Friday, October 29, 2010

Hunting the Wolf

Today’s discussion about the nobility of hunting really sparked an interest within me to look deeper into the reasons behind the numerous wolf hunts t hat occurred within the Middle Ages. We know from the discussion today that there were several purposes attributed to the hunting of animals. In most cases the purpose of the hunt was the chase in itself, culminating within the equally important kill and ceremonial dismemberment. Sometimes animals were hunted for their meat, i.e. the poachers that we read about for today, or the nobles and huntsmen were just trying to keep the populations down within the deer parks and warrens (culling). Most other hunters justified their hunting activities by stating that they were eliminating other predators, especially the wolf, which is typically personified to be evil amongst society within the Middle Ages. This final observation got me thinking, was it really necessary to hunt and kill all those wolves just on the pretense that they were evil and therefore harmful to others?

Some Reflections on Fred

           After the class discussion on Wednesday, I decided to go back and examine more closely some key passages in Frederick the II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus. What resulted was a series of reflections, the attempt to reproduce which you can read below:

[N.B. All my quotes are taken from Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, The Art of Falconry, trans. and ed. Casey E. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1943).]

One of the issues raised in class was whether it is the noble that really practices falconry (including caring for the falcons) or the hired help? how does this affect the idea that falconry is a noble art? lastly, what is the dynamic between the master falconer and the noble, when they are out on the field, and the noble is being instructed? One fact that occurred to me upon rereading the prologue is that Frederick himself is a master of falconry. I think it would be unfair for us to assume that many nobles were not equally, or even more advanced in the art and caring for falcons than were the hired falconers. He writes, “We beg every nobleman who by reason of his rank should be interested in the contents of this work to order it read and explained to him by a master of the science” (4). It is true that nobles were often taught this “noble art” by non-nobles. But the latter quote suggests that the nobles aimed to become as skilled as the professional falconers. Again, we must not assume that the nobles were necessarily less skilled or involved in the art.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

