The Aberdeen Bestiary Spread 0

The Aberdeen Bestiary Spread 0 cover
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The Aberdeen Bestiary

The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen MS 24) is richly illuminated medieval manuscript and arguably one of the most beautiful of its type. It was written and illuminated in England around 1200 and is imperfect, incomplete, and intruiging in many respects: parts of it have been defaced, and other contain notes, sketches and other evidence which give us clues as to how it was designed and made.

Work stopped on the Bestiary at f94r at the end of the twelfth century. The book was completed in a more casual fashion about a hundred years later. This may explain why the book retains so much evidence about its production: the pages were never finally trimmed and the tiny workshop indicators never erased. The book is 302mm x 210mm; the text area is 185 x 110/115mm.


What is a bestiary?

A Bestiary is a collection of short descriptions about all sorts of animals, real and imaginary, birds and even rocks, accompanied by a moralising explanation. Although it deals with the natural world it was never meant to be a scientific text and should not be read as such. Some observations may be quite accurate but they are given the same weight as totally fabulous accounts. The Bestiary appeared in its present form in England in the twelfth century. A great deal of its charm comes from the humour and imagination of the illustrations, painted partly for pleasure but justified as a didactic tool:
"to improve the minds of ordinary people, in such a way that the soul will at least perceive physically things which it has difficulty grasping mentally: that what they have difficulty comprehending with their ears, they will perceive with their eyes" (Aberdeen MS 24, f25v).


A brief History of the Manuscript

The recorded history of the Aberdeen Bestiary 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. 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. 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. James I 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. Reid was Regent of Marischal College, Aberdeen and Latin Secretary to James VI. 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.