Computers & Texts No. 11
Table of Contents
March 1996

The Aberdeen Bestiary An Online Medieval Text

Michael Arnott, Iain Beavan, Jane Geddes
Aberdeen University.

[Bestiary Page]

The Aberdeen University Bestiary Project is the pilot scheme of a major project to digitise a selection of the University's written and visual resources. The project, designed to increase accessibility to our nationally-important collections through the World Wide Web, is funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council through the Joint Funding Council's Initiative for Specialist Collections in the Humanities.

Medieval bestiaries comprise accounts, mostly short, of animals, birds, insects, reptiles and fabulous beasts. They were based on early Greek and Latin texts and, at the height of their evolution, were lavishly illustrated. They attempted, not just to depict and explain the natural world as seen through medieval eyes, but, at a deeper level of significance, to encourage the achievement of the true Christian life by using the behaviour and characteristics of the various animals as suitable models. Throughout, the style relied heavily on extended allegory, metaphor, simile and analogy.

Bestiaries were owned by laity and clergy alike, for whom the work provided both enjoyment and instruction. The didactic and moralising nature of the text suggests, however, that it was primarily aimed at churchmen and members of religious orders.

Any attempt to follow the transmission of a bestiary text back to a single original, is to misunderstand its nature, for although most bestiaries have, as a common core, the fourth-century Greek Physiologus, they are, as individual texts, grouped into four major families according to the additions and interpolations made from other writings, including the Book of Etymologies of Isidore and the Book of Birds of Hugh of Folieto.

The Aberdeen Bestiary was written in the North Midlands of England around 1200, and consists of 104 folios. Rich both in illustrations and textual ornament, it is regarded as an outstanding example of the second family of bestiaries, which developed during the twelfth century and of which there are 20 surviving English copies. In addition, it contains a variety of notes, sketches and textual evidence, shedding light on the way in which it was written, decorated and illustrated.

The quality of the Aberdeen Bestiary's illustrations and the clues it still offers on its design and execution have sustained continuing scholarly interest in the work among art historians, codicologists and historians of the culture of medieval Europe. Much of their work, however, has been based on monochrome photographs or colour slides.

The prime objectives of the project (now well underway) are to mount the Aberdeen Bestiary (text and images) on the WWW, at the same time providing a surrogate for use by a wider, though still broadly academic, constituency. This is being achieved by supplying accompanying sets of commentaries, a transcription and a translation of the Latin text.


At an early stage, we decided to use Photo-CD technology to deliver a digitised version of the Bestiary and it has more than justified our expectations, providing the quality of colour and sharpness we consider necessary for the project.

Each complete page of the Bestiary has been photographed, in controlled conditions, onto 35mm slides which are then scanned. The capacity of Photo-CD to deliver the images captured from the 35mm film stock in five display resolutions allows us the necessary flexibility to supply enlarged versions of the illustrations and important details. After any necessary cropping of the higher resolution images (Adobe Photoshop), JPEG compression (ratio of 6:1) is applied to the image files before they are web mounted with the commentaries, transcription and translation.

Web structure

The design adopted reflects a need for ease of navigation, and users' diverse requirements. The work is being mounted in two strands: commentary and textual. The first strand provides a full-page image, with a detailed commentary from an art-historical perspective, and with links to the immediately preceding and following pages (thus allowing a sequential progress through the whole). Moreover, links are also supplied from the full-page image to enlarged views of illustrations (again with a commentary) or to a more sustained description of the nature of the codicological evidence which discusses features such as pricking, ruling, folio and quire marks, and scribal corrections.

The textual strand supplies a translation and transcription of the text. The translation is displayed twice. First, positioned adjacent to the full-page image; second, parallel to the transcription. In order to serve the interests of palaeographers and textual analysts, the Project is committed to supplying images of the text at high resolution. Initially, this macro text will be supplied for the first leaf of every new quire, as being the points at which possible significant differences in script may be identified. Links are being provided from the translation and transcription strand to the macro text. It is, however, a lengthy process, as at the highest resolution, only 6 lines of text can be displayed at any one time. And the Aberdeen Bestiary has 29 lines per page.

The two strands (commentary and textual) run in parallel, so that the user can transfer from one or other approach at any time.


The codicological description is part of a larger introductory section which is devoted to a discussion of the origins and sources of bestiary texts and their illustrations, the history and provenance of the Aberdeen Bestiary and the art work (e.g. initial indicators, rubrics, marginal sketches) connected with it. This section (not yet in its final form) is further supported with a bibliography.

As would be expected, the manuscript text of the Aberdeen Bestiary offers none of the apparatus or layout assistance expected of a modern printed book: no contents page, index or paragraphing. Discrete sections of text are identified by means of the rubrication of the introductory sentence.

An analytical section is therefore being constructed which currently provides a short description of the topic(s) on each manuscript page. Through links provided to these folios, it enables the user more easily to approach the work from a topical perspective, and facilitates the reading of the text in a non-sequential manner. However, given one of the Bestiary text's known original uses as a reference source (it was much exploited as supplying themes for sermons), the extent to which it was systematically read from beginning to end must be a matter of debate. There are no recommendations within the text for the sequence of reading.

Once available in computerised form, text pages are more conveniently analysed and internal references achieved. Thus the seemingly obscure reference to the nest-building of hawks (fol. 34v) 'They make nests ...[on the cedars of Lebanon] as robbers build strongholds on the estates of the rich' becomes clearer with a parallel reading of the main sections on the natures of that bird and the dove (fols 26r-31v), readily achieved through the links provided.

Moreover, it could be argued that the major purpose of the Bestiary text (and an indicator both of its readership and audience) is better grasped through an initial reading of folio 25v et seq., in which the narrator argues for the benefits and virtues of a contemplative life, 'I intend to improve the minds of ordinary people...the attentive reader should not be surprised if...I speak in a simple way of complex subjects...what the written word means to teachers, a picture means to the uneducated' rather than beginning a reading at folio 1 (Genesis, Chapter 1) or with the largely impersonal accounts of the wild animals which then follow.

Future developments

There is great potential for enlarging the Aberdeen Bestiary Project. The availability on the WWW of other bestiaries (perhaps from the other 'families' ) hypertextually linked with Aberdeen's manuscript would provide an outstandingly rich research and teaching resource. It has long been recognised that Bestiary illustrations had an influence on the decorative arts. Our understanding of this wider aspect of medieval culture would be further enhanced by combining with the text and illustrations of the Bestiary an array of images from medieval painting and sculpture. Finally, the accounts of animals, birds, insects and reptiles could be supplemented by static or moving images of the species in question, and by their sounds, foregrounding in some cases the accuracy, in others the misconceptions, of the text and illustrations. The potential exists, therefore, to create an entire Bestiary Dataset, which would support the study of medieval art, literature and culture at a variety of levels.

The On-line Aberdeen Bestiary Project can be viewed at:

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 11 (1996), 6. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

HTML Author: Michael Fraser (
Document Created: 25 April 1996
Document Modified: 27 April 1996

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