Tag Archives: medieval bestiary

Medieval Bestiary 2: The Turkey and the Partridge

Henri de Ferrières, Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio (Book of King Method and Queen Reason), Paris, 1379
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS fr. 12399, 12 x 8 1/2 in. (30.5 x 21.5 cm)
Folio 91v: A Partridge Trap

Happy Thanksgiving Eve! Since tomorrow’s holiday coincides with Medieval Bestiary week at the Abbeville Blog, we were hoping to serve up a delightfully crazy, colorfully illustrated, piously allegorical medieval interpretation of the turkey. Sadly, we realized that there weren’t any, since the turkey is a New World bird. Nor could we track down any good commentaries on the turkey fowl or guinea fowl, which is what Europeans believed the wild turkey was when they arrived on American shores.

Fortunately, we found the next best thing: a delightfully crazy, colorfully illustrated, piously allegorical medieval interpretation of the partridge. Besides being a popular game bird enjoyed on feast days, the partridge was, in the opinion of the Middle Ages, basically Satan:

The partridge, in contrast to the quail depicted next to it in many bestiary manuscripts, carried very negative associations in the Middle Ages. It is generally shown taking eggs from a nest. Bestiaries record how the partridge regularly ferries its eggs and young from one nest to another to deceive predators, but also accuse the partridge of stealing eggs that she has not laid to hatch them in her nest and thus enlarge her brood. The deception is foiled, because as soon as the fledglings hatch and hear the voice of their true mother, they abandon their kidnapper to return to their own mother’s wings. This behavior is also mentioned in the Bible, where we read in the book of Jeremiah (17:11): “Like a partridge who hatches the eggs she has not laid, such is he who unjustly acquires riches; in the midst of his life shall they leave him, and in the end he will be a fool.” This episode was of course interpreted by the exegetes, who saw in it the image of the devil attempting to lure man from the influence of God… -The Grand Medieval Bestiary: The Animal in Illuminated Manuscripts

It gets stranger: “The partridge is also described as lascivious and lustful by classical and medieval authors. It was even asserted that the heat of its sexual appetite made it forget the laws of nature, driving the males to commit the sin that brought destruction down on Sodom and Gomorrah.” That’s right: if someone ever tries to condemn your sexual preferences on religious grounds, you can throw up your hands and say, “THE PARTRIDGES MADE ME THIS WAY.”

Much as it looked down on the partridge, the Middle Ages had to admit that all that greed and lust was pretty tasty. Bestiary notes that the bird was “frequently served at medieval tables, where it was prized for its tender flesh.” There are even a few surviving recipes from medieval cookbooks:

[In] the Viandier, the famous fourteenth century cookbook written by Guillaume Tirel…we find instructions on how to prepare “pâtés of partridge”: “Place over your partridge thin strips of lard well chopped, and for spices, use ginger and powder of clove.”

We invite Abbeville readers to adapt this as a nontraditional Thanksgiving option. (Send us pictures if you do.) Even if you somehow absorb the partridge’s greed and lust, they’ll provide a fun alternative to the standard deadly sins of Turkey Day: gluttony and sloth.


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

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.


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