Day 8 – Volsung Saga and Vita Merlini

stone3906We started with a recent NY Times editorial, “Why Nothing is Truly Alive.” Illustrating his point with Strandbeest, Ferris Jabr argues:

Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work. All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life —
metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold.”

Now, it’s one thing to say that there’s no one precise definition of life, and it’s another to say that this lack of a precise definition means that it’s “all in our head” and “futile.” The former is obviously correct, while the later is the kind of mistake one makes only by assuming that concepts must be completely airtight to function at all. But, as pragmatism observes, no one actually lives their life that way. And all concepts, being of this world, are necessarily impure and shifting. So, while the life/nonlife distinction works a lot of different ways, so there’s no ONE boundary, it still works, necessarily in a variety of ways, as we’ll see in Gerald of Wales.

I also directed our attention to this excellent blog post on good conference behavior: the short version is be mutually supportive, but the longer post is well worth reading.

I pointed out some medieval Sigurd art: the Sigurd portal, and especially the Sigurd Runestone. This recent article mentions a fifteenth-century account that features Sigurd’s enormous sword as a relic at what might be Aachen. I also pointed out material that I had found mostly from Mary Gerstein’s “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf,” whose richness I can’t do justice to. Some observations are that Odin, being a god of frenzyand oath breaking (among other things), seems to be a version of Loki and Fenris, and that the wolf outlaw seems to be at its root a grave robber or cannibal, at least if we go by these early Germanic laws (onetwo). I have texts like these in mind, which use archaeology, philology, and comparative folklore to discover the deep roots in, say, the concept of the hanging god, or of the antlered woodgod, or of the dragon-fighting hero (present in seventh-century English box, and pictured on page 410 here, pdf), when I ask: how can we read these kinds of works? If animals are key to “early” or “prehistoric” mythology, if there’s a universal (?) tendency not to take much account of human/animal differences, then are works like the Volsung Saga and the Vita Merlini somehow representative of an earlier stage in human thinking? The simple answer is of course not, but the better answer complicates things further.

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

Day 6 – Animal Testaments

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Today we considered a little-studied genre that comprises animal complaint poetry and animal testaments. Our texts were the late antiqueTestamentum Porcelli, two Middle English works, “By a Forest as I gan fare” (aka The Hunting of the Hare) and the Chester play’s “Balaack and Balaam,” and several late medieval or early modern works, the oyster section from Thomas Brown’s translation of Gelli’s Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s “Gryllus,” Martin Luther’s “Complaint of the Birds,” and finally Margaret Cavendish’s, “The Hunting of the Hare.” We could have added several more to this list: the “Lament of the Roast Swan” from the Carmina Burana, the Anglo-Saxon riddle about the oyster, Jacques’ lament of the the hunted deer in As You Like It, and so on. We could certainly add Robert Henryson’s “Preaching of the Swallow” from his Fables too. Such works occupy a spectrum from the clearly parodic (the Testamentum, Carmina Burana, and the Martin Luther) to the obviously serious (Cavendish), with most uncertainly occupying a place somewhere in between. Our conversation didn’t get to half of these today, however.

Preliminary to starting, I encouraged everyone to go see Eleonora Stoppino, “Animals, Contagion, and Education from Boccaccio to Fracastoro,” this Wednesday evening at NYU.

We started the class proper by continuing conversations from last week and also from the intervening conversation on the wiki. To this end, I showed a scene from František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová, a classic of Czech and medievalist cinema (now showing at BAM). The film responds well to critical animal studies: in it, the medieval, in its violence and lust, is animal, arguably, though the film’s wolfpack motif suggests a natural that’s, well, beyond good and evil. We watched a scene about the transformation of Christian (that name!), a German knight, and the paragon of chivalric civilization, into a hulking wolf man. When his pagan lover, Alexandra, discovers him, she bashes in his skull with a rock, seemingly with his permission. She herself is a creature of the woods, hardly more than animal herself: having had an incestuous something with one of her brothers, Vláčil clearly wants us to regard her as beyond culture. Which one is the animal here? Which one the wolf? Which the human?

So, how can we read this with Melion? What if the Irish forest woman had bashed in Melion’s skull when he turned into a wolf (to please her)? In a larger sense, what is the gender of the forest?

The forest as silva or nous is clearly feminine, either as form awaiting content, or as the material not organized into service of a masculine order. But the forest is also the place where men go to live more authentically, unmixed with women. And there, they meet women, or things like women. Melion and Guigemar are but two examples of this, but we can think of innumerable examples from modern culture. Like civilization, like culture, the forest has a double gender, then, one that can’t be organized into one or the other neatly.

We used this as an entrance to finish discussing “Guigemar” and “Yonec.” Putting aside the fact that intersex cervids are not all that uncommon, biologically speaking, and thus not exactly “wonders,” and putting aside the tendency of white stags or boars to draw heroes into sylvan adventure in Celtic stories, there’s also the intersex doe as a family unit. She’s with a doe, and she’s also a he. She is, in that sense, a representation of the way that a married couple becomes two in one flesh. Having been forced to leave his pure masculinity, Guigemar finds himself compelled to give up hunting and to enter into the queerness of heterosexual mixing. Through his erotic love, he perhaps may be forced to discover the larger, more ethical love that would recognize the wounding of animals as an injury to himself as well.

