Medieval Bestiary

January 17 2022 | by

ANIMALS fascinate people. Prehistoric cave drawings frequently portray animals such as horses, deer, bear, oxen, elephants, dogs, and even hedge hogs. The fascination with animals continues in today’s worldwide pet market, in animal and bird refuges, zoos and circuses.

Medieval people heard of exotic animals such as leopards, elephants and apes. They believed in dragons, unicorns, griffins, fawns, sirens, and other mythical creatures. Information about these beasts was gathered into books called Bestiaries, the natural history books of their time, hand penned and illustrated with colorful drawings. Because the Christian faith was central to medieval life, it was also a vital part of a Bestiary. The typical Bestiary would describe the beast, and then it would relate its attributes to spiritual truths. Thus, learning about animals led to learning about God.


Child of his time


Bestiaries were based on real or supposed knowledge people had, and even on myth and legend. However, during Anthony’s time, the basic processes of life were not well understood. For example, the idea that conception occurred when a sperm cell fertilizes an egg was not formulated until 400 years after Anthony’s death.

Anthony used the knowledge of the day in his Sermon notes. From his many references to animals, which we will explore this year in subsequent articles, it seems that Anthony must have studied and memorized a Bestiary while being educated as an Augustinian monk. The Franciscans, whom he later joined, used only Scripture and breviaries, not Bestiaries. In writing his Sermon notes for his fellow friars, Anthony’s lessons sometimes reflect those in a Bestiary. Other times, they seem to be the fruit of his prayer and meditation. By interweaving Scripture with natural science (as known at the time), Anthony gave his fellow friars material to hold an audience’s attention while instructing them about spiritual and moral truths.


Robber’s den


Typical is Anthony’s focus on the following passage from Isaiah, which he uses to illustrate how bad influences corrupt the human conscience.

Wild beasts shall rest there,

and their houses shall be filled with dragons:

and ostriches shall dwell there,

and the hairy ones shall dance there.

And owls shall answer one another, in the houses thereof,

And sirens in the temples of pleasure. [Is 13.21.22}

Anthony explains that “The human conscience becomes a robbers’ den when what Isaiah says happens to it” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals II, p. 265; translated by Paul Spilsbury, Edizioni Messaggero Padova). Because they frequently accosted travelers, robbers terrified medieval folk. Mention of a robbers’ den would spark fear and revulsion. People could imagine a cave or hovel where evil men, like beasts, lived and planned their assaults and quarreled, sometimes violently, over sharing their loot.


Savaged conscience


Isaiah mentions six creatures. Anthony has something to say about each. “Beasts lay waste, savaging with teeth and claws” (Sermons II, p. 265).This recalls an image of tearing, clawing, shredding, all excruciating to the victim. A savaged conscience is excruciating to bear. Anthony writes that “the beasts stand for pride and plunder” (Sermons II, p. 266). Such vices savage a conscience.

“A dragon is greater than all other animals without feet. When dragged out of its lair, it takes to the air and violently shakes it. Its strength is in its tail rather than in its teeth” (Sermons II, p. 265); these attributes are taken directly from a Bestiary. To Anthony, dragons represent “the poisonous malice of wrath and envy.” He imagines “wrathful and envious” individuals hiding in the lair of their conscience. Such people seem innocuous until they learn of some good happening to another whom they believe deserves it less than they do. Then they “cannot contain themselves, but fill the air with words, making it ring with their clamor, defiling it with blasphemies. The strength of their malice is not only in their teeth (their blasphemy), but chiefly in their tail (the revenge and injury that they inflict with their hands)” (Sermons II, p. 266). God forbid that we meet someone like this who not only makes us miserable with nasty words, but who even finds a way to harm our reputation.

Isaiah mentions ostriches who Anthony notes cannot fly and who lay their eggs on bare ground, and then neglect them. Anthony likens hypocrites to these huge, flightless birds. “Hypocrites… have an appearance of holiness, but are weighed down with love of temporal glory. They cannot raise themselves above earthly things. The ostrich neglects the care of its eggs, and the hypocrite deserts the children obtained by his preaching.” Anthony castigates the “hypocritical prelate, intent on temporal glory,” who neglects the newly converted “as if they were not his” (Sermons II, p. 266-267).


The hairy ones


Isaiah’s reference to “the hairy ones” refers to “incubi” whom the Greeks called “pans or fauns” who “are shaped like humans above, but like beasts below… The pagans thought that fauns… had feet like goats” (Sermons II, p. 265). Anthony, who frequently preached harsh words against greed, avarice, and simony (the selling of Church offices and indulgences) uses similar words here. He sees these “hairy ones” as representing the “avaricious and simoniacs” who “nowadays dance and play like fauns in the Church of Christ… their feet (affections) and morals are like goats: they stink” (Sermons II, p. 267).

“Detractors and flatterers are like owls. In the night (the absence of those they criticize), and with false praise to those they flatter, they hoot horribly. Gluttons and the lustful, like sirens, tear their own souls, devour their own substance, and cast into the sea of eternal damnation those they seduce along with themselves” (Sermons II, p. 267).

Anthony, always disturbed by corruption in the Church, drives home his point. “See how the house, the Church of God, is filled from top to bottom with these vices and made as it were a robbers’ den; while the human conscience is made a cave of demons… Let us humbly and with tears entreat the Lord Jesus Christ to cast out of his Church the simoniac sellers and buyers; and to drive out from the house of our conscience, once his own, the aforesaid vices, and to make it a real house of holy prayer” (Sermons II, p. 267).

Updated on January 27 2022