Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 4.  Bestiaries


Transmitting Knowledge of the Natural World:  Ancient Times to Middle Ages

Intellectual Source
heroic tale • Homer oral tradition
5th c

eyewitness account

• Herodotus
written histories
4th c

philosophic circle

• Plato (Academy)
• Aristotle (Lyceum)
oral instruction and written treatises on various subjects
3rd c
museum/library • Alexandria
• Pergamum
vast collections of preserved treatises
1st c
literate elite • Pliny the Elder encyclopedic natural histories
3rd c
monastery • many unknown writers The Physiologus
7th c
monastery • Isidore of Seville Etymologies
11th c
monastery • Theobald of Monte Cassino
• Philippe de Thaon
• Guillaume de Normandie
• Gervaise curé de Fontenai
The Bestiary

Websites with more information about the Physiologus and Bestiary:

Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages (by David Badke, Independent Scholar, Victoria, British Columbia)

  • Click on "Manuscripts" for links to texts and information about selected aviaries, bestiaries and other encyclopedic works.
  • Click on "Digital Text Library" for links to e-texts of a wide variety of manuscripts.
  • Click on "Beasts" for links to images and information about bestiary subjects.

The Aberdeen Bestiary (by Michael Arnott and Iain Beavan, University of Aberdeen, Scotland)

  • Click on "History" to learn about the origin and "life" of this remarkable 12th c manuscript.
  • Click on "Translation and Transcription" to see an image of each page of the bestiary accompanied by a transcription of the illuminated Latin text and an English translation of it.  Many pages have elaborate illustrations of the creatures being described.

Bestiary:  The Exhibition (by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris)

[I found this site to be a little tricky to navigate, but very worth the effort.]

  • Click on "The Exhibition" to view a two-part exhibit on medieval illustration.  Simply click on the right-pointing blue arrow in the lower right corner of each page to see the first part of the exhibit, "Medieval Illumination."  Part one's final slide takes you directly into part two, "Interpretation of the Bestiary," which you can view by continuing to click on the small blue arrows.
  • At the end of part two, you will need to click on the word "Bestiary" in the upper left to return to the exhibit's main page.  Click on "English" and then on "The Animals" to view images and descriptions of four key bestiary animals:  the lion, ox, bear, and dove.

Isidore of Seville:  The Etymologies (or Origins) (from Bill Thayer's extensive LacusCurtius website)

  • This text is in Latin.

Comparing Accounts

excerpts from
The History (c. 450 BCE)
by Herodotus (c. 484 - c. 425 BCE)

Book III.  Thalia

106.  It seems as if the extreme regions of the earth were blessed by nature with the most excellent productions, just in the same way that Greece enjoys a climate more excellently temp0ered than any other country.  In India, which ... is the furthest region of the inhabited world towards the east, all the four-footed beasts and the birds are very much bigger than those found elsewhere, except only the horses....  And further, there are trees which grow wild there, the fruit whereof is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep.  The natives make their clothes of this tree-wool.

Book IV.  Melpomene

23.  As far as [the Scythians'] country [modern Turkmenistan] the tract of land whereof I have been speaking is all a smooth plain, and the soil deep; beyond you enter on a region which is rugged and stony.  Passing over a great extent of this rough country, you come to a people dwelling at the foot of lofty mountains, who are said to be all -- both men and women -- bald from their birth, to have flat noses, and very long chins.  They live on the fruit of a certain tree, the name of which is Ponticum; in size it is about equal to our fig-tree, and it bears a fruit like a bean, with a stone inside.  When the fruit is ripe, they strain it through cloths; the juice which runs off is black and thick, and is called by the natives "aschy."  They lap this up with their tongues, and also mix it with milk for a drink; while they make the lees, which are solid, into cakes, and eat them instead of meat; for they have but few sheep in their country, in which there is no good pasturage....

25.  Thus far, therefore, the land is known; but beyond the bald-headed men lies a region of which no one can give any exact account.  Lofty and precipitous mountains, which are never crosssed, bar further progress.  The bald men say, but it does not seem to me credible, that the people who live in these mountains have feet like goats; and that after passing them you find another race of men, who sleep during one half of the year.  This latter statement appears to me quite unworthy of credit.  The region east of the bald-headed men is well known to be inhabited by the Issedonians, but the tract that lies to the north of these two nations is entirely unknown, except by the accounts which they give of it....

