Friday, December 10, 2010

Good to Think

The posts in this blog were written by the students in Prof. Rachel Fulton Brown's "Animals in the Middle Ages" at the University of Chicago during Autumn quarter 2010.  The posts were assigned as reflections on the discussions that we had had in class on the readings assigned in the syllabus, but quickly grew into profound meditations on the problems of thinking about and with animals as seen through the art, literature, philosophy, theology, culture and society of Europe in the High Middle Ages.  We hope very much that you enjoy reading our reflections and feel free to comment.  For her part, Prof. Fulton Brown hopes to return to the question of thinking about animals in her future research as her students have taught her this quarter how very much more there is to learn.  Thanks!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Is There Science Behind the Medieval Allegorical View of Animals?

Two principle attitudes toward animals existed during the Middle Ages: scientific and allegorical. The scientific view involved the actual study of animals through observations and study of its behavior and anatomy. On the other hand, the  allegorical view was concerned with pointing out a spiritual moral;  and the actual  physical animal was of little importance. In this blog entry, I will use parts of Nona Flores article, The Mirror of Nature Distorted,” to briefly explore the allegorical viewpoint—to highlight why it existed, subsequent consequences of the trend, and how it selectively incorporated some aspects of the scientific approach to argue that the scientific and allegorical viewpoints are not mutually exclusive.
            The scientific approach requires direct observation and accurately recording the information observed. Clearly, medieval artists were capable of creating realistic depictions.  For example, the Hastings Hours shows a lifelike picture of two butterflies and flowers. Medieval artists were aware of animals true anatomy and could represent animals accurately, but often chose not to. Nonetheless, medieval artists who worked on bestiaries likely relied on observation.  Menageries provided them with the opportunity for close examination of animals, which would have been more difficult if animals were in their natural state.  The menagerie even promoted scientific study.  Observation could be even keener: Some of the bestiary artists observed birds carefully and almost certainly drew them from recently dead bodies (Flores).  While watching a History Chanel documentary this summer, I learned that some people have speculated that observation of fossils may have created a scientific basis for the vision of mythical creatures such as griffons and unicorns which, of course, were not available for actual scientific study.  The zoologist Wilma George has attested that illustrations in bestiaries were fairly accurate, especially in describing and illustrating the natural history of animals from both the Near East and western Europe (Flores). Thus, it seems that scientific observation was used in the examination of animals and the creation of bestiaries even when these sources were also presented in an allegorical light.
             However, during the Middle Ages, the influence of authority often outweighed the importance of direct observation of animals (Flores). For example, mythical beasts like the unicorn were discussed by church officials and written about in bestiaries. Therefore, it makes sense that people believed in these ecclesiastical sources.  Thus, there was a perpetual belief in the physical reality of mythical beasts in the Middle Ages.  Furthermore, as a result of the emphasis on the spiritual value of creatures, artists inevitably produced art that distorted natural forms to better emphasize the animals supernatural meaning.  The spiritual meaning of the nature of animals became more important than the scientific study as it provided important spiritual links between man, animals, and God in a way that could be illustrative to the people of the Middle Ages.  Animals allegorically presented a means by which people could better understand the spiritual dimension of life and could offer special meaning to the physical realities people confronted. Thus, there is a scientific basis stemming from animal observation that found representation in the bestiaries and corresponded to the allegorical analysis of animals in the Middle Ages.


The Wolf: A Villain or Victim?

From the “Big Bad Wolf” in the Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood, wolves are often cast as the antagonist: a character to fear. Throughout Christian cultures, wolves are depicted as sly, evil, and vicious. This trend of portraying wolves as the enemy or adversary has been present since the Middle Ages. In Aleksander Pluskowski’s “Wolves, Game and Livestock: Predation and Conflict,” I learned that medieval Christian literature and art frequently shows a recurring association between the wolf and the lamb. This lamb-wolf relationship is derived form the Bible and is parodied in high medieval beast literature. However, as the article states, “Can its persistence (of showing the lamb-wolf relationship) be attributed to the ecological reality as much as the religious metaphor?” (Aleksander Pluskowski).

Although it is impossible to recreate models with sufficient evidence to satisfy modern ecologists, data suggests, “comparable multi-prey systems appear to have existed in medieval northern Europe” (Pluskowski). In other words, wolves in the Middle Ages preyed on the same animals as wolves today. Thus, for the most part, wolves in the Middle Ages hunted animals like deer, sheep, and dogs. However, unlike today, where people rarely come in contact with wolves, wolves were perceived to be a threat to humans in medieval Britain and Scandinavia. As Pluskowski writes, people in these areas during the Middle Ages feared the wolf and “attacks likely rose from the early to high medieval period…on the basis that people continued to encroach on the wolves habitat and had more frequent contact.” However, the article does hedge this statement by saying that while there are references to people being angry at wolves for harming people and animals, there are few documented accounts of attacks. Therefore, it is hard to distinguish from records whether people’s fear of wolves in the Middle Ages was valid.