And then “Yonec,” where we concentrated on the unnamed wife’s admiration of “Yonec” first of all for being a hawk of quality (species rank is social rank, with the human in general not of paramount importance), and on the shifting bodily perfection of Maldumarec, who can take on any form, versus the tight stasis of the senex amans, who is, in Gallagher’s translation, “baptized [in] hell; strong are his nerves, strong his veins, and full of pulsing blood,” a body that’s at once too tight and full of secret, horrific life. How else to read these bodies against each other?

We also heard a bit about humans suckling puppies. For more on such matters, from medieval perspective, see Peggy McCracken’s essay in this volume.

To turn into animal testaments, we observed how recent laws in Idaho ensure that the killing of animals remains invisible.

Our presentation was on the two poems about hare hunting, the Cavendish and one in Middle English. Our presenter set things up by using Erica Fudge’s “Two Ethics: Killing Animals in the Past and Present” to sketch three (not two) early modern ways of thinking about animals:

  • Cartesian mechanization, in which animals were only objects, there to be used in whatever way, guiltlessly;
  • “inward government” and self-fashioning, in which treating animals poorly might disorder a rational mind;
  • and Montaignian skepticism, in which humans and animals all operate together in a community.

The larger distinction is between empirical accounts of animals, which start with animal behavior, and metaphysical accounts, which start with ideas. Descartes clearly is a metaphysician, then.

Now, the Cavendish gives us only observations of the external life (and death) of the hare, while the Middle English poem gives us the voice of the hare itself. Both give us living creatures, anything but mechanistic, anything but there only to be killed. Cavendish’s emphasis on animal life and human tyranny clearly belongs to the Montaignian project of a community of creatures. Cavendish also troubles the human arrogance at hunting: culture is a kind of witchcraft, in its supernatural ability to counteract the wind’s own protection of the hare, and, at any rate, since the dogs do the actual hunting, all humans do is exult. Cavendish’s poem clearly also belongs to 17th-century scientific projects, but with a twist. It’s very careful to observe correctly, but in this case, this “scientific” view does not lead to “instrumental reason,” which simply masters everything it regards, but rather creates emotional connections between viewer and observed animal. Sight here does anything but reduce a body to only a body.

We also thought of Cavendish’s bad poetry. The hare “gives up its ghost.” This is a cliché. But a cliché is also a mark of what “goes without saying.” What does it mean to grant a nonhuman death the unthought sympathy of a cliché? If a community is the group whose borders “go without saying,” how does the cliché actually include the dying hare within it?

Notably, the Middle English poem gives us a “living death,” where the hare witnesses its own death, and the turning of its body into garbage: its guts thrown away, its skin turned into a toy for puppies. And somehow, for some reason, this is the hare “coming home,” as we see from the last two stanzas. Is this, then, the purpose of the hare, where it was never really alive, since it becomes itself fully, it “comes home,” only when its cooked with leeks?

From there, we considered the recent food ethics issue of Phaen/Ex. We talked about meditative baboons, thinking about how the constitutive things of the ‘nature’ that humans often seek to become ‘one with’ in meditation also have their own meditative practices, suggesting a heterocentric mysticism rather than a unified nature from which humans, uniquely, are excluded; we considered how cattle culture in Alberta (and Argentina)doesn’t hide the animal behind the meat but rather makes the slaughter of cattle visible and central to its regional identity: this is a sacrificial culture, then, something quite other than many contemporary discussions of gender and meat-eating in, chiefly, Carol Adams; we considered how the death camp model of biopolitics and modernity promoted by, for example, Agamben, needs to be revised if we’re talking about factory farms: while the Nazis sought to make themselves visible and to erase their killing (as at Treblinka or Sobibór), and while Nazis sought to eliminate an entire people, factory slaughtering operations by contrast want to make the killers invisible and the product of the killing visible. And it wants to continue producing corpses indefinitely. This killing treats the bodies as products, as “already dead,” not in a way that’s worse than death camps, but in a way that’s certainly different, requiring a different thought. And, finally, we considered the problem of thinking of women as food: there’s more to be done here, next week, but we’re found that the essay wanted Bynum as well as an account of the human biome and how the human body-as-food is essential to human health, whatever the gender of the body.

We also considered something called “meat glue,” as a way to think about how we might have a return to the medieval “entremets,” those elaborate margin-hybrid-style sculptures that one would find in the middle of a medieval aristocratic feast. Here, after all, the animal is not an “absent referent” but rather present, in its body, as itself, but also dead. Is a poem like the “Testamentum” a kind of “present absence” in this regard?

On the Testamentum Porcelli, an oddly popular medieval text (some 8 or 9 manuscripts survive), we considered how the pig needs to write with someone else’s hand, which is indeed a porcine problem, but also one general to anyone who needs to use the law to write a will or indeed anyone who needs to use language, since language — as Cary Wolfe among others reminds us — is always already there, belonging to someone else, before we get a chance to use it. In this, as in so many ways, the Testamentum challenges human/animal divisions. Notably, its dispersal of its body alternates between the useful (bristles for shoemakers, bladders – for balls – to boys) and the silly (tongue for lawyers). We wondered whether it had the means to dispose the grain and other pork feed it promised to its relatives.

Fifteenth-Century Collective Nouns, from Lydgate’s Horse, Goose, and Sheep


The second edition (and perhaps the first?) of Caxton’s 1477 printing of Lydgate’s “Horse Goose and Sheep” has a couple surprise endings: a list of collective nouns, followed by a list of hunting terms (which terms also fill out the last pages of Wynken de Worde’s two printings of the poem; some versions here).

Click to embiggen.

