The bestiary was a type of book popular during the Middle Ages that featured descriptions of beasts alongside illuminations of their appearances. These included real and imagined animals, and their descriptions often came with anecdotes and religious symbolisms to provide moral instruction to the reader.
Production of a bestiary was an arduous and costly process because its texts and illuminations were typically done entirely by hand with intricate details and vivid colouring (involving gold and silver decorations), and was not the work of a single person.
The Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200) is considered one of the finest and most beautiful examples due to its particularly lavish, gilded illuminations.
REFLECTIONS AND ENGAGEMENT
During the course on Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330), a number in the class produced their own creative bestiary entries to better engage with and understand the characteristics of this textual form. Their works are compiled here in alphabetical order, with links to their full reflections on their projects and the bestiary in general:
THE MEDIEVAL KINGFISHER BESTIARY
The Capricornus-Xuanwu is a hybrid celestial beast of the northern summer skies and southern winter skies. Beheld in the west, it takes the shape of a goat with fish tail, coiling as a serpent round the form of a black monstrous turtle beheld in the east. The Xuanwu turtle is half-lion, half-dragon, half-snake, a fierce and mysterious guardian of the north with the power of water. The sea-goat shares this affinity, but it is also endowed with the abundance of earth, of which the infant Zeus once suckled upon through the horns. It is a confused creature at war with itself always, but alas, such is also the nature of the world.
Translatio studii et imperii is a Latin term that emerges frequently in the analysis of medieval literary works, where translatio is defined as translation or transferal, studii as knowledge and culture, and imperii as political power and legitimacy. Hence, translatio studii et imperii traces the spatial and chronological movement of knowledge and culture, as well as political power and legitimacy from one civilization to another. In the Medieval ages, politics and transmission were intimately connected as it was perceived that political and cultural legitimacy were inherited from classical antiquity and bequeathed to modern-day medieval Europe (Schwartz), thus revealing the significance of translatio studii et imperii in claiming literary authority.
The classical parallelism between translatio studii and translatio imperii is exemplified by the thematic coupling of artes ac arma (arms and arts) and chevalerie et clergie (chivalry and scholarship) in medieval texts (Knauth). The prologue of Chrétien’s Cligès is one of the most cited examples that pays tribute to historical and spatial succession, where the prominence of power and knowledge is reflected in the lines “In Greece/ Knighthood and learning ranked/ Above all other things” (Cligès, 2). The reference to the particular geographical region indicates the esteem conferred upon cultural heritage hailing from Greece. Weight is placed upon succession, whether it is “Arthur’s lineage”, or the lineage of knighthood and learning having been “passed from Greece to Rome,/ And has reappeared, now,/ In France” (Cligès, 2). The mapping of space across Greece, Rome and France displays a historical continuity and legitimacy that lends itself to evolving literary traditions passed down over time from one civilization to another.
Chrétien’s Cligès, among a repertoire of other texts, also reflect political continuity by incorporating the unifying feature of the Arthurian court. In Cligès, Arthur serves not as a protagonist, but as the figurehead of the Arthurian Court, where the romance narrates the quests undertaken by Arthur’s knights. The Arthurian legend, weaved into stories from Celtic folklore, to Breton literature, Chrétien’s works and eventually across the greater Europe, underlies the geographical and geopolitical movement of literary material that is rooted in certain linguistic, cultural and literary codes, and concepts related to knighthood, chivalry and courtly love (Rikhardsdottir, 141). At the same time, each new work that draws upon the tradition simultaneously adds to it, and reconfigures the landscape of Arthurian literature. Given the shift from one form of writing to another, Translatio as a concept also moves beyond geographical and cultural transferal to encompass a linguistic movement from the classical languages of Greek and Latin to vernacular (Rikhardsdottir, 141).
The idea of literary evolution is reflected in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet draws upon French romance tradition by using rhyming couplets, but also deviates by incorporating the old English verse form of alliteration (Schwartz). Thematically, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight subverts the trope of courtly love through the rejection of earthly pleasures represented by the temptress, for spiritual love devoted to Virgin Mary. Similar to Cligès, translatio studii et imperii is also echoed in the references to historical and cultural heritage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s prologue and ending – while the past is remembered through the founding of Britain, and the legacy of Brutus and Troy, the future is reshaped as the very chronicle of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is memorialized in the symbol of the green sash.
Rikhardsdottir, S. (2017). Chronology, Anachronism and Translatio imperii. Handbook of Arthurian Romance, 135–150. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110432466-009
Knauth, K. Translatio Studii and Cross-cultural Movements or Weltverkehr. Comparative Literature: Sharing Knowledges for Preserving Cultural Diversity, vol 2.
Schwartz, D. (2002). Translatio Studii Et Imperii. California Polytechnic State University. http://cola.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl513/courtly/translat.htm
Raffel, Burton, trans. (1997) Chrétien de Troyes: Cligès. Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0300070217.
Armitage, Simon, trans. (2009) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN: 978-0393334159.
Marie’s poems represent the earliest surviving lais, though several later examples of the form appear in Old French in the 13th century and in Middle English in the 13th and 14th centuries. Different etymologies have been proposed for the term “lai”: one possibility is that it derives from the Irish loîd or laid, meaning “song,” while another is that it comes from the German leodus (a type of chant) or leich (“song,” “melody,” or “play”). Early allusions to the lai in literature suggest that it was a form accompanied by music, possibly a technically virtuoso performance on the harp; however, no such music has survived (Bullock-Davies).
What exactly is a lai? In its broadest definition, a “lai” is any text that calls itself one. Indeed, the characteristics of the form are notoriously difficult to pin down. Most lais make some appeal to Breton origins: they are often set in Brittany or in the Celtic regions of Britain (like Wales), and claim to be based on the songs of Breton minstrels, although no Breton sources for these stories have been preserved (at the time, Breton literature remained completely oral). Later on, this connection with Celtic settings begins to fade and the idea of the “Breton lay” becomes conventional, evoking vague associations with romance and adventure rather than a specific geographical setting. Lais become more varied in subject matter and tone in the 14th century, but earlier lais tend to be short verse narratives concerning love and chivalry, and often featuring supernatural or otherworldly elements.
Constance Bullock-Davies, “The Form of the Breton Lay,” Medium Aevum 42.1 (1973): 18-31.