Medieval Bestiary: Legend of the Bonnacon

Bestiary of the Second Family, Peterborough Abbey or Canterbury Abbey, c. 1200–1210
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 1511, 10 5/8 x 7 1/4 in. (27.5 x 18.5 cm)
Folio 18: A Bonnacon Spraying Hunters with Its Excrement

This week Abbeville celebrates the publication of The Grand Medieval Bestiary: The Animal in Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Christian Heck and Remy Cordonnier. Bestiaries are among the most lovely and peculiar texts the Middle Ages have bequeathed us; their fanciful imagination, visual splendor, and moral verve have inspired artists from da Vinci to Toulouse-Lautrec and authors from Jorge Luis Borges to Marianne Moore. Moore’s poetry in particular, with its offbeat sermons on ostriches and pangolins and jerboas, often resembles a bestiary rendered in verse.

Bestiaries are illustrated compendia of animals both real and imaginary, portrayed in allegorical terms as moral examples (or warnings) for human beings. Included in their pages are whole taxonomies of creatures: some, like the dog, domestic and familiar; others, like the camelopardus (giraffe; the Latin name means literally “camel-leopard”), well-known but enduringly strange; still others, like the unicorn, fabled and impossibly beautiful. And then there’s the bonnacon. I’ll let our authors explain:

The bonnacon is one of those horned quadrupeds, each stranger than the next, that bestiaries and encyclopedias recycled from ancient sources to populate the wild regions of terrae incognitae. Thus we encounter, in Pliny’s Natural History (VIII, 16.40), a beast from Paeonia called the bonasus. It is said to have the mane of a horse and the body of a bull, as well as horns so twisted as to be useless in combat. Still, the animal possesses two means of defense. The first one, flight, is self-evident. But the second one is bizarre. While fleeing, it can project its dung as far as seventy-five ares, or roughly a hundred modern feet (Pliny’s Latin term is jugerum, a unit of measure that, usually reserved for surface areas, here probably indicates a distance of about 104 Roman feet). And this dung burns like fire on contact.

Bestiary of the Transitional Version, First Family, England, late twelfth century
National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg, MS lat. Q.v.5.1, 7 7/8 x 5 3/4 in. (20 x 14.5 cm)
Folio 38 (detail): A Bonnacon Spraying Hunters with Its Excrement

Something about that last sentence, coming after the fastidious explication of a Roman unit of measurement, makes this editor laugh every time. The creators of medieval bestiaries shared a similarly dry sensibility, matter-of-factly including outrageous silliness in volumes that purported to be pious reference works. The medieval compilers seem to have been rather fond of the bonnacon; or at least, far less hard on it than they could have been. Amidst volumes that portray whales and partridges as agents of the devil, these horned beasts with their hellish projectile excrement are compared to, of all things, overly ascetic clergymen:

Moralizing glosses on the bonnacon are few, apart from that of Thomas of Cantimpré (De natura rerum 6.11), for whom the animal is a figure for good prelates who live so austerely that they might as well have horns with which to mortify their own flesh. They impose a like austerity on those under their authority, but without hurting them, for they demonstrate through their own conduct that the hardships they enforce are meant to guarantee their charges’ salvation. This interpretation is at least as twisted as the horns of the bonnacon. Surprisingly, Thomas acknowledges only the animal’s least bothersome characteristics, without attempting to put a negative construction on the less attractive traits of this strange animal.

Moral: if you encounter the mythical bonnacon, there’s really no reason to stay out of its path, as long as you don’t mind a little Christian rectitude coming your way.

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Click here to learn more about The Grand Medieval Bestiary, published by Abbeville Press.

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