Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'The English Bestiary', the Continental 'Physiologus', and the Intersections between Them

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'The English Bestiary', the Continental 'Physiologus', and the Intersections between Them

Article excerpt

The Latin translations of the Greek work known after the name of its presumed author as Physiologus provoked Latin adaptations across (at least) what are now England, France, and Germany; and these in turn inspired the copying and often illustrating of manuscripts across an even wider area.1 From these Latin works sprang vernacular texts in (at least) English, Icelandic, German, French, Italian, Occitan, and Catalan.2 In researching these varied and far-flung developments, specialists have often unintentionally further dispersed and even fragmented the tradition from which they stem. Anglophone scholars call the texts on which they work 'bestiaries' whereas their continental colleagues continue to refer to them as manifestations of Physiologus.3 In French, 'bestiaire' may be used in the title of texts (Le Bestiaire de Pierre de Beauvais) but it does not designate a textual tradition so much as any set of animal representations possessing meaning, in any medium.4 Continental scholarship has been driven mainly by philological concerns whereas in the anglophone world it has been dominated by art historians. Ways of categorizing texts have changed over time as well as place, creating further inconsistencies in nomenclature. The result has been a historical fracturing of what was, at least initially, a unified literary phenomenon. At the most fundamental level, this affects how manuscripts are recognized, described, and catalogued. The fluctuations in medieval designations, and the variations which individual texts manifest from one copy to another, would be enough to make identification challenging even without these differing apprehensions of the Physiologus tradition and their conflicting terminology for designating its components.5

This article is the outcome of my struggles with these hydra-like difficulties. It has two main aims: first, to integrate the conflicting accounts of the bestiary/ Physiologus put forward by anglophone and continental scholarship, marshalling them into a single narrative; and second, to identify some of the points of interaction between the kinds of text more typical of the Anglo-Norman domain and those more prevalent further east, in the parts of France less exposed to Anglo-Norman influence and in territories which, in the period relevant to this study, lay within 'the Empire', such as the present Low Countries, Germany, and northern Italy. Emphasis is thereby displaced from the model predominant in bestiary scholarship, focused on diachronic filiation, towards an interest in broadly synchronic intersection. Some of the important developments in the bestiary/ Physiologus tradition during the early twelfth century, such as the structure of Philippe de Thaon's bestiary and the emergence of the awkwardly named 'H-type B-Isidore' bestiary, may be best viewed as products of such intersection, as I will argue below. Another, later example that I also discuss is the French-language bestiary of Gervaise, often seen as somewhat marginal but which appears much less so when viewed in this context.

A consequence of integrating the anglophone and continental histories of the bestiary/Physiologus is that what is now France emerges as a major zone of exchange and transaction between different textual traditions, a role that it played the more effectively because relatively little of the modern hexagon fell under the control of the medieval French crown, much of it being ruled or dominated by its powerful imperial neighbours on either side. Although the focus of this article is on textual relationships rather than the historical conditions that produced them, it is likely that monastic, ecclesiastical, or aristocratic networks operating between, rather than within, these imperial powers were responsible for much of the traffic in which these relationships between texts were forged.

In the first part of this article I work towards a unified chronology of the European bestiary/Physiologus tradition so as to identify roughly contemporary groups of texts within a single narrative arc; these groups provide a framework in which to recognize moments of intersection that are analysed in its second part. …

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