The Aberdeen Bestiary

History of the Manuscript

The History of the Manuscript, Press Marks and Binding

The recorded history of the manuscript begins in 1542 when it was listed as No.518 Liber de bestiarum natura in the inventory of the Old Royal Library, at Westminster Palace. The press mark is on f.1r. This library was assembled by Henry VIII, with professional assistance from the antiquary John Leland, to house manuscripts and documents rescued from the dissolution of the monasteries. A few of the works came from older royal collections (Carley 1989, 18). Several books 'escaped' from the royal library, frequently to other ardent collectors, and the Aberdeen Bestiary was probably given away in the early seventeenth century. King James I and VI brought with him from Scotland Sir Peter Young to act as Royal Librarian and his son Patrick (d.1652) took an active role in developing the royal collection. It was probably Patrick who gave the book to Thomas Reid (Carley 1990, 89-98. Carley suggests in a personal communication that Patrick Young probably gave the book to Reid). Reid was Regent of Marischal College, Aberdeen and Latin Secretary to the king. Reid gave it, along with about 1350 books and manuscripts, to Marischal College in 1624/5. When the library was catalogued by Thomas Gray in c.1670, the book had the shelfmark 2.B.XV Sc and was called Isidori phisiologia. In the 1720s the books of Marischal College Library were reorganised into presses and a shelf catalogue, MS M 72, was made in 1726. In this catalogue the excisions in the bestiary are recorded for the first time, setting a terminal date for the mutilations. When Marischal College amalgamated with Aberdeen University in 1860, the bestiary became part of the University collection. The book was rebound by the British Museum in 1931-32.

The Patron of MS 24

The evidence of the bestiary in the 1542 inventory of the Royal Collection remains equivocal: the manuscript might always have belonged to the royal family; they might have acquired it at any stage during the middle ages; or it might have been seized, along with the majority of the collection, from a recently dissolved monastic library. In the twelfth century the royal family were deeply interested in the subject matter of the bestiary. The first bestiary in French verse, by Philip de Thaon (written between 1121 and 1135) was dedicated to Queen Adela, wife of Henry I, and another copy was later made for Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II (Muratova 1986, 121). Henry II had the story of the eagle painted in the king's chamber at Winchester, King John owned a copy of Pliny's natural history and John's son Henry III chose scenes from the dog's story for the Painted Chamber at Westminster. With such owners the book would have been read for entertainment and private contemplation.

However Baxter, in his analysis of ‘consumption’, points out that most Latin bestiaries whose origins can be documented came from monastic libraries, with only one example of lay use (1998, 145-181). There may be some clues about the patron in the choice of illustration. Several of the scenes in both the Aberdeen and Ashmolean Bestiary would appeal more to an ecclesiastic than to a lay person. Examples of these are f.4v Christ in Majesty which has no specific link with the contents of the book; f.32r where a golden cross dominates the design for the dove; f.34v where possibly Ecclesia or Holy Wisdom is used to illustrate the cedrus; and f.93v where the fire stones are personified as Adam and Eve epitomising the sin of lust. The message of this last picture, 'Keep away from women' would mean more to a monk than to a secular aristocrat (Hassig 1995, 14, 123-4).

The text reveals a further element of choice. The Aberdeen and Ashmole Bestiaries belong to a group of related texts known as the Second Family due to the basic similarity of their contents. Within this group, Aberdeen and Ashmole stand out because they reproduce the contents of the Aviarium  in exceptional detail. This was a book about birds by Hugo of Fouilloy, an Augustinian canon writing in the mid-twelfth century. Unlike other entries in the bestiary, this section from f.25v-f.62v (basically the dove to the eagle) is packed with Hugo’s complex theology, the need for penitence and caring for others in a monastery, topics more appetizing to Augustinian canons than lay readers. This in turn suggests a particularly Augustinian interest for either the producer or first consumer of the books (Clark, 2006, 46, 96-7).

