary is that it embraced all animals as factual; whether there was any supporting evidence for their existence or not, they were all handled with the same degree of conviction. As the end of the 13th century approached, however, curiosity about nature for its own sake began to emerge, and with it, a keener investigation of old beliefs which eventually sorted through fiction in search of fact.

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And what of medieval zoology?

It has been said of the bestiary that it is "the best source of insight on medieval animal science".35 Now that we have a clear idea of what a bestiary represented in terms of animal lore, how can we relate it to medieval zoology? Before going any further, let's take a brief look at the development of zoology up to the Middle Ages.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) is considered by many to be the father of zoology. The reason for this is that he was the first to record all his observations on nature and arrange them in an organized fashion.36 His book, De Animalibus, was the result of his exhaustive studies. As previously mentioned, most of the errors we find in his work are due to the fact that he had to gather information vicariously through a variety of people, not always reliable. Through his writings, we learn that Aristotle was remarkably insightful for his time; he even classified the whale as a mammal (considering that many people today still consider it a fish, this was no small achievement!). It therefore comes as no surprise that Aristotle came to be a great influence in the Middle Ages, both to philosophers and scientists.

Unfortunately, his influence was rather humble in comparison to God's. As a result, medieval zoologists were not as much concerned with animal life as they were with their doctrinal significance.37 What we see in the bestiary at this time is the same attitude that permeated books on natural history: in both cases, there was no inclination to verify the accuracy of the information provided.

Zoology in the Middle Ages was by no means a distinct field of study and the resulting lack of methodology did nothing in aiding in its progress.38 As a matter of fact, advances were made much more rapidly in botany than zoology, in fact. The reason for this is simple: the study of the medicinal properties of plants was significantly more practical than the study of beasts whose only raison d'être on this earth was to morally educate medieval man.39

In the period ranging from the 11th century to the 13th, a scientific revival occurred. From that point onwards, there was a renewal in interest in scientific research and a return to more objective methods of observation. We also see a change occurring in the illustrations of the bestiary where they become more naturalistic. These changes were due, at least in part, to Saint Francis of Assisi, Friedrich II of Hoenstaufen, and Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great).

Saint Francis was, in all accounts, a radical thinker (something which constantly got him into trouble with the Church). What Saint Francis preached basically went against all that medieval man believed in regarding nature. Man, he claimed, was not intended to use nature as he pleased, but rather was intended to live in harmony within it for he was an intricate part of nature himself. To quote the historian Lynn White, Jr.: Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures.40

His contemporary, Friedrich II, had a different, more scientific approach to nature. Considered one of the greatest medieval zoologists of his time, Friedrich's motto was: "No certainty comes by hearsay", a great improvement on the earlier attitude of unquestioned acceptance of facts. Friedrich undertook several scientific projects throughout his busy life as emperor and natural philosopher. Among them, he set out to review Aristotle's work by testing out his facts and only repeating in his own writings what he had been able to conclusively observe.41 He also undertook the task of reviewing the stories found in the bestiaries and refuted all that he could not verify.

Although Friedrich was writing at a time when bestiaries were at their peak in popularity, his work does not reflect the bestiary's moralistic approach to creatures. An avid falconer, Friedrich put together his major treatise on ornithology, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (the Art of Hunting with Birds) through fervent data recording and systematic, scientific observation.42

As for Albertus Magnus, his claim to fame was mainly due to his ability to compile huge amounts of information (most of it from Aristotle) and categorize it in his twenty-six volume encyclopedia, De Animalibus. He also drew heavily on Thomas de Cantimpré's De Natura Rerum, but while he copied directly from his descriptions, he, like Friedrich II, rejected the moralizations which came with them, opting for a more objective approach. His contribution to zoological writing, however, remains mostly quantitative, if not necessarily qualitative.43

