Review: Our Dogs, Our Selves

Gelfand, Laura D., ed. Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society. Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 6. Leiden: Brill 2016. Pp. xxxv, 446. €170,00 ISBN: 978-9-00426-916-3.

Reviewed by Karl Steel
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

[for The Medieval Review]

This fifteen-chapter anthology, originating in several sessions at Kalamazoo’s International Medieval Conference, is self-consciously a labor of love, its author biographies often furnished with photos, not of the writers, but of their dogs. Focused chiefly on the social and especially the art history of medieval and early modern Europe, each of its chapters, if read one after another, tend to be repetitive, as nearly all include a summary of the common features of medieval dog writing: we learn often about standard exegesis of the Bible’s dogs (predictably in bono and, especially on the matter of returning to their vomit, in malo), that dogs were praised especially for their loyalty, that large dogs tend to be coded masculine, small dogs as feminine, and that the status of dogs followed that of their owners. It is, then, the particular content of each chapter, as particular as dogs themselves, that saves the volume from repetitiveness: since so few animals, human or otherwise, can boast such extraordinary variety in size, purpose, and comportment, and since so few can belong so comfortably in so many environments, the possibilities for considering “dogs and x” in medieval cultures may well be inexhaustible. Every reader interested in dogs will therefore feel the absence of their favorites. I wanted considerations of Theodorich of St Trond’s eleventh-century poem for his Pitulus, a little dog praised for having no purpose but to play, or the equally charming dog of the Book of Tobit, the loyal companion of the Middle English Sir Tryamour, the whelp of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, or the tragedy of Guinefort, or, for that matter, the few headstones to pet dogs from the classical world, like the second-century grave stele for Helena at the Getty Museum (Object 71.AA.271) or a Greek example at the archaeological museum of Istanbul (Inv. 411 T), dedicated to Parthenope.[1] But the very fact that I missed all this, yet found so much that I otherwise would not have known to miss, is evidence enough of how much more work we can still do in dog studies.

The volume is sorted into five sections: Literal and Literary Dogs (ranging from Greek encomia, to the urban dogs of England and France, to those of Sufi literature); Signs, Symbols, and Dogs (the Bayeux Embroidery and Barocci’s counter-Reformation painting); Love and Dogs (further art history, with a lapdog in the Morgan Old Testament, Giotto’s dogs in the Scrovegni Chapel, and a set of hunting dogs in a late-medieval marriage allegory); Death and Dogs (three chapters on dogs in funerary monuments); and finally Good Dogs and Bad Dogs (ranging from a survey of nearly two thousand years of Japanese dog culture, to dogs as aristocratic accessories in late medieval Europe, to Walter S. Gibson’s study of the infernal dogs of late medieval Dutch writing and art).

For this reviewer, John Block Friedman’s contribution stands out. Far more wide ranging than its title suggests (“Dogs in the Identity Formation and Moral Teaching Offered in Some Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Miniatures”), its payoff here is less its several conclusions (for example, that the dog was “thought to be far more feudal than cats” and that the collared dog shows “rational control over the instinctual side of nature”) than the fact that it covers much of the same ground as several other chapters in this volume, but so much more thoroughly. As one would expect from Friedman, its footnotes are a treasure.

Alexa Sand provides a satisfying entry on the Morgan or Crusader Bible (Morgan Library, MS M.638), that, like Friedman’s chapter, could happily find its way onto a syllabus. Although this manuscript is typically read for its relationship to chivalric narrative and crusader concerns, Sand finds new opportunities by attending to the presence and absence of a little dog in the arms of Michal, daughter of King Saul and David’s first wife, a victim of dynastic politics. When they first meet, Michal carries a little dog; in her few subsequent appearances, after she has been forcibly reunited with David, the dog is absent. Sand quite rightly takes the dog in the first image as a sign of her courtliness, as, by the thirteenth century, small dogs were among the essential accouterments of noblewomen. However, by reading Michal’s gesture alongside similar gestures of the Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Sand extends the reading to account both for Michal’s childless and ultimately unhappy marriage to King David, and also, more tentatively, for a common plight of noblewomen during crusades, often bereft of their husbands for years on end. In this rich article, then, the dog functions as much a sign of courtier comforts as it does of neglect and sadness.

I was also impressed by the two chapters that mined urban records of dogs for Northern Europe, Emily Cockayne’s on medieval and early modern England, and Kathleen Ashley’s, much more specifically, on the Burgundian town of Beaune. The chapter on England discovered, for example, that whatever the legislative anxiety over the problems of stray dogs, particularly during time of plague, actual human deaths from dogs were quite rare. From police dogs to butchers’ dogs to nuisance dogs of all sorts, Cockayne’s wonderfully recreates the dog-rich environs of English cities. Ashley, by contrast, encounters a surprising paucity of dog records, especially in wills and urban documents, hinting at the need for more comparative work on the varying dog cultures of England and France.

