The King of Beasts
Decorated initial 'B'(estiarum) and a miniature of lions breathing life into their cubs, at the beginning of the entry 'De natura leonis', from a bestiary with theological texts, central or northern England, c. 1200-10, Royal 12 C. xix, f. 6
One of the most popular items in our current Royal exhibition is this bestiary (Royal 12 C. xix), which is on display beside another similar example (the so-called Rochester bestiary, Royal 12 F. xiii). A bestiary is a book of beasts, both real and imagined (for example, see below for a miniature of a dragon and elephant). Bestiaries in Latin first began to appear in England at the beginning of the 12th century. They were based ultimately on a late-antique text called the Physiologus (The Naturalist), supplemented by material from a variety of sources such as the Naturalis historia of Pliny the Elder (d. 79), the Historia animalium of Aristotle (d. 322 BC), the Hexaemeron of St Ambrose (d. 399) and the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (d. 636). These extracts were blended together to form a compendium of natural history with a particular emphasis on allegory and the moralisations that could be drawn from animal behaviour.
The number and types of animals included in bestiaries could vary greatly, but many copies begin with a description of the lion, the king of beasts, and the section on the lion provides a good example of the morally didactic aspect of the bestiary text. It starts with a discussion of the lions' habitat and nature, and goes on to explain the scene in the miniature above. Lion cubs, it tells us, are born dead, and remain that way for three days. After this time, the cubs' father breathes upon them, bringing them back to life - a very clear analogy to God's resurrection of Christ.
Detail of a miniature of an elephant with a dragon on its back, at the beginning of the entry for 'Draco', from a bestiary with theological texts, central or northern England, c. 1200-10, Royal 12 C. xix, f. 62
The bestiary's format lends itself quite well to illumination, and many of the surviving examples are illustrated. This copy is one of the grandest survivals, with eighty miniatures of animals painted against gold backgrounds; it is also one of the first to include such elaborate, full-colour paintings. It is not clear for whom this book was produced, but research has revealed that it is a very close (almost exact) copy of the Worksop Bestiary (Pierpont Morgan Library M.81), which was produced in the North Midlands c. 1185. The Royal bestiary dates from c. 1200-1210, and was created in roughly the same region. Judging from the expense that must have been incurred in its production, it seems likely that it was intended for an aristocratic, if not royal, layman (or woman) who could either read Latin or had a chaplain to do it for him and his household. Little is known about the subsequent history of the manuscript until it was purchased by the antiquarian John Theyer in the 17th century, whose collection was purchased by Charles II and included in the Old Royal Library.
For more information on bestiaries in general and the British Library's holdings in particular, please see the virtual exhibition Books of Beasts in the British Library: the Medieval Bestiary and its Context, which was written by Royal project intern Emily Runde. A highlights version of the Royal bestiary is also available for purchase from the British Library's eBook treasures.