The Marvelous Beasts of the Secrets of Natural History

John B. Friedman


The paper examines some marvelous bovids, remarkable birds, and beings half human, half animals such as the werewolf as an illustration of certain key changes in source reception taking place in late medieval geographic writing. These creatures are found in a Middle French compendium titled the Secrets of Natural History, which for convenience here is called SNH. An anonymous work, probably compiled about 1380, it exists in four illustrated French luxury manuscripts made in the mid to late fifteenth century, as well as in several incunabule and early printed editions. Though there are hundreds of creatures mentioned in the SNH’s seventy-three chapters, taken largely from Pliny’s Historia Naturalis and Solinus’ Collectanea, we will be concerned here only with those that are non-Plinean and more “local” in origin as part of the pattern of larger changes in scientific observation from a sole reliance on antique authority to a greater use and incorporation of popular or folk culture received from contemporary, often named sources. Miniatures from the four known manuscripts of the SNH illustrate points in the argument.


Marvelous Creatures, Metamorphosis, Pierre Bersuire, Travel writing, Medieval geography, Werewolves.

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