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?