The Bestiary, or book of beasts, is by far the most famous medieval text on natural history. It is an account of all the known animals and birds of the world, including those then believed to exist, like unicorns and yales, with arresting descriptions of their habits and characteristics. Some chapters have instructions on how to hunt and trap the animals. Many also include the reasons why God created each creature: these were sometimes practical (as food for mankind, or as beasts of burden) but most animals were credited with specific characteristics divinely given to them to be coded allegories or even prophecies of God's plan for the world, from the Fall of Man to the Last Judgement. It is a fascinating and revealing way of looking at the natural world, in an age before Darwin or zoology, and it is a fundamental text for understanding the symbolism of medieval art and literature.
Despite its engaging credulousness, "A Bestiary is a serious work of natural history, and is one of the bases upon which our own knowledge of biology is founded, however much we may have advanced since it was written. There is no particular author of a Bestiary. It is a compilation, a kind of naturalist's scrapbook, which has grown with the additions of several hands. Its sources go back to the most distant past, to the Fathers of the Church, to Rome, to Greece, to Egypt, to mythology, ultimately to oral tradition which must have been contemporary with the caves of Cromagnon" (T. H. White, The Book of Beasts, 1954, p.231). The texts derive from early Christian allegory, especially Ambrose and Isidore of Seville, and from classical sources, such as Pliny and above all the anonymous Greek Physiologus, which means 'scientist', translated into Latin. Most Bestiaries are in Latin, many of them made in England. About 65 are known. The oldest date from the first half of the twelfth century, most are thirteenth-century, and they were rarely made after the early fourteenth century, except as curiosities.
There exist also a number of French translations, infinitely rarer than the Latin texts, which suggest an audience which may have included women. One version is early twelfth-century, by Philippe de Thaun, and three translations date from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, those by Gervase, Guillaume le Clerc, and Pierre de Beauvais, the compiler of the present text. Pierre's translation is especially close to the original Physiologus and it includes a number of animals not found in the Latin texts, such as the cricket, titmouse and orphan bird. Most of what can be deduced on Pierre himself derives from the prologue, fol.1r here. He says he has translated the Bestiary "de latin en romauns" by command of Philipon the bishop, which must be Philippe de Dreux, bishop of Beauvais, elected in 1175, consecrated in 1187, who died in 1218. According to Mermier (Bestiaire de Pierre de Beauvais, 1977), the present manuscript adds the unique information that the bishop twice went to Palestine and was later taken prisoner by the English. Pierre de Beauvais is also known as the author of a number of vernacular saints' lives and chronicles in Picard dialect.
There are two recensions of Pierre's text, the so-called long version (the present text, in 71 chapters) and an abbreviated version in 38 chapters. The traditional explanation is that the longer version was the original, later abridged, but in 1980 Claudi Rebuffi pointed to various phrases in the text of the longer version which seem to quote the Image du Monde of Gossuin de Metz, which was not completed until 1246 ('La redazione rimaneggiata del Bestiaire di Pierre de Beauvais: Problemi di cronologia', In ricordo di Cesare Angelini, Studi di letteratura e filologia, 1980, pp.22-33). If this is right, the author cannot be Pierre de Beauvais himself, unless he lived a remarkably long time. The short version is known in four manuscripts only (one in the Grand Séminaire in Malines, three in the Bibliothèque nationale de France). The longer version is known in five manuscripts and a fragment. In probable order of date, they are:
1. Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, ms. 3516, late 1260s.
2. The present manuscript, probably c.1285, and, if the text was finished after 1246, close to the original date of composition.
