Harmonia Early Music

Harmonia Time Capsule: Physiologus

Let’s take a quick look back in time . . . in a special Harmonia Time Capsule featuring a famous bestiary.

TC-Physiologus bestiary

Photo: (Paul K (flickr)

Bird killing a serpent.

From the beginning of history, animals have played an essential role in the lives of humans.  Ancient legends from all over the world attest to our fascination with animals and beliefs that animals, as well as other aspects of nature, represent elements of the divine.  Stories about animals, passed down from generation to generation, provided both entertainment and a means of unravelling the mysteries of the known universe.

One particular collection of animal stories–a predecessor of and inspiration for many subsequent medieval bestiaries–is the Physiologus.  The Physiologus is believed to have been written in the 2nd century AD.  Many authors have been attributed with its creation.  Among them are:  Peter of Alexandria, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome.

Within the text are colorful accounts of birds (like the crow, the ostrich, and the turtle dove), weasels, lions — and even the fabled unicorn.  Each animal included in the Physiologus represents either good or bad qualities.  For example, the turtledove is praised for the faithfulness she shows her mate.  The fox, on the other hand, is chastened for his deceitfulness.

The Physiologus was one of the most popular and widely read books in the middle ages.  Originally in Greek, it is believed to have been translated into Latin around 400 AD.  It has since been translated into numerous languages, including Ethiopic, Armenian, Syriac, German, and English.  The text also inspired the composition of other books about animals.  These bestiaries contain new stories or elaborated versions of the Physiologus’s earlier descriptions.

Music excerpt

Donato da Firenze : madrigal: “Lucida pecorella”
La Reverdie — Bestiarium: animals and nature in medieval music (Cantus , 2005)
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Additional information about people, music, and events mentioned in this time capsule

Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore
Michael J. Curley
Buy from Amazon »
album cover

The Middle English Physiologus
H. Wirtjes, ed.
Buy from Amazon »
album cover

Donato da Firenze : madrigal: “Lucida pecorella”
La Reverdie — Bestiarium: animals and nature in medieval music (Cantus , 2005)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore
Michael J. Curley
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
The Middle English Physiologus
H. Wirtjes, ed.
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Harmonia Early Music

Harmonia Early Music is a nationally syndicated weekly early music radio program, podcast and blog produced by WFIU Public Radio.

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