Craig A. Gibson, Nathan Hofer, and Karen M. Gerhart all effectively presented material unfamiliar to a medievalist focused on Western Europe. Gibson summarizes several dog encomia from the ancient Greeks through to medieval Greek and late medieval Latin humanist writings, describing the standard features of an unfamiliar genre: hunting praise is common, but not universal, for example, and some paeans to dogs single out their barking as uniquely meaningful among animal noises. In the 1420s, Leon Battista Alberti even transforms his subject into an exemplar of the humanist itself, famous for its knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Etruscan. Hofer complicates the mistaken notion that Islam is hostile to dogs. After considering several positive references to dogs in the Qur’ān and its commentaries, and after pointing out that while dogs are ritually impure, so too is sleep, Hofer concentrates on Egyptian Sufi storytelling, in which the very degraded position of dogs allows mystics to engage with them as holy fools. Gerhart’s ambitious chapter covers the whole cultural history of dogs in premodern Japan, concentrating on their behavior in the handscrolls of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries: some are comfortable domestic animals; some creatures of the margins, like beggars and hinin (literally “nonhumans,” people who did impure jobs), living off or near the diseased, the dying, and corpses; and some are border figures, associated with figures of the spirit world (European medievalists might be reminded here of the dog of the Irish blacksmith Culann).

In general, I was less convinced by several of the art history chapters, particularly those that sought primarily to discover the “intention” of artists, since I am skeptical about any one-to-one-to-one mapping of artistic intention to symbolic meaning to reception history. Judith W. Mann demonstrates that the animals in Federico Barucci’s counter-Reformation paintings were not painted from life, but then argues that because Barucci was not a “true naturalist,” we might then be allowed to read its dogs symbolically to discover his “intentions,” which, in effect, requires assembling iconographic and doctrinal evidence, alongside currents in doctrinal debates during the counter-Reformation, to fix his canine images as symbols, for example, of unworthy participation in the Eucharist. I am convinced by Jane C. Long’s argument that the dogs of Giotto’s picture cycle of Joachim and Anna recall dramatic conventions, but not by her tendency to read the expressions of dogs and humans both rather straightforwardly as expressing some familiar emotion (“joyful greeting” for example); similarly, at once point, Donna L. Sadler proposes that the “unmistakable smile” of a pair of dogs on a tomb of St Denis “betray[s] [an] unassailable belief in the afterlife” (I liked her suggestion, however, that early modern pleurants may perform the same function as, and be understood as replacing, the dogs of medieval funerary art). Jane Carroll exhaustively treats a late medieval tapestry from Alsace, Die Jagd nach der Treue [The Hunt for Fidelity], in which a husband and wife ride together on a horse, amid a pack of hounds: to solve the problem of how to illustrate the ongoing devotion of married love rather than the successful consummation of courtship, this tapestry features a deer in flight, but not yet captured, by hunters that want only to chase it, so “encod[ing] a fitting summation of traditional marriage” as a balance of “dualities.” Janet Snyder identifies the dogs on Spanish tomb sculpture with contemporary Iberian breeds (the Galgo, Phalène, Alano, Burgos Pointer, Spanish Mastiff, and so on), and then describes the breed-specific traits of these represented dogs to unpack the sculptures’ symbolism: thus the Spanish rat terrier, bred to work in dark wine cellars, is a suitable dog for the tomb of Isabella of Portugal, “who was kept out of the public eye for the last four decades of her life.” I found this approach ingenious but unconvincing, its conclusions too neatly determined by its argumentative approach. I am much more convinced by Sophie Oosterwijk’s study of dogs on tomb monuments: towards the end of her chapter, she suggests that the dead had originally been shown trampling on animal representations of vices and infernal forces, like lions, serpents, and dragons, and that companion animals gradually crowded in on and nudged aside this meaningful symbolic code.

Oosterwijk, however, does not propose why personal dogs might have crowded into a space previously reserved for such a clearly coded piety. This reluctance to speculate a little is indicative of the volume’s larger tendency not to complicate the motives of medieval people or modern scholars, and, more generally, of its disinterest in telling a more ambitious story. For, as a whole, the volume does not aim to shift the way that we think about dogs, the function of animals in medieval or even art history, or, for that matter, what might happen to how we think about ourselves once we think about our companion animals historically. The overall argumentative aimlessness of the volume may stem its near-total disengagement from contemporary critical cultural studies in animals. Such work is mostly concentrated in Elizabeth Carson Paston’s chapter on the Bayeux Embroidery. We would search in vain elsewhere for references, for example, to Donna Haraway’s essential work on play with and the labor of dogs, to her complicated political histories of dogs in American colonialism, environmental activism, and gender (consideration of this work, for example, would counter Pastan’s claims about the Bayeux Embroidery representing King Harold’s preconquest “harmony with nature”). For that matter, Erica Fudge is also missing, despite her decades of scholarship in modeling how to do philosophically savvy studies of early modern animal/human cultures. A fortiori, less obvious but still essential names are missing: Carla Freccero and Colin Dayan on race, dogs, and violence, for example, or Kathy Rudy on the queerness of dog love (which might have offered an interesting counterweight to the marriage tapestry studied by Carroll).

