Friendly beasts

Anthony Saville has been entranced by a new book of medieval pictures of animals, real and imaginary

Once one has acquired the basic historical understanding of those distant centuries, is there any merit in the Middle Ages? I have to confess that the more bishops and politicians urge me to be modern, the more I am inclined to see wisdom in the old.

My fascination with the Middle Ages is its extraordinary difference, lived out in large part within the actual building where I worship week by week. When I enter a building that has hardly been altered in five hundred years, I am more than ready to feel respect for those who built it and for their society.

This may be a rather pompous introduction to a lovely book, that you must surely buy for someone as a Christmas present, called simply Beasts. Put together from the Getty Museum in California (for whom no doubt the medieval culture is yet more distant), it is the most enjoyable collection of pictures of animals, real and imaginary, from the medieval period, that I have encountered.

What struck me first was how accurate so many of these (generally very small) paintings are, and how unexpectedly healthy and robust the domesticated animals are. There is often a gentle humour and intrusions of sentimentality, but on the whole there is a healthy realism and (to use a modern word) a proper degree of respect. These are only contemporary pictures, often marginal to the text itself; this is not a scholarly thesis; and yet the book as a whole conveys strongly a shared sense of what binds us in creation, a community of life and order manifestly different to the aggressive proclamation of animal rights of our own day.

Do not turn to this collection in search of intellectual enlightenment: just sheer enjoyment. These are the animals that fed and fascinated, charmed and frightened our forefathers.

BEASTS by Elizabeth Morrison; British Library, 12-95 hardback

The Beasts: 1:The Lamb of God, in the form of a medieval knight, decapitates his foes - from a 13th c. Spanish Apocalypse; 2: On the fifth day of creationn; 3: A huntsman looking after his hounds (note the open fire) - 15th c. French; 4: A Flemish farm scene; 5:The sheep and the goats and their keepers - 13th c. French.

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