Medieval books are filled with stunning illustrations of animals, both real and imaginary. And, while insects might have lacked the star power of unicorns and serpents, they were nonetheless lushly presented by the artists of their time.
As the British Library notes:
Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books. But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts. Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion.
Here are some of the highlights from their collection:
The humble ant is given its due, with writers expressing admiration for its diligent labors and willingness to work for the good of the group.
But other stories about ants are more fanciful. One book describes a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, that is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold. Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them.
Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, and worthy of emulation by human beings.
That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons. A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre's Histoire d'Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.
And many other insects, such as this marvelous butterfly, served as decorative elements in the margins of manuscripts.
See more medieval insects as the blog of the British Library.