Day 5 – Marie de France, Animals, and Lineage

CaptureOur bit of animal news today is the recent, horrific report about factory-farmed pigs being fed the ground up corpses of piglets. One farmer’s response to this story made our head spin:

“Modern age agriculture nor confinement buildings have anything to do with pigs being cannibals. Pigs have been cannibals since the beginning of time. This is why criminals have used pigs as means of disposing of murder victims through the years.”

Well. Cannibals? Anthropophagous? Which is it? Both, actually. We did note that medieval people often remarked on the physical similarity between pigs (porcus) and humans (corpus); that pigs would eat human babies (see the Knight’s Tale, Temple of Mars); and that, as observed by one of us–who had in fact helped raise pigs–pigs are mean and bloodthirsty.

The Middle English version of “Androcles and the Lion” in a Gesta Romanorum (at least 2 versions) is quite unusual, and possibly invented by the translator. It’s not just that the story of the grateful lion is missing the clear exchange of favors we get in classic versions (including the apocryphal Acts of Paul). It’s that, of course, that the Emperor not only has sex with a bear (a bear? why?) but also that he impregnates her, three times, having first two sons, and then a daughter. Only the latter looks like a bear. When the Emperor escapes the bear, the lion helps him get away, and the bear (“like an ursine Medea,” as our presenter quipped) dashes her daughter to the ground (see also the story of the dwarf and the ape in the //Roman de Perceforest//). What’s up with this?

After discussing the playfulness of animals (as our Emperor loves to play with his hounds and hawks), our presenter offered an account of the differences between Galenic and Aristotelian accounts of impregnation and childbirth. Using Angela Florscheutz, among others, she explained the peculiarities of the species differences of the emperor’s ursine children. We asked the question of what being born from an animal source does for the human offspring. In this story, it presumably allows the two sons to be better at being human (might we add superhuman?) in that they have better adventures, and are stronger warriors and better swordsman.

Our conversation thought about the way that noble families liked an animal or fairy ancestor, to split themselves from the chains that bound them mundanely to every other human (here’s my Beowulf example, discussed), but then observed that this family goes nowhere. The daughter’s dashed to pieces in the woods, while the boys, despite becoming great knights, die and are buried together, with no indication of any progeny. What’s up with that? We also looked at “and the Emperour knew her flesshly, and she brought forth a sone, like the Emperour. than the Emperour would have fled, but he durst not, for the bere,” where the for might mean that he doesn’t want to hurt the bear’s feelings, or, more simply, that he’s afraid; but still, that double meaning of for must be noted.

And then there’s what’s on the tomb: “Here lieth .ij. sones of the Bere, whiche the Emperour gate with drede.” Though we know of nothing bear like about the children, we have them here marked as sons of the bear, and also a mark of what must be known as the Emperor’s fear of the bear. Who would write on the tomb that, essentially, the Emperor had been raped by a bear?

We discussed the kind of role reversal not just implied in the tombstones, but also in the “courting” (if you’ll humor me and let me call it that) between the Emperor and the bear. He is afraid at her arrival into the cave, but she brings home the hunt and lays it out for him, after which he “smote fire and araied it.” Honey, I’m home! In the proximity of preparing flesh, we find the fear of the character who prepares it; I wonder if this has anything to do with the daughter who is “rent all to pieces,” also because the bear “was aferde.”

Gender and Woods
We also considered the double desire and repulsion men express in these tales (and in Melion) for women and woods together. What is up with that? Your professor linked it to medieval neoplatonismwhere the primordial matter //nous// is rendered as //silva//, and where also Isidore of Seville derives (correctly) materia (matter) from mater (mother). There’s an easy way to link this to the Lacanian Real, but I think we could do still more here.

Geoffrey of Auxerre
His apocalypse commentary (collected 1188) provides a very early version of both the Swan Knight and Melusine stories, both of enormous importance to the Lusignan family. The work neatly illustrates Derrida’s point (which Crane makes good use of) that poetry is what philosophy must deprive itself of, as Geoffrey’s efforts to make sense of these stories fail so spectacularly that they can’t help but illustrate the radical split between poetry and neat commentary. Still, Geoffrey’s work, at least in these little bits, recalls the other great twelfth-century wonder collections of Gerald of Wales and Gervase of Tilbury (Otia Imperialia).

