Sunday, May 20, 2012

Of Cameleopards and Lions: The Medieval Bestiary

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Throughout history, from Aesop’s Fables to the Animal Planet network, the human imagination has been captured by the scaly, furry, four-footed, scurrying, slithering, swimming, and winged creatures of the animal world. Not only have the characteristics of animals provided endless fascination, but also the lessons that can be drawn from those characteristics.

The Physiologos, a Greek book written in the second or third century A.D., was the first book to take brief descriptions of animals and add to them Christian allegories. This book was translated into most of the European languages and is said to have been the second most popular book in Europe (after the Bible).

Page of the Etymologies
In the seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote an extensive encyclopedia of animals (Book 12 of his Etymologies), attempting to describe every animal in the world. Eventually, someone had the bright idea of combining the allegorical interpretation of the Physiologos with the detailed descriptions from Etymologies. The medieval bestiary was born—part encyclopedia, part self-improvement, part doctrinal treatise, and especially popular in the country of England.

Richard Barber, in his translation of a thirteenth century bestiary, gives this succinct description of the genre:
Bestiaries are a particularly characteristic product of medieval England, and give a unique insight into the medieval mind. Richly illuminated and lavishly produced, they were luxury objects for noble families. Their three-fold purpose was to provide a natural history of birds, beasts, and fishes, to draw moral examples from animal behaviour (the industrious bee, the stubborn ass), and to reveal a mystical meaning—the phoenix, for instance, as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. 

The medievals believed that animals had a wonderful capacity to reveal truths about this world and the world beyond it. The Old Testament book of Proverbs had its own examples of morals learned from animals (e.g. Proverbs 6:6--Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise), and the book of Job supported the idea that mystical meanings could be gleaned from a study of the natural world:
But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee;
And the fowls of the air, and they shall tell 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)
T. H. White, the twentieth century English author most famous for his King Arthur series The Once and Future King, was deeply interested in bestiaries and published his own translation of a twelfth-century bestiary. In the appendix he discussed the worldview that made this kind of literature possible:
In the ages of faith, people believed that the Universe was governed by a controlling mind and was capable of a rational explanation. They believed that everything meant something…. Every possible article in the world, and its name also, concealed a hidden message for the eye of faith. 

For modern readers, it often seems that these “hidden messages” or mystical meanings take precedence over reality (a lion’s offspring are born dead and come to life after three days—you're joking, right?). Many of the fantastic animals described in the bestiary also stretch the imagination to the point that one could consider the medievals insanely gullible or outright liars.

Leopard from the 13th c. Rochester Bestiary

T.H. White, however, was not deterred by the seemingly false or the sublimely fantastic. "It can hardly be repeated too often that the bestiary is a serious scientific work." Many of the bizarre claims were honest mistakes made by naturalists from earlier centuries and repeated by others who drew on their work. Many of the animals that we would immediately classify as “mythical” return to the realm of reality upon closer examination. White noted that:
A Cameleopard…is a genuine animal, and by no means a bad attempt to describe an unseen creature which was as big as a camel while being spotted like a leopard, i.e. a giraffe...the real pleasure comes with identifying the existing creature, not with laughing at a supposedly imaginary one. 
In the passage quoted above, White expressed something very important, both for the study of bestiaries and for the study of the past in general. Instead of immediately dismissing the medievals as unintelligent or laughable, he extended them the courtesy of assuming them sensible and found a pleasure in puzzling out what they meant. By reading the bestiary on its own terms, White—an agnostic himself—was finally able to conclude that:  
The Bestiary is a compassionate book. It has its bugaboos, of course, but these are only there to thrill us. It loves dogs, which never was usual in the East from which it originated; it is polite to bees, and even praises them for being communists…the horse moves it, as Sidney’s heart was moved, ‘more than with a trumpet’; above all, it has a reverence for the wonders of life, and praises the Creator of them: in whom, in those days, it was still possible absolutely to believe.

Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.



Barber, Richard. Bestiary. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1999.

The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages.

White, T.H. The Book of Beasts. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984.

1 comment:

  1. I believe I am right in saying that the Latin family-name for the giraffe is a camelopardal - and that the Romans believed it was a hybrid camel/leopard. The Royal Worcester Museum in UK has a lovely vase with a picture of a camelopardal from mid 18thCentury and one of my ancestors books, published around 1750, has a drawing of one. Mind you, it also shows "an unicorn"...


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