Monkey business - Medieval bestiaries

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

I’m working on a new project, of which you will hear and see soon. At the moment I’m in the phase of reading a lot and dreaming up my images. My starting point are bestiaries. ‘Bestiaries, what are those?’, I can hear you think. Bestiaries are popular medieval collections of descriptions and anecdotes of mythical and real animals, which were combined with moral comments that judged the animal, based on its behaviour, in a christian way. Animals were either symbols of righteous or wrong doing. So it is more or less an encyclopedia of the animal world, a collection of moral examples and a repertorium of allegoric interpretations. The idea behind the bestiary was that one could learn of God through the book of his word (i.e. by reading the Bible) or through the book of his works (his Creation which you would find in a bestiary). Thus God’s creatures were formed in a manner that taught human beings christian truths.
The Berner Physiologus, made around 
825-850 in Reims is probably the el-
dest illustrated version in Latin of the
Physiologus. (Bern, Burgerbibliothek, 
Codex Bongarsianus 318)
However, bestiaries are not an invention of the Middle Ages. In Antiquity books about animals already existed. The word ‘bestiary’ is said to derive from the opening of the Physiologus when translated in Latin, namely “Bestiarum Vocubulum”. The Physiologos was written between the 2nd and 4th centuries C.E. and contained anecdotes drawn from nature, that were interpreted as a moral example. The book was based on animal knowledge of older traditions - like those from India and Egypt, as well as the knowledge from famous classical Greek scolars of natural philosophy like Pliny and Aristotle. By the sixth century, the Greek text had been translated, amongst other languages, in Latin. The Latin Physiologus was very popular in Western Europe, perhaps because it contain a lot of animals nobody had heard of in our area.  Since that translated version, new bestiaries were published, sometimes based on the Physiologus, but also based on the European animal world. 
The heydays of the bestiaries were in the 12th and 13th centuries. Famous french bestiaries were made by Philippe de Thaon, Gervaise, Guillaume le Clerc, and Pierre de Beauvais. The most famous English bestiary is the Aberdeen bestiary, a 12th century manuscript that is kept in the library of the university of Aberdeen), a 100 sheets (folio’s) counting manuscript about beast, livestock, small animals, birds, snakes and reptiles, worms and fishes, trees, plants the nature of man an finally stones. Another famous English bestiary is the Ashmole bestiary, a manuscript containing about 130 miniatures with animal illustrations on richly gilded background. There are six full page illustrations, with the remaining images on 100 pages. The images are very well drawn and coloured. At this time more than 150 copies of medieval bestiaries are known, from Spain, Germany, Italy, even Iceland. The bestiaries - especially the early ones, were richly illustrated with imaginative and sometimes humorous illustrations, apparently intended to teach those who could not read. Illuminated bestiaries were immensely popular, and many show similarities in some of their particular illuminations. It is possible that model books existed from which illustrators drew on exemplars for various beasts, for not all illustrators could have seen those domestic and wild animals themselves, let alone the fabulous animals.

Bear licking his newly born cubs into shape, 
Aberdeen Bestiary, (Aberdeen University Library, Univ Lib. MS 24)
Some people view bestiaries as the transition between the allegoric world of the Physiologus and the purely scientific studies of the Renaissance. We have to know the fact that during the 12th century science was mostly an occupation of monks in convents and therefore tied to the metaphysical doctrine. The connection between zoology and christian moral has its origins in the fact that science was, as stated, in the hands of the christian clergy. And the clergy saw bestiaries as an excellent mean to spread Christianity. For in those days people were much more close to their animals than we nowadays. They had their pets, of course, just like we do, but they all so had to rely more on there animals for work and food. So using animals to reach to people wasn’t that strange. And the illiterate were able to see and comprehend by looking at an image.
But where in the Physiologus animals were interpreted in an more allegorical or theological sense, in the bestiaries animals were given a moralistic-ethical meaning and therefore the book became more didactic. The early bestiaries from the 12th century were luxurious editions, richly illustrated and written in Latin. Later on there also came version written in the local language, with were much simple. The bestiaries stayed popular until the 15th century. 
A hedgehog stealing apples. 
Latin bestiary Cambridge, 1320.

Well, what kind of information on animals and morals could one expect: A pelican for instance was thought to attack his parents while young: this was explained as Christ who was wounded by manhood; After they where brutally attack by their child, pelicanparents would kill it: a symbol of God who offers his own son. And being remorseful the pelican was thought to wound his own chest and feed his child with its own blood to bring it back to life. And that of course was a symbol of Christ who sheds his own blood for saving humanity.  Of course no pelican does such a thing in reality, but those wild ideas lingered on for long. In  the Defensorium inviolatae virginitatis beatae Mariaae of the Viennese dominican Franz von Retz (+ 1427) is stated that Mary easily could give birth to a child while being a virgin, because a pelican could bring his children back to life by giving them blood. An elephant - who had seen one in those days - was thought to have no knees and therefore it slept leaning against a tree, as fallen people had to lean on Jesus for their support. But not all animals were related to the christian moral. You did not know that hedgehogs use to roll in fallen fruit to collect it with their spines, so they can take it to theirs nest and feed the young? The hedgehog is because of this behaviour a symbol of gluttony. And did you know crocodiles cry while eaten their prey. This is of course very hypocrite and that’s why we still say that somebody is crying crocodile’s tears, when the sorrow is false. And the owl, to us know as a symbol of wisdom, is according to the christian moral a symbol of evil for the owl hides in the dark and is afraid for the light. And if he isn’t evil, blindness, foolishness and fraud will also do.

The owl is a dirty bird that prefers 
darkness to light, Bestiary of 
Pierre de Beauvais, early 13th century

There strange ideas about animals from medieval bestiaries continued to influence myths and legends about various animals through the early modern period and even into contemporary times.
There is of course a lot more to say about bestiaries. I haven’t mentioned the role Isodore of Seville played, for example, but I guess this is already to much information. Perhaps I’ll get back to it later, but on the other hand this article is not meant to be an full art historical essay. It is just to introduce you to a strange phenomena and to show you how my work is coming to be... and even I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but ideas and images are popping up. I will let you know soon..... but be sure: it will be a Studio Holalola-production and will have nothing in common with christian morals!

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