A serpent killing an elephant. Worksop Bestiary (MS. M.81 f.78), English, c.1185. By unknown, England (http://slides-www.ucsc.edu/dbms.acgi$detail?42207) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bestiaries are among by favorite type of medieval manuscript. Simply put, bestiaries are books of beasts, with illustrations and descriptions of each creature. That might sound like a sort of thing a child or a student might read today, but you would probably be very unlikely to find much of the same content in any non-fantasy book written today.

A serra or sawfish from the Workshop Bestiary (MS. M.81 f.69r) English, c.1185. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The primary purpose of medieval bestiaries wasn’t to be scientific. Instead, animals in medieval Europe were assigned symbolic qualities and characteristics that were utilized in the moral and religious teachings of the times. Some animals were seen as good, with symbolic qualities like heroism, loyalty, etc., while others were thought to be greedy, lustful, and things like that. These reputations, let’s call them, were often based on some odd beliefs about animals’ habits of eating, hunting, producing offspring, and such.

Monkey being attacked from The Worksop Bestiary (MS. M.81 f.19v), English c. 1185. By Unknown Miniaturist, English (active 1180s in Lincoln) (Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s important to remember that the writers of for bestiaries had usually never had any degree of contact with the majority of the animals they were discussing. For the British creators of the Worksop Bestiary (Morgan Library, MS. M.81), the thirteenth-century manuscript from which all these images derive, information about lions and elephants would have come solely from oral tales and other written accounts based on equally-questionable sources. It shouldn’t be too big of a surprise, therefore, to learn that these authors were equally as happy to include dragons and chimeras in their manuscripts as they were dogs and pigs.

Medieval bestiaries still hold a certain fascination today, probably as a result of their charming imagery and unusual claims about the animals they contain. Numerous books and articles have been written about medieval bestiaries and animal symbolism.

For further reading, see: Benton, Janetta Rebold. The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages. New York: Abbeville Press, Inc., 1992. Schrader, J.L. “A Medieval Bestiary“. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. XLIV, No. 1 (Summer 1986). Badke, David. “The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages” (bestiary.ca).