The Aberdeen Bestiary


The book begins with a prefatory illustrated Creation cycle from Genesis (1:1-8, 20-28, 31; 2:1-2), of which days 1,2,5,6 and 7 remain (f.1r-f.5v). The main text is a bestiary (f.7r-f.94r). The birds section (f.25r-f.63r) contains most of the Aviarium by Hugo of Fouilloy. A lapidary (f.94r-f.103v) was added in the later thirteenth century.

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Folio Marks

Gatherings, quire marks, folio marks

to make a normal gathering, a sheet of vellum (the skin of a calf, lamb or kid) would be folded over twice and cut around the edges. this would make a gathering or quire of eight folios with sixteen sides. in the bestiary there are fifteen quires, thirteen of which are made with the usual eight folios. the last two quires, added in the late thirteenth century, have six and four folios respectively. the folios are not precisely cut but in the most regular quires (b and c) they measure 300mm high and 210mm wide.

in order to assemble the quires in the correct sequence they were labelled in lead point with letters of the alphabet. some are missing with the result that the sequence runs -,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,k,-(folio missing),m,n. the last two quires (o and p) are the later additions and are not marked. the quire system was examined by mr james when the book was being rebound and he was able to produce the following analysis of the gatherings: a8 (wants folio 2, 8); b8 (4,5); c8 (4,8); d8 (4,5); e8-l8 (1); m8; n8; o6; p4 (4).

individual sheets in the quire needed to be marked. although there were eight folios only the first four needed marking because they were folded with the last four. each sheet was distinctively marked to make sure the quires could not get muddled up. the asterisk sign is repeated in quires b and m but they remain distinct because the b sign is in the top right corner while the m signs are all in the bottom left corner.


once the quires were arranged they had to be prepared for writing by drawing up the lines. tiny parallel pinpricks were made on the outer and inner edges of each page and horizontal lines ruled between them. in a completed book these pinpricks should have been trimmed off during the final stages of production but in the aberdeen bestiary they have survived in 12 out of the 15 quires (only e , g and m are fully trimmed). careful measuring shows that the holes were pricked with the quires folded up, using a long pointed pricker, because they are the same distance apart throughout an entire quire. in quires b and c there is a double hole on the penultimate line, indicating to the person ruling lines that the page is about to end. in these two quires the holes have a coarse triangular shape and are set up to 6mm in from the edge. elsewhere the holes are smaller, circular and much closer to the edge.

pinpricks were also made at the top and bottom of the pages to provide vertical margins. these survive in every quire. in quires a.f,h,j,k,l,m and n there are single pricks for the vertical lines. in b and c there are double pricks and double margins while in g there are double pricks and a variety of single and double ruled lines. on f.48r (quire g) where there are double pricks for the margins, the wrong holes have been joined and the faulty diagonal line has been redrawn correctly.


after the leaves had been pricked, they were ready for ruling. most pages up to quire f have 29 lines (except for the heavily illustrated quire a). the remaining quires use 28, 30 or 31 lines. the most regular ruling is found in b and c: the two top and bottom lines extend across the whole page. the lines in a, b and c are ruled in a grey colour. from d onwards the lines are a darker brown. the horizontal lines here are also neater, not overlapping the vertical margins. this would suggest that the ruling in a,b and c was done by a different person from the rest. in d and e there is a triple spaced double line across the top and bottom of the page but thereafter the ruling patterns become somewhat arbitrary. sometimes there are double spaced top and bottom lines, sometimes the number of lines varies. on f.18v, the normal pattern of 29 lines is inadequate. it would appear that the scribe himself had to add two additional lines below the bottom margin, in order to complete his tale. generally, the written space is 185 x 110/115mm.

the ruling appears to have been made without any plan for the illuminations: on f.14r and f.16r the ruled lines pass under the illustration.

two pairs of leaves were left blank. f.3v-f.4r were probably intended to be glued together in order to support the weight of paint and gold leaf on f.4v. f.6r and f.6v precede the lion story. in the ashmole bestiary, the lion has two full page illustrations, which were probably intended here. two pairs of leaves are glued together. f.56r has a hole in it, which is concealed by being glued to the next page, f.56v. f.93r is glued to f.93v, probably because of the gilded double illumination on f.93v.

