In the Middle Ages, men believed that studying animals allowed them to read God's plan as written in the natural world. Nowhere was this belief more prevalent than in England, where scribes toiled to produce some of the most enchanting and beautiful books of the age.
This bestiary, dating from the mid-13th century and now housed in the Bodleian Library, is one of the finest produced in England, where there was a passion for these richly ornamented depictions of the natural world. Several bestiaries have survived the centuries, some heavily ornamented in gold, some as large as church Bibles, but of them all, this exquisite manuscript is the most charming. A perfect example of medieval illumination, it is clearly the work of a master artist and scribe - though richly ornamented in worked gold, the delicacy of the painting and the affectionate intimacy of the animal scenes are never overwhelmed. Opening it now, we can sense the pleasure the artist took in this work and the delight with which the completed manuscript was first received.
Many bestiaries followed a set style of illumination. This one is unusual for including many scenes of animals interacting with the human world, from the noble lady out hawking with her servants to a knight on horseback abducting a tiger cub. The artist clearly has an affection for animals he knows well: the cat is shown curled up close to a fire, gazing longingly at a bird (in what is thought to be the first representation of a birdcage in English art) and proudly carrying a dead mouse. The size of the section devoted to birds is also exceptional - this was one of the first bestiaries to focus on them so heavily, an early indication perhaps of the English passion for ornithology.
Bestiaries were not intended simply to delight and amuse. Rather they were at once studies of natural science and theological works exploring God's purposes as revealed through creation. Since symbolic meanings were more important than true observations, there are many entertaining errors, but it is astonishing how much is accurate. The scribes, artists and learned men making bestiaries would not have seen such exotic animals as crocodiles or camels themselves, but they repeated many details correctly: male crocodiles help incubate eggs and camels survive more than three days without water.
The noted medievalist and writer M. R. James saw the Bestiary as one of the most influential of all illuminated books: ranking with the Psalter and the Apocalypse in popularity, its legacy is to be found in medieval art as well as echoing through literature for centuries. The earliest bestiaries were probably made in monasteries for the instruction of the monks, but there are fascinating clues that this one, made in about 1250, was an exception.
The book is so lavish it seems likely to have been destined for an aristocratic home rather than the cloister. Christopher de Hamel persuasively suggests in his introduction that the entertaining stories and slyly humorous illustrations may have been designed as a first learning book for a noble child. The miniature of the elephant shown on the enclosed sample page even hints at who the patron might be. The central shield hung from the howdah has been identified as the coat of arms of Roger de Mohaut, an ambitious knight who might well have commissioned such a work. If so, this was one of the first manuscripts to use heraldry to flatter a patron - a practice that later became standard.
From here, tracing the manuscript's history becomes more uncertain: the principal seat of the Mohaut family was the castle to which the Dowager Queen Isabella was sent after 1330. A patron and connoisseur of fine books, she was certain to have enjoyed the bestiary if it was here. An important clue exists in the miniature of three eagles, which seems to have been repainted with golden fleur-de-lis, the coat of arms of Queen Isabella. An opening page bears an inscription of an unusual name, 'Gaunte'. Does this trace the book's ownership to Isabella's grandson, the great John of Gaunt, ancestor of both the Lancastrian and Tudor dynasties?
Christopher de Hamel has been Donnelley Fellow Librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, since 2000. For 25 years before that he was responsible for sales of illuminated manuscripts at Sotheby's. His many books include A History of Illuminated Manuscripts and The Book, A History of the Bible.
Specially commissioned by The Folio Society, de Hamel has written a detailed introduction providing a context for bestiaries in general and Bodley 764 in particular. Filled with fascinating revelations regarding the manuscript's provenance and style, this work is an ideal companion with which to decode the manuscript. For this limited edition commentary volume Richard Barber has significantly revised and expanded the translation he produced for The Folio Society in 1992.
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
by Christopher de Hamel,
Donnelley Fellow Librarian, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Dear Folio Society Member
Years ago, I wrote my doctorate in Duke Humfrey's Library in the Bodleian in Oxford, working there on manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is a beautiful setting, in a fifteenth-century room shelved with books collected by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613) and his successors. The medieval bestiaries in the Bodleian Library are among the most famous and most frequently exhibited of the Library's treasures. Later, when I joined Sotheby's in 1975, the first manuscript I ever catalogued for sale was a fourteenth-century bestiary. It sold for £60,000. In 1990 I catalogued another bestiary at Sotheby's, this one from the thirteenth century. It made £2,700,000, still the most expensive English manuscript ever sold at auction. Ten years later still, I joined Corpus Christi College, and two very fine illustrated bestiary manuscripts entered my care. They are, without doubt, among the most captivating and utterly irresistible manuscripts of the Middle Ages.
