The Cambridge and the Exeter Book Physiologi: Associative Imagery, Allegorical Circularity, and Isidorean Organization

Mercedes Salvador-Bello 1  and Mar Gutiérrez-Ortiz 2
  • 1 University of Sevilla, Sevilla, Spain
  • 2 University of Sevilla, Sevilla, Spain
Mercedes Salvador-Bello and Mar Gutiérrez-Ortiz


The Physiologus has survived in some twenty-four manuscripts, two of which are of English origin: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 448, and Exeter, Cathedral Library, 3501. The latter codex, also known as the Exeter Book, contains a verse Physiologus (fols. 95v–98r) in Old English. In turn, the Cambridge manuscript provides a Latin prose Physiologus (fols. 88r–89r). These two texts bear witness to the knowledge of the Physiologus in the late Anglo-Saxon period and constitute the central piece of evidence extant for the dissemination of this work in England. Even though the two versions are formally and stylistically different, the manuscripts in which they occur are roughly contemporary and both of them are of Southern provenance. Each of these Physiologi comprises three chapters describing three animals: lion, unicorn and panther in the case of the Cambridge Physiologus, and panther, whale and an unknown bird – whose identification is problematic due to a textual gap – in the Exeter codex. Despite these striking affinities, no scholarly work has offered a comparative study of the two Physiologi, with the exception of Andrea Rossi-Reder’s unpublished PhD dissertation (1992), and only passing reference has been made to the Cambridge Physiologus in discussions of the better‑known Exeter text.

In order to remedy this critical neglect, the present article offers a detailed analysis of both Physiologi, together with a first edition of the Latin text. As we will show, the Cambridge and the Exeter Physiologi share the same cultural background and apply similar compilation criteria. In both cases, the zoological motifs were selected according to organizational principles based on Isidore’s Etymologiae, such as the animals’ unclean character and size. In both, too, the creatures described are interconnected by means of recurrent associative imagery and an allegorical circular design. This combination of encyclopedic criteria and the sensory characterization of the animals discloses remarkable parallelisms in the structure and the compositional technique of these two Physiologi. Moreover, this analogous organizational method offers additional evidence to support Michael D. C. Drout’s hypothesis that the bird described in the fragmentary third chapter of the Exeter version is the phoenix instead of the partridge, as some other scholars had traditionally maintained. Our reading also effectively harmonizes with the eschatological and anagogic elements which have been pointed out for the third chapter of the Exeter Physiologus, as well as with the allegorical and tropological roles of the panther and the whale.

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A renowned journal of English philology, Anglia was founded in 1878 by Moritz Trautmann and Richard P. Wülker. It is thus the oldest journal of English Studies in existence. Anglia publishes essays on the English language and linguistic history, on English literature of the Middle Ages and the modern period, on American literature, on new literatures in English, as well as on general and comparative literary studies.