A paper for the Northwestern Medieval Colloquium, Feb 4 2022.
This paper is about animalization. I’m going to lay out some typical points on this topic, and then, as you might expect, challenge them, and then, at length, explore my challenges through a test case, a nasty, short and unquestionably racist poem from the early sixteenth century by the Scottish court poet William Dunbar.The most recent edition of the poem is William Dunbar, The Complete Works, ed. John Conlee (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. It is available in translation by Nicola Clark and Jennie … Continue reading
So: typically, and for good reason, we take it as an ethical truism that animalization is something people should not suffer. Per this truism, animalization means a loss of dignity, self-determination, and self-possession. It means being treated, essentially, like an object, that is, like something meant to be used by someone else for whatever purposes they like.
Professional medieval Christian theology and philosophy are one reason we understand animalization in this way. In this body of work, humans are the rational mortal animal, the only one meriting God’s redemptive sacrifice. Our possession of a rational soul granted us not only the capacity to live forever but also the analogous capacity to separate ourselves mentally from our immediate, material circumstances. The rational soul could do these things because, unlike the nutritive and sensitive souls, it didn’t need the body to do its work. In fact, it worked best when it oriented itself away from the body and towards God. Falling short of that ideal was, in a usual metaphor, “bestial.” Being paradigmatically quadupedal and therefore oriented towards the earth, beasts were merely sensual beings, destined to die and never to live again. Because God made them for us, like everything else, to be a beast, practically, was to be like any other object, here today, and, from the perspective of the final fulfillment of this world, gone tomorrow.
The rational animal/irrational beast hierarchy works perfectly well within the rarefied — but often cruelly practical — fields of doctrine and law. But our presumptions about the negative character of animalization falter when we remember, for example, sheep. John Lydgate’s “Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” dating to after 1436, has each of these animals argue over which better serves humans and their commonweal. The Ram, the sheep’s advocate, defends his client like so:
The blissid Doctour Austyn, as I reede,
Be maner [of a] gostly fayr figur
Off a chast Sheep (thus he doth procede,)
Callid Maria, a maide in thouht & deede,
Brouht forth the Lambe, Lambe of most vertu,
The Lambe of Grace which is callid Ihesu. (290-295)
[loosely: The blessed Augustine, as I read, by means of spiritual symbolism, called Mary, a virgin in both thought and action, a chaste Sheep. She bore the lamb, the lamb of highest virtue, the lamb of grace who is called Jesus.]
Surely neither Augustine nor Lydgate intended any insult to Christ and his Mother. Associating Mary with a sheep is suitable, because her progeny is a lamb. In turn, associating Christ with a lamb praises him for his meekness. It also praises him for his sacrificial destiny, so elevating Christ by linking him precisely to an animal proverbial for submitting unresistingly to sheering and slaughter. As you might expect, then, the animalization of Christ functions as something more complicated than a simple hierarchical binary.
Furthermore, as I’m sure you generally know, secular animalization also saw certain humans who aimed at something more and better than mere human dignity; they sought distinction, and, through that, status. This obvious point merits repeating because we’re so habituated to taking animalization itself as an insult. King Richard I of England was called the “lion-hearted”; similarly, the hero of Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century Yvain travels incognito as “the Knight with the Lion.” By that point in the story, he has acquired a lion companion who fights alongside him, and, in manuscript illustrations, he advertises that association by carrying the image of a lion on his shield. Questions of rationality or objectification are here irrelevant. What matters is not so much being better than animals but being better than other people. And because lions function culturally as incarnated bravery, strength, and nobility, becoming leonine perfectly suits this goal. Not just any person could be like a lion.
It’s with these points in mind that I approach William Dunbar’s “My ladye with the mekle lippis.” Of course I have no plans to defend the poem. I aim instead to enrich our understanding of what’s happening with its animalization. The poem is shockingly racist, absolutely, but its problem is not that it animalizes its target: the problem is that it insults her. By understanding that, we can, in turn, understand the inadequacy of responding to such a poem by calling for recuperative “humanization.”
I’m presuming the poem isn’t generally familiar to you, so I’m going to step away for a bit from directly advancing tonight’s argument to give some time simply to contextualizing it. The poem comprises five five-line stanzas, each of which terminates with the refrain “My lady with the big lips”: either this, or “On ane black-moir ladye” are the titles given to it by editors since the late eighteenth century. Its earliest and I believe unique manuscript witness, the Maitland Folio, dating variously to 1570 to 1585, and now at Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, gives it no title.See Sebastiaan Verweij, The Literary Culture of Early Modern Scotland: Manuscript Production and Transmission, 1560-1625 (Oxford University Press, 2016), 197, relying on the work of Julia Boffey.
The poem describes a black woman, lately arrived by ship, who has a large mouth, “like an ape,” who’s like a toad to the touch, with a cat-like nose, and whose skin shines “like soap.” Though she might be dressed richly, she herself gleams like a barrel of tar. The sun eclipsed, it says, when she was born, and night — an obvious pun on the word knight, with a k — would be her champion. Dunbar finishes by imagining knights jousting for her, with the winner kissing and grabbing hold of her, and henceforth enjoying the use of her love.“go in grippis“: John Conlee’s notes to this poem badly need revision. He glosses this phrase as “embrace,” but Dunbar means something rougher. The Dictionary of the Older Scots … Continue reading The loser, however, will be forced to kiss her hips from behind, a reward that surely recalls Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale.
