“There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, from The Book of Imaginary Beings
The Bestiary. During the middle ages it was the second most popular and purchased book after the Bible. We look back on these collections of fanciful stories and misrepresented creatures, today, and wonder why the aristocrats of those days would spend so much money on what seems to be a very frivolous and unhelpful volume—for, before printing techniques reached Europe, each book had to be copied out and then illustrated by hand, using goat or sheepskin parchment or calf vellum (because paper was also unknown,) so if you wanted a book…ONE book…you had to be rich enough to afford a herd of animals, as well as pay the monastery for the several years of labor involved in producing that book.
It helps to remember that in those days bestiaries were taken very seriously, as truthful accounts of the creatures of the world, and a wealthy man of position probably felt he had to know more about the world than a common person, so a bestiary in the library was absolutely essential.
We often feel a strange, out-of-place nostalgia for the days when bestiaries were in their glory, and lament that we were born several centuries too late. In the days of Herodotus or Ibn Battuta, the planet was still a deeply complicated mystery…it was overrun with creatures possessing supernatural abilities, and bizarre, semi-human tribes were said to wander the furthest reaches of the globe. It was jaguar-jungled and river-scored, or else fabulous cities rose up from the deserts like Fabergé constructions of gold and marble, or were hewn from monoliths of stone.
The far reaches of the globe were visited by very few travelers…merchants, sailors, diplomats…whose written or spoken accounts (and yes, of course there must have been a few who could not resist embellishing upon or fabricating wonders with which to amaze the audiences back home) were later interpreted by local artists, who had only a description, their own familiar animals, and their imaginations with which to cobble the new forms together.
When I met Kris, he had already spent 4 years researching and putting together the beasts from many different bestiaries as well as mythologies: Greek and Roman, Babylonian, Norse, Japanese, Arabic and Indian ones. I bound him a book for his research, and he started the work—a little each night— of illustrating each beast and copying his notes into the book by hand. He continued to discover more bestiaries, and in them more creatures, so that eventually the handbound book that he called Teratologus contained 170 separate entries, and there are 30 more that weren’t included because he ran out of pages.
The finished book is one of our household treasures. Like a photo album of imaginary friends, it doesn’t get shown around much or talked about, yet we cherish it. It is not just a pleasure to look through, for me, but embodies some important qualities of the man who put it together. I love that Kris worked on this project as diligently and seriously as if it had been a paying job, some grander endeavor, or something that would get more public exposure. I love that fantasy and magic and art and Borges’ “useless and out-of-the-way erudition” are among the things that delight him. I love that, for the things that delight him, 7 years of working, a little bit at a time, is not “impractical” or too demanding to sustain.
- Medieval book makes debut display (scotsman.com)
- Another bestiary is possible (bestiariosynthpop.wordpress.com)