Most notably in Geoffrey’s version, the “Melusine” is a water creature, but not serpentine; rather, she has been enjoined to silence and when her husband demands she speak, then she flees. Later, she returns and snatches back their son, thus ending the developing monstrous lineage.

How to think of her silence? Geoffrey links it to the monstrosity of Waldensian women preachers (they’re noisy, and should be ashamed by the the silence of this demon), but we can link it to the intersections between animals, “muteness,” and women. Women who talk too much? Doomed. Too little or not at all? Like animals. But there’s a sense, at least here, that silence is something other than privation. The mystery of silence is something worth honoring rather than something to scorn.

**Alphabet of Tales on the Prince of Crete**

We rede of þe kyng of Crete he was a semelie man̛, & he had a nygromancier in his courte at hight Estus. And þis kyng had a doghter, and þis Estus happend to gett hur with childe. And when̛ it was born, for tene þis kyng hur fadur garte caste it oute in þe wud emang wylde bestis. So with-in a while after hunters fand it in a cafe emang wyle bestis, & þer it was nurisshid with hur mylk. And when̛ it was broght home in a strayte gate whar cateƚƚ vsyd̛ to com̛ by, and when̛ he saw þai wolde do it no skathe bod rather norysshid̛ it, he commaundid̛ at it sulde be casten̛ vnto hundis þat long had bene kepyd̛ fastyng, at þai mott destroy itt, & þai wold̛ do it no skathe. & þan̛ he garte caste it emang swyne at þai mott devowr̛ it; and þer it was nurisshid̛ on̛ a sew papp̛. And when̛ he saw þat, he garte caste it in-to þe occian̛; and when̛ it was casten̛ þer, þis Estus, þe fadur þerof, be his craft broght it vnto þe land̛ agayn̛ whikk̘; & þer it was nurisshid with a hynde. And fro thens furtℏ it wexid so swyfte of fute at whare at evur þe hartys went it wold̛ go with þaim. So at þe laste it was taken̛ in a snare, & broght to þe kyng & gyffen̛ hym̛ to a present. And onone he knew it & had compassion̛ þeroff, & garte name it & nurtur it; & þe name þer-of was Avidus. And afterward̛ he made it his successur. And þis kyng Avidus, as we rede, was furste þat evur garte tame oxen̛ & learn̛ þaim to draw; and he was furst þat evur fand pleugℏ, & he taght men̛ to plew & to saw whete & oþer cornys *.[A sidenote here has a small hand pointing to the words [Su]pra de [in]vencione aratri.] .

Your professor lost several hours yesterday trying to track the sources for this story, with some success. What follows will encapsulate that research. It appears (first?) in Justin’s //Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus//, 44,4, on a legendary Iberian King, Gargoris, and his son Habis (or Habidis). By the time we get to Middle English, the Cunetes become the people of Crete (older versions have Curetes, which are a people of Crete: see note 9 here), and “Habidis” becomes “Avidus.” While some 24 medieval manuscripts of Justin’s //Epitome// survive, the story probably — my guess — enters the Middle English Alphabet of Tales (or its sources) via the enormously popular thirteenth-century LHistoire ancienne jusqu’à César. No complete text available online, sadly, though anyone is welcome to dig through the manuscripts for me.

The story is NOT actually all that popular, at least not in the sources I usually check (no luck with Gargoris, Habis, or Habidis at the MGH, and searches for Avidus get no one using Avidus as a proper name). There’s a kind of analogue in the romance of //Caradoc// (where a necromancer tricks a king into sleeping with a series of animals — really, only kind of), but that’s about it. It is of some importance to medieval Spain and afterwards. There’s a 16th-century romance, for example. And we might also look at Gárgoris y Habidis. Una historia mágica de España, althoughits author seems to be kind of a disreputable character, and the book has been accused of antisemitisim.

