Nowadays, when we seek a holistic picture of our world, many of us might look to the internet. It’s debatable whether this crowd-sourced glut of information provides us a more extensive or more accurate version of things than the encyclopedias and natural histories of old provided their readers. A great deal, after all, depends on the interpreter. But one thing is clear: everyone, no matter when or where they have lived on this earth, has always loved drawing and looking at pictures of animals.
The wonderful illuminated manuscript featured here, produced in Utrecht or Flanders sometime in the mid-fourteenth-century, contains quite a number of memorably rendered creatures, some real and some imaginary, and would have acted, in its day, like a kind of Wikipedia of the natural world. There is an elephant with a funnel-like trunk in a landscape of mushroomesque trees. There are several bipedal, winged, or horned fish. And a rather mean looking oyster. Indeed, a compendium of cute animals this is not — most of the beasts are found sporting the same grisly grin, though often to the point of comedy (and one might argue, cuteness).
The manuscript is an illustrated version of the poet Jacob van Maerlant's Der naturen bloeme (ca. 1270), which is itself a shortened adaptation (and translation into Dutch) of De natura rerum (ca. 1230–45) by the philosopher and theologian Thomas of Cantimpré. The tradition of such encyclopaedic studies of natural things stretches back nearly two millennia, to the publication of Pliny the Elder’s Latin Naturalis historia (c. 77–79 CE), which purported to include all knowledge of life on earth, and the anonymous second century Greek Physiologus, which more modestly limited itself to flora and fauna.
To historians, Der naturen bloeme is especially remarkable because it is a scholarly text written in Dutch, not the expected Latin. To all of us, it’s remarkable for the indelible illuminations it spawned, including not only animals but homines monstruosi (monster humans) rumored to live outside the bounds of Europe. These comprise cannibals, Cyclopes, and — in the words of the National Library of the Netherlands where the manuscript is housed — “people with only one leg and feet so large that they could be used as a parasol”.