A Bestiary of Madness

Bill Penson and Darren Hill ask whether the bestiary might offer an alternative account of madness and distress to psychiatric and psychological models.

There is little doubt that there is a human preoccupation with classification. This does not always require that there is a corresponding physical truth in nature. It is perhaps also the case that at any given point, for those whose life involved such classification, it held some notion of truth. The medieval bestiary is a fine example of this phenomenon. On the one hand it represented beasts known through direct human experience, including the everyday, and on the other hand there are fabulist leanings towards the mythological. It seems that both broad categories were present in the rich symbolic life of communities and became one way by which, among other things, satire, resistance and conformity were communicated. 

Garrison (1931) describes how the first examples of the bestiary style were in fact the materia medica; Egyptian and Assyrian texts from around 721-702 BCE. There is the possibility of contemporary or earlier representations of animals and plants in Ancient Greece, but the extent to which they organised knowledge or more simply represented what was seen in the world is not fully understood. The following ‘Dark and Middle Ages’ saw a mix of attempts at plant classification, such as Dioscorides’, based on medicinal properties, and Pliny’s more fantastic accounts. It appears that the medical herbalists were forerunners to later bestial classifications. For as long as bestiaries have existed there has been an interplay between attempts at formal physical classification, and the functions of cultural analogy i.e. religious and moral instruction. Other bestiary entries were perhaps just funny tales, such as the Bonnacon that could spray “fiery dung” over a wide area when under threat (Morrison ND). 

For Henderson (1982) the bestiary sits among a range of literary, theological, and philosophical documents and includes the fable, analogy, allegory, and morality tale. There is a shift between the beasts within the tales and their symbology, and the structure and process of the bestiary. Van Dyke (2018) draws attention to what she terms second-family bestiaries that were more likely to be in women’s religious communities, to be more secular in tone and to carry a more natural knowledge of fauna and flora. There is variation in the way the bestiary is subsumed (a beast within a narrative), is storied or classification orientated (that is, presenting an encyclopaedic entry). This range and flexibility is not a problem and has to be accommodated in understanding the bestiary. Henderson suggests that it is the process of creating the bestiary, and its contribution to meaning-making, that is most important:

“Such is the thinking of our fable authors, our sportive bestiarists and allegorists of love, our earnest, jesting preachers: one may generate many a meaning from fable, song, or fleeting beast of the fields, provided only that the meaning is good and the method sound.”

Henderson 1982

Gordon et al provide some general qualities of bestiaries and a broad timeline. They write:

“In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, medieval bestiaries relied on animals as figures to help advance religious teaching and record tales of morality. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, bestiaries shifted toward empirical observation and the more “rational” organisation of scientific taxonomies. […] in the fifteenth century, bestiary literature was even further secularised, having not only evolved into a more scientific genre but also in narratives that conveyed lessons in profane and courtly styles. Finally, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was yet another resurgence in bestiary literature during the age of exploration, which reported wondrous encounters from the New World in first-hand accounts with an “other” natural world.”

Gordon et al 2017, 223-4

Cultural Beasts

While the bestiary may no longer be viewed as a legitimate expression of the truth of the world, in other areas the bestiary is widespread. The genres of historical re-enactment, science fiction and fantasy have produced a plethora of bestiaries, taxonomies, and encyclopaedia. TV, film, gaming, novels, sequential art/comic books, and virtual world Second Life, have breathed a new life into the bestiary. The world of role-play gaming offers a “shared delusion” or “folie a deux” of interesting worlds, where players are invited to co-produce strange exotic flora and fauna (Fine 1983). No world, either real or imagined, can be considered complete without a guidebook, and texts that flesh out the monster under the bed, or the nefarious creatures that reside in plain sight, and those that lurk just beyond the periphery in the shadows of thought and imagination. It is too easy to minimise the importance of such cultural entities and the significance they play in the lives of the individuals and communities who participate. Indeed, to overlook the role popular cultural plays in how our world operates is to miss a great deal (Dorfman 1983). Popular culture, nerd and geek culture, and marginal spiritual practices, draw on a modern iconography and a totemism of the modern bestiary (Pettman 2013). 

A row of Dungeons & Dragons manuals in a bookshelf
Earlier still than popular culture as we know it, the role of the fairy tale and the fantastic was an important form of cultural and social learning (Zipes 1983). Image: Aquinassixthway via Wikimedia Commons

Given the importance of the bestiary as a cultural form we wonder if it may offer an alternative account of madness and distress to those disciplinary orientated models, primarily psychiatric and psychological. The location of madness in the human sciences is at the cost of wider cultural and philosophic insights, and the bestiary form allows for a rich range of stakes to be accounted for, including those outside of professional discourse, otherwise known as lay or folk. The strength of the bestiary is the way in which it flexes with an account of what is known to be real – beasts can be simultaneously fantastic and known, while providing a system for explicating what is present but unknowable. As with bestiaries of old, the interplay between what is thought to be known, and what is understood to be fabled but instructive, offers an important form of community knowledge. 

