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Elf.Ed. Note: Click on the footnote number or “Notes” and it will take you down to that note, click on that footnote number and you will jump up to where you were in the text.

From Legends and Satires From Mediæval Literature, edited by Martha Hale Shackford; Ginn and Company; Boston; 1913; pp. 99-107.










The lion stands upon a hill, and if he hears a man hunting, or through his nostrils scents one approaching, he fills all his own footsteps, as he goes down to the dale, by drawing either dust or dew into them with his tail, so that the hunter cannot find him, and thus he speeds to his den and there shelters himself.


Another nature he has. When he is born he lies still and stirs not from sleep until the sun has shone thrice about him, then his father rouses him by the cry he makes.


The third habit the lion has is this: when he lies down to sleep he never closes the lids of his eyes.


Very high is that hill which is the kingdom of heaven; our Lord is the Lion, who lives there above. Though He chose to alight here on earth, the devil, even if he be a crafty hunter, could never know how He came down nor how He dwelt in that humble maiden, Mary by name, who bore Him for the salvation of men.



Though our Lord was dead, and buried, as was His will, and lay still in a stone until the third day, His father aided Him, so that He arose from the dead, to keep us alive. He watches, according to His will, as a shepherd, and we are the sheep; He will shield us if we hear His word, and go nowhere astray.




I will make known to you the nature of the eagle, as I read about it in a book; how he renews his youth and how he emerges from old age when his limbs are unwieldy and his beak all twisted, and his flight is weak and his eyes dim; hear how he recreates himself. He seeks a well which springs up ever, both by night and by day; over that he flies, and up he soars until he passes through the sixth and the seventh skies and reaches heaven, and hovers as close as he can to the sun. The sun scorches his wings and makes his eyes bright; his feathers fall out because of the heat, and he falls down then into the water to the bottom of the well, where he becomes whole and sound and comes out all new, except that his beak is crooked. Since his beak is twisted, though his limbs are strong, he cannot procure food for himself. Then he goes to a stone and strikes his beak on it and continues to strike it until his beak loses all its crookedness, and at once with his straight bill he seizes what food he likes.


Man is like unto the eagle, — if you will listen, — old in his secret sins, ere he becomes a Christian. Before he had considered his sins his eyes were murky. Thus he may renew himself if he goes to church, and, there renouncing 104 Satan and every sinful deed, betakes himself to Jesus Christ, who will be his reward. He believes in our Lord Christ, and learns the teachings of the priest, and the mist departs from his eyes while he lingers there. His hope is all fixed upon God, and he learns of His love which, like the sun, again restores his sight. Naked he falls in the font, and comes out all new, except for one little thing. What is that? His mouth is still untrue, his mouth is still unfamiliar with pater noster and creed. If he goes north or if he goes south he will soon discover his need; he will beg a favor from God and thus will make his mouth perfect; so may he gain his soul’s food, through the grace of our Lord.




The whale is the largest fish that is in the ocean. You would say, if you should see it afloat, that it is an island, that sits upon the sea sand. When this fish, so unwieldy, is hungry he opens his jaws wide, and out of his throat comes a sweet odor, the sweetest thing that is on earth. When other fish perceive it they are glad to draw near; they come and hover in his mouth, unaware of his deceit. Then the whale shuts his jaws, sucking in all these fish. It is only the small ones he thus deceives; the big ones he cannot catch. This fish dwells at the bottom of the ocean, and lives there, always hale and well, until it come to be the time when storms stir all the sea. Then summer and winter contend, and the whale cannot stay there, because the sea bottom is so turbid, so he rises and lies still, while the weather is so bad. Sailors in the ships driven about on the sea, dreading to die and anxious to live, look around and see this fish, and, believing it is an island, are very happy as they draw near; with all their strength they cast anchor, and go upon the island. By flint and steel they start a fire burning well on this wonder, and warm themselves, and eat and drink. The whale, feeling the fire, sinks them, for he quickly dives down to the bottom of the sea and thus drowns them all.



This devil is strong in wile and might, as witches are in their craft; he makes men hunger and thirst and have sinful desires; he entices men to him with his breath; whoever follows him finds shame. It is the ones of little faith whom he deceives, not those who are strong and steadfast in flesh and spirit, holding to the true faith. He who listens to the devil’s teachings will at last repent it sorely; he who fastens his hope on him will follow him to dim hell.




In the sea are many wonders. The mermaid is like a maiden to the waist, but otherwise she is exactly like a fish with fins. This marvel dwells in dangerous places where the water is shallow, and she sinks ships and works harm thus. Merrily this maid sings, and she has many voices, — many and shrill, — but they are all evil, for sailors forget their steering because of her singing, and they slumber and sleep and wake too late; and the ships sink with the confusion, and come up nevermore. Wise men and wary know how to flee, and often escape with uncorrupted heart. By this maiden of whom you have heard, this monster half human and half fish, something is betokened.


Many men illustrate the meaning of this example: without, they wear the skin of sheep; within, they are wolves wholly; they speak piously, but wicked are their deeds; their deeds are all unlike what their mouths speak. Two-fold they are in spirit, — they swear by the cross, by the sun, and by the moon, and they live both in their speech and in their singing. They deceive thee then; they destroy thy goods with treachery and thy soul with lying.

Translated by M. H. S.



1   See Notes.





From earliest times animals have been employed as symbolic figures by teachers and preachers, and the interest of the present day in animal life and lore is evidence of the never-failing pleasure humanity finds in beast books. Æsop’s “Fables,” “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis,” “Reynard the Fox,” and “The Jungle Stories,” illustrate various sides of the literature about the lesser folk. The mediæval bestiary was a book which sought to enunciate religious instruction by an appeal to the curiosity of credulous people. The didactic interest far exceeded the scientific in these allegories which, to us, are most diverting matter. The source of the bestiary is to be found in the Greek “Physiologus” (second century A. D.), which was translated into Latin by Theobaldus in the late Middle Ages, and then into other languages. In Old English literature “The Whale” and “The Panther” and a fragment of “The Partridge” are all that remain of the version in that language. The Middle English bestiary of the thirteenth century contains descriptions, 170 followed by explication, of the lion, the eagle, the adder, the ant, the hart, the fox, the spider, the whale, the siren, the elephant, the turtle dove, the panther, and the culver. There is a French bestiary written in England by Philippe de Thaün, about 1120, which contains a portion of a lapidary also. A translation is in T. Wright’s “Popular Treatises on Science written during the Middle Ages.” London, 1841.

The text of the Middle English bestiary may be found in

MORRIS, R. An Old English Miscellany, Early English Text Society, No. 49.

MAETZNER, E. Altenglische Sprachproben, I, 55. Berlin, 1867.

WRIGHT, T., and HALLIWELL, J. O. Reliquiae Antiquae, I, 208. London, 1845.

Suggestive studies on the subject are

KITTRREDGE, G. L. Beast Fables, in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia.

LAND, J. P. N. Physiologos, in Encyclopædia Britannica.

LAUCHERT, F. Geschichte des Physiologus. Strassburg, 1889.

In the popular mediæval epic, “Reynard the Fox,” animals, very realistically portrayed, yet with satirical symbolism, are the actors in a story full of interest to the modern reader. This is accessible in the following English versions:

CAXTON, W. Reynard the Fox. Percy Society, Vol. XII. London.

MORLEY, H. Early English Prose Romances. E. P. Dutton and Company, New York, 1912.

JACOBS, J. The Most Delectable History of Reynard the Fox. Macmillan and Company, London, 1895.


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