The question is what this story might do once we bracket off the inevitable ad-libbed glossing the medieval preacher would have given it, and also its relevance to Spain, which it would (I think) not have carried into England. Do we just link it to the long history of stories of exposed children miraculously protected by beasts?

We observed primarily that even if we were to rationalize the story to account for the embarrassment of illegitimate birth (as in the Euhemerism like that practiced by Palaephatos), we still have a story that finds the origin of technology and thus of civilization in the extraction of surplus labor and even surplus charisma from the bodies of animals. Civilization and reason, in a sense, don’t have what it takes in themselves to lift humans up into humans. Hence the requirement to mingle with the animals somehow, and then, in the tale’s end, to dominate them. Notably, the Latin tag is ‘On the invention of the plow’ rather than ‘on the domestication of oxen.’ We also note the peculiar pronouns: “So at laste it was taken in a snare …
& þe name þer-of was Avidus,” which suggest an uncertainty about his status as human.

Marie de France
Today, we managed only to discuss Bisclavret, and not even the whole work. Guigemar and Yonec next week.

The very opening of Bisclavret continues to fascinate. Is she saying that Bisclavret’s NOT like the other werewolves, or that we’re not supposed to think he’s like that, but that since we’ve been warned, we can’t help but remember this model as we read through. We’ll always suspect him of anthropophagy as we read, then, which puts us in the subject position of Bisclavret’s wife.

No discussion of Bisclavret would be complete without talking about his wife’s nose. Here’s a long post reviewing some options for reading the loss of the nose. Generally, we went with Crane and Cohen that the loss of the nose locked the wife into being human, punishing her with the loss of animal freedom (or violence) the man in the tale enjoyed. Our presenter observed, using Tania Colwell’s work on Melusine, that her daughters could have been noseless because of medieval gendered ‘genetics,’ in which the mother would transmit her characteristics to her girls, and the father would transmit his characteristics to his sons.

There’s also something perhaps in Bisclavret’s response, early in the lai, to his wife’s first bit of wheedling. She says “I fear your wrath more than anything else” (Gallagher trans; mes jeo criem tant vostre curut / que nule rien tant ne redut), and he “took hold of her neck and pulling her close to him, he kissed her.” A controversial translation! Hanning and Ferrante do it as “When he heard that, he embraced her, / drew her to him, and kissed her”; and Burgess as “When he heard this, he embraced her, drew her towards him, and kissed her.” Here’s the French: “Quant il l’öi, si l’acola, vers lui la traist, si la baisa.” Nothing about grabbing a neck in there…except that //acola// comes from //col// (and from //collum// before that). Philologically speaking, there’s a bit of the neck in there. Whatever’s happening, she’s told him she’s terrified; he at once grabs her and then applies his mouth to her face. What’s happening here, then, is his control over her body, early in the lai and then, of course, reapplied later on, when, to make this perfectly clear, he again applies his mouth to her face, when he bites off her nose.

We plan to deal with Bisclavret’s violence in more detail next week. For now, we made a comparison with child psychology. If an adult is violent, typically we say it’s the adult’s fault; if a child is, clearly something must be wrong with the child, or someone or something has been cruel to it. With animals, well – none of us would have let our pet dogs get away with this. And when the courtiers say that the dog has never done anything like this before, when they see it ‘act out’ twice, well, they think something was wrong with it.

Then there’s the matter of gender: we observed that Bisclavret is “la beste” (274) and “ceste beste” (241): feminine! That’s just the way a beast is (a point Derrida works with very productively). In this king’s court of men, where the only woman to appear suffers sudden violence and then deliberate torture, who is the ‘feminine’ figure of the wolf who shares the king’s bed? What is la bête for the sovereign? More on this later, I hope.

We also built on Cohen and Crane to look at Bisclavret and clothing. If most medieval werewolves transform by ‘putting on’ a wolf skin (think of Gerald of Wales and Guillaume de Palerne, for example), then here’s an example of someone who becomes a wolf by putting OFF their HUMAN clothes. What’s the problem with putting on clothes, then? The shame of returning to a fallen, limited (Cohen) human condition