August 26, 2011

Beasts at the Click of a Button

        I recently discovered several interesting on-line resources reproducing bestiaries.  Bestiaries are, of course, collections of beasts, but the medieval ones that the word "bestiary" usually implies include not only natural history, but also all sorts of symbolism, moral lessons, and what we now believe to be sheer fairy tale.  At the time there was no separation between science books and allegorical works, and nor were the "facts" ever checked with the modern scientific method.  Bestiaries seldom involved original scholarship.  Each one generally copied from previous texts.  So bestiaries frequently include both real and fictional creatures, while the information about even the real animals includes all kinds of fantastical claims.  This, of course, is half of what makes bestiaries so much fun.
        The second half of the fun is the illustrations, sometimes whimsical, sometimes bizarre, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque…  The small paintings depicting the array of critters are often painstakingly done, but clearly owe more to imagination and convention than to direct observation.
        Since bestiaries were made in the medieval period, (being especially popular around the twelfth century), it isn't too easy to get a chance to look at one.  That's why I'm so excited to have discovered several sites where bestiaries have been digitized and made available for anyone with web access to enjoy at any time.  Of course seeing art on the computer screen doesn't compare with seeing it in the original, but it sure beats not being able to see it at all!
        First the Aberdeen Bestiary.  This site includes the entire book, every page reproduced, with all kinds of information about what you're looking at.  You can see details about how the book was made and illustrated and used, plus there are translations and commentary on the text, so you'll be sure not to miss any of the valuable information on the reproductive habits of hyenas or how to vanquish a basilisk.
        The National Library of Medicine also offers some wonderful digital books, including a cool Islamic bestiary, The Wonders of Creation, from the mid thirteenth century.  It has a very different selection of creatures from the western bestiaries, including the zodiac and lots of jinns and demons.
        The National Library of Medicine also gives us Conrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium from 1551.  This was a Renaissance attempt to bridge from the medieval bestiary to "modern" science, and while the scientific accuracy quotient of this book is a fair bit higher than earlier bestiaries, it still includes plenty of distinctly fantastical illustrations.  Also, it's illustrated with woodcuts: Bonus!  Double score!
        The University of Houston Digital Library includes a wonderful collection of illustrations from Edward Topsell's History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents.  This book was published in 1658 and was heavily based on Gesner's Historiae Animalium, but with lots of additional woodcuts.  It often has two depictions of the same animal - what look to be older and newer versions.
        Finally here's a really great site, The Medieval Bestiary, that includes images from several different manuscripts.  There are good explanations, and you can sort by animal or by source.  What a wealth of art and information!

[Pictures: Yale, paint on vellum from a French manuscript, c.1450, Museum Meermanno;
Dragon fighting an elephant, paint and gold on vellum from the Aberdeen Bestiary, c.1200;
Simurgh, paint on vellum from Kitab Aja’ib al-makhluqat wa Gharaib al-Mawjudat aka The Wonders of Creation, mid-13th century;
Sea monster, woodcut from Historiae Animalium, 1551;
Su, woodcut from History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658 (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library);
Dragon, paint on vellum from Deidis of Armorie, Scotland, late 15th century, British Library.]

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