Reimagining medieval animals

Dēor-hord is a blog that reimagines medieval animals. It’s the collaborative endeavour of a medievalist (me) and an artist (the talented James Merry).

What is a bestiary?

Bestiaries are books of animal lore that were popular in the Middle Ages. These books tell about an animal’s appearance, behaviour and lifestyle and often connect these qualities to a moralising tale. A panther or a pelican could represent Jesus, while a serpent or whale could signify Satan. Bestiaries include beautiful images of varying levels of realism, created by people who may or may not have seen the animals in real life.

Aberdeen Bestiary. England, c. 1200. Aberdeen University Library, Univ. Lib. MS. 24, fol. 5r. [Wikipedia]
I have previously written about how the internet serves as a modern bestiary. In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st-Century Bestiary (Granta, 2012), Caspar Henderson describes the Internet as ‘an everyday electronic bestiary’:

From giant squid to two-faced cats, what we know about animals and what we don’t, the amazing things they can do and the things they can’t, the ways they never stop being strange or surprising, feature constantly among the most shared articles and video clips on the web.

The earliest known bestiary is the anonymous Greek Physiologus from the 2nd century. Although originating from Classical times, bestiaries became popular in the Middle Ages in the form of illustrated manuscripts. Henderson writes:

We typically think of bestiaries, if we think of them at all, as creations of the medieval mind: delightful for their bizarre and beautiful images illuminated in gold and precious pigments from far-off lands. The Ashmole Bestiary, a 13th-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is a good example. In one picture, a man dressed in red is watching a pot on a fire he has made on a small island in the sea, unaware that the island is actually the back of a huge whale.

Ashmole Bestiary. England (Peterborough?), early 13th century. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, fol. 86v. [luna]
What is Dēor-hord?

Old English dēor (from which we derive our modern English deer) is a word meaning animal or beast. It refers both to standard domestic quadrupeds as well as fantastic beasts of the earth, air, and sea. Old English hord means just what it sounds like…hoard. So dēor-hord is my made-up Old English word for a treasure trove of animals. Dēor-hord is a blog that reimagines medieval animals. It’s the collaborative endeavour of a medievalist (me) and an artist (the talented James Merry).

The translations

I translate descriptions of animals from medieval poems and bestiaries, written in Old English (the language of the poem Beowulf) and Middle English (the language of Chaucer). These translations are meant for everyone – no prior knowledge of medieval literature or language is necessary.

I considered doing facing-page translations for this blog. A facing-page translation gives the original text on the left-hand page of a book (the verso in manuscript terms) and the translated text on the right-hand page that faces it (the recto). Below is an example of how this appears in a physical book, and there’s an online example here.

Facing-page translation (Old English on the left, modern English on the right) of Aelfric’s homily ‘The Seven Sleepers’ (ed. and trans. W. W. Skeat).

With facing-page translations you tend to read one side or the other, not both simultaneously, so I decided to go for an interlinear gloss instead. A gloss is an explanation or translation of difficult terminology in a text that appears between the lines (interlinear) or in the margins (marginal). Glosses are common in medieval texts.

British Library, MS Cotton Nero D.iv (Lindisfarne Gospels), fol. 45r. See also Medieval Codes. Note how Latin pecuniam (6th line, 2nd word) is glossed with Old English feh (money) above.
Bodleian Library, MS Junius 27 (Codex Vossianus), fol. 18r. Note how dňs (2nd line, 3rd word), an abbreviation for Latin d(omi)n(u)s, is glossed with Old English dryhten (Lord).
Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1 (Eadwine Psalter). See also Encounters with Medieval Manuscripts.

The illustrations

James imaginatively interprets the translations with his illustrations. Although the blog features animal images from medieval manuscripts, he doesn’t use these images as reference when drawing his versions of the animals. Medieval illuminators (manuscript artists) didn’t always have the opportunity to see the animals they had to draw. They didn’t always have an example. Like a medieval illuminator, James has to use his imagination to illustrate someone else’s (bizarre) animal descriptions. You can find more of his illustrations on his website and on Twitter (@jamesmerry).

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