Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Do Not Meddle in the Affairs of Dragons...

The Flight of Dragons might remind some of the 1982 animated film featuring the voice acting James Earl Jones, but for me that title represents the 1979 book by Peter Dickinson which lent its name to the movie. The book is a work of speculative natural history that posits that dragons were real and attempts to explain their physiology and behavior using historical and literary sources from around the world and across history.
It is this book that was brought to my mind by the discussion last Wednesday. Our fundamental problem seemed to be that we did not seem to be able to make sense of dragons in some fundamental way because they did not fall into the pattern of the other animals that we have looked at thus far. An animal like the elephant or the “cameleopard’ has a real animal attached to what may have been a medieval misinterpretation. The dragon does not have a real analog there. We can compare it to a large serpent or constrictor, but these seem inadequate explanations for Beowulf’s fire-breathing dragon, or the healing dragons of the East. I’m beginning to wonder if Peter Dickinson didn’t have the right idea. He presumed that dragons were, in fact, real, and attempted to make sense of the various sources he examined with the presumption that they were referring to real animals.

Here, There Be Dragons

Our discussion in class on Wednesday raised three questions that I think get at the core of the issue of conceptualizing medieval dragons—do we give them undue significance symbolically because we believe they don’t exist? Do they occupy the same symbolic space as stags or wolves? Are they special, or just “big beasts”?

Foxiness of a Fox...Lionness of a Lion

I forgot which class it was but someone brought up the point that medieval people didn't just use animal symbolism to emphasize negative qualities of a person but also used "dignified" animals as someone's counterpart in the natural world.

In a passage from The Prince, Machiavelli writes that "[t]o have as a teacher a half-beast, half-man means nothing other than that a prince needs to know how to use both natures; and the one without the other is not lasting." (XVIII) He goes on to encourage princes to participate in their beastly nature because it is out of necessity. Of all the animals, "he should pick the fox and the lion, because the lion does not defend itself from snares and the fox does not defend itself from wolves. So one needs to be a fox to recognize snares and a lion to frighten the wolves." Machiavelli takes two predatory animals, combines their qualities to create a set of desirable traits for a prince.

I thought I'd post this because I saw a few themes we discussed in class floating around in this passage. First, Machiavelli doesn't tell his reader (Lorenzo d'Medici) to refrain from being the animal, but says that it is required of him (as a ruler) to become the animal when necessity arises. He emphasizes this by drawing from the qualities from two animals. The fox represents cunning while the lion symbolizes ferocity. These two animals are then juxtaposed with the wolf, which represents chaos, calamity, and disorder in this context. He advises the young prince, simply being a lion will not help defend oneself from wolves, "the one who has known best how to use the fox has come out the best." This pitting of the fox against the wolf (and vice versa) reminded me of Renard the Fox. Although in class, I don't think we quite knew whether to classify Renard as good or bad but Machiavelli would praise the cunning, deceit, and boldness of Renard. This animosity between the fox and the wolf appears in Machiavelli's work-though I doubt that he was writing with the tales in mind.

Some cute pictures I stumbled upon...

Ysengrin ensnared by Renard's trap.

Ysengrin weeping..

AND I just love the expression on Renard's face.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Aesop’s Fables translated and transmitted in Middle Ages

I was curiously looking around to find more medieval art to post and kept coming up with medieval manuscripts, the colorful pages illuminated around the text to show a story in and of itself unfolding. Somehow I found myself with translations of Aesop’s Fables. There is a picture of Aesop himself writing his book in German 15th century hat (see below). This leads me to the current discussion – what did medieval people think of Aesop’s fables? From what we know about animals in the middle ages and their use in symbolism, teaching tools, hunting, food, daily life, religious significance, and more I began to really think about this question. Of course I first turn to Wikipedia, there contains a list of the numerous languages that the fables were translated into throughout time, barely a language or region of Europe is missing and there is also a following in India believe it or not.[1]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Look at my cat!

