Day 7 – Lydgate Horse Goose and Sheep

lydgate horse goose and sheep 1495Here’s the frontispiece (if that’s the word) to one of Wynken de Worde’s printings of Lydgate’s Horse Goose and Sheep. You’ll note that it doesn’t actually correspond to the content of the work, except that it features a regal lion king. Obviously, a woodcut has been reused from a collection of fables, so this says something about what the printer thought the genre was, but it also says something about the relative flexibility of mass-produced items as compared to manuscript culture, which was, for the most part, not mass produced (though, as I understand, late medieval psalters at least got close to an assembly line production). Printers had to go with what was available; scribes could go with whatever the story needed. More complicated than that, but that’s a good place to start.

LATE EDIT – I shared the above paragraph with Kathleen Kennedy, whose forthcoming Courtly and Commercial Art of the Wycliffite Bible attests to her considerable knowledge in book history. Two key things:

1. If you’re interested in late medieval/early modern English book history, Professor Kennedy recommends you start with Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin’s The Production of Books in England, 1350-1500.

2. I got a TON wrong in my paragraph above, but I basically don’t know anything about book history. So! Here are Kennedy’s corrections:

I’m going to paraphrase the email that she sent me, though the words are [mostly] hers. It’s actually hugely commmon in early print to have a “frontispiece” (a useable term, albeit an anachornism) that doesn’t correspond to the work’s textual content. Indeed, woodcuts often got assigned randomly, so any claims about the relationship between perceived genre and woodcuts needs to be made very carefully.

And here’s a big chunk of important stuff:

Early print was hugely flexible, and that very flexibility is what challenges cataloguers today- there are good arguments in fact that we shouldn’t even talk about an ‘edition’ until the mid-16thc, as before that each copy is so very unique.

– psalters, books of hours, the entire enormous trade in single-sheet miniatures to collect or tip into manuscripts- the list goes on. By the 15thc many kinds of religious and devotional text were quite fixed in iconography, as were legal texts, among others. The production of books of hours and miniatures in the Low Countries used pouncing, a mass-production technique. In England, most Books of Hours were imported, many the product of such mass-production, while almost all psalters were made in England (which had an iconographic cycle different than Continentally-produced psalters). Much could also be said of the Continental runup to blockbooks, in particular the Speculum Salvationis.


We spent the first hour finishing up texts from last week (the Chester Balaam and Balaak and Gelli’s Oyster from his Circe), talked a bit about manuscripts, and reviewed several resources for medievalists.

I talked up the advantages and disadvantages of, highlighting two profiles, one by a French animals scholar, and the other an Icelandic scholar who has done work on trolls and dwarfs. I suggested that our medievalists should get an email subscription to The Medieval Review, filter the email into their own folder, and keep them on hand, as this allows the reviews to be searched easily (eg, for “animals”), which makes assembling an up-to-date bibliography quite easy. I also plan to provide a complete list of my ‘e manuscript’ book marks (DONE). In the meantime, we played with a tool for learning paleography, learning a bit about the Euphrates in the process.

To wrap up last week, we first considered the problems of the exegetical tradition of Balaam and Balaak: the ass is normally considered the body, and the human rider the soul, a standard “horse and rider” interpretation, which, however, totally fails with this story: the donkey, after all, sees the angel, and the human doesn’t, at least not initially. How is this represented? Like this and this and this and this (and here’s a late entry, from Cotton Claudius b. 4 126r, with faceless angel, human, and donkey) and yet another one here (h/t Martin Foys). The artist has to represent something impossible or unknown: a donkey thinking and speaking and terrified, normally not things that medieval artists thought possible or interesting. The deformations to otherwise unconsidered humanist representative schema lead to these solutions, so a study of what the donkey is looking at in these and other images is in order. We also considered the issue of “second sight” in animals and children (as in a horror film, the animal can see the spirit before the human can): is this related to the issue of animal “nudity” Derrida discusses, and also the transparency of bodies in Eden in some Christian thinking? The animal has never fallen, after all.

We also thought a bit about oysters with regard to Gelli’s Circe. Plutarch’s “Gryllus” is its source, while Plutarch himself wrote a treatise against eating meatAquinas SCG 2, 68, 6 thinks of oysters as just this side of plants, an opinion that’s far from uncommon. That’s interesting, but what’s more interesting, as we observed, is the way the oyster takes advantage of Ulysses during the conversation. The oyster has to make itself vulnerable to talk, leaving its insides exposed, so it demands that Ulysses stand guard against crabs, which he does! Who is the servant in this case? I can also add that Ulysses’s inability to have his mind changed, in this and in Gelli’s other dialogues, suggests a kind of mechanical attachment to the human that looks rather like, well, an oyster.

