This is part I in a two-part article, and the first article in a series of posts that discuss the symbolism of a particular and peculiar literary tradition within Western Europe. Collectively, this body of works is called “the Bestiary.” To reduce this mysterious genre of medieval literature to a definition would be a hopeless endeavor, but for the purpose of introduction, allow me to indulge in futility for just a moment, if only for the sake of the reader. The Bestiary is a compendium of traditional stories and lore concerning beasts and their characteristics. But beyond mere descriptions, the Bestiary was unique in that it often provided mystical and symbolic interpretations of these beasts in light of the Gospel.
While today this tends to be a niche historical interest, the Bestiary was immensely popular in medieval Europe. The Physiologus, which along with St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae is the foremost source of the Bestiary, was the most widely circulated book in the Middle Ages, second only to the Bible, and was translated into almost every major language in Europe and Western Asia. 1 That medieval people showed such great interest in animals and the created order should not be a surprise. The modern world has sheltered most of us from the world of the Beast. Most of us do not know where our food comes from, and I don’t mean the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru (I write this moments after chowing down on a spicy chicken sandwich – none are safe from convenience). Our clothing is made of synthetic material, no longer of wool and skins. We write not on the vellum of sheep, but on the paper of trees, and even that has been replaced by the computer, constructed from God-knows-what. We have replaced the Beast of Burden with the Machine. Even our pets could hardly be called “natural” anymore.
By contrast, Man and Beast lived together in days of yore, both as companions and as adversaries. Livestock was integral to almost everyone’s life, both for eating and for working. Mousers, as cats were known in those days, were kept around not to cuddle with and dress up in bows, but to catch and kill vermin before they ate the stock that had been stored up for the winter. Lakes and rivers were the primary source of meat for most people. 2 The roads through the looming forests were haunted by treacherous creatures. Villages and towns occasionally faced wolf raids. Even the well-off, especially among the nobility, actively engaged with many different kinds of beasts, from warhorses, to hunting hounds and hawks, to the quarry which they loved to chase. Animals were a source of companionship, but also of clothing, parchment, pens, travel, even internal heating – livestock was kept indoors during winter both for the well-being of the animals and to keep the house warm. 3
The stories of men and of beasts were intrinsically bound up with each other, so naturally, people were interested in the lives of these beasts. And not only in their lives, but in their Logos. For how long can a man receive help from the Ox before he asks himself, “What is the Ox?” In answer, the Bestiary says, “Oxen in Scripture can mean many things; the madness of those who lead sensual lives, the strength and labours of the preachers, the humility of the Israelites.” 4 To the modern mind, these associations may seem largely arbitrary. We might be able to theoretically grasp the connection between the Ox and strength, but what do oxen have to do with sex? But the medieval plowman would have quickly and perhaps even subconsciously identified the information provided by the Bestiary with his own experiences. After a lifetime of interacting with the beast – feeding, cleaning, and working alongside him, he apprehends both the Ox’s primal sexual abandon, while also remembering the wisdom and fortitude with which he shapes the field beneath his mighty hooves and the heavy blade of the plow. The Bestiary did not necessarily provide the reader with new information about an animal (at least when it came to familiar beasts such as the Ox – the Basilisk was another matter), but rather, it helped him to see the meaning of what he already knew. The Bestiary therefore furnished Medieval Man with the symbolic structure by which he could conceptualize the Beast, that mysterious being which he confronted on a daily basis.
But the Bestiary did not only reveal the mystical significance of familiar beasts such as the Hound and the Mouse, nor did it stop at the wild yet familiar beasts of Europe such as the Stag and the Bear. Through the Bestiary, a medieval reader could explore the weird lands of Ethiopia, India, and the enigmatic East. For the writers of the Bestiary had also preserved traditions of strange beasts such as the Lion, the Elephant, the Panther, the Unicorn, the Dragon, and the Gryphon. Though there are elements of the strange in the stories of familiar European beasts, nothing compares to the strangeness of the Manticore of India, which possesses the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and the face of a man, and speaks in a terrifying hiss through its three rows of teeth. 5 Though these stories may seem merely fantastical to us today, perhaps even childish to those unfortunate enough to come to such conclusions, for medieval people these were the stories by which they understood the world. And not only for medieval people – most of these stories are thousands of years older than the Bestiary tradition. There is a reason they have survived the test of time. The reasons these stories were preserved went far beyond trivial scientific inquiry, and we will discuss these reasons in part II. But to conclude the body of this article, let us trace a brief pre-history of the Bestiary.
