The Medieval Book of Beasts
- Course Code
- ENAM 0990
- Course Type
- Subject Credit
- Course Availability
Each seminar runs only subject to sufficient student demand. Have you ever suspected someone of crying crocodile tears? Or perhaps you have heard of halcyon days? Or have a belief that elephants are afraid of mice? All of these ideas, and so many besides, have their origin in the medieval bestiary, and its source, The Physiologus. The bestiaries are an influential genre of medieval writing that instructs readers to look at the natural world like a book and to interpret animal characteristics as symbols of spiritual truth. Upwards of fifty different bestiary manuscripts survive, widely translated into vernacular European languages (especially Middle English and Middle French), as well as Latin. Each of these is a catalogue of real and imaginary beasts, trees and stones, providing morals on the basis of their characteristics. Bestiaries vary in richness of illumination, some made as intricate devotional tools, some for private display of wealth, and some appear to have been illustrated with illiterate audiences in mind. The images accompanying the text are part of the fundamental function of these books, and many of these narrative images were copied and survive on their own in other places, such as carvings, statues and buildings across Europe (one famous example being the London Underground Station, Elephant & Castle).
Bestiaries can be fascinating because of their illuminations (which are often fantastical and glorious) or the strangeness of the moralistic stories they tell about animals. In this course we will see how their influence goes far deeper than this, exploring the workings of nature as sign in medieval culture, the social history of ‘animal stories’, the bestiaries as a window into the intricacies of medieval textual transmission, and the influence of the bestiary on the forms in which natural scientific knowledge is expressed. Whilst the ‘heyday’ of the Latin bestiary in Western Europe (especially England) was in the 12-13th centuries, they depended upon earlier sources, especially the Physiologus (Alexandria translated into Latin c. 2-4th Century) and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (8th Century), and new bestiaries were made throughout the later medieval period. Through weekly seminars focusing on specific bestiary manuscripts and related texts, this course will examine the evolving bestiary across the full medieval period and provide an opportunity to consider its echoes today. We will approach the bestiary with a global perspective and encourage intersectional consideration of these texts in relation to contemporary identities.
Students will work with bestiaries in many languages, including Latin, Old and Middle English, Middle French. This course will also make use of the rich resources of the special collections of the Oxford college libraries and Bodleian collections, including detailed digital facsimiles.