A type of short medieval beast allegory of didactic purpose, written in verse or prose. One may trace the bestiary to the physiologus (4th century) and treat rather as natural history those traditions that derive from Aristotle. During the Middle Ages, the bestiaries fused myth and legend with characteristics of certain regions; with religious symbols; or later, with practical problems of the training, breeding, and medical care of domesticated animals. The genre varied with the dominant preoccupations of given periods, and its golden age extended through the 13th and 14th centuries. Importance is attached to bestiaries by the fact that literatures of many countries derived a vast amount of beast lore and legendary material from their sources.
Early Types. Until about 1230, progress of a scientific kind was not widespread, and variations in natural science resulted from arbitrary rearrangements of animal lore to fit certain projects. If we consider Pliny's Historia naturalis an objective survey of the field, Solinus's Collectanea rerum memorabilium appears to have been a reaction against rationalism and objective science, and St. Isidore's Etymologiae a return to the encyclopedic type of objectivity. Running concurrently with these works, the Physiologus maintained an immutable form and scope, with strong Christian symbolism; the characteristics of these works mingled in the vast compilations of Bartholomeus Anglicus and Vincent of Beauvais.
Pliny had given a vast repertory of mammals (Book 8), fishes (Book 9), and birds (Book 10), either briefly described as a catalogue, or developed in some detail. He classified fish according to shape and other traits (9.36, 43–44), and as polyps (9.46–48) or crustaceans (9.50–52); but classifications were implicit in the groupings of domestic animals (8.69–77); birds were categorized as having claws or webbed feet, or as being able to speak or transmit omens (10.13). Pliny was interested particularly in animals that have some immediate relationship to man; and he noted anecdotes relative to customs and to the faithful services of dogs, horses (8.61, 64–69), and dolphins (9.7–10) and wrote of animals that had been seen in Rome. His most extensive information came from Africa and Asia; northern animals, such as the Scythian elk (8.15–16), were rare; the detailed chapter on the bear (8.54) is noteworthy. Of the few fabulous creatures that he treated, the basilisk and mantichora—a manheaded lion—(8.33, 45), the Indian whale and the phoenix (9.2, 10.2) reappeared in bestiaries.
Exotic Developments. The Plinian formula yielded to the irrational and exotic presentation of the Collectanea rerum memorabilium of Solinus, who introduced details basic in the later bestiaries and whose colorful accounts appealed strongly to medieval compilers. Insofar as the Collectanea was a survey of geography, it was based in part on Mela's De Situ orbis. Solinus, however, reduced the classical and archeological content of his model and developed the treatment of animals and stones as the principal noteworthy exotic curiosities in specific countries—Greek partridges and Numidian bears; and beavers, dolphins, cranes, and such fabulous monsters of Africa and India as the mantichora and the monoceros; he boldly passed from legend to generalities and included a multiplicity of sphinxes and gorgons.
The picturesque and the exotic were counteracted by St. Isidore's Etymologiae (Patrologia Latina 82). This book, tending strongly to offer objective fact, was one of the principal prototypes of the later encyclopedias. Isidore made extensive use of Solinus without in any way reducing the esteem held for this source. His Book 12 gathered the animals by categories, domestic and familiar (ch. 1), beasts of prey (ch. 2), De minutis animantibus (ch. 3), De serpentibus (ch. 4), De vermibus (ch. 5), De piscibus (ch. 6), and De avibus (ch. 7–8). The Etymologiae was popular among the revisers of the Physiologus as well as the encyclopedists for its verisimilitude and its incisive presentations.
Among Isidore's sources was the Hexaemeron of St. Ambrose (PL 14), constructed according to the "days" of Creation. The presentation of fishes and birds is exactly that of the Physiologus, with mention of a few physical or moral traits, and a Christian moralization for each. In Book 5 of the Etymologiae the birds (ch. 12–23) correspond well with those in the Physiologus, with the noteworthy terminal addition of the "gallus." Book 6, hastily compiled, treats the animals pell-mell and without formal moralizations, and quite inappropriately, after the fox, includes the partridge as equally "fraudulent," with some 50 words copied verbatim from the Latin Physiologus.
