And other things…

There are two main parts to this update, plus the usual fixes and improvements.

De bestiis et aliis rebus

Or “On beasts and other things”, a catch-all title for a compilation text. The De bestiis is an odd work that consists of four books: the De avibus by Hugh of Fouilloy, a version of the Physiologus, a bestiary and an alphabetical list of Latin terms and definitions. It was usually attributed to Hugh of Saint Victor, who had nothing to do with it. Who compiled it is unknown, though over the centuries many people were named as the authors. There don’t appear to be any manuscripts with all four books, though there are a few with two or three of them, or versions of them, or extracts from them. Several manuscripts use the title De bestiis et aliis rebus, even ones that don’t actually include more than fragments of the text. The only book of the four that has a definite author is the De avibus, which is usually (but not always) Book I, and which often appeared on its own. Book II (usually) is a version of the Physiologus that excludes the birds from Book I, Book III is a mashed together copy of Books I and II, and Book IV appears to be definitions of words and names derived from the first three books. The contents are not fixed, varying between manuscripts. It is a nebulous, ephemeral text.

So how do we know about it? In the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries several editions were printed, the later ones probably copied from the first one. It was the printed editions, anonymously compiled from unrevealed sources, that established the text of the De bestiis, most recently that of J-P Migne in 1854 in one of the volumes of his monumental Patrologia Latina. The printed editions all claimed that the author was Hugh of Saint Victor (he wasn’t), and that claim was mostly undisputed until the late nineteenth century.

Three of the printed editions are available in the Digital Text Library, and the Encyclopedia article provides more details on the De bestiis.

The improved Digital Text Library

The Digital Text Library has had an update. The topics list is sortable, and there is a new index page to make finding relevant text easier. There are also several new texts, such as the ones related to the De bestiis et aliis rebus, plus a special one.

In 1936, George Claridge Druce translated the Bestiary of Guillaume le Clerc from the original Norman-French into English. That translation is the only one I know of, and it appeared only in a privately printed and distributed book, which is quite rare and has never been digitized – until now. I acquired a copy of the book and scanned it, and the result is available in the Digital Text Library in various forms, under the title The Bestiary of Guillaume le Clerc. It is only available here – at least until it gets copied and reposted all over the web – and, as usual it is free under a Creative Commons license.

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Physiologus, etc.

The Physiologus was popular in the Middle Ages. Very popular. How popular? We can judge by the number of still existing manuscripts that include the text.

This update includes a large addition to the Physiologus encyclopedia article. That includes a lot of added manuscripts. When I started I had less than 100; now there are 264, and that is not likely to be all of them. Many more were lost over the centuries. It is said that the Physiologus was the most widely distributed text in the Middle Ages, after the Christian Bible. The text was translated into many languages, including Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopian, English, German, French, Syriac and a few Slavic languages, in several different versions, including verse. To show that diversity, I have added a page to the Bestiary Families article for the Physiologus manuscripts, categorized by version and language. Some of the manuscripts I could find little or no information about, but quite a few have facsimiles online. Some are illustrated, so the Physiologus encyclopedia article has a gallery of a few hundred images.

That the Physiologus was subject to a revival of interest starting in the 19th century is shown by the number of books, articles and dissertations on the Physiologus text that have been produced since then. The Physiologus has well over 300 bibliography items already with more waiting to be entered, and new ones keep appearing.

This update also includes additions to the encyclopedia article of Hugh of Fouilloy and his moralized book about birds, the De avibus or Aviary; several more manuscripts of all kinds; more bibliography items; and more images. Plus a bunch of corrections and a few cosmetic changes, just to keep things from getting stale.

Maybe we should look at some statistics!

Bibliography Items1521167118172066
Encyclopedia Articles0343941

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Four Encyclopedias

This update is mostly about four encyclopedia articles, either newly added or substantially updated.

  • Albertus Magnus (De animalibus): Albertus Magnus, also known as Albert the Great, Albert of Cologne and Saint Albert, was born shortly before 1200 CE (perhaps circa 1193) and died in 1280 CE. He was a Dominican monk, a bishop, a scholar, an author and a commentator on the works of Aristotle. The De animalibus (On animals) is an encyclopedic account of animal knowledge of the time. The first 19 books are based on the 19 books of Aristotle’s De animalibus, but Albert expanded Aristotle’s text considerably, adding commentary and more information.
  • Arnoldus Saxo (De floribus rerum naturalium): The De floribus rerum naturalium is an encyclopedia, albeit a short one, covering zoology, mineralogy, and astronomy, but the the zoological parts dominate, with chapters on quadrupeds, birds, fish and reptiles. Arnoldus used the Latin translation by Michel Scotus of Aristotle’s De animalibus, which was published around 1220, so the De floribus rerum naturalium has to have been written after 1220 and probably in the 1230s.
  • Alexander Neckam (De naturis rerum): This is a moralized encyclopedia. De naturis rerum, more completely titled De naturis rerum et super Ecclesiasten (On the Natures of Things and on Ecclesiastes), was written in the early thirteenth century. The first part of the text is an encyclopedia in two books. An additional three books, not directly connected to the first two, make up the second part; the texts in that part are an extended commentary on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. It is possible the two parts were originally intended as two separate works.
  • Rabanus Mauris (De rerum naturis): Another moralized encyclopedia. De rerum naturis (On the Nature of Things), also known as De universo, is an encyclopedia in 22 books, covering a large range of subjects. It was written between 842 and 847. Rabanus’ stated intent was to compile an encyclopedic handbook for preachers. He drew on earlier sources for his information, particularly the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, but the organization of the material was his own invention.

