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Related: beast - book - Middle Ages

Scythian Lamb, image unidentified

In modern times, artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Saul Steinberg have produced their own bestiaries. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a contemporary bestiary of sorts, the Book of Imaginary Beings, which collects imaginary beasts from bestiaries and fiction. Writers of fantasy fiction draw heavily from the fanciful beasts described in mythology, fairy tales, and bestiaries. [Apr 2006]


The Bestiary
An extraordinary compilation where the paradigmatic struggle between observation and vision so crucial to the Fantastic is constantly played out. By the time of the early Enlightenment, the Bestiary, like its more recnent relative the Encyclopedia, participates in the totalizing intent of a catalogue whose purpose is the scientific understanding of the world. Empirical observation banishes from these increasingly imposing tomes any creatures that have not been observed in their environment. So the unicorn and the dragon, the griffon and the sea serpent, and all their relations take refuge in the annals of folklore, until the fantastic and its adjudant, surrealism, release them once more into literary discourse from the prisons where rational inquiry had consigned them. --http://fantastic.library.cornell.edu/bestiary.php [Jun 2005]

A bestiary is a medieval book that has short descriptions of various real or imaginary animals, birds and even rocks. All of these are often accompanied by a moralising explanation and a picture (which helped educate the illiterate). This reflected the belief that the world itself was literally the Word of God, and that every living thing had its own special meaning. For example, the pelican, which was believed to tear open its breast to bring its young to life with its own blood, was a living representation of Jesus. This kind of symbolism was well known and widespread. Any animals depicted in religious art of the time were not just animals, they were symbols. This kind of bestiary symbolism was also found in church sculpture, where the familiar images would remind the viewer of the story and its allegorical meaning.

Bestiaries were particularly popular in England and France around the 12th century and were mainly compilations of earlier texts, especially the Physiologus and the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville.

The most well-known bestiary of that time is the Aberdeen Bestiary. There are many others and over 50 manuscripts survive today.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a modern day bestiary of sorts, the Book of Imaginary Beings, which collects imaginary beasts from bestiaries and fiction. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestiary [Jun 2005]

see also: grotesque - animal

Bestiaries and Their Users in the Middle Ages (1998) - Ron Baxter

Bestiaries and Their Users in the Middle Ages (1998) - Ron Baxter [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Book Description
Bestiaries were among the most popular of medieval books, often tediously and lavishly illustrated, but the conditions of their use have until now never been satisfactorily explained. Dr Baxter has undertaken extensive new research into a large corpus of bestiaries, applying modern narrative theory to their texts and images to reveal the messages encoded in them -- messages which were systematically altered as bestiaries were expanded and restructured.

About the Author
Ronald Baxter is a lecturer in medieval art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and honorary editor of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in the British Isles.

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