THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

17 June 2014

Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary

Those of you who follow our blog regularly will surely have noticed our deep and abiding love for medieval animals and bestiaries; in the past we’ve done posts about dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers, owls, and more.  But today we thought we would have a look at a few of the more fantastic creatures that are featured in medieval bestiaries, many of which are scarcely known today. 

The amphivena

The name of this beast is variously given as anphivena, amphisbaena, amfivena, and many other variations.  But the true spelling of its name is not the least of its mysteries; the exact nature of the amphivena’s form was also a source of considerable uncertainty. 

Harley_ms_3244_f062r detail
Detail of a miniature of an amphivena, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 62r

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 138vg70035-21a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two amphivenas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 138v

The bestiary text tells us that this animal is so called because it has two heads, one in the ‘normal position’ and one at the end of its tail, and that its body forms a round shape.  Isidore of Seville says that the amphivena can ‘move in the direction of either head with a circular motion’, which seems, understandably, to have been confusing to some bestiary artists.  Pliny characterises it as a violent, poisonous beast, which might account for many of the depictions of it in the act of doubly attacking itself.

The manticore

The manticore is a fearsome beast indeed, and one that is also apparently vulnerable to the whims of the various artists attempting to portray it.  Bartholomaeus Angelicus describes this animal by saying that ‘among all the beasts of the earth is none found more cruel, nor of more wonderly shape’.

Harley_ms_3244_f043v detail
Detail of a miniature of a leonine manticore, Harley MS 3244, f. 43v

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f029v detail
Detail of a miniature of a manticore from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v

 This wonderly shape is essentially a composite one; the manticore is said to have a lion’s body – ‘blood-red in colour’ - the face of a man, a triple row of teeth, and the tail of a scorpion.  It is extremely swift, can jump great distances, and, according to the bestiary, ‘delights in eating human flesh.’

Royal MS 12 F XIII f. 24v E031715
Detail of a miniature of a manticore from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24v

The bonnacon

The bonnacon is reported by the bestiary to be found simply somewhere ‘in Asia’, and has a deceptively normal appearance.  In general, it looks like a bull, but has horns that curl backwards so that if someone were to fall on them, they would be uninjured. 

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f016r detail
Detail of a miniature of a bonnacon repelling pursuit, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 16r

Banish any thoughts that the bonnacon is a considerate and gentle animal, however!  This creature’s true claim to fame is its unique defense mechanism; when threatened, we are told, a bonnacon will spray its attacker with poisonous dung.  This excrement ‘produces such a stench over an area of two acres that its heat singes everything it touches’, and needless to say, it is extremely effective at ending a pursuit.  For obvious reasons, bestiary artists were fond of depicting this sort of scene, but some, perhaps moved by delicacy, have declined to illustrate it.

Harley_ms_3244_f041r detail
Detail of miniature of a lioness, a crocote, and a bonnacon, Harley MS 3244, f. 41r

Harley MS 4751 f. 11r E093636a
Detail of a miniature of hunters pursuing a bonnacon with a very long lance and strategic shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

The leucrota

Another composite animal, the leucrota, takes its place in the bestiary just before the section on reptiles. 

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f037v_detail
Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 37v

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f023r detail
Detail of a miniature of a leucrota, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 23r

The leucrota is somewhat confusingly described as having the rear parts of a stag, and the chest and legs of a lion, but with cloven hooves.  Its most distinctive characteristic is its charming wide-mouthed grin, which stretches across its head.  Its teeth are single, continuous pieces of bone, and it is capable of imitating the sound of a human voice.

The basilisk

The basilisk is included among the reptiles in the bestiary.  We are told that its alternate name – regulus – is particularly apt, as a basilisk is the ‘king of creeping things’.  A basilisk is an exceedingly dangerous animal, as its scent can annihilate almost anything, and its gaze is terrible enough to cause the death of any man foolish enough to look at it. 

Harley MS 4751 f. 59r E043091
Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751, f. 59r

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 63r F60101-66a
Detail of a basilisk killing a man with its gaze and being attacked by a weasel, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

It is, however, vulnerable to the weasel, which can pursue the basilisk into its hiding hole and kill it.  In the bestiary text, much is made of the example of the basilisk; the writer takes the opportunity to expound on the nature of evil embodied in this horrible creature.  He assures us that no matter how frightening an animal might be, ‘the creator of all has made nothing for which there is not an antidote’.  So take heart, and keep your weasels close!

We’ll have a look at some more of our bestiary favourites in the months to come (of course we will!), and please send along some of your finds to us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

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