composite creatures of medieval bestiaries

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Elliot Thompson

The Composite Creatures of Medieval Bestiaries

Much like the centuries preceding it, the late Middle Ages were often characterized by mystery and fear. It was also filled with newfound curiosity and discoveries, however. In this regard, its easy to imagine a tale such as the following whispered into eager ears of the time:

One day, a farm boy noticed two men on the edge of the forest, staggering toward his village, although, at first, it was hard to tell if these were even men at all. The boy immediately hailed his father, and the two carefully made their way toward the visitors. It was soon all too apparent that these men had suffered something horrific. Once brought inside, the two soldiers collapsed. Everything from their mangled limbs to their hairless heads was charred black. What was left of their clothes was in tatters and one soldier, though he could hardly speak a word, fiercely gripped the handle of a singed wooden plank, presumably once a sturdy shield. These men were severely burned, but that was not all. They were covered in something more than just charred skin, and its putrid stench could only be described as breath from the Mouth of Hell. Within hours, the two soldiers were dead, but not before one was able to share his account of what had happened. While traveling from battle, the soldiers entered a nearby forest to hunt for food. Expecting to find a boar, they instead found a beast previously unseen to their eyes. The curious-looking creature was the size of an ox, yet had the mane of a horse; even stranger, the pair of horns atop its head were so curled that they seemed a useless defense. Seizing their opportunity, the men crept

up to the beast, which fixed its eyes upon them. Knowing the horns were no match for their swords, the soldiers went in for the kill. Soon, however, they realized the beast possessed a far more brutal and repulsive weapon. The creature quickly spun around and buckets upon buckets of excrement, covered in balls of fire, exploded from its backside. The men, along with an acre of forest behind them, were scorched by this ungodly substance. If it had not been for their shields, they surely would not have lived long enough to tell the tale ...

This story, constructed by this author for the purpose of this paper, describes a beast known as the bonnacon. It is one of many creatures found in medieval manuscripts devoted to the various beasts of the earth, also known as a bestiaries. Toward the later part of the Middle Ages, the popularity of bestiary manuscripts greatly increased. While these works included descriptive texts and illustrated miniatures of commonplace creatures, such as cows, dogs, or horses, as well as exotic, but still real-life, animals, such as camels, elephants, and hyenas, many also gave equally straight-faced accounts of creatures that were purely fictional, if not downright inconceivable. This paper seeks to further examine the latter category, often referred to as composite creatures in medieval historical literature1. The term is used to indicate made-up beasts assembled from features plucked from several different creatures. In addition to their physical construction, most composite creatures have equally bizarre abilities. Like most medieval bestiary subjects, these creatures are normally accompanied by moral or religious allegories, which explains the reasoning behind their inclusion in the manuscripts. Of course, while the symbolism behind some of the composite creatures is explicit, deeper meaning for others is not always as apparent.1

Janetta Rebold Benton, The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992, 16.

It should also be noted that although there is an entire subsection in medieval bestiaries of creatures that are composites of human and beast, this paper focuses solely on all-beast composite creatures.

Bestiary Origins Other than the bible, its not often that one can determine a single source of inspiration for an entire classification of manuscripts, but, by most accounts, this is the case with the medieval bestiaries. This original source is known as the Physiologus. Although any knowledge of its author has been lost to time, the text is said to have originated in the early antiquity period, circa 200 AD, most likely in Alexandria.2 What indicates the Physiologus is the clear influential source of medieval bestiaries is not just the animal content, but how the book approaches the subject. Unlike a standard zoological textbook, the Physiologus focuses more on animal lore than biological science. Each creature, which included even trees and rocks, is given a brief description and usually some type of fable or myth. Although originally written in Greek, the oldest manuscript copies of the Phsyiologus that remain today are in Latin. In the centuries since the original copy, Christianity grew exponentially, which explains why the language of the text shifted and, more importantly, also explains why the allegories attached to these creatures shifted toward Christian values3. The earliest versions of this text also lacked illustrations. From an art history standpoint, this proved to be a blessing, of course, because it allowed illuminators to use their imagination to the fullest.2 3

Nona C. Flores, editor, Animals in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1996, 103. Willene B. Clark and Meradith T. McMunn, editors, Beasts and birds of the Middle Ages : The Bestiary and Its Legacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989, 2-3.

