In literature, a bestiary is a collection of fabulous stories about real or fictional animals popularly known as beasts.
Medieval bestiaries were the most widely read books in the Middle Ages after the Bible, and their texts were compulsory reading for schoolchildren of the time.
Their pages represent a perfect X-ray of the mentality of people in medieval times, in which all the fears and terrors that populate their mind become quite evident.
The variety and beauty of their images reveal the presence of skilled artists, experts in these works.
As from ancient times, the animal world has exerted a subjugating influence on the human mind, arousing in it a mixture of fear, awe and deep fascination. Its multiform reality, often mysterious, and its unavoidable presence have led to the emergence of a millenary zoological culture and to such a sustained effort of understanding and symbolic interpretation that it has resulted in one of the most solid bodies of medieval wisdom embodied in these famous bestiaries.
The enigmatic appearance of many animal species, some of their unsettling forms and fascinating dimensions have fuelled awe, admiration and respect for this impressive animal world, making it not only a preferred object of observation and study, but also a paradigm of good or evil and, ultimately, an inexhaustible source of spiritual and social wisdom with which to equip us to better navigate the difficult journey through this tempestuous world.
With medieval bestiaries we enter the captivating realm of animals both real and fabulous, which, throughout the Middle Ages, had an enormous evocative and symbolic charge. These codices moved in an atmosphere of religion and moral admonition as well as occultism, magic and even in a somewhat naïve spirituality that made them particularly attractive.
The origin of medieval bestiaries is the well-known and much-quoted Physiologus (which could be translated as The Naturalist), originally written in Greek around the 3rd century AD, perhaps in Alexandria. The author, who is unknown, compiled in this treatise a series of texts – both Christian and pagan – from antiquity, fables and other stories, some of which had even been taken from the Bible itself. Eminently moralistic in nature, the Physiologus takes advantage of the characteristics and habits of animals to extract the relevant moral lessons for the Christians of the time. Judging by the number of different copies and versions of the Physiologus that soon began to circulate, it is easy to imagine that it enjoyed great popularity, especially among the poorer strata of the population, for whom it is easy to suppose that its images must have had considerable impact.
For anthropological scholars, this cultural and social phenomenon of medieval bestiaries is a real treasure in its approach to the mentality of medieval man and its analysis of the mysteries, dreams and fears that populated the minds of the Europeans of the time, as well as their conception of mankind, the world and God.
The first Latin versions appeared in the 4th century, and by the 9th and 10th centuries they had spread throughout Western Europe, although their impact would be greatest in England.
The texts of practically all the bestiaries were by no means free of legendary tales and were full of fantasies and exaggerations. However, behind the vividness of all these chronicles we cannot forget that bestiaries were very serious and useful books, so much so that many of the great Benedictine abbeys of medieval England, such as Canterbury, Peterborough, St. Albans, etc., had their own copy, which shows the inveterate English fascination with the animal world.
Another interesting aspect to bear in mind is that these delightfully naive and fascinating texts were copied again and again in monasteries as an important aid to the monks’ contemplative life, especially in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, when they acquired their full splendour and when the most famous and best-known bestiaries appeared. From the 13th century onwards, they spread beyond the cloisters and into the lay world.
The proliferation of bestiaries was such over the course of time that they became the bedside-table book of educated people and even became authentic breviaries for the artists of the period. But alongside these educated people, clergymen or philosophers would evoke them as a paradigm of eternal truths. Also, and moved by a strong Christian spiritual impulse, humble countryside peasants, surrounded by their domestic animals and by harmful beasts, moving through forests, meadows and orchards, and even the ladies who take pleasure in falconry will refer to this symbolism from bestiaries and will see in a butterfly, or in the first swallow, appearing with good weather, the emblem of the Resurrection of Christ and, for example, the grey donkey marked with a white cross on its back will evoke his painful walk to Calvary carrying the wooden cross of his torment.