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Lecture 7. Animals in History: Reading the Bestiary

This lecture will focus on how animals have been perceived in history, by focusing in particular on the European Middle Ages. We will learn about the difficulties that we are faced with when we try to understand how humans perceived and interacted with animals, both domestic and wild, as well about how to interpret fantastic creatures and tales, which abound in medieval literature, art, and culture.

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Seminar preperation

Choose an animal and use the sources in the reading list below to find out as much information as you can about that particular animal in the Middle Ages (a period spanning roughly from 450-1450 AD). I recommend you start by going to Click on ‘Beasts’, then ‘Alphabetic’, and away you go! Also, see the bibliography below for certain books that you can use to find information about specific animals. Come prepared to share what you have found out with the rest of the group.

You will also need to read a short medieval story called Bisclavret, which is about a man who turns into a werewolf and can’t change back into human form without his clothes!


• The Medieval Bestiary, (online resource). See, in particular, the short ‘Introduction’ by David Badke.
• ‘Bisclavret’ in The Lais of Marie de France, trans. and intro. by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London: Penguin, 1999) pp. 68-72. here
• British Library Learning, ‘Medieval Bestiary’ (short video on Vimeo).


Finding information about specific animals in the Middle Ages:

• A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-Family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text, and Translation, ed. and trans. by Willene B. Clarke (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006).
• Bestiary: being an English version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764: with all the original miniatures reproduced in facsimile, trans. and intro. by Richard Barber (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1993).
• ‘Book XII: ‘Animals’ in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
• McCulloch, Florence, Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962).
• The Aberdeen Bestiary (online resource) [].
• The Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon, ed. and trans. by T. H. White, (online resource: 1841) [].
• The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. by Christian Heck and Rémy Cordonnier (New York: Abbeville Press, 2012).

Animals in the medieval period:

• A Cultural History of Animals in the Middle Ages, ed. by Linda Kalof and Brigitte Resl (Berg, 2007). Note that this series covers different periods of time in separate issues, including: Antiquity, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, The Age of Empire, and The Modern Age.
• Animals in the Middle Ages, ed. by Nona C. Flores (New York: Routledge, 2000).
• ‘Book XII: Animals’ in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
• The Animal-Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives, ed. by Angela N. H. Creager and William Chester Jordan (Rochester: Unviersity of Rochester Press, 2002).
• Salisbury, Joyce, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1994)