27.  The regions beyond are known only from the accounts of the Issedonians, by whom the stories are told of the one-eyed race of men and the gold-guarding griffins.  These stories are received by the Scythians from the Issedonians, and by them passed on to us Greeks:  whence it arises that we give the one-eyed race the Scythian name of Arimaspi, "arima" being the Scythic word for "one," and "spû" for "the eye."....

excerpts from
Natural History (c. 77 CE)
by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE)

Book XII.  The Natural History of Trees
Chapter 21. Trees of the Islands of the Persian Sea --The Cotton Tree

In the same gulf, there is the island of Tylos, covered with a forest on the side which looks towards the East, where it is washed also by the sea at high tides.  Each of the trees is in size as large as the fig; the blossoms are of an indescribable sweetness, and the fruit is similar in shape to a lupine, but so rough and prickly, that it is never touched by any animal.

On a more elevated plateau of the same island, we find trees that bear wool, but of a different nature from those of the Seres; as in these trees the leaves produce nothing at all, and, indeed, might very readily be taken for those of the vine, were it not that they are of smaller size.  They bear a kind of gourd, about the size of a quince; which, when arrived at maturity, bursts asunder and discloses a ball of down, from which a costly kind of linen cloth is made.

Book VII.  Man, His Birth, His Organization, and the Invention of the Arts
Chapter 2.  The Wonderful Forms of Different Nations

In the vicinity also of those who dwell in the northern regions, and not far from the spot from which the north wind arises ... the Arimaspi are said to exist ... a nation remarkable for having but one eye, and that placed in the middle of the forehead....

...In India the largest of animals are produced; their dogs, for example, are much bigger than those of any other country....

On many of the mountains again, there is a tribe of men who have the heads of dogs, and clothe themselves with the skins of wild beasts.  Instead of speaking, they bark; and, furnished with claws, they live by hunting and catching birds.  According to the story, as given by Ctesias [Greek physician and historian (fl. 5th c BCE)], the number of these people is more than a hundred and twenty thousand:  and the same author tells us, that there is a certain race in India, of which the females are pregnant once only in the course of their lives, and that the hair of the children becomes white the instant they are born.  He speaks also of another race of men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility.  The same people are also called Sciapodæ:  because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet.  These people, he says, dwell not very far from the Troglodytæ; to the west of whom again there is a tribe who are without necks, and have eyes in their shoulders....

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1360)


...Of Folk of diverse shape and marvellously disfigured....

From that isle, in going by sea toward the south, is another great isle that is clept Dondun.  In that isle be folk of diverse kinds....

The king of this isle is a full great lord and a mighty, and hath under him fifty-four great isles that give tribute to him.  And in everych of these isles is a king crowned; and all be obeissant to that king.  And he hath in those isles many diverse folk.

In one of these isles be folk of great stature, as giants.  And they be hideous for to look upon.  And they have but one eye, and that is in the middle of the front.  And they eat nothing but raw flesh and raw fish.

And in another isle toward the south dwell folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads.  And their eyen be in their shoulders.

And in another isle be folk that have the face all flat, all plain, without nose and without mouth.  But they have two small holes, all round, instead of their eyes, and their mouth is plat also without lips.

And in another isle be folk of foul fashion and shape that have the lip above the mouth so great, that when they sleep in the sun they cover all the face with that lip....

And in another isle be folk that have great ears and long, that hang down to their knees.

And in another isle be folk that have horses' feet.  And they be strong and mighty, and swift runners; for they take wild beasts with running, and eat them....

Many other diverse folk of diverse natures be there in other isles about, of the which it were too long to tell, and therefore I pass over shortly.


Of the Countries and Isles that be beyond the Land of Cathay; and of the fruits there....

Now shall I say you, suingly, of countries and isles that be beyond the countries that I have spoken of.

Wherefore I say you, in passing by the land of Cathay toward the high Ind and toward Bacharia, men pass by a kingdom that men clepe Caldilhe, that is a full fair country.