In looking at the uncomfortable reading on the character of animal insults, I was most interested by Sarah Lipton's demonstration of the gradual erasure of directly disgusting imagery around the cat, as the animal alone comes to stand for heresy. While the images she discusses begin with humans performing disgusting acts on cats, they end with the cat standing alone, automatically associated with that disgust. In that vein, I thought it might be useful to outline the characteristics of contemporary cat hatred or love, to deepen our understanding of just how much or how little the cat itself takes part in its bad reputation, then and now.
In her book Pets, Erica Fudge describes the gap in contemporary animal scholarship produced by the pet figure; whereas the medieval cat may have been more easily reviled for its familiar unfamiliarity, while the dog was admirable insofar as it was in tune with human desires, the contemporary pet is seen as denatured, as somehow less than animal (in Deleuze and Guattari's terms, the Oedipal animal). I'm reminded of Pen and Teller's (infuriating) episode of Bullsh*t in which they attack pet owners who seem to understand their pet as more than just a dumb animal; modern pet owners, at least in theory, operate between the ideas that the pet is either just a subservient animal, and therefore an unnecessary object of misplaced love, or that it is less than an animal and that what we call love is somehow denaturing the pet, saddling it with our own emotional/cultural baggage, Oedipal or otherwise. In both cases, the dependency of the pet is what makes it contemptible.
What is most interesting in Fudge's analysis of the function of the modern pet for the purpose of this course is what she and Yi-Fu Tuan call the "ontological security" a pet provides in a modern human home. Pets receive the affection we're unable to lavish elsewhere in the isolation of modern urban society, and they "give secure meaning to humans in an insecure modern world; they allow humans to live as if with a self-assured identity" (17). While they confirm our humanity, for better or worse, and allow us the connection with animals whose lack is characteristic of urban modernity, the existence of an animal in the home undermines our authority as well in defying our capacity to bound inside from outside: the cat-flap, Fudge remarks, "reveals the lack of security that is created by the pet" (19). She again formulates the pet as "a being that can reflect back to us our fragility even as it allows us to express a sense of power and control" (20): while I don't propose to conflate the modern cat with its medieval precursor, this ontological security is tellingly reminiscent of the hierarchy of creation we discussed in class.
Cats in this respect remain very different from dogs: from Pen and Teller's standpoint (which, in accordance with the show's general assumption of "common sensical-ness", distills more general cultural assumptions about its subject), cat ownership appears as somehow degenerate a priori, while dog owners have more leeway to love and know their animals before it becomes unacceptable. There remains the idea that dogs offer us something in the way of a relationship that cats do not, the image of a cat whose love for us is entirely manufactured by our own loneliness, or even a similar inability to interact with people. Cats are excessive, desired just for being what they are rather than insofar as they relate to us directly: mainstream cat competition is purely aesthetic, while dogs have agility meets, and even the dog show demands that they run around the ring with their handler/owner/partner. For those concerned with denaturing the animal, however, the dog's need to please is more problematic than the cat's "independent" dependency (I do feel uncomfortable talking about dogs and cats in general, as though there were a general cat, but I'll correct for that in a moment). In terms of popular animal lore, lost dogs travel great distances to find home and may die of grief at their master's passing; we have the competing image of the fear of being an old woman who dies alone and gets eaten by her cats.
Particularly interesting for the purpose of this course is Fudge's tracing of the movement from dog to cat in philosophy. She notes Basil the Great's use of the dog as a figure for philosophy, "sniff[ing] towards the truth" (77). The dog is here abstracted, reminding us of the superiority of our thought to their scent in finding such truths (77); in contrast, Michel de Montaigne asks, "When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?" The cat challenges the domestic sphere in a way that the dog does not (one rarely hears cat "owners" refer to themselves as such), and Fudge remarks that Montaigne's statement here rejects abstraction in favor of the real everydayness of playing with a cat: "symbolic animals have no place in his argument as they are always already human constructions" (79).

And now for my own disgusting cat (shown above). Sophie, of gentle mien and powerful scent. Her beauty distracts me from God, and her litter box humbles me again. Or something like that. Fudge ultimately argues that it is our guessing at what could constitute animal joy that makes love possible in this relationship. My cat takes joy in things that smell horrible (the best way to lure a lost cat into his carrier? Meat-flavored baby food), in inconvenient things (my laptop cord=the best toy ever). But even as I absorb and inevitably repeat our various cultural myths about snobby, dominating cats, or crazy cat people, etc, my cat is somehow outside this. She's much more affectionate than the stereotypical cat (I could project a lot here about her being a rescue animal, but calling our relationship "gratitude" is really, thoroughly uncomfortable). She roams the apartment, does her thing, and we encounter each other throughout the day.

Erica Fudge. Pets. Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing, 2008.
Sara Lipton, “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisée,” Word and Image 8.4 (1992): 362-77.

See also Jezebel's "Myth and Reality of the Crazy Cat Lady" here: http://jezebel.com/5296696/the-myth--reality-of-the-crazy-cat-lady

Toleration and Animal Imagery

Quotes from Thomas Aquinas’ On Law, Morality, and Politics:

Regarding Jews: “Let them be legally free to observe and celebrate their holy days, as they and their ancestors have for so long observed and celebrated them in worship up to now…And so Jews observing their religious rites produce good, namely, that our enemies bear witness to our faith, and that their rites represent to us in figures, as it were, what we believe. “ (193)

Regarding Heretics: “But rulers should in no way tolerate the religious rites of other unbelievers, who contribute no truth or benefit…” (193)

“And so if secular rulers justly put counterfeiters and other felons immediately to death, much more could heretics be both excommunicated and justly killed immediately upon conviction of heresy.” (195)

As we were comparing and contrasting these passages in my SOSC class this morning, I was immediately reminded of Sara Lipton’s “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisee.” It was quite clear and evident from Lipton’s dissection of the texts and images in the Bible moralisee that the author classified Jews and heretics under the same category. However, Thomas Aquinas, one of the most eminent medieval theologians, separates the Jews from the heretics. Their presence in the society is to serve as a counter-example to what the Christians saw as the triumph of the New Testament over the Old Law. The heretics, on the other hand, are like “rotten flesh” that must be cut off lest it contaminate the rest of the body. Politically, more so than religiously, Aquinas views heretics to be threatening because they have the potential to corrupt the faith and faithful, whereas the Jews are seen to merely want enough religious tolerance to keep their customs that were once the truth faith (before Christ).