We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us

I was recently reminded of a really interesting example of how animals are portrayed by the techniques of modern symbolism. The landmark political comic strip "Pogo", drawn by Walt Kelly, was extremely influential in shaping the way that the American political left viewed the events of the 1950's and 60's. "Pogo" takes place in a swamp. The animals who inhabit it usually represent prominent American figures (but, of course, the parallels are never explicit) like Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and P.T. Barnum. The characters all speak in an exaggerated southern dialect, and the focus of action is held on Pogo the Possum - a figure who generally represents the wide-eyed innocence and idealism of America at the turn of the century. 

The animals chosen to represent the characters in the real world usually had behaviors that Kelly considered significant. P.T. Barnum is a bear, large and excessive and bullying. JFK is an egg, who mostly just sits there and gets admired. McCarthy is a sneaky and menacing low-life bobcat. A pair of beatnik communists are cowbirds. But the parts of the characters that were the most 'animalish' were the parts that Kelly considered the most important. When the plot stops and the characters in "Pogo," however civilized, are forced to comment on the fact that some of them must eat others of them, etc. in order to survive, what we are really getting is an analogy for how difficult it is for us real human beings to escape this natural (sometimes vicious, sometimes humanizing) side.  

One of the most interesting stories that we've followed through the quarter, in my humble opinion, is the development of Medieval symbolism. Symbolism for medieval scholars wasn't necessarily as straight forwards  as it is for "Pogo" - this character represents that person, and this behavior represents that behavior. In Medieval art we find some of the most complex understanding of symbolism, single images meant to inspire entire worlds of meaning - a visual counterpart to Aquinas's essentialism. And what at the end of the day is the most surprising to me is just how difficult it is to think about the world like that. It is easy to feel like, to quote Pogo the Possum, "We have met the enemy and his is us." But that's what's so appealing about it all, isn't it? 

I'm not sure why I'm talking about "Pogo," really. It just seems an interesting point to leave the quarter on. We've spent so much time looking at the complexities of the role played by animals in the Middle Ages that it is kind of overwhelming to try and think about drawing a coherent response (other than "I am now sure that I understand very little at all"). There is something about discussing animals that is extremely compelling. Walt Kelly thought that he wasn't merely giving his opinions on national politics - he was telling a story, and he thought that the expression of human desires through animals would let people focus in on different things in the real narrative of human affairs. Why do we express ourselves, our enemies, our Savior as animals? It may simply be that it pulls some element about human beings into the light and forces us to confront them in a way that we tend not normally to do. It often has the opposite effect of the decharacterization found in philosophical treatises - emphasizing our membership in a natural caste over the objectivity of our reason. But sometimes, especially in the Middle Ages, it seems like the stag is not really an animal at all. And sometimes it seems like it is really just a stag. And don't even get me started on dragons.

But of course, it is much, much more complicated than that.

It's been a hell of a quarter! Thanks to you all!
(and now for some "Pogo") 

- B.B.

Final Thoughts

I suppose my final observations about the material of the class really must pertain to those things that stuck with me the most. Those would be the things that left me feeling very confused. We spent a great deal of time trying to understand what it was that medieval people believed or thought about animals, but I feel like we spent even more time trying to figure out what we think or feel about animals. I’m sure we all enjoyed the process of sharing our favorite literary and true to life analogies that helped us understand what it was that we were reading. However, this strikes me as being particularly problematic. We could barely agree on our own conceptualizations of animals as a class. There were so many different points of view and ranges of experience at play that most of the categorizing that we tried to do became very problematic. 

I still don’t understand how animal trials work. I don’t know that anyone will be able to provide me with a satisfactory answer at this point. How can people who understand and believe that animals cannot talk or reason put an animal on trial and expect it to defend itself from prosecution? It still boggles my mind. So many aspects of the animal trials were within the range of explanation. Some of them even made sense to us as modern historians, but I think that the easiest thing for us to do with this was to gloss over it and move on to those points that made sense to us.

I guess my two cents on the whole thing is that there is a lot we still don’t know or understand about how medieval people thought about anything, let alone something so clearly problematic as animals. There is clearly a lot of room for continued scholarship in this area, and in fact even a need for it. So many of the things we studied have been neglected by the community in large part and definitely need to be explored further.