I’m not going to close read the poem very much in this talk, but I can offer a sample as an example of some of what might be done with it. Note the first two lines:
Lang heff I maed of ladyes quhytt,
Nou of an blak I will indytt
“An Blak”: we should be jarred by the second line’s missing “ladye.” “Lady” comes in soon enough, in the poem’s refrain, and we might forgive its omission here, too, because of metrical exigencies: but the contrast between “ladyes quhytt” and “an blak” still sounds dismissive, immediately establishing what the poem presents as its parodic paradox, namely, the impossibility of imagining a black woman as object of courtly desire, in short, as a “lady.” It’s a truism that white supremacist works generate whiteness and blackness simultaneously.I have in mind Peter Erickson’s observation, more than 20 years ago, that Othello is a play that “also very much involves the fashioning of a discourse of racial whiteness” (“The Moment of … Continue reading So, like the poem as a whole, Dunbar’s second line aims to put this Black woman in her place, while doing the same with white women. The dynamic here is obviously abjection. Dunbar’s Black Lady, whom he calls barrel-shaped, catfaced, apemouthed, and toadskined, is made the bear all the pollution of the body, and all the mingled disgust and desire and appetite and loathing of sexuality in masculine clerical culture, but not until Dunbar’s first line shoos white women safely off the stage.
It’s impossible determine certainly whether the poem targets an actual Black woman or what her legal status was. The enslavement of Black people taken from Africa had been well-established in Portugal for decades by this point, but not yet in Scotland. And, as Paul Edwards proposes, if the subject of Dunbar’s poem was taken by Scottish pirates from a captured Portuguese ship, she may well have been enslaved by the Portuguese, and then freed by the Scottish, albeit living free — or, more precisely, not enslaved — somewhere unbridgeably distant from her first home.Paul Edwards, “The Early African Presence in the British Isles: An Inaugural Lecture on the Occasion of the Establishment of the Chair in English and African Literature at Edinburgh … Continue reading
She could have lived many different lives at a Scottish court. We have records of dark-skinned people of recent African descent — whom we can call, with some anachronism, Black people — living in Scotland in this era, some of them paid entertainers, some of them recorded as married with children, some themselves employing servants, some of them friars and thus, one imagines, dispensing spiritual advice and preaching in public. At least one of them, Peter the More, traveled to France on royal business, and received a pension when his service ended. A woman given the name Elen More was at the Scottish court in Dunbar’s era—she herself, some of you might be pleased to know, inspired a short historical romance novel by Alyssa Cole, Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight. That said, high status for some of these people tells us about possibilities but perhaps little about general patterns. For example, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea by Gomes Eanes de Zurara tells us that one of the 235 people taken from sub-Saharan Africa to Lagos, Portugal as slaves in 1444 became a friar.Gomes Eanes de Zurara, The chronicle of the discovery and conquest of Guinea, trans. Charles Raymond Beazley and Edgar Prestage, Vol. 1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896), 80. Good for him, perhaps, but the fortune of that one man may have been of little consolation to the others.
A key historical datum is the tournament held by James IV of Scotland in 1507 or 1508. When a knight arrived at it with a lady known as the “White Rose,” James declared that the event would be known as the “turnament of the black knicht and the black lady,” and he himself fought as the Black Knight, or, per other records, as a “Wild Knight.”“Wild Knight” from the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer III, 258 and 365 As the Black Knight, the King successfully defended his claim to the Black Lady against all contenders.Robert Lindesay, The Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, ed. Ae. J. G. Mackay, 3 vols., 242-43 At the tournament’s end, James offered a three days’ banquet in Holyrood palace, which culminated with the “igramancie” — that is, magic — of a cloud descending from the hall’s ceiling and snatching up the Black Lady so that “scho was no moir seine.”For a brief comment on this stagecraft, concocted by Bishop Andrew Forman, see Ian Simpson Ross, William Dunbar (Brill, 1981), 70. Also see Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, and Joyce Miller, … Continue reading
The Dunbar poem has commonly been linked to these events. However, we cannot know whether the tournament’s Black Lady was actually Black. Some of the rare scholarly treatments of this episode have suggested she might have been a white woman outfitted in fabric and leather to suggest Blackness without her being of immediate African descent herself.For this point, see Joyce Green MacDonald, Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (Cambridge UP, 2009), 2-3. Probably the best interpretation of tournament and poem to date is Aranye [Louise Olga] … Continue reading After all, the King himself was masquerading as a Black Knight, and that not uncommon moniker for anonymous knights likewise might not have had anything to do, in this case, with skin color. All that said, Dunbar’s poem is at least pretending to be about an actual Black woman, and that, I think, justifies my approach to the poem.
We can’t necessarily let Dunbar off the hook by pointing to the prevailing mores of his own time, since the tournament records themselves say nothing negative about the Black Lady. The chronicle mostly lauds the King’s prowess while saying very little about the woman for whom James and the other knights were striving. The accounts book of Scotland’s Lord High Treasurer likewise say nothing negative about her: they are, as one might expect, only a list of expenses for costumes — the black leather, for instance — and for other decoration and furniture, like the taffeta for the Black Lady’s “chair triumphale.”The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Vol 3. 258-59.
