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.