The Aberdeen Bestiary, One of the Great Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, Now Digitized in High Resolution & Made Available Online

For thou­sands of years, ordi­nary peo­ple all over the world not only worked side-by-side with domes­tic ani­mals on a dai­ly basis, they also observed the wild fau­na around them to learn how to nav­i­gate and sur­vive nature. The close­ness pro­duced a keen appre­ci­a­tion for ani­mal behav­ior that informs the folk tales of every con­ti­nent and the pop­u­lar texts of every reli­gion. Our delight in ani­mal sto­ries sur­vives in children’s books, but in grown-up lan­guage, ani­mal com­par­isons tend to be nasty and dehu­man­iz­ing. The demean­ing adjec­tive “bes­tial” con­veys a typ­i­cal atti­tude not only toward peo­ple we don’t like, but toward the ani­mal world as well. Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm and Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis have become the stan­dard ref­er­ences for mod­ern ani­mal alle­go­ry.

Ear­ly lit­er­a­ture shows us a range of dif­fer­ent atti­tudes, where ani­mals are treat­ed as equals, with char­ac­ter traits both good and bad, or as noble mes­sen­gers of a god or gods rather than live­stock, mov­ing scenery, or exploitable resources.

We might refer in an east­ern con­text to the Jata­ka Tales, fables of the Buddha’s many rebirths in the human and ani­mal worlds that pro­vide their read­ers with moral lessons. In the Chris­t­ian west, we have the medieval bestiary—compendiums of ani­mals, both real and mythological—that intro­duced read­ers to a moral typol­o­gy through “read­ing” what ear­ly Chris­tians thought of as the “book of nature.”

The most lav­ish of them all, the Aberdeen Bes­tiary, which dates from around 1200, was once owned by Hen­ry VIII. Now, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Aberdeen has dig­i­tized the text and made it freely avail­able to read­ers online. Begin­ning with the key cre­ation sto­ries from the book of Gen­e­sis, the book then dives into its descrip­tions of ani­mals, begin­ning with the lion, the pard (pan­ther), and the ele­phant.

You’ll notice that these are not ani­mals that your typ­i­cal medieval Euro­pean read­er would have encoun­tered. One impor­tant dif­fer­ence between the bes­tiary and the fable is that the for­mer draws many of its beasts from hearsay, con­jec­ture, or pure fic­tion. But the intent is part­ly the same. These “were teach­ing tools,” notes Claire Voon at Hyper­al­ler­gic, and the Aberdeen Bes­tiary con­tains illus­trat­ed “lengthy tales of moral behav­ior.”

Like the sto­ries of Aesop, the bes­tiary presents impor­tant lessons, mix­ing in the fab­u­lous with the nat­u­ral­ist. As Voon describes the Aberdeen Bes­tiary:

The illus­tra­tions are impres­sive­ly var­ied, depict­ing com­mon ani­mals from tiny ants to ele­phants, as well as fan­tas­tic beasts, from the leocro­ta to the phoenix. Even the moral qual­i­ties of the hum­ble sea urchin are hon­ored with para­graphs of dis­cus­sion. Beyond this array of crea­tures, the bes­tiary details the appear­ances and qual­i­ties of var­i­ous trees, gems, and humans. Some of these may seem com­i­cal to 21st-cen­tu­ry eyes: a swarm of bees, for instance, resem­bles an order­ly line of shut­tle­cocks stream­ing into their hives. Yet oth­er paint­ings are impres­sive for their near-accu­ra­cy, such as one image of a bat that shows how its mem­bra­nous wings con­nect its fin­gers, legs, and tail. All of these rich details would have helped read­ers bet­ter under­stand the nat­ur­al world as it was defined at the time of the book’s cre­ation. 

Incred­i­bly ornate and bear­ing the marks of dozens of scrib­al hands, the book, his­to­ri­ans believe, was orig­i­nal­ly pro­duced for a wide audi­ence, then tak­en by Henry’s librar­i­ans from a dis­solved monastery. Nev­er ful­ly com­plet­ed, it remained in the Roy­al Library for 100 years after Hen­ry. “I doubt if the Tudor mon­archs took it out for a reg­u­lar read,” says Aberdeen Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Jane Ged­des. Now an open pub­lic doc­u­ment, it returns to its“original pur­pose of edu­ca­tion,” writes Voon, “although for us, of course, it illu­mi­nates more about the past than the present.” See the high res scans here.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Bizarre Car­i­ca­tures & Mon­ster Draw­ings

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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