3. A fragment of two leaves only in Frieburg im Breisgau (UB. 979, ms.f), late thirteenth century.
4. Montpellier, Faculté de Medecine, ms. H.437, dated 1340-41, incomplete.
5. Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, ms. II.6978, fifteenth century (bought in the Aldenham sale in these rooms, 22 March 1937, lot 245, and not noticed in most literature on the Bestiaire of Pierre de Beauvais)
6. Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Cod. Vat.Reg.lat. 1323, dated 1475
The shorter version was edited by Guy Mermier in 1977. For thirty years he has been planning an edition of the longer text, being frustrated, as he says, by the disappearance of the present manuscript, which is potentially the most important witness to the text. He writes (Le bestiaire, 1977), "aujourd'hui en possession d'un collectioneur américain non encore identifié"; and (Beasts and Birds, 1989), "my work has been considerably delayed by the fact that the fourth manuscript ... has totally disappeared after the sale ... at Sotheby. About twenty years have elapsed since my search and eventual discovery of the manuscript that is now lost again"; and (Medieval Book of Beasts, 1992), "This manuscript ... has totally disappeared from the public domain. The new owner has always refused to be identified. The manuscript has beautiful illuminations. Because of the disappearance of this manuscript my planned new edition of Pierre's Bestiary, long version, has been considerably delayed". There is now finally a version, based on a doctoral thesis, without access to the present manuscript, edited by C. A. Baker, Étude et edition critique de la version longue du 'Bestiaire' attribué à Pierre de Beauvais, Rutgers State University of New Jersey, 2004.
"Bestiaries hardly exist in private hands nowadays" (E. G. Millar, A Thirteenth Century Bestiary, Roxburghe Club, 1958, p.1). Two French illustrated Bestiaries made in France have been sold at auction in the last century, in the Dyson Perrins and Syon College sales in these rooms, 9 December 1958, lot 7, and 13 June 1977, lot 72. Both are now in the Ludwig Collection in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The Northumberland Bestiary was sold in these rooms, 29 November 1990, lot 101, for the highest price ever paid for an English manuscript; it too has recently been purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The only other Bestiaries known to be in private hands, one thirteenth- and one fourteenth-century, both illustrated with line drawings, are now in the library at Wormsley (The Wormsley Library, A Personal Selection by Sir Paul Getty, K.B.E., 2 ed., 2007, pp.30-32, no.11, and now pp.282-3, no.107). No others are recorded outside public collections. The present Bestiary is very probably the last that could ever again be offered for sale.
The manuscript opens on fol.1r, "Chi commenche li livres qu'apele bestiairee et pour chou est il apeles ensi k'il parole des natures des biestes ..."; and it ends on fol.50v, "che k'il auront deservi u bien u mal. Explicit hic liber scriptor sit crimine liber".
The manuscript has 72 rectangular pictures inset into the text. The style belongs in the clearly defined group of manuscripts associated with the Master of the Livre de Madame Marie, painter of Paris, BnF, ms. n.a. fr.16251 (reproduced in facsimile by A. Stones, Le livre d'images de Madame Marie, 1997), and his collaborator "Henri l'enlumineur", who signed BnF, ms. fr.412. For the group, see F. Avril in L'Art au temps des rois maudits: Philippe le Bel et ses fils, 1285-1328, 1998, pp.294-98, nos.199-201, and Stones, pp.16-24. Characteristic features of the workshop include the deep blue or pompeian red grounds and the very striking faces in profile, with big eyes, flat foreheads and tiny mouths, sometimes with jutting chins (as here, for example, on fols.25v, 29v, 30r, etc.); even many animals share these characteristics. The artists probably worked in Mons, possibly Cambrai, partly under the patronage of Gauthier d'Enghein and his well-read third wife, Marie de Rethel (d.1315). The workshop specialised in secular texts, romances of chivalry, wonders of the orient (BnF, ms. fr.15106), another Bestiary (BnF, ms. fr.14970), Richard de Fournival's Bestiaire d'Amour (BnF, ms. fr. 412), and similar texts. The group even includes another French language Bestiary, Douai, ms.711, from Anchin Abbey (Stones, fig.18). The region is adjacent to Picardy, where Pierre de Beauvais himself worked. The miniatures are:
1. Folio 1r, Pierre de Beauvais seated at his desk, 7 lines, with the translator's prologue.
2. Folio 1r, The Lion ("lyons"), 7 lines, apparently licking its cubs to bring them to life.
3. Folio 1v, The Antelope ("antula"), 7 lines, which the hunter has chased into the herecine bushes which grow beside the river Jordan; the creature's saw-like horns become entangled and the hunter can spear it.
