image of vultures (Aberdeen Bestiary)

Week 8: Physiologus.

Background | Background Quiz | Starting Assumptions | Resources | Extras
Vocabulary | Etymology | Grammar | Perseus Dictionary | Perseus Tool

Reading Overview | Reading Quiz: English
| Reading Quiz: Latin
Discussion Questions | Latin Composition | Weekly Checklist

Background Information

The "Physiologus" refers to a legendary figure and to a text that goes by the same name: Physiologus. No one knows who the Physiologus was, if there ever was a person who took that title for his name: the word means someone who studies the world of nature, Greek physis. There are ancient Greek and Latin versions of a text called Physiologus, which consists of a series of brief chapters in which the "natures" of particular animals (along with a few plants and stones) are described, followed by a Christian allegorical interpretation of the meaning of the animal's nature. The Greek original probably dates to the 4th century or so, although the oldest Greek version has been lost.

The Physiologus was translated into all the language of the Christian world, both east and west (from Ethiopian to Old Church Slavic), and it also began to grow in size, assimilating material from other natural history writers, until it eventually gave rise to what became known as the "bestiary" tradition. The texts for this week's readings are taken from a beautiful late 12th-century illuminated bestiary text, the Aberdeen Bestiary, which is available online, with a complete transcription of the Latin text, English translation, and images of the illuminated manuscript pages. Please read these ten stories from the Bestiary, which are reproduced here (in English) with their illustrations: these are the stories that will be covered in this week's background quiz.

It is fascinating to watch the way that the content of the natural history tradition is adapted as it moves from culture to culture. This tradition begins, more or less, with Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, whose interests in the animal world can basically be called scientific. We then see authors like Isidore and Hrabanus Maurus attempting to reassemble that body of knowledge from the wreckage of the Roman world, while assimilating it into a new Christian tradition. As it merges more and more fully with this Christian framework, the bestiary tradition eventually incorporates that entire body of natural knowledge into the allegorical mode, so that each animal provides a lesson to the Christian community about how to behave, or how not to behave. It is only in the early modern period that the learned tradition seeks to distance itself from these legends about the animals; Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxa Epidemica devotes an entire book to the refutation of this long tradition!

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM