De naturis animalium – On the natures of animals
In the Bible, animals are seen as an important part of God’s creation and are described as having a close relationship with human beings who are granted ‘dominion’ over them by God in Genesis 1, 26 – 28. They are not only subject to us as livestock, beasts of burden or pets but can also represent enemies against which we must struggle. Illuminated scenes in biblical manuscripts often show humans fighting with real or mythical creatures that are used to symbolise various human characteristics. Animals can also be an image of God (“like the eagle who protects his nest”) and thus teach humans how to recognise the workings of the Almighty through nature.
A whole series of such ‘books of beasts’ appeared during the Middle Ages that took a natural history approach to discussing the natures of animals. Among these is a manuscript entitled De naturis animalium written by the scholarly Abbot Engelbert of Admont (tenure: 1297 – 1327). There are medical texts that provide accounts of animals that can cause illnesses and of living beings that are harmful to humans. And there are also early medieval manuscripts that give instructions on the husbandry and the fruitful employment of animals.