We heard about the two medieval talks last week, one by Eleanora Stoppino at NYUand the other by Maggie Williams at CUNY, which both attest to the ways that animal studies and material studies can both do work together in trying to apprehend things nonsymbolically. I also used this chance to plug //Punctum Books// as a resource everyone should familiarize themselves with.

We looked at a few manuscript images to get a sense of the limitations of representation, as Elaine Treharne discusses in postmedieval. One wasthis Genesis, Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, ms. 20, f. 5v-6, which of course would not be seen like that: we wouldn’t be standing above it. We’re also unable to feel the texture of the page, although, even with a relatively low-resolution scan, we can still see that the manuscript has holes and tears in it, and this despite its being a obviously expensive work. We wondered at Adam’s skin color, which differentiates his skin from that of the manuscript, and we proposed a study that looked at Adam’s skin color in a range of Genesis representations.

We also looked at this image from a French manuscript of Elizabeth of Schönau’s visions; I pointed out this blog post, but today, to get even more materialist about animals, and to lead us into talking about Lydgate and his attention to marketable animals, I pointed out why a hill would have rabbits in it. Sharon Farmer’s “Aristocratic Power and the “Natural” Landscape: The Garden Park at Hesdin, ca. 1291–1302” observes that rabbits show up in France beginning in the 12th century and really become successfully domesticated in the 14th century with the introduction of “pillow warrens,” “artificial hills with numerous openings and tunnels” (656), just as we see illustrated here. This visionary hill is also a representation of the real kinds of artificial hills that were proliferating in France in the very era this manuscript was produced (1370-1375). What is the reality of this “real hill,” and how does a pillow warren help us get to heaven?

Lydgate’s “Horse, Goose, and Sheep”

We covered a lot here.