Scribal Corrections

when the ruling was complete the quires were ready to receive the text. at this point the scribe had a clear idea about the precise layout of each page. he had to leave the correct amount of space for the rubrics, capitals and illuminations to be added. the scribal hand is fairly uniform throughout, though clark (2006, 223) observes the gothic textura formata (the type of lettering) changes on f.19r, becoming ‘somewhat more compact and rounded’. there is a marked change of hand, below the illustration of the dove and hawk on f.26r, for only 5 lines. the quill is broader and the letters larger but less steady or uniform. another scribe, with a later thirteenth-century hand, writes the lapidary section of the book, beginning on f.94r. sometimes the scribe made mistakes or omissions which were picked up by a contemporary editor. on f.17r you can see corrections written lightly in the margin with part of the text erased and corrected accordingly. most of the corrections occur in the aviarium section, f.25r-f.63r.

Initial Indicators

when the scribe was writing he would leave a gap on the page where an initial was supposed to be inserted. to make sure that the illuminated letter was correct, the scribe would write a very small initial in the margin. they are written on the outside edge of the sheet. over 30 of these small letters survive. up to quire c they are marked with the same black ink as the text. after that both black and red ink are used.


rubrics are the red letters marking the beginning of each chapter. the scribe writing in black ink would leave the necessary gap at the head of each chapter and then return to the space later to fill in the red lettering. in quire h (f.49r-f.56v) many spaces for the rubrics have been left empty. the scribe filled in the blackbird and owl (f.49v, f.50r) but left out the hoopoe, bat, goose, heron, partridge (two sections), coot, phoenix (two sections) and caladrius. within this section on birds only the nightingale has the rubrics written correctly (f.52v). it would appear the scribe had to pass on quire h, probably to the illuminator, before he finished the rubrics.


it is clear that the illustrations were added after the text was complete. this can be seen for instance on f.12r, the bonnacon, where the axe passes outside the frame and covers some text. in this case the initial was done before the illustration because the capital 'i' is overlapped by the spear. in some cases, the picture is placed over the initial (f.50r, f.59v, f.67v). in other instances the initial overlaps the picture frame (f.8v, f.31v, f.63r, f.68v). this suggests that both the initials and the illustrations were made by the same artist who chose, on each occasion, whether to begin with the image or the letter.

Initial Type 2

type 2 is much more common. the letter is made with burnished gold, filled with a blue or brown background which is decorated with a delicate white tracery. many of these are embellished with red or blue traces or sprays. the aberdeen bestiary is a very early example of the use of sprays which culminates in the art of william de brailes in the mid-thirteenth century (morgan 1982,no.68). an elaborate spray is on f.41v. the fine white filigree pattern is also found on some of the illuminations (f.3r, f.11r, f.12r) suggesting that the main illuminator also made these initials. this type generally occupies two lines. this initial is generally used to introduce each new animal.

Initial Type 3

type 3 is the most luxurious: a gold letter is framed by a blue or brown patterned square (f.3r, f.5v); or the other way around with a painted letter and gilded frame (f.36v, f.77v). on f.36v there are tiny red circles found on the clothing of god and adam in quire a. therefore the initials of type 3 are also by the main illuminator. type 3 may occupy only two lines as in quire a or up to eight lines on f.77v. it is generally, but not always, used to signal a particularly significant section. so, it is used in the creation sequence, and the start of the bestiary proper. on f.25v it is used to highlight the start of a section on birds derived from the aviarium by hugo of fouilloy, as distinct from the general bird section deriving from the ‘standard’ bestiary on f.25r. in the latter part of the book where there are fewer illustrations it is used to introduce the next category (f.72r passim): worms and insects, fish, trees, isidore on the nature of man, isidore on human body parts, and the condition of man. three individual topics are given particular emphasis with the type 3 initial: the hoopoe (f.36r) famous for its filial piety; the magpie, likened to a poet (f.36v) and the perindens tree which can be understood as god (f.64v).