American Falconry

Yesterday’s class got me thinking about the continuation of falconry in the United States. Frederick II’s insistence that the very act of training the bird was the noblest part of the sport got me wondering how falconers in the contemporary United States view it. It is definitely considered a sport, which is a rather nebulous term these days, with a meaning loosely connected to some form of athletic activity. How many people actually consider hunting a “sport” versus how many consider it a leisure activity or a cruel hangover from a more violent world? Also, is curling a sport? Croquet? Table tennis? Competitive eating? Falconry, it seems then, has been tossed into the mix with these many activities we can’t find a category for. But then again, what was the meaning of “sport” in the medieval ages? It seems to be equally ambivalent and perhaps even more nebulous, encompassing all leisure activity.
            But the “sport” aspect of falconry – condemned by the Church if done in excess and (ineffectively) forbidden to members of the clergy – was not what made it noble. Frederick’s long treatise could have easily been titled “The Art of the Science of the Sport of Hunting with Birds.” As we learn from Frederick, “the actual taking of prey should be a secondary consideration.”[1] The laborious, painstaking method for training birds of prey is the most important consideration. The nobility in falconry is found in the fact that “it is far more difficult and requires more ingenuity to teach raptorial birds the stratagems of hawking than to instruct dogs or wild quadrupeds to hunt.”[2] If, by Frederick’s time, the “art” of falconry was so tied up in nobility and so intent on claiming its status as the noblest of all sports, how does it survive in our (ostensibly) classless and anti-elitist society?
            I didn’t want to drop the money for a modern falconry textbook, but I found this article about a woman starting up a falconry class in New Hampshire. The way some of the aspects of falconry are described betray how drastically different our modern sensibilities have made our views on the sport. The writer of the article feels it necessary to assure us that the falcons get a meal, whether or not they actually catch their prey, and that “the leather hood that fits over the bird’s head actually calms the bird down.”[3] The article also emphasizes that the training techniques employed to prepare the birds for hunting “simply use the birds’ instincts to train them.”[4] This particular tidbit was especially interesting in light of our discussion in class over how bizarre it was that the bird’s instincts seemed to be radically redirected or limited by the training they underwent. Frederick and others of his ilk cared about the birds’ treatment only as it related to their efficiency. “Animal cruelty” would not have struck a chord with medieval contemporaries. Even if it did, should they have wanted to write a moral treatise about it, they would have had to sacrifice a flock of sheep to do so.
            There seems to be very little emphasis on the actual training process in the article. The actual act of hunting with the bird was the star of the show. According to the woman who opened up her falconry school in the area, the most exciting part of falconry was the fact that it involves an unpredictable wild animal, so you never know that might happen. The article does go into detail about the demanding nature of caring for and training the birds – Nancy Cowan, who runs the school, has to spend six hours with them per day and can’t even answer the phone when she is with them! But the main event is that the school offers guided hunts for those who don’t have the time to go through a two-year apprenticeship and become a master falconer. The highlight of these events are the aeronautic displays of the birds themselves – people are incredibly entertained by their grace and break-neck speed. The prey isn’t even mentioned in this part of the article, which, curiously, seems to agree with Frederick that the catching of prey is a secondary consideration.
            This is, however, amazingly different from the exclusive noble nature of medieval falconry. Suddenly it has become a spectacle – a sort of avian dolphin show, which anybody can participate in for a nominal fee. If you want to just see them fly around and kill something, you can go watch it once. If you get interested and want to actually learn how to do it, you can take a class. If you have a child that seems to be lacking in extracurricular activities, you can sign them up for falconry 101, “for younger students, kids aged 13-17.”[5] Falconry is suddenly an all-inclusive, albeit obscure, spectator sport for anyone with a passing interest. Frederick would be appalled, and he wasn’t easy to appall. The noblest feature of falconry has been at best played down and at worst painted as an eccentric waste of time that makes a mildly amusing spectacle possible.
            A quick glance at the Falconry Academy's website seems to confirm this newer version of falconry’s interest in romanticizing the hunt itself over the training. The website’s introduction tries to share the intoxicating feeling of the hunt with some scene setting:
Picture yourself walking through a field hitting every piece of brush, trying to flush out rabbits. Your Harris Hawk is following you from tree to tree, waiting and anticipating the flushing of game. Suddenly a rabbit breaks from the brush, the hawk quickly takes off, and turns to chase the rabbit in aggressive pursuit. Eventually the rabbit out maneuvers the hawk, he turns in mid-air and returns to your glove for a small reward. This is falconry…[6]
Take a moment to resituate yourself in the real world after that piece of riveting prose. Does that sound like Frederick to you? Additionally, the website tells us that, though the sport is practiced by a very small, dedicated population of people, the goal of The Falconry & Raptor Education Foundation is to educate more people on the true nature of the sport so that it will grow stronger, popular, and better understood. Their desire for falconry to be practiced properly is no doubt in line with Frederick’s undertaking, but the websites ideal of exposing “a wide variety of people to falconry,” including local fifth graders, might coax a scoff out of the Holy Roman Emperor.
            Thus, falconry in our modern age is a very different beast (pun very much intended) than its medieval counterpart. The art of training the falcon is assuredly as time-consuming and demanding as it always has been, but it is not by itself the point of falconry. Between Frederick II and Nancy Cowan, romanticism reared its rather attractive head and seems to have stuck around for the long haul. Hunting with falcons is a way to connect with, or marvel at, nature. It is by no means a way to prove one’s nobility. To portray someone with a falcon on his/her arm now would indicate eccentricity, not nobility. The picture of the falconer is that of an enigmatic figure practicing an ancient art for the sake of its awe-inspiring beauty and the connection to nature it provides.

Dan F.

