Imagining the Medieval Bestiary

Medieval bestiaries, which flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly in England, are compendia of brief descriptions of various animals (sometimes plants and stones are included as well), which offer moral or allegorical lessons, and are often colorfully illustrated.

Basic modern definitions often suggest a sort of binary, ontological taxonomy for the creatures in these texts: bestiaries feature “real” animals (or “actual” or “factual” ones, such as dogs, crocodiles, beavers, and elephants), but also “imaginary” ones (or “mythical,” “legendary,” or “fabulous” ones, etc., such as unicorns, phoenixes, and manticores).

Unicorn from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f15r).

Bestiaries themselves don’t appear to distinguish between “real” and “imaginary” animals, in terms of the arrangement of entries or the way that creatures from these two categories are verbally described or artistically depicted;[1] the distinction is a modern and anachronistic one. Furthermore, bestiaries’ inclusion of hard-to-believe anecdotes about well-known creatures who actually do exist (e.g., the stag’s alleged habit of drowning snakes) renders the boundary between “real” and “imaginary” animals, as we might consider it, less firm in these texts. At stake in the discourse of the “real” versus the “imaginary” in bestiaries is our view of medieval thinkers.

One approach to the “imaginary” animals in bestiaries—a very old approach to interpreting mythical creatures, in fact—is rationalistic: positing that even the legends have some basis in reality, and that real animals were, through a combination of misunderstanding and literary transmission, rendered (almost) unrecognizable. Notable proponents of this view in modern times have included T. H. White (1954), and more recently, zoologists Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp (1991).

Phoenix from Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, f68r).

Bestiaries, for these scholars, can be read as works of natural history, albeit flawed ones, and we should perhaps extend some generosity to their creators, in light of the limitations of their knowledge. George and Yapp characterize the bestiary as “an attempt, not wholly unsuccessful or discreditable for the time at which it was produced, to give some account of some of the more conspicuous creatures that could be seen by the reader or that occurred in legends.”[2] They suggest, for instance, that the manticore—described in bestiaries as a creature with a man’s face, a lion’s body, three rows of teeth, and a tail like a scorpion stinger—was based on the cheetah; that the unicorn could actually be an oryx; and that the half-human, half-fish siren could be a Mediterranean monk seal.

Reading bestiaries as genuine, sometimes highly faulty attempts at something comparable to modern natural history is not a popular position amongst medievalist scholars of bestiaries. However, the idea of bestiaries as failed pre-modern zoology lingers in some sources aimed at popular audiences. The entry on bestiaries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, claims that the “frequently abstruse stories” in these works “were often based on misconceptions about the facts of natural history.”

Manticore from Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, f22v).

As for the ontological status of “imaginary” bestiary creatures to medieval readers, i.e., whether they believed unicorns, etc. actually existed, this is hard to ascertain, and perhaps of less interest to many scholars than the prospect of examining the messages these rich works articulate on their own terms. Still, the unsupported assertion that bestiary stories were “generally believed to be true” in the Middle Ages, as the Wikipedia page for bestiaries claims, is very much in line with widespread perceptions of the period.

It is an appealing contemporary fantasy, not so much to believe in dragons or unicorns, but to believe that people really believed in them, once—a sort of vicarious experience of enchantment, accomplished not simply by imaginatively engaging with medieval works that depict fantastic animals, but by imagining more credulous medieval readers, and perhaps even by imagining oneself in their place.

Dragon from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f65v).

To take both “real” and “imaginary” bestiary creatures as the texts present them—not seeking to sieve the factual from the fabulous, not seeking an ordinary, well-known animal behind the remarkable verbal and visual depictions that bestiaries offer—allows for, amongst other things, a certain defamiliarization of the natural world we inhabit.

Playing on the fertile ambiguities of bestiary accounts is a project by The Maniculum (a podcast series which brings together medieval texts and modern gaming, co-hosted by E. C. McGregor Boyle, a PhD Candidate at Purdue University, and Zoe Franznick, an award-winning writer for Pentiment). On the Maniculum Tumblr, readers are offered “anonymized” selections from the Aberdeen Bestiary (i.e., the name of the animal being described is replaced with a nonsense-word to disguise its identity). Contributors are invited to create artwork inspired by the bestiary description itself, rather than their knowledge of what the animal is “supposed” to look like. The results are diverse; the “hyena” entry, for instance, yielded representations of creatures resembling everything from pigs to predatory snails, in a wide range of styles.

