The medieval world had a habit of attributing divine meaning to the activities of the animal kingdom. Pelicans, for example, were endowed with the gift of raising their dead offspring after three days, in a Christ-like imitation of rebirth. However, the religious interpretation of creatures was overshadowed by the practical. Beavers were known to be tracked for their testicles, and so they self-castrated in an attempt to flee capture. Boas ate cattle, crocodiles wept after devouring men and the kingfisher was a bird that was known to tranquilize storms at sea. The magpie could enunciate discernible human words.
Apocrypha such as these came directly from medieval bestiaries (Bestiarum Vocabulum). Categorizing the fabulist minutiae beasts and their Christian leanings, bestiaries were often adorned with portrayals of animals. An anonymous tome from the 2nd C was the first zoological inventory, a Greek work entitled the Physiologus. It compiled excerpts from Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and other ancient chroniclers of natural science and was assembled in Alexandria sometime between the 2nd and 5th centuries. Later, in the 6th century, Isidore of Seville compiled his Etymologies, which was followed in the 8th century by Maurus’s German text, On the Nature of Things. Commentators took these mythological descriptions and transmogrified them into moral tales, so that what at first seems like an early instance of natural history is really an amalgamation of the superstitious underpinnings of medieval belief and more modern natural history, so that it was deemed as infallible that cats eat mice as it was that dragons with two heads exist. Manticores are given the same validity as parrots. To medieval researchers, sources of information were not empirical observation but the intractable writings of auctores — Classical and ancient writers known mainly today for their unreliable histories. Like biblical studies, literal Christian analysis trumped the scientific method. Much of what is written as authority in bestiaries is often the result of faulty perception, so that, according to Richard Barber in his introduction to Bestiaries (The Folio Society, 1992), a belief in unicorns is possibly due to a “misreading of Persian sculpture”, insofar as creatures were represented in 2 dimensional relief, so that their bifurcated horns appeared to the onlooker as one.
Because of the enormous rate of illiteracy during the medieval period, images of the creatures discussed accompanied nearly every entry. When sermons were given on the topic, congregations could along pictorially. Illustrated beasts, both imaginary and real, appeared in churches, on furniture, carved on surfaces, painted in monasteries and woven into fabrics. Allegorical beasts were everywhere, and there was no filter to determine the derivation or possibility of such creatures.
One of the most ornate of bestiaries is the Aberdeen, one of only two illuminated compilations of animals. From the 12th C, the Aberdeen Bestiary begins with the creation of the universe and extends to the miraculous properties of stones. Blending fantastical creatures found in the Bible with creatures of fantastical qualities, it confirms the the 12th and 13th Century fascination with the sentience of animals. The Ashmole Bestiary (Bodleian LIbrary MS., 1511) was written shortly thereafter, perhaps sharing the same illustrator, and containing highly detailed Gothic miniatures. In one notable illumination, a basilisk, notorious for its deadly stare, is shown being set upon by a weasel, the only animal, according to the Ashmole, that can kill the basilisk. Striving to bring the natural world under some kind of divine systematization, writers and illuminators were as provoked by randomness as the behavior of animals they sought to displace. Illuminated bestiaries are the apotheosis of the era’s need for Christianized lore.
Bestiaries led circuitously to the anthropomorphic stories of the world, to Aesop’s folktales and the talking beasts of C.S. Lewis and to Borges’s Manual de zoologia fantastica and other compendiums of imaginary creatures. Originally, English bestiaries were an attempt to locate meaning in the caprices of nature. That urge to uncover order in the chaos of the animal kingdom has persisted in the form of Loony Tunes and animation studios, whose output seeks to reinvent ever more technologically savvy bestiaries. All of which retain the ancient mythologies.