Peterborough Bestiary

The Peterborough Bestiary is a fascinating manuscript that was created around the beginning of the 14th century. The Bestiary was written and illustrated by an unknown, yet recognizable through other works, scribe who was likely a person of high ranking in the Peterborough cathedral.[1] The manuscript, which is actually a compilation of two well-known works that describe animals, Physiologus, dating from the 2nd century, and Isidore of Seville’s multi-volume Etymologiae, dating from the 7th century, was likely created for someone else of high ranking in the church.[2] Bestiaries were pieces that were compiled written around the High Middle Ages, all serving the relatively similar purpose of depicting and describing a wide variety of different animals. This bestiary in particular is noted for the over 100 incredibly ornate illustrations of animals.

A great deal can be observed from the Peterborough Bestiary in regards to nature and knowledge. As a bestiary, the manuscript serves as a great example of knowledge of physical nature from the time it was created. The sheer volume of different animals that are both described and depicted is impressive. However, many animals are given fantastical qualities, and both real and mythological animals were depicted, with no separation between the two. This lack of understanding which animals were real and which were not indicates limits to the knowledge of physical nature from the time this bestiary was created. Arguably more important than physical nature, however, was the knowledge of moral nature. Many of the qualities of animals were linked to or justified by biblical passages. These animal qualities were often considered either positive qualities that follow in the way of Jesus, or negative qualities that embody the Devil. In short, these spiritual reflections in the bestiary, which occur on both real and mythical creatures, are unique and can be interpreted as proxy behaviors for how mankind should act, and present a fascinating view on knowledge of moral nature at the time. An argument can even be made that these spiritual behavoirs of animals provided justification for many that the physical world itself was goverened by the Word of God and the Bible. The Peterborough Bestiary can thus be seen as a manuscript that embodies and blends both flawed knowledge of physical nature and deeper knowledge of moral nature.

[1]Lucy Freeman Sandler (cont.), and Christopher De Hamel and Hans Zotter (trans.),  Aus Peterborough = The Peterborough Bestiary : Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library, MS 53 (fol. 189-210). Commentary on the Facsimile Edition, part i. (Stuttgart: Faksimile Verlag Luzern, 2003), 24.

[2] Ibid., 28.


Alex Shimmel