Sexing Species

While reading the The Fifty Animal Stories of Saint Francis, I was struck by Francis’s gender assignment. I found it quaint how Francis spoke to each animal group (with the exception of the snake that he hacked up) as his equals by addressing them as “brothers” and “sisters.” However, I began to wonder if these were established species genders during Francis' lifetime or rhetorical method to place him as an Adam-like figure. 
            Thinking back to the bestiaries, the animals seemed to be slightly gendered until the terms of copulation were discussed. In general, the animals with naughty behaviors were usually described as feminine, like the viper that reproduces by biting off the male head and the offspring burst through the female’s side in an grandiose example of the pains of childbirth. I tended to associate snakes with a masculine gender so the descriptions of the viper piqued my interest (as vipers were likened to Eve as the reason for the Fall). Therefore, gendering seems to be relevant in species with hyper masculine and feminine traits.
            Fast-foward to now, there seem to be a few continuities: cats and birds tend to be give feminine pronouns and dogs are often beckoned with a ‘here, boy’ if the gender is unknown. Now the general genders seem to be assigned to pets and domesticated animals. I’ve encountered a handful of farmers who talk about/to their livestock with a gendered term of endearment. One farmer calls his dairy goats “my girls,” which I thought was cute until I figured out there weren’t any males because the boy goats get served for dinner. My mother calls her chickens “the girls” but she has them as egg layers, despises roosters, and talks to them collectively, so that makes sense to me.
            Personally, I attempt to guess an individual animal’s gender by looking for feminine or masculine features in the face, then take a stab in the dark and compliment the pet with a “She’s so pretty” or “He’s so handsome.” Unless the pet has gender assigned accessories, my gamble runs a 50/50 chance of success. I’ve tried this with a 4 week old stray kitten, whom I failed to properly sex (Willa became Arlo over the span of a vet visit). However, I have more trouble guessing the gender of a human baby than a dog or a cat. Plus, I have found that human parents tend to be far more offended when I incorrectly guess the sex of their baby. In retrospect, gendering animals is a petty game I play but it is interesting the gauge the response of the pet owner as some take pride in the sex of their pet and expect it to manifest.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Animals as comfort

The whole semester, we've been discussing the way that medieval people treated animals, including pets that had no other "use" and something happened in my family that emphasized the differences and similarities to me in the modern mindset regarding animals. My family has always had pets and my parents currently have an ancient cat and a dog about 6 years old. My mother has repeatedly insisted that this is the last one; she isn't taking care of any more pets. She thinks they are far too much effort and trouble and don't supply anything back. However, she does love the dog (the cats another story entirely...), lets it sleep in her bed, and all the rest.

Now, my newborn niece very recently died with no medical explanation (yet) and everyone in my family is taking it fairly hard (of course!- we tend to think this stuff doesnt happen anymore but it does). 3 days ago, my mom's boss brought in pictures of a litter of puppies her dog just gave birth to and sure enough, my parents just got a new puppy and have already started shopping for things for the puppy and they haven't even brought him home yet (he's still too young). She claims that they were just too cute to resist. Now admittedly the puppy is definitely adorable (very few arent) but I doubt my parents would have chosen to get another dog if they weren't hurting from Hailey's death.

Not all animals have to have a use. sometimes they just bring comfort and companionship, even in the Middle Ages: not all dogs were hunting dogs, not all cats were barn cats, not all birds were songbirds or falcons. Childhood death (and death in general) was much more common in the middle ages but certainly not any easier to handle and i wonder how often people turned to animals as a source of comfort. Its not something that there would be much in the way of documentation or evidence for but people's emotional needs have remained the same throughout recorded history so I have a feeling that it happened plenty.

Just a thought.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Some Wondrous Final Thoughts

    For my final paper I am writing about the creation and history of taxidermy. As such, I have been reading a lot about the role that wonderment and exoticism played in the (mostly) late Middle Ages -- this was a concept most often manifest in collections of far-East ephemera (think crocodile heads, stuffed birds of paradise... that sort of thing). One of the best books I read was Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 by Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park.
    The book chronicles the shifting form of "the mysterious" throughout western culture -- very often in the form of mythical beasts from faraway lands. The concept of wonder is located in an immense semantic field populated by many related terms that also have unstable and changing meanings: marvels, miracles, monsters, prodigies, curiosities, and relics.
    Yet, the approach modifies the conventional story only expanding horizons beyond professional scientific practice throughout the Middle Ages and shows how, "The quiet exit of demons from theology coincides in time and corresponds in structure almost exactly with the disappearance of the preternatural in respectable natural philosophy" (361). Essentially, the work argues that a section of European population evolved psychologically from a culture dominated by superstition and Church doctrine, where mystery was an everyday theme, to one that placed a certain value on the unknown - eventually leading to the beginnings of modern science. Science is usually accused of having destroyed wonder, but Daston and Park reject this view, and purport it almost as an intermediary between superstition and science.
    One choice quote I used for my paper to illustrate this point is from Marco Polo, as he describes the kingdom of Quilon:

"The country produces a diversity of beasts different from those of the rest of the world. There are black lions with no other visible color or marks. There are parrots of many kinds. Some are entirely white – as white as snow – with feet and beaks of scarlet. Others are scarlet and blue – there is no lovelier sight than these in the world. And there are some very tiny ones, which are also object of great beauty. Then there are peacocks of another sort than ours and much bigger and handsomer, and hen too that are unlike ours. What more need I say? Everything there is different from what it is with us and excels both in size and beauty."