Bestiaries are not without their problems. Earlier versions of bestiaries may well have represented an orthodoxy organised along the lines of virtue and vice (Baxter 2000). What is first chosen as the beast, and how the beast is then construed, and then what is communicated about the beast, how it is framed, in a circular fashion, changes the nature of the first choice. As Van Dyke (2018, 97) puts it: “Circular justification – attributing a human norm to nature and simultaneously validating the norm because it is natural – also appears elsewhere in bestiaries”.

An illuminated manuscript image of a fox lying on its back seemingly fighting with four magpies
Birds on a Dead Fox (detail) in a bestiary, 1278–1300, unknown illuminator, Franco-Flemish. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 4, fol. 84v. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Bestiaries of madness or mental health?

How do bestiaries help us with madness, or in a modern sense mental health? Whether or not madness has a physical substrate or causality, it does have a social and cultural presence. Crude notions of stigma reduce the problems of madness and distress to educational re-orientation – once people know that madness is an illness stigma diminishes. However, this re-education is undertaken without fully accounting for the fact that madness precedes science, and that it is a storied experience that refuses a simplistic biological or even psychological explanation. If high and low culture, to use a problematic differentiation, have anything in common, it is the pre-occupation with misery, madness, loss, the dark self, “abnormal states”, the edges of acceptability, transgression and so forth. Whether or not disciplines draw edges around their areas of concern (although there is also concern about so-called “mission-creep”) is neither here-nor-there regarding the wider fascination people have with madness. Furthermore, the joys of altered states cannot be properly explored within pathological models, without recourse to moralising – if an altered state results in no clinical or social harm (or even in the case of some psychedelics, benefits) to what extent is it an issue of pathology? 

While not entirely amenable to mapping, the modern psychiatric system, it seems to us, is a secular bestiary; without the wonder, and without the story. To re-contextualise madness within the bestiary form, and to name other “beasts” that seem to us more worthy of discussion (poverty, loss, adversity), and of stories, we argue offers other possibilities for understanding. The beasts might not be in the forms of madness such as psychosis, neurosis, mania, phobia, misery. Some beasts may even be found in the rise of disciplines – how might we describe the beast that is psychiatry, psychology, or social work? So, we return, in the bestiary, to an earlier classificatory form, earlier even still than the first diagnostic manuals of the 20th Century, that has since found its raison d’etre in popular culture. If there is a grain of truth in Bentall’s (2003) contention that psychiatric diagnosis has the same degree of rigour as astrology, then maybe there is a call-back to earlier systems of knowing (through the stars). What are we really giving up if we give up classification systems that do not helpfully classify?

The worth of the mad bestiary

There are three main positions in which applying the rationality of the bestiary to madness and distress may contribute to our understanding:

  1. To examine contemporary psychiatric practice as a form of secular bestiary that trades in unverifiable socio-cultural fantastic forms. While the experience of psychosis is real, the notion of schizophrenia is a psychiatric trope. Misery is all around, but depression is a tale of personal, biological insufficiency. 
  2. To take the diagnostic categories and embellish them in the manner of a bestiary thus developing a context and narrative that weaves the current orthodoxy into a greater story both banal and fabulist.
  3. To put aside psychiatry and its categories and redraw the bestiary in other terms. Here these would be steeped in the social, cultural and economic context of madness.

In adopting the three possibilities above, we draw on political, philosophical, and cultural sources, giving them equal if not a greater status than traditional social/human sciences outlooks. A mad bestiary would hold a certain truth and offer the reader a cautionary tale.

About the authors

Dr Bill Penson is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health, and Dr Darren Hill is the Reader in Social Work at Leeds Beckett University. They lecture together on the MSc in Child & Adolescent Mental Health and supervise students undertaking their Doctor of Philosophy award.


Bentall, R.P. 2003. Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature. London: Penguin. 

Baxter, R. 2000. ‘Learning from Nature, Lessons in Virtue and Vice in the Phisiologus and Bestiaries (Index of Christian Art. Resources, 1)’. In Virtue and Vice – the Personifications in the Index of Christian Art edited by Colum Hourihane. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dorfman, A. 1983. The Empire’s Old Clothes: What The Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to our Minds. New York: Pantheon Books.

Fine, Gary Allen. 1983. Shared Fantasy: Roleplaying Games as Social Worlds. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Garrison, F.H. 1931. ‘Herbals and Bestiaries’. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, No. 3.12: 891-904.

Gordon, J.G., K.D. Lind and S. Kutnicki. 2017. ‘Introduction: A Rhetorical Bestiary’. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, No. 47. 3: 222-228.

Henderson, A.C. 1982. ‘Medieval Beasts and Modern Cages: The Making of Meaning in Fables and Bestiaries’. PMLA, No: 97. 1: 40-49.

Morrison, E. ND. Beastly Tales from the Medieval Bestiary. British Library (12:52 4/04/23). https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/beastly-tales-from-the-medieval-bestiary.

Pettman, D. 2013. Look At The Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Winchester: Zero Books.

Van Dyke, C. 2018. ‘Women and Other Beasts: A Feminist Perspective on Medieval Bestiaries’. Medieval Feminist Forum, No. 54.1: 94-117.

Zipes, J. 1983:2012. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. London: Routledge.

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