The Ormesby Psalter

The Ormesby Psalter (Bodleian Library MS. Douce 366), is not a bestiary. It is a psalter, a collection of Psalms meant for contemplative reading. The wealthy would commission such manuscripts, and many of them are richly illustrated. Some of them used bestiary themes in their marginal illustrations (the Queen Mary Psalter has most of a bestiary in its margins) or in historiated initials. The Ormesby Psalter has a few beautiful animal illustrations, like this one.

Bodleian Library MS Douce 366 f128r

While a knight methodically chops the heads off a multi-headed dragon (perhaps the hydra, or the Beast of the Apocalypse), two rabbits do mock battle with sword and mace, and a dog sleeps peacefully amid the carnage.

Another dog waits patiently for his master to stop having a symbolic conversation with a strange man she met while out walking her hound and squirrel. Quite what is going on here is beyond me, but perhaps the man, with a suggestive sword sticking out of his side and a very large ring, is proposing to the woman that they merge their menagerie in holy matrimony.

Bodleian Douce 366 f131r

The dog looks amused by all this, but probably just wants to get on with the walk.

The illustration I like most is of the unicorn.

Bodleian Library MS. Douce 366 f055v

Here we have a spirited unicorn, that despite his wound turns to take on the cruel knight who spears him. Perhaps the unicorn will yet bag himself a knight to hang on his trophy wall. The maiden seems distressed, as well she should be, since she got the beast into this mess in the first place. At least she is gesturing to the knight to stop his attack; maybe the unicorn will spare her when he finishes off his attacker.

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It’s not a large update, though there are a few hundred more images, mostly from the Bodleian Library. There are also more bibliography items, manuscript information, and other miscellaneous stuff.

I am aware that some of the image pages don’t display very well. I have started using larger images, and they sometimes break my primitive layouts. I see I will have to do some recoding of my templates; the underlying HTML of the site is showing its age.

For those who have sent me corrections and new information: thank you! It may seem to take forever for it to appear on the site, but it will get there eventually. I welcome all contributions: new items for the bibliography (if you are the author, please include a brief abstract); web sites worth plundering referring to; manuscripts I may have missed (the name/location of the manuscripts, not the manuscripts themselves, though if you have some to spare, do send them right along); and, of course, corrections.

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Fun with Numbers

Google has a new toy, called Ngrams. Since they have digitized over a million books, and converted them (roughly) to searchable text, they have a huge database of word usage from before 1700 to 2008. Ngrams is a tool that charts the occurrence of words or sets of words in that database. Of course the charts are not entirely representative of word usage, since the database is full of text conversion errors and only covers a small percentage of the books published over the last three centuries.

So let’s chart our favorite word: bestiary.

Ngram: "bestiary" (all English text)

There is an obvious upsurge in interest around 1882. Why? One possibility is the English “antiquaries”: English (mostly) idle gentlemen-scholars who wandered around “discovering” old things, like manuscripts and church carvings. There were quite a few of these antiquaries; they even had societies, associations and clubs, held meetings, and published journals. A member of the Society of Antiquaries (one of the most prestigious) could add the letters FSA (Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries) after his name. One such was George Claridge Druce (1860-1948); there are several articles by him in the Digital Text Library.

The word “bestiary” is also common in English fiction.

Ngram: "bestiary" (English fiction only)

It really takes off after World War II, with another spike around 1990.

How about some of our favorite beasts? Charting “real” beasts doesn’t tell us much, so here is the chart for three of the most popular fabulous beasts: Unicorn, Dragon and Phoenix.

Ngram: "unicorn, dragon, phoenix"

Surprisingly, the unicorn and phoenix have the same popularity, with the dragon far ahead of either. The unicorn doesn’t even improve significantly after the 1980s, when all the new-agey people started loving the beast. As for the bonnacon: as usual, the poor beasty gets no respect; if charted against the unicorn and/or dragon, his line doesn’t get above the axis. The bonnacon is sad.

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Update! is now up to date, if such a phrase is meaningful for a site that deals only with stuff at least 500 years gone. There is a bit more of everything, but mostly pictures – about 300 new ones, some of them spectacular. The best overview of what pictures are here is to be had by using the Cooliris extension to your favorite browser; you can display all of the pictures on the site by clicking the appropriate button the the Beasts page.

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Christopher de Hamel shows us a bestiary!

Dr. Christopher de Hamel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, shows us a bestiary (Parker Library, Corpus Christi College MS 22) and the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris (Parker Library, Corpus Christi College MS 16) to illustrate the medieval view of the elephant.


