Medieval Bestiaries: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

Medieval bestiaries were a popular literary form in the Middle Ages that included stories and descriptions of animals. Explore the definition of a medieval bestiary, examine their significance and history, and discover famous bestiary examples. Updated: 02/07/2022

Introduction

Did you ever use a dictionary or an encyclopedia to find information when you were younger for a school report or a project? If so, you used something similar to a medieval bestiary. A medieval bestiary is a special type of encyclopedia that was popular in medieval Europe. In a way, it was the (exclusively animal-related) Wikipedia of the Middle Ages!

Definition

A medieval bestiary, also known as a 'book of beasts,' is a book that is filled with descriptions, stories, and illustrations of both real and mythical animals. While some bestiaries were more factual, and similar to the type of encyclopedia you might find in a library today, most bestiaries included fables about the animals. The difference between a story and a fable is that a fable includes a specific moral lesson for the reader.

An Illustration From A Bestiary Of A Griffin
Illustration From Bestiary

Significance

A medieval bestiary was not just a place for people to find facts about real or imagined animals, though. A bestiary had a deeper purpose, too. People in the medieval ages believed that everything was connected, so they studied animals and the way animals behaved to refine their own behavior.

They also drew associations between animals and spiritual figures. For example, an animal with horns made people in medieval Europe think of the Devil from the Bible, since the Devil was always described as having horns himself. While people today are probably less likely to draw a connection between an ox and the Devil, many people today still hold strong associations between snakes and the Devil, due to the Lucifer appearing as a snake in the Bible.

History

Bestiaries first showed up in Greece in the second century. A book of about 40 animals appeared, each of which starred in a tale that described their habits and left the readers with a moral about the animal and its behavior.

Over the next several centuries, the book was translated into Latin and other versions of it started to appear. These versions detailed the lives of birds and other animals. Their behavior was extrapolated from their habits or their natural appearances.

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