Some of the manuscripts of these encyclopedias are illustrated, so there are a few hundred new images online. There are also around 100 new manuscripts, plus some new bibliography entries.

And that’s all, folks!

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Clearing the Backlog

This update is all about clearing out the backlog of data I had waiting to be entered in my database. It was a long and tedious task, but my Zotero lists are now nearly empty, for the first time in years. Clearing the backlog added 112 manuscripts, 131 bibliography items and 520 images. In the process I found and fixed several errors and updated a few manuscripts with new information.

I also ran link checkers on the site, which revealed lots of broken links and other problems. Web site owners have a habit of moving or deleting content, which breaks links from other web sites, and sometimes even links within the same web site. Even so-called permalinks, which are supposed be “permanent links” that never change are susceptible to link rot. I fixed as many of the broken links as I could, but in some cases the content I linked to is simply gone, never to be seen again. In such cases I had no choice but to remove the link.

To the people who sent me information and then waited months (or years) to see that information online… Sorry! And thanks. I do appreciate the information and I will get it entered into my database eventually, but sometimes I get overwhelmed and the backlog builds up again. Keep sending in any information, corrections, comments, objections or whatever, but you might have to wait a while to see your contributions on the site.

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Whistling Beasts

British artist Emma Carlow has created a series of folk-art style whistles based on bestiary animals, which were shown at a recent exhibition at the Meiklejohn Gallery. “On March 17th 2022 Emma Carlow decided to make a clay whistle every day for a year. The whistle is an ephemeral item that links cultures from all around the world, making it the perfect vehicle for exploring global folk culture. … Also on display are new works inspired by her research into medieval bestiaries. Fascinated by the incredible descriptions of animals found in the “Book of Beasts”, Carlow has created vignettes of creatures displaying their particular and unique habits, exploring the world as it was known at that time.” These are actual whistles (they make a sound), as well as works of art. Check them out at the Meiklejohn Gallery, and see some of Emma’s work on her website.

Lion afraid of a white cock
Medieval people believed lions feared the sight of a white cockerel, as well as the sound of creaking cart wheels and fire.
Elephant sleeping while leaning on a tree
Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls.
When it wants to catch birds to eat, the fox rolls in red mud so that it appears to be covered in blood. It then lies apparently lifeless; birds, deceived by the appearance of blood and thinking the fox to be dead, land on it and are immediately devoured.

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Bartholomaeus Anglicus

A long delayed and – I’m sure – eagerly awaited update.

This one is all about Bartholomaeus Anglicus and his encyclopedia, De proprietatibus rerum or “On the properties of things”. He wrote the work in Latin around 1260, and it was quickly copied and translated into several languages, including French, English, Dutch and Spanish. It remained popular for a long time, with editions being printed into the seventeenth century. There are thought to be about 200 manuscript copies of the encyclopedia still in existence, and hundreds of printed copies.

As is usual with Medieval encyclopedias, Bartholomaeus got his information from numerous earlier sources, without adding much of his own. Though we might laugh at what the thirteenth century writers of encyclopedias believed to be true, to them it was serious business, and they had no doubt it was true. The world beyond the farm or the monastery was mysterious to Medieval people, and the encyclopedias were the best information they had.

Researching Bartholomaeus and his encyclopedia took a long time, especially for the manuscripts, which the holding libraries and museums did their usual best to hide in obscure places. In the end I rooted out 114 of them, or a bit over half the probable total. Very few of the manuscripts are extensively illustrated, but enough are for me to pillage over 350 images.

Also in this update… spell checking! I finally got around to implementing a spellchecker in my database management program, and found to my amazement and shame that I had misspelled hundreds of words. I haven’t finished spellchecking everything yet, but the Beast, Manuscript and Encyclopedia pages have been pretty much cleaned up.

There are several other tweaks and improvements, but I will leave those for you to discover.

Statistics! My, how we have grown in the last few years.

April 10, 2009November 18, 2022September 13, 2023
Bibliography Items152116711817
Encyclopedia Articles03439

For the next update I am going to try to reduce the enormous backlog of information waiting to be entered. The lists of pending manuscripts and bibliography items is getting awfully long.

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Middle Dutch

This update is all about Jacob van Maerlant and his Middle Dutch encyclopedia of strange animals.

