Monday, 30 January 2012





As a herbalist, i have a fair amount to do with old herbals.  They’re often useful but may need some kind of conceptual translation.  Two related types of book used in mediaeval Europe were bestiaries and lapidaries, of which the latter is by far the most obscure, dealing with stones.  There is a neat division between the three types:  the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms.  Items from each can sometimes be found in the same book.  I perceive herbals as having a directly practical intent:  they tell you how to identify, use, gather, prepare and grow plants.  Lapidaries and bestiaries, however, strike me as fanciful in nature.  They seem not to be intended for practical use.  For instance, bestiaries give no advice on hunting, cooking or medical uses of the animals recorded in them.  However, all three seem to be part of natural history and are based on description, rather than natural philosophy.

Bestiaries generally comprise a series of chapters, each describing an animal, seen as a beast, bird or fish.  Bees are seen as birds and whales as fish, for example.  Each chapter includes an illustration, a description of a striking, usually behavioural, characteristic, and sometimes a sermon-like passage explaining the spiritual significance of the animal.  The pictures are often rather unlike the way we see the animal, and are often of apparently deliberately humorous tone.

The text engages a literary or religious faculty in me more than a scientific one, and i feel my impulse to think of it as intended to describe a situation literally is misplaced.  I get the impression that this categorisation itself is an imposition of my mindset, which is driven to separate art and science in a way which only began after the books were compiled.  I suspect that a partial explanation for this difference is that the producers and audience were more focussed on eternity than the then and there, seeing mundane life as a brief prelude and the history of the world itself as much briefer than we are wont to view it.  Hence the emphasis is on what life lessons can be learnt rather than what could be observed by detached dispassionate observation of the animals concerned, which were often distant in one way or another from the reality of the people concerned with the book.  The animals seem to be there as embellishments or to make the stories memorable, and there are also elements of entertainment and appeal to the emotions about the text and images.  They are strikingly unlike herbals, except that herbals also try to fit their subject matter into an intricate system, which i find works as a mnemonic device and a form of system-oriented thinking in a superior manner to at least elementary botany, ecology and therapeutics.  Herbals seldom venture into fable, though one exception is the mandrake:



Though we might separate the animals in bestiaries into mythical and real, things are rather less clear cut.  While many species share the names of those we know today, many of them have very different characteristics.  For instance, bears lick their cubs into shape, lion cubs are born dead and the father breathes life into them three days later – like many other stories, a religious allegory – and there are many apparent confusions, combinations and duplications.  For instance, a number of different apes are described as giving birth to twins, one of which is abandoned and the other of which is fatally smothered by the mother, a tale reminiscent of the one told today about giant pandas, which are said to bear twins and abandon one, but of course a panda is bear-like, not an ape.  Many species are seen as hybrids of others.  Whales, for instance, are both fishes


(aquatic animals in this definition – mammal was seemingly not a familiar notion) and crosses between serpents and turtles.  Others are duplications:  the “monocerus” and the unicorn may be described separately.





The external history of the genre reflects a change in views of and approaches to the world.  Unusually for him, the philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BCE,  gave a remarkably accurate account of many animals in his work, based substantially on first-hand observation and the testimony of people who were familiar with them, such as beekeepers, and includes factual details which have only recently been recognised as correct such as the detachable reproductive tentacle of the male octopus.  By the first century of the Christian Era, Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis was a secondary source, not based on his own observations but still quite accurate.  During the following century, an unknown author, possibly Clement of Alexandria, wrote Physiologus, the prototype of future bestiaries.  Tellingly, the title is derived from the fact that many of the entries include a phrase translatable into English as “The naturalist” or Physiologus, “says”, and was not available to the West in the original Greek.  Hence first-hand authority was even more distant.  It is the source of such stories as the one about the lion mentioned above and of the pelican drawing blood from its breast to resurrect its chicks.



Physiologus is allegorical in nature, in a manner akin to Aesop’s Fables, and this is probably the key to the tone of the works which were to come after it.  Deviation from literal accuracy increases with later bestiaries.  However, to say that is to look at it from our own perspective.  One thing it seems to signify is that we separate artistic and scientific concerns and the intellectuals of Europe in the Middle Ages did not.

Bringing this forward to today, just as was the case back then, we have separate academic subjects grouped into the humanities, social sciences, arts and sciences, meaning for example that history is not meant to be fictional, geometrical diagrams are not drawn in an abstract expressionist style and scientific papers are not written in verse.  Though this can often help, this is not the only way to do things and when we look at how things are done now, we might benefit from ignoring these categories at least some of the time to stimulate thought, creativity and versatility.  So when i say i would like there to be a new bestiary, i mean that there should be a creative work about animals we believe to be mythical which is emotionally engaging, uses the imagination to combine fantasy and science and raises as many questions as it answers.