    This makes me wonder (no pun intended) if the shift from attaching symbolic and religious importance to the mysterious (ie: bestiaries) to the celebration of such things indeed indicates a shift in the medieval consciousness -- or, perhaps that's too enormous a claim to make.
    Either way, I find it interesting that the same medieval society, or at least some portion of it, took interest in the "strange" animals from overseas without overtly questioning or attaching religious/supersticious implications to them. Is this human progress? Or is it too simplistic to say that curiosity necessarily trumps superstition in this linear manner?
    Still, the culture of the early middle ages is not without its wonders -- the fact that the unicorn was chronicled alongside bears and dogs should be proof enough of that. Which makes me realize that the belief is the mysterious, the odd, and the unknown, even given it's shifting forms, persists today. Take P.T. Barnum's grotesque legacy of the traveling freak show for example, or (god forbid you ever watch it!) the History Channel's program on "Ancient Aliens." So when it comes to wonderment, it's unlikely we will ever stop finding it tempting to, "believe it," as Ripley says, "or not."


Daston, Lorraine, and Park, Katherine. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750.  New York: Zone Books, 1998.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Power, Status, and Symbolism: A Final Look

It has been a few weeks since we first touched on representations of animals in medieval art, but I wanted to return to the topic one last time.  As JT notes, there is a tendency to use the rise of science and formal realism in the early modern period to paint religious allegory in art into a strictly medieval corner, as it were.  But just as the dawn of the modern era did not mark a complete break with traditional symbolism—allegory and “realism” in early-modern art are often anything but mutually exclusive—so, too, can the case be made for a certain level of continuity with regard to the way medieval and early modern people (or at least artists) conceived of certain animals and their relationships with humans.  For this post, I thought I’d comment on some thematic consistencies in art featuring animals, offering a few comparisons based on some images we’ve discussed in class.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Parting Thoughts and Dogs in Heaven

When studying the radically different world of the Middle Ages, we are often taken aback by the incongruities that confront us. We run into concepts that simply don’t jibe with our understanding of the world, of culture, of society, of what it means to be human. How can we wrap our minds around the concept of a Crusade? Of wandering bands of flagellants? How do we explain this mysterious invention of historians: the ‘medieval worldview’? It seems to me that in order to solve the equation that is the medieval thought process, we need to isolate a constant. For us, that constant has been animals. The history of humanity is tied in with the history of animals. To be colloquial about it: we’re all in this mess together. In examining how animals were used (symbolically, functionally, and otherwise), we’ve been able to, if not understand completely, at least empathize with the ideas and ideals of our medieval predecessors. To be truthful, we’ve covered so much ground that I don’t even know how to begin to wrap things up. So just for fun, I thought I’d take a small modern cultural production involving animals as a point of comparison now that we have run the gamut of the medieval world’s usage of creatures. Has anyone ever seen the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven?
If you haven’t, here is a preview:
First of all, yes, it really is that trippy. But the most important part of the movie for our purposes is the heaven part. Can you picture anyone in the medieval world we have been studying so closely writing the treatise: Omnes Canes Eunt ad Caelum? They would be excommunicate before you could say mea culpa. Indeed, despite the multifarious uses and understandings of animals throughout our chosen time period, there was never anyone that I found who would dare to assert the presence of an immortal soul in an animal. Even St. Francis (or, more accurately, the card-carrying ASPCA version of St. Francis that comes through in the many stories told about him) was far from claiming salvation for animals of any kind. In fact, in one story, after a nightingale bests St. Francis at a ‘who can praise God longer’ contest, he remarks: “Poor me! I must admit, Brother that I have been defeated by a nightingale in praising God. Although I am made in the divine image, redeemed by the Blood of Christ, and destined for the glory of heaven, I cannot continue to praise my God with this little bird that has none of those privileges but will cease to exist when it dies.”[1] So such an idea – animals going to heaven – would be blasphemous and just plain absurd.
However, where we might connect with our predecessors is in why all dogs supposedly go to heaven. Unlike people, dogs are, by nature, loyal. In fact, the only way it is possible for a dog to go to hell is (as is the case in the movie) if it finds its ‘life watch’ (I told you, trippy) and sneaks back onto earth. Gaston Phoebus and the rest of the hunting nobility of medieval Europe would likely identify with the inherent loyalty of dogs. If you asked them, they might have been just fine with the idea of all dogs going to heaven for this admirable quality. Stories of dogs’ loyalty to their masters abound throughout all periods of European history: the dog guards its owner’s corpse, outs its owner’s murderer, sacrifices itself for its master. Dogs could even be martyrs in the popular eye (though officials would condemn such an idea). We still have these stories today, updated for the modern audience. The dog somehow dials 911 and saves its elderly master or drags a child out of a burning house. We spend so much time talking about the differences between ourselves and our friends in the Middle Ages. It’s how we define things: in opposition. But every now and then we learn that we do not simply empathize with the people living half a millennium ago. Rather, sometimes we outright agree. And it is in this rare moment that all the periodization melts away, and we realize that despite the hundreds of years of economic, political, social, cultural, and religious development, we are still connected in some way to the medieval world through something as simple as our understanding of the loyalty of dogs. It’s been real everyone. Thanks for the amazing discussions and blog posts. Let’s try to keep this thing going as much as possible.

