"But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee. Speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee: and the fishes of the sea shall tell. Who is ignorant that the hand of the Lord hath made all these things?" (Job 12:7-9).
So writes Job in the Old Testament concerning the way the natural world testifies of its Creator--an idea which is also the basis of animal symbolism in the Middle Ages. But the story begins much earlier than Chaucer's day; in fact, it may begin as early as humanity itself with its rituals and his art. One need not read far in Homer to discover that certain animals were sacred to the gods and were therefore the animals appropriate for sacrifice. Even in the Old Testament certain animals, such as the bull, lamb, dove carried a special significance. As sacrificial animals these were more than the four footed beasts and birds that roamed the earth. Already they possessed a symbolic quality which pointed to some higher significance--a significance which would be drawn out and elaborated by centuries of biblical exegetes.
It was probably Aristotle, however, who was the earliest direct ancestor to the medieval bestiary itself since he was the first to collect the known "facts" of the day concerning natural history and to compile them in a systematic fashion. This great work, called the Historia animalium, claimed to be based on observed fact, but a study of it will show much superstition and folklore as well. There are others who followed in the tradition of Aristotle (Pliny in the 1st century A. D. and Solinus in the 3rd century A. D.), but clearly the next important step in the development of the medieval bestiary is The Physiologus and the development of allegorical interpretation among the Church Fathers.
These early Christian thinkers found the animal lore they inherited from antiquity particularly suited for their purposes since their real focus was not on the truth or falsity of these legends but rather on their adaptability to the teaching of Christian morals. Augustine writes that what is important is not whether the animals existed, but what they meant. The focus is clearly on doctrine.
Sometime between the second and fifth centuries A.D. an anonymous Christian writer, probably in Alexandria, compiled a book about beasts--some of them fantastic--drawing on the sources of antiquity and perhaps drawing specifically on the work of a pagan predecessor, but adding to them the tradition of allegory. In its early form The Physiologus was comprised of about fifty allegories in which each entry began with a biblical quotation, followed by a description of the animal which might in fact be entirely fanciful, followed in turn by an analogy or moral which would instruct the reader in some Christian truth. Although The Physiologus was condemned as heretical in 469 A.D. by Pope Gelasius, it is clear from history that his ban had no real effect. Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great quoted it frequently, and later Christian writers such as Isidore of Seville (7th century) and Theobaldus, Abbott at Monte Cassion (11th century) transcribed versions of it which were accepted with credibility.
In time as scribes and writer continued to copy and expand it, The Physiologus grew from its original forty-nine beasts to as many as one hundred and fifty. Along with its increased size and scope came amazing illustrations, and The Bestiary, as it came to be called, became popular not only for its interesting subject matter, but also as an intriguing picture book containing animals most people had never seen and some fabulous creatures that no one would ever see. In the later Middle Ages, three encyclopedic works stand out as significant in animal lore:
De proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De apibus by Thomas of Cantempre', and the Speculum naturale by Vincent of Beauvais. These works of the 13th century popularized the bestiary material, and Bartholomaeus Anglicus's encyclopedia incorporated virtually all known animal lore from the Middle Ages and antiquity.
Popular as they were, certainly not everyone in the Middle Ages would have had access to these hand copied bestiaries. But the common man would have many other ways of learning from the animals. Strange creatures crowded the margins of illuminated books of hours and Bible picture books, they peered out from doorways, side walls, and pews in the cathedrals, and appeared in the magnificent stained glass windows. The preacher would also frequently draw on animal stories for exempla in his sermons, and vernacular literature abounded with references to animals. Why were they so popular? Because they taught man about himself and about God's created order. Because God had created them, they spoke directly of God--especially through the elaborate allegories added by the early compilers. By studying the behavior of animals, man could see his own human qualities and motives, and he could use these moral lessons to help effect his own journey back to God.