My point in mentioning these scholars is not to ask that footnotes be swollen so that frequently cited scholars garner still more citations. Rather, it is because without critical animal study, and indeed other without critical fields (like affect studies, for example, or even psychoanalysis), the emotional core to many of these works, which are self-avowedly in love with their subjects, is left unanalyzed. This means that one of key thread for the anthology — the dog as alter ego — is often described but its mechanics never considered. Dogs represent loyalty, to the family, to the church, to the honor of the house. We learn of all this, but without much consideration about what it means for humans to identify with animals, or to perform their own preferred identities through this intimate, living property. We encounter the word “pampered” often to describe certain dogs, but no reflection on what this word might indicate: envy, perhaps, or disgust (I was reminded of James Herriot’s unpleasant musings about Tricki-Woo, the overfed, epistolary Pekingese of All Creatures Great and Small). On this point in particular, then, more critical attention would have been especially welcome, even apart from the work of critical animal studies. As alter egos, dogs can be our ideal selves, in their hunting prowess and loyalty, what we would like to be; or they could be our “natural” selves, devoid of custom and manners, the brute self we must overcome to become truly human; or in their “pure grief and devotion,” as Pastan characterizes some of the dogs on the Bayeux Embroidery, they represent “our best selves,” one that no human could ever hope to achieve. In packs, we might say that dogs invite us to “to go with the flow,” at least as they figure in Deleuze and Guattari’s outraged response to Freud’s misreading of his “Wolf Man” patient, an anti-identitarian consideration of dogs so well treated, in a medieval context, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s reading of both cynocephali and the Middle English Sir Gowther.[2] Gelfand’s capacious anthology has so much material that we might use for further reconsideration of dogs and the self, to burrow further still into how dogs have domesticated us, how we might dream of getting undomesticated through them, and what we might owe the strays.


[1] Gutram Koch “Zum Grabrelief der Helena,” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 12 (1984): 59-72
[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 120-41.

Who can be a witness?

94962674_8eb8a32cdbBriefly, two points from medieval English Law.

From Bracton (13th century), from a section on “What wreck is; and concerning great fish, that is, sturgeon and whale,” concerning who can claim shipwrecks or great sea animals that wash up on shore:

If a ship is broken and no living soul escapes from it [de qua nullus vivus evaserit] [,] that may properly be called wreck, especially if the owner has drowned, because the true owner, coming from afar, may prove by certain proofs and signs that the things are his, as where a dog is found alive and it can be established that he is its master; it will be presumed that he is also the owner of the things, and so [also] if certain marks have been placed on the wares and goods.

Further words on wrecks and life from the Statute of Westminster, 1275, c.4, quoted from English Historical Documents III, 398-99:

On wreck of the sea it is agreed that when a man, a dog or a cat escapes alive from a ship, neither the ship nor the boat nor anything that was in them shall be adjudged wreck, but the things shall be saved and kept, by view of the sheriff, the coroner or the king’s bailiffs, in the hands of the people of the vill where the goods are found, so that if anyone sues for these goods within a year and a day and can prove that they are his or his lord’s, or were lost when in his keeping, they shall be restored to him without delay; and if not, they shall remain the property of the king and be appraised by the sheriff and the coroner and given to the township to answer before the justices for wreck belonging to the king.

Classical commentators on English law judge the dog and the cat of the Westminster Statute as only examples, but there’s more, much more to be said about forms of witness and recognition: life, not of whatever sort but particularly domestic, attesting to the integrity of a ship; life that we would think of as mere zoe now political life, entering into the law as witness simply by virtue of its own integrity as life; a dog, in the Bracton, as a good witness to claims of human identity (a legal version of a story as old as The Odyssey or as common as The Dog of Antioch).

When can nonhuman life count as significant life? When is its life equivalent to that of a human? When can it give witness? Here I think I have the grounds for a future study.

(picture via Creative Commons License)

GreyhoundI met with an independent study student today about Sir Gowther. Without much luck, we tried to track Gowther’s developing relations with dogs after the Pope demands he “eyt no meyt bot that thu revus of howndus mothe” (296). At an Emperor’s palace, he “droghe” a bone from a spaniel, “and gredely on hit he gnofe” (355-6), and, when the Emperor’s daughter places a loaf of bread in one dog’s mouth and flesh in another’s, Gowther “raft bothe owt with eyggur mode” (449). Subsequent encounters with dogs (512-16, 610-11, and 649) are vaguer about how Gowther eats.

To resist masochistic readings of Gowther and to lessen the humiliation of his penance: these were my desires, and they came to nothing. There’s just something irredeemably wretched and, well, bestial about the Pope’s alimentary injunction and Gowther’s obedient food-snatching. And there’s no development at all: Gowther and the dogs just don’t get along. But this, however, is the case only at the Emperor’s place. My student and I noticed that Gowther’s first encounter with dogs violates the Pope’s strictures: when he is outdoors, resting on a hill, Gowther receives his food as a gift.

He went owt of that ceté
Into anodur far cuntré,
Tho testamentys thus thei sey;
He seyt hym down undur a hyll,
A greyhownde broght hym meyt untyll
Or evon yche a dey.Thre neythtys ther he ley:
Tho grwhownd ylke a dey
A whyte lofe he hym broghht;
On tho fort day come hym non,
Up he start and forthe con gon,
And lovyd God in his thoght. (Sir Gowther 307-18)

Far from a humiliation, this encounter is a moment of tenderness, an astonishing tenderness, really, for a narrative that otherwise swings wildly between sadism and piety, and more often that not, combines the two. In today’s conversation, I identified this encounter as a utopic moment. For a time, Gowther is trying to do nothing; he is out of doors, out of all civilized organization of space; and for three days, he suffers–or, better, enjoys–a dog’s charity. Only when he finally gets up and goes does he secure this charity to a proper, divine source. But before he substitutes a divine for a demonic telos, before he stands up, before he begins to make his way to a court where he meets dogs who, there, function only in a grotesque mimesis of animality, before all this, in that time on the hill, Gowther has found, with this dog, another way of being.

It’s a pity Gowther didn’t end at line 318, or even a few lines earlier.