There is also evidence at the top of f.34r that the book has been used for many years for a specific purpose. The exquisite and enigmatic illustration on this page shows a woman with seven birds. It is the only devotional figure of a woman in the book. On all other pages, there are worn dirty patches at the top and bottom corners where the reader has held the parchment to turn the page. F.34r has these patches too, but uniquely has a dirty patch in the centre of the top margin, just above the illustration. This would be caused by gripping the book with one's thumb on the page, an unnatural position for anyone except a teacher who repeatedly turned the book upside down to show to students. This suggests that the book was used for many years to instruct groups of people about this figure, possibly the Virgin Mary, Ecclesia or Wisdom, subjects more appropriate in a medieval monastery or cathedral than at the staunchly Protestant Marischal College. Clark (1992, 23) observes that the peak period of production of both the bestiaries and Aviarium, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, coincided with the widespread use of lay brothers in Augustinian and Cistercian houses. They were mainly illiterate and would have needed good illustrations to help them remember their lesson. The text is also heavily marked with accents to indicate stress, a guide of reading out loud.

Patrons of the Luxury Bestiaries at the End of the Twelfth Century

Evidence from the Aberdeen Bestiary alone cannot reveal its patron. Muratova (1986, 118-144) uses cumulative information from the group of related manuscripts to suggest a provenance in the north-east Midlands. Clark (2006, 68-71) makes a case for a south-eastern provenance.

The earliest painted bestiaries, New York Pierpont Morgan MS 81 and St Petersburg Russian National Library  Q.v.V.1, are sister manuscripts whose artists clearly knew each other’s work. The Morgan Bestiary has an inscription saying that Philip Apostolorum gave the bestiary, a map of the world and many other books to Worksop Priory in 1187, for the edification of the monks. Philip was a canon of Lincoln Cathedral, mentioned in records between 1160 and 1203. The gift of his own manuscripts to the Augustinian house of Worksop indicates both the high level of culture at Lincoln and the general interest in the natural world prevalent in the northern provinces. Under its bishops Geoffrey Plantagenet, Walther of Coutances and St Hugh, Lincoln Cathedral developed a cathedral school renowned for its theological studies in the later part of the twelfth century. The art of the sermon was taught and bestiary imagery was frequently used to illuminate theological principles. The master and later cathedral chancellor William de Montibus uses many animal metaphors in his Summa (Paris, Bib. Mazarine MS 744(495)). He came to Lincoln in the late 1180s. The austere Cistercians, who would not have approved of the luxurious illustrations, none the less made use of animal stories for their moral teaching. St Aelred of Rievaulx in Yorkshire (abbot 1147-67) and Abbot Gilbert of Swineshead (d.1172) in Lincolnshire wrote many sermons based on Physiologus (Morson 1936, 146ff).

The bestiary or Physiologus was clearly important in the orbit of York Minster too. Various parish churches in the vicinity have small carvings on their portals illustrating animal stories but the most significant example is at Alne, near York. Here 19 motifs from Physiologus are carved in an orderly fashion around the doorway. Each story is in a frame and, most unusually, has its title carved beneath. The use of inscriptions in such a situation where most of the viewers would be illiterate strongly indicates that the carvings were copied from a book and in fact their designs are similar to those in Oxf. Bod. Laud Misc. 247 (Muratova, 1987, 337-353).

Geoffrey Plantagenet provides a connection between the bestiary interests of both York and Lincoln. He was the illegitimate son of King Henry II and therefore half-brother to Kings Richard and John. While he was Bishop of Lincoln (1173-82) he considerably developed the reputation of the cathedral school. He went on to become Archbishop of York (1189-1212). He owned the St Louis Psalter (Leiden U.L. MS 76A. Morgan 1982, 60-1), a manuscript of regal splendour whose calendar indicates that it was made for an Augustinian house in the north of England, most likely in York. Its style is very close to that of the Ashmolean and Aberdeen Bestiary (the curled up cat on Aberdeen f.23v is in an almost identical gymnastic position as Leiden f.120) and the psalms are illustrated with a profusion of animal subjects, quite unrelated to the text. Geoffrey was exiled to France losing much of his property in 1207 so presumably his opportunities to commission books came before his departure.

