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Medieval Beasts and Bestiaries

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There were many mountain mice, exquisite scale models of those he had seen on the Forbidden Island, each about the size of a bumble bee. There were little miracles of grace which looked more like horses than anything he had yet seen on this world, though they resembled proto-hippos . . . ~C.S. Lewis, Perelandra

Does this animal look like a panther?  Borges would say yes and here's why...

About Bestiaries in General and Medieval Bestiaries in Particular

Does that red and white striped creature with the blue leg look like a panther to you? No? But Borges would say yes, it does. Let's talk a bit about the nature of bestiaries.

You might think that a bestiary is a simple natural compendium of beasts but you would actually think wrong. Ancient bestiaries were more than natural histories, with the first known bestiary in the form we know it being the Physiologus ("Natural History"), an anonymous second century Greek summary of ancient knowledge and wisdom about animals that drew heavily from descriptions by Pliny the Edler, Aristotle (Historia Animalium), Solinus and other naturalists.

But the Physiologus also draws morals from the behaviors and attributes of the beasts (and plants and even rocks). The behaviors and attributes may be manufactured, not only for mythological creatures for whose existence there is no evidence but also for such real creatures, such as the salamander who is not born from fire. The Physiologus supports its moral conclusions with quotes from the Bible (although there are no cats mentioned in the Bible). In fact, the Physiologus was probably the most widely-distributed book in Europe after the Bible.

By the Middle Ages, bestiaries were luxury books, not unlike the gift books of the Golden Age of Illustration in the late nineteenth and early 20th century. Beautify bound animal moral stories (fables), such as the widely-illustrated Aesop's Fables (from the Greek Aesopica from between 620 and 564 BC) came much later, via oral tradition and poetry.

Bestiary Families

Bestiary scribes so lifted text from previous bestiaries that Latin Bestiaries are divided into four families based on the version of the Physiologus from which they based their own bestiary, with subcategories later created by scholars and providing some possible further clarification, depending on how far down the bestiary rabbit hole you wish to go. While not divided based on chronology, there is a general chronological progression from first family bestiaries (10th - 13th century) through the fourth family (15th century).

It's Just My Nature: The Struggle Between Good an Evil Continues in Medieval Bestiaries

Now back to Borges and that panther: That panther is from the Bestiary of Anne Walshe, a proper second family bestiary that I'll be adding here in October. Borges analyzed the Exeter Book, an English version of the Physiologus that contains only the panther, the whale, and the partridge, and quotes from it that the panther is the age-old enemy of the dragon. The panther, a multicolored beast, with only the dragon for its enemy, sleeps off its meal for three days, waking with a sweet-smelling roar that draws other animals to it. The dragon, however, stays away because it is afraid. Anne's bestiary follows a chapter order common to second family bestiaries, and the Cambridge Bestiary in particular, provides another clue as to the identity of the striped pig-like creature as a panther, for those of us who do not read or write Latin.

Having a fondness for dragons, I am heartened that the Anne's striped panther does not utterly vanquish the dragon we see retreating back into the underworld. I myself am particularly at home in the underworld of strange and mythological creatures of the imagination, whose intentions and nature are not entirely known. Here I can pursue the pressing questions of agency, right action, why the panther's leg is blue, and the problem of The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare (video).

Bestiary Tiles by Bestiary

Only The Bestiary of Anne Walshe tiles are based on a proper bestiary. The other bestiaries are divided by species, more as a natural history, and then subcategorized chronologically as the collection grew.

The Bestiary of Anne Walshe

Dragons and Other Medieval Pets

Unicorns