Bern Physiologus

Bern Physiologus – Alkuin Verlag – Codex Bongarsianus 318 – Burgerbibliothek (Bern, Switzerland)

Reims (France) β€” Ca. 830

The significance of saints' lives, botany, and mining science for human morality: a Carolingian copy of the Late Antique Christian didactic text, illuminated with 35 gorgeous miniatures

  1. The text was originally written by an unknown author in Alexandria during the 2nd century

  2. Various topics are presented with relevant passages explaining their moral significance

  3. A scribe named Haecpertus copied it in Hautvillers Abbey near Reims between 825 and 850

Bern Physiologus

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  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Bern Physiologus

The Bern Physiologus is a 9th century illuminated manuscript that appears to be a copy of a 5th century codex from Late Antiquity. It contains a Latin translation of the Physiologus, a didactic Christian text written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author in Alexandria sometime in the 2nd century. Originating in Hautvillers Abbey near Reims between 825 and 850, this Carolingian copy is the work of a scribe identified as Haecpertus and is very neatly written in Carolingian minuscule with uncial script in black and red for the headings. It covers topics ranging from saints’ lives to descriptions of various animals, plants, and stones with corresponding passages concerning their moral significance. 35 miniatures adorn the manuscript, 25 with frames and 10 without, which are integrated into the text in the manner of an ancient manuscript and are probably copies. The Bern Physiologus is the oldest known surviving copy of the work in any language, making it a precious specimen for modern researchers in numerous fields.

Bern Physiologus

The Physiologus is a didactic Christian text originally written in Greek during the 2nd century, which was very influential during the Middle Ages for the development of bestiaries – illustrated manuscripts depicting various animals and ascribing moral lessons to them. This type of Christian allegory was extremely popular and offers insights into the beliefs and worldview of medieval Europeans. The oldest surviving illustrated version of the text originated between 825 and 850 and is the work of a monk named Haecpertus in Hautvillers Abbey. Judging by the style of the fine miniatures that adorn the manuscript, it must be the copy of a late antique specimen. It has preserved 24 of the original 35–50 chapters, but also includes two new chapters on the horse and the rooster taken from works by Ambrose of Milan and Isidore of Seville. Most of the history of the manuscript is a mystery, it was likely in a monastic library for centuries before beingly privately owned in the 15th and 16th centuries and was finally acquired by the Burgerbibliothek Bern in 1632.

Understanding the Physiologus

This work is not an encyclopedia in the modern sense because it does not seek to scientifically describe and classify animals, plants, and minerals. Instead, it approaches nature as an assemblage of divine signs that are to be deciphered in order to draw moralistic lessons based on Biblical teachings. Although scientific and theological matters are generally divorced in the modern mind, there was nothing incongruous about this in the medieval mind, which saw them as parts of a holistic truth – God’s truth. As such, animals, plants, and minerals are not the subject of the work but rather devices whose specific natures serve to evoke moralizing lessons. Furthermore, fantastical creatures like dragons are included alongside frogs because it is their symbolic value that is important. Physiologus manuscripts were used as tools of religious education and were commonly found in monastic libraries but were also simple enough for educating the laity.

An Assortment of Moralizing Christian Texts

Each of the 26 chapters shares the same binary structure: a description of the animal (or in a few cases plant or stone) followed by a moralizing text explaining the significance of their nature, typically using an analogy from the Bible. Despite the Christian nature of the work, it draws from pagan traditions and corresponds strongly with Greco-Roman and Egyptian teachings. Aside from the primary text, the Carolingian manuscript also includes copies of the Life of Saint Simeon, the Chronicle of Fredegar, 18 short biographies of Christian patriarchs from Abraham to David, a pericope of the Gospel of Matthew with a Latin translation by Ephrem the Syrian, and more.

Decoration of the Work

It is debated whether Haecpertus, the scribe responsible for the work, was also the artist who pained its 35 colorful and handsome miniatures, most with a thick red frame bordered with a thinner black line. Regardless of the identity of the artist or artists, it is evident that the images were copied from a manuscript from Late Antiquity. Some scholars claim an Alexandrian origin as far back as the 4th century for this missing exemplar, others claim it could have been produced as late as the 8th century in a Greco-Italian artistic center of southern Italy. Either way, it is agreed that this ancient or not-so-ancient text made its way to Reims, which was becoming an influential center of artistic production. The attention to perspective and the naturalistic representation of the features, particularly the miniature on the first page depicting Jacob blessing the Lion of Judah, point to a skilled hand or hands. Thus, the work is precious not only because of its contents but for preserving the art of the ancient world.


Alternative Titles
Berner Physiologus
Physiologus Bernensis
Codex Bongarsianus 318
Size / Format
262 pages / 25.5 Γ— 18.0 cm
Ca. 830
Carolingian Minuscule Uncial
35 miniatures
Facsimile Editions

#1 Physiologus Bernensis : voll-Faksimile-Ausg. des Codex Bongarsianus 318 der Burgerbibliothek Bern

Alkuin Verlag – Basel, 1964

Publisher: Alkuin Verlag – Basel, 1964
Binding: Parchment binding with gold tooling
Commentary: 1 volume by Christoph Steiger and Otto Homburger
Language: German

The commentary was included in a separate part of the facsimile volume.
1 volume: This facsimile is not complete. Reproduction of ff. 7r-22v of the original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The pages are presented on a larger white background. The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding. One volume
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €
(under 1,000€)
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