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"The Book of Beasts" is a modern English translation of a medieval bestiary. The Latin original was compiled during the 12th century, probably at a monastery in Lincolnshire, England. T.H. White's translation was first published in 1954. This is a later American edition of the same work.
A bestiary was a medieval work of zoology and biology. Or something passing for zoology. The bestiary contained short descriptions of various animals together with moral lessons humans were supposed to learn from the animal world. Since real biological science was virtually non-existent during the Middle Ages, the descriptions of the various animals are often fanciful, fabulous and completely wrong! This makes "The Book of Beasts" quite entertaining.
Thus, the unknown author informs us (with a straight face) that lions are afraid of white roosters, that a sick lion eats monkeys as medication, that the only enemy of the panther is the dragon, and that antilopes can fell trees with their saw-like horns! We further "learn" that carbuncles are the hardened urine of lynxes, that elephants live for 300 years, and that bears give birth to formless bits of pulp, which the female bear moulds into bear pups by licking them.
Other curious claims: the ostrich only lays eggs when the star constellation of the Pleiades is visible, the partridge is homosexual, snakes commit adultery with murenas, and the wagtail can sense when a sick man is going to die. And so on and so forth. I think you get my point, LOL. Sometimes I wonder whether *any* empirical observations of animal behaviour were made during the 12th century? Well, certainly not by the monks in Lincolnshire!
Naturally, the bestiary also contains purely imaginery animals such as the Griffin, two species of unicorns, the man-beast Manticora, and sirens. My favorite is the yale: "There is a beast called a YALE, which is as big as a horse, has the tail of an elephant, its colour black and with the jowls of a boar. It carries outlandishly long horns which are adjusted to move at will. They are not fixed, but are moved as the needs of the battle dictates, and, when it fights, it points one of them foreward and folds the other back". Sounds like my kind of animal. Apparently, many deers at European coats-of-arms are really imaginery yales.
Sometimes, the mistakes of the bestiarist are understandable, as when he exclaims: "Who on earth ever heard of a black swan?" Well, the Australian Aborigines did, but Australia was terra incognita for Europeans during the Middle Ages. Very occasionally, the information in the bestiary is correct, as when it points out that swallows and other birds migrate during the winter. The author also knew that bats were different from "other birds", giving a relatively accurate description of them (did bats live at the monastery?).
The religious perspective of "The Book of Beasts" is obvious. A bestiary wasn't simply a collection of wonderful tales about animals. It was also a moral exhortation to Christian living. Thus, the text of "The Book of Beasts" is filled with condemnations of heresy, adultery, greed, abortion, neglect of children and elderly parents, etc. Sometimes, the author sounds more like a preacher than a biologist (well, he was a monk). To medieval man, nature was moral since it had been created by God for a purpose, more moral than human society in fact. Thus, the anonymous compiler claims that lions never attack humans who prostrate themselves, this being a lesson for human kings, who should show more clemency to their adversaries. Even evil beasts carry moral lessons: the immoral snake is punished by nature in various ingenious ways for its unnatural sex drive. Therefore humans better be chaste!
The bestiary also makes (often far-fetched) parallels between animal behaviour and the life of Christ. The virgin birth is "proven" by claiming that vultures give birth without sexual intercourse: "The bird can breed without a male, and nobody disproves it. Yet when the betrothed Virgin Mary herself so produces, people question her modesty! They actually suppose that the Mother of God cannot do what vultures do!". The female lion supposedly gives birth to dead cubs, but after three days, the male lion breaths life into them. In the same way, Christ was resurrected after three days. And isn't the lion a symbol of Christ himself? "The Book of Beasts" also contain the well-known legend of the Phoenix, connected to the resurrection of Jesus already by Clement of Rome during the 1st century.
Finally, some complaints about this particular edition. The lay-out is lousy, and the footnotes confusing. Indeed, the translators' footnotes are often even more weird than the bestiary itself! He also seems to have a perverse fascination with urine and copulation. If you're a very modest person, don't buy this book for your kids!
Otherwise, "The Book of Beasts" does provide the reader with some light afternoon entertainment.