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Books of Beasts in the British Library: the Medieval Bestiary and its context

Introduction The Origins of the
Medieval Bestiary
English Bestiaries
and their Beasts
Beast Studies and
Beast Stories
Further Reading



Beasts in the margins

Bestiary beasts in the margins of the page
Bestiary beasts as heraldic beasts

Even as production of bestiaries waned, bestiary beasts continued to inhabit the edges of the manuscript page. Creatures crowding the margins of fourteenth-century books visually allude to the habits and features ascribed to them in bestiaries and bear witness to the likelihood that these bestiary accounts were still well known. Heraldic treatises shared many of the bestiariesí sources in constructing their accounts of popular heraldic beasts and what they might signify regarding the bearers of arms. The animals that emblazon and support the shields of the late medieval English nobility had forebears in bestiaries.

Bestiary beasts in the margins of the page

By the second half of the thirteenth century, the production of bestiaries seems to have gone into decline. Bestiary creatures had not lost their appeal, however. The late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century manuscripts below are all quite luxurious books. Some we know were produced for members of the English nobility, or even royalty. None contains a bestiary text, but beasts populate their margins. Some of these beasts are fanciful hybrids or naturalistic renderings of familiar creatures, particularly birds, but details in the renderings of others of these marginal animals point to their bestiary origins.

One of these manuscripts actually contains an entire pictorial bestiary in its lower margins: the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal 2 B. vii) does not reproduce any text from an earlier bestiary, but its marginal representations of bestiary creatures follow the sequence of the Bestiaire divin of Guillaume le Clerc. As in the Smithfield Decretals (Royal 10 E. iv), whose depictions of Reynard featured in the last section, and the Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson 13), below, marginal images illustrate textual traditions whose familiarity obviated the need for any textual accompaniment.

Royal 20 D. iv, f. 168v
Along the bottom of the border a unicorn is ensnared, North-eastern France (Arras?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, 340 x 240 mm.
Royal 20 D. iv, f. 168v

Additional 24686, f. 12
Marginal scenes of a lion and a stag fighting dragons and a monkey riding a hybrid stork, England (London/Westminster), c. 1284, England (East Anglia?), c. 1297-1316, 245 x 165 mm.
Additional 24686, f. 12

Additional 24686, f. 18
Bas-de-page scene of a knight attacking a griffin, whilst a raven perches on his dead horse, England (London/Westminster), c. 1284, England (East Anglia?), c. 1297-1316, 245 x 165 mm.
Additional 24686, f. 18

Royal 2 B. vii, f. 111
Bas-de-page scene of men lighting a fire on the back of a whale, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320, 275 x 175 mm.
Royal 2 B. vii, f. 111

Royal 2 B. vii, f. 118v
Bas-de-page scene of an elephant with her foal in the water and a dragon flying above, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320, 275 x 175 mm.
Royal 2 B. vii, f. 118v

Additional 47680, f. 14v
A lion, a bull and a wolf inhabiting the border of the page, South-eastern England (London), between 1326 and 1327, 240 x 155 mm.
Additional 47680, f. 14v

Additional 47680, f. 16v
A siren between two shields in the border of the page, South-eastern England (London), between 1326 and 1327, 240 x 155 mm.
Additional 47680, f. 16v

Yates Thompson 13, f. 184v
Bas-de-page scene of a female ape with her young, South-eastern England? (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, 170 x 115 mm.
Yates Thompson 13, f. 184v

Yates Thompson 13, f. 188
Bas-de-page scene of an elephant and castle, two lions and a unicorn, South-eastern England? (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, 170 x 115 mm.
Yates Thompson 13, f. 188

Bestiary beasts as heraldic beasts

Many of the heraldic beasts that adorned and supported the arms of the medieval nobility hark back to the beasts that populate medieval bestiaries. By the late fourteenth century, treatises on heraldry had begun to circulate in England. The Tractatus de armis was written by one Johannes de Bado Aureo, possibly a name assumed by John Trevor (d. 1410/12), bishop of St Asaph, and was dedicated to Anne of Bohemia (1366-94), first queen of Richard II. Johannes draws heavily on bestiary sources like Isidoreís Etymologiae and Plinyís Naturalis historia, as well as encyclopaedias like Bartholomaeus Anglicusís De proprietatibus rerum, in his discussion of heraldic beasts and their significance. The fifteenth-century De studio militari of Nicholas Upton (c. 1400-57) draws on the heraldic material in the Tractatus de armis and on many of the same early sources. Though beasts in these heraldic treatises do not carry the Christian moral associations of their bestiary cousins, their descriptions still suggest that the choice of a heraldic creature was quite a meaningful one.

Additional 18850, f. 256v
The Duke of Bedford kneeling before Clovis, with his arms in the lower border, Central France (Paris), c. 1410-30, 260 x 185 mm.
Additional 18850, f. 256v

Royal 2 B. i, f. 7
The arms of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, in the lower border, South-eastern England (London), 2nd quarter of the 15th century (before 1447), 245 x 165 mm.
Royal 2 B. i, f. 7

Royal 15 E. iv, f. 14
Edward IV enthroned, with his royal arms of in the border, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), between 1471 and 1483, 450 x 340 mm.
Royal 15 E. iv, f. 14

Royal 18 A. xii, f. 1
Illuminated initial 'H'(ere) with the royal arms of England supported by boars, with the griffin of Salisbury in the lower margin, South-eastern England (London?), c. 1483-c. 1485, 240 x 155 mm.
Royal 18 A. xii, f. 1

Royal 20 E. vi, f. 9v
The marriage of Henry V and Catharine of Valois, with the royal arms of England supported by a red dragon and a white hound in the lower border, Northern France (Calais), 1487, Southern Netherlands and England, between 1487 and 1494, 535 x 335 mm.
Royal 20 E. vi, f. 9v




Introduction The Origins of the
Medieval Bestiary
English Bestiaries
and their Beasts
Beast Studies and
Beast Stories
Further Reading

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