[1] Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, The Art of Falconry, trans. and ed. Casey E. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1943), 105.
[2] Ibid, 6.
[3] Spencer Baselice, The Heart of New England, October 28, 2010. <>
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid

Nobility and Falconry

For the first time we get a complete treatise and an entire section in Albertus on Falconry with vivid descriptions of the actual birds, as if they were looking at them. Our previous readings have been less detailed on the actual care of the animal and rather more about the social aspects, or picking a servant to do the work then moving towards a discussion of the monetary values of the animal. For example we did not read about the details of an oxen or the eye color of a sheep. These readings were definitely unique in this sense; the authors had experience and were confident in their knowledge of the actual birds. Therefore, what struck me most from the readings, Frederick II and Albertus, was that there is a definite connection between the nobility and falconry. Why this is surprising to me, I am not sure. We have already read about rabbit warrens, artificial fish ponds, and large flocks of sheep that help flaunt the wealth of nobles. Why are these birds so unique and so important? For one Frederick is compelled to write on them in great detail.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Proper Falconry

For those who are curious about what it is like to fly a falcon, from the many offerings available on YouTube,

an English falconer shows off his birds;

falcons and eagles hunt rabbits (in Germany?);

and falcons go duck hunting in Oklahoma.


Luxury Animals and Selective Breeding

This week, selective breeding appears to be invading my life. On Thursday, I received a catalog from Heifer International, a charity that does great work giving animals to the international poor to improve their diet and economic circumstances. Part of the program is that the gift of a goat/cow/sheep will create a self-replicating cycle of improvement as the animals give birth and the new animals are given or sold to other poor families. So imagine my surprise when Heifer asked me to send them $120 so they could send two female goats to a family in need.

This reminded me of a scene from The King and I, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical. The King of Siam decides to send a pair of male elephants to America to help President Lincoln win the Civil War. When Anna, a British schoolteacher, suggests that perhaps two male elephants would not provide Lincoln an army of elephants, the king agrees and decides to send two female elephants.

In the modern world, these are amusing errors. However, they represent a belief that modern people should understand the basics of breeding. Looking at our recent readings, I was surprised how suddenly modern-style selective breeding made an appearance. Walter of Henley, for example, barely gives any advice on how animals should be bred. Although he acknowledges pigs and sheep should be “sorted”, he gives no advice on how to pick out the better stock or how they could be induced to breed and produce better offspring 1. This is in context of relatively extensive discussions on the proper feeding, housing, and weaning of animals (particularly cattle). This distinction is particularly pronounced in the case of cattle, where Walter makes no mention of good breeding. Furthermore, he seems to be sure that oxen and horses must be bought, rather than taken from one’s own flock 2. Given his apparently large stock of cattle, why would Walter buy oxen unless he didn’t believe high quality oxen and horses could be created by selective breeding?

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Capybara -- Not a Medieval Animal

But somewhat related to the Middle Ages tangentially by way of its acceptability as a food for Lent.

Unit of Measure by Sandra Beasley

All can be measured by the standard of the capybara.
Everyone is lesser than or greater than the capybara.
Everything is taller or shorter than the capybara.
Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze
more or less frequently than the capybara.
Everyone eats greater or fewer watermelons
than the capybara. Everyone eats more or less bark.
Everyone barks more than or less than the capybara,
who also whistles, clicks, grunts, and emits what is known
as his alarm squeal. Everyone is more or less alarmed
than a capybara, who—because his back legs
are longer than his front legs—feels like
he is going downhill at all times.
Everyone is more or less a master of grasses
than the capybara.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why The Rabbit But Not The Hare?

One of my biggest questions about the whole rabbit fondness in Medieval England is that the hare is native and plentiful on the island. So why did the medieval Norman gentry feel the need to import rabbits? I started by doing a little quick research on the common differences between the two because that might help explain the Normans desire to import the rabbits rather than hunt the hares.
Both hares and rabbits belong to the same Linnaean classification family - Leporidae - and both are plentiful, quick breeders and adaptable to a wide variety of environments.[1] (FYI: apparently the terms “harlot”, “whore” and “hare” all meant pretty much the same thing in Middle English and came from the same root[2]) The hare and the rabbit are both edible and can be prepared in the same fashion; they are both low in fat content and carry the same health issues for those eating the meat. They both feed on the same things, feed at night, live in the same areas, have the same enemies, and both have sensitive ears, nose, and quick speed.[3]
Major differences between the hare and the rabbit include the fact that hares are born with fur and open eyes, unlike rabbits. Hares are solitary and live in nests above ground while rabbits are communal and live in burrows below ground. Hares are larger and heavier than rabbits and consequently can jump further, than a rabbit and keep up their speed for longer periods of time. Many of the hares turn white in the winter while rabbits keep the same color fur all year round. Since I have been a vegetarian since I was 11 I have never eaten either but the hare supposedly has a gamier flavor than the rabbit. Probably the most major difference between the two is that the hare has not been domesticated while the rabbit has been domesticated in Europe since at least the Romans.[4]