Influence of the Physiologus. The Physiologus was in fact the other major formative tradition of the bestiaries. This 4th-century Latin text, preserved intact in very few copies, was enriched in several steps by the use of Solinus and of Isidore, and had finally become the massive De Bestiis et aliis rebus, in turn expanded to four books (PL 177). Transpositions and eliminations in Books 2 and 3 hide the origins. Book 3, which should open with a prologue ("Bestiarum vocabulum …" ) and the chapter on the lion, is an amplification of versio L (in 27 chapters) attributed to Chrysostom; it is extant in more than 20 MSS, and was published by M. R. James as The Bestiary (Oxford 1928), in 112 chapters, but 13 more should be added, e.g., from MS Harley 3244, etc. The innovations included the tiger, bear, and bee; dogs were presented as in Pliny. The compiler copied verbatim from the Etymologiae the treatment (ch. 43–54) of snakes and worms (Etym. 12.4–5), fish, precious stones, and trees (Etym. 17.7); the last mentioned is traceable ultimately to Dioscorides or Vitruvius. Book 1 dwells at great length on a few birds, especially doves, geese, chickens, and peacocks (ch. 1–55), and the domestic Accipiter (ch. 13–16). Book 2 deals with 36 creatures, of which the crocodilus, ibex, canis, lupus, and draco alone are not derived from the Physiologus; they are developed by the addition of moralizations. Book 4 is a convenient dictionary covering the names found in the preceding sections; of the 400 or more names, 300 appear in Book 3.
Flowering of the Genre. The 13th century brought the flowering of the bestiaries, either in the older pattern used by Solinus, according to regions and as a function of geography, or in massive forms convenient for reference. L'Image du monde, composed in French about 1250, and attributed to Gossouin or Gautier of Metz, is a mappe-monde or survey of the world, more realistic than that of Solinus; it was translated into English and published several times before 1500; it included dragons, elephants, the mantichora, and several magic stones. De Proprietatibus rerum, by Bartholomeus Anglicus, was translated into Italian in 1309 and into French in 1372, and printed more than 15 times from 1482. In Book 12, Bartholomeus presented the birds mentioned in the Bible, and cited Isidore, Ambrose, and Aristotle's De Animalibus; Book 18, dealing with 115 animals, proposed such classifications as carnivorous, nocturnal, domestic, and more or less intelligent; he discussed physiological traits, explaining all such variations in the light of moral and religious criteria. The immense Speculum naturale of Vincent of Beauvais consisted of notes.
Falconry. Books on hunting birds and their care and training suddenly appeared early in the 13th century and seem to have been derived from technical manuals of Persian origin. The visit of the Emperor Frederick II to the East in 1230 sets a probable date. The many tracts were interrelated and appeared both in Sicily and in Provence. Their source is sometimes identified as one "Moamin," who used an Arabic model; some scholars consider Theodorus, named in 1239, the source; another person frequently credited was an anonymous author involved in the Libro del Gandolfo Persiano, a book devoted primarily to medical treatment and training. By the mid-century, a tract attributed to a King Dancus, and Daude de Pradas's Dels auzels cassadors appeared. These treatises were not, strictly speaking, bestiaries, but were so closely related as to deserve mention.
The most significant medieval book on falconry was the Tractatus de arte venandi cum avibus of Frederick II, revised by his son Manfred, and translated into French late in the 13th century. Frederick presumably composed this book himself shortly before 1250, after a decade of research and observation, and he may have directed the preparation of the fine illustrations. He used Aristotle as a point of departure, noting many of his errors and questionable hypotheses, and undoubtedly he knew other books of Eastern origin, such as the De scientia venandi per aves of Moamin, which he had translated around 1240. His principal source, however, beyond the practical knowledge from the falconers he brought to Italy in about 1230, was his own experience. After De arte venandi, the principal medieval treatises on falconry were the Deduiz de la chasse of Gaston Phébus, composed by 1370 and often printed, and the Livre de la chasse du roi Modus.
