Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain

Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain

Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain

Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain

Synopsis

Traces of the living animal run across the entire corpus of medieval writing and reveal how pervasively animals mattered in medieval thought and practice. In fascinating scenes of cross-species encounters, a raven offers St. Cuthbert a lump of lard that waterproofs his visitors' boots for a whole year, a scholar finds inspiration for his studies in his cat's perfect focus on killing mice, and a dispossessed knight wins back his heritage only to give it up again in order to save the life of his warhorse. Readers have often taken such encounters to be merely figurative or fanciful, but Susan Crane discovers that these scenes of interaction are firmly grounded in the intimate cohabitation with animals that characterized every medieval milieu from palace to village. The animal encounters of medieval literature reveal their full meaning only when we recover the living animal's place within the written animal.

The grip of a certain humanism was strong in medieval Britain, as it is today: the humanism that conceives animals in diametrical opposition to humankind. Yet medieval writing was far from univocal in this regard. Latin and vernacular works abound in other ways of thinking about animals that invite the saint, the scholar, and the knight to explore how bodies and minds interpenetrate across species lines. Crane brings these other ways of thinking to light in her readings of the beast fable, the hunting treatise, the saint's life, the bestiary, and other genres. Her substantial contribution to the field of animal studies investigates how animals and people interact in culture making, how conceiving the animal is integral to conceiving the human, and how cross-species encounters transform both their animal and their human participants.

Excerpt

The people of medieval Britain lived in daily contact with domestic and wild animals. Forest and wasteland loomed over settlements, and even city streets teemed with all kinds of creatures. Scholars attempt to recapture this physical intimacy from its material traces. Archaeologists discuss paw prints on tile floors, zoologists use bones to estimate wolf populations, and historians reconstruct falcon keeping from household accounts. Medievalists who work primarily with imaginative writing have a role in this cross-disciplinary conversation. In recent decades the focus of literary studies has shifted from tracing intertextual relationships to mapping broadly material, social, textual, and embodied scenes of imaginative production. These scenes are inextricably lived and thought. Medieval writers (like writers today) had no animal experience, however physically immediate, that they did not apprehend cognitively as it unfolded. Conversely, there is no thinking—even in fabulation, in figuration, in the formal constraints of genre—that can entirely forget the living creature. But literary scholars sometimes seem to forget the animal, lured by how cogently the lion king and the preaching fox can comment on human behavior. Anthropomorphic roles have long been the star turns for literary animals. I seek instead to redirect attention from the animal trope’s noisy human tenor back to its obscure furry vehicle.

Animal Encounters in Medieval Britain begins with a term that resists definition. Animal, synonymous with beast in Middle English, sometimes encompasses and other times contrasts with what is meant by human; the fate of each concept is bound to the other. Their tangled definitions have Classical and early Christian roots. Best known must be the concise version inherent in patristic exegesis and circulated as a maxim by the scholastics that “man is a rational animal”: what other animals are, the human both is (because a breathing, reproducing, mortal creature) and is not (because a rational creature). John Trevisa’s fourteenth-century translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus places the human within the animal category: “All that is compounded of flesh and spirit of life, and so of body and soul, is called animal, a beast . . .

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