Such lists didn’t start with print culture, of course. Riches upon riches await you here if you click through to Thomas Wright’s A Volume of Vocabularies: illustrating the condition and manners of our forefathers, as well as the history of the forms of elementary education and of the languages spoken in this island from the tenth century to the fifteenth (and do let me know if you have a working link for Wright’s Second Volume of Vocabularies). For one manuscript version, see Laura Saetveit Miles’s very helpful blog post on Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.18, ff. 44v-45r, a volume that’s full of hunting and cooking guidance. Miles in turn directed me to the enormously helpful Rachel Corner, “More Fifteenth-Century’Terms of Association’.” Review of English Studies (1962): 229-244, which, however, doesn’t consider the Lydgate “Horse, Goose, and Sheep” printings. A quick check shows that the Caxton and Wynken de Worde lists are similar to, but not identical, to the lists Corner provides.

I haven’t examined manuscripts of the Lydgate, so I can’t tell you if these appear with hunting and cooking materials. If they did, or even if they didn’t, it’s clear that someone, somewhere, decided that Lydgate’s animals poem could travel well with other animal poems. And though “Horse, Goose, and Sheep” isn’t much concerned with hunting (otherwise we’d have dogs and hawks in it too), animals were animals, at least to some fifteenth-century reader. That’s obviously a point that needs more unpacking.

Second, though: a post that produces a modern edition of medieval collective nouns like this, which organizes the nouns neatly into groups of beasts, birds, dressing of game, objects, and humans, misses the point. It misses both the inhuman charge of alphabetization as well as the associational logic less concerned with human and other difference than with similarities of mass, motion, and needs.

It’s not that the human disappears in these alphabetical lists, but rather that the logic of the alphabet prevails, if we want to get linguistic (though edit of course the list isn’t really alphabetized!); or, if we want to get materialist, it’s that the logic of recognizing a group differs wildly from that which tries to carve out a recognizable individual, whether human, nun, or otherwise, from the heterogeneous field of stuff. More could be said, of course: there’s probably a conference paper lurking in this post somewhere.

Thus, in addition to the always delightful “superfluity of nuns,” we get groupings like the following:

a beuye of larkes

a beuye of ladyes

a beuye of quayles

a beuye of roos

a hoost of men

a hoost of spawwes [sparrows, which I maybe mistranscribed]

a gagyll of ghees

a gagyll of women

a mutation [of what? all by itself!]

a cety of greyes

a rowte of knyghtes

a rowte of wolves

Skulke of foxes

a skulke of freres [friars]

a skulke of theuez [thieves]

scole of fysshe

scole of scolers

cluster of grapes

cluster of nottes

cluster of carles [hey!]

cluster of tame cattes

destruction of wilde cattes [!]

or, in the hunting list

a herte is herbored

a knight is herbored

a bucke is logged

a squyer is logged

a roo is bedded

a yoman is bedded

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

Day 4 – Robert Henryson, Fables

Caxton AesopWe used the Parkinson Edition of the Fables.

We started by remarking on the proliferation of animal studies by looking briefly at this round up of articles on animals and animal rights available on, and also briefly examined this record of a very recent classics conference at NYU on animals.

We wondered at the newly online Hereford Mappamundi.

We also had a report from the 3 members of the class (and the professor) who attended Susan Crane’s “Medieval Dogs at Work” presentation at NYU’s Maison Française. We heard about the Guinefort legend, and the affective connections between humans and their working dogs: when a knight unjustly kills his dog, he breaks his lance in three parts and then goes to the Holy Land in penance (or, in some versions, he kills himself). We heard aboutGaston Phébus’ //Book of the Hunt//, which requires that hunters speak only the truth to their dogs, and in which dogs can show a “bestesse” that is their own kind of canine logos. And we heard about Modwenna’s taming of the wolf that had killed a cow, and how the affection the wolf receives from a calf helps transform it, and how the smallness and white-spotted foreheads of its domesticated descendants recalls the neotenization that any domesticated animal undergoes. We even heard about the much debated possibility that humans are neotenized apes, what with our ‘softer’ features and various other infantile physical qualities, and especially with our lifelong capacity to learn new things.

Having done all that, we then looked at Henryson. Your professor started by outlining some aspects of medieval fables, distinguishing them from beast epics, another major medieval animal literature tradition. A key source for this was Jill Mann’sFrom Aesop to Reynard.

First, the newer genre, the beast epic. These works were long narratives in which animals get into and (sometimes) out of trouble. They tend to be comic (often violently so, and often about things no decent person now would find funny), and often very rowdy. These include Ecbasis Captivi, Ysengrimus, the Speculum Stultorum, and above all the vernacular Renard stories (here in this ridiculously expensive paperback). These have no epimythia (that is, no “morals”) except what the animals themselves use to try to win their arguments. There’s no sense, then, of some larger, guiding morality distinct from the practical efforts of the animals to thrive or survive. And there’s no sense that these works are for children (indeed, the Ysengrimus is difficult to read even for adult medievalists: hence the need for a translation).

Fables by contrast were one of the set of primary texts that children used to learn to read, and have been for centuries upon centuries. Thus, for most literate medieval Europeans, and not only Christians, animal narrative is at the heart of their socialization into literacy. Becoming an adult, in some sense, requires first identifying with animals and then gradually disidentifying from them; it required learning, against all educational and indeed even practical evidence, that animals were only mute beasts. The sheer number of versions of “Aesop” astonish. I list some in this ancient blog post:the “Romulus” (attributed sometimes to a “Walter of England,” and itself coming from the Phaedrus collection), Odo of Cheriton, Marie de France,Berechiah ha-Nakden, and John Lydgate, certainly among others. Usually, fables can be distinguished by their brevity and the distinction between a narrative and a separate moral.

