Christian Heck and Rémy Cordonnier
The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts
What links a dragon and pearls? Which esteemed author in Roman times mentions the folk belief that foals are born with a love philter on their foreheads? How did the porcupine come to symbolize divine wisdom?
For those curious about how animals were depicted in the West, at least up until the Renaissance, a splendid repertory now exists in a new volume recently published by Abbeville: The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts, by Christian Heck and Rémy Cordonnier. It’s a weighty tome in extra-large format that requires a stand or at least an empty, wide table. But that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of perusing the 587 striking visuals, often two-page spreads, accompanied by a constantly absorbing text that roams far and wide to bring us descriptions of real and imaginary animals, with an eye to medieval customs and life. Commentary from medieval bestiaries is cited along with information from a myriad of other written sources—classical mythology, popular fables, travel writings, chronicles, natural history, sermons, mystical texts, courtly romances, all woven together and wittily explored.
One hundred beasts follow. The creatures are handily indexed, with three, four, and sometimes five illustrations devoted to an entry. The fact that the illustrations of these beasts do not always correspond to art works mentioned in the text actually sets one off in new directions on further treasure hunts.
The Grand Medieval Bestiary is rich with little known facts about the usual imaginary suspects—chimeras, harpies, basilisks, sphinxes, centaurs, griffins, phoenixes, dragons, and unicorns (which are fierce unless tamed by a virgin). Perhaps, in our politically correct times, a distinction might be drawn between “monsters” and hybrids, but the parsing is anachronistic to the mindset of, let’s say, Romanesque and Gothic sculpture, which comfortably co-exists within Christian iconography.
Contradictions were inherent in the fabric of medieval life, when communications and travel were difficult, and no single culture knit all the beliefs and superstitions together. This helps to explain why beasts held to be diabolical or as manifesting various kinds of vice, maliciousness, and corruption could appear virtuous in other contexts.