A Fourteenth-Century Ecology: Chaucer’s “The Former Age”

MS Douce 195

“The question of ecological morality is always approached as if it were a matter of authorizing or prohibiting an extension of the moral quality to new beings (animals, rivers, glaciers, or oceans), whereas exactly the opposite is the case. What we should find amazing are the strange operations whereby we have constantly restricted the list of beings to whose appeal we should have been able to respond.”

Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour, “Morality or Moralism: An Exercise in Sensitization.”

Five weeks ago, I had hoped to put Chaucer’s “The Former Age” in conversation with the Alexander and Dindimus tradition and with fourteenth-century reactions to the European encounter with the Canary Islanders. 6000 words (my utmost limit) is not enough, and I had to drop the Canary Islands. No worries! Soon I hope to have something to say here about The Canarien, a bizarre early fifteenth-century chronicle of an attempted conquest (briefly: it gilds a vulgar chain of squabbles, failures, and slaving with the glory of chivalry and faith: the effect is grotesque and grimly hilarious, like a drunk senior research analyst in a disheveled clown suit). Meanwhile, here’s a portion of the argument that, knock on wood (but gently, gently), will see print sometime next year.

If you don’t know “The Former Age,” it’s structurally and thematically based on Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy Book II, Meter 5 and a handful of other works. It describes a time when people were free of commerce, agriculture, or technology: they do not harvest grain, for example, but rather rub the kernels between their hands (l. 11). They’re vegetarian communists who refuse to harm anyone or anything: not each other, not animals, not the earth or the sea, not wounded by the plow (l. 9) or carved by the prow (l. 21).

Criticism of “The Former Age” typically does souce or historical studies, the latter tending to see the poem’s pessimism as a symptom of the politics of the late 1380s or early 1390s. That’s fine. However, I’m reading the poem as a critique not only of human institutions but of the human itself. In sum, I read it as an antihumanist manifesto in the vein of Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour’s wonderful “Morality or Moralism.” I do this by attending, especially, to the former agers’ unlimited moral sensitivity but also to Chaucer’s additions to his sources, and its affinities with a thematically related set of texts, the British witnesses to the encounter between Alexander the Great and the ascetic philosophers of India, the Gymnosophists and Dindimus and the Brahmans. I plan to talk about this Dindimus material in another post.

Chaucer’s few additions include a few animal comparisons and his despairing final stanza, which bemoans that the world is now full of lust, deceit, and murder, with no way out. Lines 7 and 37 in effect say that these people eat like pigs: “They eten mast, hawes, and swich pounage”; “noght but mast or apples is therinne.” Golden Age people eat acorns: this is a cliché, mocked from Cicero to Petrarch, and sneered at by Lucretius, who says that primordial people traded acorns for sex. The pig-comparison’s unusual, though, at least in the Golden Age tradition. In my book, I read this as a humiliating contrapasso against people who don’t eat pigs: eat pork or be treated like pork. In medieval Christian texts, this happens to Jews, Muslims, and now to these vegetarians, who, like pigs, eat “mast, hawes, and swich pounage” in the woods rather than enjoying the products of the grange.

The other animal comparison comes in line 50, where Chaucer calls these people lambish. Perhaps not alarming, until you remember that for a dozen years Chaucer oversaw the wool custom and wool subsidy for the Port of London. In this time, few English were more involved in the sheep trade: worthy is the lamb &c. Note too that one of the witnesses of “The Former Age” traveled with Lydgate’s “Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” a poem that the ram wins by arguing, in effect, that English industry commercializes every bit of the sheep, its fleece, meat, horn, hooves, and skin (here I think of Upton Sinclair’s “they use everything of the pig except the squeal”).

And then there’s the despair of the last stanza, Chaucer’s longest addition. Taken as a whole, “The Former Age” imagines a time without human domination, a time whose people recognize the constitutive vulnerability of everything as morally significant (see Derrida on the “nonpower at the heart of power” in The Animal that Therefore I am); a time whose people saw the face (in a Levinasian sense) everywhere and acted accordingly. “The Former Age” imagines this time, and admires these people, sure, but it also chooses to think of them as animals, there to be used and traded; and it chooses to imagine this time as irrevocably lost.

But Chaucer’s other so-called Boethian poems (“Truth,” “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” and “Gentilesse”) hope for something better. Why not this poem too? I read it as written in a voice unequal to its subject, a voice that cannot give up on human privileges (Nicola Masciandaro and Gillian Rudd have also read the poem’s voice suspiciously). I see the failure of the poem’s voice as indirectly asking us to do better, to try harder to get past the despair and sad domination of being human. Unlike the poetic voice, we readers, hoping better, can use this supposedly lost past to get at another future (infinite citations here, but Piotr Gwiazda’s Former Age article, which uses Ernst Bloch, is more than good enough).

Yet there’s another lesson. What would a life without human privileges look like? Without clear distinctions between subject and object, human and animal, nature and culture, vulnerability and breakability? One that took, say, the lessons of Vibrant Matter much further than Jane Bennett was willing to go, that allowed itself to know how enmeshed we are in everything (think Morton), that responded with the utmost sensivity to anything, as Hache and Latour might have us do?

Frankly, it would be kind of awful. These people don’t eat half enough (l. 11); their food is scarce and thin (l. 36); and “no doun of fetheres ne no bleched shete / was kid to hem, but in seurtee they slepte” (ll. 45-6): the but sets their safety against their discomfort. Choose one or the other. Here we see what it may mean to open moral consideration to all, to attempt to live without harm, without the certainty of any distinction between subject and object, human and animal, nature and culture, flesh and the earth. It is a world of hungry and vulnerable people, intermeshed with and sympathetic to all. There is a kind of hope here, then, but—or and—it may be a hope that erases the human altogether.(image from Bodleian Library, MS Douce 195, 59v, via here)