On September 10, 2009, my Medieval Word of the Day was Bestiary: a collection of drawings or paintings of animals, real or imagined, accompanied by their physical and allegorical descriptions.
Medieval bestiaries play a small role in my medieval romance, Illuminations of the Heart. My heroine’s brother “illuminates” a bestiary to prove to his illuminator father that he’s ready to be advanced from apprenticeship in their shop. My heroine, Siri, practices her own drawing skills in the gardens of her new guardian, Triston de Brielle, while sitting with Triston’s young son Perrin and cousin Acelet. While conversing with them both about her new home, she draws a bee with a crown hovering above it in the air, and explains to Perrin that swarms of bees are led by a king bee. Yes, it’s the very opposite of what we know about bees today, and a friend who read my book challenged my writing of this scene. But because I had read Medieval Beasts, by Ann Payne, I was able to explain to my friend that in the Middle Ages, people not only believed that bees were lead by a king rather than a queen, but that bees, like most of the animal kingdom, represented some kind of allegory, or moral story, to the people of the Middle Ages. The allegory of the bee, as my heroine explained to her companions, went like this:
“Bees are led by a king, as are we," she said, ignoring the resentful glance Acelet sent at the boy. "He is a most benevolent ruler, leading by example and never turning his sting upon malefactors. He has only to demonstrate to them the error of their ways, and in shame they will turn their own sting upon themselves.” (Illuminations of the Heart, p 76)
In the medieval world, each animal, like the bee, represented some sort of moral example or symbolism that humans were encouraged to follow if the symbolism was good (like the bee), or avoid if the symbolism was bad (like the crocodile, which represented hypocrisy with the “false tears” it shed after eating any unfortunate human who stumbled across its path).
In her book, Medieval Beasts, Ann Payne recreates a medieval bestiary complete with over seventy full-color illustrations borrowed from actual medieval bestiaries found in The British Library. She covers animals (lion, tiger, elephant, camel, hedgehog, ants, the mythical leucrota—bred from a hyena and a lioness!—and more); birds (eagle, vulture, ostrich, phoenix, siren, bats and bees—yes, the latter two were considered to fall into the “bird family”—and more); reptiles (viper, asp, boa, salamander, dragon, basilisk, and more); and fish (fish, sera, dolphin, and whale).
If you are interested in sampling a modern reproduction of a medieval bestiary, Medieval Beasts by Ann Payne is a delightful place to start!