Animal Symbolism in the Old and Middle English “Physiologus”

Megan Cavell, editor and translator of The Medieval Bestiary in English

I came to the Physiologus tradition partly through my love of Old English literature (who couldn’t love a tradition that has the devil wandering around in a heoloþ‏‏helm “helmet of invisibility”?!) and partly through my love of animals (as my rabbit friend, Max, can attest). So, when it came to working on this edition/translation, I really wanted to speak to both of those sides of my work and to both of those audiences. That’s why I’ve included the medieval texts in their original languages and in translation, and that’s why the book’s introduction interweaves discussion of ancient natural history and respect for non-human life.

Working on this book meant studying a long and complex tradition that saw a Greek text about animals and their allegorical significance wend its way through many languages, many countries and many cultural contexts, from its original composition between the 2nd and 4th centuries to the 10th– and 13th-century Old and Middle English versions that I’ve translated. It meant thinking about sources and relationships, and about how poetic language changes a text’s meaning. It also meant looking at two very old manuscripts, as well as a rich scholarly reception of the Old English Physiologus and a very neglectful scholarly reception of its Middle English counterpart.

There were times when I had difficulty connecting the religious symbolism of these texts with the real animals they portray. How do we explain, for example, why whales got saddled with such a bad reputation, as demonic drowners of unwary seafarers? Because humans are afraid of the dangers of the sea, I suppose, but it’s still not very fair! And why is it that panthers are aligned with Christ, when big cats’ appetites couldn’t be further from the mercy and mildness that Christ is supposed to embody? I’m sure there are panthers who eat people in other ancient literature, so why did this positive spin take hold? Then I’d remember that the same text describes a sinful mermaid…and I’d stop worrying about what is and isn’t real!

That’s not to say that we can’t look at the Physiologus for information about animals. We just have to do so carefully. What can this tradition tell us about its cast of characters, from cunning fox to pious dove or devilish serpent to hardworking ant? It can tell us what cultural associations and value certain animals had – from charismatic megafauna right on down through minibeasts, from apex predators to creepy-crawlies. These associations are long-lived and have a real impact on how we perceive many animals today. Think about that next time you squash a spider in your house. They’re not actually an agent of the devil…maybe try catching and releasing instead!

Posted on August 4, 2022