There are a number of other manuscripts illustrated in a style related to the Aberdeen and Ashmolean Bestiaries. They all have connections with Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the late twelfth century but only the Guthlac Roll can be tied to a specific monastery, Croyland Abbey. The Guthlac Roll (B.L.Harley Roll Y.6. Morgan 1982, 67) consists of pen drawings in roundels, illustrating the life of St Guthlac of Croyland, Lincolnshire. They look rather like patterns for stained glass windows and indeed the glass in the window of the North Rose at Lincoln Cathedral is in a similar style. The artist of the Guthlac Roll may perhaps have produced the drawings in the Cambridge Bestiary (U.L. Ii 4.26. Morgan 1982, 66) because they are so alike in appearance. The paintings in the St Petersburg and  Pierpont Morgan Bestiaries are closely related to this Lincolnshire style. The Copenhagen Psalter (Copenhagen Bib. Roy. Thott 14 32) whose calendar indicates a northern Augustinian house shares a great deal of its delicacy, in particular the white highlights, with the Aberdeen Bestiary. These highlights can be seen on the ibex f.11r and the bonnacon f.12r. Both the Aberdeen and Ashmole Bestiaries (and their three dependents Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College MS 372/621;  Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 151;  Oxford Bodleian University College MS 120) reproduce an exceptional amount of the Aviarium,  using more of its text than other contemporary bestiaries (Clark, 2006, 26). As the Aviarium was written specifically as a moral and theological guide for Augustinian canons, the strong emphasis on this particular text could suggest an origin in an Augustinian house, and an Augustinian destination for the books.  The three illuminations pasted into British Library MS Arundel 104, ff. 350r, 354r, 364v show many similarities to the Aberdeen artist, in particular the facial style, limbs and drapery, including the pattern of three dots found on Christ’s robe at the crucifixion.

Clark (1992, 80-85) argues for a south English origin. The general appearance of the Aberdeen style is quite widespread across England at the end of the twelfth century. Similar figures are found in the Decretum from St. Bertin at St. Omer in north-east France ( St Omer Bibl. Mun. 476) and a leaf associated with Canterbury ( B.L. Cott. Vesp.A.1). White filigree highlights are frequently found in southern manuscripts from Bury St. Edmunds and Canterbury (Kauffmannn,1975, nos. 56,68,70,96). Although Lincoln and York were distinguished centres of learning there is surprisingly little evidence for the production of luxury manuscripts there. Although it can be shown that bestiaries were studied in the north, they were equally popular in the south. The two monastic libraries at Canterbury held altogether seven bestiaries in the middle ages: elsewhere, if they are mentioned at all, medieval libraries usually had only one or two. Lastly, Clark points out that Aberdeen initials type 2 are similar to the Paris Psalter made in Canterbury (Paris, Bibl. Nat. MS lat 8846) and some of the glass in the Becket Window, Trinity Chapel at Canterbury is similar in style to the Aberdeen and Ashmole Bestiaries (Caviness 1981, pl.117).

Ultimately, most of this evidence is circumstantial. Within this group of bestiaries only St Petersburg can be located, as a gift from Lincoln to Worksop. Even this does not prove it was made in Lincoln. The Guthlac Roll is closely tied to Croyland, Lincolnshire and the St Louis Psalter comes from the north of England. The specific source of the Aberdeen Bestiary remains unknown.


The style of the Aberdeen Bestiary is highly accomplished and confident. Each picture is set in a frame with a background of burnished gold. The colours are rich and bold, with a predominating impression of saturated blues and reds setting off the gold background. Although the paint makes the images dominating and substantial, their rhythmically graceful black outline harks back to the earlier drawn bestiaries like Cambridge U.L. Ii.4.26.

Most scholars who have studied the Aberdeen Bestiary in detail have concluded that the art work up to f.93v is by one person (James 1928, 58; Forrest 1979, 43-6; Morgan 1982,64; Muratova 1984a,47; ) but there is some dissent from Muratova (1989) and Clark (1992).