(picture from here. I might have referenced the lovely Pippi too)

Caninophilia II

After Kzoo, I wrote a post reevaluating my thoughts on animals. A revised version of the reevaluation became my diss’s conclusion–epilogue, rather, as that sounds less final to me (since in this usage “epi” = “in addition to,” what could be a better encapsulation of supplementarity than epilogos?). I’m defending in a few weeks, in the week after my Brooklyn College job starts. Although I’m able to take a break from dissertatin before the hammer drops on Sept 6th, I’m now in the mode of mad preparation for the 3 courses I’m teaching (Med. Lit., Bible as Lit., and Composition) : in other words, my blog contributions will likely be minimal until I get my footing.

I offer this post as, I suppose, my steward until I return to cast off my wretchedness (can you tell I just reread Sir Orfeo?). I expect that some of you may want to see what your comments wrought on my ideas. For the interested, here you go: a long post, my epilogue, very minimally edited for placement here. If you’re tired of all this, or even if not, please do keep on with discussing Eileen’s excellent course or keep the fun of the ITMBC4DSoMA going.

“Hospitality is the deconstruction of the at-home; deconstruction is hospitality to the other, to the other than oneself, the other than ‘its other,’ to an other who is beyond any ‘its other.'”

Derrida, “Hostipitality.”

“An hous he made of riligioun,

For to singe for Sire Bevoun

And ek for Josian the fre:

God on here saules have pité!

And also for [Bevis’s horse] Arondel

Yif men for eni hors bidde schel.” (4613-18)

Bevis of Hampton

“If I am unsatisfied with the notion of a border between two homogeneous species, man on the one side and the animal on the other, it is not in order to claim, stupidly, that there is no limit between ‘animals’ and ‘man’: it is because I maintain that there is more than one limit, that there are many limits.”

Derrida and and Elisabeth Roudinesco, “Violence against Animals.”

My dissertation identifies a dominant method by which humans identified themselves as human in the Middle Ages. In a double process, humans claimed a set of capabilities for themselves—reason, language, authentically upright bodies, and immortal souls—and denied them to animals, which regardless of the differences among animal individuals and animal species, were all construed as fundamentally distinct from, and inferior to, humans. Animal life was finally only biological, as evidenced, for example, in the argument by the thirteenth-century Cistercian Helinand of Froimont that “s’il n’est autre vie, / entre ame a home et ame a truie / n’a donques point de diference” (if there is no other life, then there is no difference at all between the soul of a human and a sow). Yet unmistakable but persistent resemblances between humans and animals baffled human claims to uniqueness. Like animals, humans are made of flesh and blood; each hungers, each defecates, each dies, and the corpses of each rot and turn to dust. Human flesh was reputed to taste like animal flesh; it certainly could be cooked like it. Rational-seeming behavior in animals—for example, the wolf that, according to Albert the Great, had perfected its pig-snatching technique by practicing on a log—especially disturbed human confidence in their unique identity. As Nature observes in the Roman de la Rose, if animals were reasonable, “mal fust aus omes” (17779; it would not be good for humans), since animals might at the very least band together in rebellion against human oppression: “jamais li bel destrier crenu / ne se laisseraient donter, / ne chevaliers aus monter” (17800-2; never would beautifully maned chargers allow themselves to be broken nor to be mounted by knights) and “ja chien ne chat nou serviraient, car senz ome bien cheviraient” (17813-4; no cat or dog would ever serve us, since they can get along well without humans). Worse still, if animals and humans were each reasonable, then humans might be no better than animals: to rephrase Helinand, if there is no difference between the soul of a human and a sow, then there might be no other life.

As I have argued, in the face of such threats, humans established their difference through acts and discourses that subjugate animals. If animal reason would enable them to throw off their bonds, then surely animal degradation demonstrates their irrationality, and human mastery over them demonstrates human rationality. Augustine, for example, answered the question “what proof is there that men are superior to animals” by observing that “animals can be domesticated and tamed by men, but men not at all by animals.” Thus, domesticating, killing, and eating animals were instrumental in human self identification. Indeed, simply valuing human above animal life and producing written discourses that disparaged animals served this purpose. Humans could seal off their humanity from animality by declaring that wolves and other clever animals possessed not reason but only an inferior “estimative sense”; by relegating animal communication to being a mere “oonde”; and even by complaining, as Palemon does in the Knight’s Tale, that “when a beest is deed he hath no peyne / but a man after his deeth moot wepe and pleyne” (I.1319-20). My concern throughout these chapters has been to show that in this system, human identity was an effect of the action of domination, not an essence that preceded, and justified, the act. The centrality to human identity of this dynamic relationship between humans and animals revealed any claim to essential humanity as merely staged. Human identity was therefore constitutively restless, always seeking a foundation that it could never attain. No human could abandon the domination of animals without abandoning human identity, but in a sense, there was no human identity to abandon except the act of domination itself.

At the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, in May of 2007, I described this relationship between human identity and the humiliation of animals to account for medieval reports on the supreme deliciousness of human flesh: as I explained, human superiority was apparent even in the flavor of their flesh, and human deaths could be a source of pleasure in a way that animal deaths could not. Thus, when a wolf, having tasted “savoury” and “pleasant” human flesh, refuses to “eat the flesh of other beasts, though [it] should die of hunger,” its pleasure and longing pays tribute to human uniqueness. In response to my paper, Jane Chance first spoke about her cats; during a conversation at a party the next night, James Paxson produced his cell phone, on which he had stored a picture of his dog. Such responses to my argument for human identity and animal degradation are usual, and I have usually dismissed these attestations of love for pets as mystifications of the brutal, fundamental truth of the human power of life and death over animals. After all, few, if any, humans would sacrifice themselves for their pets, despite their love for them; fewer still would sacrifice the life of an unknown animal instead of the life of an unknown human: but humans commonly give their lives for people they love and even for human strangers. Furthermore, as I have argued, the utilitarian calculations that might elevate an animal to equality with a human tend to do so only because the animal possesses to some degree the characteristics of an idealized humanity: this is not so much a system of animal rights as it is a more expansive anthropocentrism.

