Proceedings 9        1 June 1988        The Danson Room, Trinity College

MEDIEVAL BESTIARIES: WHAT THE ZOOLOGIST CAN REVEAL: an illustrated lecture by Dr Wilma George.

The speaker was introduced by Dr Crombie.


The medieval bestiaries are usually regarded as a mix of fact and fiction more fiction than fact. However, on examination, they prove to be books about real animals - handbooks of the local fauna. They take their origin from the Alexandrian Physiologus, written in the second or third century, which can be considered a natural history of an arid area of North Africa or Syria. Of the 43 animals in Physiologus, 17 are mammals, 16 are birds and 10 are odds and ends like snakes and bees and, in addition, there are precious stones, trees and, often, ?Amos?. Many of the animals, like for example the fox and the swallow, are well-known animals of the Old World; some are uniquely African monkey (simia), Nile monitor (ydrus) and sacred ibis (ibis); some, though not uniquely African, are typical of an arid country - wild ass (onager), Arabian oryx (unicornis), ostrich (struthio), for example; and many are distinctly non-European - elephant (elephas) and honey badger (mirmecoleon).

Some ten centuries after Physiologus the book had been expanded into the first English bestiaries and, from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, these bestiaries flourished in England. The earliest showed only small changes from Physiologus. They incorporated some information from Isadore of Seville’s De Animalibus (623) which in its turn had incorporated tales from Pliny (first century) via Solinus (third century). Thus the ibex (ibex), wolf (lupus) and reindeer (parandrus) appear - typical European animals. But animals and precious stones were still mixed up together in any order.

The bestiaries soon changed. By the middle of he twelfth century the bestiary writers were classifying the animals along Aristotelian lines into mammals, birds, reptiles and fishes. The number increased (some 38 mammals and nearly as many birds, for example) and included domestic animals for the first time. The increase consisted of many local European animals like the mole (talpa), the bear (ursus), the nightingale (lucinia) and the swan (cignus) but there was also an influx of eastern animals. These were animals such as the peacock (pavo) and the parrot (psittacus) that were imported for their decorative value; and animals such as the buffalo (eale) and the camel (camelus) which were useful beasts of burden; and several animals known only from hearsay or from Solinus - the tiger (tigris) and nilgai (leucrota).

Most of the bestiaries are based on this pattern: classification of animals, incorporation of most Physiologus animals with the addition of local European forms, some eastern forms and domestic animals.

And expansion continued, mainly with north European animals: aurochs (bubalis) and blackbird (merula) for example. There were many more fishes: from the solitary flying fish (serra) of Physiogus to 29 including the eel (anguilla) and the lamprey (murena). There were shellfish like the oyster (ostrea), land invertebrates like the millipede (multipes) and numerous reptiles.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, a variation in layout occurred. Domestic animals were given pride of place at the beginning of the book. Whereas most bestiaries start with leo these bestiaries start with bos. And they added yet more animals: the porcupine (ystrix), the squirrel (cyrogrillus), the rabbit (cuniculus). the goldfinch (carduelis), the cuckoo (cucula), the cockroach (blatta) and the butterfly (papilio), for example.

The last additions to the fauna are found in a bestiary of the fifteenth century that is based on the work of Bartholomaeus Anglicus. Here for the first and only time are the giraffe (cameolopardis), the pheasant (fasianus), the gull (larus) the firefly or glow-worm (noctiluca), and a picture of dragonflies.

The bestiary was a popular book of animals. There was little moralizing and an attempt to follow reputable texts in describing the beasts. The books were illustrated more or less successfully – sometimes from pattern books, sometimes from other bestiaries, sometimes from the text and sometimes from direct knowledge.

Summary by Wilma George