Hyena from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f11v).

Bestiaries continue to fascinate and inspire, centuries after their creation. Below are some medieval bestiary facsimiles and related resources to explore:

  • The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24), written and illustrated in England ca. 1200. Digital facsimile, accompanied by commentary, and Latin transcriptions and modern English translations of each folio.
  • The Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511), early 13th century, England, possibly derived from the same exemplar as the Aberdeen bestiary. Digital facsimile.
  • The Worksop Bestiary (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.81), ca. 1185, England. Digital facsimile.
  • The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages, a website on bestiaries by independent scholar David Badke. Includes indices of bestiary creatures, cross-referenced with manuscripts and relevant scholarship, as well as galleries of medieval illustrations.
  • Into the Wild: Medieval Books of Beasts, YouTube video by The Morgan Library & Museum.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Pamela Gravestock, “Did Imaginary Animals Exist?” in The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature, ed. Debra Hassig (New York: Garland, 1999), 120.

[2] Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp, The Naming of the Beasts: Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary (London: Duckworth, 1991), p. 1.

Aglæca: Awesome Opponent or Uncanny Invader?

One of the most challenging Old English terms to translate is the enigmatic aglæca, a term that has prompted an extensive amount of ink spilled. Earlier translators tended to gloss the term as “monster,” a definition that applies to the most frequent usage in the corpus. In this vein, J.R. Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary defines aglæca (m.) as “wretch, monster, demon, fierce enemy” and the related term, aglæc (n.) as “trouble, distress, oppression, misery, grief” (15). Similarly, Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary offers these six definitions for aglæca (n.): “A miserable being, wretch, miscreant, monster, fierce combatant.” These foundational sources substantiate the many translations that render the term as “monster,” albeit with neutral exceptions such as “fierce combatant” when referring to positive figures and heroes.

A close up of a stone

Description automatically generated
Beowulf Manuscript, atol æglæca “terrible æglæca” BL, Cotton Vitellius a.vx. f145v.

Recent critical editions, however, reflect a different trajectory. These editions shift to something more akin to “fierce combatant” than “monster.” For example, in Beowulf: A Critical Edition, edited by Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson, the term appears as “fierce combatant, adversary” (241). Similarly, Klaeber’s Beowulf: Fourth Edition, edited by R.D. Fulk, Robert Bjork and John Niles, glosses aglæca (m.) as “one inspiring awe or misery, formidable one, afflicter, assailant, adversary, combatant” (347). Lastly, the University of Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English [DOE] adheres to this trend, in glossing the term as “awesome opponent, ferocious fighter.” None of these more recent editions include “monster” or “wretch” as definitions for the term, nor do any related terms such as “demon” or “miscreant” that carry an unequivocally pejorative sense.

The new convention attempts to solve a longstanding problem associated with Beowulf. In that poem, references to both monsters and heroes provoked a blatant inconsistency, which glossed negatively in referencing the monsters and positively in referencing the heroes. The proposed solution to this inconsistency was located in a reference to Bede as the aglæca lareow aglæca teacher, master, preacher.” Given Bede’s renowned for learned equanimity, it was reasoned that the term could not denote a pejorative meaning. Accordingly, the now conventional glosses, “awesome opponent, ferocious fighter” applied equally to demonic monsters (Satan in Juliana and Grendel in Beowulf), heroic warriors (Beowulf and Sigemund in Beowulf), missionary saints ( St. Andrew in Andreas) and the venerable scholar (Bede in the prose text, Byrhtferth’s Manual).

A painting of a person standing on a monkey

Description automatically generated
Depiction of Mambres with book contemplating Hell’s torments: from a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v.

