A Medieval Bestiary: When a book breaks your heart

This review is cross-posted on DownloadTheUniverse, a group blog that reviews science-related ebooks and discusses the future of the written word.

An illustration from the The Royal Bestiary, depicting a unicorn laying its head on the lap of a lady. Presumably, the illustrator had never seen a unicorn, nor (one suspects) a lady.

A Medeival Bestiary is just not that into me.

We should have gone so well together. It was a scanned copy of The Royal Bestiary, a 13th century manuscript stored in the British Library, enhanced for the iPad with text and audio interpretation on every page. I was a giant nerd. Clearly, a match made in heaven.

But I don't think it's going to work out.

It's not that the book is terrible. In fact, parts of it are, objectively, pretty damn cool. We are, after all, talking about an opportunity to virtually thumb through the pages of a very old book. And the scans are excellent. You can see stains on the vellum, and the margin lines drawn by the scribe or illustrator to make certain that text and images were put into just the right place on every page. You can zoom in on the beautiful, colored and gilded drawings of bees and eagles, lions and centuars. On every page, there is, indeed, a little tab that you can tap to learn more about the animals you see in the pictures – especially helpful for the book's many imaginary animals, such as the leucrota. Leucrotas, you may be interested to know, happen when a male hyena mates with a female lion. The result of that partnership looks, for some reason, rather like a horse, but with a forked tail and a creepy, Jack Nicholson smile. The Medieval Bestiary assures me that the leucrota's "teeth" are actually a single piece of sharp bone, curved into a U shape. If I tap the "Listen" button, this information will be read to me by a soothing, female, British voice.

In short, A Medieval Bestiary does everything it promised to do. In fact, I'm sure this book could make somebody very happy. (Maybe an art student?) Just not me. That's because, while it does do everything it promised, A Medieval Bestiary does only that. And not a bit more. I, unfortunately, need the bit more.

The truth is that some of this is my fault. I read the description and then set my expectations rather higher than I should have. I can't really blame A Medieval Bestiary for being the book it is (and said it was) rather than the book I want to be. And yet. And yet.

A book like this needs context. I need to know about the genre of bestiaries, in general. Did the authors make up the clearly made-up animals (and the clearly made-up information about real animals)? Or were they writing down longstanding traditions? What was the point of the book? Am I supposed to be studying the natural world, or exploring my own morality? Do books like bestiaries have a role in the development of true taxonomy and biology, the same way that alchemy had a role in the development of chemistry and physics? I have no idea. Because A Medieval Bestiary doesn't tell me. In fact, I had to run a couple Google searches to even figure out the book's real name. This is the full extent of context it offers on itself:

A bestiary is a book of real and imaginary beasts, though its subjects can extend to plants and even rocks. It combines description of the physical nature and habits of animals with elaboration on the moral or spiritual significance of these characteristics.

This amazing book was produced in the first decade of the 13th century, and is one of the earliest bestiaries to feature vivid paintings of animals. They are set on gold grounds and in colourful frames, supplanting the line-drawn renderings that populated earlier bestiaries. These lavish illuminations would have made this a costly book to produce, and so it is likely that it was produced for an aristocratic, or even royal, owner who could read Latin or had a chaplain who could do so.

Even more frustrating was the interpretation within the book. A Medieval Bestiary is in Latin (and written in that sort of fancy medieval font that makes it difficult to read even if you do know Latin). But there is no translation of the actual text. The interpretation merely describes the illustrations. In some cases (but not all) that includes a summary of the text around the image, but even then that's almost worse, because what you get are stunted plot points of a story that probably would have been a lot more interesting to read for itself.

Basically, I look at A Medieval Bestiary and think of all that it could be, but isn't. Particularly with the iPad book format, there's such an opportunity here to add lots of context: History, philosphy, quotes and links to other works. Done right, a reader could come away from this understanding more about medieval society as a whole and the development of science from magical/religious art to rational tool. Instead, A Medieval Bestiary just wants to tell you what's going on in the pictures. There's nothing wrong with that. But I'm too old and too wise to waste much time thinking I can change a book into something it's not.

