Bestiaries are medieval illustrated stories of animals. Some of the most popular animals represented in bestiaries include bears, donkeys, horses, eagles, owls, cats, leopards, lions, panthers, fish, whales, snakes, dragons, basilisks, unicorns, and phoenixes. These real and fantastical beasts stood side by side within the leaves of bestiaries, as can be seen in the manuscript (the Aberdeen Bestiary) to the left here. To the medieval mind, the natural world had been ordered by God at the creation, and so the natural world, a reflection of the mind of God, served as a Book of Nature to learn spiritual truths. Just after the end of the medieval period, the alchemical figure Paracelsus wrote in one of his alchemical treatises:
I considered with myself, that if there were no teacher of medicine in the world, how would I set about to learn the art? No otherwise than in the great open Book of Nature, written with the finger of God.
To Paracelsus, nature had been written by God, and so to explore nature was to explore God’s creation and mind. Early modern English philosopher and alchemist Thomas Vaughan similarly advised seekers of spiritual wisdom to
Run over the alphabet of Nature; examine every letter – I mean, every particular creature – in her book.
People living in medieval times, while they may not have said this outright, would have believed similar. One way to “examine every particular creature” in Nature’s book was to study bestiaries.
Bestiaries served several purposes in the Middle Ages, a few of which we’ll discuss here. First, as mentioned, they served as symbolic religious instruction. Folio 9r of the Aberdeen Bestiary begins the description of the panther, depicted centrally in the framed image above its description. The text describes the panther as varium quidem colorem habens […] speciosissimum nimis et mansuetum – “multicolored, very beautiful and extremely gentle.” Next to it is depicted its only enemy, the dragon. All of the other animals follow the panther due to its sweet odor, but the dragon retreats to a hole when he hears or smells it. This description of the panther seems to draw connections to St. George, a mythical Christian martyr, who in turn served as a parallel figure for Christ’s liberating power.
Another popular animal depicted was the pelican, which also served as a symbol of Christ. In the image the pelican tears at her own breast to feed her young, just as Christ incarnates on Earth to sacrifice himself and “feed” mankind spiritually. The Aberdeen Bestiary also says that
the life of a hermit is modelled on the pelican, in that he lives on bread but does not seek to fill his stomach; he does not live to eat but eats to live
The medieval and early modern alchemists nicknamed one of their alchemical vessels, the circulatory still, after the pelican. In alchemy, the circulatory still serves to distill and therefore purify a liquid repeatedly.
In addition to their Christian and otherwise mythological allegory and instruction, bestiaries also served as inspiration for heraldic art and continue to do so to this day. According to The American Heraldry Society, any animal could serve as a charge or supporter in heraldry. The most popular, however, were also popularly depicted in bestiaries, such as eagles, lions, panthers, and doves.
The Aberdeen Bestiary
The bestiary we’ll look at here is the Aberdeen Bestiary. The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library, Univ. Lib. MS 24) is a bestiary written in Latin around 1200. Its strong reds and blues and stained-glass style decorations suggest it belongs to the Gothic style. Other features of the Gothic style include more realistic figures and explanations for illustrations throughout. There are no marginal decorations throughout the manuscript, meaning there were no corrections made nor notes necessary to whoever used the manuscript.
The first few pages of the Aberdeen Bestiary show God creating the birds, fishes, and animals. Seen here, in one of the earliest pages of the manuscript (Folio 1r) God creates Heaven and Earth as in Genesis 1. God is clothed in a robe of bright red and deep blue. He stands, larger than the world and all in it, on four rocks or mounds which may signify the four classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire. This imagery shows the importance and power of God in the world. Below and next to His figure are written the first five verses of Genesis 1. The text begins on God’s left side in the blue and pink-red text column: In principio creavit deus celum et terram. The verse continues below, with a decorated initial T on the word terra. Note that this is a decorated initial, not a historiated initial, which would instead include an image of some kind. There being no marginal notes or decorations suggest no corrections were necessary for whoever used it. Beyond the first several pages begins the bestiary proper, from which the page below is taken.
The next page we’ll look at is Folio 9r, seen here. This page begins the description of the panther, depicted centrally in the framed image above its description (the text before that has to do with the previous entry in the bestiary, the pard, related to the lion and leopard). The text describes the panther as varium quidem colorem habens […] speciosissimum nimis et mansuetum – “multicolored, very beautiful and extremely gentle.” Next to it is depicted its only enemy, the dragon, shown here much smaller than the panther. The other animals follow the panther due to its sweet odor, but the dragon fears the panther, retreating to its hole when he hears the panther or smells its scent. This description of the panther seems to draw connections to St. George, a mythical Christian martyr.