Lately, I have wanted to reevaluate my approach to the question of human identity. I have sought inspiration not only through a more generous remembrance of people’s love for their pets but also through Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto, which declares that “we [humans and animals] live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope.” Stories are of course a way of promoting and concealing ideologies; but, as Haraway hopes, the individual characters in stories can also overflow the restrictions of ideology and its generalizations. I have thought also of Derrida’s cat in his “The Animal that Therefore I am (more to follow),” which Derrida insists is “a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth.” Derrida’s insistence that this cat is this cat removes or preserves it—her, rather (as she is une chatte)—from the undifferentiated, humiliated mass of creatures confined to l’animot. This individual relationship between human and animal may suggest another, less fundamentally violent way for the human to be, or even, as I will finally propose, a way for the human to cease to be altogether.

Of course accounts of such encounters between individual humans and animals are not confined to the present day. Folcuin of Lobbes’ Deeds of the Abbots of Saint Bertin tells the story of the horse of a ninth-century bishop of Thérouanne, also named Folcuin. The horse loved Folcuin so much that “ante eius feretrum preisse” (it went before his bier) at its master’s funeral procession, and “omnem deinceps hominem ferre recusasse, nec passus est post menbra tanti pontificis voluptatibus deservire alicuius hominis” (afterwards it refused to carry all men, nor, because of its great delight in the bishop, would it suffer the limb of any other man). It would be simplistic to proclaim the horse’s love for Folcuin as just another instance of animal subjugation. The horse submits only to the bishop, not to humans in general, and once the bishop dies, it refuses to be mastered at all; it has ceased, then, to occupy the position of an animal. The humans attempt to reestablish a proper role for the horse after its death when they give it as food to the dogs, as this is a disgrace no human corpse should ever suffer. But the horse’s great love for the dead bishop protects even its carcass, since “a nullis illorum est attactus” (it was touched by none of [the dogs]). Finally:

Et merito cadaver eius canes non poterant lacerare, super quem ymnidica cantica Christo decantata erant sepissime. Quod videntes cives, eum humano more sepelierunt, quem nec bestiae nec volucres tangere presumpserunt.

And because of the merit of its carcass, upon which hymns to Christ were so often chanted, the dogs could not mangle it. When the citizens saw this, they gave a human burial to what neither beasts nor birds would presume to touch.

Edit A reader (who can identify him/herself if it wishes) writes, “If the Latin is as you’ve transcribed it, I think it’s likely that ‘merito’ is an adverb meaning ‘deservedly, justly’ (Lewis and Short, s. v. ‘mereo’) and “cadaver” is a neuter nominative or accusative. So the first bit would be something like ‘And justly dogs were not able to mangle its corpse.'”

I think also of Yvain and his lion, whose relationship I contrasted with that of the Wild Herdsman and his beasts in Chapter IV. While the Herdsman beats his beasts and considers them incapable of reason, Yvain responds to the lion’s plea for sympathy and companionship as he might have responded to a fellow knight. Soon, Yvain can declare “l’aim come mon cors” (3792; I love it like my own body), and when the lion disobeys Yvain by joining him in the fight to rescue Lunete, the lion knows that its master “l’en ainme plus” (4539; loved it all the more). After the fight, “quant mes sire Yvains voit blecié / son lÿon, molt a correcié / le cuer del vantre” (4543-45; when my lord Yvain saw his lion wounded, his heart was filled with anger), to which Chrétien adds, “et n’a pas tort” (4545; and rightly so). Yvain converts his shield into a litter, and fills it with moss to cushion the lion; he then has the lion healed by the same maidens who tend to his own wounds. This relationship is not only that between human master and servile animal; it seems to be a relationship of companions, one of intense, mutual affection.

As intense as these relationships are, I should not be uncritically enthusiastic. In the story of the horse and the bishop, the horse’s special qualities may simply reflect the sanctity and power of its master. Given the lion’s gestures of fealty before Yvain, the lion’s relationship with Yvain may literally be one of domination. All of these relationships may be only instances of what Cary Wolfe called “the logic of the pet,” “the sole exception, the individual who is exempted from the slaughter in order to vindicate, with exquisite bad faith, a sacrificial structure.” Folcuin of Lobbes implicitly records what happens to other horses: after their master’s death, they are passed to other humans, and after death, they are not honored with burial but rather disgraced by being given as food to other animals. Yvain’s love for the lion does not dissuade Yvain from hunting, killing, and eating other animals. Nevertheless, even if the lives of other animals are not improved by this interspecies love, or, for that matter, by the interspecies love of twenty-first century animals and humans, the relationship between a human and the loved individual animal still bears further analysis. Because the love of the horse for Folcuin removes it from a relationships of domination, because Arondel’s love for Bevis perhaps fits it to be memorialized in prayer, and because Yvain’s concern for his lion outweighs his concern for himself (4558-60), we should do this love the honor of thinking it a site of possibilities, of relationships not available to mere animals or, for that matter, to mere humans.