Bestiaries purport to describe and illustrate all the known creatures of the world, animals, birds and fish. Sometimes these were familiar to the original readers, for the books include dogs, cats, horses, hedgehogs, foxes, and so on. Others were mysterious and known only by repute: elephants, tigers and crocodiles seemed as strange and improbable as unicorns, mermaids and oriental dragons, which are all recorded with equal diligence. This engaging mixture of observation and credulity is part of the charm of bestiaries. The books belong to a world long before Darwin and modern scientific inquiry, and bestiaries were certain that God must surely have made all animals exactly as they are for a particular reason, perhaps to serve as a lesson in good behaviour or to provide a parallel to some story in the Bible. These observations too are fascinating, for they give us an extraordinary insight into how the natural world was viewed and comprehended 800 years ago.
The illuminations in bestiaries contain some of the finest art of medieval England, with little scenes of forests and farmyards, peopled with wondrous animals and with busy men and woman earnestly going about their daily lives. They were painted with vegetable and mineral pigments and embellished with real gold, which still sparkles in the light.
The thirteenth-century bestiary known as Bodley MS 764, reproduced here with remarkable realism, is one of the most appealing and exquisite of English medieval books. To hold the facsimile in one's hands and to turn its pages is to recapture a lost vision of a natural world of long ago. It is a book of wonders, in every sense.
Christopher de Hamel
A Bestiary means a book of beasts, but it goes beyond animals
alone. Bodley 764 has 135 pictures of animals, including
birds, reptiles and fish. These illuminated miniatures are what
make the manuscript so infinitely appealing, for they show the
creatures of the Middle Ages, real and imaginary, living their
lives, catching and eating their prey, tending their young and
interacting with people (usually to the beasts' disadvantage).
Bodley 764 is exceptional among Bestiaries in having unusually
detailed glimpses of the human world, too, including pictures
of milking a cow (fo. 41v) and leading a donkey to a watermill
(fo. 44), or the escapades of a cat in the kitchen (fo. 51). Some
of the animals in the pictures are immediately recognisable
to us, as they would have been to the book's first owners, for
Bestiaries include many domestic and native animals, such as
horses, dogs, cats, mice and hedgehogs. Others are more exotic
and would have been known to the original readers of manuscripts
only from literary references or from the transmitted
and garbled tales of unusually adventurous medieval travellers.
These include animals such as tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses,
crocodiles and others, from Africa and Asia. Then there are the
creatures which we, with our superior modern knowledge,
now know to be fictitious: fantastic creatures like unicorns,
mermaids, bonnacons and eales. All these, too, are recorded
and illustrated in Bodley 764 with an equal diligence and a
solemn attention to detail which is utterly beguiling. The apparent
credulity and childlike naivety of these descriptions and
pictures certainly contribute to the fascination and pleasure of
viewers of Bestiaries who gather around their glass case when
such manuscripts are exhibited in the Bodleian Library.
Something under a hundred Latin Bestiaries survive from
the Middle Ages, many of them (and most of the finest) made
in England. The traditional English love of animals, both in
the home and on the hunting fields, clearly goes back very far
indeed. Almost all Bestiary manuscripts were created during a
relatively short span of time, between the mid-twelfth and the
late thirteenth centuries. Bodley 764 belongs towards the second
half of this period. The text of any Bestiary is constructed
from a careful compilation of selections and extracts from
earlier writings about animals, some of great antiquity. This
is worth emphasising at the outset, for Bestiaries, although
newly put together in the twelfth century, were actually little
more than collected anthologies from much older texts. Almost
nothing is derived from direct or recent observations of nature.
Review by joutsen on 24th Mar 2013
"Liber Bestiarum is a book of exceptional quality. Quite expensive, too, but thankfully Folio makes it possible to pay in several installments. Anyway its price shows. The book is large and heavy and t..." [read more]
Review by AliceF10 on 27th Sep 2012
"Ever since I first recieved the brochure for this stunning facsimile I knew I must have a copy. I'm a lover of all things to do with natural history, particularly birds, and this, along with the socie..." [read more]