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The Book of Beasts [Hardcover]

T. H. White


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Book Description

November 1969
If a serpent swallows the spittle of a fasting man, it dies. Trees felled in the wrong season breed termites. If eels are drowned in wine, those who drink it get a loathing for liquor.
These and similar flights of fancy were articles of faith in the twelfth century — the era of the fascinating Latin prose bestiary translated in this volume. The translator is T. H. White, author of The Once and Future King and outstanding medievalist. Of The Book of Beasts, White writes: "No Latin prose bestiary has ever before been printed, even in Latin. This is the first and only English translation in print."
The bestiary was a bestseller in the Middle Ages, a kind of natural history cum-zoological survey that presumed to describe the animals of the world and to point out the human traits they exemplified. Combining the surprisingly accurate with the endearingly phantasmagorical, the bestiarists came up with a bewildering array of real and exotic creatures. The behavior or attributes of the animals often functioned as a metaphor for teaching religious, moral, and political precepts.
In addition to a multitude of real mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish, described here with varying degrees of zoological accuracy, the bestiarist introduces a swarm of fanciful denizens thought to haunt the Dark Ages: manticore, a creature with a man's face, a lion's body, and a ravenous appetite for human flesh; dragon or draco, the biggest serpent and the embodiment of the Devil; amphivia, a fish that could walk on land and swim in the sea; jaculus, a flying serpent; the familiar phoenix; the griffin; and other exotic fauna.
Much of the charm of this edition lies in the copious footnotes compiled by T. H. White. With immense erudition, wit, grace, and a singular lack of condescension, the author illuminates literary, scientific, historical, linguistic, and other aspects of the bestiarist's catalog. He further enhances the volume with informative discussions of the history of the bestiary from its origins in remote oral traditions; through Herodotus, Pliny and Aristotle; during the medieval period and the Renaissance; and up to Sir Thomas Browne's Vulgar Errors (1646). Both amusing and amazing, The Book of Beasts is not only a rich survey of the proto-zoology on which much of our later science is based, but also a revealing, illustrated examination of how pre-scientific man perceived the earth's creatures.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; New impression edition (November 1969)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224617206
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224617208
  • Shipping Weight: 671 g

Product Description

From the Back Cover

If a serpent swallows the spittle of a fasting man, it dies. Trees felled in the wrong season breed termites. If eels are drowned in wine, those who drink it get a loathing for liquor.
These and similar flights of fancy were articles of faith in the twelfth century—the era of the fascinating Latin prose bestiary translated in this volume. The translator is T. H. White, author of The Once and Future King and outstanding medievalist. Of The Book of Beasts, White writes: "No Latin prose bestiary has ever before been printed, even in Latin. This is the first and only English translation in print."
The bestiary was a bestseller in the Middle Ages, a kind of natural history cum-zoological survey that presumed to describe the animals of the world and to point out the human traits they exemplified. Combining the surprisingly accurate with the endearingly phantasmagorical, the bestiarists came up with a bewildering array of real and exotic creatures. The behavior or attributes of the animals often functioned as a metaphor for teaching religious, moral, and political precepts.
In addition to a multitude of real mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish, described here with varying degrees of zoological accuracy, the bestiarist introduces a swarm of fanciful denizens thought to haunt the Dark Ages: manticore, a creature with a man's face, a lion's body, and a ravenous appetite for human flesh; dragon or draco, the biggest serpent and the embodiment of the Devil; amphivia, a fish that could walk on land and swim in the sea; jaculus, a flying serpent; the familiar phoenix; the griffin; and other exotic fauna.
Much of the charm of this edition lies in the copious footnotes compiled by T. H. White. With immense erudition, wit, grace, and a singular lack of condescension, the author illuminates literary, scientific, historical, linguistic, and other aspects of the bestiarist's catalog. He further enhances the volume with informative discussions of the history of the bestiary from its origins in remote oral traditions; through Herodotus, Pliny and Aristotle; during the medieval period and the Renaissance; and up to Sir Thomas Browne's Vulgar Errors (1646). Both amusing and amazing, The Book of Beasts is not only a rich survey of the proto-zoology on which much of our later science is based, but also a revealing, illustrated examination of how pre-scientific man perceived the earth's creatures.
Unabridged republication of the edition published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1954.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 12th Century Biology Oct. 6 2000
By "bobkytten" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is indeed an excellent book for those interested in history and biology. ~The Book of Beasts~ is a translation from Latin of a Twelfth century bestiary. It was written as a serious scientific study of zoology, despite giving equal precedence to dogs, horses, lions, dragons, and unicorns. This was the world of wildlife as the people of the 1100's saw it. It includes such beliefs as "when a lioness gives birth to her cubs, she brings them forth dead and lays them up lifeless for three days - until thier father, coming on the third day, breathes in thier faces, and makes them alive." (direct quote) The book also has an extensive appendix, detailing the history of the original manuscript of this bestiary, and information on ancient bestiaries as a whole. Further, the author tells us "No Latin prose bestiary has ever before been printed, even in Latin. This is the first and only English translation in print. . ." This is an invaluable reference to any students of historical sciences, especially biological/zoological sciences, or to any simply interested in the subjects. Very highly recommended.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful and Meta-Amusing Aug. 15 2010
By T. Kaske - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book makes me deliriously happy.

The text is full of gorgeous illustrations, and the author's bizarro witticisms are almost as amusing as the claims that he's translating. While it may not be the right book to base serious, humorless research on--the author, while academic, is adorably distractible--it's a fantastic companion for creative inspiration and amusing reading. I've collected a number of medieval bestiary reference books, and this is by far my favorite.

If you're looking for a pile of facts done analytically and systematically, this is probably not for you. Personally, I have a lot of love for science/academia-gone-awry (which inspired my love of bestiaries in the first place), and this text is a delightful example of exactly that. The unreliability and downright absurdity of the actual content is beautifully reflected in the author's own meandering, quirky voice and footnotes (oh, the glorious footnotes!)--unintentional, I'm sure, but delightful as a piece of art, a portrait of not only 12th-century naturalism but of 20th-century classical academia.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Book of beasts Dec 28 2012
By Wendy Read Wells - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Book of Beasts. White's familiarity with the lore and his grace with language make this a must for anyone who cares about the Arthurian legend, as all students and teachers of English should.
9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dark Age zoology Aug. 10 2008
By Ashtar Command - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"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.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The once and future bestiary Feb. 14 2012
By othoniaboys - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Although an annotated translation rather than an original book, this oddity deserves the attention of all lovers of the books of T. H. White, author of 'The Once and Future King' which served as the basis for Disney's Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot. Here you have pious nonsense served up raw but delightfully. The medieval folk lived in a sort of fantasy world without realizing it. White was a gentle soul who is not here to make fun, or not too much fun, of the idiocies of the Middle Ages.

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