` Thus, in theory, Jews were to be given a certain degree of toleration. However, how should we define “toleration” in medieval terms? Were Jews “tolerated” as long as they were allowed to live in a segregated area of the town or as long as they were not “purged” from the land? Or, are we speaking of intent and internal actions? If so, animal imagery in medieval artwork can tell us a lot about the artist’s intent behind using animal imagery to channel intolerance.

Lipton points out three methods used by the author/illustrator in the Vienna Bible moralisee in linking Jews with heretics. The first method is random mention of Jews and heretics in the text while the second method involves visual techniques to group heretics and Jews into one. The third method is achieved by creating or adopting “a specific iconographical symbol for heresy,” such as the cat. (364) In many of the images that accompany the texts of the Bible Moralisee, Jews (distinguishable by the pointed hats and beards) are painted together with heretics, holding a cat or kissing it under the tail. This act of “worshipping” the cat became the symbol for heresy, but soon, the animal itself only had to be held by a person to denote heresy.

Can animal imagery, in this context, tell us a lot about the degree of toleration granted by Christians to Jews in popular thought and real practice (in addition to/in lieu of the facts and information we know about the heinous crimes that stemmed from anti-Semitism)?

I apologize for the disturbing content but here's something I came across when I googled "medieval cats heresy." To inflict even greater punishment on the "convicted" heretic or criminal, authorities used "cat paws" to rip the victim's flesh to shreds. With hands unavailable to ward off flies and other insects, the accused would suffer even more as blood flowed from the shredded body. (From http://www.lawbuzz.com/tyranny/torture/hanging.htm)

Here is an image of the cat paws...

It's interesting that the instrument of torture for heretics would be named "cat paws."


Aristotle. Politics. Translated by C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

Sara Lipton, “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisée,” Word and Image 8.4 (1992): 362-77.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Animal Proverbs

