Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore Translated by Michael Curley

Pros: excellent introduction, full translation, lots of end notes

Cons: some quotes left untranslated

Translated in 1979 and reissued in 2009, this was the first full English translation of the Greek manuscript, Physiologus. The manuscript took stories of animals and gave them Christian allegorical meanings. These stories were used in later bestiary collections and by encyclopedists - with and without their allegories - greatly influencing the medieval mind.

The book begins with an introduction that gives background on the Physiologus and the questions surrounding when it was written and who it was written by. It is then followed by translations of the 51 chapters, most of which deal with animals though there are also a few plants and stones.

The information in the introduction is fantastic and really helps you place the Physiologus in history while not being too academic and dry. My only complain here - and also with the notes at the back of the volume - is that neither Greek nor Latin quotations are translated for those who can’t read them.

The manuscript itself is rather dry. More time is given to the moral than to describing the animal. If you’re unfamiliar with these types of works, you’ll be confused by a lot of the ‘natural’ behaviours described. Very little of this is true animal behaviours. Consider them more morality tales like Aesop’s fables rather than a treatise on natural history. However, remember that as many of the animals described were not native to the lands where the tales became popular, they did influence beliefs in mythological creatures and many in the past believed the stories depicted actual animal behaviours.

The book includes black and white woodcut images from the 1587 G. Ponce de Leon edition of the book. I had expected there to be an image per chapter but there were only 21 images in total and a few of the listings had more than one image (the serpent has a series of 4 images).

If you’re interested in medieval thought and art, the bestiary by way of the Physiologus was hugely influential. This book is a glimpse into the medieval mind, both with regards to how they saw the natural world and how they believed the natural and spiritual worlds overlapped.

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