A bestiary is a medieval collection of moralized stories based on animals. A mixture of natural philosophy, religion, and magic, they were extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages along with the lapidary (stones) and herbary (plants). Though they vary depending on the tradition, culture, religion, and local flora and fauna, these three categories were based on Aristotelian natural philosophy and the belief that every natural object had nature, telos or purpose. Animals, stones, and plants also became primary material for literary texts for the special qualities and their secret natures. Interpretation was the key to moving from a sensible experience to intellectual truth. Scroll to the bottom for examples of interpretations of Christian aviaries, Islamic bestiaries, as well as the human body: these should help you situate The Physiologus in a larger context.
The tradition of the Physiologus is an influential one, and informed medieval literature —not to mention visual arts, and architecture. What we find in this medieval Christian book on the true nature of animals is a combination of Aristotelian natural history from his Historia animialium with Christian theology. This form of bestiary was situated along side other books on natural philosophy such as lapidaries (stones) and aviaries (birds). In order to understand this odd practice of mixing medieval science, religion, and local folk knowledge, you should know a bit about the tradition.
For Aristotle, Hermeneutics was the ancient science of interpreting (hermeneuō, "translate, interpret") what an author or artist has written or created. Throughout the ancient and medieval world, God was considered the “great craftsman” or “great artist” of the world. In this way, interpreting nature was considered a way to access the truth, which for Christian writers, meant accessing God. For Aristotle, understanding and then saying anything about nature required the logical ordering of one’s own thoughts. His method of understanding nature moved through the four causes that we have discussed in class: material cause, efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause.
In addition to interpreting nature, hermeneutics was also used for interpreting texts, in Roman world this meant mainly religious texts, but would later be applied to all written literature. Throughout the Greek and Roman world, a very detailed method of interpretation was developed that carried into medieval textual creation and exegesis (exposition of a text). Interpretation was divided into four categories. With the elevation of Christianity as the primary religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, Christian hermeneutics would become codified into four distinct categories of interpretation: literal, allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical. The following is a brief guide through these categories:
Literal: Sensible signs that just “are” are meaningless (chaos) at the literal level. These signs need to be coded through the senses. The literal level includes the sensible world: whatever one senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound) is the literal meaning. Anything the words on the page “say” is the literal level. In addition to the senses, the literal is also the most common understanding of a term.
Allegorical: Allegory means to say one thing in terms of another. Allegory as a rhetorical device was "a strange way of speaking," which meant to use a term in an unusually manner. Allegory as a literary device is the conscious equation of the thing to be discussed with a known thing or thing in a known context. In relation to nature, the allegorical level assumes that the literal meaning is God's "strange way of speaking" about a deeper or more important meaning. In a general sense, allegory is the category by which the literal is made intelligible rather than sensible. “Ralph is a dog” combines both the literal and the allegorical levels of meaning. I can see and hear the subject, “Ralph,” but I don’t know what it is (literal). The predicate, “is a dog,” situates the thing I see (Ralph) in a category (the literal). Yet, if Ralph is a human, stating "Ralph is a dog" is strange, and therefore allegorical. In the Middle Ages, this conceptual framework was organized to show that nature was a sign of God’s divine providence. This was often a relation of the strange speech of the Old Testament to the prediction or “good news” of the New Testament.
Tropological (moral): The tropological form is a moral or ethical analysis of the text’s images or nature’s signs. In this way, the tropological level is a relation of the important literal meaning and allegorical figures to human action. Tropological comes from a “trope” or repeated pattern in literature or nature. These tropes were then reminders to live an ethical life. Almost all of medieval literature was an ethical exercise, teaching readers something about human choices and their consequences in this and the after life.
Anagogical: Anagogue comes from "up, elevated, or sublime." The anagogical interpretation situates the personal in relation to the future, or “end times” (eschatology). Ironically, it is both the first and the last step of one's interpretation of nature, a work of art, or text. It is also the final synthesis of literal, allegorical, and tropological images. This level is the purpose of studying nature and art: philosophically, it was a consideration of the “final cause” of a thing. For critics in the Middle Ages, anagogy could never be a rational process; it is a spontaneous event that occurred after a long duration of contemplation. It cannot be understood through the senses (literal); it cannot be understood through reason (allegory); and it cannot be understood through right action (tropology): it is a revelation that comes from God. This was often interpreted as the “last judgment” and final return to Christ to earth.
Armistead, Mary Allyson. The Middle English Physiologus: A Critical Translation and Commentary. University of Virginia, 2001.
Clark, Wilenne B., and Meredith T. McMunn, ed. Beasts and Birds in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1989.