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 Physiologus

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:


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.

Islamic Natural Philosophy

The Benfits of Animals.pdf



Human Knowledge

Human Reason.pdf