  1. It is at least possible to demonstrate that the initials were painted in the same way as the illuminations and not passed on to a lesser artist because several stylistic characteristics are found in both types of illustration. A fine white tracery is used inside the type 2 initials. This is also used to highlight parts of animals like the ibex f.11r and the bonnacon f.12r, or the ground beneath God's feet on f.1r. The more elaborate type 3 initials share foliage with the main pictures, for instance f.36v and f.37r. The initial P (f.36v) also has tiny red circles surrounded by white circles, a pattern found on drapery on f.1v and f.5r. The initials on f.72r and f.77v include animals clearly by the same artist as the figurative illumination: compare f.77v with the boa on f.69r.
  2. Muratova (1989, 59) has tentatively suggested that one artist may have made the marginal sketches and chose the exempla and patterns for the rest of the designs while the second artist 'possibly an apprentice' may have executed the major part of the preliminary drawings and the paintings. Her evidence comes mainly on f.93v. Aberdeen heads are always proportionately larger in relation to their bodies than they are in Ashmole. In the sketch, which is the same size as the Ashmole painting on f.103v, the heads are also rather small suggesting an influence from the Ashmole master. She sees the Aberdeen Bestiary as the 'chef d'oeuvre of an apprenticeship, executed in accordance with the indications of the headmaster'. In her view the master is one of the Ashmole artists (Muratova 1989, 56).
  3. Clark (2006, 224) identifies two Aberdeen artists of almost equal skill. She identifies the master in the Creation f.2-4v, the Majesty, the hyena, wolf, salamander and Isidore (f.11v, f.16v, f.70r, f.81r). The colleague painted Adam naming the animals, the kidnap of the Garamantean king, the cedar, caladrius, the asp and firestones (f.5r, f.18v, f.34r, f.57r, f.67v, f.93v). A comparison of heads on f.2v by the master and f.5r by the colleague shows an almost identical style but more assured execution on f.2v. The king's head on f.57r is by Clark's master and it is clearly more competent than the lower king's head on f.18v. But the upper king's head on f.18v is more magisterial. Are there two artists working on the same picture or is it really one man in a different mood?

The firestones is admittedly an unsatisfactory and hesitant composition but this may be due to special circumstances (see below). There are also some differences in the handling of drapery between the cedar (f.34r) and the Creation scenes but they can be explained by the difference in scale and importance of the figures. Clark identifies Byzantine influence in the facial shading and darkened eye sockets, handled with particular delicacy on f.4v, the Christ in Majesty and slightly more crudely on f.1r. These differences are subtle nuances probably within the range of a single artist subject to the constraints of fasting and uncomfortable working conditions.

The Relationship with Oxford Bod. MS Ashmole 1511

Although their texts are not identical, the illustrations of the Aberdeen and Ashmole Bestiaries are closely related. James (1928,58) and Morgan (1982,64) believed both works were by the same man but made at different times. In general where the Aberdeen figures have a solid and even chunky Romanesque appearance, the Ashmole figures are elongated, elegant and more Gothic. This can be clearly seen for instance in the Christ in Majesty folios, Aberdeen f.4v and Ashmole f.8v. The labels 'Romanesque' and 'Gothic' do not necessarily indicate that the Aberdeen manuscript is earlier: the manuscripts could be made by artists of different ages or trained in different styles. Both books could have been copied at the same time from an unknown third version. The styles seem to reflect two different personalities: the Aberdeen figures are active and engaged where the Ashmole figures are dignified, reticent and sometimes even stiff. The three comparisons discussed below, explore these two personalities.

Muratova (1989, 53-68) believed Ashmole was by the master who gave clear instructions to his Aberdeen apprentice. In her view the Aberdeen compositions are 'overcharged', and the rich robes of the humans 'hide the helplessness of a pupil who does not understand the articulation of the human figure'. In particular she considers the Aberdeen master had difficulty handling space in the Creation scenes (1984a, 47-8) This she contrasts with the clarity and grace of Ashmole.

A comparison of three scenes, the Creation of Heaven and Earth, Adam naming the Beasts and the tiger, will clarify some differences between the two artists and attempt to see the judgement of Muratova in a different light.

