Philippe de Thaon

Philippe de Thaon
(or Thaün)
(fl. early 12th century)
   The Anglo-Norman cleric Philippe de Thaon was the author of the first BESTIARY in a European vernacular language, and thus was largely responsible for the popular vogue of such pseudo-scientific discussions of animals (real and imaginary) in France and western Europe for the next 200 years. Philippe must have had some connection with the Norman-English court. The earliest text of his Bestiaire, preserved in the British Museum Cotton Nero A.v. manuscript, bears a dedication to Aélis (or Adela) de Louvain, second wife of King Henry I of England. This dates the manuscript to sometime within a few years of 1121, when Henry married Adela. A later manuscript of the text, preserved at Oxford, includes a different dedication, this time to ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE, who had married the future King HENRY II in 1152. Thus Philippe’s connection to the court seems to have continued well into the mid-12th century. Interested in other forms of science or pseudoscience than merely animal lore, Philippe also wrote a Comput, a poetic treatise on the calendar intended mainly for ecclesiastical purposes. The text consists of 1,090 lines of hexasyllabic (sixsyllable) couplets. Apparently written before he had a connection to the English court, the work is dedicated to Philippe’s uncle, Honfroi de Thaon, who had the position of chaplain to Eudo Dapifer, royal steward of France who died in 1120. Thus the Comput dates from before 1120, possibly (based on internal evidence) as early as 1113, which makes it essentially the earliest extant scientific treatise in vernacular French. In addition to the Comput, Philippe is also known to have written a lapidary, which would have contained descriptions of the properties of precious stones and their uses in medicine and other pseudo-scientific areas. But Philippe’s most influential work was his Bestiaire. The bestiary tradition in Latin goes back to a second-century Greek original, the Physiologus (Natural philosopher), and includes the Etymologies by the seventh-century Spanish saint and encyclopedist ISIDORE OF SEVILLE. Philippe’s source was probably a later Latin text that had made use of Isidore as well as the Physiologus tradition. The text is 3,194 lines of hexasyllabic couplets, though a few hundred lines from the end, he shifts to eightsyllable lines. The text comprises 38 chapters: The first 23 deal with beasts, beginning, as was customary, with the lion. Chapters 24–34 are concerned with birds, beginning with the partridge (curiously, in Philippe’s arrangement, preceding the eagle,who would more traditionally have been accorded the primary position). Chapters 35–38 deal with precious stones, and are themselves more of a lapidary appended to the bestiary—and it is here that Philippe switches to the eight-syllable lines. The three extant manuscripts of Philippe’s Bestiaire (the British Museum and Oxford manuscripts, and an incomplete later manuscript located in Copenhagen) all contain a Latin prologue and Latin rubrics in the margins throughout that either summarize the text or give instruction to the illustrator as to the nature of the picture that should be included. The authorship of these Latin rubrics is a matter of scholarly debate, but Florence McCulloch believes they are Philippe’s, so that they indicate his interest in the production of his own manuscript. The popularity of bestiaries is explained partly by their moralizing tendencies: From the time of the earliest Greek Physiologus, the descriptions of the animals were accompanied by allegorical interpretations that indicated a moral lesson to be learned from the beast described. For example, in Philippe’s description of the Phoenix, we learn that the bird originated in Arabia, and that it destroys itself by burning on a pyre of its own construction. But after its fiery immolation, the Phoenix becomes a worm. The priest of Heliopolis finds the worm, which, on the third day, is reborn as an adult bird. The conclusion, of course, is that the Phoenix, by his resurrection, symbolizes Christ. Philippe does not invent this idea, nor does he add a great deal to it that is different, but he is important for having given new life to the ancient tradition of the bestiary by popularizing it in the vernacular.
   ■ McCulloch, Florence. Mediaeval Latin and French Bestiaries. Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 33. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
   ■ Short, Ian, ed. Comput: MS BL Cotton Nero A.V. London: Published by the Anglo-Norman Text Society from Birkbeck College, 1984.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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