The Old English Physiologus in the Exeter Book

December 3, 2002

The Physiologus was one of the most popular and widely read texts of the Middle Ages. Written in Greek in Alexandria sometime between 140 and 410 CE, it was eventually translated into many languages, including Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, Arabic, Latin, German, Flemish, Icelandic, Provençal, Russian, and Old English. [1] The text was widely distributed throughout Europe and the Middle East, and many Physiologus manuscripts in various languages survive. The Physiologus was the basis of the twelfth and thirteenth century bestiaries, which incorporated the original stories and added many more from other sources.

The Physiologus is a series of moralized descriptions of animals, real and fabulous; the attributed characteristics of each animal are used to present a Christian teaching, usually supported by quotations from the Bible. In many cases the supposed attributes are clearly invented to fit the Christian moral commentary that follows, rather than the moral being fitted to the real or imagined attributes of the beast; the true purpose of the Physiologus is not as exposition of natural history, but as exempla. The popularity and wide-spread audience of the text can be partly explained by the Medieval belief that all of God's creation, including animals, was intended to provide examples to humanity of the correct way to live, a belief founded on Biblical references such as "But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee..." (Job 12:7) and "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature ... has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:20). The Physiologus can therefore be seen as a Christian interpretation of the text of created nature.

The Old English Physiologus in the form found in the Exeter Book exists in only that manuscript (Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501). It is thought to have been written sometime between the mid ninth and mid tenth centuries. [2] Like other poems in the Exeter Book, the Physiologus poem has been attributed to Cynewulf, though this attribution is debated. [3] The poem is similar in form, language and structure to other poems in the Exeter Book and elsewhere.

The Exeter version of the Physiologus is unusual in several ways, one of which is that it only contains three animal episodes, whereas most have between 20 and 50. There has historically been some controversy over whether the three episodes of the poem in the Exeter Book are only a part of a once longer work, or a complete work in themselves. [4] Only a few fragmentary lines of the third episode remain, and some scholars have taken this to indicate that many pages are missing from the manuscript, perhaps a whole quire. The nineteenth-century scholar Ebert, for example, believed that as many as seven additional episodes were originally to be found following the third poem; [5] others would have additional episodes both before the first episode and after the third episode. The general consensus is now that the three episodes are all there ever were, and that the third episode was originally longer, perhaps as long as the first two. This reassessment is based in large part on the thematic unity of the three episodes, as will be discussed below. In addition, codicological studies suggest that at most one leaf is missing from the manuscript at that point.

The three episodes deal with the panther, the whale, and a bird usually taken to be the partridge. The first episode, about the panther, has 74 lines; the second, on the whale, is the longest at 89 lines. The partridge episode, with only 16 lines remaining, is incomplete, and the identification of the bird is based for the most part on the traditional positioning of the partridge following the panther and the whale in other versions of the Physiologus. Some believe that not even all of the remaining lines are part of the partridge episode, but that the final thirteen lines are actually the end of a separate homily, the beginning of which has since been lost. [6] There is no doubt that the episode deals with a bird, however; the episode's first (and only undoubted) line is Hyrde ic secgan gen bi sumum fugle wundorlicne... ("I have yet heard tell a certain wonderful bird..."). [7]

The Exeter poem is not a direct translation of the traditional Physiologus. Instead, the poet used the three Physiologus stories as the basis of his poem, but reworked them to go far beyond the usual didactic treatment of the Physiologus, producing distinctively Anglo-Saxon literature. The differences between the Old English Physiologus (hereafter abbreviated OEP) and the traditional Physiologus (TP) that give it its Anglo-Saxon flavor can be seen in the areas, among others, of structure and text.

