Day 1 – Intro – Bestiaries, Wolves, and Derrida

Day 1


The first class covered the following topics:


  • A recommendation of several books and scholars, including Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Leslie Kordecki’s book on Chaucerian birds,Carolynne van Dyke’s anthology Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts, and Seeta Chaganti in general for studies of medieval dance.
  • A pocket history of medieval cultural animal studies. From the 19th century to roughly the late 1980s, medieval cultural animal studies was iconographic. It sought out animal symbolism as a key to understanding medieval texts. The lion ‘meant’ courage, or nobility, or any other set of categories (including, sometimes, tyranny). Certainly this helps us understand, say, Yvain, but more recently, medieval animal scholars have thought increasingly about animals as ‘real’ characters, symbolic like the human characters, but also not symbolic too. It’s taken a long time to think about the lion as lion.
  • A pocket history of some standard sites for thinking about medieval animals. The key genre here is the bestiary, and key recent work on bestiaries can be found in Susan Crane’s //Animal Encounters//. We discussed the following:
    • that bestiaries were not only books of beasts, but also books that considered trees, stones, and, especially humans. The “bestiary” may be a misnomer
    • that despite their reputation for total capaciousness, they actually drew on a very limited set of texts: Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (early 7th century), the Physiologus (2nd century), and Solinus’s Collectanea rerum memorabilium (3rd century).
    • Typically, you’ll encounter snippets of natural history followed by a doctrinal or moral gloss. The gloss doesn’t supersede the natural history but rather works with it to sacralize the mundane and possibly vice versa. Our test case was the lion
  • We also looked at the //Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi// (search term: ‘lion’) for a sense of animals in exempla.
  • ALSO (realized I forgot this one) we also looked at Bracton’s Laws of England, Vol 2:42 on Wild Beasts, where Bracton seems to compare the inherent liberty of wild beasts to the liberty of the air itself:
    • When they are captured they begin to be mine, because they are forcibly kept in my custody, and by the same token, if they escape from it and recover their natural liberty [naturalem libertatem] they cease to be mine and are again made the property of the taker. They recover their natural liberty [naturalem libertatem] when they escape from my sight into the free air [in ære libero] and are no longer in my keeping, or when, though still within my view, their pursuit is no longer possible
  • And finally, we looked at a couple particular exempla from the Middle English //Alphabet of Tales//.
    • We considered a story about a wolf snatching a maiden into the forest to pluck a bone from the mouth of another wolf. Perhaps the maiden as an analog of the Little Red Riding Hood story? We wondered why it should be a maiden (perhaps for purity? perhaps a link to unicorn stories?). We observed that humans also get bones caught in their throat, so the story stresses the bodily vulnerabilities shared between human and wolf. We noted that the wolves needed a human because humans have hands, and wolves don’t. What makes a hand? A thumb (‘the hand of the hand’, we might say, recalling Tom Tyler’s //Ciferae//).
      But here the maiden becomes the hand of the wolf, a technology the wolf goes and gets when he needs it. It’s not that wolves don’t have hands so much as they can get a hand when they need one, and, at any rate, wolves have their own bodily technologies, chiefly speed and howling (and the howl turns a terrifying forest into a site allowing long-distance communication). We played a bit with the wolves’ reluctance to let the maiden cry out, linking it to the story from the Physiologus on how humans lose their voices if wolves see them first.
    • The second wolf story, on the man from France who could howl and walk on all fours like a wolf, also grabbed our attention: why is he from France? did he learn to do this as an adult? Is this some kind of dance performance, perhaps?
    • We linked all this to William of St-Thierry on the human body: we got medieval for a while by imagining what would happen if we had to go about on all fours, without hands. The result? No writing, eating with our mouths, and mouths made into a hand, resulting finally in the loss of spoken language. We also wondered how the quadrupedal human would have sex (and why William of St-Thierry never talks about this).
  • We considered Augustine’s peculiar proof of human reason in On Free Will: how do we humans know we have free will? Because we’re reasonable. How do we know that? Because we can domesticate animals and not vice versa. There’s some quality in us that they don’t have and (drumroll) what better name for this than REASON. We all found this a bit of a logical leap. I pointed out how Ratramnus of Corbie makes the same move in his ‘Letter on the Cynocephali’: the dogheads domesticate sheep, therefore they’re human!
  • This of course led us finally into Derrida, whose The Animal that therefore I am stood as a standard text for the first wave of critical animal theory. We summarized several of the key points:
    • that the title in French, L’animal que donc je suis, puns on time and space: the animal is following me, or vice versa, as in a hunt, or as in a temporal sequence, and that the title responds to the Cartesian cogito by forming the human self not by itself, lonely in its study, but rather in some peculiar, often violent, way in relation to something else, namely, ‘the animal’
    • the category ‘the animal’ is asinine, anyway, as it encompasses dogs, horses, slime molds, vultures, and what have you, all in one great lump. Derrida demands we hear l’animot, which puns on the plural -maux sound with the word “word” (mot), and gives a plural noun a singular article. It’s like, say, ‘an animals’: it just sounds wrong, so it should make us uneasy and remind us that this category ‘animals’ is a word we impose on what we think of as them
    • and what can animals do? can they respond? are they more than instinctual? for that matter, are we? We considered the Alice in Wonderland cites (no matter what I said, he would always respond by purring)
    • can they think? reason? not the key question, says Bentham: what matters is whether they can suffer, which links us back to the story of the maiden and the wolves and this inability not to be vulnerable, this “nonpower at the heart of power.”
  • The last five minutes saw us rushing through the Orkneyinga Saga on the death of Earl Rognvald, whose hiding place was betrayed to his enemies by the barking of his lapdog: pets in the 11th century, notably, but also animals with their own agenda, distinct from that of human history, whose vulnerabilities don’t count for human history (Rognvald’s killed, but what happens to his dog?); we very quickly looked at the Souillac trumeau and Lydgate’s version of the 15 Signs Before Doomsday (where we asked, quickly: where in the destruction of all creatures are the creeping things!?)