In the 13th century, another important work on natural history was written: Bartholomew Glanville's De Proprietatibus Rerum.44 But here again, we see that it is largely based on previous writings by Aristotle, Pliny and Saint Ambrose. Much like in the case of the bestiary, we see that the growth of zoology was stunted due to the incessant copying of ancient sources and a decidedly slow transition towards scientific observation. By the end of the 13th century, however, old beliefs concerning animals and nature had to be revised. Marco Polo played an important role in this development since he traveled to exotic places which were supposed to be inhabited by such exotic creatures and reported seeing none of them! In fact, this is what he had to say about the rhinoceros, the only one-horned animal he had encountered during his travels: "they are not of that description of animals which suffer themselves to be taken by maidens, as our people suppose, but are quite of a contrary nature."45

Hearing the truth was not necessarily what people wanted, however, and the fictitious travels of Sir John Mandeville (and his accounts of one-eyed people and headless men) continued to be much more popular than Marco Polo's disappointing statements.

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The end of an era

As the Middle Ages drew to a close, there was a definite shift in outlook on nature. Since it was no longer considered in the service of God, it slowly became acceptable to express curiosity about nature and to pursue its study on a scientific rather than theological (or moralistic) basis.46

In the 15th century, the invention of printing resulted in the perpetuation of old beliefs on a much larger scale than before. With the onset of the Renaissance came a return to the classical approach to science. The invention of the printing press led to a renewed interest in propagating bestiaries, but they were not only set into type, they were also modified to contain an increasing amount of scientific observations.47 In the 16th century, Konrad Gesner published what became considered as the milestone for modern zoology: Historia Animalium. In this richly illustrated work, which includes Albrecht Dürer's famous rhinoceros woodcut, Gesner rejected all fictitious animals and introduced Europe to many new animals.48 Among other notable zoologists was Aldrovandi who, at the age of 77 in 1599, published his first encyclopedic volume, Ornithologia. . . 49 By the end of the 16th century, doubts started to arise about the validity of medieval zoology and a struggle began between scientifically minded individuals and traditionalists. Sir Thomas Browne was among the individuals who rejected most of the fictitious beasts found in the bestiaries, and imaginative characteristics attributed to animals, findings which he published in his Vulgar Errors in which he states: "Now herein methinks men much forget themselves, not well considering the absurdity of such assertions."50

This did not go well with everyone, however, and soon afterwards, Alexander Ross made it a point to contradict everything that Browne had written and reinstated the old fallacies rather easily in his retaliation, Arcana Microcosmi.51 Towards the end of the 17th century, belief in fabulous creatures began to fade so that by the time we reach the 18th century, there was practically no interest in the matter of fictitious beasts, or bestiaries for that matter.

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Although bestiaries and zoological treatises shared a common interest and subject matter, they did not appear to have any real effect on one another beyond what general influences are common to all who share a same environment and mentality. The similarities they shared in dealing with animals is due to a common outlook on nature. Furthermore, while zoology showed an interest in acquiring scientific knowledge, the bestiary showed no such inclination since it was more concerned with moral education than natural history. And although the bestiary, through the years, was slowly set aside along with the ideas which it promoted, zoology evolved into a true and distinct field of science. Fundamentally, zoological treatises and bestiaries were different. Whereas the bestiary fed upon man's dependence on religon, zoology depended on his break with it. The bestiary, nevertheless, managed to survive.

In the 20th century, artists appropriated the form and reinvented the bestiary, giving it an artistic expression and freedom which it never enjoyed before; not only were the artists now responsible for the illustrative content, they also produced the text. Among the modern bestiary illuminators and writers, we find such notables as Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Matisse, Le Corbusier, Moore, Kokoshka, and, more recently, Hockney.