I found Douglas Gray’s observation that “proverbial cats are more numerous and distinctly more interesting than bestiary cats” (195) to be a novel way of looking at animals in culture that had, up to now, not occurred to me. I happen to have a wonderful handbook of proverbs entitled “Ray’s Proverbs,” originally published in the first half of the 18th century and subsequently expanded and catalogued in the 19th. I decided to do a little test and see what  would come up under the heading of a few animals. The first entry I tried was “cat”:
  1. A mewing cat is no good mouser. (Port., Gato meador nunca bom murador)
  2. You can have no more of a cat than her skin.
  3. The cat loves fish, but she’s loth to wet her feet.
  4. The more you rub a cat on the rump, the higher she sets up her tail.
  5. Though the cat winks a while, yet sure she is not blind.
  6. How can the cat help it, if the maid be a fool? (Ital., Che ne può la gatta, se la massara è matta) – refers to not putting valuable things in a secure place where the cat can’t destroy them
  7. When the cat is away, the mice will play.
  8. When candles are out, all cats are grey. – refers to infidelity
  9. The cat knows whose lips she licks.
  10. Cry you mercy, kill’d my cat – “This is spoken to them who do one a shrewd turn, then make satisfaction with asking pardon or crying mercy”
  11. I’ll keep no more cats than will catch mice. – refers to not keeping anyone in the household who will not do their share of work
  12. Who shall hang the bell about the cat’s neck? – refers to a fable in which the mice gather to decide how to deal with the problem of the cat; they agree that to put a bell around its neck would be the best way to incapacitate the cat’s stealthy attack, but then the question comes, who will dare to put the bell on the cat?
Many of the characterizations of the cat that we found in Gray’s and other readings hold true in this sample. I find particularly interesting the “cat’s rump” proverb (#4), which describes, of course, a natural tendency in cats, but if one reads the cat as a stand-in for the devil, it takes on a whole moral dimension that was initially lost to me. Cats are inherently valueless creatures who are only useful as cheap furs or mousers (#1, #2, and #11); cats are dangerous observers, constantly watching you and scheming how to get what they want (#5 and #9); cats, in general, tend towards laziness and self-indulgence (#3, #6, and #8). Interestingly, there are a number of proverbs that seem to sympathize with the mouse, rather than the cat, once again casting the latter in a faintly oppressive or demonic light (#12). While the cat is generally a negative creature in these proverbs, it is interesting there are so many, compared to other creatures who receive much fuller treatment in the bestiaries and encyclopedias. Let us look at the lion, for example:
  1. If the lion’s skin cannot, the fox’s shall. – that which cannot be done by force may be done by stealth
  2. The lion’s not half so fierce as he’s painted.
That’s it. Two. And interestingly, both proverbs question the traditional assumption of the lion being the noblest and bravest of beasts, whereas the cat’s image is rather bolstered by her proverbs. Many other important bestiary species, such as the dove, the eagle, the leopard, the goat, the owl, and the elephant make little or no appearance in the book. It is either common, everyday animals of medieval life that seem to pick up the most “personality,” such as the dog, the horse, the crow, the fox, the ass, the cock, the cow, etc. Many of the livestock phrases seem like husbandry lore passed down in mnemonic devices: May come she early or come she late, she’ll make the cow to quake; A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, But a swarm in July is not worth a fly; When the cuckoo comes to the bare thorn, sell your cow, and buy you corn. Household animals (either physically like cats, dogs, and horses, or in cultural memory like foxes and bears) have the longest lists of proverbs. Let us look at foxes:
  1. The fox preys farthest from his hole. – Thieves steal far from home, to avoid suspicion
  2. The fox never fares better than when he is bann’d.
  3. When the fox preaches, beware of your geese.
  4. Fire, quoth the fox, when he pissed on the ice. – “This is spoken in derision to those which have great expectation from some fond design or undertaking which is not likely to succeed”
  5. The fox knows much, but more he that catcheth him.
  6. Every fox must pay his own skin to the flayer.
  7. A fox should not be of the jury at a goose trial.
In all these examples, the fox seems to be a pretty close stand-in for a thief, knave, or swindler. Most of the phrases have to do with the need for vigilance against such characters, and the reassurance that sooner or later, their deeds will catch up with them. As for the horse:
  1. ‘Tis a good hose that never stumbles, and a good wife that never grumbles.
  2. A good horse often wants a good spur.
  3. ‘Tis an ill horse will not carry his own provender.
  4. Let a horse drink when he will, not what he will.
  5. The best horse needs breaking, and the aptest child needs teaching.
  6. A galled horse will not endure the comb.
  7. You may know the horse by his harness.
  8. A short horse is soon wisp’d, and a bare ass soon kiss’d.
  9. The horse that draws his halter is not quite escaped.
  10. A running horse is an open sepulchre.
Unlike the fox, the horse proverbs all target the role of good management and rearing, even likening the process to selecting a wife and raising one’s children (this is not uncommon; I remember a Persian manual for kings that has chapters on how to choose a horse, how to choose a wife, and how to buy a slave in subsequent chapters). The horse has no personality, nor does he stand in for a human archetype. He is simply the bearer of a duty, a servant among the servants who can either be well-disciplined and beneficial, or spoiled and unruly. Finally, I’ll look at dogs:
  1. Every dog hath his day, and every man his hour.
  2. The hindmost dog may catch the hare.
  3. He that would hang his dog, give out first that he is mad. – “He that is about to do any thing disingenuous, first bethinks himself of some plausible pretence”
  4. He that keeps another man’s dog, shall have nothing left him but the line. – i.e., he  who bestows a gift upon an ungrateful person loses its cost.
  5. What! keep a dog, and bark myself? – i.e., I have servants, and I must do my own work?
  6. There are more ways to kill a dog than hanging.
  7. Dogs bark before they bite.
  8. ‘Tis an ill dog that deserves not a crust.
  9. A good dog deserves a good bone.
  10. He that lies down with dogs, must rise up with fleas.
  11. Hungry dogs will eat dirty puddings.
The dogs seem somewhere between foxes and horses. They have a lowly, abject, servile personality, yet their loyalty is remarked upon (#4). There is clearly an understood difference of class between the speaker and the dog, and many of the proverbs reflect on dogs as necessary servants (#5, #6, #7, #8, #9). However, dogs can be stand-ins for people in some proverbs, such as #1, #2, and #11, which suggest a glimmer of potential or hope for even the most lowly of creatures. It is finally interesting to see how many proverbs refer to hanging (#3, #6, and there were others, but I didn’t list them because they were redundant)—this is the only animal we’ve seen so far in the world of proverbs that seem to be worthy of being rewarded or punished, thus, perhaps more potentially understood as possessing good and negative character traits.

Proverbs, as we can see, are a rich resource for thinking about animals as types, symbols, and stand-ins, because it is clear that they figure in a very different way in the public imagination than they do in something like a bestiary. Given that bestiaries were often religious, moralizing works that were more concerned with understanding and teaching truth, proverbs, fables, and fairy-tales may indeed suggest a different world of animal personalities and representations that is perhaps closer to the “popular” imagination of the time than works of philosophy and metaphysics.