Such a relationship may be illustrated in a Middle English romance in which the dog Trewe-love buries the corpse of its murdered master, Sir Roger, and eventually tracks down and assaults Roger’s murderer at a noble feast:

[Trewe-Love] starte up verament,

The steward [Roger’s murderer] be the throte he hente:

The hownd wrekyd hys maystyrs dethe.

The stewardys lyfe ys lorne —

There was fewe that rewyd theron

And fewe for hym wepyth. (532-40)

This story is much more than just another story of canine loyalty for its human masters. When Roger’s pregnant wife, Margaret, flees the ambush in which Roger will die, she looks back and “Syr Roger…dydd behold / He hewe on ther bodyes bolde, / Hys hownde halpe hym at nede” (322-24). When Margaret gives birth, she commemorates Trewe-love’s fidelity and courage by christening her son with the dog’s name: hence the name of the romance, Sir Tryamour. This name does not function as a simile, as, for example, in Chrétien de Troyes’ description of Lancelot and Maleagant as fighting “plus fierement que dui sengler” (more fiercely than two boars). Nor is Tryamour’s name an instance of animal degradation; unlike the primitives in “The Former Age,” or like the demonic knight Gowther, forced to eat with dogs, he has not been dishonored through his association with animals. In granting her son the name of a particular animal, her dead husband’s dog, Margaret at once frees the dog Trewe-Love from animal degradation and demands that her son live up to the dog’s reputation. Having become centered around honor wherever it might be found, Sir Tryamour has ceased to be anthropocentric. Honor may be a human quality that Trewe-love exemplifies, but it may well be a canine quality that Tryamour exemplifies. This moment of naming, then, is a far more radical reimagining of the human/animal relationship than anything else I have described so far.

Through each singular creature and relationship I describe in my epilogue I am trying to imagine identities outside the human power of life and death over animals; and, as it should be apparent, I am no longer focused on the Middle Ages, as I am convinced the model of human identity I have described is still prevalent. To reimagine human identity, I return to my introduction, which simultaneously raised and suspended Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of “becoming-animal.” In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari portray a world comprising not subjects but “events, in assemblages that are inseparable from an hour, a season, an atmosphere, an air, a life.” Their paradigmatic example is the “deterritorialization” of a wasp pollinating an orchid, in which the wasp “becomes a liberated piece of the orchid’s reproductive system” and the orchid “becomes the object of an orgasm in the wasp, also liberated from its own reproduction.” In this symbiosis, it is no longer possible to speak of the singular wasp or orchid; it is necessary to speak—to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology—of the becoming-orchid of the wasp and the becoming-wasp of the orchid, of the breakdown from molar beings into the molecular becomings of an assemblage. Creatures form alliances with each other in modes of desire that are not driven, as they are in psychoanalytic models, by the insatiable effort to correct or compensate for some lack. The wasp is far from the impossible effort of trying to establish or complete itself by dominating or abandoning itself to the orchid, and vice versa. In short, this is a world in which human and animal identities, and the tyranny of the processes that try to form these identities, are not the only ways of being. We might think of Folcuin and his horse, for example, as having formed a “sacred circuit” in which sanctity and voluptas interpenetrate and join horse and rider to witness to the love of each.

Like Wolfe, Deleuze and Guattari are impatient with love for pets, since they “invite us to regress, draw us into a narcissistic contemplation…anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool.” But, as Haraway argues, “caninophiliac narcissism,” that is, considering dogs to be childlike sources of unconditional love for humans, and other such precritical apprehensions of human and animal identity are not the only ways for humans and domestic animals to interact; as Harraway asserts, “co-habiting does not mean,” or at least does not necessarily mean, “fuzzy and touchy-feely.” The key to a “postdisenchanted” (to borrow a term from Dinshaw) approach to human and animal identity is to recall the insights of Deleuze and Guattari while still remembering “the very real torment of suffering individuals.” I imagine an approach that acknowledges the violence inherent to forming the two great separate categories of human and animal, that would acknowledge the human reluctance to sacrifice itself for what it identifies as animal, but that would hope for some other way of being with animals. We might try to stop locating ourselves through the humiliation of animals, but this approach would not entail treating pets as surrogate children or extend some form of “human rights” to certain animals.

To dislodge the grandeur and arrogance of human identity, I hope for something better, akin to Derrida’s Lévinasian conception of infinite, impossible hospitality: a way of being with animals and indeed with each other—a category that could in fact include animals—enacted with an awareness of our shared vulnerability, in which no one could act with any certainty that he or she was acting, or not acting, receiving, or not receiving, justly. As Derrida wrote, “If I welcome only what I welcome, what I am ready to welcome, and that I recognize in advance because I expect the coming of the hôte as invited, there is no hospitality.” We should welcome the other without losing our sense of difference from the other; we should apprehend a relationship between humans and animals, and indeed between humans and humans and animals and animals, that allows for multiple points of difference. At the same time, we should lose our certainty that any creature we encounter is an other. By abandoning our presumption of the other creature’s thoughts and character, either in its similarity to our own or its absolute difference, by abandoning our presumption of knowing ourselves, we lose the certainty of our identities. What remains is the imperative to welcome, which is both the beginning of ethics and, as Derrida remarks, of culture itself.