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Species-oriented sources

Tournament Cat, 2008
Since we're all doing our bibliographies right now, I thought it might be helpful to mention Reaktion Books' animal series:

I have Pigeon and Moose, and have found them to be a great starting-point for species-oriented research. Lots of images, nice, long bibliographies, and relatively un-embarrassing bus-reading.

And if you need a break, check out some more of Jeff de Boer's cat and mouse armor.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Clean vs. Unclean

Hello Hello,

I didn't have time to ask this question earlier because we ran out of time.

As a Seventh-Day Adventist, Leviticus 11 pretty much defines my diet. I personally approach this passage from the perspective of a modern, health-conscientious person, but nonetheless, I've had extensive bible studies on the theological implications of one's choice of diet.

My question is: did these dietary laws have any impact on daily food comsumption in the Middle Ages? Did they carry any weight in the medieval conscience? From just looking at the statistics for pork consumption, I would assume that these laws were arbitrary to a medieval peasant. However, in "Fish Consumption in Medieval England," we read that the Church began to place restrictions on meat consumption and fish naturally became a convenient substitute. These dietary restrictions were probably implemented to counter the secularization of monastic lifestyles but did they permeate to other areas of society? If so, to what degree?

Rabbits and Modern History

One of our readings for today being about rabbits, I thought I'd tell you about this narrative-esque documentary film I saw a year ago.

It's called "Rabbit a la Berlin," and relates the story of rabbits who inhabited the space between the two Berlin walls (the Berlin Wall actually consisted of two walls with a space in between), unable to get out and protected from natural predators until 1989. In the film, the story of the Berlin Wall is told from the perspective of these rabbits and is more effective than most documentaries I've seen on this topic. Which, all in all, reminds me of a goal of this course: to understand the Late Middle Ages, and medieval society, through the study of animals.

The Question of Evidence

The fundamental exercise of the medieval historian is teasing a narrative out of an often scattered or incomplete body of evidence.  At our last meeting, we once again discussed some of the problems that evidence (or the lack of it) can pose for the researcher of animals in the Middle Ages.  How should we interpret archaeological findings, for example?  Do medieval animal remains offer us a comprehensive view of the ways in which people and animals during the period encountered one another?

In the case of the latter question, we seemed to agree that it is highly problematic to argue for continuity of animal experience for the whole of medieval Europe going off of isolated archaeological evidence alone.  Nevertheless, an archaeological approach can be extremely useful as a means of filling in gaps in our knowledge stemming from incomplete records or conflicting accounts.  Our readings on rats and the plague were informed by substantial use of archaeological data and epidemiological/statistical modeling.  The findings of these modern scientific approaches were interpreted against the backdrop of more standard forms of medieval historical evidence (writings and art), resulting in novel theories about the relationship between rats and the spread of plague in the fourteenth century.  It seems to me, however, that David E. Davis either undercuts the importance of his own research or underestimates its potential value for the historian when he says that the Rattus rattus’s presence in Europe prior to the outbreak of the plague is of lesser concern to the medievalist than the plague’s consequences (Davis, 468).  Most historians, I would wager, value understanding of the causes behind events just as highly as they do understanding of the consequences of events—but this is just a personal quibble I had with Davis’s presentation.

Help on Paper Topic

As I've been scavenging about for a paper topic, I keep coming back to the "Talking Animals" section of our syllabus. Possibly because I'm a child at heart, I'm very interested in getting to write a paper about stories or fables. That said, I have absolutely no experience (before this class, anyway) with medieval literature, so I'm not always sure what's viable. I've come up with a couple of different ideas on how I could approach a paper about talking animals in literature. I'd be very grateful if you all would look at the ideas and let me know which ones you think will be most viable or interesting (and any source ideas you have!).