Henryson plays with the limits of the genre in many ways. He transforms the holy and degraded fool Aesop into a noble auctor; he folds in several stories from the Reynard cycle; he increases the size of the morals to great length (that of the “Wolf and the Lamb,” for example, is some 76% as long as the tale itself), while inflating the openings of many of his fables with material from the Chanson d’aventure tradition (idyllic nature poetry, chiefly, which we encountered in force already in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls); and the animal characters themselves use sententia — moral statements — as arguments for their own local purposes, somewhat muddling the trustworthiness of the separate morals. This is particularly evident in Henryson’s version of the “Wolf and the Lamb,” as the Lamb doesn’t just use the typical argument from physics (“I couldn’t muddy your drinking water because I was upstream from you”) that we find in Marie and Lydgate, but it also uses arguments from law, as does the Wolf, to argue back and forth until the wolf finally, inevitably, devours the sheep. And, most surprisingly, we find a shivering sheep, cheated out of its fleece by lawyers (“The Sheep and the Dog”), appearing in the moral itself to cry out against the injustice of a God who sees everything but does nothing to help, as a kind of Ovine Job, whose very skin might have provided the support for the story we were reading. We never even had a chance to discuss the “bird-watcher” Henryson, who himself crops up in his fables often as someone just watching as things happen, something that, to my knowledge, never appears in another medieval fable collection.

We then used this video to help us with our pronunciation, remembering that Henryson wrote //after// the Great Vowel Shift.

Our presentation engaged with two articles that, unlike a lot of Henryson Fable criticism, concerned the animals rather than (for example) the genre:
Rudd, Gillian. “Making Mention of Aesop: Henryson’s Fables of the Two Mice.” The Yearbook of English Studies 36.1: (2006), 39-49.
Murtaugh, Daniel M. “Henryson’s Animals.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14.3: (1972), 405-421

We discussed whether animals that “knew their place” were somehow better off than animals that were more thoroughly anthropomorphized, looking especially at the tale of the two mice, one of whom notably sets out on a journey with a staff (indicating that it stands upright) and bare feet (indicating that it’s a pilgrim…or a mouse). Animals that know their place tend to come off better, or is this really true? After all, the Rooster’s condemned, in a fable that opens EVERY medieval fable collection, for not preferring a gem to its filthy food.

We observed that in the “The Two Mice,” the distinctions between the mice seem to matter more than the differences between mice and human. We also considered how our identification with the mice changed our relationship to Gib Hunter, which is at once a “jolie cat” (326) and a “crewell beist” (349), depending on where and what we are. We wondered as well at the animals of the animals, like the silent cows of “The Fox, the Wolf, and the Husbandman,” or Gib Hunter the cat, and also the problem of animal morality. How is a fox to live? If a fox’s behavior is theft, and if it can’t eat fish, how can we condemn it at all? We also pushed back against Murtaugh on the “inhumanity” of the dead birds in “The Preaching of the Swallow,” since the most “inhumane” character is the churl himself, while the most human, because the most rational, is the preaching Swallow.

We wondered whether carnivorous animals tend to feature most strongly in the tales (maybe) and whether we identify with them more than others (maybe, but chiefly in the tales taken over from the Reynard cycle).

We spent a lot of time on the “The Paddock [Toad] and the Mouse,” the very last Fable, at least in this present arrangement. The toad argues that it shouldn’t be judged by its appearance, an argument that simultaneously endorses how we should read the fables (don’t judge on appearances), that runs counter to the way that animals work in fables (we know what a lion is as soon as we see it, likewise with a wolf, a fox, and a toad), and then undoes the logic of fable interpretation when the toad turns out to be, after all, exactly what it looks like.

What is the relationship between the body and soul in this arrangement (given that this question matters so much, especially in the moral to this tale)? In what sense is physiognomy a kind of gesture or even speech? And what about the fact that the tale ends (and thus the narratives of the fables end) with the mouse and toad’s argument and struggle interrupted by a kite, which sees these two animals not as moral actors, not as fable beasts, but just as food. And with that transformation into meat (and not even satisfying meat (“Bot all thair flesche wald scant be half ane fill”), the fables proper end.

A few last points from me, though I know I’m forgetting MANY points that others made (say, about animal bodies, or about the Fox telepathy (!!) in “The Cock and the Fox,” or about how the infinite variety of animal inclinations are a kind of “black noise,” to put this in Ian Bogost’s terms).

  • How this idyllic statement runs counter to the experience of the animals: “All creature he maid for the behufe / Of man and to his supportatioun / Into this eirth, baith under and abufe, / In number, wecht, and dew proportioun, / The difference of tyme and ilk seasoun / Concorddand till our opurtunitie / As daylie be experience we may se.” It’s obviously not so good for the sheep!
  • “Reason” works oddly in the Fables. Reason is of course that thing that separates humans from animals. But what is it? When Henryson says that Aesop’s fable had “ane sentence according to ressoun,” what does that mean? If animals have only inclination and not discretion, as Henryson tells us in the opening to the “Cock and the Fox,” then they don’t have choice. They’re mechanical creatures, bound by the laws, essentially, of physics, while we at least have choice. But there’s another meaning of “reason,” namely, when someone says “be reasonable,” that is, “accord with the fact as they stand.” Here “reason” is perfect description, perfect measure, and thus the very opposite of that “extra” something that reason-as-choice would seem to grant. Given this, what animal is the “most reasonable” in the fables? The fox, with its craftiness (or is its “inclination” just to be excessive?)? The sheep clever enough to disguise itself as a dog (but not clever enough to resist the dogginess that the disguise grants it)? Or the country mouse, whose life accords best with the mousy way of life and indeed the contempt for worldly glory Henryson’s morals preach ad nauseum?

