Rochester Bestiary

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Detail of a miniature of elephants, who were thought to have been ridden into battle in India carrying castles on their backs; folio 11v.[1]

The Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F.xiii) is a richly illuminated manuscript copy of a medieval bestiary, a book describing the appearance and habits of a large number of familiar and exotic animals, both real and legendary. The animals' characteristics are frequently allegorised, with the addition of a Christian moral.

The bestiary tradition[edit]

The medieval bestiary ultimately derives from the Greek-language Physiologus, a text whose precise date and place of origin is disputed, but which was most likely written in North Africa sometime in the second or third century.[2] The Physiologus was translated into Latin several times, at least as far back as the eighth century, the date of the first extant manuscripts, and likely much earlier, perhaps the fourth century.[3] While the earliest Latin translations were extremely faithful to their Greek source, later versions adapted more freely, particularly by the inclusion of additional information from other sources, including Pliny's Historia naturalis, and, most significantly, Isidore of Seville's Etymologies.[4] The most important of the Latin Physiologus translations — the one now known by scholars as the "B Version" — was expanded even further in the twelfth century (most likely in the 1160s or 1170s), with more additions from Isidore, to become the so-called "Second Family" standard form of what now may be properly termed as the bestiary.[5][6] This text was much longer than the original Physiologus and included in its typical format over 100 sections, distributed among nine major divisions of varying size. The first division included 44 animals or beasts and the second 35 birds, followed by a large division on different varieties of snakes, and divisions on worms, fish, trees, precious stones, and the nature and ages of man.[7] Manuscripts from this most familiar version of the bestiary were produced from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, with most dating from the thirteenth century.[8]

Manuscript description[edit]

Detail of a miniature of hedgehogs rolling on grapes, sticking them to their spines to carry back to their young; folio 45r.

The Rochester Bestiary is a parchment manuscript dating from c. 1230–1240.[9] Its principle contents are a bestiary, but it also contains a short lapidary (a treatise on stones) in French prose and, as the flyleaves, two leaves of a 14th-century service book.[10] It is illustrated with 55 finished miniatures of various animals, each at the end of the passage describing that animal.[11] On some pages, instructions to the illuminator are visible, briefly describing what the planned picture should depict.[11] About a third of the way through the manuscript (f. 52v and following, after the vulture), the illustrations cease: while spaces remain where they were intended to be placed, no illustrations were ever added.[11] The style of the miniatures shows some evidence that the illustrations were made as much as a decade or more after the initial production of the text, and it is possible that the artist did not fully understand the projected plan envisioned by the scribe: by adding a fourth picture of a lion, instead of the planned three, he forced subsequent illustrations to be placed after the animals they described, instead of before.[12] Three other extant manuscripts feature illuminations by this artist: Cambridge, University Library, MS. Ee.2.23 (a Bible),[13] Peterborough, Cathedral Library, MS. 10 (a Bible), and Stockholm, National Museum, MS. B. 2010 (a psalter).[14] A fourth manuscript (Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale, Cod. L.IV.25) contained two full-page miniatures from this artist, but was destroyed in 1904.[11][14]

History of the manuscript[edit]

The manuscript is usually assumed to have been made at St. Andrew's Priory at Rochester Cathedral. An inscription places the book there with certainty in the fourteenth century.[11] At some point, it appears that the book was stolen from the priory, as another fourteenth-century inscription notes its return by a "brother John Malling," who may have been the culprit: a man named John Malling was excommunicated in 1387 as an apostate and thief.[15] By 1542 it was in the possession of the king, as it is listed in an inventory of the royal library at Westminster in that year.[11] King George II donated it, together with the rest of the Old Royal Library, to the British Museum in 1757, and it is now at the British Library.

Adaptation of the text in the Rochester manuscript[edit]

Additions to the standard bestiary text have been made in the Rochester Bestiary by drawing from Part IV of the Pantheologus by Peter of Aldgate.[6][10] A complete copy of the Pantheologus, now extant as British Library, Royal MS. 7 E.viii, was located in Rochester in the early 13th century, and may have been the direct source for the bestiary additions.[9]

The animals[edit]

Detail of a miniature of a unicorn, tamed by a virgin and being killed by a hunter; folio 10v.
Detail of a miniature of a manticore, with the head of a man and the body of a lion; folio 24v.
Detail of a miniature of a crocodile, which gets its name from its supposed yellow colour (Latin crocus, or saffron); folio 24r.
Detail of a miniature of a fox, which lures in its prey by playing dead; folio 26v.[16]
The gaze of a wolf could strike a man dumb, for which the only cure was tearing off his clothes and hammering two stones together to frighten the wolf away, allegorized as casting off sin to drive away the devil; detail of a miniature from f. 29r; folio 29r.[17]

The bestiary features the following animals:

