What Hanne Darboven can tell us about the Middle English ‘Names of the Hare in English’


And here’s my last paper for Spring 2019, and by far my most tentative. It’s for Session 157, “Forming Character: Between Personhood and the Nonhuman,” for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, assembled by Ingrid Nelson and Julie Orlemanski. Here’s the Powerpoint, but the images will be below as well. None of the images are essential for understanding my paper.

The Middle English “Names of the Hare in English” appears, with its French title, amid a host of other works in a famous late thirteenth-century miscellany, Digby 86. Its 63 lines begin with a warning to anyone who encounters a hare: he will never fare well unless he drops what he’s carrying in his hand, be it a staff or a bow, and then bless himself with his elbow — whatever that could mean — and then “say an orison in worship of the hare” to ward off bad luck. Then follows the orison: 77 names of the hare, running from the expected, like the first, which is simply “the hare,” to more fanciful ones, many hapax legomena, including “the steal-away,” “the evil met,” “the grass biter,” “the friendless,” “the sitter, the grass hopper,” “the fold sitter,” “the sittest-ille,” which I suppose might be translated as “the worried sitter,” and finally “the animal” — the Middle English here is der — “that all men scorn / the animal that no man dare name.” The poem finishes by freeing the transfixed unfortunate man: once you have recited these names, it says, then you can move on, east or west, south or north. The poem itself then wishes the hare “good day,” and hopes that the hare is next encountered as a nice, cooked meal.

Commentators routinely mark the poem as the earliest English witness of the legendary, and widely cross-cultural bad luck attributed to hares. I’m reminded too of a belief as old as Plato and repeated at least through the seventeenth century, which held that a human would be rendered speechless if seen first by a wolf, and that they could regain their speech only if they stripped themselves naked. The belief attests, of course, to a certainty that human supremacy is a zero-sum game – as it may well be in a wilderness meeting with a wolf – that locates human supremacy in language itself. See the wolf first and know it, and it has been made subject to your rational classification; failing that, reboot your humanity by getting naked, and try again.


With that in mind, it’s easy to take the Hare poem as a contest of mastery. But it’s as if the primordial Adam, commanded to name the animals, found himself compelled to keep going, as if the very act of naming, and the slightly worried humanity that that singular capacity to name offered, had got the mastery of him. For the very excess of the poem – again, 77 names – suggests either a poet who’s not in control of what they’re doing, or – and this is my preference – one whose principles of composition and description are either irrecoverable or irreducible to a single system.


Why so many names? It’s not that the poem just needs to fill up space. It runs in two columns, with the first 11 lines on 168 recto, and the rest, which is all the actual names of the hare, minus the first line, on the verso. But after it stops, there’s sufficient space to squeeze in, somewhat clumsily, Digby 86’s second copy of “The Dolorous Days of the Year,” and we can guess that the theme of bad luck inspired this recopying, even if we have to wonder why the recopying. Why not take that space, instead, to keep coming up with more hare names? There’s room, by my count, for about 26 more. Why so many? Or why so few?


Nor, so far as I can discern, do the poem’s names follow any particular order. The introductory and closing materials are, mostly, octosyllabic couplets; the names themselves use end rhymes, but according to a varying and unpredictable pattern. The rhymes are always more than a couplet, with the most common being the -art rhyme – akin to the -ard suffix, think dotard, which tends to be derogatory: 14 lines in all, 9 at the beginning, and then 5 more towards the end. Most lines have two names, but seven have only one.

Metrically, the poem is just as unpredictable. To my knowledge, no one has attended to the poem with more sensitivity than Carolynn van Dyke, whose formal aspects she treats towards the tail-end of her monumental article on medieval “animots.” As she observes, the poem’s “strong but varied rhythms suit the movements of an alternately wind-swift, lurking, scuttling, leaping ground-sitter,” or, as I’ll say, its “strong but varied rhythms” attests to a poem that follows patterns, but never just one at any given time.

Ultimately, I would propose that the effect of “The Names of the Hare” far exceeds its seemingly express aims of either describing the hare or at evading the bad luck of encountering one. Once at the end of the list of names, we don’t have that clear a view of what a hare does, or what we should think of it. And if the point is to ward off unluck, the requirements are so far in excess of the possible — are we supposed to have these 77 names on hand, just in case, and is the hare meant to wait while we recite them — that the work can function only as a burlesque of actual utility. Remember the rules for encountering a wolf: comparatively speaking, those are eminently practicable.

An accumulation that runs for an arbitrary, but excessive, length; that takes much longer to recite than could ever make it useful; the seeming gesture towards something in the real world that, through its excess and heterogeneity, refers far more clearly to its own bravura, but seemingly pointless, act of creation: these are the features that compelled me to try, finally, to think these poem through the monumental, overwhelming, durational art of Hanne Darboven.

Born in Munich in 1941, Darboven trained as a pianist, became an artist, and moved to New York City in 1966, where she stayed for several years, interacting with several key New York conceptual artists, like Sol LeWitt, before moving back to Germany in 1969. She died in Hamburg in 2009 on her family estate.

A classic Darboven piece might fill several gallery walls with repeated, framed images that seem based on calendrical calculations. But, and this is key, there is never just one principle that generates her figures. Dan Adler offers a reading that could be drawn from any number of her critics: she “habitually disrespects the parameters of subgroups within all her sequential arrangements….there is never simply only one series at work, but rather an entangling of sequences and overlaid progressions — the number of the page, the number of the grid, the date, the handwritten number, the roman numeral.” If Darboven’s work has in common with pop and conceptual art its “deskilled” and even “bureaucratic” techniques, it diverges from both, the uniform and anonymized reproduction of pop art, and the intellectualism of conceptual art, which, at times, relied upon another kind of anonymity, that of the systematic generation of form and line, almost independent of the actual artist. Instead, her work requires her presence, her labor, and above all her time, and arguably references nothing but these things, and her interruption, and generation, of ultimately irrecoverable sequences.

I’m drawn to the hare poem and to Darboven because of my developing interest in irrational forms of reason, and because I’m finding Darboven a rich conceptual resource. How do eminently human activities, like animal onomastics, or collecting and presenting images, become inhuman through seemingly compulsive repetition? Ultimately, they no longer reference what they claim to reference — hares, or, in Darboven’s case, Cultural History, 1880-1983 — and instead point only to the work itself. In both case, what they reference is not any abstract principle of creation, but only the time of their recitation and labor themselves. And I’m hoping you might help me find out where else I might take this.

Thank you.


Hanne Darboven:
Dan Adler. Hanne Darboven: Cultural History, 1880-1983. Afterall Books / MIT, 2009.

Ernst van Alphen. “Staging the Archive: Ydessa Hendeles and Hanne Darboven.” Journal of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum 28: (2014): 108-133

Briony Fer, “Hanne Darboven: Seriality and the Time of Solitude.” Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice. Ed. Michael Corris. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 223-234.

Names of the Hare in English”:
John Andrew Boyle. “The Hare in Myth and Reality: A Review Article.” Folklore 84.4 (1973): 313-326.

Simon Carnell. Hare. Reaktion Books, 2010.

Carolynn van Dyke. “Names of the Beasts: Tracking the Animot in Medieval Texts.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34.1 (2012): 1-51.

Margaret Laing. “Notes on Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86: The Names of a Hare in English.” Medium aevum 67.2 (1998): 201-211.

A. S. C. Ross, “The Middle English Poem on the Names of a Hare.” Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, Literary and Historical Series 3.6 (1935): 347-77 [edition]