Besides, in the course of breaking up with it, I discovered that A Medieval Bestiary had been kind of misleading me all along. I paid the equivalent of $8 for this book (I was offered a free review code, but couldn't figure out where to apply it during the ordering process). But, turns out, this isn't exactly unique content. In fact, the whole thing is available as free PDFs on the website of the Royal Library. Some of the scanned pages there even come with the exact same interpretation as is offered in the iPad version. Which just kind of serves to make the shortcomings of the iPad book that much more apparent. I don't mind paying $8 for something really cool. I mind paying $8 for an iPad version of something I can get for free as a PDF. If the publishers – eBook Treasures – were going to convert A Medieval Bestiary to iPad, why not take advantage of that and do some stuff that you couldn't do with PDFs?

Sadly, I think it's time this book and I went our separate ways. Hopefully, we can still be friends. And, who knows, maybe in the future, when A Medieval Bestiary has had some time to grow, we can rekindle the relationship.

eBook Treasures: A Medieval Bestiary

The British Library: Books of Beasts in the British Library: the Medieval Bestiary and its context (the book published on iPad as A Medieval Bestiary is listed here as Royal 12 C. xix)

Explore and learn more about medieval bestiaries as a genre at The Medieval Bestiary website (not affiliated with eBook Treasures or the iPad version of The Royal Bestiary)


  1. It is always annoying when an image loaded art/art history book tries to go coffee table. On the bright side, books with full color plates can be excellent companions to text-only essays and footnotes in other books. 

  2. Seems like a fair review. I am going to say, though, that I’m loving the book “behind” the ebook. I don’t read latin, but those images that you linked to at the British Library are magnificent.

  3. Maybe it was supposed to be a virginal saint rather than a lady?

    “Leucrotas, you may be interested to know, happen when a male hyena mates with a female lion.”

    Hmmm. That could be doable . . . KICKSTARTER!

    1. And, to be fair, unicorns are (according to the literature) not just a horse with a horn. They’re weirdly chimeric, with a goat’s beard, cloven hooves and other animal features, having only later on become standardised as a white horse. Certainly pre-CGI, adding a prosthetic horn to a white horse was the easiest way of representing one on screen.

      1.  I’m sorry, but with Firefox and Chrome all I get with that link is a page with 100+ expandable thumbnails, but no apparent links to a single PDF.

        Am I still missing something?

  4. It sounds like you’d be more into the Aberdeen Bestiary website, which has context-setting historical pieces, translation of the inner texts, and commentary on the text and images. It’s an easy site to lose hours of your life in.

  5. So far as digital manuscript facsimiles go, I highly recommend the site run by the Library of St. Gall, the Codices Electronici Sangallenses Virtual Library. It’s possible to virtually leaf through 436 (as of this writing, with more to come) of the most beautiful manuscripts of the early medieval period, including their bindings, and to zoom in to a level where every detail of a letterform or rubrication is clear. It’s a godsend for the palaeographically-minded, and I find it profoundly moving to be able to digitally examine volumes that come from a world so far removed from the digital.The database of manuscripts is free (there is an inoffensive requirement to register that one has read the terms of use). In a sense, this remarkable project is a continuation of the mission of St. Gall, whose library has been in continuous existence for 1200 years.



    The site is well worth blogging on Boing Boing, in my estimation!    

  6. Great review.
    I mean, it’s a bad review from the books point of view – but so well written – with devastating wit, constructive critiques and expanding the context into the nature of digital publishing . You know what I mean! 
    The book may be a lemon – but you just made some great lemonade.

    1. Thanks. If you like this, I’d recommend visiting the Download the Universe blog. There’s lots more reviews along the same lines, from people like Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Ars Technica’s John Timmer, and more. 

  7. This is a really interesting and fair review.  Thanks for saying it so well!  When it comes to bestiaries, what you want is the translation by T. H. White (of “Sword in the Stone” fame) of a twelfth-century manuscript in Cambridge, published as “The Book of Beasts”.  It’s not only a translation but he footnoted it too with other interesting bits of information. My favourite piece of information among many is that apparently peacocks make that noise because they’ve just caught sight of their feet — they’re so proud of their great beauty that whenever they see their ugly feet they screech in aggravated disappointment.  It’s out of print but pretty available second hand.

    Of course the point of the medieval bestiary is not to record information for its own sake but to draw out of the natural world important points about life and morals.  In this way I think there’s an interesting parallel with the way that many people misapply approximations of Darwin’s ideas to social or cultural behaviour.

    1. I’ve read White’s, too. I love how his footnotes reflect his weariness of the original author’s proselytizing. I don’t know if that’s good scholarship, but it was damn entertaining.

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