The insects and the miller / The krycket & þe greshope

From the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.


Here’s a macaronic, presumably late 15th-century poem from Peniarth MS 356b, which I ran across yesterday in Robbins’ Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (2nd. ed), p. 104.

The krycket & þe greshope wentyn here to fy3ght,

With helme and haburyone all redy dy3ght;

The flee bare þe baner as a du3ty kny3th,

The cherubud trumpyt with all hys my3th.

Salamandraque cicada domitatum perereterunt,

Galiaque cum lorica presto se parauerunt;

Musca vexillum portabat vt miles egregius,

Scarabius buccinauit totis suis viribus.

The hare seyte a-pon þe hyll & chappynd here schone,

And swere by the knappes wich were þer a-pon,

That scho wowld not ryse ne gon

Tyll sche se xx howndes and a won.

Lepus super montem se ipsum collocauit,

Et suos sotulares laquitissinauit,

Et per laquitissos ipsequen iurauit

De lustro surgere nec ire voluit

quousque vigenti canis vnum videret.

Þe myler sedet o-pon the hull

and all þe hennes off the town drew hym tyll;

The mylner sayd, ‘schew, henne, schew!

I may not schake my bage for you.’

Molendinarius super montem sedebat,

gallinarum ville ad se copia currebat;

Molendinarius inquit, ‘sco, galina, sco!

Meum saccum pro uobis vrcillare non possum.’

I love this little poem, written in the end–I think–of a grammar, and therefore, perhaps, intended for children (at least per Nicholas Orme, “The Culture of Children in Medieval England,” Past & Present 148 (1995): 48-88 [82]).

I couldn’t tell you much more than what you see here. Crickets and Grasshoppers go together, as in this children’s natural history, or in this recent nature poem by Dan Beachy-Quick (“The poetry of the earth never ceases / Ceasing” &c., which edit I’m chagrined to have to be reminded, is a play on a little poem by a not-exactly-minor poet by the name of John Keats, as David Hadbawnik had to remind me), and also in scripture, Leviticus 11:22, although not in any version of the Bible, so far as I know, that would have been known in fifteenth-century Wales (Vulgate here; Wycliffite here, for example).

In the absence of any criticism, in the absence of being able to consult the manuscript online, and therefore in the absence of much of the needed cultural context, what can we do with this poem? On twitter, I called it “A great little macaronic poem of manuscript marginalia come to life” (a point, minus the “great,” already made by Douglas Gray), and that might be enough, alone.

If we want to take this as a children’s poem, and still respect it for all that (and why not?), and if we want to take this as a kind of nursery rhyme, with many of the features of the genre, we might observe the close relationship of children and insects, the very small, and the nervous (the hare awaiting the 21 dogs). Children work at a different time than we adults (presuming on my audience!), and a different scale. They’re more vulnerable, smaller, faster, with time moving more slowly (my birthday comes around so quickly these days). My wife recently introduced me to Delmore Schwartz’s “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers,” whose first line is just that, and whose entirety you really, really need to read if you don’t already know it.

We might take this little poem, in its bizarre resistance to interpretation, as just that, a stranger.

Or we might do more with it, paying attention to its language, form (why the five-line stanza in the middle?), and vocabulary. What, if anything, would you do with it?

(on children and animals, see Jeffrey’s ancient blog post, since turned into an article, most recently reprinted here.

And for more on Villard de Honnecourt, see Haylie Swenson’s essay in postmedieval 4.3)

Here, Have Some of My Roasted Polyp. I made it myself

A sequence of thoughts:

  1. one of the main problems with meat-eating is that the thing with the meat gives us its meat unwillingly
  2. one solution is to grow meat that has no will.
  3. another is to use meat from our own bodies. this is obviously the most ethical solution.
  4. but we can’t just use our meat for self-steaks, given that we need our flesh to get things done, like, say, standing up or sitting down
  5. so we should grow our meat as extraneous organs, like, say, polyps
  6. except that this would be really calorie-inefficient. it’d probably take more calories to grow the meat than we would gain by eating it, probably even if it were grown partly through photosynthesis.

It says something about something that it wasn’t until item #6 that I realized this was a bad idea.

But it did lead to this fun tweet:

Day 3 – Chaucer – Parliament and House of Fame and Haraway

Pynson's 1526 printing of the "Book of Fame." from EEBO

Pynson’s 1526 printing of the “Book of Fame.” from EEBO

We started with the story of the Giraffe recently killed, publicly dissected, and then fed to lions by the Copenhagen Zoo. Apart from the practical angles of the situation (who brought their children to this event and why?), and the issues of which animals would not have caused a furor (a gazelle? a pig?), we considered the issue of biopolitics. Obviously, the giraffe’s trapped within the sovereign exception, but in this case, the sovereign is acting to preserve, as it were, the health of the herd. In this case, however, the increase in control over a genetic heritage does so to increase geneticdiversity (as the zoo killed the giraffe because it was a product of incest), in other words, to create a situation of maximal “health,” which means maximal unpredictability. That double motion of the motive and effect of preventing incest, biopolitically, is something Wolfe’s Before the Law doesn’t consider. We also considered the oddness of, in effect, punishing a giraffe for violating the fundamental “cultural” taboo of incest.

pointed out the image of the pig on crutches from a fifteenth-century saint’s life of Charlemagne (!), partly to promote Gallica as a resource for medieval studies, partly to show how this manuscript (BnF Français 4970) shows evidence of a workshop (one decorator did plants, and presumably another one did animals of various sorts, including what appears to be a centaur stealing a human baby (f 42r) — suggesting an interesting aesthetic difference between animals and plants — and also, finally, to discuss briefly the difficulty of talking about marginalia or other “purely” decorative items. What can they mean apart from the pleasure of the production?