Ah, to have Dr. de Hamel’s job…

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Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764

Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764 facsimile

What you see above is the Beastmaster’s hands holding a facsimile of a bestiary, MS. Bodley 764, to be exact, from the Bodleian Library. It is my very first full, printed bestiary facsimile, and I am very pleased with it. The reproduction quality is outstanding; the only way the facsimile could be better would be if it was printed on vellum, and I think there may not be enough sheep in all of England for that. The colors are wonderful, and the gold backgrounds look like real gold. Everything is perfectly reproduced, down to the finger smudges of long dead readers and imperfections in the vellum. The book is almost the same size as the manuscript. The introduction by Christopher de Hamel is very good as well, explaining the bestiary genre in general, and the manuscript in particular.

Bodley 764 is a typical second family bestiary. In addition to the usual text for the Physiologus, it draws on the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, as well as from Solinus, the Hexaemeron of Ambrose, and Rabanus Maurus. This manuscript is unusual in that it includes the story of the barnacle geese taken from Gerald of Wales. There are 135 miniatures in the manuscript’s 137 folios, all painted with great skill and bright colors. Most of the illustrations have gold backgrounds, something that the facsimile renders very well. The text and illustrations are quite similar to another second family bestiary, Harley MS 4751 in the British Library, similar enough that one was probably copied from the other, a common practice.

The text of Bodley 764 has previously been published in an English translation by Richard Barber (Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford MS Bodley 764), which includes good copies of the illustrations (though not as good as the facsimile). Barber’s translation is very readable; it was originally published by the Folio Society in Britain, but has been republished several times since and is commonly available. The facsimile, Book of Beasts: A Facsimile of MS. Bodley 764, is available from the Bodleian or from Amazon or from the David Brown Book Company, where you can see a few more pages from the book.

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An update … and statistics!

I updated the Bestiary site today. If you are wondering why I update so infrequently, well… it’s a lot of work!

This update is mostly about images, with an addition of about 400 from various sources. I have decided to use whatever images I can get my hands on; previously I was only using public domain images or images I had permission to use. I have now decided that art produced hundreds of years ago does not properly belong to anyone (or belongs to everyone), that copyright claims on such art or reproductions of it are bogus (a view upheld by the courts), and I have the right (nay, even a duty) to make the images available to all. This gives me a much larger stock of images to work with, and I am ever so slowly (a lot of work, remember?) adding more of them to my database.

A note on image quality: I grab medieval animal images from a lot of sources, and in many cases I have no control over the quality of the image. The digital facsimiles of manuscripts that libraries and museums publish  on the web are often of surprisingly low quality, and while I can (and do) use Photoshop tricks to improve the images somewhat, there is a limit to what can be done. This means you will see a wide variation in image quality here; I include these less than ideal images in the hope that they will be of some use. By the way, my use of Photoshop is only to enhance the appearance of images; I do not alter the image content on the main site, though I do sometimes take liberties on the Chimaera blog.

This update also fixes a bunch of broken links. People will move web pages around, leaving my links dangling. Unfortunately, a few of the pages I linked to have vanished entirely, so I have had to remove the links.

There are also updates to most sections of the site, but nothing major. I have plans for site revisions, but they will also be a lot of work, so don’t stay up waiting for them to appear.

Statistics! Everybody likes numbers, right? Right? Well, never mind, I like them, so here’s a bunch:

Number of visits to in 2008: 454,238   
Number of page views in 2008: 1,478,193
Number of beasts: 141
Number of manuscripts: 257
Number of bibliography entries: 1521
Number of beast images: 1303

Do try the “wall of beasts” on the Beasts page; it goes on forever now.

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Master Richard’s Bestiary of love

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Richard de Fournival, a French cleric, scholar and surgeon, wrote the Bestiaire d’amour, the Bestiary of love. This fusion of courtly love literature and Bestiary allegorical “natural history” was supposedly written to win the favor of an unnamed woman who Richard was in love with, but who was resisting his advances. Courtly love literature was common in thirteenth century Europe, as was the Bestiary, but never before has the two been combined. The result is a strange blend of the two genres, with the standard Bestiary stories co-opted to serve the interests of courtly love, and the usual allegories bent to serve Richard’s needs.

Courtly love” is a nineteenth century term used to describe a type of medieval literature, in which a man professes his eternal love for an inaccessible woman, usually of noble class and often married to someone else. Most courtly love literature has several common features, which are present in Richard’s book. (All quotes from the Bestiaire d’amour are taken from Master Richard’s Bestiary of Love by Jeanette Beer, a noted Bestiaire scholar.) Some examples: Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes (“Did sight help to capture me? Yes, I was more captured by my sight than the tiger in the mirror.”); declaration of passionate devotion (“…I have abandoned my own will in pursuit of hers, like the beasts that, after they have sensed the odor of the panther, will not abandon it.”); virtuous rejection by the lady (“…I have no earthly hope in the future of your good will…”); renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty (“For if I have spoken and sent you many fine words and they have not served me as much as I needed, I must now assemble my resources in the arrièr-ban of this last composition. I must speak as best I can to know if it might win your favor.”); and moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (“…you have thrown me into the sort of distress that accompanies utter despair without hope of mercy. That is death by love.”).

