Nothing But Flowers: On Chaucer’s ‘Former Age’

Alexander encounters Fol 209 versoOver the past week, I’ve been working on a piece on Chaucer’s “The Former Age” (Middle English; translation), primitivism, and pigs. I need 5000 words by July 20th for an anthology on Chaucer and animals.’But wait!’ some of you will say a few months from now, ‘Didn’t you already do that in your book?’

Well, yes. Sort of. But this is my chance to do it right. To slow it down. To spread it out.Most of ‘The Former Age’ comes from somewhere else; not this line though:

They [the people of that age] eten mast hawes & swych pownage

“But wait!” you say, because you’re kind of a pedant: “aren’t references to vegetarian nut-eaters, like, everywhere in the classical and medieval tradition of the Golden Age?” You start to quote Petrarch at me, and, being a pedant myself, I cut you off: “…and Ovid; and Cicero; and Jean de Meun; and Chaucer himself. I get it. The question isn’t the nuts. The question’s how we get from Chaucer’s own translation of Consolation II.v, “they were wont lyghtly to slaken hir hungir at even [at evening: this is from Nicholas Trevet’s commentary] with accornes of ookes,” to “the people of the Former Age ate like pigs.”‘

And now you’re silent, not because I silenced you, but because I’m sick of this conceit.

My key point: for Christians, pigs are only for eating. To say that the people of this age eat in the woods like pigs is to say they “eete nat half ynough” (don’t eat half enough), like any number of distressed knights (Orfeo, Partenopeu, etc.) who go about on hands and knees grobbing for what they can; it is also to say that they are like beasts, and especially like the beasts meant only for our eating. We’re a long way from praising these people for their asceticism, and we’re a lot closer to pity or contempt (h/t Andy Galloway for this reference).

And see elsewhere in Chaucer, where Griselda’s water-drinking (CT IV.215), a topos of medieval primitivism, opens her to Walter’s exploitation; and the poor widow of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, whose ascetic diet (VII 2836-46) incites our (clerical) admiration even as it leaves her lodged in nature, nearly voiceless and animalized (VII 4570-80).In February, I asked my undergrads whether the people of The Former Age really had no wealth for conquerors, whether we should believe that “tyraunts [would not] putte hem gladly nat in pres / No wildnesse ne no busshes for to winne”?

The students got it right away. The people had no gold, no wealth, no cities, no linen, no delicacies; but, one said, they had their bodies. And for some tyrants, that’s enough.

So: for now, I plan to go at this via four lines:

  1. other 14th-century English works where humans who refuse to eat pigs get treated like pigs. By this I mean stories like this one (lines 361-96) or this one (lines 487-530), where the child Jesus turns transforms a bunch of Jewish children (in the latter version, hiding in an oven!) into pigs;
  2. the manuscript context. ‘The Former Age’ survives in two manuscripts, one of which also includes Lydgate’s “Churl and the Bird” and The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep: what are the animal networks of this manuscript as a whole?;
  3. the exploitation and animalization of the people of the Golden Age, especially in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. I’m inspired by Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, on the Fortunate Isles, mistaken for Paradise by the pagans. Isidore seems to mean the Canary Islands (“situated in the Ocean, against the left side of Mauretania,” trans. from here), which were exploited in earnest, as I understand it, beginning in the early fourteenth century. Did Christian Europe’s characterization of the Guanches have anything to do with the Golden Age tradition? How were these encounters received in England? Or perhaps by Chaucer, during his Iberian travels?;
  4. and finally, perhaps most ambitiously, the encounter of Alexander and Dindimus, King of the Brahmans, (see also: here and many, many other places), the Middle Age’s most well-known vegetarian, paradisical people, whom Alexander repeatedly calls beasts. He says to the Gymnosophists that if everyone were equal, then we would be like animals; see also lines 858 and 892, and 904. Basically: the Brahmans have abandoned their responsibility to the human, and this pisses Alexander off. I intend to argue that the poetic gaze of ‘The Former Age’ looks on these people like Alexander looking on the Brahmans, that this gaze has stumbled into another, less anthropocentric way of being in and with the world, and that it doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

My work on animals has largely, deliberately avoided discourses of the animalization and colonialism. Here I think of Cary Wolfe’s “so long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well” (Animal Rites 8). This essay means to repair that fault by examining a text and a textual tradition that at once participates in discourses of animalization and offers a posthuman critique of animalization’s violence.

There’s work to be done, and any suggestions will be cheerfully, gratefully received.
(image from Bodley 264, a manuscript containing a French Alexander romance and, beginning at f. 209v, the sole exemplar of the Middle English alliterative Alexander and Dindimus, whose illustrations (209v; 210r; 211r; 212r; 213r; 213v; 214v; 215r; 215v) could use further study, especially in the ecocritical mode as exemplars of “green men” or “wodwose”: for more, and for a kind of presiding spirit for this project, see Lorraine K. Stock))
(blog post title from here)