The Old English poem Beowulf contains the majority of uses of aglæca forms in the entire literary Old English corpus. Indeed, 20 of the 34 iterations of aglæca occur in the poem (159, 425, 433, 556, 592, 646, 732, 739, 816, 893, 989, 1000, 1259, 1269, 1512, 2520, 2534, 2557, 2592, 2905), and 11 iterations apply specifically to Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), marking him as the primary aglæca in Old English literature. Outside of Beowulf, the term aglæca features predominantly for Satan and his demonic minions, marking the term as principally associated with devils. Including Grendel, references to explicitly demonic monsters as aglæca occur in 24 of its 34 occurrences, suggesting either a demonic or monstrous association and underscoring that aglæca often carries a pejorative sense. Moreover, if we apply a critical lens to some of the heroes in Beowulf who are labeled aglæca, namely Heremod, Sigemund and Beowulf himself, as Griffith, Koberl, Orchard, Gwara and others have done, the pejorative could then extend to the heroic figures in the poem.

In sum, the term is used primarily throughout the corpus to refer to monsters or demons—and above all Satan and Grendel. But, it is also notably used to describe heroes in Beowulf, Saint Andrew in the Old English Andreas, and most bewilderingly of all, to describe Bede. Alex Nicholls points this out in his transformative article highlighting this outlier reference to a renown and highly respected church father as an aglæca, which rightly prompted careful study aimed at reconsidering the Old English term’s semantics based primarily on the unusual context in which the term appears in this text, “Bede ‘Awe-inspiring’ Not ‘Monstrous’: Some Problems with Old English Aglæca.” And, while we commend this thoughtful reconsideration, we would argue that in fact the article may ultimately have had too large an impact on the semantics of the term, especially defined neutrally as “awesome opponent” as it appears in Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English. As in with other terms, here seems one where two definitions could help, one for the predominant usage of the term, and one that also accommodates the single prose use of the term for Bede. 

Detail of a miniature of the First Temptation of Christ: from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–1225, Arundel MS 157, f. 5v.

One glaring problem with this solution is that the modern sense of “awesome” is primarily—almost universally—positive, which is diametrically opposed to what the extant lexicographical evidence suggests with respect to the semantics of aglæca. Instead, the sense is principally and overwhelmingly pejorative. Thus, we would argue that “awesome opponent” as a modern English translation does not bear out across the corpus. We contend rather that “awful opponent” would better capture the general sense of the term in the vast majority of contexts in which aglæca appears. But, even this isn’t quite right. 

Unfortunately, the DOE’s second definition provides an equally unsatisfactory solution in opting for “ferocious fighter” as a translation for aglæca. As Mark Griffith observes, if the term merely signifies an “formidable opponent,” or something similar, “then it is very curious that it is not used of other figures in the poetry who could be appropriately so labeled” (35). The term aglæca is a noun traditionally understood to be derived from a compound that combines a form of the ege, which Bosworth-Toller defines as “fear, terror, dread, awe” with a form of the verb lacan, which Bosworth-Toller defines as “to swing, to wave about, to play, to fight.” Thus, defining aglæca as “ferocious fighter” erases the wondrous and terrifying quality [ege] and strips the term of one of its formative elements.

Nichols offers “awe-inspiring” thereby maintaining the “fear” sense in the term, the semantics would apply to both monstrous figures (like Satan and Grendel) as well as marvelous/wonderous heroes. It is ege or “awe” in the sublime and wondrous sense of the term. We would argue that “monster” is actually not so bad a translation as the concept of “wonder” and “monster” in the medieval period were interwoven in the early medieval literature. Indeed, Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short’s A Latin Dictionary, generally regarded considered the best resource for medieval Latin, offers two definitions of monstrum:

1.) a divine omen indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent
2.) a monster, monstrosity (whether a living being or an inanimate thing)

This wondrous, portentous quality—this uncanniness—is consistently applicable to aglæca —from Satan to Bede. There is of course also the combative aspect of the compound, which seems in every case to correspond to not only an intruder but something akin to a fearsome marauder—an uncanny invader.

Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r.

