Medieval beasts in the stacks

For this year’s Halloween post, I wanted to share some of my favorite books from the rare book collection in Special Collections. I am not a Medieval scholar, but I do enjoy looking through the various books on animals, mythical or real, from the Middle Ages. Books of beasts, or Bestiary, went beyond use as a scientific observation of animals. Rather the descriptions included for each animal where meant as elaborate metaphors littered with colorful language. The most well known were written in Latin and included stories as well as illustrations.
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Book of Beasts: a facsimile of MS Bodley 764. Written in Latin in the 13th Century. PR275.B47 H36 2008
 Though we now know that a considerable amount of animals described in these books are mythical in nature, Bestiaries more importantly served to reinforce teachings on virtue and proper behavior. Each animal’s characteristics were tied to a purpose in the moral of each story. For example, ants, known for creating elaborate underground dwellings and working in unison, reflect on the importance of people working together for a common good. Graceful swans are described as singing a beautiful song before their death, or swan song. Given that these books were vested in Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, it is understandable to see why Bestiaries were second in popularity to the Bible.
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Illustration of a Fairy Dog from A Scottish bestiary: the lore and literature of Scottish beasts (1978) from the Scottish Collection. QL259.T48 1978
Drawing on the tradition of Medieval Bestiaries, contemporary works are meant to capture whimsy and intrigue. A Child’s Bestiary, found in our Shaw Collection of children’s book, was published in the late 1970s. The book’s purpose is to educate children on a variety of animals found in different countries. Each entry contains a humorous description or poem followed by a drawing of the animal.
There are also fictional Bestiaries based on popular media such as the magical creatures in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them from the Harry Potter book series. As well as a fantasy bestiary created by graphic designer Swann Smith for the MTV series Teen Wolf. 
For further reading on Medieval Manuscripts in general, take a look at the research guide created by our Rare Book Librarian Kat Hoarn. There is also a fun website dedicated to sorting through metaphorical descriptions of the animals in Medieval Bestiaries.

About Britt Farley

Britt Farley, MLIS is the Special Collections Associate in Special Collections and Archives at Florida State University Libraries.

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