And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds.  And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool.  And men eat both the fruit and the beast.  And that is a great marvel.  Of that fruit I have eaten, although it were wonderful, but that I know well that God is marvellous in his works.  And, natheles, I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes.  For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man's meat.  And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be....

...From that land go men toward the land of Bacharia, where be full evil folk and full cruel.  In that land be trees that bear wool, as though it were of sheep, whereof men make clothes and all things that may be made of wool.

To see how people in the 1490s imagined the "diverse folk" described by Herodotus, Pliny and Mandeville, visit the Nuremberg Chronicle website (created by Morse Library, Beloit College).

  • After reading "About this Book," click on "Book Contents"
  • Click on "Images"
  • Click on "Miscellaneous"; there you'll find a list of images including twenty-one depicting "strange people"

Albert de Groot (Albertus Magnus; c. 1200-1280)

c. 1200 -- born in Swabia

c. 1220 -- began studies at Padua (Italy)

c. 1225 -- returned to Germany to teach theology

1245 -- sent to University of Paris for further study; accompanied by his student, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

1248 -- returned with Aquinas to Cologne

1250 -- helped draw up rules for directing study and setting qualifications for graduation

  • what role should natural philosophy
    play in educating theologians?
  • what authority should be accorded to the works of Aristotle?

Aristotle in the European University


  • logical works condemned as opposed to Scripture
  • banned from curriculum of University of Paris
  • ban was difficult to enforce
  • prohibition extended to include metaphysics and natural works
1220 - 1225
  • Aristotle's complete works recovered and rendered into Latin
  • Pope Gregory IX appointed commission to bring Aristotle's writings into accord with Christian beliefs

Albert's views:

  • theologian studies natural world through scripture
  • scientist uses reason
  • both seek same Truth
  • both should come to same conclusions

Observation and experimentation will test the wisdom and truth of authoritative writers:

Aristotle was not a god -- he was a man and thus fallible.


  • Thomas Aquinas urged translation of all Aristotle's works
  • all avenues toward truth are legitimate to pursue
  • Aristotle once again considered appropriate material for scholarly consumption
  • included in curriculum at University of Paris
  • William of Moerbeke began his translation of Aristotle to make it compatible with Christian dogma
  • Pope John XXI identified 219 heresies in Aristotle

   92. The heavenly bodies are moved by an intrinsic principle, a soul.
 147. If something is established as contrary to nature, or physically impossible,
         then not even God can bring it about.
 152. Theology is based on fables.
 207. In the hour of a man's birth there is present in his body ... a disposition
         which inclines him towards particular acts or events....

Despite criticism, Aristotle's works became mainstay
 of university instruction--warts and all.

The university structure fostered the growth of a fertile tension (as yet unresolved) between the desire to preserve existing knowledge and the need to modify it. 

Different views of the scholar's task soon emerged:

Greatest happiness comes from contemplation of knowledge already derived.

Differences between what is written and what is seen today may be due to current inability to fully understand either what is written or what is seen.

Task of the scholar is to find ways to reconcile these differences.

"By doubting we come to inquiry; by inquiring we perceive the truth."--Peter Abelard (1079-1142)
  • Use systematic doubt and question everything.
  • Learn the difference between statements of rational proof and those merely of persuasion.
  • Be precise in the use of words; expect precision from others.
  • Watch for error, even in Holy Scripture.
"You will find more in forests than in books.  Woods and stones will teach you more than any master."--St. Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153)
  • The written and spoken words of others are just so many likely stories.
  • Knowledge of the real world is possible only through direct personal experience.

In his long career, Albertus Magnus wrote treatises on a wide range of topics concerning the structure and function of the natural world -- a subject which came to be known as "natural" philosophy.  He and many of his contemporaries, like Roger Bacon (1214-1294), exemplify the creativity and complexity of thought made possible by the intertwining of three important intellectual traditions:

Magic (Hermes Trismegistus/Plato)
Mechanical (Archimedes)
models based on... living organisms cosmos machines
change in nature involves... visible patterned processes hidden processes matter in random motion
to know is... to identify and understand causes of change to intuit parallels between microcosm and macrocosm to measure and quantify underlying design
knowledge is available to... everyman only elite few those with proper training and instruments
participant is... methodical observer adept craftsman
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