Then we have a conversation we should have started to have had weeks ago, on the problem of the term “animal” in the Middle Ages. My test case was from Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will, where, in a discussion of the human worldly monopoly on reason, Augustine uses the words “bestiis,” “belluis,” and “animalia.” The latter should not be translated “animal,” I stressed, but rather as “living things” or as “things possessing a soul.” There is, in fact, no single term for “animal” (in the sense this word has in modern English or French) in the Middle Ages, at least not so far as I know. We also discussed the etymological strangeness of the “animal” word, which is that “animal” itself comes from “anima,” both spirit and breath, and some sort of animating essence.

Our example was the Middle English “beast” 1 (a), “One of the animal kingdom (including man), any living creature (non-vegetable).” Can beast mean “human” too? Maybe. In some of the MED‘s examples, yes, but perhaps not in their first, this lyric.

Foweles in þe frith
þe fisses in te flod
And I mon ware wod
Mulch sorwe I walke with
for beste of bon and blod

[Birds in the forest / fishes in the water / and I must go mad / much sorrow I walk with / for beast (best?) of bone and blood]

Birds have a place, and so do fishes. They’re in a place. Humans on the other hand have to move through a place. They don’t fit, which is precisely the condition of madness. But what does that last line mean? What does the “for” mean?: “for them,” as in he is weeping on their behalf or about them? Or “because of” them? And is he among them or somehow separate and weeping? It’s unclear (presumably quite deliberately so). We also noted that the division between the freedom of birds and fish and the confinement of terrestrial beasts also maps onto dietetic practices (fish and fowl didn’t have “blood” in the same sense quadrupeds do, so the former are, generally, okay during Christian fast times) and also onto the six days of creation (humans and beasts are on the sixth day, birds and fish on the day previous).

Then we briefly considered Derrida on the issue of LIFE, as quoted in Wolfe Before the Law.

“life has an absolute value only if it is worth more than life … It is sacred, holy, infinitely respectable only in the name of what is worth more than it and what is not restricted to the naturalness of the bio-zoological….Thus, respect of life in the discourses of religion as such concerns ‘human life’ only in so far as it bears witness, in some manner, to the infinite transcendence of what which is worth more than it”

What is the proper human relationship to “nature,” then? Well, in “Foweles in þe frith,” we are somehow excessive to “nature,” crazy or ill fitting, which is precisely what gives us worth and troubles us. Perhaps.

And then there’s Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature (de planctu naturae), a twelfth-century Boethian lament that may well have been one of Chaucer’s sources for the Parliament of Fowls. There humans are the only worldly creature that doesn’t keep to it’s proper natural place; we’re excessive, in fact (and, in our sex acts, solecistic, in to the degree that we don’t model the supposedly proper relationship between subjects and objects); and when we behave this way, we are, per Alan, acting like beasts. Which is to say, we’re behaving…naturally?

So how should we then live? Should we follow the dictates of nature? Should we not fit into nature (and be mad or sodomites?)? Should we somehow transcend nature? What should we do?

This discussion led naturally into the Parliament of Fowls, where Chaucer is somehow excerpted from nature as its witness, mad or broken to the degree that he can’t fit into the game of love.

One recent Chaucer critic talks about the “natural harmony among all living creatures” of the Parliament, which is true, to a degree. This works in the stanzas beginning on line 190 and keep up for several stanzas. The birds have voices like angels and so forth. But then we’re in a world where “no man may …waxe sek ne old” (l. 2077): so this place is anything but natural, then. Once we enter into something like the so-called “natural world,” we have noise; we have all birds pairing off except for the very best bird, met with the impossible choice of three mates.

What messes things up? Maybe things go wrong here:

“And Wille, his doughter, temprede al this while
The hevedes in the welle, and with hire wile
She couchede hem” (ll. 214-16).

Wille, while, welle, wile — will, that is, desire, and will guiding itself — this is where things go wrong.  At this point, we leave the harmonious (super)natural world and enter in to a version of the Roman de la Rose, where desire and will lead all astray. Nothing is settled.

This led us to a consideration of the problem of “common profit.” Is this a kind of oxymoron? Doesn’t profit, which is extra, somehow work against thecommon, the usual, the selfsame, and the predictable? Where does desire fit into this, then?

