The Aberdeen Bestiary, housed since the 1600s in Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, is now available online, complete with dazzling high-res images, translations of the original Latin, and notes from the university team about the book’s construction. Aberdeen’s volume is an exquisite example of a bestiary, which was an anthology of moral fables and allegories popular during the Middle Ages. Though the term “bestiary” has come to mean something closer to a zoological textbook — albeit usually featuring fantastical creatures, such as bestiaries accompanying works of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons playbooks — its earlier incarnation was not intended as a study of beasts so much as a study of the world as created by God, where every living thing had its own special meaning.
In some ways it is more analogous to a reference book of symbolism in dreams, depicting instead the symbolic language of animals in Western Christian art and literature. Yes, dragons and basilisks appear alongside magpies and tigers, but whether the people of the time “believed” in all of these beasts equally is a matter of scholarly debate — to a degree, this question of belief minimizes the tome’s magnificence both as a work of art and a work of literature, while also sidestepping the fact that prior to globalized travel and the Internet, a 12-century person might have been equally likely to see a tiger or a dragon in their lifetime. According to authors Cook and Herzman in Discovering the Middle Ages, people then “did not see the same break between themselves and their classical predecessors that modern observers see; rather, they saw continuity with themselves and the ancient world, using allegory as a synthesizing agent that brings together a whole image.”
“The fact that the she-wolf gives birth when the thunder first sounds in the month of May signifies the Devil, who fell from heaven at the first display of his pride. The fact that its strength lies in its forequarters and not in its hindquarters also signifies the Devil, who was formerly the angel of light in heaven, but has now been made an apostate below. The wolf’s eyes shine in the night like lamps because the works of the Devil seem beautiful and wholesome to blind and foolish men.” – excerpt from The Aberdeen Bestiary
A particularly compelling element of The Aberdeen Bestiary is the detailed way in which it has been presented. The original document contains “notes, sketches, and other evidence of the way it was designed and executed,” and the 345 images uploaded by the University of Aberdeen show pricking marks, paint fragments, and fingerprints indicating the book’s historical usage, captured via specialized photographic techniques. Most pages have worn patches at the top and bottom corners, suggesting a reader holding the book and turning its pages, but at least one of the illustrations has an additional worn patch in the center of the top margin, where a teacher might smudge it with their thumb while displaying the illustration to students. It is highly likely that bestiaries were more commonly used as teaching aides in monasteries than as books of entertainment, a fact supported also by the accent marks penciled in above many words, assisting someone in reading the stories aloud.
Several folios towards the end of the bestiary pertain to precious stones, which are treated here as if there is nothing strange in their inclusion. As in the sections devoted to beasts real and mythical, many of the observations “may be quite accurate but … are given the same weight as totally fabulous accounts.” For example, an amethyst is described as “the colour of a violet or a drop of red wine,” as well as easy to shatter. The verdict? “If it were rarer, it would be more valuable.” In contrast, the lodestone entry starts with a reasonable-seeming line about appearance and then goes on to say that “if a man wants to know if his wife is chaste or not, he should place the stone under her head when she is asleep; if she is chaste, she will embrace him warmly; otherwise, she will fall from the bed as if struck by a hand; this happens because of the odour of the stone.”
Each image in The Aberdeen Bestiary is done in rich and bold colors, with blues and reds being common choices amidst the gold detailing and fine black lines. Codicology, or the study of early manuscript books, plays an important role here alongside another facet of the book’s peculiarity, which is that it was never completed. In a finished tome, many things like evidence of pricking — where “tiny parallel pinpricks were made on the outer and inner edges of each page and horizontal lines ruled between them,” accounting for the straight lines of the text — would have been clipped off or obscured, along with other clues to the bestiary’s production and provenance. Instead, The Aberdeen Bestiary exposes much of its skeleton: the black text done first, with the scribe returning later for rubrics (the red letters starting off each chapter) and the meticulous initials featured on many of the pages. Most who have studied The Aberdeen Bestiary agree that the illustrations were likely the work of a single artist, though some details can be interpreted as evidence to the contrary. The folds of drapery are not always depicted consistently, nor are heads always in proportion to bodies; there is even discussion of which king’s head is most “competent” in its execution. It’s impossible to know whether this dissonance implies multiple artists or simply one artist affected by different moods, but it is delightful to guess.
Browse the full bestiary here, courtesy of the University of Aberdeen.