Not until nineteenth-century historians edited this medieval material would Dunbar’s insults be repeated—and, sadly and unsurprisingly, some twentieth-century scholars were happy to keep the racism going.For examples, J. Schipper, ed. The Poems of William Dunbar, “The preparations for this ludicrous tournament, which must have formed part of the gossip of the court for some time, probably … Continue reading James Balfour’s 1901 introduction to the Chronicle is typical:
There was an odd strain of unconventionality in the character of James. That he, the very pattern of a Paladin of chivalry, should set up an absolute negress at a tournament, if not exactly as the Queen of Beauty, at least as one whose excellencies were to be defended at the sword’s point, seems well-nigh incredible.James Balfour, ed. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Vol. III, xlviii
It is not that incredible, however, if we recall the fashion for “exotics” at late medieval courts.see Geraldine Heng, summarizing the work of Jean Devisse and Michael Mollat, in The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages, 190, “By the time of the late Middle Ages, in the fourteenth and fifteenth … Continue reading For instance, Kathleen E. Kennedy has recently written about fifteenth-century English priests sporting vestments fashioned from imported cloth, decorated with Arabic, or at least Arabic-seeming, writing.“Moors and Moorishness in Late Medieval England,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 42 (2020): 213-51 . With work like that in mind, we can be assured that the opposite of courtly was not the exotic, and the exotic was not necessarily the “non-civilized.”See for example Clare McManus, “Marriage and the Performance of the Romance Quest: Anne of Denmark and the Stirling Baptismal Celebrations for Prince Henry,” in A Palace in the Wild: Essays on … Continue reading Rather, the opposite of the courtly was the churlish. Chaucerians will remember Lygurge of Thrace, arriving at a tournament of the Knight’s Tale in a golden chariot and wearing a bear’s skin, “as the gyse was in his contree,” and, opposing him, Emetreus, the King of India, adorned with pearls, his beautiful blond hair a fashionable confection of ringlets. Their presence at Theseus’s tournament frames the magnificence of a Duke whom, Greek or not, Chaucer offers as a normative, if exemplary, English nobleman, like a pearl fantastically set in something shining and baroque. Some time earlier, in 1331, England’s King Edward III began a London tournament with a procession that featured knights dressed and masked as Mongols, leading ladies “all of whom were dressed in tunics of red velvet and capes of white cameline,” each led on a silver chain by her knight.Quoted from Sierra Lomuto “The Mongol Princess of Tars: Global Relations and Racial Formation in The King of Tars (c. 1330),” Exemplaria 31.3 (2019): 171-92 [172, Lomuto’s translation of the … Continue reading We can also recall Frederick II’s enthusiasm for having Black courtiers, which itself may underlie the thirteenth-century production of the famous statue of Saint Maurice at the Cathedral of Magdeburg, all this spectacular assertions of a Hohenstaufen claim to a universal imperium encompassing all manner of people.Heng, Geraldine. “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity,” in Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh, ed. Molly H. Bassett … Continue reading
Sierra Lomuto’s 2019 article on the Middle English poem The King of Tars — about which more soon — coins the term “exotic ally” to characterize such figures. As she writes:
The exotic ally is a lionized figure of alterity characterized by the consolidation of fear, desire, and control. The ‘exotic’ houses both negative and positive connotations that do not compete, but rather coincide and reinforce one another, capturing the ambivalence and contradictions that cohere within processes of racial formations.“Mongol Princess of Tars” 174.
Think of the innumerable “ethnic sidekicks” of so much American pop culture, or, from the Middle Ages, the infamous Bal des Ardents of 1393, in which four members of the French royal court, dancing choreas saracenicas — that is, a “Muslim” dance I owe this reference to Fradenbrg, City, Marriage, Tournament, 247.— burned to death accidentally in their guise as hairy green men. Less spectacularly, think of the fashion for heraldic displays of wild men or other outsiders holding shields, like this one from one of the opening pages of one of the manuscripts of The Canarian, a record of the murderously inept French efforts to conquer the Canary Islands.Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen, Ms mm 129, 1v Such figures enlivened the court through their spectacular, surprising difference, their representation of the court’s geographic reach, or through their manifestation of the fantasies of power or “cutting loose” that could be enjoyed by temporarily embodying or fighting alongside the imagined outsider.
It’s no surprise, then, that James IV should have sought an exotic theme for his tournament. What links Dunbar’s “Black Lady” to the “Wild Knight” of James’ tournament is a host of negative associations about Blackness, and in particular Black women, that were already operating in white-identified medieval European culture. People living in climatic extremes had long been classified as excessive in medieval medical writing produced in what the writers presumed to be the climatic center. A medical treatise by Qusta ibn Luqa, for example, holds that three groups — women, those too close to the sun, like “Moors,” and also those too far from it all, like “Slavs,” — all have souls “more imperfect and weaker” than those of people lucky enough to live where heat and cold are in “perfect equilibrium.”Carl Sigmund Barach, ed., Excerpta e libro Afredi Anglici De motu cordis item Costa-ben-Lucae De differentia animae et spiritus liber translatus a Johanne Hispalensi (Innsbruck: Wagner’schen … Continue reading Notably, the judgments didn’t change even as the text, originally written in ninth-century Baghdad, traveled to the colder, damper Paris of the thirteenth century, were it became a university text.