We took a break to talk about the introduction to Haraway’s When Species Meet and also watched some canine agility training (your professor got particularly excited). What are some of her main arguments? We pointed out how Haraway contests the tragic mode of Derrida: is our relationship to our domestic animals always only one of mystery and shame? Is this really how we engage with our cats? We observed how Barbara Smuts leaves animals in the time(lessness) of evolution, and how she needs Derrida to complicate her picture of time. We contested her notion that it’s “turtles all the way down.” First, there’s the way object-oriented ontology contests Haraway’s process ontologies: what about the way that things are not entirely available to each other or don’t understand each other, or how umwelten (environments) are always insufficient to apprehend fully the things that they come in contact with. And then there’s actual lived experience: those we are, scientifically speaking, turtles all the way down — we really are walking ecosystems, even or especially on the cellular level — in a lived experience, we feel ourselves to be individuals, and we feel that our deaths are the real end of something. As they are. Does Haraway’s turtling “undermine” our lived experience by proposing a more real scientific level? We hope not.

And then to the House of Fame, all too briefly.

I showed some sources. Metamorphoses for the House itself; Vitruvius 5, 3, 6 for the model of sound waves as ripples in water; and AugustineConfessions and City of God for everything having its own natural place (and also some intractable humanism). Here it’s LOVE that makes us want to ascend. But for Chaucer, as for Aristotle (//Physics// 8.4), the motion, whether of sound or anything else, is totally natural.

Several other things about House of Fame: Chaucer has to realize the radical insufficiency of his body: he needs the eagle, so so much for the superiority of the human body in the “homo erectus” topos. I would also say that though Chaucer says he is no Ganymede (589), he is, after all, being taken to heaven by an emissary of Jupiter: he’s like a little boy being taken up by a lusty eagle, which is to say, this is quite a queer moment.

And then there’s the modeling of sound. If the human voice is, to the air, like the squeaking of a mouse or the violent noise of a pipe, if the voice is just broken air, then we’re hearing speech from the perspective of the air. Very ecological! And very nonhuman in its account of the rational voice, that one quality that supposedly separates humans from everything else in this world.

And the voice ascends to Fame not through love but through a purely mechanical process. One has to presume that the world up there is also populated by virtual mice and noisy tables as well as virtual people.

And then we have the eels/humans at the end, which contrasted, for at least one of us, with the desert at the end of Book I.

Day 2 – Before the Law, Melion, and Competing Biopolitical Models

First we thought about Azra Raza’s outcry against “Mouse Models” on The Edge, and Jeremy England’s Thermodynamic account of the origins of life. The first story complicates the supposed utility of animal testing: mice are not protected by animal cruelty laws (as Cary Wolfe reminds us), but the payoff is supposed to be the scientific benefits we might gain from their suffering. Raza argues, in essence, that studying cancer in mice is a good way to understand mice cancer, but not of much use at all if we want to understand human cancers. For that, we need to study human cells. So there’s no good reason to put mice through what we do. England’s account of the origins of life understands it as an inevitable process of energy dispersal: if life is understood as a spontaneous self-organization designed to organize and especially disperse energy, then “life” as a category is much, much wider than we thought it was otherwise.

We then turned to with Obama’s on-screen killing of a fly during an interview in 2009. I suggested that the sovereign killing of the fly might be linked to the sovereign pardoning of the turkey. The President has the power to make die or let live. This fundamentally Agambenian idea was quickly modified by pointing out that the fly is also an annoyance. Obama’s trying to talk; he’s trying to be dignified; and along come a fly, gets into his space, and leaves him looking as ridiculous as any fly-killer. Medieval natural history (Sidrak and Bokkus and Gervase of Tilbury, for example) would divide animals into three categories: those that help us, those we eat, and those that keep our pride in check. The fly is one of these latter animals.

The medieval discussion proper began with the portrayal of Charlemagne in the //Alphabet of Tales//. There, Charlemagne is like a Paul Bunyan or Chuck Norris figure: he’s enormous, can virtually flay a man just by looking at him, can split a man in two with a single blow of a sword or lift a fully-armored man above his head. He also eats a lot of meat:

“And he ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare. And he wolde drynk bod esy wyne, bod if it war medlid̛ with watir”
[and he ate but little bread, but at once he would eat a quarter of a ram, or two hens, or a goose, or a swine’s shoulder, or a peacock, or a crane, or a whole hare. And he would drink wine but moderately, and only fi it were mixed with water.”

Why so much meat? It’s an obvious sign of sovereignty and also virility. There’s also a link between flesh and wine in the central sacrament of late medieval Christianity, so perhaps that’s being invoked in some way. There’s also the strange mixture of recognition and non recognition in the deaths of the animals: on the one hand, their lives can’t count (otherwise this would be monstrous); on the other hand, unless their lives count as lives, there’s no point to this great display of carnivorousness. No one praises Charlemagne for eating a whole onion in one bite, for example. In what sense do the lives of meat animals count? Charlemagne needs to commit a sovereign crime to be recognized as a sovereign. We could have linked this to Wolfe’s discussion of the resistance to “artificial” meat.

We also considered Charlemagne’s preference for water over wine. Why? Other warrior cultures — Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic, for example — praise warriors for their great feats of drinking and indeed require communal drunkenness to form community. Not here. We might have a reference here to the common portrayal of the drunk as a beast. Avoiding wine makes Charlemagne MORE rational, then. But perhaps his preference of water makes him more natural and thus something prerational. Wine comes in only with Noah (Genesis 9), or, as we see in Chaucer repeatedly — “The Former Age,” the widow in the Nun’s Priests’s Tale, Griselda — those who are most virtuous and closest to the natural state of humanity drink water rather than wine. Charlemagne’s water-drinking, in other words, is a precultural activity, without that extra something that would mark him as human, and certainly without the civilization that comes along with the invention of wine. Is Charlemagne, with his meat and water, man or beast?