[1] Fifty Animal Stories of Saint Francis as told by his companions, transcribed from the Early Franciscan Chronicles by Raphael Brown (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1958), 38-39.

Dan F

Basil, Beasts, and the Contemplation of Nature

In the course of researching my final paper,1 I spent a big of time digging into Basil of Caesarea's exegetical homilies on the Hexameron. Eriugena specifically cites Basil's exegesis in his discussion of the fifth and sixth days of creation, particularly the possibly psuedographical2 tenth and eleventh homilies on the creation of humans on the sixth day. However, I would like to focus on Basil's eight and ninth homilies, which I think quite nicely illustrate some of the ideas about nature which underlie medieval thought, especially within the contemplative tradition and projects such as Albertus Magnus' works on animals that we encountered earlier in the quarter.3

Basil's homilies on the creation of animals feature many of the themes that we see in later medieval bestiaries. For instance, the reproduction of vultures prefigures the virgin birth of Christ:

It is said that the vultures hatched without coition a very great number of young, and this, although they are especially long-lived; in fact, their life generally continues for a hundred years. Consider this as my special observation from the history of birds, in order that, if ever you see any persons laughing at out mystery, as though it were impossible and contrary to nature for a virgin to give birth while her virginity itself was preserved immaculate, you may consider that God...first set forth innumerable reasons from nature for our beliefs in His wonders.4

Basil also gives us numerous examples of animals embodying some specific virtue or vice:

The ox is steadfast, the ass sluggish; the horse burns with desire for the mare; the wolf is untamable and the fox crafty; the deer is timid, the ant industrious; the dog is grateful and constant in friendship.5

Basil insists that these characteristics were specifically implanted at the time of creation by God, for a specific purpose. The vulture passage above is a perfect example of this understanding, through the fact of the vulture's virginal conception, belief in the virginity of Mary is made more tenable. With this understanding, Basil can definitively answer a question that we have touched on a number of times in class: “can animals act in a manner contrary to God's will?” in the negative. Basil seizes on this fact and, similarly to Francis' sermon to the birds, uses the contrast between irrational animals' comprehension and enactment of God's plan and the failure of rational animals, humans, to do the same in order to rebuke his audience:

No skill in gathering roots or acquaintance with herbs procured for the irrational animals the knowledge of what was useful, but each of the animals is able naturally provisions for its own safety and it posses a certain inexplainable attraction toward what which is according to its natures. We also possess natural virtues toward which there is an attraction of soul not from the teaching of men, but from nature itself...If the lioness loves her offspring and the wolf fights for her whelps, what can man say when he disregards the command6 and debases his nature, or when a son dishonors the old age of his father, or a father through a second marriage neglects the children of his first?7

This rebuke is, I think, rather illustrative of some of the deeper themes in Basil's understanding of nature.

I will begin with the somewhat tangential observation that Basil seems to understand nature as still inherently ordered by God's will, not disordered as a consequence of the Fall. This fits in nicely with his brother Gregory of Nyssa's contention, which is later taken up by Maximus and Eriugena8 that the cosmological consequences of the Fall9 are located in the severing of humanity's ability to act as a mediator between God and nature. Thus, while nature is certainly fallen alongside humanity, it still acts according to God's will and is, in fact, explicitly shaped by God to serve as a corrective for the catastrophic consequences of the Fall.10 Unfortunately, I am not familiar enough with Basil's writings to state whether he explicitly develops this theme in his works, but it seems, at least, to be implicitly running though his exegesis of creation, particularly when we look a bit closer at his rebuke.

In his challenge to the audience, Basil insists that humans should be able to discern proper action through nature itself:

The fact, then, that we were not taught by books what was useful is not a sufficient defense for us, who have understood how to choose what is advantageous by the untaught law of nature11

Specifically, I take Basil to be referring to the contemplation of created things such as animals, which, as Basil has demonstrated through his numerous examples, illustrate moral and Scriptural truths. In fact, Basil's homilies on creation can be taken as a form of exactly this sort of contemplation.12 This contemplation of exterior things, while it is considerably helpful for one's spiritual growth, is, for Basil, only a means to an end. He carefully stresses that knowledge gleaned from external things pales in comparison to knowledge of God derived from knowledge of self:

Yet, it is not possible for one, intelligently examining himself, to learn to know God better from the heavens and earth than from our own constitution, as the prophet says: 'Thy knowledge is become wonderful from myself'13

Thus, the contemplation of created things, of animals, enables us to better know ourselves. Basil's own examples make it clear that he has been driving toward this point throughout the homilies. The gratitude of a dog brings into relief our ingratitude towards God, the care of animals for their young calls into question how we treat our children, the preparedness of animals for winter indicate the care that we should take towards our own futures in the next life, and so on.