4. Folio 2r, The Flying Fish ("serra"), 7 lines, a flying serpent which follows a ship at sea but cannot keep up the pace and falls behind, like the follies of the world which are safely overtaken in the voyage of a man's life.
5. Folio 3r, Fire Stones ("turobolem"), 8 lines, which are male and female and are inert if they are kept apart but which burn everything if they are brought together.
6. Folio 3v, The Calandrius ("calandre"), 9 lines, mentioned in Deuteronomy as a bird one should not eat, which settles on the bed of an ill man and, by turning to face him, as here, takes on the man's sickness and allows him to recover.
7. Folio 4r, The Viper ("guivre"), 8 lines, a female dragon which is inseminated when the male places his head inside her mouth, and when the act is complete she bites his head off.
8. Folio 4v, The Pelican ("pellican"), 8 lines, the mother pelican in its nest pecking blood from its own breast to revive its three chicks which their father has accidentally killed.
9. Folio 5r, The Tiger ("tygre"), 7 lines, the hunter throwing down a mirror in front of the mother tiger (which here resembles a dragon); it will look into it, see its own reflection and mistake it for a tiger cub, and during this distraction the hunter can catch it.
10. Folio 6r, The Crane ("grue"), 9 lines, one crane sleeping at night with its head under its wing while the other, appointed as the flock's sentry, holds up a stone in is claw, so that if it should nod off to sleep the stone would drop and wake it up again.
11. Folio 6v, The Wolf ("woutre"), 8 lines, one wolf seeing a man before the man sees the wolf, thus depriving the man of speech, and another man having thrown off his clothes, which breaks the mute spell and allows him to attack the wolf.
12. Folio 7r, The Swallow ("aronde"), 7 lines, a man reaching up towards a swallow which has built its nest at the top of a tree.
13. Folio 7v, The Vulture ("voltoirs"), 7 lines, the vast vulture perching of the knees of a man's dead body, which it is about to eat.
14. Folio 8r, The Asp ("apis"), 9 lines, a snake charmer singing to an asp as it lies at the foot of a balm tree, and the creature placing one ear on the ground and blocking its other ear with its tail, so that it cannot hear the music.
15. Folio 9r, The Cricket ("crisnon"), 8 lines, two crickets which love singing so much that they continue to chirrup even while burning in an oven.
16. Folio 9r, The Raven ("corbiar"), 9 lines, a raven turning away from its newly-hatched white chicks in their nest, for it does not recognise its own offspring until they too become black.
17. Folio 10r, The Harpy ("arpie"), 9 lines, a winged creature with a human face, killing a man.
18. Folio 10v, The Nightingale ("lonsignous"), 8 lines, the bird on a tree top singing to herald the dawn.
19. Folio 11r, The Peacock ("paons"), 8 lines, the beautiful peacock which never sleeps at night.
20. Folio 12r, The Woodpecker ("espec"), 8 lines, the bird flying down with grass to make a nest in a crevice in the trunk of a tree, which it has plugged with a special herb which grows at the foot of the tree.
21. Folio 12v, The Alerion ("aleryous"), 9 lines, the largest bird in the world; at any time, there is only one pair and when the female is 60 years old it hatches chicks and the parents at once drown themselves in the sea, leaving another bird to care for the young.
22. Folio 13v, The Eagle ("aigle"), 8 lines, the aged eagle refreshing its weakened eyes by visiting a fountain, into which it will plunge itself three times.
23. Folio 14r, The Night Owl ("nicticorax"), 8 lines, the noctural bird which grows weak at the first glimpse of sunrise.
24. Folio 14v, The Siren ("seraine"), 9 lines, three sirens, half-human and half-fish, like mermaids, playing musical instruments in the sea and luring a sailor to his death.
25. Folio 15r, The Hoopoe ("hupelot"), 8 lines, the hoopoe tending its young which later, at the top of the picture here, care for their aged parents in turn.
26. Folio 16r, The Cow ("vage"), 9 lines, illustrated here with the legend of Juno, wife of Jupiter, who turned her husband's mistress Io into a cow, entrusted to the care of the giant Argus; in revenge, Jupiter sent Mercury to play music to Argus until he fell asleep, when Mercury killed him.