Structurally the TP is made up of separate episodes that rarely show any interconnection from one to the next, but the Exeter poem's episodes are clearly part of a unified whole. The episodes are connected in several ways, evidence that the inclusion of only these three animals from the stock of over 50 available from the Physiologus text was a conscious decision by the poet. The number three is of obvious importance to the poet (as it was to the Medieval mind in general); the three episodes are intimately connected by a series of triplets. On a surface level, the three episodes are about an earth animal, a water animal, and an air animal, representing three of the four traditional elements. On the same level the poem describes three "families" of animal (beast, fish and bird), and three "geographies" of creation (land, sea and sky). But the connections between the episodes go much deeper. On a more spiritual level, the panther, which after feasting retires to a cave to sleep for three days and then rises to call humans and animals to him, signifies Christ; the whale, which uses deception to lure the unwary to their doom, signifies Satan; and the bird, which flies free of the world, signifies the Holy Spirit or the soul released. In the same vein, the panther represents the Earthly world, the whale represents Hell, and the bird Heaven. [8] Rossi-Reder points out that the three episodes are arranged by tense: [9] the verbs in the panther episode are mostly in the past tense, to match the past sacrifice of Christ on Earth; the verbs in the whale episode are mostly in the present tense, to match the present danger of damnation to Hell posed to all Christians by the enticements of Satan; and the verbs in the bird episode refer mostly to the future, to match the promise of heavenly reward for the faithful. She also sees a connection between the episodes as an exposition on the three days of Easter.

The poem has been shown to have similarities in structure with the Anglo-Saxon three-fold homiletic tradition. Letson [10] says that the panther episode is typological, the whale episode is tropological, and the partridge episode is anagogic, the three parts of formal homilies. Rossi-Reder agrees, saying further that "The poem's structure and content clearly echo Anglo-Saxon homiletic organization, development, and imagery..." [11] She sees the poem as resembling a particular type of homily, the traditional Easter sermon, such as the Bickling Easter Homily. [12] This resemblance to the homily is also shown in the use of the first person pronoun ic or we to introduce each episode, and the use of the verb uton in the summary of the episode, a technique commonly used in Anglo-Saxon homilies.

The OEP also differs from the TP textually, as can be seen through a closer examination of the panther episode. The first eight lines of the OEP panther are not really about the panther at all, but serve as an introduction to the poem as a whole, something not generally found in the TP, though often found in later bestiaries. These lines are a "creation hymn" that is similar in spirit to Cædmon's hymn, telling of the wonderful diversity of the unnumbered kinds of birds and beasts to be found on Earth. [13] The vast numbers of unknown beasts that God has created (presumably as examples to humanity) is made clear through the repetition of numerical references:

Monge sindon   geond middangeard
unrimu cynn,    þe we æþelu ne magon
ryhte areccan   ne rim witan
þæs wide sind    geond world innan
fugla ond deora   foldhrerendra
wornas widsceope...

Many there are   over mid-earth
numberless kinds,   whose natures we may not
rightly recount   nor number know;
so ample are   throughout the world
of birds and beasts   earth-enlivening
the wide-created multitudes...

This exposition of the unknown vastness of creation invokes in the hearer a sense of wonder, and leaves him ready to accept the strangeness of the beasts next to be described.

While both the TP and OEP ascribe similar characteristics to the panther, how each handles those characteristics is quite different. The TP briefly describes the various attributes without going into much detail, with most of the text devoted to explaining the meaning of those attributes, chiefly through reference to Christian scripture. The OEP instead reverses this, layering detail on detail to describe the beast but relegating the religious exposition to the last twenty lines of the poem. As Letson says, "...the Old English poet's interest is primarily descriptive whereas the interest of his Latin counterpart is primarily interpretive." [14] In the case of the many colors of the panther's coat, for example, the TP merely says "He is entirely variegated and is beautiful like Joseph's cloak" [15] but then uses that brief reference in a lengthy explanation of its meaning; in contrast the OEP, after praising the beauty of the animal for twelve lines, says nothing at all about the deeper meaning. Where the TP mentions that the panther is a "most exceedingly mild animal" [16] but does not expound further, the OEP says the panther is "mild, moderate, he is gentle, kind and gracious, he will not aught of harm to any perpetrate..." and later relates that mildness to the kindness and mercy God shows to the virtuous. In the TP when the panther rises from his three day sleep, "he roars out with a loud voice" [17] ; the OEP instead says "a sound comes, of voices sweetest." [18] The TP says that the panther's sweet odor draws all the other animals; the OEP has "many a band of nobles," "bands of people," and "legionary troops" (and, incidentally, other animals) coming "from cities, and royal seats, and from castle-halls" to follow that scent. The scent itself is described as "sweet" or "pleasant" by the TP; the OEP says it is "sweeter and stronger than every perfume, than blooms of plants, and forest leaves, nobler than all earth's ornaments." It would seem that the Exeter poet did indeed have quite a different intent than the writer of the Latin Physiologus.