But such negative judgments against Northerners and Southerners alike were compounded by additional barbs thrown at people from the torrid zones, which had to do with their skin color and their presumptive internal heat. The key term for how this woman is made to function as a spectacular exotic for the benefit of the court’s own self-regard and its fantasies is “hypervisibility.” Here I’ll quote from Nicole R. Fleetwood’s definition from her 2011 Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness:
Hypervisibility…is an interventionist term to describe processes that produce the overrepresentation of certain images of blacks and the visual currency of these images in public culture. It simultaneously announces the continual invisibility of blacks as ethical…subjects in various realms of polity, economies, and discourse, so that blackness remains aligned with negation and decay.Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: U of Chicago, 2010, 16. Thanks to Seeta Chaganti for turning me on to this concept — I should have run across it sooner.
That is, hypervisibility, in the context of, for example, black women, renders them the object of everyone’s attention, both in the sense of being the cynosure and an object, made to stand for whatever the viewer wants them to stand for.For a work that invites further analysis along these lines, see Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, T.j.1, 244r, a manuscript of Alfonso X Cantigas de Santa Maria. For an edition of the text of … Continue reading
That hypervisibility of Dunbar’s black women against “the sharp white background”the quotation is from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How it feels to be Colored Me,” famously repeated in a painting by Glenn Ligon at the Whitney. of the Scottish court is compounded by his performance of disgust for her, a performance that recalls Hortense Spillers’ bitter observations, from her talk at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, that “the black female is a creature of sex, but sexuality touches her nowhere” (155) and “The Black person mirrored for the society around her what a human being was not. Through this stage of the bestial, the act of copulating travels eons before culture incorporates it, before the concept of sexuality can reclaim and ‘humanize’ it” (155).Hortense Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 155 [152-75].
Spillers is speaking about the reduction of Black women to disdained “flesh” rather than body in the wake of transatlantic slavery.Famously, in her “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book.” diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81. However, that obsession with misrecognizing Black women as incarnated, undisguised, disorderly fleshy sex already operates, perhaps surprisingly, in medieval cultures as well. Albert the Great’s Questions Concerning Aristotle’s On Animals infamously claims that “black women…have sex more than all other women, and more than white women. Because black women are hotter and particularly dark, they are the sweetest for sex,” a judgment Albert himself disingenuously ascribes not to himself but to certain imagined “lechers.”Albert the Great, Questions Concerning Aristotle’s On Animals, trans. Irven M. Resnick and Kenneth F. Kitchell (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), XV.468. See a related observation in … Continue reading At the base of Albert’s medical logic is the climatically caused “hotness” of Black women in medieval medical writing, but the similarity of this judgment to largely postmedieval racism is unmistakable.For further discussion, Valentin Groebner, “The carnal knowing of a coloured body: sleeping with Arabs and Blacks in the European imagination, 1300–1550,” in The Origins of Racism in … Continue reading
All of this together amalgamates into a confection of “misogynoir,” a term first coined by Moya Bailey in 2008, and then further developed from 2012 on Twitter by Trudy, which is her nom de plume. As Bailey and Trudy explain, misogynoir marks “the ways that anti-Blackness and misogyny combine to malign Black women in our world.”Moya Bailey & Trudy, “On misogynoir: citation, erasure, and plagiarism,” Feminist Media Studies (2018), 18:4, 762-768 The poem’s focus on this Black woman’s body as repulsively animalized and oversexed, as at once disgusting and desirable because of her oversexualization, perfectly fits the second item in Kesiena Boom’s article on the tropes of Misogynoir, “The Hypersexual Jezebel”: Boom writes, “We are relegated to animalistic and primitive by suggesting that we’re unable to exercise self-control, an excuse used to obfuscate the abuse done to us.” The Black Lady of Dunbar’s poem is made to exist as someone who has no other purpose but to be kissed and grabbed, with a kiss to her “big lips” being functionally equivalent to the kiss to her ass, and what she might think, or whether she might think, is, to Dunbar, as in misogynoir more generally, deliberately unconsidered.Key for further work on this topic will include Jennifer C. Nash “Black Anality” GLQ 20.4 (2014): 439–460, and Kathryn Bond Stockton, Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets … Continue reading
All of this nastiness feels precocious, because Dunbar is writing long before any large-scale Scottish or even English involvement in the European enslavement of people of African descent. It’s disenheartening, I think, to find what seems to be transhistorical misogynoir, perhaps independent of slavery and its aftereffects, which strikes me as a disastrous finding in terms of the cultural history of racism, because it’s hard to know what’s motivating Dunbar’s cruelty. We can talk about this later, I’m sure.
He must have got at least some of this from elsewhere. His negative portrait recalls similarly negative blazon in, for example, Chrétien de Troyes’ portrait of the ugly maiden in his Perceval, whose face is likewise cat- and ape-like. The loathly lady of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is also barrel-shaped (242).Classic examples also include the Wild Herdsmen of both Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain and Aucassin et Nicolette. See Jan Ziolkowski, “Avatars of Ugliness in Medieval Literature,” The Modern … Continue reading So far as I know at present, some of Dunbar’s insult are unique to him, at least for his era and language: his mockery of the woman for her “big lips,” for example, isn’t matched by any comparable praise in reverent courtly poetry for “normal” or “small” lips.