Pre-History of the Bestiary
As mentioned above, one of the chief sources of the Bestiary was an anonymous work known as the Physiologus. This book contains traditions of 51 different animals, stones, trees, and, surprisingly, Old Testament prophets. By the time of the Bestiary, the number of animals discussed surpassed 100. But the author of this humble little book, who lived sometime between the second and fourth centuries A.D., would have been unaware of the immense popularity it would experience and the influence it would wield in the centuries to come. It was certainly penned by a Christian author, yet the traditions preserved in it have roots that are much older. 6
According to the youngest estimate, many of the legends are as old as the writings of Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), developing first as folklore in places as far-reaching as India, but also in Egypt, Greece, and other lands that would have been a bit more familiar to medieval Europeans. Many of the legends can also be found in the famous Greek writer Aesop, writing in 7th and 6th centuries B.C., and some likely date back to even more ancient times. Eventually, these legends found their way into the great academic halls of Alexandria, where they were crystallized and preserved. Later Roman writers, especially Aelian and Pliny the Elder, who wrote extensively on nature and the traditions regarding its various aspects, eventually passed them down to the Christian world. Though references to these can be found in other Christian writings such as Clement of Rome, who makes extensive use of the Phoenix as a means of demonstrating the Resurrection, the primary deposit of early Christian animal symbolism is the Physiologus. 7
It is also worth briefly tracing the history of the Greek term “physiologia,” as it will shed light on our study of animal symbolism. Aristotle was the first to use the term, at least a full five centuries before the writing of the Physiologus. However, his use of the term was in reference to a discipline that was as close as one could get to modern science in the ancient world. Aristotle’s was a philosophical enterprise based on observation and physical data, meant only to describe the realities of the natural world and the cause of their formations and shapes.
By the time of Diodorus Siculus (106-43 B.C.) and Cicero (90-30 B.C.), the term took on a more theological meaning. Diodorus writes that the Tyrrhenians (non-Greeks, i.e., the Etruscans) were gifted in three areas: letters (grammata), physiologia, and theology, equating these abilities with such pagan practices as divination through omens of fire and lightning. The word thereby came to be associated with the Occult. Cicero similarly writes of a Gaulish Druid, a diviner called Divitiacus who “claimed to have the knowledge of nature which the Greeks call ‘physiologia,’ and he used to make predictions, sometimes by means of augury, and sometimes by means of conjecture.” 8
The word was then taken into the Christian lexicon, not as one that designates demonic divination, but rather one that denoted a person “who interpreted metaphysically, morally, and finally, mystically the transcendent significance of the natural world.” 9 Throughout the book, the term is used as a proper name – the formulae, “Physiologus says of the…” and “Physiologus, therefore, spoke well of the…” are commonly used. 10 In Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this Physiologus was said to have been a number of people, such as Aristotle, King Solomon, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Athanasius the Great. However, if the name “Physiologus” is meant to be interpreted according to the mystical pattern of the book itself, then the person of Physiologus should rather be thought of as the archetype of all who are gifted to read the Book of Nature. Physiologus continues to be looked to as the authority on the Book of Nature throughout the whole of the Bestiary tradition, which is an inheritor of all of the traditions discussed in this section
Much more could be said on the pre-history of the Bestiary, but this must do for now. I regret being unable to provide a more satisfying conclusion to part I of this article, but so much must be said by way of introduction. In Part II, which will hopefully be the last introductory article before we get into the contents of the Bestiary itself, we will begin by more thoroughly discussing the definition of the Bestiary and highlight some important debates regarding it. We will detail the way symbolism works in the Bestiary, attempting to answer the question of how we are to handle strange stories such as that of the Manticore, tigers who mate with dogs, stags who eat snakes after pulling them out of the ground with their breath, and beavers who castrate themselves. Finally, we will explore why it is important to study the Bestiary in the first place, and through the Bestiary, try to find some solutions or remedies to the sicknesses of our modern age.
- Badke, David. “Introduction,” at paragraph 4. The Medieval Bestiary, January, 2016.
- Modern History TV. “13 What did peasants eat in medieval times?” at 2:15. YouTube, March 2018.
- Crane, Susan. Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain, at 1. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013; Valentine, Nicol. “A Primer on Keeping Warm in the Medieval Period.” Medium, December 2019, https://medium.com/lessons-from-history/a-primer-on-keeping-warm-in-the-medieval-period-88f7a4b1187e.
- Author unknown, Barber, Richard, tr. Bestiary MS Bodley 764, at 63. The Boydell Press, 2016.
- Barber. Bestiary, at 63.
- Curley, Michael J., tr. Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore, at xvii-xix. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
- Clement of Rome. “First Clement,” at 25:1-26:1; Ibid., at ix.
- Ibid., at xi.
- Ibid., at xv.
- See, for example, ibid., at 9, 10.