Idea 1:
My first idea was spawned by Albertus Magnus. Albertus states that animals all act in the same general ways (because of the "natural powers" which dictate the passions and actions of a species)1. This general way of thinking about the actions of animals (that they have predictable and common habits and actions) should carry over into literature. For instance, if there are two foxes in a fable, they should have similar personality characteristics and perform similar actions.

However, we come into further complexity when we talk about talking animals. Speech, at least in the modern sense, conveys intelligence and memory (and probably free will). We choose what to say, formulate it based on our intelligence, and often reference memories of prior events or knowledge and extrapolate them to the current situation. Although medieval scholars indicate animals can produce sounds to communicate certain things (Albertus, for instance, states that birds make certain sounds when searching for a mate), I doubt any of them would have called this "speech". Similarly, although Albertus talks about training animals, he does not express any belief that this learning indicates an understanding of speech similar to that of humans. According to Aristotle's tripartite model of the soul (which Albertus uses), although animals have sensory abilities and some cognitive ones (estimation, imagination, memory of a sort), animals do not have higher reasoning abilities like intelligence and free will 2.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Status and Animals: Second Attempt

    In class on Friday, I tried to put forward the idea that in the Middle Ages, human interactions with animals may have varied along the lines of status. In the end, I wasn’t particularly articulate or successful, so, finding myself lacking more world-shattering subject matter for this post, even at the end of several days of refection, I decided to give the idea another try. I am sure you all (this does not apply to you, unknown readers) will forgive the repetitiveness.
I’ll start with the shortest thing we read, which was, incidentally, also the first one I finished. I ended up sending Steve Farrar’s article1 to my mom, whose 4-year old cat just recently died from FIV. I sent it to her because I thought she’d enjoy reading about the similar attachment of owners to pets in the seemingly so different a world as Medieval Europe. We later talked about the article, and she commented that animals (especially cats and dogs) are just so endearing…it’s hard not to get attached. Indeed, that falls along the lines of why I thought this article was so thought-provoking. After all, humans back then could not have been so un-sentimental as to never get attached to the loyal friend that a dog is, or the warm purring thing that is a cat. And for proof of such attachment, we don’t just have my questionable deductive skills, we have literary evidence! The example of abbot Thierry’s of St. Trond verses, written on the death of his dog is quite perfect. Indeed, all the examples in the article point at the same idea: the commonplace of owners becoming attached to and loving their pets is not actually a modern commonplace.

What Pascal Said

H'llo, y'all. 
So I was thinking about my paper last night and then I was reading Pascal (1623-62) and then I was having this thought.

See, Pascal says this:
It is dangerous to make man too aware that he is on the same level as animals without demonstrating to him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him too aware of his greatness without showing him his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him ignorant of either state, but very helpful to demonstrate both of them to him.

Man must not think he is on a level with either beasts or angels, and he must not be ignorant of those levels, but he should know both. 

" - Pg. 38 (of the 1995 Oxford World Classics edition of the Pensees, translated by Honor Levi)

Friday, October 15, 2010

What a Joy

While we were all talking today about animals as pets/meat/skins/and livestock what do you think Joy was thinking about? (and we have already established that animals have imaginations and can think for those of you who beg to differ if she was even thinking at all) Later I might add she was chewing on her tail, if that helps you answer the question.

From the position of the picture you might know who took this, however I am not about to give myself away in case my participation grade is on the fence.

This Country Life: Animals as Help and Hindrance to the Medieval Farmer

It is very hard to discover the way that medieval people actually used and experienced animals, as became clear in our class discussion. Obviously archaeological evidence and tax rolls can give us evidence of the animals that were present, help us approximate their value, and suggest the manner in which they were used. But it cannot give us solid answers, even about those questions, and certainly cannot reveal much at all about human interactions with animals or the ways humans processed those interactions. For this we need supplementary information.

There are two main types of sources which we have not approached but which provide more evidence for the ways in which people used animals during daily farm life in the Middle Ages. These are literature and art. Although these were largely created for a rich audience, many pieces of literature and also artwork such as illuminated psalters, contain descriptions and images of medieval peasants going about their daily lives. Through these we can get some sense of what actual farming looked like.

