Monday, October 4, 2010

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.

I have also wanted to research another animal that has caught my attention since I was little. The wolf- hound I owned as a child has always remained within my memory and its often quirky behavior has interested me. I used to contemplate how tame it was, if ever, since it was part wolf and part domestic dog. Our earlier conversation about how animals think and behave resurfaced these questions within me. I therefore took it upon myself to spend some time online and within Crerar Library last week researching animal behavior. I thought about writing  upon the presence and symbolism of the wolf within medieval literature. I also thought about the fact that the wolf is such a strong symbol within Christianity with the Middle Ages. I came upon several books that referenced several of my interests , amongst them The History of the Wolf in Western Civilization From Antiquity to the Middle Ages by Malcolm Donalson, Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages by Aleksander Pluskowski, and also The Beast Within : Animals in the Middle Ages by Joyce E. Salisbury. After browsing through them this weekend , I became really excited to discover several new topics.

At first I wished to write upon the symbolism of the wolf within Medieval literature. Possibly to take several stories and compare and contrast the presence of the wolf within it and discuss the morals associated within these fairy tales and fables. I also wanted to perhaps research more upon the Christian aspect of the wolf within the Middle Ages. I really liked this idea but was afraid to find differences amongst interpretation and symbolism within Christian text, if any. I also browsed through several sections that discussed the presence of the wolf within art, but was once again afraid that I would not be able to interpret these images correctly, not having  much background within the art world.

There was one issue that really concerned me when I was reading both the books that I checked out this weekend and also while I was reading through our discussion material. I wanted to know what distinction the Medieval philosophers believed made domestic dogs more worthy to be considered man's companion than the wolf, considering that all dogs are descendants of the wolf. I wanted to know what criterian natural philosophers employed when they deemed the wolf as the symbol of the Devil and the dog as a loyal companion of man. I thought about using the bestiaries and also the theories of several philosophers to answer this question. I think this a very interesting question but one that is quite challenging due to the fact that so many different theories upon animals existed within the Middle Ages and many of them have not had first had experience observing the wolf within its natural environment enough to provide a concrete objective theory. None of them were fully recognised and therefore it would be difficult to apply specific theories over other ones within the paper. I would have had to apply them all to one paper.

The one topic I enjoyed the most was the more anthropological side of  the history of wolves and their interactions amongst Medieval society. I discovered that although many people believed the wolf simply as an evil symbol in Christianity and within literature, not everyone agreed. Many still used the wolf within their everyday lives, either capturing and taming them or selling their fur for economic profit and their bodies for magic spells and spiritual ceremonies. So after all, not all historians agreed about the perception of the wolf within the Middle Ages. Not all thought that the wolf was just a threat to domestic animals and a nuisance to be exterminated. I really would like to explore this topic further.

It is obvious that at this moment I am all over the place within my possible paper topics. I seem to be interested in everything and am in great need of assistance. I would greatly appreciate any advice about any of my possible topics, whether good or bad. I am open to any alternate suggestions in order to help me significantly narrow my topic down by the end of this week.

Thank you in advance.



  1. I have to say: I'm already impressed by the fact you've come up with so many topics already (and researched!).

    Here are my (meager) thoughts:

    The lamb will probably be the easiest to research, as it seems to have been a popular topic in the literature of the period. Most of the sources also seem to agree on the general tenants of the lamb's use, symbolism, and behavior. This could be very useful if you have a point you already want to make (ie, that the lamb has special status in both physical and cultural life), but could be a problem if you want to find and explore an inconsistency within the views of the lamb.

    I'm not sure all or most medieval scholars realized the dog was descended from the wolf in any meaningful way (except in the case of domesticated wolves who may have bred with dogs). They may have thought of them as two completely different species. If I'm right (and I'm not sure on this point), it may be hard to determine which literature you should be looking at to find more information on the wolfhound.

    I think both the literary and physical interactions people had with wolves would be great topics.

    Hope this helps at least a tiny bit!

  2. I think that you should choose a topic that you are excited about, and it definitely seems like you are interested in both wolves and lambs. Like Hannah, my first thought on wolves is that in the Medieval period people may not have been aware that dogs were domesticated wolves. It may be interesting to use wolves and dogs as a way to probe the question how did people in the middle ages distinguish between species/kinds?

  3. Thank you for your thoughts and advice. I haven't really written many research papers throughout my college career and therefore I am still having a lot of questions. For example, do I have to focus specifically on either literature or human interactions if I want to write upon inconsistencies with the perception of the wolf in the middle ages? or can I mention all the inconsistencies I find across literature and within culture in the same paper?


  4. It depends on how much material you find. Usually zeroing in on the smallest corner of the topic possible is the best idea (ie, wolves in medieval literature instead of wolves in the middle ages, and wolves in Marie de France instead of wolves in medieval literature). However, depending on the question you're asking and how many examples in the primary sources you can find, you may choose to broaden your source base. Certainly if you were researching human interaction with wolves during the middle ages it would be very feasible to look at literary examples of it. If you really want to talk about literature, though, it would probably be strange to use both literary and non-fiction accounts. However, it would still depend very much on what you wanted to do with them. My suggestion for the stage that you're in would be to read as much as you possibly can and then narrow down your topic after you have a good sense of what sources you can find and what things are the most interesting to you.

    One thing about wolves which you may be completely uninterested in but I will put out anyway: have you considered werewolves at all?

  5. I'd stay clear of the werewolf question if what you are really interested in is wolves. But it might be interesting to consider of you are looking more at representations of wolves, particularly when you deal with wolves like Isengrim.