Richard’s Bestiaire was very popular, and many manuscript copies still exist. In a few of the manuscripts the Bestiaire is followed by a response, supposedly from the woman Richard was writing to. Whether the response was written by Richard’s unattainable love, or by a woman at all, is not known and is still debated; Jeanette Beer says “Its author was a woman of exceptional ability who could reason with cogency and argue with style; her philosophical and theological background differed markedly from Master Richard’s; and her feminist defense of woman may have been a personal response directed specifically against Richard de Fournival.” Whether or not this is so, the response to Richard’s protestations of love was scathing, as can be seen from the excerpts below.

Wolf sees the man
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Français 1951 f3v.

He says: The nature of the wolf is such that when a man sees it before it sees the man, the wolf loses all its strength and courage. If the wolf sees the man first, the man then loses his voice so that he is speechless. This nature is found in the love of a man and woman. For when love exists between them, if the man can perceive first, from the woman herself, that she loves him, and if he knows how to make her aware of it, from that moment she has lost the courage to refuse him. But because I could not hold back or refrain from telling you my heart before I knew anything of yours, you have escaped me.
She replies: I must truly say that I was seen first by you whom I must for this reason call the wolf. For it is with difficulty that I can say anything to counter your words. Wherefore I can truly say that I was first seen by you, and I must thus be on my guard if I am prudent.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Français 1951 f5r.

He says: [The viper] is of such a nature that it is frightened and insecurely flees when it sees a naked man, yet it attacks him and has nothing but contempt for him if it sees him clothed. You have acted in exactly the same way with me, fair, sweetest love. For when I met you I found you to be of a gentle disposition and somewhat modest, as is fitting – as if you were a little fearful of me because of the newness of our acquaintance. Yet when you knew I loved you, you were as proud as you wished toward me, and you attacked me sometimes with your words. … I should have been better treated by you when you saw me clothed with your love than when I was naked of it.
She replies: Do you think I am bound to attack you because you say you are clothed by your love for me? I have not clothed you with my love, rather you are quite naked of it. Therefore I fear you, which is not very surprising…

Master Richard comes across as rather a cad, nay even a jerk, and his methods cannot be recommended as an example to a man hopeful of Valentine love.

The woman has the last word, and shows just what she thinks of Richard:

…the dragon for its tongue that is envenomed to kill all the animals it touches with it. Ah master, have we any such dragons among us? I truly believe and know we have, and I know well that they are worse than the feared dragon. And I shall tell you who they are and in what way they are worse, as I spoke above of those who act lovelorn till they die of it. They are calamitous. But I say upon my soul that a man may say he is dying of love when he does not even know of it as I, who by the grace of God am free of it, know love. And I say assuredly that these men are worse than the dragon mentioned above. For the dragon poisons only what it touches, but this false liar with his filthy, venomous old tongue spreads what he hopes will get him his way with the woman he covets, no matter how she may be damaged by him. Is there worse? Yes, indeed! … the evil dragon, the traitor, the wretch, now boasts that he has had his way. Is that an evil dragon? Certainly I say that no mortal man could take too cruel a vengeance on that dragon.

So much for Master Richard.

Fire stones
St John’s College (Cambridge) Library
A.15 f103v.

The Bestiary does not generally encourage romantic love, courtly or otherwise, or any sort pleasure for that matter. The self-sacrifice of the beaver can be seen as a reference to the value of clerical celibacy; the fate of the antelope warns us not to play in the “thickets of worldliness” where pleasure kills body and soul; the story of the blackbird should remind us that we must discipline ourselves and thus rid ourselves of pleasures of the mind by inflicting pain on our flesh; the story of the sirens shows that those who take delight in worldly pleasures will become the devil’s prey. The most obvious admonition to avoid the perils of lust is found in the story of the fire stones (lapides igniferi), which burst into flame if brought too close together; likewise, says the Bestiary, will the flames of lust erupt when man and women are too close to each other. The couple at the right have discovered the truth of this for themselves: In the top panel, they are fiercely and resolutely resisting the lure of lust, even holding out their anti-lust devices, but to no avail, for in the lower panel they are passionately in each other’s arms, and the fires of lust (and hell) roar around them. They do seem happier in the bottom panel, so perhaps not all is lost.

