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An illustration from a Syrian edition dated 1354. The rabbit fools the elephant king by showing him the reflection of the moon

The Panchatantra, an illustration from a Syrian edition dated 1354. The rabbit fools the elephant king by showing him the reflection of the moon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Age of Illuminated Manuscripts

The fall of the Western Roman Empire

The Middle Ages is a period of European History that began in the 5th century CE. On the 4th of September 476, Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, was deposed by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire occurred gradually as nomadic tribes: Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vikings, Vandals, Franks, Gauls, etc. invaded the various regions the Romans had conquered.

The new age, known as the Middle Ages and, pejoratively, as the “dark ages,” would last until the 15th century CE and was not entirely dark. In Western European countries, it was the golden age of illuminated manuscripts, many of which featured fanciful and even mythical beasts and are called bestiaries.

It would appear that Celtic monks were among the first artists to produce illuminated manuscripts, but the movement spread south and reached a pinnacle in the 15th century, in the current Netherlands, then known as the Franco-Flemish or Burgundian lands.

The Fall of the Byzantine Empire and the invention of the printing press

However, a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, in 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks and, three years earlier, in 1450, the printing press had been invented. These two events changed the course of history. The fall of the Byzantine Empire brought about a rebirth (Renaissance) in European culture and it so happens that Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395 – 3 February 1468) invented the printing press as the Greek scholars of the Byzantine Empire fled west, first to Italy, carrying precious Greek manuscripts. So the invasion of the Byzantine Empire, by the Ottoman Turks, the last invasion, ushered in a new age. Europe entered its Renaissance (literally: rebirth) and, as it did, works that had been hand copied mostly by monks in the scriptorium of monasteries would henceforth be printed at a rapid rate, putting an end, however, to the long reign of illuminated manuscripts.

The reign of illuminated manuscripts had, indeed, been a long one. The Book of Kells, a Gospel book in Latin, was created by Celtic Monks in c. 800. The Book of Kells is the finest illuminated manuscript belonging to Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art, the art of the British Isles, and predates the Très Riches Heures de Jean de France, Duc de Berry (c. 1412 and 1416), a Book of Hours. Moreover, the Book of Kells had antecedents. It was a pinnacle.

Suleiman in a portrait attributed to Titian c.1530

Süleiman the Magnificent, in a portrait attributed to Titian c. 1530

Titian, Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1488/1490 – 27 August 1576)

The Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. (See Johannes Gutenberg, Wikipedia.) The Pope (1458 – 1464), Pius II (18 October 1405 – 14 August 1464) was delighted because the Bible could be printed quickly and disseminated widely. However, despite the invention of the printing press, illuminated manuscripts had a  period of grace. Between 1450 and 1501, books could be printed, but blank spaces were left so the book could be illuminated. Books printed during this fifty-year period are called “incunables.”

The Aberdeen Bestiary

Medieval Beast Literature: two traditions

But the Aberdeen Bestiary, one of several medieval bestiaries, was not an incunable and it belonged to one of at least two traditions in beast literature and visual arts.  Medieval beast literature includes allegorical bestiaries, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, beast epics and fables originating, to a greater or lesser extent, in India’s Panchatantra, written in the 3rd century BCE, if not earlier. The Panchatantra could belong to a learned tradition stemming from an oral, i.e. unwritten, tradition.

Aberdeen Bestiary, The Beaver

Aberdeen Bestiary, The Beaver (F11r)

The Aberdeen Bestiary: an Allegory

The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library, Univ Lib. MS 24) is a 12th-century English illuminated manuscript bestiary that was first listed in 1542 in the inventory of the Old Royal Library at the Palace of Westminster. Bestiaries[i] are not Gospel books, nor are they Books of Hours. They are allegories, which means that each beast, plant or stone is a symbol. Britannica defines allegories as “a symbolic fictional narrative.”[ii] For instance, in Western literature, the Unicorn, a fantastical animal, represents Christ and the Phœnix, an immortal bird, represents the resurrection of Christ. Each animal is a symbol.

Reynard the Fox  & Fables

Worldly Wisdom

However, as bestiaries — allegorical texts — flourished, so did various beast epics and fables. As noted above, this tradition is rooted, to a significant extent, in the Sanskrit Pañcatantra, [iii] attributed to Vishnu Sharma, translated into Pahlavi in 570 CE (AD), by Borzūya, and into Arabic, in 750 CE, by Persian scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa. Ibn al-Muqaffa’s translation is entitled Kalīlah wa Dimnah. A 12th-century version became known as Kalīleh o Demneh and would be the basis of Ḥoseyn Wāʿeẓ-e Kāshefī,[iv] or Kāshefī‘s 15th century the Lights of Canopus and The Fables of Bidpai (The Morall Philosophie of Doni [English, 1570]. (See Panchatantra, Wikipedia.)

