Bonnacons in Ukraine

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A bunch of changes

Lots of changes, updates, new materials in this update.

The Bestiary Family lists have been updated. Almost all of the listed manuscripts now have a link to the description page for that manuscript. There are a few that remain elusive; the libraries where they live have them well hidden, but I am persistent (possibly obsessive) and I will find them.

While tracking down the manuscripts on the Bestiary Family lists, I found several more Italian bestiaries and other animal manuscripts. There seem to be a lot of them in different versions and by various authors. I don’t have the lineage of those figured out yet – it’s complicated.

There are many new and updated manuscript description pages, with links to additional descriptions and sometimes online facsimiles. There are a lot of high quality manuscript facsimiles available on the interwebs these days.

Some of the Beast pages have been updated with new information. The Satyr has been split off from the Ape into its own page, as has the Siren (Serpent) from the Siren (freaky and deadly woman-bird-fish).

The manuscript lists have a new feature: a Filtered List. This displays a simple list of all the manuscripts, with an input box where you can type partial words or numbers to filter the displayed manuscripts. Any manuscript rows that do not contain the word or number you enter will be magically hidden, leaving only the ones you want to see. With the manuscript lists now containing over 340 rows, there needed to be a fast way to get to a manuscript if you already knew part of its name, location or shelfmark.

Two of the Beast lists also now have filtering, similar to the manuscript list, but with a few more features. See the Beast help page for more information and some usage tips.

There are some new and updated bibliography entries, with a growing number linked to online resources.

There are a few new and updated encyclopedia articles.

I have two people to thank for their assistance.

Dr. Christoph Mackert of the Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, who provided me with links to two of the elusive Bestiary Family manuscripts in the Dicta Chrysostomi group.

Carlo Calloni, who helped me with a couple of manuscript beasts I could not identify, either from the image or the Italian text, like the weird beasty below, which the manuscript catalog called “A horse resting in a field” but that Carlo identified as a mole crawling out of its burrow on the hill! That was based on the word “topinara”, which is mole in the manuscript’s Italian vernacular.

Houghton Library (Harvard) MS Typ 150, f. 28r

Medieval artists often had bizarre ideas of what animals they hadn’t seen looked like, but a mole?

And last, the usual “bug fixes and performance improvements”, without which an update would not be complete.

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An Italian Bestiary

I hadn’t paid much attention to Italian medieval animal manuscripts, and knew little about them, until Carlo Calloni, an Italian medieval scholar, pointed me to the manuscript Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana plut.40.52, a 14th century copy of L’Acerba Etas (which translates more or less to The Bitter Life) by Cecco d’Ascoli, the common name of Francesco degli Stabili (sometimes given as Francesco degli Stabili Cichus), an Italian encyclopaedist, physician and poet (1257 – September 26, 1327). The animal section is loosely based on the Physiologus (with some differences), and includes an Aviary (book of birds) and a Lapidary (book of stones) along with sections on other things of interest in the natural world. While the animal stories are moralized as in the Physiologus and the Bestiaries, Cecco d’Ascoli was also interested in the science of things, as understood in his time. His writing and free thinking got him in trouble with the church, and in 1327 got him burned at the stake.

Some of the animals in L’Acerba are not found in other medieval animal books, and Cecco’s allegories are sometimes different from the norm. He also is skeptical about some of the animal descriptions, though he includes them in his book all the same.

There are several editions of the L’Acerba available online, mostly in Italian, though there is one English translation. You can find links to some of the on the Medieval Bestiary site.

One bird I (and others) have failed to identify is the stellino, a bird that Cecco describes as the beauty of the sky and a star wanderer. It might be some kind of hawk.

It carries its one egg with it when it flies, and sometimes drops it and it cracks, but the chick emerges unharmed. I don’t know what to relate this to in the Bestiary tradition; do you?

The images in the manuscript are surprisingly realistic – surprising because the illustrations of animals in western Bestiary manuscripts are often wildly inaccurate, because the artist had never seen the beast (or was just a bad artist). This artist knew what he was doing.

Anyway, thanks to Carlo Calloni I spent a couple of days wandering through the Italian side of the medieval animal genre, and now I know more about than I did before. Which isn’t saying much, since I knew next to nothing before.