Even a cursory look inside the pages of a bestiary reveals a fascinating world. There we learn of the mighty lion who, according to legend, sleeps with his eyes open: "In this very way, Our Lord also, while sleeping in the body, was buried after being crucified--yet his Godhead was awake." Also the lion cubs are said to be born dead and to lie there for three days before the father breathes upon them and brings them back to life. "Just so," the bestiary goes on to say, "did the Father omnipotent raise our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day."
It is equally plausible to believe the legends of the unicorn, an animal with only one horn in the middle of its forehead who cannot be caught by hunters. A virgin sitting alone in the forest is the only effective lure for the unicorn. He leaps into her lap and is thereby caught. In this legend the allegorists saw a perfect analogy for Christ:
It says that he is very swift because neither Principalities, nor Powers, nor Thrones, nor Dominations could keep up with him, nor could Hell contain him, nor could the most subtle Devil prevail to catch or comprehend him; but, by the sole will of the Father, he came down into the virgin womb for our salvation.
The examples are endless and equally fascinating. Some of the allegories relate to the legendary behavior of the beast, while others seem somewhat strained to a modern audience. But to the Middle Ages these beasts, birds, and reptiles proclaimed loudly a divinely created order and the plan of salvation. One need only read Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers to realize how many of these legends lasted well beyond the Medieval period.
In the literature and art of the period, the writers and artists may or may not have intended some of these specific Christian allegories. But very much alive in this period was a vast array of connotations which clung to these animal legends--even when they were separated from the allegories of the bestiaries. In highlighting an animal in a painting or in making a pointed reference to an animal in a poem, these medieval artists could bring to their work the connotations from popular legend. For example in the description of the Miller in the "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer characterizes the Miller by comparing his red beard to a fox or a sow. In fact, the whole description of the Miller highlights his bestial nature: he is brawny, deceitful, and coarse. From tradition and the bestiaries we learn that the pig is wild, rude and "boorish," as well as being associated with sensuality and gluttony. The fox is cunning, shrewd, and demonic. The bestiary describes the fox's habit of rolling in red mud and pretending to be dead to lure the birds. When the birds come, thinking to find a feast of dead meat, the fox jumps up and kills them. The allegory links this action to the way the Devil tricks men who live according to the flesh and who will perish in hell. Chaucer may well not have expected his audience to know all of the specifics, but he would have expected them to know the general link of the fox and the devil--a link made popular in the Reynard the Fox beast fables. By alluding to these animals Chaucer deepens his portrait of the Miller as a brute of a man who demonically deceives and exploits his customers.
Another example of the significance of animals in literature comes from the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the third fitt of this work Gawain has an agreement with his host, Bercilak, to exchange their winnings for the day. Bercilak will go out into the fields to hunt while Gawain is to remain in bed. Cleverly, the Gawain poet has set up a parallel between the three animals Bercilak hunts and the three temptations that come to Gawain in bed. The connotations of the three animals--the hind, the boar, and the fox--highlight the particular temptations Gawain must face. Among other things, the hind suggests gentleness, fidelity, and the flesh. The boar suggests prowess and fierce pride, and the fox, cunning, deceit, and the devil. There are also other possible meanings for these animals, but many critics see these animals as therefore representing the flesh, the world, and the devil--and the three temptations Gawain must face with Bercilak's wife. By being unaware of the medieval connotations of these animals, the modern reader may miss the full significance of this parallel.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus. On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa's Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Although this work is in English, it is 15th century English. Also there is no index and only a Latin table of contents. But it includes a whole range of medieval material on geography, trees, birds, and animals.
Clair, Colin. Unnatural History: An Illustrated Bestiary. New York: Abelard-Shuman, Ltd., 1967.
The text is an alphabetical listing of animals with illustrations. The text is not a direct translation of any version, but a compilation of material from a variety of sources, some medieval and some Renaissance. Although there is no documentation, he usually attributes information in a general way. The focus seems to be more on the Renaissance, but it is still helpful.
Evans, Edward Payson. Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1896.
After an opening survey covering primitive to medieval, it surveys the main texts and summarizes material on various animals. Although there are no footnotes, he generally identifies sources.