The examination of external things as a means in which to understand ourselves takes on a further, more metaphysical, dimension when we consider the idea of human nature containing all of creation within itself, which was a powerful element of Cappadocian thought.14 Since humans contain, in some sense, the universal ideas of all creation within themselves, the contemplation of nature grants us insight into these internal ideas, which are fundamentally grounded within the divine.15 This tradition in contemplative thought persists for centuries. Bonaventure clearly is drawing on this understanding in the Itinerarium, for instance. Furthermore, I think we can see this idea as underlying works like Albertus Magnus' writings as well. Albertus' work is an attempt to understand nature, in order that he might understand himself, in order that he might understand God. This ideal seems, to me at least, to be running through much of the medieval writing on animals we encountered this quarter, and, through Basil, we can see the Late Antique antecedents of this thought. 

1Which is on John Scottus Eriugena's understanding of animals and how that fits into his soteriological thought, particularly the contemplative aspects of this understanding.
2More precisely, possibly written by or finished by or heavily revised by his brother Gregory of Nyssa, or Basil actually wrote them. It's unclear.
3Of course, one of my purposes in this post is to suggest that distinguishing between what Alberus is doing and the contemplative tradition is a mistake.
4Basil. Exegetical Homilies. Trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963) 128. I think this nicely ties into the idea that I've broached a number of times in class that medieval authors don't take creatures as symbolizing divine truths, but actually participating in them.
5Basil 138
6Basil is speaking of Paul's imperative in Ephesians 6:4 “do not provoke your children to anger.”
7Basil 141-2
8Among others
9The cosmological implications of the Fall are a major issue in all three authors' works, particularly Eriugena's, largely because of all three's conception, to varying degrees, of an anthro-centric creation.
10Such as, for instance, containing vultures which give birth to young without coition, in order to prefigure the Virgin Birth.
11Basil 141
12Basil repeatedly refers to his project as contemplation. Cf. 143. I should probably add the disclaimer that I don't read Greek, so I have to assume that the translator has accurately rendered Basil's vocabulary.
13Basil 147. Basil almost certainly has a number of reasons for asserting this, prime among them the idea that humans are created as an image of God, which was central to much of the Cappadocians' thought.
14Gregory of Nyssa takes this idea and runs with it, and Eriugena takes it even further, making it the foundation of his entire understanding of reality.
15More specifically, within the Word of God, following the prologue to John's Gospel.

Aesop and Bidpai in Europe

I was originally going to post this as a reply, but it got pretty long and I felt it might as well be its own post.

While we're thinking about Aesop, a second cycle of animal fables were also making the rounds in Europe and were also quite popular, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. In Europe, the were largely known as the Fables of Bidpai. Looking at their history might provide an interesting comparand to illustrate how these tales moved and circulated from place to place.

The fables are traceable back to India, where they were known as the Pañcatantra. They date as far back as the 3rd century BCE, roughly corresponding to the time of Alexander the Great. By 570 CE, they had been translated into Pahlavi Persian and were well-established in the court literature of the Sassanian Empire under the title Kalilag o Damnag, the names of the two jackals who are the central characters of the cycle, from their Sanskrit originals Karataka and Damanaka. Following the Arab conquest, the Zoroastrian convert Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. 756) translated these fables from Pahlavi into literary Arabic as Kalilah wa-Dimnah. This edition of the text infused the ancient stories with one of the highest examples of literary Arabic style in existence (they are still studied today as examples of first-class writing) and introduced a number of new tales that soften the Buddhist element of the original stories and introduce some of his local Persian-Islamic sensibilities (although it has to be said that he is known as an excellent translator and did not shy away from controversial subjects, so we cannot accuse him of bowdlerizing the text). At the same time, there was a second original translation from the Pahlavi into Syriac, again around 550 CE, but this edition was left childless.

From the Arabic text of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, we have a Greek edition by Symeon Seth (c. 1080), which was then translated into Old Slavonic and Italian (1583), a modern Persian edition (c. 1120) that became the basis for the Ottoman Turkish translation, which was then translated into French by Galland (1724) and Cardonne (1778), a Hebrew edition (c. 1270) that was translated by John of Capua into Latin as the Directorium, which then became the basis for German (1480), Spanish (1493), and Italian (1552) branches. The German branch was  rendered into Dutch and Danish in the 17th century, the Spanish was translated into Italian as Discorsi degli animali in 1548, and the Italian 1552 branch was translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1570 as The Morall Philosophie of Doni: drawne out of the auncient writers. Many of these editions took the name Fables of Bidpai, after the Brahman philosopher Baidaba (Bidpai, Pilpai) who is the advisor to the new Indian monarch after Alexander's deposition of Porus (Fur), back in the 3rd century BCE. Finally—gotta love the Andalusian element—the Arabic edition was also directly translated into Spanish (1251), and then translated back into Latin by Raimond de Beziers. Meanwhile, a Latin poetic imitation of the cycle, Baldo's Alter Æsopus, was circulating as well.

