Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Aberdeen Beastiary

In doing some flicking through pictures of illuminated manuscripts online, I came across The Aberdeen Beastiary.  This manuscript was written in England around the year 1200 and is a really good example of a beastiary, containing excellent descriptions and sketches of the animals it describes.  It's written in Latin, but the nice thing about The Aberdeen Beastiary site is that the text has been translated into English and the original pages have been digitised so that it can be shared with folks like you and me.  The experts are not really sure of where the beastiary came from prior to the late 1500s, but they think it may have been created in the north-east midlands, with all drawings, including illuminations, done by the same hand.

What drew me in was this awesome picture of a bat (source:  http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/comment/51vbirdf.hti):


In the manuscript, the bat is classed in with the birds because it flies, although the manuscript does mention that it's not really all that bird-like, having four feet and teeth "which you would not usually find in birds".  As the passage goes on, I get the impression that the writer even was beginning to doubt it's classification in with the birds, especially in light that the author acknowledges that bats give birth to live young and that they don't really have wings but skin stretched over wing-like bones.  The sketch is a little off anatomically, however, it's better than most of the bestiaries of the time in terms of accuracy.  I can understand the writer's quandary though, as well as sticking it in the winged creatures section. The Beastiary also notes some bat behaviour:

"There is one thing which these mean creatures do, however: they cling to each other and hang together from one place looking like a cluster of grapes, and if the last lets go, the whole group disintegrate; it a kind of act of love of a sort which is difficult to find among men."

The manuscript also contains pictures of the Phoenix:


With the following description:

"The phoenix is a bird of Arabia. Arabia can be understood as a plain, flat land. The plain is this world; Arabia is worldly life; Arabs, those who are of this world. The Arabs call a solitary man phoenix. Any righteous man is solitary, wholly removed from the cares of this world." (from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/55v.hti).  There is a massive allegorical Christ story at the source, which is an interesting read.

The book itself is a pleasure to flick through, with some fantastic stories about wildlife both real and mythological.  One of the stranger stories about an animal that actually exists is the lore around how to avoid being chased by a tiger if you steal it's cub.  The method of getting the tiger to stop chasing you is also helpfully pictured:


"The tigress, when she finds her lair empty by the theft of a cub, follows the tracks of the thief at once. When the thief sees that, even though he rides a swift horse, he is outrun by her speed, and that there is no means of escape at hand, he devises the following deception. When he sees the tigress drawing close, he throws down a glass sphere. The tigress is deceived by her own image in the glass and thinks it is her stolen cub. She abandons the chase, eager to gather up her young. Delayed by the illusion, she tries once again with all her might to overtake the rider and, urged on by her anger, quickly threatens the fleeing man. Again he holds up her pursuit by throwing down a sphere. The memory of the trick does not banish the mother's devotion. She turns over the empty likeness and settles down as if she were about to suckle her cub. And thus, trapped by the intensity of her sense of duty, she loses both her revenge and her child."
(http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/8v.hti), picture source: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/comment/8rtiger.hti)

I can't help but feel that it's a wonderful romantic story about the beast that the text previously refers to as "the arrow".  I also can't help but feel that the chap wouldn't have the problem had he not stolen a tiger's cub.  You do have to wonder where they got these ideas from though, you really do.  Still, it's a nice story that I hope didn't get anyone killed.

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