27. Folio 16v, The Phoenix ("fenix"), 7 lines, the 500-year-old bird plunging itself into flames so that it can be reborn.
28. Folio 17v, The Parrot ("papegais"), 8 lines, showing the two kinds of parrot sitting on trees, the larger fierce species with three toes, shouting here, and the smaller mild-mannered type with six toes.
29. Folio 18r, The Ant ("formi"), 8 lines, ants marching across a landscape in military formation.
30. Folio 18v, The Ostrich ("ostrice"), 8 lines, the flightless bird laying its egg on the ground only when the star Virgilia is in the sky, shown at the upper right here.
31. Folio 19r, The Hedgehog ("hirichons"), 8 lines, one hedgehog on the top of a vine, knocking down grapes, while its mate below rolls on its back to attach the fruit to its prickles so that they can take them to feed their babies.
32. Folio 19v, The Ibis ("ybex"), 8 lines, the carrion bird picking only at dead fish, because it does not know how to swim and cannot enter the sea to catch the fresh clean fish in the foreground.
33. Folio 20v, The Fox ("goupils"), 8 lines, the deceitful creature which has rolled in red mud and lies on its back under a tree, so that birds think it is dead and perch on it, when it will leap up and devour them.
34. Folio 21v, The Spider ("araigne"), 7 lines, a spider descending on a thread from its web suspended in the air.
35. Folio 22r, The Barnacle Goose ("arbres sour une mer ki porte oisiaus"), 7 lines, the birds which grow on trees and which, if they fall into the water, on the left here, swim away safely, but if they fall on land, on the right, will die.
36. Folio 22r, The Basilisk ("basilicot"), 8 lines, a creature with a crested head, like a cock, and the tail of a serpent, shown here with a weasel, the only animal which can kill a basilisk.
37. Folio 23v, The Tyris ("tyris"), 8 lines, the wise dragon which has draped itself in a cloth.
38. Folio 24r, The Unicorn ("unicornes"), 8 lines, the trusting aminal laying its head on the lap of a virgin, as a hunter rushes up and lances it.
39. Folio 25r, The Griffin ("grifons"), 8 lines, the strong four-footed creature with the body of a lion and and head and wings of an eagle, here pacing a mountain top.
40. Folio 25v, The Beaver ("castoires"), 7 lines, a hunter blowing his horn as a hound leaps upon a beaver, which bends round to bite off its own testicles, hoping to escape by ridding itself of the commodity most valuable to the hunter.
41. Folio 26r, The Hyena ("hienne"), 7 lines, the evil creature which prowls at night looking for dead bodies to eat, shouting in a human voice.
42. Folio 26v, The Coot ("ulica"), 5 lines, the bird which builds its nest on a stone surrounded by water.
43. Folio 27r, The Crocodile ("cocadrille"), 6 lines, being killed by a hydrus which creeps into the crocodile's mouth as it lies on the banks of the Nile and eats its way out through the crocodile's side.
44. Folio 27v, The Goat ("chievre"), 8 lines, a woolly goat leaping from a valley up into the mountains.
45. Folio 28r, The Yale ("centicore"), 8 lines, the creature with long horns which swivel independently of each other, here being attacked by a basilisk which tries to sting it between its eyes.
46. Folio 29r, The Onager ("asne sauvaiges"), 7 lines, the long-eared creature which brays 12 times every 25 March, to mark the spring equinox.
47. Folio 29v, The Monkey ("singes"), 7 lines, a hunter blowing his horn as he follows a mother monkey into a wood: she is carrying her favourite baby in her arms while the other clings to her back, but when she gets tired she will drop the one in her arms and only the less favourite baby will survive.
48. Folio 30r, The Swan ("cisnes"), 8 lines, a harpist playing to the bird so that it will join in the music, singing its beautiful swan song before it dies.