Friedmann, Herbert. A Bestiary for Saint Jerome: Animal Symbolism in European Religious Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980. 704.946 F914b
After a good general introduction on symbolism, this work focuses first on the works of art that represent Jerome. The second part is a bestiary arranged alphabetically. It includes places, sources, and suggestions for further study for each animal.
Hulme, F. Edward. Natural History, Lore and Legend. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1895.
This work tends to be somewhat popular in approach and only generally gives sources. It ranges from medieval into the Renaissance, and includes an index of animals and subjects treated.
Klingender, Francis. Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages. Ed. Evelyn Antal and John Harthan. Cambridge, Mass: The M.I.T. Press, 1971.
This work is organized around chronological development and themes in art, but there is a good index, bibliography, and notes which help to locate symbolic information about the various animals.
A Medieval Bestiary. Trans. T. J. Elliot. Boston: Godine, 1971.
This is a modern translation and edition of a Middle English version by Theobalus. It includes modern wood engravings, but the content is essentially medieval.
The Old English Physiologus. Text and Prose Trans. Albert Stanburrough Cook. Verse Trans. James Hall Pitman. Yale Studies in English 63. New Haven: Yale, 1921.
In Anglo-Saxon and modern English, this work covers three animals: the partridge, the panther, and the turtle.
McCulloch, Florence. Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. University of North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, no. 23. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
After a good description of the history of the Greek and Latin Physiologus and Latin and French bestiaries, the text includes material from the bestiary with sources. Covers a wide range of animals with sources.
Robin, P. Ansell. Animal Lore in English Literature. London: John Murray, 1932.
After a good introduction on the development of animal symbolism, the text lists the animals by topic, not alphabetically. He generally gives his sources and includes an index to make the book more useful.
Rowland, Beryl. Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism. 1973. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975. 398.369 R394a
This clearly is one of the standard sources for animal symbolism. Entries are arranged alphabetically and are thorough and well presented. The work also includes a good bibliography and index.
Rowland, Beryl. Blind Beasts: Chaucer's Animal World. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1971. (I have.)
This scholarly work focuses specifically on Chaucer's use of animals. It is organized around broad topics, but there is a good index which is useful for finding references to specific animals.
Steele, Robert. Medieval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus. London: Chatto & Windus, 1924. 901 B283m
This work contains translated selections from the original work, including material on geography, trees, birds, and animals.
Theobaldus. Physiologus of Theobaldus. Ed. Richard Morris in An Old English Miscellany. Early English Text Society 49. London: N. Trubner & Co., 1872.
This is a translation of the mid 13th century bestiary by Theobaldus from Arundel MS 292.
Vinycomb, John. Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd, 1906.
The focus of this work is somewhat different since it covers animals and fictitious creatures in English heraldry. It is organized according to animal and generally gives some reference to sources.
White, T.H. The Bestiary. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, Capricorn Books, 1960. 878.B585w
This is a good beginning source since it is a direct translation of bestiary material with helpful notes, illustrations, and bibliography. It also includes a history of bestiary material. Text is arranged alphabetically.
Child, Heather and Dorothy Colles. Christian Symbols Ancient and Modern.
Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols.
Clement, Clara Erskine. A Handbook of Christian Symbols and Stories of the Saints.
Cooper, J. C. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.
Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art.
Forstner, Dorothea. Die Welt der Symbole.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art.
Hulme, F. Edward. The History Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Christian Art.
Krischbaum, Engelbert. Lexicon der Christlichen Ikonographie.
Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend.
Reau, Louis. Iconographie de L'Art Chretien.
Sill, Gertrude Grace. A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art.
Vries, Ad de. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery.
Whittick, Arnold. Symbols, Signs and Their Meaning.
Selected Secondary Sources
Cronin. Grover. "The Bestiary and the Mediaeval Mind--Some Complexities." Modern Language Quarterly 2 (1941): 191-98.
Janson, H. W. Apes and Ape Lore in Middle Ages and the Renaissance. London: The Warburg Institute, 1952.
Varty, Kenneth. Reynard the Fox: The Fox in Medieval English Art. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1967.