Bohn, Henry G. (Henry George), 1796-1884. A handbook of proverbs : comprising an entire republication of Ray's collection of English proverbs, with his additions from foreign languages : and a complete alphabetical index : in which are introduced large additions, as well of proverbs as of sayings, sentences, maxims, and phrases, collected by Henry G. Bohn. London : H. G. Bohn, 1857.

Gray, Douglas. "Notes on Some Medieval Mystical, Magical and Moral Cats." In Langland, the mystics, and the medieval English religious tradition : essays in honour of S.S. Hussey, ed., Helen Phillips. Cambridge : D.S. Brewer ; Rochester, NY, USA : Boydell & Brewer, 1990.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Making a Mockery out of Ourselves with Animal Symbolism

               The class discussion on using animals to say awful or wonderful things was definitely helpful in thinking about my post. Yes, there is discomfort when discussing the unfortunate use of animal imagery in the history of persecution against Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The discussion in class ended with a concern for placing an article, manuscript, and any account of animal symbolism (positive or negative) within its greater context. The way in which Sara Lipton uses one animal, the cat, and investigates one manuscript, the Bible moralisee, we decided was the best example of context needed to understand what the symbolism of the cat means (including all the relevant and irrelevant interpretations).[i]  Lipton works from the specific outwards showing a larger development of the cat through the manuscript and how the cat can be symbolic for a few things even within one text as well as the things in which it is not. 

               During class I found myself thinking, “it would be great to go back in time and watch a bar fight about to happen. There might be a guy who trips and knocks into some other guy’s girlfriend, she drops her drink and before you know it someone just called someone else a sloppy baby eating pig! The boyfriend calls the drunk an ass (the donkey type) or an ox and then the entire crowd goes silent…that was low!” Okay so maybe barn animals are not that insulting now, we might just laugh it off but those kinds of insults made sense in their context! How can a barn animal insult be more clear to a modern reader? What do we have that compares today? I had a thought, political cartoons. Two political parties who are constantly making fun of and trying to degrade the other through the use animal references. Here’s the thing, as Cuffel illustrates, often the side given the animal adopts it and twists it into a positive and throws back more animal references the other way. For example, Ibn Sahula and the Arabic fable of the lion who ravishes his kingdom and then the ox and ass who become the heroes.[ii] The lion (Christianity) was supposed to be the great leader and the barn animals (Muslims) as subservient beasts. Both sides are identifying with animals yet calling each other animals in a way meant to degrade the other. Here are a few examples of modern day equivalents

Look at the following quote:
“All these uses of animals, to mark the other as irrational, unclean, violent, feminine, or masculine but in an undesirable way, point to a profound anxiety on the part of each of the communities regarding clear boundary definitions; confusion about the boundaries between human and animal, male and female, or good and bad masculinity all serve as metaphors to express concerns about the violation of religious borders.”[iii]

Now change “religious” to political or even physical, change “religious borders” to views on marriage or how about concerns about the economy. The degradation of animals as well as people through the use of political cartoons mirrors the insults that flew around Medieval towns a century ago…with the obvious differences (including: less barn animals, indoor plumbing, and the invention of the iPad). There are some things that we cannot just “Google.”[iv] The context of the animal symbolism needs to be examined. Calling someone a cat clearly did not mean they were “fulfilld of furrinesse.”[v] Understanding the evolution of animal symbolism brings us through a discussion of the hierarchy of the universe from God to plants, animals as tools for learning spirituality, animal husbandry, the medieval economy and hunting practices, and all the other class/blog discussions we have had thus far. As with the animal trials there is more to be studied, I guess we call that job security for historians. 

I’d also like to ask my colleagues to come up with a list of animals that are only found in positive symbolic ways. Then we can use those safely when referring to each other without the fear of being confused for a fearless noble lion or a blood thirsty leader lion. I had bee as a “hard worker” but then someone said that could be possible a “mindless drone” so I had to take it off my list. I also thought of complimenting someone on their quick reflexes like an “eagle” but then who wants to be compared to a bird. Maybe the point is (unless you prove me wrong) that like people, animals can have positive and negative traits too. Maybe comparing people to animals is problematic far beyond the confusion it can cause.

all political cartoons were found at:

[i] Lipton, Sara. “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisee,” Word and Image 8.4 (1992)
[ii] Cuffel, Alexandra. Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. p 205
[iii] Cuffel, p 200
[iv] Google, www.google.com
[v] Newman, Barbara. “The Cattes Tale: A Chaucer Apocryphon,” The Chaucer Review. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University: 1992. p 411

-R. Pal 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pigs in the Pokey: What makes an animal a criminal?

            There is a difference between killing an animal for meat, skin, or sport, and killing it for it’s supposed crimes. We wrestled with a number of questions this Wednesday. Is it cruel, even by the standards of the day? To what extent did people think that animals were answerable for their crimes? Why not try the owner of the animal instead of the animal itself? And why were some animals, at some times tried for crimes, and not others?

