Latin: bestia, wild beast

Books in prose or verse, containing descriptions and illustrations of animals, fabled and real. Widely popular in the Middle Ages, they were important rather for their symbolism than for their negligible zoological interest. Every quality of human nature was typified by some animal and bestiaries are thus a sort of key to the grotesques which are inseparable from Romanesque and Gothic sculptural ornamentation. The lamb or sheep represented the soul or the believer; the phoenix, Christ or immortality; the serpent, the devil; the lion, either the devil or Christ. The prototype of the bestiaries was the “Physiologus,” written probably by an Alexandrian Greek in the 2nd century A.D., and translated into Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and other languages, whence it became popular as a literary source from the 7th to the 13th centuries. A first Anglo-Saxon version appeared in the 8th century, and German and French translations in the 11th and 12th.