Another case study of animal stories in circulation is the story of "The Case of the Animals versus Man," a long epistle-satire written in the style of a fable by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safaʾ) in the 970s. The text was copied from Arabic into Latin and Hebrew, one by Rabbi Joel and the other by Rabbi Jacob ben Elazar around 1240. Then, in 1316, it was translated again into Hebrew by Kalonymos ben Kalonymos, who incidentally also translates "Kalilah wa-Dimnah" and the works of Averroës into the same language. This Hebrew edition was printed in Warsaw in 1879, from which Yiddish and German translations were published. In addition, the Arabic had also been translated into Urdu, and then at the insistence of Abraham Lockett, a British official in colonial India, the Urdu text was translated into English! Thus, we have two totally different branches of the text meeting in Northern Europe, one through medieval Spain, one through India.

Given this daunting history of translation and re-translation, one can imagine that these tales might have been experienced in successive waves by any particular populace. Perhaps a man living in 14th century Provence would have heard the Fables of Bidpai orally from a Spanish Jew, who had read the Hebrew; perhaps his grandson read a Latin translation while at university; perhaps his grandson's grandson goes to Venice and hears the same stories in Italian; and perhaps, generations later, a descendant of theirs, seized by the wave of Egyptomania that swept the country following Napoleon's invasion, picks up a new French translation of the Ottoman Turkish Anwari Suhaili, "Lights of Canopus", and discovers the whole thing all over again, except where the word "God" appeared in the old Latin edition nobody read anymore, will now read "Allah" and imagine the stories taking place in the exotic locales of the East. I'm getting romantic here, but I think what these case studies might help us with is imagining how the stories of Aesop, Bidpai, and countless other bodies of lore that exist both orally and in written form could have been experienced and transmitted by people in the past.


Keith-Falconer, I.G.N. Kalilah and Dimnah, or, The Fables of Bidpai : An English Translation of the Later Syriac Version after the Text Originally Edited by William Wright, with Critical Notes and Variant Readings. Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1970

Goodman, Lenn E. “Reading The Case of the Animals Versus Man: Fable and Philosophy in the Essays of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ.” In Epistles of the Brethren of Purity: the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ and their Rasāʾil, edited by Nader El-Bizri, 248–274. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008

(For Fun) Eighteenth Century Theatre and Bestiaries

Just as one of our secondary sources predicted, once you start to pay attention to animals, they’re everywhere. I’ve been studying early modern theatre, and it just so happens that it is full of animals; which gave me the idea to make some comparisons between the medieval animals and a few plays. After all, T.H. White, in the appendix to his Book of Beasts, argues that bestiaries had a profound impact on the development of allegory and symbolism in art and literature. White was even able to trace a direct line of influence from the bestiary tradition to Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost.1
                So I decided to see to what extent the bestiary tradition carries into eighteenth century theatre. I had the translations of Carlo Gozzi’s fairy-tale plays, which have lots of animals in them. The centrality of animals to Gozzi’s oeuvre can be seen by glancing at a list of the titles of his plays; his ten tales for the theatre included The Raven (1761), King Stag (1762), The Serpent Woman (1762), The Blue Monster (1764) and The Green Bird (1765). Gozzi led a revival of supernatural theatre at a time when the general trend was in the direction of realism, as championed by his rivals Pietro Chiari and Carlo Goldoni. He drew heavily on the traditions of the commedia dell’arte and fairy tales, which may be the reason why animals fit in so seamlessly into his works.
I found his use of the dove really interesting. In one of his plays, The Love for Three Oranges, the dove functions allegorically to underline the themes of loyalty and love. But Gozzi’s use of the dove in another of his plays, The Raven, is somewhat more challenging to untangle, and therefore more interesting. The play begins at sea; we gradually find out that Prince Jennaro has captured and abducted Princess Armilla in order to bring her to his brother, King Millo. Some time ago, the King shot and killed a raven that belonged to an ogre. The ogre then put a curse on the King, saying that he must “seek a woman whose skin/Is as white as this marble tomb,/Whose lips are scarlet, akin/To my raven’s blood, and whom/The Gods have given black hair,/As black as his every plume.”2 Armilla is the only woman who fits this description, but she also (we are led to believe) has an evil magician (Norando) for a father, who sets out to get his revenge. On the voyage home, Jennaro acquires a falcon and horse as gifts for his brother; in consequence, two doves, Norando’s messengers, alight on a branch, and declare a horrible prophecy to Jennaro: the falcon will pluck out the king’s eyes, the horse will kill him, and if the King marries Armilla, a monster will devour him on the wedding night. All this Jennaro must keep to himself, and not try to avoid it, or he himself will turn into marble.
The two speaking doves primarily function as messengers. Such a role is very clearly ascribed to them in the bestiaries: a comparison between doves and preachers is extensively drawn out in The Book of Beasts,3 whereas the Aberdeen bestiary, in addition to a comparison with preachers, devotes a long section to the three doves of Holy Scripture.3 Other bestiaries also mention the eastern practice of training doves to carry written messages. While this aspect of Gozzi’s doves is consistent with the bestiaries, their evil natures are not, a contradiction of which Gozzi himself is aware. Jennaro declares that these doves are “Evil birds! Are they doves – or crows?”.4 The crow is mentioned one more time in the same play, and it is in reference to the raven, which is very plainly an evil bird, both in the play and the bestiaries, where it is grouped with the vultures. Jennaro doubts that the two messenger birds are doves, since he cannot reconcile their evil message with the pure and good nature of the dove. The bestiaries very clearly associate the dove with the Church and the Holy Spirit, and so it should not be evil in the play, if it is indeed influenced by the bestiary stories. The ambiguity becomes resolved at the end of the play, when we find out that Norando is not actually evil, but rather good. His seemingly evil message, too, was meant to bring about a favorable conclusion, one that (not surprisingly) includes a happy marriage.
Gozzi’s use of the dove, then, is quite consistent with the bestiaries, and it would seem that the animal lore of the bestiary tradition was still very persistent in the eighteenth century, if we are to take Gozzi as being in any way representative.

