Fantastic & Terrifying Beasts

October 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

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A Manticore devouring a human leg, also depicted with a hat that may or may not identify the beast as Jewish.

Beasts and monsters like the one you see above were often depicted in medieval manuscripts, mapslike the Hereford Mappa Mundi—and even cathedral sculptures. The most prominent amount of these depictions can be found in medieval bestiaries, which we could say were a more romantic and moralized version of a modern-day encyclopedia of animals with pictures included. Although depicted alongside “real” animals, monsters and other fantastic beasts were often placed in their own category called the Monstrous Races, which were said to live on the periphery of the world in places beyond the known seas and in places such as Africa and the Middle East.   

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A gryphon being attacked by its enemy, a horse.

Often the beasts that were included in bestiaries were real-life animals, even if they didn’t always look like the real thing—but what can we say, monks didn’t get out much, and elephants were hard to come by in medieval Europe. At best you would hear a garbled description of an exotic animal from some adventurous traveler, or find some mention or illustration of one in an older text and then copy it. Fantastic and terrifying beasts often accompanied the real animals, with lines of text that would guide a reader to become more knowledgeable about these creatures, especially in spiritual or moral ways, and often in as much detail as the real animals. 

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The Scitalis (on top), which is a multicolored dragon that is even hot in the winter. On the bottom is a Amphisbaena, a monster that has another head at the end of its tail.

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Our library has a beautiful facsimile of Manuscript Bodley 764, our specific facsimile being called the Book of Beasts, from which these images come, and is often referred to as one of the most beautiful surviving copies of a bestiary. Other strange and fantastic beasts that can be found among its pages include the phoenix, sirens, satyrs, sphinxes, bonnacons—which “emits a smell from its rear end so terrible that it poisons three fields” (11), unicorns, eales, paranders, the charadrius, and more. 

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