I can’t read Middle Dutch – or modern Dutch – which made working with Jacob’s encyclopedia, Der Naturen Bloeme, something of a challenge. Fortunately Jacob used the Latin name for the animals, so I could at least figure out what the sometimes utterly weird illustrations were supposed to be.

The marine monster Zifius, a beast unlike any other
The marine monster called Zifius, a beast unlike any other. From Lippische Landesbibliothek, Ms. 70, folio 87r.

Jacob’s encyclopedia is a free translation into Middle Dutch of the Latin encyclopedia Liber de Natura Rerum written by Thomas de Cantimpré. Jacob didn’t change much, though he did leave out some of the “unimportant” chapters. Middle Dutch has similarities to modern Dutch, in much the same way the Middle English has similarities to modern English. In both cases someone who can read the modern version of the language can relatively easily learn to read the Middle version. While Thomas’s encyclopedia is written in Latin prose, Jacob’s Middle Dutch translation is written in rhyming verse, many thousands of lines of it.

There are eleven mostly complete manuscript copies of Der Naturen Bloeme, some of them fully illustrated. There are also several fragments of the text that range in size from a couple of thin strips of parchment to multi-page sections, with most being a few often tattered and partial pages. I used three of the illustrated complete manuscripts, plus an illustrated substantial fragment, for images and animal chapter names and order.

Like Thomas’s encyclopedia, Jacob’s version has hundreds of animal chapters; the fully illustrated manuscripts usually have over 400 images each. The four manuscripts I used have over 1500 images, which have all been added to the site (bringing the total number of images online to almost 7000!).

That’s about it for this update, except for the usual corrections. No more encyclopedias for a while; they are just too time consuming. The next update will be whenever I get enough new work done, and will probably involve more information on the beasts.

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Encyclopedic Beasts

Well, that was a lot of work!

With this update I have added all of the animal chapters (470+) from the Liber de natura rerum of Thomas of Cantimpré, a thirteenth century encyclopedia. That includes over 100 new and newly identified beasts, an English translation/paraphrase of the Latin text from each chapter (seen under the Sources tab for most beasts), all of the images from manuscript Bibliothèque Municipale de Valenciennes MS 320, a list of animals that are described in the encyclopedia, and more information on Thomas himself. I had been putting off tackling any of the medieval encyclopedias, because they have a lot of very strange and difficult to identify animals not found in bestiaries. Working on Thomas’s book forced me to identify the many beasts I had found in various manuscripts but had not found any information on; there are now only about five mystery beasts left in my database. Having all the animals in Thomas’s encyclopedia in my database will make working on other medieval encyclopedias much easier, since many of the other encyclopedias are based on the Liber de natura rerum.

In the Beast pages Sources tabs, in addition to Thomas’s descriptions I have added/updated the text from many of Thomas’s sources, like Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Solinus and Isidore of Seville. I have also done a full proofreading and edit of all of the Beast pages to correct the many (many!) typos, textual errors and formatting problems.

Two of Thomas’s sources are the mysterious Experimentator and the even more mysterious Liber rerum, both of which he quotes from, neither of which have been identified. The only existing source of either text is Thomas’s quotes. For the encyclopedia entries for both of these, I have extracted the Latin quotes from the Liber de natura rerum and roughly translated them to English. The complete set of quotes can be found under the Texts tab for the Experimentator and Liber rerum encyclopedia entries. As far as know, this is the first time this has been done.

There are also numerous updates to the Manuscript pages, Encyclopedia pages, and the Bibliography, plus a bunch of new images – over 5500 of them are online now. I have corrected many errors throughout the site in a desperately-needed review; with hundreds of pages of text it can be difficult to spot errors, so if you see any, please let me know.

There will be a delay in the next update while I catch up on all the things I have been neglecting for the last two months of arguing with Thomas.

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Thanks, and an Explanation

Thanks to those who have sent me new information, updates and corrections. All such assistance is greatly appreciated.

So why have you not seen your contributions online? Well… I am just one old man with database that needs to be updated, and that takes time. I have an enormous backlog of stuff waiting to be entered into the database, hundreds of manuscripts and beasts and bibliography and encyclopedia stuff and more and more and more… While I can’t possibly keep up with it all, I will get to it eventually, and in the meantime I have it all stashed in Zotero, a “personal research assistant”, as they call it – I call it some very useful software! Nothing is being lost, so in the fullness of time it will appear on the site.

So if you have new or updated information, corrections for my many mistakes, suggestions for encyclopedia articles, or anything else of interest, please send them along! And then please be patient…

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This update is mostly about manuscripts called Psalters (see below), with a bit about Gerald of Wales.


A few more manuscripts have had their illustrations loaded and/or beast lists completed.


There is one updated and one new article.

  • Gerald of Wales: A few updates to the article and manuscript list, and more of Gerald’s text added to various beast entries.
  • Psalters: Manuscripts containing the biblical book of Psalms – and usually many images of a curious nature.

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