Finally, the Aberdeen Bestiary has some advice for the married couple, based on the risque mating of a male viper with a female lamprey:

Let him be harsh, deceitful, uncouth, unreliable, drunken: are any of these things worse than the poison from which the lamprey, in intercourse, does not shrink? When she is invited, she is not found wanting and embraces the slimy snake with sincere affection. The man puts up with your mischief and your feminine tendency towards triviality. Can you, o woman, not stand by your man? … But you too, O man, for we can also bring you into the discussion, set aside the passion in your heart and the roughness of your manner when your loving wife comes to meet you, get rid of your ill-humour when your wife sweetly rouses you to express your love. You are not her master but her husband; you have gained not a maidservant but a wife. God wished you to govern the weaker sex, not rule it absolutely. Return her care with attention; return her love with grace. The viper pours out its poison; can you not get rid of your harsh attitude?

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Click the image for a larger and higher quality view.

The manuscript images used for this illustration have been rudely ripped from their context and mercilessly modified to fit my mad scheme. To see the originals, follow the links below.


Collage, background, other bits – David “Beastmaster” Badke © 2009. Sign (from Snake Park in Pune, India) – Manuscripts: Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 264, marginalia: Miscellaneous little birds; Storks on nest; Three owls; Bunch of bunnies; Rabbit with crossbow; Fence-sitting owl. British Library, Harley MS 4751: Cranes (f.39r); Caladrius (f.40r); Bear (f.15r); Barnacle geese (f.55r); Antelope (f.5v). Partridge (f.48r). Harley MS 3244: Dragon (f.59r). Royal MS 12 C. xix: Tiger (f.28r). Royal MS 12 F. xiii: Unicorn (f.10v). Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º: Lizard (f.56r); Green scorpion (f.58v); Boa (f.33v); Parrot (f.33v); Panther (f.3v); Bonnacon (f.10r). Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8º: Asp (f.39r). Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951: Lion (f.32r). Aberdeen University Library, Univ. Lib. MS 24: Amphisbaena (f.68v). Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16: Pygmies (f.42v). Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25: Crocodile (f.12v); Hunters (f.8r); Ape (f.8v); Startled owl (f.32v).

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Magical Beastie Bits (Part 2)

This is the second in a series of posts about magical beast parts. Today: the beaver, the hyena, and the lynx.

Beavers losing valuable body parts
Beavers losing valuable body parts.
British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r

Beaver: The beaver is hunted for one special body part, which, we are assured by the best authorities, is required for “medicine”. The body part is its testicles, and the “medicine” is likely the medieval version of Viagra. The beaver knows what the hunters want, and evidently valuing life over love, bites off the desired items and throws them to the hunter, who being satisfied with his prize leaves the beaver alone. And alone he will probably stay, without hope of offspring and, most likely, a mate. I suppose he can always become a monk, the clerical class the moral of this awkward story was aimed at. In future encounters with hunters, the beaver merely has to reveal his lack of magical beastie bits to be spared any further harassment. In the illustration, the happy hunter on the right has already bagged his quota, while the others squabble over the second beaver’s offering. The lad in red, pointing at the busy beaver, is saying “Dibs on that set!” while the one in blue, who brought his best sword and a fine pair of hunting dogs, looks sorely disappointed.

Hyena eating corpse
A hyena munches a corpse.
British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 10r

Hyena: There is a stone in the hyena’s eye (some say in the stomach of its young) that will give a person the ability to predict the future if the stone is placed under the person’s tongue. According to Bartholomaeus Anglicus, “And also witches use the heart of this beast and the liver, in many witchcrafts”. The hyena-stone was said to prevent fever and the gout. Hyenas like to hang around graveyards, where they snack on human corpses. Perhaps this diet gives the stone its predictive power:  the dead presumably know the future. The hyena is an unstable beast, sometimes male and sometimes female; Aesop says “A female hyena wanted to have sex with a male fox, but the fox rejected her, saying that he could not be sure whether she would become his girlfriend or boyfriend.” The fox could have used the future telling stone to discover in advance how the relationship would turn out. The bestiaries do not say how (or whether) the hyena protects its future-telling stone from humans.

Lynx and amber
A lynx producing a stone; a chunk of amber.
Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 6r

Lynx: The urine of the lynx is said to harden into a stone appropriately called the lynx stone (lapis lyncurium in Latin). It is also sometimes called “lynx-water”. The lynx, knowing the stone is valued and due to a natural jealousy (according to Isidore) they do not want humans to have it, they cover their urine with sand to hide it. The stone is most likely amber, but has also been identified as iolite, tourmaline and other semi-precious stones. If it was indeed amber, its medicinal uses were many. According to the Amber Portal: “Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1178), the prioress of the local Benedictine convent, a renowned German mystic and poetess, recommended taking amber as a beer, wine or water tincture for stomach ache, and as a milk tincture for bladder conditions. Powdered amber mixed with wine was also supposed to protect from the Black Death. Albert the Great, a 13th-century Dominican theologian and philosopher, listed amber among six medications of the utmost effectiveness.”

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