Through examining the Luttrell Psalter, the Très Riches Heures, and the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from the Cantebury Tales, I would like to make several observations about both medieval farming practice and the broader relationship between humans and animals in the Middle Ages. This will include a further look at using oxen and horses on the farm, as well as a glimpse of something not captured in tax rolls, the natural predator. Through this discussion I would like to advance a very modest claim: Medieval people, although well-versed in using animals in their farm work, had a complicated relationship with the natural world because of the unpredictability of nature and the dangers posed by many animals.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Medieval Economics in Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds

As we spoke about manorial advice of Sir Walter Henley in today’s discussion I wondered whether or not this advice was actually put into practice throughout most manors and Abbeys during the Middle Ages. Later on when we explored further readings, most specifically Postan’s Village Livestock in the Thirteenth Century, who mentions that he based his calculations mostly upon the tax accounts and jury records and surname accounts of the manors within Hinderclay , that happens to be a part of the larger Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds I was further motivated to explore the general economic state of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. I had also been reading this piece of literature for a separate class and therefore I thought that this exploration would help to better my understanding of the text.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Animals, Salvation, and Humans, oh my

On Monday morning while crawling through the depths of the internet and desperately trying to avoid writing this blog entry, I stumbled upon this comment in an opinion piece on Religion Dispatches:

Perhaps some religions can be compatible with evolution and the closing of the gulf between humans and other animals, but Christianity can’t. Christianity is based on the concept of Jesus dying for the sins of man, and acceptance of his name granting eternal life in heaven. That argument makes no sense if humans and other animals are ultimately the same. 1

Leaving aside certain other problematic aspects of this comment2, my eyebrows did raise slightly at the assertion of a deep gulf between humans and animals within Christianity. Especially given the understanding of humanity's relation to animals that we have encountered in Albertus Magnus and the bestiaries.3 Inspired by this bit of eyebrow raising, I hope to investigate exactly how Albert, along with others, depict the distinction between humans and animals and what, if any, soteriological ramifications this distinction may have.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Is it Science?

Two questions came up in discussion on Friday that I think are particularly worthy of continued discussion: does Albert have a specific audience (and purpose) in mind for the De animalibus, and can his work be called science?

      We established fairly firmly that while Albert’s work lacks the scientific and experimental rigor of our modern conceptions, it is anachronistic to deny this the title of “science” on methodological grounds. Likewise it appears to me anachronistic to apply a polarized notion of science as being in opposition to theology— we have said on multiple occasions that rather than viewing contemplation of the physical world and contemplation of the divine as two separate disciplines, medieval scholars see one as aiding in the understanding of the other. In other words, science is not an end in itself.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

To Beef or not to Beef?

I think I’m going to do something slightly less formal for my post than has been done previously.

It seems to me that one of the main problems that we’ve had so far in talking about the ways that animals are classified or identified is the vocabulary we use. We struggle to find ways to express exactly what we mean. Often we carry over connotative meaning without intending to. The English language still carries with it some built-in distinctions that are left over from Medieval ways of talking about animals.

Prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066, most people in England were speaking a variation of either Old English or Old Norse. The OE word for cow is . Not much of a surprise there. Cow is one of those words that has come down to us through the Indo-Germanic roots of our language and hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years. Pigga is another word that probably looks pretty familiar, along with cicen (chicken), scéap (sheep), and déor (deer). All of these words are Germanic in origin, and the main difference between the way they are now and the way they were 1,000 years ago is the spelling. All of them, with the exception of deer, refer to domesticated animals, and they all played an integral role in the agricultural societies of northern Europe during the Middle Ages.