49. Folio 30v, The Owl ("huerans"), 8 lines, perching on a tomb at night.
50. Folio 31r, The Panther ("panteire"), 8 lines, the panther which has slept for three days and wakes up roaring so gracefully that all the other animals are coming to listen, mesmerised by its beauty and sweet smell.
51. Folio 32v, The Partridge ("pierteire"), 8 lines, a miniature on two tiers, each with a mother partridge and three chicks: the bird steals the eggs of other partridges and pretends they are its own, but the chicks recognise their true mother and follow her instead.
52. Folio 33r, The Aspidochelone, or Whale ("lacoine"), 8 lines, a sailor in a winged helmet has landed his boat on the whale's back and is lighting a fire in a brazier: this will wake up the whale which will plunge into the depths, drowning the man.
53. Folio 34r, The Assida ("assida"), 8 lines, a bird like an ostrich (cf. fol. 18v above) but with feet like a camel, looking here at the star Virgilia, or Pleiades, in the sky.
54. Folio 34v, The Turtledove ("tourteroele"), 8 lines, the faithful bird which pairs for life; two are shown here, one on a green tree and the other, whose mate has died, which will now perch only on a bare tree without leaves for the rest of its life.
55. Folio 35r, The Titmouse ("masenghe"), 9 lines, being trapped by two hunters: the hunters have set a snare with a dead bird which attracts the tit's relentless curiosity and so it flies down to inspect it, and the hunters pull their rope and catch it.
56. Folio 36r, The Stag ("chers"), 7 lines, the stag having found a snake has spat into the hole to draw it out and is about to kill it, either by trampling on it or eating it, after which it will need to drink fresh water to counteract the poison.
57. Folio 36v, The Salamander ("salamandre"), 8 lines, the poisonous creature that is so cold that it can extinguish a fire by entering it, as here.
58. Folio 37r, The Mole ("taupe"), 8 lines, the little creature shown above ground (incorrectly) but among the roots of two trees, which form its diet.
59. Folio 37v, The Dove ("coulons"), 8 lines, three doves on the tops of trees, with a red dove which rules those of other colours.
60. Folio 38r, The Peridexion Tree ("peridixion"), 8 lines, a tree with sweet fruit where doves may perch safely, for their enemy the dragon is frightened even of the shadow of the peridexion tree.
61. Folio 39v, The Elephant ("olyphant"), 9 lines, the mother elephant protecting its new-born baby from its great enemy, the dragon, which has flown onto the elephant's back.
62. Folio 40v, The Wild Goat ("chievres"), 9 lines, shown with the prophet Amos, the shepherd and goatherd from Judah.
63. Folio 41r, Adamant ("pierre daymant"), 8 lines, a miraculous medicinal substance formed by burning magnetic stone in a hot fire, as shown here.
64. Folio 42r, The Wolf ("leus", different from the wolf on fol. 6v), 8 lines, creeping up under cover of a tree towards a sheepfold.
65. Folio 42v, The Echeneis, or Remora ("esimis"), 8 lines, a ship being stopped by this vast fish in the Indian Ocean clinging to the hull, despite the mariner's attempts to trim the sail.
66. Folio 43r, The Dog ("chiens"), 8 lines, a dog or hound with long floppy ears.
67. Folio 43v, The Wildman and The Centaur ("homme sauvaiges" and "sagitaire"), 8 lines, a giant with a club and a centaur shooting an arrow.
68. Folio 44v, The Blackbird ("mierle"), 9 lines, the bird kept in a cage for its beautiful sonf, especially in April and May.
69. Folio 45r, The Kite ("escoulfles"), 7 lines, the bird flying in pursuit of fresh meat.
70. Folio 46r, The Muscaliet ("muscaliet"), 9 lines, a creature with the body of a hare, the legs and tail of a squirrel, and hair like a pig, shown jumping from tree to tree in pursuit of fruit.
71. Folio 47r, The Four Elements ("iiii elemens"), 8 lines, fire, a bird flying (air), a fish swimming (water) and a mole underground (earth).
72. Folio 49r, The Orphan Bird ("rafanay"), 8 lines, a sea bird with the crest of a peacock, the body of a crane, the beak of an eagle and the feet of a swan, which lays its eggs on water.