It’s possible some of this may have infected him via Iberia. That is, the early sixteenth century seems too soon for this racism in a Scottish context, but not at all in an Iberian one, and, if we assume contacts between the Scots and, say, the Portuguese, even if just through piracy, we should be able to assume circulation of ideas too. So: by 1515, that is, not long after Dunbar likely wrote his poem, Manuel I of Portugal issued a decree requiring that the corpses of enslaved people, including those “brought from Guinea,” that is, sub-Saharan Africa, be deposited into a common mass grave and not simply dumped anywhere; the point here is not that their bodies were being treated like animal carcasses, but rather than they were treated like animals whose carcasses were useless, like horses.Available in several places, including Victor Ribeiro, A Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa : subsidios para a sua historia, 1498-1898 (Lisbon; Typ. da Academia Real das Sciencias, 1902), 183. … Continue reading Horses were of course often admired in life, but in death, a horse, to cite Lydgate’s animal poem again, “is but a fowle careyn, / The ayr infectyng, [it] is so corrumpable” (204-5). Whatever dignity it might have had in life it loses in death. That is, we have here a specific kind of animalization.
We can also point to the Prolegomena to the massive Book of Lessons of the fourteenth-century historian ibn Khaldun, who worked largely in Northwest Africa. Khaldun’s work is not unique in its assessment that Black people “have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.”Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton, 1967), 117: note this: “The same applies to the Slavs. The reason for this is that their remoteness from … Continue reading Attitudes like these would have circulated outside Arabic scholarship in Iberia, and from there to elsewhere.
But we can point, too, to the material surrounding the King of Tars. This fourteenth-century Middle English romance features a Black, Muslim father and a White Christian mother, whose child, because the mother has not actually converted to Islam, is born as a featureless lump of flesh. Baptism gives the lump limbs, and turns the Sultan’s Black skin white. Earlier analogs to the story imagine the child’s prebaptismal condition variously: white on one side, black on the other; hairy all over, or hairy only on the lower half; or human on the upper half, and animal below. What’s striking, then, about the analogs is that animality can stand in for Blackness — and racialized religious difference — just as effectively as skin color.
My last point on this, before I move into my conclusion, will be to bear down on one of Dunbar’s particular negative animalizations, namely, Dunbar’s comparison of the Black lady to a “gangarall,” a toad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, aristocratic emblems sought out certain animals and shunned others. Toads were rare, because they were loathed. So far, I have turned up only two sets of heraldic toads. The first is from a legend dating to the later middle ages, in which either Clovis or Pharamond — the legendary last pre-Christian king of the Franks — bore an emblem of “.III. crapaux ouvré d’euvre doree” [three toads in goldwork], a sign of his allegiance to the devil. When he converts to Christianity, they miraculously transformed to the three fleur-de-lys characteristic of French nobility.Michael Randall,“On the Evolution of Toads in the French Renaissance.” Renaissance Quarterly 57.1 (2004): 126–164, 129 for the quotation from La Belle Hélène de Constantinople. For the … Continue reading) More locally relevant are the frogs in The Deidis of Armorie, a late medieval Scottish heraldic bestiary, written roughly a decade before Dunbar’s poem. The treatise’s manuscripts feature illustrations of heraldic emblems with accompanying commentary, often drawn from natural history. One emblem features a frog or toad: it’s unclear which, as the text conflates the two by beginning “frogs are toad-shaped.” After explaining that toads are noisy, but quiet down in fear if they hear anything, it says that whoever first bore a toad emblem as their heraldic device must therefore have been boastful but likewise prone to falling silent whenever they heard the enemy, so that “they are better armed with lies and blabbering than any other persons are.”L. A. J. R. Houwen, ed. The Deidis of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary (Scottish Texts Society, 1994), 49. Thank you to Misty Schieberle for providing me with scans of Houwen’s edition. Again, the point is not that animalization itself is degraded, but that certain kinds of animalization are: lions, stags, pike, all these are fine, noble beasts; but no one in Dunbar’s culture would want to be associated with cats, apes, and toads.
Our response to these insults could seek to rescue Dunbar’s target from his poem. We can rebuild, as I have begun to do, our historical knowledge of actual Black women at the court of James IV, and we can “humanize” her by countering, point by point, the bestializing insults to her beauty. We can complicate our understanding of Blackness in medieval cultures by better heeding the work of Black-identified medieval writers, as Haroon Bashir did in his 2019 article “Black Excellence and the Curse of Ham: Debating Race and Slavery in the Islamic Tradition.”“Black Excellence and the Curse of Ham: Debating Race and Slavery in the Islamic Tradition,” ReOrient 5.1 (2019): 92-116
Recent work in Black posthumanism suggests another route.In addition to what I cite below, also see Tressie McMillan Cottom, “In the Name of Beauty,” Thick and Other Essays (The New Press, 2019), e.g., “When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I … Continue reading Advancing both Sylvia Wynter’s historicization of the racialized, supposedly universal category of “Man” and the Afropessimist critique of the fundamental exclusion of Black people from universal humanity, this work rethinks the relationship between animality and Blackness as something other than simply a “dehumanizing” insult. Bénédicte Boisseron’s Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question, Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man, and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World all counter a liberal humanist attempt to include Black people within the regime of normative humanity, because they all understand normative humanity as contested ground. Instead, Bennett sees in the rats, dogs, and mules of classics in African American literature the opportunity to find new forms of insurgency and resistance, reclaiming these “dehumanizing” comparisons for himself and his community. Boisseron does similar work, primarily with the Afro-Diasporic Francophone literature of the Caribbean. And Jackson too, along with sustained engagement with the materialist posthumanisms, with the work of, among others, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Octavia Butler, Jesmyn Ward, and Audre Lorde. As Jackson argues, “Antiracism has too often limited our critique of ‘animalization’ to a critique of the term’s scope instead of disrupting its authority in the management of life….’The animal’ as symbol, as trope, as locus of possibility, must be rethought and transformed” (53, original emphasis).