Bidpai is the storyteller. Moreover, several Æsopic fables and the many versions of Reynard the Fox (Le Roman de Renart FR) are associated with that tradition, but not completely. Æsop (c. 620–564 BCE), if indeed there was an Æsop, did borrow from Bidpai, but he also drew from several other sources. In his second volume of fables, Jean de La Fontaine retold fables by Bidpai. His source was, in all likelihood, Kāshefī’s Lights of Canopus, translated by Gilbert Gaulmin, a pseudonym, and entitled Le Livre des lumières ou La Conduite des Rois (1644). (See Pañcatantra FR, Wikipedia.)

The Education of the Prince

Interestingly, tales stemming from the five books of the Pañcatantra  (pancha: five; tantra: treatises) are, first and foremost, about “the wise conduct of life,” i.e. a nītiśāstra, and, consequently, closer to Machiavelli‘s Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli [3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527]) Prince than to allegorical medieval bestiaries. (See Pañcatantra, Wikipedia.)

Reynard the Fox, first written in the 12th century, is filled with trickster tales and tales pointing to the need to consider the consequences of one’s actions, the moral of countless fables. Fables are moralizing, but in a worldly fashion, as befits stories that will guide a prince. As mentioned above, the Panchatantra, or Pañcatantra, has been linked to Machiavelli’s Prince. Yet,  the Pañcatantra is not unethical, nor, for that matter, is The Prince, if one keeps in mind that the world Machiavelli lived in was factious and that his prince would have to live in that very world. Machiavelli had worked for the Medici family who were bloodthirsty and in whose quest for power “the end justifie[d] the means.”

The Yale, folio 16v

Aberdeen Bestiary, The Yale (F16v)

Animals, Plants and Stones as Symbols

There are, nevertheless, similarities between the allegorical bestiary, where animals are symbols, and beast stories rooted, in part, in the Pañcatantra. In both traditions animals are anthropomorphic. The word anthromorphism is derived from the Greek ánthrōpos, meaning human, and morphē, meaning shape. In other words, literary beast are humans in disguise and, in both traditions, they are also stereotypes. The fox is wily and the phœnix symbolizes the resurrection of Christ.

However, bestiaries differ from Reynard the Fox. In bestiaries, we have zoomorphic animals, or animals that combine human and animal features (satyrs, the Centaur and the Minotaur of Greek mythology) or animals that combine the features of many animals (Pegasus, the winged horse). In other words, our allegorical animals are as fanciful as many of Jacobus de Voragine‘s saints and martyrs. Strictly rather than poetically speaking, there is no St George. Moreover, strictly rather than poetically speaking, there are no unicorns, griffins, or dragons. Yet, fantastic animals, the phœnix, unicorns, griffins, dragons and others, are the denizens of bestiaries and have a reality of their own, a poetical, symbolic reality.

Fanciful or “Fantastic” Animals

Most of the artists who created illuminated bestiaries had never seen the animals they depicted. In fact, historians themselves relied on the reports of travelers, from ancient Greece down to Marco Polo (15 September 1254 – 9 January 1324). The Travels of Marco Polo (Il Milione and Le Livre des merveilles du monde) and the accounts of other travelers no doubt  contained  descriptions of animals, but a picture is worth a thousand words. There is a Marco Polo sheep, but it could be that a traveler described an animal with one horn, not two. That animal might have been a rhinoceros, a real animal, but, short of a picture, our animal could take on characteristics that transformed it into a unicorn, a mythical, or fantastical, animal.

The Physiologus: A Source

Therefore, our artists based their illuminations mostly on descriptions found in books. Their most important source was a 2nd-century CE Greek book entitled the Physiologus. In the Physiologus, the pelican feeds her young with her own blood, the phœnix rises from its own ashes, etc. They were symbols before entering bestiaries. Authors of bestiaries also borrowed from Isidore of Seville‘s (c. 560 – 4 April 636) Etymologiae or Origins. Finally, although they may not have been accurate, there were books on animals written by historians. The main ones are listed in From Bestiaries to… Harry Potter.


I must close, but we have the backdrop. My next post will be on the Aberdeen Bestiary.

Love to everyone.


[i] bestiary”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2013
[ii] “allegory”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2013
[iii] “Panchatantra”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2013
[iv] “Hoseyn Wa’ez-e Kashefi”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2013
Kalīlah wa Dimnah 
download© Micheline Walker
21  February 2013