51 leaves, 184mm. by 126mm., complete, collation: i-vi8, vii3 [of 4, last cancelled], with added medieval cursive catchwords and some signatures in roman numerals (traces of a further catchword at end suggests that the volume was at one time bound with another text, but the cancelling of the fourth of four leaves in the last gathering shows that it was not written to be included with another text), old ink foliation 1-50 (followed here) omits the second leaf (as noted by Phillipps on fol.50v), 27 lines, written-space 140mm. by 89mm., ruling apparently in plummet, written in dark brown ink in a regular rounded gothic bookhand, 2-line chapter initials throughout in red or blue with penwork infill and surround in the contrasting colour, seventy-two miniatures of animals and birds, in rectangular compartments 5 to 9 lines high (mostly 8- to 9-line, approximately square, up to about 50mm. by 50mm.), painted in full colours within panel frames without gold, some wear, lower outer corner of first leaf torn away with loss of a few words of text, piece cut from lower margin of fol.21 with loss of part of 4 lines of text, a few original holes and flaws, some margins repaired with vellum, some rubbing and minor smudging affecting perhaps as many as half the miniatures to some extent (the most damaged being on fol.1r, and there are small holes in those on fols. 6r and 40v), some stains, other signs of use, generally sound (and complete) and certainly in very acceptable condition for a secular text of such date, early nineteenth-century English russia gilt
literature P. Meyer, 'Les Bestiaires', Histoire littéraire de la France, XXXIV, 1914, pp.362-90, citing present manuscript on p.384.
F. McCulloch, Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries, 1962, citing present manuscript on p.62.
G. R. Mermier, 'De Pierre de Beauvais et particulièrement de son Bestiaire: Vers un solution des problèmes', Romanische Forschungen, LXXVIII, 1966, pp.338-71, citing present manuscript on p.353, n.41.
F. McCulloch, 'L'eale et la centicore: deux bêtes fabuleuses', Mélanges offerts à René Crozet, ed. P. Gallais and Y-J. Riou, 1966, citing present manuscript on p.1172 and fig.5.
C. Rebuffi, 'Studi sulla tradizione del 'Bestiaire' di Pierre de Beauvais', Medioevo Romanzo, III, 1976, pp.165-94, citing present manuscript on p.168, "però, non è reperibile attualmente".
G. R. Mermier, Le bestiaire de Pierre de Beauvais, Version courte, 1977, citing present manuscript on p.19 and n.18.
G. R. Mermier, 'The Phoenix: Its Nature and its Place in the Tradition of the Physiologus', Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages, The Bestiary and its Legacy, ed. W. B. Clark and M. T. McMunn, 1989, pp.69-85, citing present manuscript on pp.84-5, n.88.
G. R. Mermier, A Medieval Book of Beasts, Pierre de Beauvais' Bestiary translated into English, 1992, citing present manuscript on p.xiv.
C. Baker, 'De la paternité de la Version longue du Bestiaire attribué à Pierre de Beauvais', Bestiaires médiévaux, Nouvelles perspectives sur les manuscrits et les traditions textuelles, Communications présentés au XVe Colloque de la Société internationale Renardienne (Louvain-la-Neuve, 19-22.8.2003), ed. B. Van den Abeele, 2005, pp.1-29, citing present manuscript on p.7, n.18 ("inaccessible").
B. Van den Abeele, 'Deux manuscrits inconnus du Bestiaire attribué à Pierre de Beauvais', Bestiaires médiévaux, Nouvelles perspectives (as above), 2005, pp.183-99, citing present manuscript on p.187 (known only from the sale in 1969, "mais on ignore ce qu'il en est advenu depuis") and pp.189-90 ("de grand qualité").
(1) The Bestiary was primarily a monastic text, and many early vernacular texts were associated with women. The manuscript could be from a nunnery. The lack of gold in a text of such relative opulence might suggest a Cistercian house, such as Beaupré.
(2) Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), his MS 6739, bought in London c.1834 from John Payne; Phillipps sale in these rooms, 25 November 1969, lot 454, with two colour plates; to Quaritch, for the father of the present owner.