Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bestiaries and the Book of Nature

In descriptions of medieval bestiaries, we are often told that the texts make extensive use of symbolism.  That the animals described within act as symbols for particular moral truths that the authors wish to convey.  For instance, White’s appendix to The Bestiary touches on this at length.  On the surface, this seems to be a wholly reasonable supposition.  Surely the authors of these bestiaries did not simply intend to communicate bare biological facts or amusing anecdotes about various creatures,[1] as is evidence through their constant references to Scriptural and theological themes.  However, I would like to argue that classifying the contents of a bestiary as merely symbolic obscures the true medieval understanding of animals, and nature as a whole, by imposing modern distinctions between humanity, nature, and God onto a medieval world of thought which does not share them.  In fact, the bestiaries, of which I’ll particularly focus on the Aberdeen Bestiary, provide one of the best means of elucidating exactly how medieval thinkers understood nature, particularly the immanence and manifestation of God within the created world.
                The twelfth century, in which the making of bestiaries flourished and during which both the Aberdeen and White-translate bestiaries were produced, was a time of intense speculation on nature – and God’s relation to nature – as a renewed interest in the Timaeus, the influence of John Scottus Eriugena’s writings and translations, and the general intellectual culture exemplified by the School of Chartres[2] combined to create a view of nature perhaps best summed up by the oft-quoted verse from Alain of Lille’s Rhythmus de Incarnatione Christi:
Every creature in the world is, for us, like a book and a picture and a mirror[3]
This mirror of creation reflected not only humanity, understood as a microcosm of larger creation, but also the divine revelation, which was revealed within every created thing.  Although the idea of the Book of Nature, which complimented and supplemented the book of Scripture, had existed since the earliest days of Christian theology,[4] it was in the twelfth century that the concept reached its apex within speculative theology. 
                We can clearly see this textual understanding within the Aberdeen Bestiary, particularly in the fascinating passage which opens the discussion of the dove:
It is my intention to paint a picture of the dove, whose wings are sheathed in silver and whose tail has the pale colour of gold (see Psalms, 68:13). In painting this picture I intend to improve the minds of ordinary people, in such a way that their soul will at least perceive physically things which it has difficulty in grasping mentally; that what they have difficulty comprehending with their ears, they will perceive with their eyes.

I want not only to depict the dove by creating its likeness, but also to describe it in words, to reveal the picture through the text, so that the reader who is unimpressed with the simplicity of the picture may at least take pleasure in the moral content of the text.[5]
Here, the text and image of the dove are inextricable bound up within each other.  The textual description of the dove creates an image in the reader, an image which communicates spiritual truths directly to the soul.  Thus, the image of the dove was able to communicate truths, generally rendered as text within the viewer.  The construction of these sorts of image/text mental associations was a key part of medieval learning and thought,[6] and the bestiaries appear to extend these constructions from mental and artistic images into the natural world.  The textual character of nature is further reinforced by the authors’ focus on etymologies, the very name of a creature, even in the non-Adamaic languages[7] of Greek and Latin, communicate deeper truths about the animals themselves.  This works as both a helpful mnemonic for the medieval reader and as an illustration for us of the fundamentally textual character of the medieval understanding of the world. 
                The idea of nature as text is further emphasized by the understanding that Scriptural truths are embodied by the various creatures described within the bestiary.  For instance:
 As a goat grazes in the valleys, our Lord grazes on the church; the good works of Christian people are the food of him who said: 'For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink.' (Matthew, 25:35) By the valleys of the mountains are understood the churches spread through different regions, as it says in the Song of Songs: 'My beloved is like a roe or young hart.' (Song of Solomon, 2:9)[8]
I believe the term embody is particularly appropriate here.  The goat[9]does not merely stand for, merely symbolize, the truth of Scripture.  Scripture itself is manifested in the nature and actions of the goat.  Note the repeated construction used by the author.  The author does not use the form “Animal X does Y, which symbolizes Christ/A certain spiritual truth/some moral lesson.”  Instead, the text repeatedly takes the form “Animal X does Y, in the same way Christ….”  The animals’ actions and nature, therefore, can be understood as reflections of the divine truth, particular instantiations of a greater universal truth that may be read by the believer who is equipped with the proper knowledge, of the sort communicated within the bestiary.[10]
This understanding is especially in keeping with the neoplatonic interpretation of creation popular at the time, especially as filtered through the writings of Eriugena, which posited creation as a sort of ongoing manifestation of the divine reasons,[11] a perpetual and infinite theophany.  Thus in the minds of twelfth century theologians, understanding creation enables us to understand, at least in some way, the nature of God.  The divine reasons were understood as contained, as per the prologue to the Gospel of John, within Christ.  Hence, when the author of the Aberdeen Bestiary says:
our Lord Jesus Christ, the true panther[12]
he means it literally.  Within Christ is the true, universal Panther[13] made manifest within particular panthers in the created world.  Given all of this, to regard the animals depicted in medieval bestiaries as merely symbols, or merely means to express moral, as well as biological,[14] truths seems to be missing the deeper point.  Moreover, it seems to be drawing a distinction between God[15]and nature, which is simply not present within the text.  God is supremely immanent in the nature of the twelfth century.  Thus, the animals are not symbols, they are reflections, manifestations of divine truth in physical form.  To use an analogy from literature, C.S. Lewis always insisted that Aslan was not merely an analogy of Christ.  Aslan literally was Christ, albeit Christ in a different world.  In the same way, the animals as described in the medieval bestiary, and I’d argue the actual living creatures walking[16] around in the physical world, were not merely understood as analogies of deeper truths, but instantiations of the divine truth itself.


