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Books of Beasts in the British Library: the Medieval Bestiary and its context

Introduction The Origins of the
Medieval Bestiary
Beast Studies and
Beast Stories
Beasts in the
Margins
Further Reading



English bestiaries and their beasts

Stowe 1067
Royal 12 C. xix
Royal 12 F. xiii
Harley 4751
Harley 3244
Latin bestiary manuscripts at the British Library

As indicated by the evidence from surviving books and medieval book lists, the Latin bestiary enjoyed its greatest popularity from the late twelfth to the late thirteenth centuries. Though there were bestiaries produced and owned on the continent, they seem to have appealed largely to an English audience. The first Latin bestiary may have appeared in England as early as the tenth century. An old book list from Peterborough Abbey records a gift in 970 of a Liber Bestiarum from St Aethelwold, archbishop of Winchester and driving force behind the foundation of a Benedictine house at Peterborough.

The bestiary manuscripts featured below bear witness to the range of texts and images that enriched bestiaries during their heyday. They also reflect the different ‘families’ of bestiaries, as described in the 1920s by the scholar M.R. James. James divided Latin bestiaries produced in England into families based on their texts and illustrations. Two of the manuscripts below (Stowe 1067 and Royal 12 C. xix) were classified by James as First-family bestiaries, though this category has since been subdivided by later scholars. The other three (Royal 12 F. xiii, Harley 4751 and Harley 3244) are known as Second-family bestiaries, which include more animals than their First-family counterparts and employ a different system of organisation.

Stowe 1067

One of the earliest surviving English bestiaries, this early twelfth-century manuscript contains an innovative and influential bestiary text. Here extracts from Isidore’s Etymologiae are fully integrated into the Physiologus text and Isidore’s classifications of animals begin to take organisational precedence over the groupings of creatures in the Physiologus. Thus, animals are at least partially grouped in this volume according to their physical similarities rather than by the similarities in the moralisations drawn from their natures. Though little is known with certainty of this book’s early history, it might have belonged to a monastic house in Canterbury.

Stowe 1067, ff. 1v-2
Ink drawings of an antelope with its horns caught in a shrub, an onocentaur, a hedgehog, a fox feigning death and a unicorn resting its head in the lap of a virgin, England, 1st half of the 12th century, 245 x 150 mm.
Stowe 1067, ff. 1v-2

Royal 12 C. xix

Produced in the first decade of the thirteenth century, this manuscript contains one of the earliest bestiaries to feature vivid paintings of animals, set on gold grounds and in colourful frames. These lavish illuminations supplant the line drawings that populated earlier bestiaries like Stowe 1067. They would have made this a costly book to produce, and so it is likely that it was made for an aristocratic, or even royal, owner who could read Latin or had a chaplain who could do so.

In this book the bestiary is preceded by several short texts, including a brief sermon and excerpts from the Imago Mundi of Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1080-1137), the book of Genesis and the Etymologiae. The extracts present several accounts of the Creation and the naming of the world and its creatures, while the sermon exhorts virtuous living as a means to salvation, thereby reinforcing the moralising purpose of the bestiary.


Royal 12 C. xix, f. 6
Decorated initial 'B'(estiarum) at the beginning of the Bestiary and lions licking their cubs, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 6

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 10v
A hunter chasing a beaver, who bites off his testicles in order to thwart the hunter, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 10v

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 11v
A hyena feeding on a corpse, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 11v

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 12v
A hydrus slithering into a crocodile and out again, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 12v

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 27
Two ostriches with their eggs, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 27

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 28
A hunter capturing a tiger cub and distracting its mother with a mirror, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 28

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 29v
A manticore, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 29v

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 30
A parandrus and a yale, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 30

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 38
The means by which an eagle renews its sight, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 38

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 48v
A pelican and its young, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 48v

Royal 12 C. xix, f. 49v
A phoenix’s self-immolation, Central or northern England, c. 1200-10, 220 x 160 mm.
Royal 12 C. xix, f. 49v


Royal 12 F. xiii

This handsome thirteenth-century bestiary belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester, and was probably produced specifically for this Benedictine house. The book’s splendid illuminations were painted by a lay professional artist, who appears to have travelled around south-eastern England. On some pages, directions to the painter, written in French, are still visible in the margins. For reasons unknown, the artist did not complete the job, but even the incomplete programme of illuminations contains some unusual images.