Tellingly, each of these critics draws on a largely Black archive. They are not recuperating the animalization of Black people in work like Dunbar’s or from more recent white supremacist fantasies. Rather, they seek new lines of flight or fugitive models of existence in work that already wants to make room for Black people to thrive. Nor will my goal be to argue that deliberately and clearly racist works that use animal imagery to insult Black people should be read so sensitively that they cease to seem to be racist. What I’m drawing from these critics, from Jackson in particular, is observations like these: “a critique of anthropocentrism is not necessarily a critique of liberal humanism”;Jackson, Becoming Human, 15, and also see 17-18 and 34. “animalization and humanization of the slave’s personhood are not mutually exclusive but mutually constitutive” (46) and “When humanization is thought to be synonymous with black freedom, or even a means to freedom, one risks inadvertently minimizing or extending the violence of ‘universal humanity.'”
Groups targeted by the powerful are not necessarily stripped of their humanity. Nineteenth-century slavers in North America called enslaved people animals while exploiting their specifically human skills, knowledge, and family ties to wrest from them still more labor. The pleasures of slavers no doubt stemmed from their delighting in inflicting cruelty on people they knew to be people. Medieval Christian anti-Semites insulted Jews as brutes even as they drew on Rabbinic exegesis–surely a human activity–to resolve exegetical cruces. They did this even as they insulted Jewish interpretations as merely material, that is, simplistically bestial understandings of scripture. And Dunbar and his readers would have got no pleasure from insulting the Black woman of the poem had she simply been rendered nonhuman: the point of the cruelty of the joke is that it’s being said to someone who’s quite deliberately not being recognized as human. They maintain just enough of her human existence for it to be wrested from her. She couldn’t be humiliated otherwise.
We can say still more about this here: we can challenge the use of “human” as a compliment, along with the cliché that “humane” behavior is necessarily kind, decent, and gentle. The points, for now, is that the question of the human, like the question of the animal, never operates as a simple binary, and that the categories of human and animal should be understood as political and rhetorical categories, and therefore as categories that help index hierarchies, struggles, and goals.I have in mind the penultimate sentence of Spillers’ “Interstices,” “As I see it, the goal is not an articulating of sexuality so much as it is a global restoration and … Continue reading)
With all that said, at the moment, I can recall no instance in medieval writing where being called an animal or beast in general is meant as anything other than an insult. But Dunbar’s Black woman has not just been animalized; she has been likened to specific animals. Dunbar did this, we might presume, at a tournament where she is at the same time surrounded by men who too have been animalized. She has been animalized, one presumes, unwillingly; the knights, willingly, albeit within the fraught negotiations of will and choice necessary for any participation in any culture.
The degrees of coercion vary as do the chances of opting out successfully. So too the kinds of animalization vary. Knights link themselves through heraldry with lions, deer, bears, pike, swans, stags, not all of them majestically violent, but all of them elite, in what I can briefly propose is an act of self-exotification. Dunbar loads his target with a costume of despised animals, perhaps sexual in the aggregate, but not erotic, or at least not in any socially permissible manner. By contrast, Chaucer’s Alison, from the Miller’s Tale, is also animalized, and still more, but when he likens her to a weasel, to blackthorn berries, to a castrated ram, to a narrow tree, he entwines her amid a rustic landscape of idle, languid contentment, he still offers her as an ideal “For any lord to leggen in his bedde, / Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.”
“Boundaries are blurred” in all these instances, and humans are animalized, but variously. Animalization may in fact be inevitable, and indeed so inevitable that it may challenge dominant systems in no way at all to insist that “humans are animals too.” Among dominant humans, perhaps none refuses animalization entirely except philosophers.
The issue, finally, or for now, is not that Dunbar has animalized this woman, but that he has insulted her. And simply calling him out for “animalizing” her will get us no closer to understanding the nature of what Dunbar has done, and what is still being done by his uncountable epigones.
