Basilisks and cockatrices

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

It’s the beginning of December and I’m starting the annual advent count down to Christmas with a fabled creature from medieval bestiaries that gained more recent recognition thanks to a certain boy wizard. These creatures were allegedly hatched from the egg of a toad which had been incubated by a cockerel. As with most things scientific the medieval world took their cue from the Greeks. Pliny the Elder described basilisks killing with a single stare, being venomous and breathing fire. The Venerable Bede attested to the basilisk and Geoffrey Chaucer made mention of them.

In the event of coming across a basilisk the advice is to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Apparently, according to Pliny, who described the basilisk has having a deadly effect on everything in its vicinity including the vegetation, the weasel would become a fatality but the basilisk would succumb to the weasel’s smell. The weasel in this particular image from The British Library seems to be having a staring competition with the basilisk which has a resplendently serpentine tail attached to the body of a cockerel. An image of a basilisk held by the Bodleian Library shows the weasel being decidedly more aggressive and considerably larger that your average weasel. If you do encounter a basilisk but don’t have a handy weasel to lob at it, medieval writers professed the power of prayer. After all, the basilisk was an embodiment of evil. By the Renaissance, writers urged people to defend themselves with axes – presumably whilst avoiding the creature’s gaze.

A Weasel Combating a Basilisk, Folio 79, Bestiary of the Second Family, also known as The Ashmole Beastiary, Peterborough Abbey or Canterbury Abbey, c. 1200–10. BODLEIAN LIBRARY, OXFORD, MS ASHMOLE 1511

It has been suggested that Pliny was actually writing about a cobra – which hisses, spits and is deadly. Greek descriptions were used widely in bestiaries from the ninth century onwards. By 1100 they were becoming incorporated in alchemy. By the Renaissance writers were tripping over basilisks on a regular basis and inevitably charlatans were faking taxidermic examples. Francesco I de Medici had a particularly fine example on display in Florence.

I found this little chap on Pinterest. He originates in the bestiary of Anne Walshe dating from the early fifteenth century. Anne was a child and annotated several of the drawings. It can be found in the Royal Library of Copenhagen and can be viewed digitally online by following the link at the end of the post before the references.

R. McN. Alexander. “The Evolution of the Basilisk.” Greece & Rome, vol. 10, no. 2, [Classical Association, Cambridge University Press], 1963, pp. 170–81,

Tigers in medieval England

tiger from the Northumberland Bestiary 1250-60

I was looking at the award winning photograph of the Amur tiger a couple of nights ago and that got me wondering about medieval depictions. The Amur used to be Siberian but the new name Amur reflects their decreased territories. This led me to looking at bestiaries with their strange mix of fact and fantasy. The fantastic animals, unicorns and manticores and suchlike, existed as part of culture and as with so much in the medieval world they became a tool to provide an insight into morality. And of course God created all the animals so their study was yet another way for mankind to get a bit closer to understanding God, the Cosmos and mankind’s place within it.

I’m not sure why the tiger was blue. Come to think of it I’m not totally sure why the tiger has spots rather than stripes other than because Isidore of Seville wrote that this was the case.

The illustration is based on a story by Pliny – so for those of the History Jar readers who have ventured into the medieval world of this autumn’s Zoom classes there is a neat rehearsal of a familiar pattern. We know for example that Pliny’s story appeared in Latin format and ultimately a French text before crossing The Channel. The knowledge of the Greeks arrives in medieval hands by circuitous routes. A key text in the evolution of bestiaries is the bestiary of Isidore of Seville who wrote in the seventh century – so back to one of those transition points for information to move from the Arab to the Frankish world.

The hunter in the story is attempting to steal tiger cubs. He makes his get away by dropping one cub at a time to distract the irate parent. In medieval minds tigers were very fast moving animals and dangerous if angry. (again thanks to Pliny) In the thirteenth century an additional element crept into the story when the story teller arranged for the hunter to drop something shiny so that the mother seeing her own reflection believed it to be her cub – clearly not aware of the sensitive olfactory moggy snout! Clearly the hunter gets away, either because the mother tiger is busy looking after her abandoned cubs or licking her own face in a mirror of some description.

The Northumberland Bestiary is in the hands of the Getty Museum https: // Unsurprisingly given it’s origins it was originally owned by the Duke of Northumberland. It contains 112 illustrations.

As you might expect the British Library is the home for many medieval bestiaries:

Sergey Gorshkov’s winning photograph of the Amur Tiger. I should note that medieval writers were thinking about the Asian tiger and would sometimes note that the River Tigris was named for the tiger.

The Embrace by Sergey Gorshkov, Russia   –   Copyright  © Sergey Gorshkov/Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2020