Dating to the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Peterborough Bestiary is a charming example of English Gothic illumination. Bound with a slightly later psalter and chronicle, the twenty folios that comprise the bestiary contain over one hundred individual illuminations illustrating the animals described in the Latin text. Each creature is pictured with its descriptive text, set off in a colorful or gilded frame often filled with elaborate pink and blue diapering. Its Gothic Textura script is a particularly fine example.
The popular bestiary text was a compilation of Classical texts such as the Physiologus and early Medieval texts such as Isadore of Seville's Etymologiae. The descriptive nature of the text lent itself to extensive illustration. These images served as the primary depictions in medieval European art of animals native to Africa and Asia, and they were drawn from previous exemplars in the manuscript tradition rather than being drawn from life.
The Delightful Illuminations of English Bestiaries
The numerous surviving English Bestiaries are particularly lavishly illuminated, often accented with gold, indicating a healthy demand among the aristocracy for these manuscripts. Indeed, such books served a number of roles beyond being a record of the world's animals. They were objects to display wealth and erudition, they could serve as gifts among the elite, and the nature of the text with its engaging pictures made them excellent educational materials. The Peterborough Bestiary is certainly among the most finely crafted English bestiaries, made at the height of their popularity in the early thirteenth century.
Exquisite Gothic Script and Style
The Latin text of the bestiary is written in an exquisite Gothic Textura Quadrata script. Two columns of forty-two lines fill the large pages. The illuminations are placed somewhat irregularly within the column width lending the page a somewhat crowded appearance. Some folios have additional marginalia with the typical English drolleries of human heads, birds and hybrid creatures. The rest of the pages are further ornamented with ornamented initials with burnished gold ground and foliate scrollwork.
From the Library of Peterborough Abbey
The original patron for the Peterborough Bestiary is unknown. Bestiaries were popular books with both monastic libraries and the laity. Given the wealth and political connections of Peterborough Abbey at the turn of the fourteenth century, it is certainly possible the foundation commissioned the manuscript or acquired it in this time.
At some point before 1540, it was trimmed and bound with a slightly later psalter. After the Dissolution, it came to the ownership of Matthew Parker, who donated as part of his library to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge in 1574.