1 T.H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), pp. 263.
2 Carlo Gozzi, Five Tales for the Theatre, trans. Albert Bermel and Ted Emery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) pp. 30.
3 White, Book of Beasts, pp. 144.
4 Aberdeen University Library MS.24, 26r, v.


A man looks at an animal...

The scope of this course was immense. Although a lot of our sources were mainly from the late middle ages, we covered material from much earlier, and ended somewhere in the sixteenth century. But more so than in terms of chronology or geography, the scope of our discussions was large thematically. After all, we discussed the definitions of animals; the bestiaries, more scientific works, manuals for hunting and religious texts; animals in the countryside and the town; livestock and the wilderness; animals in warfare, art and literature; real animals and animals in the imagination, and the combination of the two. I could go on. At the same time, our focus was always there: we were exploring the medieval world through animals (and animals through the medieval world). This is exactly what I had hoped when I signed up for the course: that animals would provide a unique and very effective (I think) entry point into the study of the medieval world and mentality.
            One pervasive problem that emerged was the conceptual understanding of animals. I mean: first, the way that animals fit into the hierarchy of creation, especially in relation to humans; second, how animals are viewed: did the medieval understanding of animals encompass all these different elements that we discussed?
At the beginning of the course, we devoted two sessions to defining animals. At the end of those two sessions, I felt very secure: humans are animals, but are distinct by their ability to contemplate. But the scholarship we subsequently read was a bit confused about this point. I became confused too. The articles we read for the session on animal trials were especially contradictory about the hierarchy-aspect, and even the articles about Saint Francis were not entirely consistent. The scholarship on the animal trials couldn’t agree whether the people involved were distancing themselves from the animals by asserting their superiority (in that an animal killing a human is the ultimate offense, since the human is in a hierarchically superior position in Creation; also because the animal is meant to serve the human) or they were actually lessening that distance (by employing the same procedure for both animal and human judgment), and even using the animal world as a mirror for the human. If anything, then, the hierarchy of the animal kingdom, especially the relation between humans and animals, is still problematic.
            I do believe that the class on animal trials was my favorite session. I left the classroom with more questions than answers, and with a general feeling that we didn’t really resolve much. But that’s a good thing, in my opinion. This is also the reason why the animal trials are such a great topic for studying the medieval mentality. For instance, I’m still struggling with the question of why animals were excommunicated, when they are not in communion in the first place. Also, how can animals be put on trial when they are not supposed to have contemplative minds (or intent)? We discussed both these questions extensively in class, but if you have any ideas, feel free to share them.
            And now for the second part of the ‘conceptual understanding of animals’…I was wondering if all the different ways of looking at animals were there, simultaneously, in the medieval mentality? Did the ‘medieval folk’ synthesize the symbolic, mystical, scientific, economic, etc. when they looked at animals? Such medieval ‘seeing’ is, in a way, related to our discussion of medieval art and perspective – that the perspective led into the realm of the symbolic and allegorical. The idea for this question grew out of our discussion of the dove in Hugh of Folieto (The Medieval Book of Birds: Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium). There is the physical dove; then there is the symbolic dove: the faith, the church, the Holy Spirit. Each of the elements of the dove (wings, beak, etc.) has its own symbolic and mystical meaning. If we add to this the bestiary stories about doves (which also include doves/turtledoves as loving and loyal birds, and therefore the moral exemplars for widows), the dove becomes a very complex animal indeed. The dove is simultaneously all these things, functioning on different levels and sometimes encompassing one another. That all these elements were mixed in the medieval mentality is certain; but if they were mixed in the individual minds is not so certain. Would a man seeing a dove have synthesized all these mystical and symbolic ideas with the perception of the physical bird? Would a noble engaged in the chase have thought of Christ when killing the stag? Or would he have thought of courtship in the process of the hunt? Francis is said to have been peculiarly aware of stepping on stones, because of the association with Christ. He would seem, then, to have synthesized symbolic and physical elements. But can we say this of everyone? And here I’ve hit a wall. My instinct is to say no, but then I still need to examine to what extent the synthesis may have been there. And so I’ve come to the question of the medieval individual experience, where it is very difficult to draw distinctions and boundaries. Whew…

Thanks for the class discussions, everyone!