  1. The Creation of Heaven and Earth . On the first page (Aberdeen f.1r, Ashmole f.4r, division of the waters) both artists immediately establish their own identities. Aberdeen aims to create a unique imposing introduction. On this page alone the text becomes part of the illustration, linked to the picture by a similar use of colour but separated by a delicate column of foliage. Ashmole makes no difference between this page and those following, with the text rather poorly spaced down the side of the picture. In place of Aberdeen's column of foliage there is a solid gold letter I. The face of God, with its typically large head, in Aberdeen is commanding. In Ashmole a magnifying glass is required to see if he has a beard or not. The Aberdeen halo is confidently placed on the rim of the circles; the Ashmole halo fits inconsequentially in the middle of the circles. The Aberdeen circles are precisely bounded by the frame: the Ashmole circles overlap it.
  2. Adam naming the Beasts. On Aberdeen f.5r the artist divides the page into nine compartments, allowing extra degrees of classification, while on Ashmole f.9 there are only five compartments. The Aberdeen Adam leans forward, powerfully relating to the creatures in front of him while the Ashmole Adam sits in a pose of remote dignity. The Aberdeen Adam is proportionately larger than the creatures around him while in Ashmole the bull, with his bold colour and large size, is the focus of the picture. The Aberdeen animals process towards Adam, evenly distributed over the page. The Ashmole animals crowd the top scene and their clarity is disturbed by the landscape and trees. With fewer divisions, Ashmole incongruously places the huge bull with the more delicate squirrel and cat. The Aberdeen bull is correctly classified with other farm animals of his own size.
  3. The Tiger. In the tiger scenes ( Aberdeen f.8r, Ashmole f.12) the composition is basically the same, but the Aberdeen artist portrays a far more energetic horse and rider. The animal's legs and the hunter's arms stretch out while the Ashmole horse trots sedately and the hunter's armour conceals the extension of his arm. The Aberdeen tree strains backwards like the rider where the Ashmole tree gently sways. Throughout the book the Aberdeen artist tends to be more energetic in his handling of form and more bold and intense in his handling of colour.

In all these examples the Aberdeen artist shows a confident, logical handling of composition where Ashmole sometimes hesitates. He is capable of expressing dynamic action and involvement where Ashmole is more restrained. In the handling of drapery Ashmole can be more expressive, using folds with greater delicacy. The Aberdeen artist appears to be depicting heavier cloth.
Some sketches give further clues about the related production of the manuscripts. They are the firestones, dog and cat.

  1. The Firestones. On Aberdeen f.93v the scene of the firestones is divided into two panels and it is accompanied by a slightly different sketch in the margin. This sketch links Aberdeen f.93v and Ashmole f.103v. In almost every detail the sketch reflects arrangements in Ashmole which the Aberdeen artist frequently chooses to ignore in his final version of the scenes. For instance on the upper panel the woman is on the left in the sketch and Ashmole while in Aberdeen she is on the right. The proffered stones in the upper scene have a curly leaf shape in the sketch and Ashmole while the Aberdeen stones have a more convincing egg shape. The sketch and Ashmole have vertical borders of leaves while Aberdeen has wavy branches. There is only one point in the sketch where one can detect some hesitation or confusion. In the upper panel of the sketch, the man's right arm is drawn twice, once raised away from the body like the Ashmole man and once projecting from the middle of the chest like the Aberdeen woman's arm. Does this indicate that the sketch drawn was directly from Ashmole, implying that the 'later' Gothic style was produced before the Aberdeen version? Or was the sketch made from the shared source which both artists used, with the Aberdeen artist eventually allowing himself greater freedom of composition than the Ashmole artist? Muratova (1989,55-7) considers the sketch was drawn by the 'master of the shop' and later identifies it as a direct copy from Ashmole.
  2. The Dog and Cat. The sketches of the dog on f.12v and the cat on f28r relate closely to the animals painted on f5r. Perhaps they were drawn by the artist on spare clean sheets of parchment while he was constructing the complex composition of Adam naming the animals. According to Muratova, the Aberdeen artist sat with Ashmole in front of him as he prepared the firestones. However the particular dog and cat sketched here are not in Ashmole, so one must assume the artist was working with another book of the same family. Perhaps the source book was only available for a limited time which was why the Aberdeen artist quickly sketched these animals in the wrong place. Perhaps time was running out for the last illustration, the firestones, which resulted in the artist's eventual confusion about the location of the woman's breasts (she only has one and it is under her armpit).