Initial Type 4

type 4 initials are red or blue. on any given page they alternate red and blue regularly. blue initials are embellished with red tassels and vice versa. the colouring and form of the letters is not very even and appears rather hurried in places. in the bestiary proper, they appear on f.79v and f.80r. thereafter this is the basic initial used in the thirteenth-century lapidary addition, found from f.94r onwards. this suggests that gaps left in the twelfth-century text on ff. 79v and 80r were filled in when the book was completed in the later thirteenth century. the poor quality of the later work is apparent from f.94r onwards, and is apparent on f.79v where the wrong capital ‘u’ was inserted and later corrected to ‘f’ for fagus, the beech tree.


several very faint sketches can be seen in the margins of the book. most of these are preliminaries for final drawings. on f.32r the frames for the illustration have been blocked in. on f.12v, bottom right, is a sketch of a dog like that at the foot of f.5r. on f.28r there are two sketches of circles in squares and in the bottom roundel is a cat like that on f.5r. there is a faint circular outline on the right of f.44v.

the most important sketches are those on f.93v. these show variations on the two firestones scenes which relate very closely to parallel illustrations in ashmolean 1511, f.103v. they are described in detail on f.93v.

Colour Indicators

some colour guides have been provided for both the illuminations and the initials. on f.68v, the illustration of the hydrus, the word ictrie can be seen on the body of the crocodile. the word probably relates to icturus or ictère, jaundiced, indicating the yellow hue of the crocodile. on f.81r, showing isidore at work, the word harie (or hane) is written on isidore's desk. this probably means aerus or sky blue. a similar word harie/aerie appears to the left of the firestones scene on f.93v (this is interpreted as mine for minium, red by clark 1992, 269). in the upper sketch on f.93v there are also rather indistinct letters bis[ors(?)]. bis means grey in old french. on f.32v the letters ni (niteur, clear or bright) may be deciphered. in the margin beside some initials are the letters a, v, and or. these stand for azur, blue; vermeil/vermiculum, pink and gold. indicators for the initials are found on f.28v, f.31v, f.32v, f.41v, f.47v, f.72v. these annotations were added after drawing and before painting the images, and after writing but before illuminating the initials. it is likely they were a memo from the artist to himself, perhaps in response to a model he was copying. the use of old french rather than primarily latin indicates the artist was literate but used the vernacular as his working language, even within a scriptorium.

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Pigment Analysis Team from the University of Durham

Pigment Analysis

in 2014, special collections invited a team from the university of durham to conduct an analysis of the pigments used in the aberdeen bestiary. this multidisciplinary team of chemists, historians and conservators, have developed instrumentation that allows the analysis of pigments on the page in a non-damaging way. the key techniques are optical reflectance spectroscopy and multi-spectral imaging, where a whole page can be analysed and pigment use mapped in the blink of a camera shutter. more precise complementary analysis is achieved through the use of raman spectroscopy, a method in which a laser is shone on the page and the scattered light analysed to forensically identify the material.

normally this type of equipment is restricted to the research laboratory, and a major hurdle is the inability to move books to laboratory facilities. to overcome this challenge the team have built mobile instruments that can be moved in a small suitcase, that can be set up and ready to run in half-an-hour but still match the performance of the research instrument. this allows the team to visit libraries to look at a wide range of books, enabling a comprehensive study of manuscripts to be made.

the aim of the team's work in aberdeen was to analyse the pigments deployed in the aberdeen bestiary and to compare that data with the data from similar analysis of the ashmole bestiary. the data revealed surprising differences in the two books, particularly in the use of carbon but no indigo in the ashmole, and some evidence for carbon and lots of indigo in the aberdeen book. a follow up visit is being planned to conduct further research into the use of carbon in the aberdeen bestiary. the work will be written up in due course, and form an element of the much larger 'team-pigment' study which aims to map pigment use across britain in the over the course of the 7th to 15th centuries.