This brings us back to Bede—the one lone positive iteration that seems not to carry a pejorative sense—which occurs in a text from later than most iterations (11th century) and is also the only iteration of the term in prose writing. While this use of the term for Bede is puzzling, though far from inexplicable, it seems overkill to disregard the pejorative sense that applies to the term in 33 of 34 iterations and interpret the semantics of the term as neutral because of a single outlier, especially one removed from the poetic and to a lesser extent the historical context in which the majority of uses of the term appear. Moreover, if we consider the possibility of including “wondrous intruder” as a definition for aglæca, it better applies to Bede’s supernatural visitation. While we are in no way advocating for a return to rendering aglæca as “monster” in modern English translations of Beowulf, nor do we consider “awesome opponent” or “ferocious fighter” suitable definitions for aglæca, because the former definition suggests disingenuously probative semantics and the latter disregards the sense of ege “awe” contained in the term. If the term aglæca is understood as a “wondrous intruder” or an “uncanny invader” it applies more neatly to all the Old English contexts in which the term appears. But even these translations lack satisfaction as they largely elide (or at least diminish) the fearful, pejorative sense carried by at least the major of the contexts in which the term appears. This is in part because the word “wonder” and its related forms in modern English are regarded much more positively, whereas an Old English wundor could certainly be marvelous in either a neutral or miraculous sense, but could equally be regarded as monstrous.

Richard Fahey & Chris Vinsonhaler
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame & CUNY University

Selected Bibliography & Further Reading

Fahey, Richard. “Grendel’s Shapeshifting: From Shadow Monster to Human Warrior.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (October 27, 2021).

—. “Enigmatic Design & Psychomachic Monstrosity in Beowulf.” Dissertation: University of Notre Dame (2019).

—. “The Lay of Sigemund.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (March 22, 2019).

Griffith, Mark. “Some Difficulties in Beowulf, Lines 874-902: Sigemund Reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Gwara, Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

Köberl, Johann. The Indeterminacy of Beowulf. Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 2002.

Nicholls, Alex. “Bede ‘Awe-inspiring’ Not ‘Monstrous’: Some Problems with Old English Aglæca.” Notes and Queries 38.2 (1991): 147-48.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.4 (1981): 484-94.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Schulman, Jana K. “Monstrous Introductions: Ellengæst and Aglæcwif.” In Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, 69-92. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012.

Vinsonhaler, N. Chris. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 47 (2016): 1-36.

Grendel the Vampire?

Contemporary monsters associated with modern Halloween celebrations—such as vampires, werewolves and mummies—borrow heavily from the genre of Gothic Horror which takes shape during the early modern period in the hands of Romantic and Victorian authors.

“Gothic Horror Environment” by Unreal Engine (2021).

Indeed, Gothic Horror, the literary source of many monsters commonly associated today with Halloween, regularly draws inspiration from the medieval period. Authors from Mary Shelley to Edgar Allen Poe capitalize on the haunting way the past is often reimagined in the present as mysterious, unknown and full of terrors. This year’s Halloween special, in celebration of Samhain and All Hallows Eve, considers the characterization of one famous medieval monster sometimes associated with the modern concept of “the vampire” in popular culture.

One of the most well-known monsters from the Middle Ages, Grendel, the terrifying cannibal from Beowulf, is frequently regarded as a medieval vampire in contemporary vampire lore, despite that the Old English poem seems not to have been readily available during the Victorian period. Although, Beowulf was first transcribed in 1786, with an edition later printed in 1815 by Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin who also translated the poem into Latin, its influence remained obscure. Some verses from Beowulf were translated into modern English in 1805, and nine complete translations were produced in the 19th century, including one by William Morris, but it was only after the turn of the 20th century that an abundance of translations became available making Beowulf accessible to public audiences and leading to growing interest in the Old English poem during the period which helps establish Beowulf as central to English literary canons thereafter.

The iconic scene of Count Orlok on the stairs from F. W. Murnau’ film, Nosferatu (1922).

Nevertheless, when Lord Byron, John Polidori, John Stag and Bram Stoker were contributing to the development of tropes and stereotypes that inform modern representations of vampires, they self-consciously and explicitly looked to the past “dark ages” with a macabre, antiquarian eye. Often, these authors will cite unspecified ancient lore and legend in an attempt to ground their vampire literature in a mythologically (if not historically) authenticated past in which monsters and magic are possible. These possibilities, then, extend into the present as gothic monsters reach from the deep recesses of time into modern times so that they may haunt the living. Vampires like many gothic monsters are generally understood as an anachronism, able to exist now only because they existed then, thereby suspending modern sensibilities and skepticisms. Indeed, the longstanding affiliation between medieval corpses and modern vampires is mobilized in a recent blog centered on vampirism, succubi and women’s monstrosity.

