“Nature”; also Guigemar‘s Hermaphroditic Cervid

1) Point the First: saw an excellent paper (“Lost Geographies and The Awntyrs off Arthure”) by Kathleen Coyne Kelly at the MLA in the “Alliterative Romances” session, where something struck me: When did “nature” become a place? When did it become possible to go out into nature? When did nature cease to be, primarily, a synonym for “kynde,” or a word meaning “all of creation”? The Middle English Dictionary, the OED, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, and Glossa aren’t helping me here.

2) Point the Second: On the topic of Nature: I recently read Timothy Morton‘s The Ecological Thought (for a hit-and-run review, see here). Enjoyed it enormously, not least of all for his take-down of heteronormative, hearty, unironic “nature.” Morton says, for example:

Rugged, bleak, masculine Nature defines itself through extreme contrasts. It’s outdoorsy, not ‘shut in.’ It’s extraverted, not introverted. It’s heterosexual, not homosexual. It’s able-bodied–‘disability’ is nowhere to be seen, and physical ‘wholeness’ and ‘coordination’ are valued over the spontaneous body (81)….Masculine Nature is unrealistic. In the mesh, sexuality is all over the map. Our cells reproduce asexually, like their single-celled ancestors or the blastocyst that attaches to the uterus wall at the beginning of pregnancy. Plants and animals are hermaphrodites before they are bisexual and bisexual before they are heterosexual. Most plants and half of animals are either sequentially or simultaneously hermaphorditic; many live with constant transgender switching. A statistically significant proportion of white-tailed deer (10 percent plus) are intersex (84)….The ecological thought is also friendly to disability. There are plentiful maladaptions and functionless phenomena at the organism level (85)

Follow the link, the source for Morton’s observation about the frequent intersexuality of white-tailed deer. If you’re a medievalist, and this doesn’t remind you of something, I recommend you reread my post’s title.

En l’espeisse d’un grant buissun

vit une bisse od sun foün.

Tute fu blanche cele beste;

perches de cerf out en la teste (89-92)

In the densest part of a great thicket, he saw a doe and her fawn. this animal was completely white; it had a rack of antlers on its head. (5)

Morton, via Joan Roughgarden, talks of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), not native to Europe, and certainly unknown to Marie (but not unknown in their intersexed form to American hunters). But Roughgarden goes on to speak about several other species essential to the high-class hunting culture of twelfth-century Northern Europe:

a male morph in black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus) called cactus buck may be a form of intersex as well. Elk (Cervus elaphus, also called a red-tailed deer), swamp deer (Cervus duvauceli), Sika deer (Cervus nippon), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and fallow deer (Dama dama), all have a male morph with velvet-covered antlers, called a peruke, that is described as nonreproductive. (36-37)

Now, Marie’s white deer with a fawn doesn’t quite correspond to the so-called male morphs of Elk or red-tailed, fallow, or roe deer; but the mixture of secondary sexual characteristics (at this point, would you please turn in your hymn-book to hymn #25, “All Sexual Characteristics are Secondary (Praise J. Butler)”) in/on a cervid would not have been entirely unknown to Marie. It would not have been purely fantastic, nor purely symbolic. However, my sense from my dipping into Marie criticism is that this hermaphroditic deer’s characteristics tend to be taken this way. If we take this as a known variant in cervid bodies (again, thanks, this time with the hymn book, “All Bodies Are Variants”), if we accept that what we tend to think of as “nature itself” “will not be pitched into binary assignations” (thanks Richard Maxwell, via Amy Hughes), then we, and Guigemar, ought not to take this critter as being as much a wonder, or monster, as we perhaps have been prone to do. Please do more with this if and as you like.

(image via the post “Something is missing on this 10-point ‘buck,'” here)