|↑1||The most recent edition of the poem is William Dunbar, The Complete Works, ed. John Conlee (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. It is available in translation by Nicola Clark and Jennie Nuttall at Nuttell’s website, Stylisticienne.|
|↑2||See Sebastiaan Verweij, The Literary Culture of Early Modern Scotland: Manuscript Production and Transmission, 1560-1625 (Oxford University Press, 2016), 197, relying on the work of Julia Boffey.|
|↑3||“go in grippis“: John Conlee’s notes to this poem badly need revision. He glosses this phrase as “embrace,” but Dunbar means something rougher. The Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue defines grippis as “pl. (with in or to), a close or firm hold of another person, esp. in struggling,” with this line from Dunbar serving as its first illustrative example. Dunbar’s “A Wooing in Dunfermline,” as bizarre as the poem is, uses “imbrace” and “braisit”: Dunbar knew a hug from a grasp.|
|↑4||I have in mind Peter Erickson’s observation, more than 20 years ago, that Othello is a play that “also very much involves the fashioning of a discourse of racial whiteness” (“The Moment of Race in Renaissance Studies” Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 27-36 — thank you to Vimala Pasupathi for turning me onto this essay.|
|↑5||Paul Edwards, “The Early African Presence in the British Isles: An Inaugural Lecture on the Occasion of the Establishment of the Chair in English and African Literature at Edinburgh University,” Centre of African Studies, Edinburgh University, Occasional Papers 26 (1990), 7-13, for this observation and also much of the the data in the paragraph below: note that this article is sometimes called “The Early Black Presence.” [I am having trouble at present finding the article again. It is here, or here in the anthology Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain]. Additional brief discussions: Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Routledge, 2017), and Bernadette Andrea, “The ‘Presences of Women’ from the Islamic World in Sixteenth- to Early Seventeenth-Century British Literature and Culture,” in Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces in the Early Modern World ed. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (Routledge, 2016), 296-7. I will need to consult the ongoing work from the Race Before Race symposia to fill these points out and to ensure I’m not unnecessarily duplicating anyone’s work.|
|↑6||Gomes Eanes de Zurara, The chronicle of the discovery and conquest of Guinea, trans. Charles Raymond Beazley and Edgar Prestage, Vol. 1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896), 80.|
|↑7||“Wild Knight” from the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer III, 258 and 365|
|↑8||Robert Lindesay, The Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, ed. Ae. J. G. Mackay, 3 vols., 242-43|
|↑9||For a brief comment on this stagecraft, concocted by Bishop Andrew Forman, see Ian Simpson Ross, William Dunbar (Brill, 1981), 70. Also see Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, and Joyce Miller, “Introduction,” Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland (Palgrave, 2007), 5.|
|↑10||For this point, see Joyce Green MacDonald, Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (Cambridge UP, 2009), 2-3. Probably the best interpretation of tournament and poem to date is Aranye [Louise Olga] Fradenburg, City, Marriage, Tournament: Arts of Rule in Late Medieval Scotland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 244-64, especially 255-58, but Fradenburg’s psychoanalytic feminist take largely predates the enormous productivity in critical race theory in the last 30 years. The most repugnant interpretation of the Dunbar may well be Robert F. Fleissner, “William Dunbar’s Sultry Pre-Shakespearean Dark Lady,” The Upstart Crow 3 (1980): 88-96, still worse not only because of its being reprinted in his self-published Shakespeare and Africa: The Dark Lady of His Sonnets Revamped and Other Africa-Related Associations (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2005), but also for its being delivered at a 1979 meeting of the College Language Association, in Washington DC, whose theme, Fleissner tells us, was “The Black Woman: National and International Perspectives.” Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995) is essential, important, and a necessary cite, but doesn’t treat the Dunbar in much detail. Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge UP, 2018) considers a great many texts, but barely touches on Dunbar.|
|↑11||The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Vol 3. 258-59.|
|↑12||For examples, J. Schipper, ed. The Poems of William Dunbar, “The preparations for this ludicrous tournament, which must have formed part of the gossip of the court for some time, probably instigated our poet to express his own opinion on that stranige tournament before it would come to pass, which he did in the same mocking spirit in which the preceding poems are composed,” in Denkschriften der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften 41 (1892): 8 [1-154]; “The Death of Sir Anthony d’Arcres de la Bastie: An Episode in Scottish History,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 154 (1893): 137 [132-144], “to choose such a lady as patroness of a tournament might well appar, as it did to the satiric muse of Dunbar, a travesty of chivalry; but the king and his courtiers no doubt treated it as a good joke–a kind of ‘high jinks’ of the sixteenth century. It must have drawn crowds, as a popular cricket or football match does in the present day.” Francis Lee Utley, The Crooked Rib: An Analytical Index to the Argument about Women in English and Scots Literature to the End of the Year 1568 (Ohio State University, 1944), 178, “No doubt the slave girl would not have been insulted too greatly, since her command of Scots would scarcely equal that of the court which heard this broadly humorous lyric.” I was surprised to learn that Francis George Scott, a Scottish composer, sets first several stanzas to music, piano and baritone, in 1936. I have found no recordings yet.|
|↑13||James Balfour, ed. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Vol. III, xlviii|
|↑14||see Geraldine Heng, summarizing the work of Jean Devisse and Michael Mollat, in The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages, 190, “By the time of the late Middle Ages, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries…a vast proliferation of exotica makes the depiction of blacks – especially in armorial bearings and heraldry – fashionable, and increasingly commonplace.” Somewhat confusingly, on the same page, Heng ascribes The Masque of Blackness to Dunbar: I have to assume she meant the poem I’m discussing here, as Ben Jonson, not Dunbar, is responsible for The Masque of Blackness, which dates to about a century later after Dunbar’s poem.|
|↑15||“Moors and Moorishness in Late Medieval England,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 42 (2020): 213-51 .|