The obviously Agambenian bent to this portrayal of the sovereign led us naturally into Cary Wolfe’s Before the Law. We dealt with only a few key points this week in this dense little book:

  1. I situated Wolfe in the context of the development of critical animal theory since the mid 90s and its explosion in 2002/2003 (and Wolfe’s work prior to that in animal rights activism) and led them through the Wolfe’s recent engagements with systems theory. Basic point: Derrida begins by troubling the assumption of the stability of things, whereas Niklas Luhmann begins by wondering how things can be stable. They arrive at similar conclusions about closure and openness, but for JD, change is a scandal and for NL stability is.
  2. The problem with the reciprocity model of rights. If we’re granting rights only to those that can reciprocate, then what do we do with infants, the severely disabled, or with the stateless? And if rights is just a quid pro quo, in what sense is rights the very opposite of ethics?
  3. The problem of animal rights “with the furry face” (the Great Apes Project) vs the “scandal of the cephalopods,” whose ways of thriving may be entirely different from ours and thus require a wholly different kind of “rights” (perhaps having to do with flourishing in general).
  4. And finally Wolfe’s contrast between Agamben and Foucault. Agamben’s Homo Sacer presents a model of a sovereign with supreme power and his subjects who are totally abject, exposed to the law entirely by being encompassed in it. The model of the community for Agamben, and by extension Esposito, is the camp, whether a labor camp or a death camp, in which every subject is fully exposed to the sovereign.
  5. Well, that’s just obnoxious. While, yes, the drone as a model of sovereignty does support, but in a classroom at CUNY, we are not in a death camp. Not even close.
  6. This is why the model of aleatory, resistant bodies (Foucault via Nietzsche) is far, far more interesting than the sovereignty models. What’s “before” the law in this sense? Bodies, not spatially, but rather temporally, resistant simply by virtue of their already existing inherent desire to persist in themselves. This resistance need not have anything to do with agency or consciousness, for all bodies, whatever they are, have affordances that let them do particular things in particular ways easily: I can type on my phone, but I can’t bend it, for example. Bodies will never be fully and entirely subject to the will of the sovereign. They will always go awry in some way because they are up to their own business, independent of the sovereign will.

We then had an interlude with Augustine and Aquinas. Aquinas says NO animals are not proper, direct objects of charity, as they are not ends in themselves. Indeed, it would be, per Aquinas’s logic, charitable to a pig to make it into bacon, since this is a pig’s proper end. Augustine (City of God1.20) says we can kill any plant or animal and indeed (1.21) that we can kill many humans, if it’s legal to do so; the one thing we can’t kill is ourselves, as our life doesn’t belong to us.

Augustine also gave us a way to rethink the Phallus. Here’s Wolfe using some Derrida:
“The phallus is then both the very figure of sovereignty, ipseity, and at the same time ‘automatic, independent of will and even of desire’ ‘mechanical, already in itself prosthetic.’ ‘It it proper to man,’ he asks, ‘or else, already cut from man, is it a ‘something’, a thing, an a-human, inhuman what, which is, moreover scarcely more masculine than feminine? Neither animal nor human?” (98)

And here’s Augustine //City of God// 1.24, who asserts that in paradise man would have moved his penis at will rather than by lust. His evidence? Some people can wiggle their ears or their scalp. Also:

“Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing. I myself have known a man who was accustomed to sweat whenever he wished. It is well known that some weep when they please, and shed a flood of tears. But far more incredible is that which some of our brethren saw quite recently. There was a presbyter called Restitutus, in the parish of the Calamensian Church, who, as often as he pleased (and he was asked to do this by those who desired to witness so remarkable a phenomenon), on some one imitating the wailings of mourners, became so insensible, and lay in a state so like death, that not only had he no feeling when they pinched and pricked him, but even when fire was applied to him, and he was burned by it, he had no sense of pain except afterwards from the wound. And that his body remained motionless, not by reason of his self-command, but because he was insensible, was proved by the fact that he breathed no more than a dead man; and yet he said that, when any one spoke with more than ordinary distinctness, he heard the voice, but as if it were a long way off. Seeing, then, that even in this mortal and miserable life the body serves some men by many remarkable movements and moods beyond the ordinary course of nature, what reason is there for doubting that, before man was involved by his sin in this weak and corruptible condition, his members might have served his will for the propagation of offspring without lust?”

Notably, I just realized, his example ends up with someone who ends up insensate, like a corpse, as if THIS is evidence of the supreme potential of human will. This definitely deserves much more unpacking!

Penultimately, we talked about the Lay of Melion. What does it mean to flatter a wolf into joining you (and why does the text use precisely the same language to describe how Melion’s estranged wife was convinced to turn him back into a human?). What does Melion and his band eat when they’re committing outrages against first beasts and then humans? Is it unnatural for wolves to go to war, as the text says? We have a kind of Agamben model of sovereignty when Melion joins with Arthur, but we also notice that the wolves and their bodies have an innate resistance to authority that frustrates the pretensions of sovereignty (Foucault). And is a wolf that’s domesticated “desnaturé” (denatured), and in what sense?

Finally, we considered how the wolf, unable to talk, uses Arthur to achieve his vengeance and salvation. As in last week’s discussion, we have an animal turning a human into a tool or prosthesis for it. The wolf’s lack of human language is no problem so long as it can get a human to do its work for it.

Finally, we talked about the English Forest law, where the king had the pretension to be a sovereign (Agamben model), but finds himself stymied by the independent forces of deer and their bodies and desires (Foucault model).