Book Review: Elizabeth Morrison’s ‘Beasts: Factual & Fantastic’

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“Here begins the book of the nature of beasts. Of lions, panthers and tigers, wolves and foxes, dogs and apes….”

— From a Thirteenth-Century Bestiary

I wanted to start with the same epigraph used by Morrison in her work, Beasts: Factual & Fantastic because, frankly, I’m amazed at how apt and beautiful her choices are throughout the book — every time I come up with a question, she’s there with an answer. Every time I can feel my interest being drawn elsewhere, her lyrical voice (with sentences like: “Part of the great appeal of medieval manuscripts to the modern viewer is the seemingly infinite variety of beasts that swarm, creep, and scramble across their pages.”) and creative use of unusual quotes draws me immediately back in.

Anyone familiar with The Medieval Imagination series will already know that these books are fast reads, much more for a bit of fresh encyclopedic knowledge than pure readerly enjoyment or extensive critical examination. But Morrison still manages to keep things fresh the whole way through. The extent of Morrison’s keen insights are quite impressive and her suggested further readings list is terrific (it’s reason enough to buy the book if you’re interested in medieval studies at all) — after all, there really isn’t much reliable information or study currently out there on medieval beasts. Certainly you’ve got a few sturdy academic texts, but not a great deal quite yet that seems genuinely interested in reaching non-academic readers. (Although, as I happen to have the honor of being friends with an up-and-coming medieval beasts and literature expert (currently working with The George Washington University’s English department), I feel I can safely say that this lacking will soon change for us non-medieval experts in the near future. :))

But here, in Beasts, Morrison seeks to do just that — to connect with readers of all backgrounds, academic and otherwise. She presents breathtaking photographs from medieval manuscripts and accompanies them with brisk, useful descriptions, hitting right at the heart of things: why are these animals special? what do they symbolize? how were they saintly? how were they heraldic? and what’s that dragon doing next to the infant Christ?

Morrison introduces her reader to these beasts by first walking us through the daily life of medieval people and their relationships to their animals from food, farming, and warfare all the way to religion and the law. From here, she delves into the beasts themselves as they are represented in various medieval manuscripts (often contextualizing these explanations with discussion of popular poems and stories of the day).

Basically, for anyone with a passing or lifelong interest in medieval and/or animal studies, this is definitely a book for your shelf, lap, book group, and reading nook.

On the author:

Elizabeth Morrison is an Associate Curator in the Department of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum and specializes in manuscript illumination (specifically French Gothic and Flemish Renaissance).  She has curated a variety of exhibits there and has also contributed to Illuminating the Renaissance (2003) and Flemish Manuscript Painting in Context (2006). For more from a recent lecture she gave on medieval beasts, please visit: http://www.getty.edu/oudry/default/2007/06/07/audio_elizabeth_morrisons_lecture_on_fantastic_beasts.html

 

Morrison’s suggested further readings (online):

The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages

The Aberdeen Bestiary 

University of Wisconsin Digital Collections: The Book of Beasts

A few other suggested readings:

Haylie Swenson’s “Lions and Latour Litanies in The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt

Debra Hassig’s The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature

T. H. White’s The Book of Beasts (also suggested by Morrison)

 

Morrison, Elizabeth. The Medieval Imagination: Beasts: Factual & Fantastic. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2007.

 

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