I conclude with Derrida’s cat, which may be the same cat that captures the attention of the camera in the film Derrida by staring out at us and meowing. This is an animal making noise, but it should be heard as something other than mere animal noise, more than an “oonde,” even if we cannot know precisely what the cat intends. We can simply be summoned by the meow to remember Derrida’s love for and indeed his vulnerability and embarrassment, his openness before this one cat. Before this cat, we can lose the certainty of our selves and cease to imagine that the animal is our other, without, however, losing our wonder at the cat’s singularity. In this moment, perhaps we will have ceased to be human, and will have ceased to wish for, and to defend, our human selves.

101 Uses for a Dead Dog

frizzellA while back, I discussed a case of necrobestiality. The hope for exoneration of a fellow caught in flagrante delicto with a deer’s carcass hinged on the definition of an animal: was a carcass still an animal? When does a carcass cease to be an animal? What if it’s dismembered?

One time is a surprise; twice is a pattern; three times, if we should get there, suggests a zeitgeist and will demand an article. We’re at two now:

Bay County Circuit Judge Joseph K. Sheeran ruled Friday that even though Michigan law does not explicitly define sex with a dead dog as a crime, charges against a Saginaw man [Ronald E. Kuch, 45] will stand….

[DA Katheryn] Fehrman asked Sheeran to overrule District Judge Craig D. Alston, who found probable cause that a crime had been committed and that Kuch was the perpetrator.

But Sheeran said Fehrman’s interpretation of the sodomy law, which outlaws ”crimes against nature” and bestiality as well, was off base. He said she ”attempts to use textualization to read the meaning out of the statute and argue that morality has no place in the law.”

Fehrman had said in previous written and oral arguments that a dead dog is not an animal and therefore cannot be violated against its will.

Sheeran said the purpose of the sodomy law is not to protect a specific victim, necessarily, but ”to prevent people from debasing and dehumanizing themselves.” Such laws also protect society, Sheeran said, and ”prevents people from acting like animals themselves.”

Sheeran also upheld the indecent exposure charge. He said it was irrelevant whether the patch of woods where the alleged crime committed was public or private property.

”There was a substantial risk that someone might be offended.”

”If he didn’t want to be observed, why did he commit it during the day near a daycare center?” Sheeran said, saying that Kuch didn’t commit the act ”accidentally or inadvertently.”

The definition of an animal for a DA seems to depend on whether or not it has a will that can be violated, which seems to bring the animal in line with the status of a human. In other words, bestiality is, so far as the DA is concerned, a sub-species of rape; either that, or the DA is erasing the line altogether between bestiality and rape. Her interpretation concerns the victim. For the judge, bestiality seems to be more in line with medieval conceptions of it: a loss of human status. His interpretation concerns the perpetrator. Oddly, the judge implies that acting like an animal includes having sex with dead animals. Maybe he has access to ethologies that I don’t.

The article practically writes itself. I just need to get hold of the court papers for both cases and hope for a third. No doubt I’d draw in Paul Morrissey’s extraordinary film Flesh for Frankenstein (you’ll see why I’ve linked to the quotation page) as well as the (no doubt spurious) reports of necrophilia/anthropophagy of the Fore in New Guinea: the incident I’m remembering I have in my notes, but, believe me, it’s far too disgusting to quote here. I wouldn’t say no to more suggestions, particularly for bibliography (will I finally have to read a lot of Bataille?).

(image of Lefty Frizzell, who famously sang about a man “ashamed to show his face in Saginaw, Michigan.” I am in no way suggesting that Frizzell had anything to do with necrobestiality. Sheesh.)

Let Hodain have his fun

134035512_431aae06d4_mOriginally uploaded by mivox.

Earlier today, I started to write a post on the Middle English Ser Tristrem. In this version, as in several others, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because of a magic potion. In an odd, funny touch, Tristan’s dog, Hodain, also has a taste of the love potion. Here’s what happens:

Tristrem in schip lay
With Ysonde ich night;
Play miri he may
With that worthli wight
In boure night and day.
Al blithe was the knight,
He might with hir play.
That wist Brengwain the bright
As tho.
Thai loved with al her might
And Hodain dede also. (1684-94)

That last line’s quite a shocker, isn’t it? I read it, initially, as a hint of bestiality, a sort of menage à chien, and rushed–in my desultory way–to write a blog post, before I caught myself up short: what if the medievals knew this was funny?* In the spirit of our various posts about reuniting pleasure and scholarship, and in honor, too, of Wiley, I decided I wanted to try to allow the past a bit of unadulterated pleasure. While I’m sufficiently disenchanted to know there can never be such a thing, nonetheless I think we–or certainly, I–all too often treat all things in our field as pathological: the crisis of this and that, everything and its discontents, and so forth. It’s as if what we study merits our attention only in direct proportion to its danger: it must threaten everything we know and are, it must keep its world under control only by strenuous disavowal, it must not be just a silly obscure pig joke or an article about farts (warning: pdf). Otherwise, we’re wasting our time, letting ourselves and the medievals have too much fun, while real scholarship stomps past, fixing us with its baleful eye, upholding its sense of importance in a world that daily views us (perhaps justifiably so!) as less and less relevant.

Of course, we can ask why the hint of Hodain mixing himself up in this way is funny. In part, it’s recognition. I think we’ve all had a cold dog nose meet us where we’d rather be left alone. But there’s also the mixup, the fact that nonhuman animals should not be involved–whether alive or dead–in sex. At least not with us. Why that is certainly merits a suspicious investigation into the psychopathology of the human–which is precisely the post I initially meant to write–but for now, I just want to let well enough alone. I had a laugh, shockingly, while reading a Middle English chivalric narrative. For that laugh, much thanks to whoever’s responsible for Ser Tristrem, and much thanks to Alan Lupack for his excellent introduction to the TEAMS edition and his argument for its parodic content.