Evil Non-Men and Some Very Dangerous Newts


 For the natural science theorists in the late Middle Ages, Aristotle's word was law - and advancing interpretations that were too novel required some very careful side-stepping and sliding around in order to make it seem like there were no conflicts with the theoretical standard. The Resl's "Philosophical Beliefs" chapter references this complication quite explicitly, most memorably in the case of Jean de Jandun and Albertus Magnus's suggestion that some degree of imagination and fantasy exist in all animals - and it wasn't that Aristotle's denied this in his description of bees and ants in De Anima but rather that the translator must simply have gotten it wrong.
     For this reason, among a host of others, it behooves us to take a closer look at pre-Medieval natural science commentators. These men, who lived their lives in the wake of the sack of Rome and before the full onset of the Dark Ages, interpreted the hierarchy of beasts in Christian Neo-Platonist terms - often in the best cases with Aristotle as a non-infallible commentator and source. Of these, perhaps Boethius is one of the most well-established early Aristotelians and most ultimately influential authors (as is noted in the Resl, it was his early Latin translations of Aristotle's logical corpus that eventually found their way into the Medieval mind). In his Consolation of Philosophy, he makes this powerful remark about the moral symbolism of animals and the construction of the tripartite soul:

Animals in Court

I was doing random searches trying to find possible bibliographical data for my paper and came across a couple of webpages dealing with the trial and/or execution of animals for a variety of offenses against humans as well as witnesses and character references! Punishment for guilty animals included exile, excommunication, execution, and damnation and consideration was taken by the court regarding age, sex and infirmity, just as if the animal was human. If animals don't have the rational soul with gives them free will, intellect, and memory, how can they be held accountable for their actions in a court of law? By thier very actions, they are fulfilling the existence that God created them for, so how can that be considered a crime? I'm very curious as to the logic of this since - from what i can tell - this was not an extremely rare occurence. Yet it seems to clash with the whole system of logic that was in place during this time period regarding the place of animals in the medieval world.


PS: I've already decided on a topic for my paper and since I'm a MAPSS student, i am keeping it semi focused on my larger thesis. Therefore, i can't use this idea but it would make for such an entertaining paper i can't resist putting the idea out there for someone else to use (if you are having difficulties coming up with a paper topic).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bestiaries and the Book of Nature

In descriptions of medieval bestiaries, we are often told that the texts make extensive use of symbolism.  That the animals described within act as symbols for particular moral truths that the authors wish to convey.  For instance, White’s appendix to The Bestiary touches on this at length.  On the surface, this seems to be a wholly reasonable supposition.  Surely the authors of these bestiaries did not simply intend to communicate bare biological facts or amusing anecdotes about various creatures,[1] as is evidence through their constant references to Scriptural and theological themes.  However, I would like to argue that classifying the contents of a bestiary as merely symbolic obscures the true medieval understanding of animals, and nature as a whole, by imposing modern distinctions between humanity, nature, and God onto a medieval world of thought which does not share them.  In fact, the bestiaries, of which I’ll particularly focus on the Aberdeen Bestiary, provide one of the best means of elucidating exactly how medieval thinkers understood nature, particularly the immanence and manifestation of God within the created world.

Avicenna and the capacity for discernment

While Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) is on our minds, I thought I might point out something else about his perspective on animal minds that could provide food for thought. Unlike Plato, whose dualistic concept of the ideal image and the fundamentally flawed or imperfect nature of materiality results in his near-absolute censure of carnal love and full exaltation of sublime love (at best, carnal love excited by physical beauty is nothing more than a stepping stone to higher truths and should be cast aside as soon as possible), Ibn Sīnā believes that the different faculties of desire are all essentially positive forces, each with a role to play in the elevation of the spirit. The key to moral conduct lies in your knowing which faculty comes first, which takes precedence over the others. In his Treatise on Love (al-risālah fī al-ʿishq), he expands on Plato and divides the soul's capacity for desire into five categories: the love of the simple and inanimate, the love of the vegetative faculty, the love of the animal faculty, the love of the noble-minded and gallant (ẓurafāʾ and fityān) for external beauty, and the love of divine souls. These loves do not cancel one another out, but rather add to one another to cumulatively produce a higher state of existence.