pouncing is a method of copying images from one sheet of vellum to another by making a series of tiny prick marks around the required image. the image would be pricked straight through to a sheet below. this would become the template from which several copies could be made without further harm to the original. the pricked sheet would be sprinkled with a very fine dust like charcoal or pumice, which would trickle through the holes producing the required image below. it was a convenient way to duplicate images in a scriptorium where many similar copies of a book were required. although the ashmolean bestiary has very similar images to the aberdeen bestiary, in general their different proportions show that they were not a direct copy. the evidence of pouncing in the aberdeen bestiary suggests that there was yet another member of this family of manuscripts, directly dependent on the aberdeen design. images marked in this way are on f.2r fishes, f.3r the creation of eve (more visible on f.3v), f.11v hyena, f.12v ape, f.18r dog, f.24r mole, f.36v hoopoe, f.37r magpies, f.51v bat, f.54r partridge, f.56r phoenix, f.59r ducks, f.59v peacock, f.63r bees, f.66v vipers, f.68v anphivena, f.69v seps.

in most cases it is impossible to tell when the pouncing took place but the aberdeen bestiary has evidence that some pictures were done while the book was being made and some were done after completion (clark 1992,107). the creation of eve (f.3r) and the phoenix (f.56r) are both punched and blank on the verso. the two pages after the phoenix are blank and glued together, thus preventing the pricks on f.56r from damaging the new f.56v. the same can be observed at f.3r which is followed by two blanks and the next image on f.4v. clearly these were intended to be stuck together to minimise the effect of pricking around eve, and to support the heavy layers of paint and gold of the christ in majesty. decisions to leave these blank pages must have been made while the drawings were being produced. elsewhere the pouncing damages the other side of the folio, often including an illumination. these incursions must have been made after the book was complete.


in addition to editorial corrections, clark (2006, 225) has identified glosses which help to explain how the book was used. some are simply correcting scribal errors; some insert missing words which are generally crucial to the meaning of the sentence. these indicate that the editor, whose hand is close in style to the main text, was checking and correcting from a master text. most of these textual comments occur in the aviarium section, with two in the serpents and one for the firestones. the most common annotations are stress marks, to help a reader with pronunciation when reading aloud, and to distinguish single letter and monosyllabic words (for instance on f.12r, below the bonnacon: in sé; offéndat; égerit; ad’ ). the letter i is not only glossed to indicate stress (varíí) but also to distinguish the letter among minims (ínímicus). double grave marks (ii) to the left of two words indicate they are in the wrong order and need to be inverted. thus on f.59r anser ii anas ii nomen dedit, should be read as anser nomen anas dedit, the duck gives its name to the goose. this indicator is found on f.32r, f.38r, f.59r, f.65v, f.73v.

Missing and Excised Material

there are obvious losses in the aberdeen bestiary, where certain images have been cut out. this must have happened before 1726 when the excisions were recorded in the marischal college catalogue. these are the hart (f.13v), sheep (f.20v), bullock (f.21v), two doves (f.28r), cock (f.39r), jackdaw (f.51v), partridge (f.54r). there is no obvious theme to this selection of removed images.

comparisons with its brother bestiary, ashmole 1511, show further omissions or losses to the text. clark (2006, 223) lists days 3 and 4 of the creation; twelve entire chapters; five partial chapters; and thirty-four leaves with illuminations. missing illuminations are creation scenes for days 2,5,6; the antelope to elephant (between f.9v and f.10r); crocodile- parandrus (between f.15v and f.16r); dog, second section (between f.18v and f.19r); bullock-horse (between f.21v-f.22r); great fish and fish ‘carpet’ (between f.72r and f.73r). space was left for the lion images on f.6r and f.6v but this was never filled.