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A Lavishly Illuminated Medieval Bestiary Goes Online

The Aberdeen Bestiary is filled with paintings of animals that illustrate tales of moral behavior. You can now page through it online.

Folios showing the creation of animals and of man (all images courtesy University of Aberdeen)
Folios showing the creation of animals and of man (all images courtesy University of Aberdeen)

The medieval illuminated manuscript known as the Aberdeen Bestiary is one of the most lavish of its kind. Heavily encrusted in gold leaf and filled with paintings of beasts that illustrate lengthy tales of moral behavior, the volume is a unique example of one of the most popular genres of books produced in the Middle Ages. Bestiaries were used as teaching tools and, for the most part, were not illustrated; those that were typically featured drawings in just pen and ink. But the Aberdeen Bestiary is a delight to thumb through for its visual splendor — and now you can with ease. The first high-definition, digital version of the 800-year-old book has gone online, thanks to the University of Aberdeen, which has housed the original for almost four centuries. Alongside each image are transcriptions and translations of the Latin text as well as commentary from researchers.

Folio 65r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing an arrangement of doves in a tree
Folio 65r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing an arrangement of doves in a tree

The university began uploading images of the entire manuscript to the web in 1996, but they were taken with a slide camera. The updated website, which launched this month, features high-resolution pictures that allow you to zoom in and appreciate every detail of the manuscript, from pencil lines to paint dabs to tiny prick marks left from the process of pouncing. The new, enhanced images have also led art historians to believe that the bestiary, which once belonged to King Henry VIII, was not produced for the royal elite but instead for a wider audience.

According to university professor Jane Geddes, marks and annotations previously indiscernible to the naked eye suggest that the book ended up in the king’s library as a treasure handpicked by his scouts, who rummaged through dissolved monastic libraries for valuables. Although the book is ornate, it was never fully finished. Now clearly visible imperfections indicate that it was created in a scriptorium by many hands. The bookmaking team would have consisted of prickers, a scribe, draftsmen, and painters, and pages reveal instructions left by craftsmen for one another. Notes in the margins also relay edits to the inked script, from corrections to spelling errors to more pronounced mistakes related to the narrative (e.g. “The swallow is not attacked by other birds”).

Detail of folio 63r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing bees zooming into their hives
Detail of folio 63r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing bees zooming into their hives

What’s more, the parchment offers clues as to its purpose as a teaching tool. Dirty thumbprints, visible for the first time, appear at the bottom corners of most pages, the evidence of someone flipping through the book. A number of pages show prints in the middle of the top margin, likely left by a reader who turned the bestiary around to display it to an audience. Many words also have accents that may have assisted in the reading process.

“The book has seen quite a lot of use, and the edges of pages are dirty,” Geddes told Hyperallergic. “Of course, this could have happened at any time, but for the 100 years it was in the Royal Library after the Reformation, I doubt if the Tudor monarchs took it out for a regular read. Subsequently, at the Protestant Marischal College, which had a strong specialism in science, it might have been an object of curiosity but hardly on a mainstream syllabus.”

It’s easy to see why the book fascinates. The illustrations are impressively varied, depicting common animals from tiny ants to elephants, as well as fantastic beasts, from the leocrota to the phoenix. Even the moral qualities of the humble sea urchin are honored with paragraphs of discussion. Beyond this array of creatures, the bestiary details the appearances and qualities of various trees, gems, and humans. Some of these may seem comical to 21st-century eyes: a swarm of bees, for instance, resembles an orderly line of shuttlecocks streaming into their hives. Yet other paintings are impressive for their near-accuracy, such as one image of a bat that shows how its membranous wings connect its fingers, legs, and tail. All of these rich details would have helped readers better understand the natural world as it was defined at the time of the book’s creation. Now digitized for the public, the bestiary is returned to that original purpose of education — although for us, of course, it illuminates more about the past than the present.

Detail of folio 51v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a bat
Detail of folio 51v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a bat
Detail of folio 24r showing a mole with pricking for pouncing
Detail of folio 24r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a mole with pricking for pouncing
Detail of folio 24v showing a formation of ants with grain in their mouth
Detail of folio 24v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a formation of ants with grain in their mouth
Detail of folio 81r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing the scribe Isidore
Detail of folio 81r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing the scribe Isidore
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Detail of folio 11v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a hyena eating a man
Detail of folio 35v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a night owl in a roundel
Detail of folio 35v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a night owl in a roundel
Detail of folio 23v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing cats, mice, and a weasel
Detail of folio 23v from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing cats, mice, and a weasel
Detail of folio 70r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a dead man lying at the foot of a tree writhing with salamanders
Detail of folio 70r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing a dead man lying at the foot of a tree writhing with salamanders
Detail of folio 19r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing dogs carrying meat and licking their wounds
Detail of folio 19r from the Aberdeen Bestiary showing dogs carrying meat and licking their wounds
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