A perfect example of medieval illumination
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.
A rare depiction of animals in the medieval world
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.
The age of faith: a mirror to reveal God’s purpose
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.
Unravelling an absorbing and very unusual history
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 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 dinasties?
A sparkling commentary from one of England's leading medievalists
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.
An extract from the introduction
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. Almos nothing is derived from direct or recent observations of nature.
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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]