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Best iaries—literally “books of beasts”—were among the most exquisite written products of the middle ages (see Ben Lewis’s Private View this month). Lavishly illustrated guides to the animal kingdom, they melded fact and rumour to create mystically charged taxonomies of nature, based largely upon readings of the Bible and the ancient authors of Rome and Greece. Within them, the whale, or leviathan, was a Satanic creature whose belly represented hell on earth to those, like Jonah, whom it swallowed; while the bear gave birth to shapeless, eyeless lumps of flesh, then licked these into the form of cubs. As well…

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