            We should first understand that the trials and executions were not mob violence, but conducted from the top-down, with lawyers, bailiffs, and executioners, sanctioned by bishops. They were, by all accounts, order and regulated. Nor were animals written off  as entities possessed by demons, but seemed to be genuinely taken to account for the things that they had done. Dinzelbacher, argued, as others in our readings did, that animal trials and executions were a method for the community to cope with unusual and disordered events. They were not scapegoats per se, but an effort by the authorities to try to impose a semblance of moral order over creatures that were compelled to serve man.

            There are several dimensions to the questions raised, which I will try to take one by one. There are obvious symbolic and biblical aspects of the animal trials. The book of Genesis clearly points out that all animals were divinely created to serve man, and for an animal to rise up and kill or maim a human was a disordered and disturbing event. And domestic animals were tried much more than wolves and bears, perhaps reflecting the degree to which beasts of burden were held to higher standard than wild animals.

            We must also ask if the animals were being anthropomorphized, acting as stand-ins for humans that were summoned and asked to defend themselves in court. And there is a sense of moral outrage, of some basic law being violated when a pig eats a baby, of the power relations that must be reasserted by the humans. Indeed, one can argue that the trials were held to reassert human power and dignity, and to draw more thickly the line between humans and animals. In doing so, authorities condemn our own animalian instincts; holding humans to a higher standard. (Even if we in the modern era see the trials in a ghastly light, deliberately crueler than anything an ox or wolf could dish out.)

            One must also ask if the trials were held to censure “guilty” animals, or to put down beasts who were a clear threat to the humans in their midst. Although if the latter, why not simply put down or butcher the animal? Why all the formalities of human law? 

            Beyond the religious and legal, there is an ecclesiastical element in the trials and condemnations. Plagues reminded humans of their own fragility, compared to the will of God. Pests were condemned, banished, exorcised, and in some cases, formally excommunicated. This puzzled some of us in class, myself included. How can animals, who by all accounts are not in communion with God, be excommunicated? If there is a doctrinal answer, it is a tricky one. Animals are part of God’s larger creation, reflections and unconscious followers of His natural order, in de facto communion with their creator, in a way that humans with free will are not. “Sinful” animals were excommunicated without much thought to the larger implications, though they may trouble us scholars now.

            There is also the disturbing spectacle of the executions themselves. Not simply butchered, animals were carried to the gallows backwards on the cart, and hanged in full view. Designed (obviously) for humans, the punishment would sometimes leave the animals kicking for days. They were criminals being executed, in every sense possible, down to the contemporary descriptions thereof.

            Our readings this week pivot upon Evan’s research, and some of the faults they have stem from him. Evans is far from dispassionate, his animals rights agenda is fully evident, the 191 trials he lists mostly occur in the early modern era, and they include some gaps. The earliest trial he lists is in 1266, although there is a glancing mention of ones in the 8th centuries. He leaves out some ecclesiastical decisions, some secular, and only really concerns himself with domestic animals, leaving my earlier question about trials of wild animals unfulfilled. There’s no evidence about how animals were treated as free agents rather than the property of other humans, or how a trial can help heal the community and give recourse, even if it’s the kind that can’t really help. There are other problems, Enders notably uses one law code for her argument.

            My question, which I voiced in class, has to do with the implicit argument of all of the readings. Why were some animals tried and not others? We get the sense that not all animals who sinned against a community or killed a human were formally tried, certainly an agrarian society that lives in close contact with all sorts of animals would expect some unfortunate losses**. Dinzelbacher,, Beirnes, Cohen, and Enders all take for granted the notion that an animal trial was held in a period of great and trying strife and social upheaval in a community. They were ordered by town authorities to make sense of senseless and disordered events by formally executing an easy target. By this, some sense of cleaning and moral order are somehow restored, even if they couldn’t realistically deter animals in any rational sense.

            But why, then, were these trials spaced out over time, and not clustered in periods of greater social strife and stress? We cannot find any statistical connection between year and location of trial, not the less because we rely largely on Evan’s research. If this hypothesis is true, wouldn’t there be more trials during the Black Death? More in Germany during the Protestant Reformation than France during the reign of Henri IV***? Despite the arguments of our writers this day, the research we have so far seems to point to the trials as random events, not moored to greater social strife beyond the village.

            We study medieval animal trials because they are interesting, and because they are an uncomfortable and inscrutable aspect of the treatment of animals during the middle ages. Their symbolism and ritual is fascinating, even if the darker motives behind them are harder to extract. But the current research can be spotty, and raises just as many questions as we can answer. But at least we don’t hang rats because we can’t find the aforementioned answers.

 - Emily B

*Please excuse the pun in the title. I watched too much Monty Python as a child. 

 **Domestic pigs, especially, are large, uncontrollable and violent. They can bite through bone and kill farmers regularly. Not to be ghoulish, but it’s difficult to imagine that they only ate a few babies over the years. I encourage people who dislike pigs are much as I do to watch the movie Snatch or the television show Deadwood to get awful (although fictional) accounts thereof. Not nice animals at all.

