Trinity College has lent two manuscripts to a fabulous new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World looks at the imaginative world of the medieval bestiary. A bestiary is a compendium of animals – mythical and real – which usually highlights the religious or moral significance of the depicted beasts. They were very popular texts in the medieval period as devotional reading and for entertainment. Trinity’s bestiary is found within a composite manuscript, R.14.9. Below is a sample of some of the beasts contained within it.
The pelican, by reviving its young with blood from its own breast, symbolises Christ’s death (f.89v).
The unicorn, laying its head in a maiden’s lap, becomes vulnerable to hunters. It symbolises Christ’s incarnation (the unicorn is Christ; the maiden, his mother Mary) and the killing is an allegory of Christ’s death (f.90ar).
The fox playing dead to fool birds before devouring them reminds readers to be alert to the trickery of the Devil (f.90ar).
Worker bees, protecting the Queen Bee, represent models of good citizenship (f.102v).
The elephant which mates for life inspires marital fidelity (f.95r).
The roots of the mandrake plant grow in human form. The mandrake shrieks when it is torn from the ground. Anyone who hears the cry goes mad or dies. Rarely some bestiaries describe how the female elephant eats from the mandrake plant and then shares it with the male before she seduces him (f.95v)
The bonnacon is a mythical, comic creation. It is depicted with a bull’s head and horns that curl inwards, rendering them useless for defence. To defeat hunters the bonnacon instead attacks with potent excrement (f.96r).
The hyena devours a corpse in a sarcophagus. It can change gender from male to female and represents untrustworthiness (f.90av).
The mythical leucrota, shown here with large teeth and hooves, results from a hyena-like beast mating with a lioness. Its mouth stretches from ear to ear and it can mimic human speech (f.96v).
The College has also loaned the exhibition a 14th century Herbal (O.2.48). The exhibition runs until 18th August 2019. A blog to accompany the exhibition can be read here.