A donkey, in Ibn Sīnā's example, possesses no less than three faculties for discernment, the simple, the vegetative, and the animal (spirited). These all contribute to his well-being by allowing him to discern different levels of Good; the vegetative faculty tells him that grass is tasty, but when a lion appears on the horizon, his spirited faculty tells him that continued life is better, and he accordingly runs away. He chooses the greater good over the lesser, and this is a sign of his acting according to God's plan, a behavior that is fundamentally good. Humanity is merely expected to do the same. Possessed of the capacity for discerning sublime truth, we should be able to override our appetites just as the donkey did and choose
eternal pleasure in virtue over the temporary pleasure of earthly desire. It is not that the desire of the appetitive soul is inherently bad, it simply needs to be held in check by the higher faculties at the appropriate time. The bulk of humanity, of course, rarely strays beyond the appetitive faculty of other animals, and therein lies our shame; we dishonor our Creator by ignoring the capacity for exalted thought we possess.

I find it interesting that in this text, as well as some of the others we have read, Ibn Sīnā does not see any fundamental difference between humans and other animals as far as how our minds work. Like humans, animals are capable of discernment and choice between lesser and greater goods. The only thing that separates humanity from the rest of the animal world is this question of capacity, which is more rooted in the realm of the potential than in that of the actual.

You might want to check out:

Von Grunebaum, G. E., ‘Avicenna’s Risāla fī ʾl-ʿIšq and Courtly Love’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 11 October (1952):4, 233–238

Bell, Joseph Norment, ‘Avicenna’s Treatise on Love and the Nonphilosophical Muslim Tradition’, Der Islam, 63 (1986):1, 73–89

--Cam C

Monday, October 4, 2010

Modern and Medieval Approaches to Animals

“Marge, don’t discourage the boy. Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals! Except the weasel.”

Devoted fans of The Simpsons might recognize the above quote and have a good chuckle. But hidden in that quote is a cultural norm that seems to permeate modern consciousness: the idea that we are more advanced, and thus, separate from “the animals.” Most of us accept the idea that we are different than every other species that walks, flies or swims on this planet, and most of us accept without question that humanity is the very pinnacle of evolution. Animals serve as a form of downward social comparison for us, however much we might laud their individual features.
Indeed, part of the joy of having a pet for many people is watching the seemingly illogical things they do: my grandmother’s dog is terrified of vacuums, and a particularly odd acquaintance of mine once demonstrated to me that if one places a sock over the head of a cat, it will continuously walk backwards, perhaps thinking it is in a tunnel. These displays of what would be considered subhuman intelligence are endearing to pet owners, similar to how it never ceases to amuse us that infants really think we can’t see them if they cover their own eyes. Of course this is not the only way we derive enjoyment out of pet owning. We are often impressed by animals’ sensory perceptions, and there are plenty of incredible animal stories, wherein an animal, often a pet, performs some feat of bravery, which, if a human had performed it, would earn him/her a medal and the key to the city. Pets have called 911 for their owners, they have rushed into burning buildings and rescued children, and they have travelled incredible distances just to get back to their owners. Also, the loyalty and dependence that pets display create emotional attachments and a feeling of connection. Pets are often “part of the family.” Animals not held as pets have their attractions too: wild animals are often described as noble or majestic. People will pull their cars over to the side of the road just to take a picture of a moose or a deer.

Research Paper Brainstorming Ideas

After attending class this past week and upon reading  our discussion assignments,
I aimed to decide upon a paper topic and to begin researching as soon as possible. Our discussions have definitely sparked several ideas into my mind about the topics I would like to research. Despite that, I am still greatly undecided and will appreciate any advice or comments from classmates upon my present ideas.

I first thought of researching more about a quite domestic animal, the lamb, based not only upon the fact that I grew up around them when I was little and have always had an affinity for them, but also because it takes up such a central position within the Catholic religion. I looked within the index of the Brigitte Resl text, and browsed through the pages that made reference to lambs. I really thought it was interesting how often the lamb came into context within religion as a symbol of God and the divine, and yet it was rarely used within daily life beyond the use of its skin. I also had an inkling to research the origin of the lamb as a symbol of divinity, since we rarely see such a domestic animal taking on this grand type of symbolism. Usually lions, doves, eagles, panthers, and leopards and other more extraordinary animals are considered perfect and divine.