Strange beasts, mythological and real, graced the pages of ancient bestiaries.

Bestiary, The Book of Beasts: Compendiums of Medieval Monsters and Moral Lessons

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During the Middle Ages the phoenix rose from its ashes to be reborn, dangerous dragons battled elephants to the death, and the pelican tore out its own breast to feed its young with its life’s blood—at least, these were the vividly illustrated lessons found in ancient bestiaries.

A bestiary, or Bestarium vocabulum is a book of beasts. Rich, decorative images illuminated in gold and silver showcased a compendium of living animals and birds, rare and common, and mythological creatures, benign and dangerous. These illustrated volumes, popular throughout North Africa, the Middle East and especially Europe during the 12 th century, not only contained observations on the natural world, but also imparted a moral lesson to medieval readers.

The Leopard, from the 13th-century bestiary known as the "Rochester Bestiary.

The Leopard, from the 13th-century bestiary known as the "Rochester Bestiary. ( Public Domain )

According to David Badke’s The Medieval Bestiary , the Middle Ages was an intensely religious time, and it was believed in the Christian west that the animal kingdom and the natural world had been set down by god to provide instruction to humanity. In this view, humans were felt to be within nature, but apart from it. “Animals were said to have the characteristics they do not merely by accident; God created them with those characteristics to serve as examples for proper conduct and to reinforce the teachings of the Bible.”

Goats, cats, rabbits, cows: animals beautifully depicted in the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary.

Goats, cats, rabbits, cows: animals beautifully depicted in the 12 th century Aberdeen Bestiary. ( Public Domain )

Thus, certain creatures represented certain ideals: the king of beasts, the lion, represented Jesus and his lordly position. The elephant was a model for human moral behavior and chastity, as it was believed to mate only once—not for pleasure, but only in order to bear young.

The Physiologus, Animals Ordered by Wild Traits

These compendiums were influenced by the original manuscript dated to between the second and fourth centuries AD. The Physiologus text (meaning "The Natural Historian" or "Naturalist"), written by an unknown author in the original Greek was translated into Latin around 700 AD, and then into many different languages across Europe and the Middle East. This opened up these regions to strange and surprising European beasts and legendary creatures, as well as the moral lessons and meaning of the animals within.

A panther, from the Bern Physiologus, circa ninth century.

A panther, from the Bern Physiologus, circa ninth century. ( Public Domain )

The ancient text, believed to have been written in Alexandria, contained approximately forty animals native to northern Africa, as well as their imagined traits and habits. Each animal was associated with a symbolic and moralizing interpretation.

The Physiologus is said to be one of the most widely distributed and copied book of the time after the Christian Bible. Indeed, medieval ecclesiastical art and literature was heavily shaped by the symbolism of the animals, and these interpretations survived in Europe for over a thousand years.

A monoceros (unicorn) above and bear below. The bear was said to give birth to formless, fleshy young, which it would then shape into small bears with the licking of its tongue. Ashmole Bestiary, c. early 13th century.

A monoceros (unicorn) above and bear below. The bear was said to give birth to formless, fleshy young, which it would then shape into small bears with the licking of its tongue. Ashmole Bestiary, c. early 13 th century. ( Public Domain )

A Copy of a Reproduction of a Translation

Many bestiaries were made based on the translated information found in the Physiologus, but additional interpretations were added, and these later manuscripts were not exclusively religious, but a description of the world as it was known at the time.

Thus, an Icelandic bestiary included local fauna—fewer elephants and more birds and seals—so as to impart a more relevant message and important moralization to people of the area. In particular, the notable inclusions of the whale and the mythical Siren represented the northern tundra environment. It is believed translators writing far-flung bestiaries excluded certain animals because they’d never seen or heard of the strange foreign beasts, and were confused about the source entries. (However, these were uncomfortable edits to make, as it was seen as challenging or disbelieving the word of the church, and god).

The Fantastic Beasts, Symbols of Good and Evil

Each animal, real or imagined, imparted a lesson through the language of symbolism. While painted as dangerous, most of the animals represented both good and evil, and were possessed of both traits.

In bestiaries it was written:

The lion was king of the beasts (and directly connected to Jesus in an allegory that is repeated to this day). Lions were said to sweep away its tracks with its tufted tail, to sleep with its eyes open, and to be afraid of white cockerels.


Justbod's picture

Fascinating – thank you! Provides a glimpse into the very different world view of our medieval ancestors. Beautiful artworks too.

Reminds me of the medieval wall paintings that used to adorn parish churches in the uk, with their symbolic moral messages. Very few examples of these left.

Thank you for the article!



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