**These are early modern examples, for which I apologize. I concentrate in the modern era, although one can easily substitute periods of calm versus those of strife. 

The Name of the Dove

Last Wednesday, November the 10th, we discussed symbolism.

            Well, yes, and no. The Ohly reading was dense and difficult, attempting to outline the process with which different layers of meaning are attached to an animal, or indeed, to anything. We talked in metaphors about metaphors, to understand why humans make metaphors; and to understand the elaborate medieval symbolic tradition that Hugh worked within.

            Our guide, in many ways, was the drawing of the dove in the Ohly text. One must, in no particular order, look at the picture of the dove in the center, think about how said animal is depicted, look at the colors, follow the rings and lines around the dove, think of how they symbolize eyes and perches and the wholeness of the picture’s meaning, read the words, think about what the entire text is signifying, and throughout, be reminded of how what you are looking at reminds you of other traditions and interpretations you know of beforehand, building on what you know and see and think what the artist is trying to convey. Sight is the highest organ of sense, and perceptual things that can be seen with the eye. But there is so much etched in memory and understanding that lets one go to the spiritual and the intellectual by looking at a picture even as one reads the words for a way to directly interpret it.

            The picture of a dove cannot be read linearly, but dynamically, in any order, every part of it is part of the larger text. It is also designed as a conversation between Hugh and the reader, something that invites further and further discussion about the truths connected to a dove. It’s a game of making connections between sign and meaning and truth. In a very real sense, though, one is asked to look beyond the picture, both as text and as a picture, into the invisible and intangible world of meaning just behind it.

            And how does symbolic meaning attach itself to a dove, or a hawk, or to anything else? It’s difficult to piece together the actual process of attaching meaning to a thing*. But one begins with the material form of a thing, and from there, delve below the material and actions of the thing to the truths beneath it. (One keeps using terms like “beneath,” “below,” “behind,” “within,” to try to visualize where the meaning of a thing is on the physical object. They’re useful, they convey that the material form obscures the symbolism and the truth. And one must sharpen one’s view and deepen one’s understanding in order to penetrate the material forms and get at the symbolic.)

            Complicating everything is the indication that the dove does not just symbolize Hugh, but it is Hugh. And the picture of the dove is not a picture, but it is a dove! The hawk doesn’t  just symbolize the nobility, and the dove the clergy. The dove is a self-portrait of Hugh. “Symbolize” isn’t enough, one may prefer term shadow and type, as a way of reflecting who he is. What’s different is that Hugh and Reynard aren’t just symbolized by a dove and hawk, but in some essence they are the men, not just markers for their classes and what they do and are in society. The book is a mirror with which they see themselves.

            At the same time, one can, like Hugh, start from scripture and work backwards. Hugh begins every note in his aviary with a selection of the bible that says something about the birds. The selections are mostly psalms, the bible verses that a monk would sing every day. They’re the most foundational of his own texts, they’re in his mind more than anything else. Just as the monks sing together, in a corporate voice, his own“you” is potentially plural. It’s in the depth of his descriptive vocabulary as well. Instead of doves, he could start with describing the dove itself and then get to the significance, but he starts with the scripture, the meaning of the dove as an animals shown through scripture. Speaks to the fact that it’s more important than the animal.

            He splits the dove into Noah, David, Jesus, as they’re the most important doves in scripture. And their 3 meanings are all facets of the same meaning behind the animal. They’re markers of the 3 periods of it all. Noah and god make a new covenant after the dove comes back. David reflects Christ. And Christ is the culmination of all that. The dove is working historically, and is itself the revelation of Christ in its three biblical appearances. Doves all have a spiritual meaning as well in their appearances.
            This presumes, as Hugh no doubt would have done, that Christianity and god’s design is eternal and has existed from the very beginning of all time. As such, all creatures and things in nature mirror this very foundational reality. The Middle Ages surveyed plentitude of meaning, and God in nature. And nature doesn’t just cancel grace out but complements it. When we look through medieval understanding of nature or text, we’re looking at the same thing, same way the picture is the bird is the words about the bird.

And we can do the same work through the rest of the text, the color of the dove to the church, the right and left eye, and allegorically the same thing. It’s not all about the church and the contemplative life, but the mind and what it means. There exist different layers of signification, community, soul, church, individual, person. Other parts of the animal do the same thing, like the feet, etc.

Not just the dove is symbolizing something, but that because there are spiritual realities, they are manifested in creation, and in the bodies and animals we see now, as the truth of Christianity has been true for all time, including the old testament, and everything that has ever been and existed is part of a series of events that follow from the spiritual truth and existence of a creature that undergirds their existence.

