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This Beautiful Manuscript Was Used to Teach People About Flaming Bull Shit

Close detail from high-resolution photographs reveals evidence of bestiary's use as a teaching tool rather than a pretty library ornament.
Image: University of Aberdeen

Lavishly, extensively illuminated, the Aberdeen Bestiary at Scotland's University of Aberdeen was long known to be worthy of special attention, but a recent project to host high-definition images of of the roughly 800-year-old manuscript's pages revealed surprising insights into its use and creation. Previous research assumed it was intended as a wealthy patron's prize, but details found throughout its pages suggest it was instead used to teach medieval folk about creatures like the bonnacon, a bull-like monster that could set three acres aflame simply by taking a shit.

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The photographs reveal, for instance, that one of the pages shows evidence of multiple dirty thumbprints in the center of the top margin, which suggests the manuscript was frequently turned around in order to show an interested audience the imagery. In other sections you can find evidence of marks above the words added by later users, likely in an effort to ensure proper pronunciation when reading passages aloud to listeners.

Image: University of Aberdeen

"Some [clues about the manuscript's creation and origins] were visible to the naked eye but digitisation has revealed many more which had simply looked like imperfections in the parchment," said professor Jane Geddes in a statement from the university.

Further evidence of its use as a learning tool shows up in the use of "pouncing," or the practice of pricking the outlines of images with needles in order to easily recreate the imagery on another sheet of vellum underneath. The technique often damages the gold-leaf illumination around the illustration, which is hardly the type of treatment one would expect from a manuscript meant as a showpiece. One section about birds also has numerous handwritten corrections, pointing to an ultimate preference for accuracy over beauty.

Online photos of the manuscript's pages have been around since 1996, but never with such high quality. To create the new images, the University of Aberdeen worked with the University of Manchester Library's Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care, which in turn took photos of 345 pages using a medium format camera and special ultraviolet-filtered LED lights. Each image boasts around 80 million pixels, and each RAW image file takes up around 70mb.

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Image of a hyena chomping on a corpse in a tomb. Evidence of "pouncing" visible around the human body. Image: University of Aberdeen

The University of Aberdeen (founded in 1495) has taken care of the manuscript since 1625. Prior to that it first shows up in the records of Royal Library at Westminster Palace in 1542, thus leading to speculation based on its appearance that it had been crafted for a wealthy client.

The clear focus on education as revealed with the high-definition imagery, however, suggests it instead probably originated from the holdings of one of the monasteries dissolved by King Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541 and was saved for the king's personal collection. The manuscript itself is thought to have been made in England around the year 1200.

Image of a horseman throwing down glass spheres in order to trick a tiger (yes, tiger) into thinking they're cubs. Image: University of Aberdeen

Bestiaries were popular in the Middle Ages, but while they sometimes passed on some "facts" about unfamiliar animals they described (or as close as you could get at the time), they were more concerned with moral lessons than anything resembling scientific education. Which means you often get something like this in the Aberdeen Bestiary:

"In Asia an animal is found which men call bonnacon. It has the head of a bull, and thereafter its whole body is of the size of a bull's with the maned neck of a horse. Its horns are convoluted, curling back on themselves in such a way that if anyone comes up against it, he is not harmed. But the protection which its forehead denies this monster is furnished by its bowels. For when it turns to flee, it discharges fumes from the excrement of its belly over a distance of three acres, the heat of which sets fire to anything it touches. In this way, it drives off its pursuers with its harmful excrement."

For more such nuggets of wisdom, you can search through each page of the manuscript through the special site the University of Aberdeen has put up. No need to brush up on your Latin, as each page comes with translations and commentary.