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More of everything, pretty much.

  • A few new manuscripts (not new as in fresh out of the scriptorium!)
  • A bunch of manuscript updates
  • Some beast updates
  • About 200 more images from manuscripts
  • A pile of new and updated bibliography items
  • Updates to the encyclopedia
  • Updates to the Bestiary Family pages to bring the ordering and manuscript names into line with the rest of the site, plus more of the items have links to the site manuscript description pages
  • Fixes for some problems introduced in the last update

Note: Because of changes to the style sheets, you may need to force your browser to refresh some pages before they will display properly, particularly the galleries. With most browsers you can do this by holding down the Shift key while clicking the refresh button, or holding down the Control/Command key while pressing the F5 key.

<rant>I have been trying to find information on manuscripts of interest, but while some libraries, museums and other institutes make finding manuscripts on their web sites easy, others most emphatically do not. The British Library is the best of the lot, with consistent shelfmarks, easy searching, full descriptions and a good manuscript image viewer. I shan’t mention the names of the not so good and utterly horrible ones. Anyway, it makes finding manuscripts that I know exist, even when I know exactly which institute has them, much more difficult than it needs to be. And don’t get me started on institutes that arbitrarily change their shelfmarks!</rant>

There are a lot of manuscripts of interest out there. The 250 or so I have on the site is barely a drop in the ocean. And many off the manuscripts now digital facsimiles online, with many fine beast images to plunder. I will not be running out of work anytime soon.

Speaking of numbers… statistics!

  • Beasts : 143
  • Manuscripts : 267
  • Images : 1200
  • Bibliography items : 1516
  • Encyclopedia articles : 23
  • Digital texts : 25

More to come!

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A hasty update

I wasn’t planning a full update quite this soon, but I discovered a problem with the last update (some of the images on the beast pages failed to load). All fixed now.

One new feature, which forced me to do a full update: The “hamburger” menu has some extra options to allow you to jump directly to the Beast, Manuscript or Encyclopedia section of the site. I made this change because it annoyed me to have to go to the Contents page to get to those pages, and if it annoyed me, it probably annoyed you.

There are also about 150 new beast images, a few new and updated manuscripts, some more bibliography items, and a few other minor changes.

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A mostly manuscript update

This update is mostly about manuscripts. I have corrected a few errors, added some information, and added a lot of images for two manuscripts.

I have added content to the following sections:

Added images from manuscripts

Added manuscript details, some corrections

There are also minor changes to a few beasts.

More to come!

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Really big update!

More of a complete rebuild than a simple update. After years of shameful neglect, I have spent the last couple of months redesigning and rebuilding the Medieval Bestiary website. The old site was using outdated web technologies, which made it difficult to update and maintain. I had been putting off the needed work – and it was a lot of work – because I didn’t want to do all the programming. (I used to be a computer programmer. I retired. I didn’t do any programming at all for six years, and hadn’t planned on doing any more ever. Oh, well. It all came back to me pretty quickly; I guess doing it for 40 years embedded it in my brain.)

Anyway, it is finally done. The site now uses modern web technologies and has a sleeker, cleaner, better interface without a lot of the unnecessary frippery the old one had. There isn’t a lot of new content yet, but over the next few months there will be. Navigating the site is not radically different, so if you are a previous visitor you should not have much trouble figuring it out, but if you do there is a revamped help section to explain it all. Old links to the site pages should still work. There are links at the bottom of each page that should let you find your way if you get lost, and the improved search facility should let you find pages more easily. The new image galleries for the Beast, Manuscript and other pages display beast images in a way you are probably familiar with from other imaging web sites.

If you get garbled pages or sometimes get the old bestiary pages, your browser has probably cached an out-of-date copy of the page. You may need to force your browser to refresh/reload the page. In Firefox and Chrome you can do that by holding down the Ctrl/Cmd key and pressing the F5 key. For other browsers, check your browser help for instructions.

The old Medieval Bestiary is still available at, for those of you waxing nostalgic. It will, of course, never be updated again.

You can leave comments here about things you like and things you don’t. If you find a problem, you can use the new contact form to tell me all about it.

Stay tuned – lots of new content coming “soon”!

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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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