  1. Lion
  2. Tiger
  3. Leopard
  4. Panther
  5. Antelope
  6. Unicorn ("which is called 'rhinoceros' by the Greeks")[18]
  7. Lynx
  8. Griffin
  9. Elephant
  10. Beaver
  11. Ibex
  12. Hyena
  13. Bonasus (an Asian animal with a bull's head and curling horns)[19]
  14. Ape
  15. Satyr
  16. Stag
  17. Goat
  18. She-goat
  19. Monocerus
  20. Bear
  21. Leucrota (an Indian animal with the body of a lion and the head of a horse)[20]
  22. Crocodile
  23. Manticore (an Indian animal with the face of a man and the body of a lion)[21]
  24. Parandrus (an Ethiopian animal sometimes identified as a reindeer or elk)[22]
  25. Fox
  26. Yale (an animal with the tail of an elephant and the jaws of a goat)[23]
  27. Wolf
  28. Dog
  29. Sheep
  30. Ram (male sheep) and wether (castrated male sheep)
  31. Lamb
  32. He-goat and kid
  33. Boar
  34. Bull
  35. Ox and wild ox
  36. Camel
  37. Dromedary
  38. Ass
  39. Onager (wild ass)
  40. Horse
  41. Cat
  42. Mouse
  43. Weasel
  44. Mole
  45. Hedgehog
  46. Ant
  47. Eagle
  48. Vulture
  49. Crane
  50. Parrot
  51. Caladrius (a white bird capable of predicting the outcome of an illness)[24]
  52. Swan
  53. Stork
  54. Ibis
  55. Coot
  56. Ostrich
  57. Kingfisher
  58. Heron
  59. Goose
  60. Horned owl
  61. Small owl or night raven
  62. Phoenix
  63. Cinnamolgus (an Arabian bird that nests in the cinnamon tree)[25]
  64. Hercinia (a German bird that glows in the dark)[26]
  65. Hoopoe
  66. Pelican
  67. Siren (half-human, half-bird)
  68. Partridge
  69. Quail
  70. Magpie and woodpecker
  71. Hawk
  72. Gull
  73. Tawny owl
  74. Bat
  75. Raven
  76. Crow
  77. Dove
  78. Turtledove
  79. Tern
  80. Peacock
  81. Cock
  82. Hen
  83. Duck
  84. Bee
  85. Peridexion tree (an Indian tree whose shadow frightens dragons)[27]
  86. Asp
  87. Dragon
  88. Basilisk (the "king of serpents," since it can kill other serpents with its odor)[28]
  89. Viper
  90. Scitalis (a snake that can hypnotize with its shining back)[29]
  91. Amphisbaena (a snake with two heads)[30]
  92. Hydrus (a sea serpent that, when swallowed by a crocodile, bursts out of its stomach, killing it)[31]
  93. Jaculus (a winged serpent)[32]
  94. Boa
  95. Siren serpent (a winged serpent from Arabia)[33]
  96. Seps (a snake whose venom dissolves the bones as well as flesh of its prey)[34]
  97. Dipsa (a snake whose venom is so poisonous, it kills before the victim perceives the bite)[35]
  98. Salamander
  99. Saura lizard (a lizard that renews its eyesight by looking at the sun)[36]
  100. Gecko
  101. Snake
  102. Scorpion
  103. Various types of "worm", including the spider, the locust, the flea, etc.
  104. Various types of "fish", including the whale, the dolphin, the crocodile, the sea urchin, and other sea animals
  105. Various types of trees, including the palm, the laurel, the fig, the mulberry, etc.
  106. Long section on the nature of man and the parts of the human body
  107. Fire stones (which ignite when brought together)[37]

A French-language lapidary follows directly on the Latin description of fire stones, giving further descriptions of a large number of stones, including the magnet, coral, carnelian, ceraunius (the "thunder-stone"), crystal, and many others.


  1. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 116
  2. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 18
  3. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 21-22
  4. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 22, 28-29
  5. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 34-35
  6. ^ a b Clark 2006, p. 27
  7. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 37-39
  8. ^ Clark and McMunn 1989, p. 199
  9. ^ a b Clark 2006, p. 73
  10. ^ a b Warner and Gilson 1921, p. 64
  11. ^ a b c d e f Detailed Record for Royal 12 F XIII on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
  12. ^ Clark 2006, pp. 74-75
  13. ^ For a description, see Catalogue 1872, II, p. 40 on the Internet Archive
  14. ^ a b Clark 2006, p. 74
  15. ^ Warner and Gilson 1921, p. 65
  16. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 119
  17. ^ Payne 1990, p. 49
  18. ^ British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 10r
  19. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 98
  20. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 136
  21. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 142
  22. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 150
  23. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 190-91
  24. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 99-101
  25. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 103-104
  26. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 125
  27. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 157-58
  28. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 93
  29. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 165
  30. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 81
  31. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 129-30
  32. ^ McCulloch 1960, p. 135
  33. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 169-70
  34. ^ "Seps" on The Medieval Bestiary
  35. ^ "Dipsa" on The Medieval Bestiary
  36. ^ McCulloch 1960, pp. 140-41
  37. ^ "Fire Stones" on The Medieval Bestiary


  • Clark, Willene (2006). The Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-Family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation. Boydell: Woodbridge. ISBN 0851156827.
  • Badke, David. "The Medieval Bestiary". Retrieved 9 October 2012.
  • A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Preserved in the Library of the University of Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1872.
  • Clark, Willene B. and Meradith T. McMunn, ed. (1989). Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages: The Bestiary and its Legacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812281470.
  • "Detailed Record for Royal 12 F XIII". Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. The British Library. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  • McCulloch, Florence (1960). Mediaeval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Payne, Ann (1990). Medieval Beasts. London: British Library. ISBN 0712302050.
  • Warner, George; Gilson, Julius (1921). Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Old Royal and King's Collections. 2. London: British Museum. pp. 64–65.

External links[edit]