As for the belief in fabulous creatures, old habits are often difficult to break. Although we scoff at the existence of Griffins and Unicorns, these creatures are still very much part of our modern lives. How else can we explain the popularity of films like Splash!, and novels like The Never-ending Story? And what of all the heraldic devices we surround ourselves with everyday? The reason for this remains unchanged: much like people in the Middle Ages (and as far as we can remember), stories of fantastic beasts are magical and have a mysterious appeal to them. This attraction towards the fantastic, whether we want to admit it or not, still constitutes an integral part of our everyday life. Besides, is there not still a part of us which fervently wants to believe in the existence of Big Foot or Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster? I myself have fallen prey to this desire and made my way to Urquhart Castle, from the ruins of which I stood observing the still waters in hope of catching a glimpse at some fictitious beast. As I mentioned earlier, even in these days of technological and intellectual sophistication, old habits die hard.

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End notes

Click the note number to return to the text.

1. Richard H. Randall, Jr., A Cloisters Bestiary, p. 1

2. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 11

3. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 95

4. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 12

5. Ibid, p. 12

6. Halldor Hermannsson,The Icelandic Physiologus , p. 6

7. Albert Stanburrough Cook and James Hall Pitman, The Old English Physiologus, p. iv

8. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 69

9. Albert Stanburrough Cook and James Hall Pitman, The Old English Physiologus, p. iii

10. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 14

11. Ibid, p. 13

12. Ibid, p. 13

13. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 69

14. Ibid, p. 69

15. Willene B. Clark and Meradith T. McMunn, Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages, p. 3

16. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 70

17. Willene B. Clark and Meradith T. McMunn, Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages, p. 12

18. Richard H. Randall, Jr., A Cloisters Bestiary, p. 1

19. Florence McCulloch, Medieval French and Latin Bestiaries, p. 71

20. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 71

21. Ibid, p. 95

22. Ibid, p. 96

23. Ibid, p. 96

24. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 25

25. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 96

26. Ibid, p. 72

27. Ibid, p. 66

28. Ibid, p. 76

29. Margaret W. Robinson, Fictitious Beasts, p. 13

30. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 79

31. Ibid, p. 79

32. Ibid, p. 81

33. Ibid, p. 85

34. Ibid, p. 91

35. Ibid, p. 66

36. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 11

37. Ibid, p. 12

38. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 66

39. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 14

40. H.R. Hays, Birds, Beasts, and Men: A Humanist History of Zoology, p. 41

41. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 99

42. Ibid, p. 99

43. H.R. Hays, Birds, Beasts, and Men: A Humanist History of Zoology, p. 53

44. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 15

45. Margaret W. Robinson, Fictitious Beasts, p. 11

46. Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie, p. 100

47. Willene B. Clark and Meradith T. McMunn, Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages, p. 5

48. Colin Clair, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, p. 18

49. Ibid, p. 20

50. Richard Barber and Anne Riches, A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, p. 7

51. Margaret W. Robinson, Fictitious Beasts, p. 12

52. Florence McCulloch, Medieval French and Latin Bestiaries, p. 59

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Achen, Sven Tito, Symbols Around Us, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, 1978.

Albert the Great, Man and the Beasts: De Animalibus (Books 22-26), Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, v. 47, New York, 1987.

Barber, Richard, and Riches, Anne, A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, Macmillan London, Ltd., London, 1971.

Baur, Otto, Bestiarium Humanum, Heinz Moos Verlag, Munich, 1974.

Beer, Jeanette, Master Richard's Bestiary of Love and Responses, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986.

Benton, Janetta Rebold, The Medieval Menagerie, Abbeville Press, New York, 1992.

Bianciotto, Gabriel, Salvat, Michel, Épopée Animale, Fable, Fabliau: Actes du IVe Colloque de la Société Internationale, Renardienne Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1981.

Clair, Colin, Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary, Abelard-Schumann, New York, 1967.

Clark, Willene B., McMunn, Meradith T., Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages: The Bestiary and its Legacy, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1989.

Clébert, Jean-Paul, Bestiaire Fabuleux, Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1971.