Another unusual feature is the inclusion of substantial excerpts from the Pantheologus of Peter of Cornwall, Prior (1197-1221) of the Augustinian house of Christ Church within Aldgate, London. The Pantheologus is a collection of distinctiones, words from the Bible whose figurative meanings are listed and distinguished for use as exempla in sermons. The Benedictines of Rochester owned several copies of the Pantheologus, one of which was produced in the early thirteenth century and might have provided a source text for the writer of this bestiary.

Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 11v
Knights in a castle atop an elephant repelling mounted assailants and a little elephant coming to the aid of a fallen elephant, South-eastern England (possibly Rochester), c. 1230, 300 x 215 mm.
Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 11v

Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 17
A hunter and dogs pursuing an ape and her young, South-eastern England (possibly Rochester), c. 1230, 300 x 215 mm.
Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 17

Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 19
Stags eating snakes and standing by a stream, South-eastern England (possibly Rochester), c. 1230, 300 x 215 mm.
Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 19

Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 26v
A fox pretending to be dead and a fox with a bird in its mouth, South-eastern England (possibly Rochester), c. 1230, 300 x 215 mm.
Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 26v

Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 30v
The dogs of King Garamantes rescuing him from captivity, South-eastern England (possibly Rochester), c. 1230, 300 x 215 mm.
Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 30v

Harley 4751

This bestiary contains a text similar to that of the Rochester bestiary (Royal 12 F. xiii), but with the unusual addition of extracts from the Topographia Hiberniae of Gerald of Wales (1146-1223). Gerald’s descriptions of Irish beasts and birds furnished this book’s compiler with material on the barnacle goose, osprey and dipper, among other creatures.

Though no gold has been used to add visual drama and beauty to the page, many of the illuminations in this manuscript are quite dramatic nonetheless. The artist has tended to render the hunting scenes within the book with more blood and violence than is found in most bestiaries. One scholar, observing this, has suggested that the book might have been made for a member of the aristocracy who enjoyed the hunt.


Harley 4751, f. 6v
A unicorn being attacked by three men, Southern England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, 310 x 230 mm.
Harley 4751, f. 6v

Harley 4751, f. 15v, detail
A mother bear licking her cub to give it its shape, Southern England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, 310 x 230 mm.
Harley 4751, f. 15v, detail

Harley 4751, f. 47
An owl being attacked by three smaller birds, Southern England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, 310 x 230 mm.
Harley 4751, f. 47

Harley 4751, f. 69
A whale mistaken for an island, Southern England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, 310 x 230 mm.
Harley 4751, f. 69

Harley 3244

Along with a bestiary this book contains a number of sermons, sermon exempla and penitential texts. Pictorial evidence within suggests that it was made for a Dominican house, and many of the contents, including the bestiary, might have furnished material for the popular sermons of Dominican preachers.

The artist who illustrated this volume does not always employ traditional bestiary images, but the paintings mostly follow the text. Notably, it contains a fairly realistic rendering of an elephant, not an animal indigenous to medieval England! The artist may have seen a similar illustration of an elephant in the Chronica maiora of Matthew Paris (c. 1200-59), or may have drawn on knowledge of an elephant residing in England at the time. In 1255, Louis IX of France presented Henry III with an elephant, which was kept in the royal menagerie at the Tower of London.


Harley 3244, f. 39v
An elephant and a dragon, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century (after c. 1236), 280 x 165 mm.
Harley 3244, f. 39v

Harley 3244, f. 52
A king asleep in bed while a caladrius perches on him, a stork and a swan, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century (after c. 1236), 280 x 165 mm.
Harley 3244, f. 52

Harley 3244, ff. 58v-59
Industrious bees, doves nesting in a perindens tree while a dragon waits below, a snake and a dragon, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century (after c. 1236), 280 x 165 mm.
Harley 3244, ff. 58v-59

Harley 3244, f. 61v
An asp stopping its ears and a scitalis, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century (after c. 1236), 280 x 165 mm.
Harley 3244, f. 61v

Latin bestiary manuscripts at the British Library

Click on link to access the full record in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Additional 11283
Additional 24097
Cotton Vitellius D. i
Harley 3244
Harley 4751
Royal 2 C. xii
Royal 10 A. vii
Royal 12 C. xix
Royal 12 F. xiii
Sloane 3544



Introduction The Origins of the
Medieval Bestiary
Beast Studies and
Beast Stories
Beasts in the
Margins
Further Reading

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