[1] Although they certainly did both these things.
[2] If such a thing can be said to have existed.  Scholars are divided, with Richard Southern insisting that it did not, while others such M.D. Chenu and Louis Dupre disagree.   See Scholastic Humanism and Unification of Europe, Man God and Society in the Twelfth Century, and Passage to Modernity respectively.
[3] Or, in the original: Omnis mundi creatura quasi liber et pictura nobis est, et speculum
[4] Perhaps the earliest statement of the concept was in Romans 1: 20: “20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature,(B) have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Later, the idea can be found in the sayings of the desert fathers, who did not need Scripture for they had nature, and the writings of Origen and Augustine, as well as many other texts. 
[5] http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/25v.hti
[6] Here I’m directly borrowing from Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought : meditation, rhetoric, and the making of images, 400-1200. (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and The Book of Memory : a study of memory in medieval culture (Cambridge University Press, 1990)
[7] The Adamaic language being generally understood as Hebrew during this time period.  See the relevant passage in the Aberdeen Bestiary.
[8] Scriptural citations are the translators, the original medieval audience would have undoubtedly recognized them as such, however.
[9] Or the dove, the elephant, the fire stone, etc.
[10] Or, it may be better phrased, with the proper holiness and faith, as in the case of the saints.  The distinction between knowledge of this sort and faith/holiness may not be all that clear cut during this period. 
[11] Logoi or rationes (or both), depending on who you ask
[12] http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/9r.hti
[13] To put it in other terms, the Platonic ideal of the panther
[14] What White refers to, rather anachronistically, as “scientific” truths.
[15] Not to mention human nature, which is also often related to the behavior of animals
[16] Or swimming, flying, or crawling


  1. Have a look at Hugh of Folieto's Aviarium as a source for the "painting" of the dove.


  2. Do you think when observation and experimentation began to play a larger role within natural philosophy as present within Aristotle's de Animalibus that medieval culture began to distance themselves from their previous idea of animals acting as reflections of divine truth and instead began to provide animals as symbols of moral lessons and truths? Basically, does the stressing of observation distort the idea of animals reflecting divine truth?


  3. Yes, it seems like in time, animals (at least in Medieval text) forfeited their role as divine agents revealing God's plan, while taking on the role of actors in fables and fairy tales to reveal moral lessons.

  4. A beautiful discussion of the way in which medieval Christians looked to creation as a mirror of theological truth! Might I offer few thoughts to take your thinking further? As I note in my first comment, the Aberdeen Bestiary would seem to be drawing fairly heavily on Hugh of Folieto's description of his picture of the dove (thus the disconnect between the text and image in the bestiary). How do we reconcile this cut-and-paste use of sources with an argument for the bestiary's larger purpose? Do we argue that some animals (e.g. the dove) are better suited for communicating spiritual truths? Probably not. But why then was the bestiary author not inspired to extend his model to the other animals in his work? Perhaps, as you show with his reading of the goat, he does. I like very much the way you put it here: "Scripture itself is manifested in the nature and actions of the goat." Yes, we are dealing with something much more powerful than simply literary symbolism or even symbolism as a way of pointing to higher truths. The animals themselves are embodiments of God's word--literally, as God the Word spoke them into existence. Thus the bestiary opens with Genesis and the account of creation. I also like your pointing us to C.S. Lewis and Aslan. Aslan is, as you say, neither an allegory nor an analogy for Christ, he is God as he interacts with his creatures in Narnia. Lewis was very sensitive to the medieval understanding of nature; it would be an interesting exercise to compare the Talking Animals of Narnia with the bestiary descriptions. As a thought.