Each of these Victorian authors reach to the medieval period in order to craft their modern undead monsters, sometimes even looking toward historical figures, such as Vlad III of Wallachia (better known as Vlad “the Impaler”) as an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, it seems that none would have borrowed directly from the Old English poem.

So why is Grendel considered a vampire? Is there any textual evidence to support this claim?

“Grendel” by KaRzA-76 (2005).

While Grendel’s monstrosity remains mysterious, and some might see little resemblance between the medieval monster and Victorian vampires, there is one passage centered on Grendel’s cannibalism, which serves as a major source for Grendel’s association with vampirism. The section reads as follows:

Geseah he in recede    rinca manige,
swefan sibbegedriht    samod ætgædere,
magorinca heap.    Þa his mod ahlog;
mynte þæt he gedælde,    ærþon dæg cwome,
atol aglæca,    anra gehwylces
lif wið lice,    þa him alumpen wæs
wistfylle wen.    Ne wæs þæt wyrd þa gen
þæt he ma moste    manna cynnes
ðicgean ofer þa niht.    Þryðswyð beheold
mæg Higelaces,    hu se manscaða
under færgripum    gefaran wolde.
Ne þæt se aglæca    yldan þohte,
ac he gefeng hraðe    forman siðe
slæpendne rinc,    slat unwearnum,
bat banlocan,    blod edrum dranc,
synsnædum swealh;    sona hæfde
unlyfigendes    eal gefeormod,
fet ond folma.

“He [Grendel] saw in the hall many warriors, the troop of kinsfolk slept, gathered together, a heap of kindred warriors. Then his mind laughed, because he, the terrible, fearsome marauder, intended to rend life from the body of every one of them before day came, when the expectation of gluttony came over him. It was nevermore his fate that he might eat more of mankind over the night. The very mighty kinsman of Hygelac beheld how the criminal destroyer would fare with its sudden grips. The fearsome marauder did not think to delay, but he quickly seized a sleeping man the first time, tore ravenously, bit his bone-locker, drank the blood from his veins, swallowed the sinful morsel; soon he had finished off all of him, unliving, feet and hands” (728-745).

Most often, emphasis is placed on Grendel’s cannibalism and specifically his consumption of flesh mentioned in the passage. Few modern adaptations of Beowulf—from Michael Crichton’s Eater of the Dead (1976) to John Tiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999) based on Crichton’s adaptation to Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007), or even Cartoon Network’s adaptation of the poem in Adventure Time’s “The Wild Hunt” (2018)—depict Grendel as especially fond of blod edrum drincan “drinking blood from veins” (742), despite that the poem describes this vampiric act in gory detail.

“Gangrel” by Ypslon (2019).

Although most Beowulf adaptations focus more attention on flesh-eating than on blood-drinking, parallels between vampires and Grendel have not gone unnoticed, and categorizations of vampire-types sometimes include a Grendelish category, as demonstrated by the ferocious and bestial Gangrel, known for being especially close the “the Beast” within, their association with medieval Scandinavia and their ravenous consumption of blood in the popular roleplaying game, Vampire: The Masquerade. Moreover, Cain’s association with vampirism often mirrors his role as progenitor of the Grendelkin and all monsterkind in Beowulf.

Grendel may not be a proper vampire in the technical, stereotypical, modern understanding of the term. Moreover, Grendel’s characterization in Beowulf apparently did not affect vampire stereotypes developed in the early modern period before knowledge of the Old English poem became mainstream. Nevertheless, the graphic image of the monster haunting at night, coming from the darkness, perhaps shapeshifting from a shadow to human form, and most importantly, sucking the blood from the veins of his victim, marks Grendel’s characterization as eerily close in certain aspects to modern vampires, who share his love of darkness, often possess shapeshifting abilities and likewise glut themselves on human blood.

Richard Fahey, Ph.D.
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame