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).
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; 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).
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
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.
This week, we’re looking back at one of our earlier episodes of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” In 2022, we sat down with Eleonora Celora, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. We spoke to her about liturgical manuscripts as works of art, moving to France without knowing French, and creating a tool to help others understand medieval liturgical texts.
Eleonora’s journey to Notre Dame has taken her across the world. Moving from Italy to France and then to South Bend, Indiana, she is someone who jumps in feet first and overcomes challenges through determination and passion for her work. It was eye-opening to hear about her experiences shifting between languages and cultures. Being an international student is never easy—you are exposed to new foods, new ways of doing things, new social etiquette—but it can be really rewarding.
Ele’s experiences also provide unique insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the American PhD programme. During her undergraduate degree she developed an interest in music and manuscripts that led to her study the Middle Ages in more and more detail. But as she tells us, studying in Italy and the United States are two very different things. She has seen firsthand how different educational environments shape your research, subtly directing you to ask some questions and not others. For Ele, the solution has been to seek an international career as much as possible. In this increasingly interconnected, global academic world, we can all stand to benefit from collaborating with international researchers when we can. Working with scholars trained in other university systems can help us to see our fields in new ways and maybe ask the questions we’d never thought to ask.
Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.
Will Beattie & Ben Pykare Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
Today’s blog continues from last week’s discussion of the Nasrid College and the multicultural exchange it fostered in Medieval Iberia by shifting the focus to the intellectual and political.
In Muḥarram 750/April 1349, the Nasrid College, located directly across from the former Great Mosque of Granada (today the cathedral) and near the main market, was completed. It reflected the intersection between knowledge and power, cosmopolitanism and learning, in Nasrid Granada. Although the Nasrid College was certainly the most significant example of an Andalusi madrasah during the Middle Ages, the Granadan scholar-statesman and historian Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1374) states that “the admirable college was constructed during the reign of Yūsuf and was the most illustrious of all the colleges in his capital,” indicating that there may have been other such colleges in the kingdom. The Nasrid College sought to establish the preeminence of the Granada as a leading intellectual and cultural center in the Islamic West. Its prominence reflected the transformation of Granada from an embattled frontier polity into a major center of learning in the Islamic West, competing with other intellectual centers such as Fez, Tlemcen, Tunis, Marrakesh and Meknes. Although law, Arabic grammar, and theology constituted the integral components of the curriculum, the subjects taught at the Nasrid College encompassed both the “traditional sciences” (al-‘ulūm al-naqliyyah) as well as the “philosophical sciences” (al-‘ulūm al-‘aqliyyah), and included jurisprudence, logic, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, arithmetic, and geometry. Some of these subjects would also be studied with professors from the Nasrid College in other spaces in Granada, including the home and chancery. The students and teachers at the Nasrid College included some of the greatest luminaries from al-Andalus as well as North Africa during the 14th and 15th centuries. The Nasrid College contained a significant library that housed many of the most important works produced in the late medieval Islamic West, as well as many books from across the Islamic world. According to a note by the 15th-century Andalusi scholar Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad b. al-Ḥaddād al-Wādī Āshī, for example, an ornamented and calligraphic manuscript of the monumental “Comprehensive History of Granada” (al-Ihāṭah fī Akhbār Gharnāṭah, authored by Ibn al-Khaṭīb) was deposited in the library of Nasrid College during the reign of Muḥammad V (r. 1354-1359, 1362-1391), where it remained as an endowment (taḥbīs), and was consulted by subsequent generations of scholars.
Following the Iberian Christian conquest of Granada in 1492, the Nasrid College survived largely intact, until much of it was demolished during the early 18th century to make way for a new Baroque structure. Although only the prayer niche (miḥrāb) and the Oratory of the Following the Iberian Christian conquest of Granada in 1492, the Nasrid College survived largely intact, until much of it was demolished during the early 18th century to make way for a new Baroque structure. Although only the prayer niche (miḥrāb) and the Oratory of the Nasrid College survives to the present day, recent studies by historians and archaeologists have sought to reconstruct the original structure, which included a monumental gate and pool.
The survival of several contemporary Marinid colleges in North Africa, including those in Fez, Meknes, and Salé built during the 1340s and 1350s, may also provide an idea of both the scale and style of the Nasrid College.
Like the monumental colleges constructed by Marinid rulers in North Africa, especially Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī (r. 1331–1348) and Abū ‘Inān (1348–1358), this structure was intended to c
Like the monumental colleges constructed by Marinid rulers in North Africa, especially Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī (r. 1331–1348) and Abū ‘Inān (1348–1358), this structure was intended to celebrate the elaborate wealth and power of the sovereign, while proclaiming his commitment to knowledge. There are remarkable architectural and artistic similarities between the Nasrid College and other royal monuments in Granada, including the Alhambra, as well as with Marinid colleges in North Africa, particularly the College of Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī in Salé, which was built several years earlier. Similar to the Marinid colleges, the verses inscribed on the walls of the Nasrid College, which were preserved in medieval and early modern texts, were authored by leading scholars, litterateurs and courtiers. These celebrated the patronage of learning by Yūsuf I, and illustrate the interrelationship between royal power and learned elites in the Nasrid kingdom.
In addition to reflecting a shared idiom of sovereignty and learned kingship across both Islamic Spain and North Africa, the similarities between these colleges, which were built within several years of one another, provides an important indication of the cultural and artistic exchange across the Islamic West. It also illustrates the role of interregional connections in strengthening the ties of affiliation and the diffusion of institutions between Iberia and North Africa during this period. Itinerant scholars, administrators and artisans served as cultural intermediaries and conduits for the exchange of ideas and institutions between Nasrid Granada and Marinid Morocco. The Nasrid College was merely one illustration of this broader phenomenon.
While the College came to be known in later sources as al-Madrasa al-Yūsufiyya or “The College of Yūsuf,” and came to be associated with the name of Yūsuf I (r. 1333-1354), it was in fact the creation of Abū Nu‘aym Riḍwān al-Naṣrī (d. 1359), this Nasrid sovereign’s royal chamberlain. Abū Nu‘aym Riḍwān was a prominent example of a particular class of Nasrid society that modern scholarship has referred to as “renegades,” enslaved people and freedmen and their descendants who were an integral part of Granada’s population. Riḍwān was born into a Castilian Christian family in Calzada de Calatrava before being enslaved as a child during a Nasrid raid in the late 13th century. Following his captivity, he was converted to Islam and manumitted, received an education in the Nasrid court, and eventually appointed to leading positions of executive authority, including royal chamberlain, chief minister and commander of the military. The rise to prominence of Riḍwān during this period is also corroborated by contemporary Castilian and Aragonese sources, including the Crónica de Alfonso XI, which describes him as “a Muslim knight known as Reduan, the son of a Christian man and Christian woman, whom the king of Granada trusted immensely (un cavallero moro que dezian Reduan que fuera fijo de christiano e de christiana e era ome quien fiava mucho el rey).” There is substantial evidence that Riḍwān served as an intermediary with the Iberian Christian kingdoms, and corresponded directly with Alfonso IV (r. 1327–1336) and Pedro IV (r. 1336–1387) of Aragón in order to secure a peace treaty between the Nasrids and Aragón. In these documents, four of which have been preserved in the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Riḍwān consistently refers to himself as “Riḍwān, son of God’s servant, the chief minister of the Sultan” (Riḍwān ibn ‘Abd Allāh wazīr al-sulṭān).
This concerted program of urban expansion and elaborate construction in Granada during the 14th century was accomplished through the close collaboration between the secretarial class, nobles, artisans, and craftsmen. The establishment of the Nasrid College and its transformation into one of the most important institutions of learning in Granada was made possible by the close relationship between the sovereign, leading statesmen such as Riḍwān and the various secretaries and functionaries within the Nasrid chancery. The construction of the Nasrid College and the circumstances surrounding it demonstrate that, far from being a period of “intellectual decline,” the 14th and 15th centuries in the Islamic West witnessed the emergence of a rigorous scholarly culture that produced brilliant individuals and prolific scholars. The Nasrid College, which has now become the subject of numerous interdisciplinary studies that have included historians, philologists, and archaeologists, has the potential to shed light on this larger cultural renaissance.
Mattei, Luca. “Estudio de la Madraza de Granada a partir del registro arqueológico y de las metodologías utilizadas en la intervención de 2006.” Arqueología y Territorio 5 (2008): 181-192
Prado García, Celia. “Los estudios superiores en las madrazas de Murcia y Granada. Un estado de la cuestión.” Murgetana 139 (2018): 9-21.
Rodríguez-Mediano, Fernando. “The Post-Almohad Dynasties in al-Andalus and the Maghrib.” In The New Cambridge History of Islam, Volume II: The Western Islamic World, Eleventh to Eighteenth Centuries, edited by Maribel Fierro, pp. 106–143. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Rubiera Mata, María Jesús. “Datos sobre una ‘Madrasa’ en Málaga anterior a la Naṣrí de Granada.” Al-Andalus 35 (1970): 223–226
Sarr, Bilal and Luca Mattei. “La Madraza Yusufiyya en época andalusí: un diálogo entre las fuentes árabes escritas y arqueológicas.” Arqueología y Territorio Medieval 16 (2009): 53–74.
Secall, M. Isabel Calero. “Rulers and Qādīs: Their Relationship during the Naṣrid Kingdom.” Islamic Law and Society 7 (2000): 235–255
Seco de Lucena Paredes, Luis. “El Ḥāŷib Riḍwān, la madraza de Granada y las murallas del Albayzín.” Al-Andalus 21 (1956): 285–296.
 The most important scholarship about the Nasrid College includes La Madraza: pasado, presente y futuro (Granada: Editorial Universidad de Granada, 2007), eds. Rafael López Guzmán and María Elena Díez Jorge; La Madraza de Yusuf I y la ciudad de Granada: análisis a partir de la arqueología (Granada: Editorial Universidad de Granada, 2015), eds. Antonio Malpica Cuello and Luca Mattei.
 Ibn al-Khatīb, al-Lamḥa al-Badriyya fī al-Dawla al-Naṣriyya (Kuwait, 2013), p. 153. For a discussion of an earlier college built in the Nasrid kingdom, see María Jesús Rubiera Mata, “Datos sobre una ‘Madrasa’ en Málaga anterior a la Naṣrí de Granada,” Al-Andalus 35 (1970), pp. 223–226.