|↑16||See for example Clare McManus, “Marriage and the Performance of the Romance Quest: Anne of Denmark and the Stirling Baptismal Celebrations for Prince Henry,” in A Palace in the Wild: Essays on Vernacular Culture and Humanism in Late-Medieval and Renaissance Scotland, ed. L. A. J. R. Houwen, Alasdair A. MacDonald, and Sally Mapstone, Peeters, 2000, 189: “This exotic antithesis of courtly beauty is the prize of the tournament, juxtaposing performing slave [me: although was she?] with spectating noblewoman. Aligning himself with the exotic other against which the court defines itself….here two symbols of the non-courtly and non-civilised converge”|
|↑17||Quoted from Sierra Lomuto “The Mongol Princess of Tars: Global Relations and Racial Formation in The King of Tars (c. 1330),” Exemplaria 31.3 (2019): 171-92 [172, Lomuto’s translation of the chronicle’s original Latin.]|
|↑18||Heng, Geraldine. “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity,” in Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh, ed. Molly H. Bassett and Vincent W. Lloyd, (Routledge, 2014) 28-54, included in her Medieval Race.|
|↑19||“Mongol Princess of Tars” 174.|
|↑20||I owe this reference to Fradenbrg, City, Marriage, Tournament, 247.|
|↑21||Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen, Ms mm 129, 1v|
|↑22||Carl Sigmund Barach, ed., Excerpta e libro Afredi Anglici De motu cordis item Costa-ben-Lucae De differentia animae et spiritus liber translatus a Johanne Hispalensi (Innsbruck: Wagner’schen University Press, 1878), 138-39. Barach’s edition, which has the nonsensical “solari” living far from the sun, requires supplementing with other copies of the work; Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer 10, 245r, for example, reads “ut sclavi et mauri” [like Slavs and Moors], which respectively stand for those “longe distare a sole uel uicinare” [a long ways or close to the sun].|
|↑23||Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: U of Chicago, 2010, 16. Thanks to Seeta Chaganti for turning me on to this concept — I should have run across it sooner.|
|↑24||For a work that invites further analysis along these lines, see Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, T.j.1, 244r, a manuscript of Alfonso X Cantigas de Santa Maria. For an edition of the text of this antiblack poem, here.|
|↑25||the quotation is from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How it feels to be Colored Me,” famously repeated in a painting by Glenn Ligon at the Whitney.|
|↑26||Hortense Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 155 [152-75].|
|↑27||Famously, in her “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book.” diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.|
|↑28||Albert the Great, Questions Concerning Aristotle’s On Animals, trans. Irven M. Resnick and Kenneth F. Kitchell (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), XV.468. See a related observation in Helen Rodnite Lemay, trans. Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De secretis mulierum with Commentaries (SUNY Press, 1992), 111.|
|↑29||For further discussion, Valentin Groebner, “The carnal knowing of a coloured body: sleeping with Arabs and Blacks in the European imagination, 1300–1550,” in The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Oxford University Press, 2009): 217-231; Peter Biller, “Black Women in Medieval Scientific Thought,” in La Pelle umana / Human Skin (Micrologus 13) (Firenze: Sismel, 2005), pp. 477-92; and Heng, Invention of Race, 212.|
|↑30||Moya Bailey & Trudy, “On misogynoir: citation, erasure, and plagiarism,” Feminist Media Studies (2018), 18:4, 762-768|
|↑31||Key for further work on this topic will include Jennifer C. Nash “Black Anality” GLQ 20.4 (2014): 439–460, and Kathryn Bond Stockton, Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer” (Duke UP 2006).|
|↑32||Classic examples also include the Wild Herdsmen of both Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain and Aucassin et Nicolette. See Jan Ziolkowski, “Avatars of Ugliness in Medieval Literature,” The Modern Language Review 79.1 (1984), pp. 1-20. Closer to Dunbar is John Lydgate’s parodic “My Fayr Lady,” which observes, for instance, “She is no bot, she is a barge”: James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, ed, A Selection from the Minor Poems of Dan John Lydgate (1840).|
|↑33||Available in several places, including Victor Ribeiro, A Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa : subsidios para a sua historia, 1498-1898 (Lisbon; Typ. da Academia Real das Sciencias, 1902), 183. For further discussion, see John L Vogt, “The Lisbon Slave House and African Trade, 1486-1521,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 117.1 (1973): 1-16, and Paula Mota Santos, “The other in us: Representation of black African identity in Portuguese social space,” Journal of Anthropological Research 74.4 (2018): 468-484.|
|↑34||Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton, 1967), 117: note this: “The same applies to the Slavs. The reason for this is that their remoteness from being temperate produces in them a disposition and character similar to those of the dumb animals, and they become correspondingly remote from humanity.” For further discussion, James H Sweet, “The Iberian roots of American racist thought,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54.1 (1997): 147 [143-166]. Sweet’s article is widely cited, but should be used cautiously because of its unfamiliarity with medieval material outside the Iberian and Islamic contexts. For example, he takes references to dog-headed humans in Africa as a bestialization of Black people, but it’s clear that the chronicler Duarte Pacheco Pereira is simply repeating material from the Book of John Mandeville not so much on people as on the cynocephali.|
|↑35||Michael Randall,“On the Evolution of Toads in the French Renaissance.” Renaissance Quarterly 57.1 (2004): 126–164, 129 for the quotation from La Belle Hélène de Constantinople. For the image, the blog post at the British Library “Toads and ermine (and other coats of arms),” 25 June 2019, by Clarck Drieshen. Charles Arthur Fox-Davies’ A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909) can cite only one instance of a Toad or Frog used in English heraldry, and suspects it might have actually been “three buckets of water” (258|
|↑36||L. A. J. R. Houwen, ed. The Deidis of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary (Scottish Texts Society, 1994), 49. Thank you to Misty Schieberle for providing me with scans of Houwen’s edition.|
|↑37||“Black Excellence and the Curse of Ham: Debating Race and Slavery in the Islamic Tradition,” ReOrient 5.1 (2019): 92-116|
|↑38||In addition to what I cite below, also see Tressie McMillan Cottom, “In the Name of Beauty,” Thick and Other Essays (The New Press, 2019), e.g., “When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it.”|
|↑39||Jackson, Becoming Human, 15, and also see 17-18 and 34.|
|↑40||I have in mind the penultimate sentence of Spillers’ “Interstices,” “As I see it, the goal is not an articulating of sexuality so much as it is a global restoration and dispersal of power” (175|