Later Developments. One may illustrate the status of the bestiaries in about 1260 by the contents of Brunetto Latini's Li Livres dou Tresor. Latini compiled and translated from a wide range of Latin sources. Intending his encyclopedia as a manual for the well-informed ruler, he selected rather than accumulated and used a well-organized plan. In his first book he surveyed general knowledge, including history (according to St. Isidore); geography (according to Solinus); and natural science, with a short tract on farming (based on that by Palladius) and a bestiary dealing with 70 animals, each developed in some detail and in symmetrical form.
Latini's basic source was the expanded Physiologus as found in Book 3 of De Bestiis et aliis rebus, further enriched from the Etymologiae, the Collectanea, and St. Ambrose. The moralizations disappeared along with almost all of the fabulous creatures and mystic stones. The animals were fairly well grouped as fish, birds, and mammals, each in its own alphabetical series. From De Bestiis Latini borrowed the mole and the peacock; from Solinus, the parrot, dog, and bear; and from Palladius, in part as an aspect of husbandry, a group of chapters on domestic animals, chickens, geese, cattle, horses, and sheep. Latini's chapters on hunting birds alone were gathered in a special group out of alphabetical order, and reflected the same kind of interest that one finds in Dels auzels cassadors and in the Libro del Gandolfo Persiano. Latini added no new information, but his selective method reflected a rational didactic purpose and a tendency to avoid sheer accumulation of detail.
Use of Semitic Lore. As a last step in compilation of intriguing and exotic creatures, we may mention the introduction of medieval Semitic lore through Bochart's Hierozoicon, about 1660. In methodical fashion, Bochart enriched a broad classical bibliography on the whale (Aelian, Aristotle, Homer, Nearchus, Philostratus), not only with the full Old Testament documentation on large fish (including the Leviathan), but also with that of the Hebrew Porta caeli and of the 12th-century Miracula rerum creaturarum, by Alkazuinus. He included also a work of Muhammad ad-Damir, which was his main source for De dubiis vel fabulosis (tragelaphus, myrmecoleon, gryphes) and Aves fabulosae apud Arabes; in it we find an echo of the Zend-Avesta in the Simorgh-Anka, a kind of "coq d'or."
See Also: animals, symbolism of; art, early christian; symbolism, early christian.
Bibliography: f. carmody, "De Bestiis et aliis rebus and the Latin Physiologus," Speculum 13 (1938) 153–159. b. latini, Li livres dou Tresor, ed. f. j. carmody (Berkeley 1948). friedrich ii, The Art of Falconry, tr. and ed. c. a. wood and f. m. fyre (Stanford 1943), critical translation of Friedrick's De arte venandi with bibliographies for Daude de Pradas, Dancus, etc. s. bochart, Opera omnis, 3 v. (4th ed. Utrecht 1712), sources listed in 2:62–63. f. t. mcculloch, Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1960).
bestiary (bĕs´chēĕr´ē), a type of medieval book that was widely popular, particularly from the 12th to 14th cent. The bestiary presumed to describe the animals of the world and to show what human traits they severally exemplify. The bestiaries are the source of a bewildering array of fabulous beasts and of many misconceptions of real ones. They were the artist's guide to animal symbolism in religious building, painting, and sculpture. Physiologus (the naturalist), an ancient work of the type, was probably the chief source of the bestiaries. A Middle English version is translated in J. L. Weston, The Chief Middle English Poets (1914). Variations of the genre remain popular. Modern authors who have written bestiaries include Lewis Carroll, James Thurber, T. H. White, and Jorge Luis Borges.
See W. Clark and M. McMunn, Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages (1989).
bes·ti·ar·y / ˈbēschēˌerē; ˈbes-/ • n. (pl. -ar·ies) a descriptive or anecdotal treatise on various real or mythical kinds of animals, esp. a medieval work with a moralizing tone.
a medieval written book which collects together verse, prose, and illustrations of real and fabled animals—Wilkes.