On Aberdeen f.1r and f.1v the cosmic circles are decorated with semicircles. In Ashmole (ff.4r, 4v, 5r, 5v) they are decorated with triangles. Muratova suggests (1984a, 38, n41) that these patterns represent the contemporary philosophical view that the universe was created according to geometric precepts. These ideas were particularly discussed by Thierry of Chartres, Bernard of Clairvaux and Robert Grosseteste. In fact, the triangles of Ashmole represent a new departure; the semicircles of Aberdeen derive from the earlier illustrated Hexaemeron (Munich, Staatsbib. MS clm. 14399, ff. 14v,21v) and the Michelbueren Bible (Stiftsbib. cod. perg. 1, f.6) where the semicircles clearly billow gently like clouds ( illus. Muratova 1984a, VII, VIII).This suggests that the Aberdeen artist was using a separate source closer to the continental models and was not copying Ashmole.

Aberdeen f.1r shows God on four hills coloured turquoise, pink, blue and pink, appropriate to represent the four elements water, earth, air and fire. As with the clouds, Ashmole departs from the apparent symbolism, showing only three hills  in light minium, beige and white, suggesting one step removed from the model (Clark 2006, 224).

These comparisons between Aberdeen and Ashmole have attempted to show two distinctive artistic personalities, each with their own strengths. Their books were clearly produced in the same workshop, most likely using a common source. Muratova's suggestion that Aberdeen was the 'chef d'oeuvre' of an apprentice guided by the Ashmole master (1989,59) has some problems. It is reasonably unlikely that such a 'Gothic' master would train such a 'Romanesque' apprentice and there seems to be little evidence that the Aberdeen Bestiary was the work of an apprentice. On the contrary, both the Ashmole and Aberdeen painters appear to be masters with freedom to develop distinct artistic personalities in a tightly controlled working environment.

Text and Image

Although many of the images have a long ancestry, small nuances or modifications can often reveal something about the individual artist's intentions, or his patron's requirements. A close examination of some of the images can also enhance the meaning of the text. For this purpose the images can be divided into four categories (Hassig 1995, 10-15): portrait, narrative, allegorical and appropriated. The portrait shows one or more animal of the same type, usually against a plain background, doing nothing in particular. Naturalistic representation is not always paramount and the artist often had to use a lot of imagination to depict an animal he had never seen. Some birds like the swan (f.58v) are well observed but the pelican (f.35r) looks remarkably similar to the hoopoe (f.36v). Some, like the paired wild goats (f.14v) are decoratively posed, looking more like pattern on a textile.

Narrative images are the most easily remembered and they usually illustrate the text quite closely. They can be single scenes like the tiger (f.8r) or a registered sequence like the dogs of King Garamentes (f.18v). Occasionally they bring in a detail not in this text but found in other books, like the soldier defending himself with his shield from the ordure of the bonnacon (f.12r).

Allegorical or moralising images are not as common in the Aberdeen Bestiary as they are, for instance in Paris Bib. Nat. MS fr 14969 (London or Oxford, c.1265-70). However the arrangement of the firestones scene (f.93v) ostensibly about geology, is designed to remind the reader immediately about the Fall of Man . Where other manuscripts like London, B.L. MS Harley 3244, f.60 simply show rocks as the text requires, the Aberdeen and Ashmole Bestiaries show a naked man and woman beside a tree.

Appropriated images are those which have no connection with the text and force the reader to think laterally about spiritual matters. The Christ in Majesty (f.4v) has no accompanying text and the reader has to work out its connection with the preceding Creation sequence: it represents the totality of the created and eternal worlds, bridging the Creation cycle and the bestiary itself. On f.32v the gold cross, not part of the text, has completely replaced the palm tree which appeared in earlier versions of the Aviarium. On f.34r the image of the woman and seven birds accompanies the text of the cedar tree. So remote is the image from the text that it has not been conclusively identified. The portrait of Isidore (f.81r) is not mentioned in the text although the adjacent material on the physiology and ages of man are extracts from Isidore’s Etymologies 11.1-2. Its location towards the end of the book is appropriated or derived directly from evangelist author portraits usually found at the start of the gospels.