Cohen, Daniel, A Modern Look at Monsters, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1970.

Cook, Albert Stanburrough, and Pitman, James Hall, The Old English Physiologus, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1921.

Curley, Michael J., Physiologus, University of Texas Press, Texas, 1979.

Diekstra, F.N.M., "The Physiologus, The Bestiaries and Medieval Animal Lore," Neophilologus, v. 69 p. 142-55, Amsterdam, 1985.

Farson, Daniel, and Hall, Angus,Mysterious Monsters, Mayflower Books, Inc., New York, 1975.

Goossens, Jan, and Sodmann, Timothy, Third Annual Beast Epic, Fable and Fabliau Colloquium: Proceedings, Böhlau Verlag, Cologne, 1981.

Hays, H.R., Birds, Beasts, and Men: A Humanist History of Zoology, Penguin Books, Inc., Baltimore, 1973.

Henderson, Arnold Clayton, "Medieval Beasts and Modern Cages: The Making of Meaning in Fables and Bestiaries," Publications of the Modern Languages Association of America, v. 97 p. 40-49, New York, 1982.

Hermannsson, Halldor, The Icelandic Physiologus, Cornell University Press, New York, 1938.

Hippeau, C., Le Bestiaire Divin de Guillaume Clerc de Normandie, Slatkine Reprints, Geneva, 1970.

Leclerq, Jacqueline, "De l'Art Antique à l'Art Médiéval: À propos des Sources du Bestiaire Carolingien et de ses Survivances à l'Époque Romane," Gazette des Beaux Arts, v. 89 p. 61-66, Paris, 1989.

Le Goff, Jacques, The Medieval Imagination, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1985.

Ley, Willy, Dawn of Zoology, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1968.

Lum, Peter, Fabulous Beasts, Thames and Husdon, London, 1976.

Malaxecheverria, Ignacio, Le Bestiaire Médiéval et l'Archetype de la Féminité Éditions Lettres Modernes, Paris, 1982.

Mayor, A. Hyatt, Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1971.

Mode, Heinz, Fabulous Beasts and Demons, Phaidon Press, Ltd., London, 1973.

McCullough, Florence, Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1962.

Mermier, Guy R., Le Bestiaire de Pierre Beauvais, A. G. Nizet, Paris, 1977.

Nickel, Helmut, "Presents to Princes: A Bestiary of Strange and Wondrous Beasts, Once Known, for a Time Forgotten, and Rediscovered," Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 26 p. 129-38, New York, 1991.

Porada, Edith (papers presented in honor of), Monsters and Demons in the Ancient and Mediaeval Worlds, Verlag Phillip von Zabern, Mainz amd Rhein, 1987.

Randall Jr., Richard H., A Cloisters Bestiary, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1960.

Roberts, Lawrence D., Approaches to Nature in the Middle Ages, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, v. 16, New York, 1982.

Robinson, Margaret W., Fictitious Beasts: a Bibliography, The Library Association, London, 1961.

Swanton, M.J., The Travels of Sir John Mandeville: Facsimile of Pynson's Edition of 1496, University of Exeter, Exeter, 1980.

Yapp, W.B., "A New Look at English Bestiaries," Medieum Aevum, v. 54 p. 1-19, Oxford, 1985.

Copyright © 1996 Aura Beckhöfer-Fialho. Reproduced with the author's permission.

Related topics in The Antlion Pit

Related websites

  • Aberdeen Bestiary Project (University of Aberdeen, UK). An exhaustive study of an English bestiary from the year C.E. 1200, including the complete manuscript, illustrations and historical information.
  • Alexander Ross's Arcana Microcosmi (James Eason, University of Chicago, USA). An on-line edition of Ross's 1652 response to Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica.
  • Pliny the Elder: The Natural History (part of the Roman history site LacusCurtius, created by Bill Thayer, USA). An on-line edition, in Latin, of this important work by the first-century Roman naturalist.

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