Skip to main content

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Adam names the animals in the Canterbury Cathedral Bestiary

This appealing and vibrant illustration of Adam naming the animals and birds which surround him appears in CCA Lit Ms D.10 (now fol. 7v but originally fol. 121v). There is no evidence as to how and when the book housing this folio came to be in the Cathedral Archives but its anglicana script allows it to be dated to c. 1300. There are tantalising pointers to a St Augustine’s Abbey origin but nothing to substantiate a firm attribution.

This folio is part of a bestiary, a medieval spiritual and didactic work focusing on animals.  It was written and partially illustrated around 1300. This scene has been given added life and charm by being hand-coloured (probably somewhat later and not professionally) in warm tones of soft red, taupe, mid-green, and dark teal. Most of the animals, which cluster adoringly round Adam, have their own chapters and illustrations in the bestiary, so this illustration is both a summary and a pointer to some other treats to come. Adam is dressed in long flowing robes, rather reminiscent of a toga. He is clearly speaking as he is drawn, rather unusually, open-mouthed and he points towards the animals – implying he is announcing their names aloud to the animals that face him, from the dive-bombing dove above to the jolly little snake below.

This image of Adam naming the animals stems from a work by Isidore of Seville (d. AD 630), not the Bible. Nevertheless, the scene resonates with the sixth day of creation in Genesis when God created the animals [Gen: 1.25]. Moreover, Adam’s ornate chair is framed by Gothic church architecture indicating authority, and his pointing hand recalls a blessing, both elements which are reminiscent of God in other medieval images. In this Canterbury bestiary, the text from Isidore appears below the miniature, emphasising that Adam’s proactive pronunciation of the Word of God is dynamically linked to the nature of Creation. Yet why link Adam naming the animals to God’s creation?

The reason lies in the origin of this text and a desire to understand God’s creation. ‘Omnibus animantibus Adam primus vocabula indidit…’ (Adam was the first to confer names on all the animals) was taken from Bishop St Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae 12.1.1-8. Isidore’s encyclopaedic work was rather like a medieval Google and so it is unsurprising that he was named patron saint of the internet by Pope John Paul II in 1997. Book 12 of Isidore’s Etymologiae begins with Adam naming the animals and goes on to discuss them. Along with a late third-century anonymous text called Physiologus (the Naturalist ), Isidore’s Book 12  formed the first medieval bestiaries, probably in the ninth century. Both these main sources derive from Late Antiquity and draw on both classical modes of learning and scriptural exegesis (critical interpretation) to seek to understand the language of God’s creation via the spiritual meanings of words for minerals, plants, and animals – a sort of creative etymology.  Adam naming the animals is connected to understanding both the intrinsic nature of the animal and God’s creative Word. This naming of the animals is the justification for the two medieval tropes of understanding God’s creation through scriptural interpretation and via the ‘book’ of nature.

Isidore’s opening statement on naming the animals was subsequently added to the most popular form of Latin prose bestiaries from England, called Second family bestiaries, of which the Canterbury bestiary is one.  Second family bestiaries had 123 chapters on animals (as a comparison the First family bestiaries had between 39 and 42). The passage introduces the chapters on domestic and herd animals – those which are suitable for rearing and eating, or transport and pulling the plough. The Second family bestiary uses a similar order and so this folio on Adam naming the animals is followed by short chapters on sheep, goats, wild boar, oxen, camels, asses, and horses. In this bestiary these chapters are all illustrated in the same lively way, probably by the same hand. It is possible that the illustrator was alluding not only to Adam but also to Isidore in his depiction of the naming of animals.

What might be noticed too is that the illustrator seems much more adept at drawing animals than birds, none of which look comfortable either on the wing or perching on the land (rendered into a green and brown hedge by the later colourist). Size is also an issue, for example the magpie is almost as large as the cock. In contrast, the animals are roughly in proportion to each other and are drawn in pairs where the animal has substantially different male and female forms, for example the sheep and the ram, the stag and the doe. In the bottom right corner a small dog peeks between the horse’s legs. One animal is included which does not appear in the bestiary – the squirrel (just underneath the peacock’s tail), and it might be a squirrel running up Adam’s chair, although the subsequent heavy colouring-in makes it difficult to be certain.

Of course, animals lack speech and therefore cannot name themselves, hence Adam’s role. However, to name is also to own and to acknowledge mastery, or at least stewardship, over the named. The ownership explored in this bestiary folio is also inscribed into the book itself, its parchment or animal skin, its ink from wasp galls, and the quill pens that wrote it. There is a materiality of animal ownership and use exhibited in the illustration and the bestiary as a book, but it does not extend to all animals, merely these domesticated stock, because as Isidore pointed out ‘We call any animal that lacks human language and form livestock’.

The illustration cleverly channels three main allusions: God creating the animals, Adam naming the animals, and Isidore writing the text on Adam naming the animals – the whole thrust of the text being to emphasise language development via etymology. This illustration is a celebration of language and a paean to name-calling.

Diane Heath: MEMS, University of Kent

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Back to top of page