Now, an invitation, for the weekend and following, as we stumble towards the end of the semester. Either talk a bit about humor and scholarship, or, if you have something in mind–and I know this will be particularly difficult for the Anglo-Saxonists–give us a few medieval bits that you’ve decided to let be funny. Extra credit if it’s not from Chaucer or Deschamps.

* Update: Okay, I know it probably means “And Houdain loved her too,” in the sense of some kind of canine agape. And that’s why the dog was so loyal to the two of them. But that joke is all the funnier, I think, for not being as straightforward as all that. Ok?

The wanted to refuse, for a time, to see the joke about Houdain’s participation in Tristan and Iseult’s lovemaking as some kind pathology. If I didn’t “just” let the joke be funny, I’d want to consider the reason for this being a joke at all: it’s because sex between humans should be only between humans. The fact that the dog’s participation is funny, in other words, is a function of what I think the psychopathology of the human, the defense of the human through, among other means, erotic boundaries.

Part of what’s interesting about this set up is that animal eros is typically thought to be irrational, but also, because of this lack, not subject to the whimsy of choice. Because animals don’t make a decision about sex, they tend (to be thought) to make better decisions (not that what they’re doing can be thought a decision). By contrast, humans make choices, which means they can make mistakes; the gift of reason, in terms of eros, seems to be, first, the introduction of superfluity into the erotic object–there’s something irreducibly more than instinct guiding us–and, second, because of that superfluity, the possibility of a mistake. Among the many things that is appalling about Evolutionary Psychology is its effort to strip all eros of choice, the boil off its superfluity, to eliminate the ‘mistakes’ of reason, of responsibility, and of the inexplicable elements that, by preventing any decision from being straightforwardly “ours,” prevent any decision from being able to be perfectly fixed as our responsibility. Thank goodness we literary types don’t have that positivist arrogance!

To return to Ser Tristrem, we have the animal joining in, naturally enough, because Tristan and Iseult’s reason has left them; they’re compelled by a (super)natural force not their own. On the one hand, Tristan and Iseult have made a terrible mistake in loving each other; on the other hand, because of the potion, they’re not responsible. Because of their lack of responsibility, but also because they’ve made the choice they should have made–Tristan is the best knight, Iseult is the best lady, so they belong together–Tristan and Iseult have become like animals. They’re not responsible; they’re guided by an eros not their own; they’re beyond or below or whatever special metaphor you think best the capacity to make “mistakes.” Houdain’s love–which is, even without the magic potion, the natural state of a dog, proverbially “man’s best friend” as far back as Isidore, at least–is, then, “just” a materialization of this (un)natural irrational eros.

Something like that. I’m modeling the kind of reading I might do if I wanted to lean on the episode as pathological (although I would expect that if I developed this reading, it would be a bit more direct, less opaque). But I was wondering in my post what we get if we just allow the episode to be funny. If we imagine, for a while, that not so much is at stake. If we don’t show off by dragging the joke away from its humor up into the grim realm of critique, where every effort at identity, every articulation, is evidence of a crisis. What would happen if we just let Hodain have his fun? What would we gain as critics?

I want to say thanks, everyone, for all your examples, and fiction too. It’s been a lot of fun to read. Here’s one more example, from the early 12th c. outlaw/resistence story of Hereward. Hereward is fighting Letold, an contemptuous Saxon knight. Here’s how the fight ends:

“[having lost his first sword] Hereward drew from its sheath a second sword which he had forgotten, and attacked his opponent more vigorously. And at the first blow, while feigning an attack on the head, he struck the man in the middle of his thigh. Still the soldier defended himself for some time on his knees, declaring that for as long as there was life in him he would never be willing to surrender or look beaten” (A Book of Medieval Outlaws 57). I think we’re all fans of Monty Python here: I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who read this and thought, “None shall pass!” or “It’s just a flesh wound.”

(can’t remember, JJC, if you discussed Hereward in ODM. This work is marvelous for England and its cultures. We have Frenchmen doing parodies of English dancing, discussions of the English style of knighting (English knights must be dubbed by monks), Frenchmen speaking French around people they suppose peasants, (mis)figuring they won’t be understood, “English-style feasts in the monks’ refectory” of Ely, &c., much complaining about foreigners, King William using a “Scandinavian” mode of witchcraft, and eventually, Hereward joining the court of William) –

Let’s just say I wonder what a criticism that allowed for non-pathological pleasure, both in ourselves and in the texts we study, would look like. I don’t know. It would still be a disenchanted reading, it would still be suspicious: I’m not asking for a “return to beauty” or something like that, but neither am I pushing some kind of post-secular critical line. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to replicate, in criticism, the pleasure I felt–that I shared with the past–when I laughed at the Houdain line. The only way I’ve been taught to go at such things is to push the laughter back, to ironize it at the least, to fit it into some pathological model. Certainly that’s going to produce a good reading–with all due respect to my crappy example–but because it’s been the model of criticism, at least the really exciting stuff, for ages, I wonder if there’s something else we can do to respect* an aspect of reading, of living, that the criticism has been singularly unable to handle.

* Tellingly, I have no idea what verb should go here. That’s how far I feel from what this criticism might be. –

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