That the panther is a figure for Christ is obvious, as both texts make quite clear. While the TP directly links the panther and Christ, the OEP seems to take an indirect route: through the use of language and structure that is reminiscent of other Anglo-Saxon poems when they tell of lords and heroes, the poet first describes the panther in terms suitable for a great lord, and only later, at the end of the poem, establishes the connection to Christ, the Lord of lords. The panther is said to be a firum freamærne, a "very celebrated lord" in his own land. He is said to have a singular or separate nature, sundorgecynd, a word that also implies he is "sundered" from his own kind; and to be anstapan, one who walks alone. He is generous to all (duguða estig, gift/benefit plus liberal/gracious, or "bounteous in benefits"), and will harm none except his one enemy, the dragon, who he battles mercilessly. His beauty is beyond any other's; his power to draw "bands of people" to him is irresistible. The language and imagery suggests a great potentate from distant lands (feorlondum) who all should want to serve. It is only after the poet has established the panther as a like a lord or hero from an epic tale that he makes explicit what was implied: Swā is dryhten god, he says, so is the lord God. The poem then repeats much of what was said of the panther, but now referring explicitly to God, to show the parallels with the nature and actions of Christ. The listener cannot fail to make and remember the connection, and any future reference to "panther" will invoke not only a tale of a wondrous beast, but also the meaning of the tale.

Far from being merely a "fragment" of the traditional Physiologus cycle, the Old English Physiologus is the brilliant masterwork of an accomplished poet. It weaves the well-known stories of three beasts into a tapestry that displays the heart of Christian teachings in a way accessible to all. It is clearly not just a translation of an ancient Greek or Latin text; it is instead a rich example of Anglo-Saxon poetry.


[1] Michael J. Curley, Physiologus (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1979), p. xxvi ff.

[2] Andrea Rossi-Reder, "Beasts and Baptism: A New Perspective on the Old English Physiologus," Neophilologus, 83, 1999, p. 462.

[3] A. S. Cook, The Old English Elene, Phoenix, and Physiologus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919), p. lxii.

[4] Michelle C. Hoek, "Anglo-Saxon Innovation and the Use of the Senses in the Old English Physiologus Poems," Studia Neophilologica, 69, 1997, p. 1.

[5] Andrea Rossi-Reder, "Beasts and Baptism," p. 462.

[6] Bernard J. Muir, ed., The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, Volume II: Commentary (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994), p. 554.

[7] Transcription and translation of the poem are taken from: Benjamin Thorpe, Codex Exoniesis: A Collection of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, From a Manuscript in the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1842), p. 355-56. This is a more literal translation of the poem than most, and better captures the feel of the Anglo-Saxon style. All translations following are also taken from this source.

[8] D. R. Letson, "The Old English Physiologus and the Homiletic Tradition," Florilegium, Volume 1, 1979, p. 15.

[9] Andrea Rossi-Reder, "Beasts and Baptism," p. 469, 472, 473.

[10] D. R. Letson, "The Old English Physiologus and the Homiletic Tradition," p. 15ff.

[11] Andrea Rossi-Reder, "Beasts and Baptism," p. 463.

[12] Ibid., p. 464.

[13] Ibid., p. 466.

[14] D. R. Letson, "The Old English Physiologus and the Homiletic Tradition," p. 19.

[15] Michael J. Curley, Physiologus, p. 42.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Other translations call the sound a melody. The word used is sweghleoþor, from sweg which can mean any noise, including a roar, but when combined with hleoþor implies a harmonious sound, ie: a melody.