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The Physiologus (ὁ φυσιολόγος) is a collection of allegorical and moralized beast tales, at times incorporating plants, stones and the fantastic. This book addresses the oldest Greek recension of the Physiologus and subsequent translations into Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian and Old Slavonic. It offers a better understanding of how it was spread from Alexandria in the 3rd century ce to regions throughout the Byzantine Empire, Latin West, Middle East, Ethiopia, the South Slavs of the Balkans, the Caucasus and other lost translations. It enjoyed similar popularity to the late Medieval work, Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine.

Many of the translations spawned further translations, some with augmentations, in particular the initial Latin version supplemented in Origines by Isadore (b-Isadore) and the reworked versions Dicta Chrysostomi and Physiologus Theobaldi. From the Latin came the versions in Old High German, Middle High German, Old English and Middle English, Old French and Old Italian. With the exception of the Old Norse and Old English,[1] all exhibit a reworking based on the b-Isadore version.[2]

This book offers the latest in critical multilingual history of the earliest Greek Physiologus and translations and makes the case for a comparative approach to achieve real progress, similar to what Sbordone accomplished when he identified the three main Greek recensions which he referred to as redactio prima, redactio byzantina and redactio pseudo-Basiliana. Macé refers to these as the three different ‘recensions’ instead of the Latin term redactio used by Sbordone. Macé argues that over time, as a Gebrauchstext, the Physiologus underwent an evolution and transformation not only in its original language but also in every iteration in the various languages. The ancient translations both in Latin and in Christian oriental languages offer a roadmap to the earliest stages of the tradition. What is offered in this book are provisional new editions to two chapters out of 48, On the Pelican and On the Panther, underscoring the daunting task awaiting scholars on future edits of this desideratum.

Part I presents a critical analysis of the manuscript tradition and past scholarship in the featured languages and a critique of these traditions. Part II highlights current critical editions focusing namely on two aforementioned chapters, in every language covered in Part I. These include interpretative essays in order to contextualize them for the reader to gain a better perspective as to when these texts were created. New critical editions of the ancient translations have brought about a reassessment of the history of the Greek text exposing a Southern-Italian branch, while related, exhibits sufficient differences to the prototype, ultimately distinguishing two very old redactions Phys. Gr. α and Phys. Gr. β, the former translated into Latin (Phys. Lat. y), Armenian (Phys. Arm. α) and Syriac (Phys. Syr. α), the latter translated into Latin (Phys. Lat. x), Ethiopic (Phys. Eth. β), Syriac (Phys. Syr. β), Arabic (Phys. Arab. α) and Old Slavonic (Phys. Slav. α). Macé concludes that some of these translations possibly date back to the 5th or 6th century and in some cases even earlier. Thus, these two redactions must be edited separately.

This study underscores the need for further research on related topics such as recensions and revisions of the Physiologus in Slavonic translation[3] ; an alignment that demonstrates a trajectory of the manuscript tradition of the earliest Latin translations ; whether provisional stemmatological parameters based on a circumscribed sample of texts will hold when studying a larger sample ; if some manuscripts attributed to a particular version could possibly display subtle deviations intimating a different or hybrid provenance ; correlations between the first Greek text to later Greek recensions including the Byzantine recensions ; development of the Western tradition in both Latin and the vernacular languages — are just a few topics of considerations for future studies of the Physiologus tradition.