  • The poem as a whole features animals who argue about which serves humans better. They do this so enthusiastically, so thoroughly, that virtually nothing remains for humans to do for themselves except to make use of animals. Without horses, geese, and sheep, there is no war worth the name; no chivalry; no commerce of any real value; no farming (a point that marks the transition from oxen to horse as the standard animal for plowing); no transport; no archery; and above all no cultural memory. The question here and elsewhere is which one is the prosthesis of the other, and what, if anything, happens to the human when its various rational and civilized qualities are so throroughly animalized/technologized.
  • War figures enormously in this poem, with the sheep coming in to as the one agent of peace, speaking in the terms of the clergy (as it’s the only animal that speaks in Latin, the only one who cites Augustine, and the only one directly associated with Christ). And yet even it ends up offered as a player in war, since the profits of wool inspired greed and hence war. And without war, the economy, which rests on war, would collapse. Nothing has any natural quietude in this poem.
  • We wondered why the sheep needs mediation, as the Ram speaks for her? it? him?. Of course, the poem itself wants to stress the sheep’s Christlike humility. Still, there’s something sinister about the Ram’s bragging about the deliciousness of mutton takes on a more than sinister character.
  • We also wondered about the gender of the animals. The sheep might be a ewe. The goose is not a gander. And the horse? A stallion or mare?
  • We especially liked how the poem picks up on the de contemptu mundi tradition and the bodies of humans and animals. First, we observed how geese and sheep disappear into quills and parchment: their bodies can and should be used in a way that dematerializes their actual bodies, in a way that should put Treharne in conversation with Kay. Treharne is concerned about the disappearance of the manuscript into the digital, and what gets lost; Kay is concerned with the disappearance of the animal into the parchment and the manufacturing of meaning. Certainly remembering that the parchment was sheep’s own flesh helps envelop us in it (per Anzieu) rather than simply making it disappear behind the meaning we give it.
  • Then we observed that Kay’s citation of a Latin verse from a mortuary role sounds a lot like the goose’s insult to the horse: on the one hand:
    • Vilior est huma[na] caro quam pellis ovina;
    • extrahitur pellis et scribitur intus et extra;
    • si moriatur homo, moritur caro, pellis et ossa’
    • (‘Human flesh is viler than a sheep’s skin. Its skin is taken off and written on inside and out. But if a man dies, flesh, skin and bones die)
    • and on the other: “A ded hors is but a fowle careyn, / The ayr infectyng, [it] is so corrumpable” (204-5), and “Entryng the feeld he pleyeth the leoun; / What folwith aftir? his careyn stynkith sore” (222-23).
    • Why not use a horse’s flesh? why not use its skin for parchment? The latter point has a practical answer (although they might have been selectively bred for whiteness, like sheep), the former none, at least none by the fourteenth century, long after the age of conversion. And in what way is the uselessness of the horse’s carcass like that of the human, at once a mark of its abject status (a status applied incidentally only to something that needed to be humbled) and of its treasured status beyond all utility. Uselessness is at once the mark of the utterly contemptible and of the thing beyond all use-value, the end in itself.
    • in a larger sense, all this is problematized by the skin/flesh dichotomy. While skin can apparently articulate itself and its identity and flesh cannot (or cannot completely), we have in the mortuary poem a comparison is between human flesh and sheep skin. Do we make anything of this elliptical non-parallelism? And do we keep certain bodies taboo/safe from violation because they hover in some realm between material use and the symbolic? After all, the sheep in Lydgate is the most symbolic figure, yet we find it the most turned into material in to ground and prove its symbolic value.
    • All this might have to do with how we technologize bodies. The horse is a technology to humans and can offer itself as human technology in life, therefore prohibiting us from using their bodies in their deaths. But the use of wool violates this paradigm! Maybe the problem may be divided between using the body as a material (as with a sheep) vs. using the body as a being (as with a horse).
    • [and much of the above has to do with Isabel Stern getting to this before I finished editing and leaving a long and very useful comment, which I somehow decided was my own and which I edited accordingly. So here it is, in her original:
      • “We were interested in the ways in which dead bodies are discussed. For the sheep and the goose, they are stripped of their having bodies in the way that Treharne uses the word: they have no identities and they are made flesh (or for the sheep, made parchment). And in opposition to the use of certain animal bodies, the identity of a thing (flesh) as having a body can only be maintained if that body is made taboo by its abjectification. But in the de contemptu tradition, the body is made more flesh-like in order to stress a kind of impermeability of the human soul (I think): “Human flesh is viler than a sheep’s skin / Its skin is taken off and written inside and out” (from Fasciculus Morum ?, quoted in Sarah Kay’s article). That is, the material is temporal and useless, it rots, yet in some sense this is only because we are choosing not to make parchment out of it (perhaps not to make it completely abject?). This is mirrored by Lydgate’s sentiment to the body of the Horse. But this is in a way problematized by the skin/flesh dichotomy…skin can apparently articulate itself and its identity and flesh cannot (or cannot completely), yet here the comparison is between human flesh and sheep skin . Do we make anything of this elliptical non-parallelism? And do we keep certain bodies taboo/safe from violation because they hover in some realm between material use and the symbolic? After all, the sheep in Lydgate is the most symbolic figure, yet we find it the most turned into material in defense of its existence. I think this has to do with how we technologize bodies. The horse is a technology to humans and can offer itself as human technology in life, therefore prohibiting us from using their bodies in their deaths. But the use of wool violates this paradigm. Maybe it’s more so something like a problem of using the body as a material body vs. using the body as a being”]
  • We also wanted to work with the envoi. In what little criticism there is (and there’s still astonishingly little), the envoi gets only the slightest attention. Yes, it’s socially conservative in its calls for peace and for tamping down on social climbing, but it’s also totally incoherent, switching between demands for lords to treat their subjects kindly and rather violent calls to keep the filthy peasants in line. And then there’s the king’s realization that his flesh is no different than a peasant’s (612-13), a material condition that either separates us from our inauthentic bodily selves (i.e., the king is like the peasant only in ways that ultimately don’t matter), or reduces us all to bodies at our most authentic, with social status only a decoration on top of our fundamentally vile and temporary selves. And its plea for social conservativism seems to run counter to its earlier praise of wealth and the disruptions and desires it brings.
  • We also thought about manuscript vs print culture: 12 manuscripts of the poem survive and 5 early printed editions, with at least one of the manuscripts being copied from one of Caxton’s printings. The poem itself was probably written between 1337 and 1340, before print culture. What happens when a poem that praises the utility of sheep and geese for serving as quill and parchment finds itself in print culture? Do the goose and sheep speak with the voices of nostalgia? And then when it’s copied again?
  • Finally! The horses recalls “Ector the Troian chaumpioun, / Whoos hors was callid whilom Galathe” (50-51). Not a terribly famous horse, all things considered, but nonetheless one that appears in Lydgate’s monumental //Troy Book//.
    • With-oute abood for to take his stede,
    • Whiche was in bokis callid Gallathe,
    • Of alle hors havyng þe souereynte,
    • As fer as men ride in any coost….
    • So like an hors parformed oute & oute–
    • And with a wyre men my3t hym turne aboute (398-401, 405-406)
  • This will recall the brass robohorse from the Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale in a couple ways: that horse is also “so horsly, controlled by a pin in its ear (“whan yow list to ryden anywhere, / Ye mooten trille a pyn, stant in his er”). A pin and a wire: no so different. So, in a Troy Book, we have Lydgate copying Chaucer to attest to the excellence of this horse, which is so like a horse, when this language is copied from a horse whose horsely perfection comes from its artificiality. Wheels within wheels! Susan Crane has more to say about this in her Animal Encounters, though without the Lygdate material.

We concluded by looking at this wonderful list of group terms from an early printing of Lydgate’s “Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” a text not by Lydgate, but still, apparently, too delicious for Wynken de Worde to omit. Here’s a screen shot of part of it:horse goose sheep animal terms