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A bestiary is a compendium of beasts that originated in the ancient world.

Bestiaries describe animals and are elaborately illustrated. They also usually included some kind of moral lesson in the writing and reflected the Christian beliefs of the writer. Many of the depictions of these animals were wholly fantastical and incorrect, mostly due to the fact that the writer’s interpretation of them was impacted by the Word of God. Readers should expect to find many different references to Christian art and religion in bestiaries. 

Bestiary pronunciation: bee-stee-air-ee

Bestiary definition and examples


History of the Bestiary 

The bestiary was a popular medieval, illustrated text that was created between 500-1500 AD. During this period, Christian scholars understood the world through a religious lens, and a religious lens only. This meant that everything in the world was a manifestation of God’s word and could be explained through the Bible. The first bestiary was written in the 2nd century and titled Pysiologus. It was a summary of wisdom and knowledge about animals from the writings of popular Greek thinkers. Other books followed and other writings expanded the “knowledge” found within them. The moral constant in the books was broadened and added to, with the accounts of beasts growing more and more fanciful. There are only a few pieces of information in bestiaries that scientists agree with today, one of these being the migration of birds. 

Bestiaries were popular in England France around the 12th century and were mostly made up of older texts, reworked and combined. Of the 50 or so bestiaries that survive today, one of the best-known examples from this period is the Aberdeen Bestiary.


Contents of Bestiaries 

In a bestiary, a reader can expect to find detailed descriptions of animals, and sometimes even rocks and plants, accompanied by illustrations. Medieval bestiaries included exotic animals and what are considered today to be imaginary animals. The creatures in these books were described with physiologically incorrect elements and defined by the Christian message the illustrator and writer wanted to convey. 

Bestiaries could be organized in different ways. For example, in order of the sources they drew from, the kinds of animals described, or even alphabetically. It is not uncommon to find dragons, unicorns, griffins, and other imaginary animals in among animals like deer, lions, and dogs. These bestiaries have led some to assume that all people during the medieval period believed in what are now known to be imaginary creatures. This assumption is under debate with some scholars suggesting that medieval people didn’t truly believe in these animals but instead used them as ways to convey Christian morals— the true purpose of creating the bestiaries in the first place. 

For example, the bear was seen as an important symbol of God’s message to medieval Christians. They walk upright as do human beings. Some bestiaries describe them as malformed humans who are born as amorphous lumps without distinguishing features. The bears are licked into shape by their mothers and only born in winter. They are allegorically described in comparison to the Catholic Church. Just as the Church emphasizes children’s education and ensuring that they are properly raised, so too does the mother bear take care of her young. Those reading this story would’ve been reminded of how important it was to take care of their own children. 


Examples of Bestiaries 


Physiologus is considered to be the first bestiary in a form that’s recognizable today. It was written by an unknown author sometime around the 2nd century AD. It contains descriptions of mammals and fantastical creatures like dragons, in addition to depictions of stones and plants. All of these are accompanied by moral content, suggesting the reason why animals do what they do and why God made them. 

Each animal is described and then connected to an anecdote with symbolic qualities. For example, in this book, one can find the story of the phoenix, a creature that’s said to burn itself to death only to rise from the ashes, a very clear allusion to the story of Jesus Christ. Or, another good example is the story of the unicorn which is said to only allow itself to be captured by a pure virgin, an allusion to the Christian Incarnation. Other animals that tone can find in the book include the eagle, Charadrius, ant-lion, stag, salamander, and eel. There are also passages on the River Nile, adamant-stone, and the fig tree. 


The Aberdeen Bestiary

The Aberdeen Bestiary is the best-known example of a medieval bestiary. It was written in the 12th century and is considered to be a companion piece to the Ashmole Bestiary. It was likely owned by a wealthy patron in the north or south of England. It is a gilded document that features large illustrations in pigment, silver, and gold leaf. The artists who worked on the book were professionally trained and illustrated animals in the Romanesque fashion. The book contains passages on the creation of man, birds, fish, water, and more. There are also sections on a variety of individual animals, such as the tiger, beaver, hyena, and fox. 


Modern Bestiaries

It’s not uncommon to find more modern bestiaries with more rational interpretations of animals. For example, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced his own bestiary as did Jorge Luis Borges. The latter was titled Book of Imaginary Beings and it contained a collection of imaginary creatures from fiction and other bestiaries.


Related Literary Terms 

  • Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
  • Surrealism: refers to a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
  • Fable: a short and concise story that provides the reader with a moral lesson at the end.
  • Fairy Tale: short stories that include fanciful and magical elements such as goblins, elves, fairies, and ogres.


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