While illustrated versions of the Physiologus appeared as early as the 9th century, the heyday for medieval manuscripts really began around the 12th century and finally began to trail off around the 15th century4. The bestiaries referenced in this paper all fall into this time period -- the earliest being the Worksop Bestiary (1185)5, now housed at the Morgan library in New York, and the latest being an untitled French bestiary (1450), which can be found at the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, Netherlands.6 The styles of illustrations vary wildly throughout these few hundred years, and unlike such animals as dogs, horses or even elephants, the composite creatures have no real-life visual standard of appearance to which they must remain faithful. Each miniature is that particular illuminators interpretation of a written description and so, in turn, the viewer is treated to some of the most bizarre, grotesque and genuinely fascinating illustrations found in any medieval manuscript.

Ancient Composite Creatures The idea of a composite creature was around long before any medieval bestiary. Pagan societies such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans celebrated all sorts of imaginary beasts. Not all of those creatures, however, made it into the medieval bestiary. In fact, very few did. But the ones that did can be grouped as ancient composite creatures. The griffin, also spelled gryphon, is one example. Griffins appear in Greek mythology, pulling the chariots of Zeus, as well as in the art of ancient Persia. In fact, a statue of a double-


The Aberdeen Bestiary, What Is a Bestiary? The Aberdeen Library, /what.hti, (accessed May, 2012). 5 COSAIR: The Online Catalog of the Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.81Worksop bestiary, The Pierpont Morgan Library, http://utu.morganlibrary .org/medren/Manuscript_images.cfm?ACC_NO=M.81, (accessed May, 2012) 6 Museum Meermanno: Interactive Presentation Manuscripts, Den Haag, MMW, 10 B 25, Museum Meermanno http://collecties.meermanno .nl/handschriften/showmanu ?id=1466, (accessed May, 2012).

sided griffin from the 4th century BC still stands today in Persepolis in Iran.7 More important to this paper, the griffin also happens to be one of the more ubiquitous composite creatures of the medieval bestiaries. The simplest description of a griffin is a creature that is half lion and half eagle. Typically, its the front half that is eagle, including the head and beak, wings and two front talons, while the backside is all lion with two powerful back legs and a long tail. The two examples provided [Figs.1]89 of the griffin depicted in medieval bestiaries are from The Ashmole Bestiary (early 1200s), now in the Bodleian Library, and the Untitled French bestiary (1450), mentioned earlier. Although centuries apart, the two images are fairly similar. Both depict a majestic griffin clenching a smaller creature in its talons. Stylistically, it appears that the illustrator of the latter of the two chose a more literal approach. There is almost an exact point in the chest of the griffin where the lion part of the body fades into the eagle half. The Ashmole griffin, on the other hand, seems to be a more harmonious combination of beasts. For instance, the illustrator chose to give the eagle half the same shade of gold typically associated with a lions coat, but he or she also gave the illusion of a mane of fur streaming down the neck of the griffin. The ears, as well, appear more cat-like than bird.


Patrick Hunt, Achaemenid Persian Griffin Capital at Persepolis," Stanford University: Archeolog, entry posted October 21, 2008, _sculptural_stone_te.html (accessed May, 2012). 8 COSAIR: The Online Catalog of the Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.81Worksop bestiary, The Pierpont Morgan Library, http://utu.morganlibrary .org/medren/Manuscript_images.cfm?ACC_NO=M.81, (accessed May, 2012) 9 Museum Meermanno: Interactive Presentation Manuscripts, Den Haag, MMW, 10 B 25, Museum Meermanno http://collecties.meermanno .nl/handschriften/showmanu ?id=1466, (accessed May, 2012).

Fig. 1. Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, Folio 15v

Fig. 2. Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 5r

It isnt difficult to deduce the symbolism of