Best Bestiary Beasts


September 21, 2012 by Gail Armstrong

Most images I’ve looked at so far have come from religious texts and illustrate religious themes or stories.  Another rich source of intriguing images is the mediaeval bestiary.  A bestiary is generally described as a “compendium of beasts” or, more particularly, “A medieval collection of stories providing physical and allegorical descriptions of real or imaginary animals along with an interpretation of the moral significance each animal was thought to embody”  (The Free Dictionary, by Farlex – 

Sometimes the artists illustrated familiar animals, but just as often they were offering their best “artist’s conception” of what a fabled foreign beast looked like – beasts they only knew from often-retold traveller’s tales and stories.  Along with some odd and sometimes startling pictures, some entertaining misconceptions as to animal behaviour were often perpetuated in these accounts.

Here are some of my favourite bestiary beasts, along with accounts of them derived from a wonderful website called “The Medieval Bestiary”, at

1. Barnacle Geese


  “Barnacle geese come from trees that grow over water. These trees produce birds that look like small geese; the young birds hang from their beaks from the trees. When the birds are mature enough, they fall from the trees; any that fall into the water float and are safe, but those that fall on land die.”

 This image of nearly-ripe Barnacle Geese comes from a rich English bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, dating from the 2nd quarter of the 13th century (British Library Harley 4751). 


2. Hedgehog


“The hedgehog has the appearance of a young pig, but is entirely covered with sharp spines or quills, which protect it from danger. When it is time for the harvest, the hedgehog goes into a vineyard, and climbing up a vine, shakes the grapes off onto the ground. It then rolls around on the fallen grapes to spear them with its quills, so it can carry the fruit home to feed its young. (Some say that the fruit the hedgehog carries away is the apple or fig.) A cooked hedgehog can be used to make medicine. When the hedgehog notices the approach of a man, it rolls itself into a ball so its spines protect it, and creaks like a cart to fool the man. Hedgehogs can detect the direction the wind is blowing from; when the wind comes from the north, the hedgehog closes the north hole of its lair.”

From the same bestiary, here are three hedgehogs busy with the grape harvest…


3. Elephant


 (a)”Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls.”

(b) “Male elephants are reluctant to mate, so when the female wants children, she and the male travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows. The female elephant eats some mandrake, and then gives some to the male; they mate and the female immediately conceives. The female remains pregnant for two years, and can only give birth once. When it is time to give birth, the female wades into a pool up to her belly and gives birth there. If she gave birth on land, the elephant’s enemy the dragon would devour the baby. To make sure the dragon cannot attack, the male elephant stands guard and tramples the dragon if it approaches the pool.”

 From another English bestiary dating from the same century (British Library Royal 12F XIII, here is quite a varied-looking elephant herd:


Again from British Library Harley 4751 comes this rather beleaguered-looking elephant who is definitely not enjoying being attacked by a serpentine dragon.

Dragon and elephant

4. Bees


“Bees are the smallest of birds. They are born from the bodies of oxen, or from the decaying flesh of slaughtered calves; worms form in the flesh and then turn into bees. Bees live in community, choose the most noble among them as king, have wars, and make honey. Their laws are based on custom, but the king does not enforce the law; rather the lawbreakers punish themselves by stinging themselves to death. Bees are afraid of smoke and are excited by noise. Each has its own duty: guarding the food supply, watching for rain, collecting dew to make honey, and making wax from flowers.”

Here is one of my favourite animal illustrations, showing a mediaeval Winnie-the-Pooh feeling quite bothered by terrifyingly large “small birds”!  It comes from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), from Northern Italy, 2nd quarter of the 15th century (British Library Harley 3448).

 Bear and a beehive

Another bee image, this time from an English bestiary dating from the 1st quarter of the 13th century:


I like their lavender wings!

5. Owl


“The owl haunts ruins and flies only at night; preferring to live in darkness it hides from the light. It is a dirty, slothful bird that pollutes its own nest with its dung. It is often found near tombs and lives in caves. Some say it flies backwards. When other birds see it hiding during the day, they noisily attack it to betray its hiding place. Owls cry out when they sense that someone is about to die.”

 Last but not least this charming owl, pictured quite imperturbable though being attacked/chased off by various other birds  (from British Library Harley 4751 again).  I wonder why they thought owls were dirty?  Such a contrast to the modern notion of them as wise…


Next time, more of the “unreal” beasts!


2 thoughts on “Best Bestiary Beasts

  1. dianabuja says:

    Lovely collection – and the recent series of illustrations from mss.put online by the Br. Library is really fantastic. I have one blog that draws on lore of the unicorne from the besteries and elsewhere (link below) and also working on several more, covering hyaena and others. Not just besteries, but also older accounts and depictions.
    Great blog|

    The Unicorn and the Ark: A Talmudic Story

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