In the Middle Ages, men believed that studying animals allowed them to read God's plan as written in the natural world. Nowhere was this belief more prevalent than in England, where scribes toiled to produce some of the most enchanting and beautiful books of the age.
This bestiary, dating from the mid-13th century and now housed in the Bodleian Library, is one of the finest produced in England, where there was a passion for these richly ornamented depictions of the natural world. Several bestiaries have survived the centuries, some heavily ornamented in gold, some as large as church Bibles, but of them all, this exquisite manuscript is the most charming. A perfect example of medieval illumination, it is clearly the work of a master artist and scribe – though richly ornamented in worked gold, the delicacy of the painting and the affectionate intimacy of the animal scenes are never overwhelmed. Opening it now, we can sense the pleasure the artist took in this work and the delight with which the completed manuscript was first received.
A Rare Depiction of Animals in the Medieval World
Many bestiaries followed a set style of illumination. This one is unusual for including many scenes of animals interacting with the human world, from the noble lady out hawking with her servants to a knight on horseback abducting a tiger cub. The artist clearly has an affection for animals he knows well: the cat is shown curled up close to a fire, gazing longingly at a bird (in what is thought to be the first representation of a birdcage in English art) and proudly carrying a dead mouse. The size of the section devoted to birds is also exceptional – this was one of the first bestiaries to focus on them so heavily, an early indication perhaps of the English passion for ornithology.
The Age of Faith: a Mirror to Reveal God's Purpose
Bestiaries were not intended simply to delight and amuse. Rather they were at once studies of natural science and theological works exploring God's purposes as revealed through creation. Since symbolic meanings were more important than true observations, there are many entertaining errors, but it is astonishing how much is accurate. The scribes, artists and learned men making bestiaries would not have seen such exotic animals as crocodiles or camels themselves, but they repeated many details correctly: male crocodiles help incubate eggs and camels survive more than three days without water.
The noted medievalist and writer M. R. James saw the Bestiary as one of the most influential of all illuminated books: ranking with the Psalter and the Apocalypse in popularity, its legacy is to be found in medieval art as well as echoing through literature for centuries. The earliest bestiaries were probably made in monasteries for the instruction of the monks, but there are fascinating clues that this one, made in about 1250, was an exception.
Unravelling an Absorbing and Very Unusual History
The book is so lavish it seems likely to have been destined for an aristocratic home rather than the cloister. Christopher de Hamel persuasively suggests in his introduction that the entertaining stories and slyly humorous illustrations may have been designed as a first learning book for a noble child. The miniature of the elephant shown on the enclosed sample page even hints at who the patron might be. The central shield hung from the howdah has been identified as the coat of arms of Roger de Mohaut, an ambitious knight who might well have commissioned such a work. If so, this was one of the first manuscripts to use heraldry to flatter a patron – a practice that later became standard.
A Book Loved by Royalty?
From here, tracing the manuscript's history becomes more uncertain: the principal seat of the Mohaut family was the castle to which the Dowager Queen Isabella was sent after 1330. A patron and connoisseur of fine books, she was certain to have enjoyed the bestiary if it was here. An important clue exists in the miniature of three eagles, which seems to have been repainted with golden fleur-de-lis, the coat of arms of Queen Isabella. An opening page bears an inscription of an unusual name, 'Gaunte'. Does this trace the book's ownership to Isabella's grandson, the great John of Gaunt, ancestor of both the Lancastrian and Tudor dynasties?