Hugh indicates that this way of seeing birds is more than a tool to help the less educated and illiterate learn lessons about the bible and proper living. He suggest it’s easier to deal with than the same concepts without the underpinnings. Not that the simple folk aren’t doing it, just that they take different steps to get to the higher understanding than the more educated clergy and nobility. At least the moral teaching of the text would do so, even if hi picture would do so, then he’s satisfied that he has imparted a meaningful message to different strata of society as well as playing a game with meanings and metaphor.

 - Emily B

*This becomes even more difficult when you consider different meanings of a thing across cultures. Of course, anything outside of Medieval European tradition is outside of our purview right now. However, if you like that sort of thing, you might like this little trifle, which compares the symbolism of colors across several cultures. http://www.flickr.com/photos/25541021@N00/4631991238/  “Evil,” “truce,” and “passion” are the only real universals.

Friday, November 19, 2010


(I have no idea what this picture is about, I just couldn’t resist.)

Do we still liken each other to animals when we want to insult each other? I was pondering this today in class as we discussed the various animals that figure amongst medieval name calling, and it seems to me that animal insults have somehow over the years lost some punch. No doubt the terms “bitch” and “ass” are still popular favorites, but it seems that after centuries of increased urbanization and subsequent distancing from quite a few animals, human/animal comparison have faded significantly in the contemporary vernacular.

Now to veer off track a bit. A simple google search on the subject of “animal insults” brought up a very interesting site that catalogues a number of animals and their associated meaning when applied to human beings, revealing some interesting discrepancies. For instance, in English when we refer to a person as a “chicken”, we intimate that that person is a coward. In Turkish however, it evidently signifies someone who goes to bed early…. ? A camel is likened to a “stupid, nasty man” in the Portuguese language. In German, a “rhinoceros” might mean a stupid person. Can you compare anything to a rhinoceros? Perhaps these usages are a bit archaic, so I wanted to invite anyone fluent in a second language to comment. I noticed in a BBC article that dealt with “swearing” in a very broad sense, that an old Icelandic insult was to call someone a “cod”, but the word no longer carries derisive connotations. Nowadays the word “jam” might be used as an affront, (primarily amongst the young Icelanders).

But even with regards to the English language, do you feel that animal comparisons make the most denigrating insults, or have we moved on to stranger terms to verbally abuse our peers? Just something to think about.





Animal Trials in the 20th Century

    The concept of animals being put on trial is inarguably a foreign concept in the modern age. The anthropomorphism employed in medieval animal trials is staggering and even quite comical -- but something of this legal oddity persists today. The most obvious modern-day comparison to medieval animal trial is the case of an attack dog being "put down." But there is a critical difference between the today's perspective and that of the medieval age. Today, a dog who happens to wound or kill a human is seen as a threat to society and therefore it can be legally argued that the dog must be removed from society.  No one blames the actions of the dog per se, as it is simply acting as it was trained. Its euthanization is an unfortunate matter of circumstance; probably due to an irresponsible owner. But in the medieval animal trial, a murderous sow is seen as morally accountable for its actions -- as a cognizant player in society, and it is punished as such. This, to me, is what makes animal trials of the middle ages so seemingly absurd by today's standards. Moreover, these differences of threat vs. accountability seem like pretty concrete divisions between animals on trial today and in the middle ages.
    So I decided to do some research into other animal trials that have occurred in the modern age, and it seems like this framework I just set up in the preceding paragraph is not as solid as it would seem. Based on the examples below, our legal system may not be so removed from the one that ordered cockchafer larvae, "to appear before the bishop in order to tell their story." (Dinzelbacher 412)

1. German Shepherd Gets Old Sparky:
In January 1926, a stray German Shepherd in Kentucky was charged with the attempted murder of a small child. it was sentenced to death and executed in the electric chair. Unfortunately I could not find any further evidence on this case -- such as how they managed to effectively strap the dog in.

2. Monkey Charged With Assault:
Bottle-Alley was home to a street minstrel named Cassio Dillio, who possessed a "large specimen of the monkey tribe" named Jimmy. One day, as Cassio grinded his crank and Jimmy danced a jig, a "Robust daughter of the Emerald isle," Mary Shea, decided to give little Jimmy a piece of candy as a token of appreciation. Once Jimmy began to chow-down, Mary tried to have a little fun with him by snatching the candy from back. The monkey "thereupon assumed a decidedly aggressive attitude" and bit Mary's finger. Cassio and Jimmy were arrested and to court the case went.
Upon hearing the case the judge stated, "If Mr. Darwin were prosecutor in this case, he might succeed in convincing me that the statues authorize the holding of criminal monkeys, but I do not think I can legally commit him." Miss Shea protested, but to no avail. Jimmy removed his velvet hat, climbed atop the judge's desk and attempted to shake his hand. It is reported that the official police blotter for the case read: "Name: Jimmy Dillio; Occupation: Monkey; Disposition: Discharged."

3. Cats and the Right to Free Speech:
In Augusta, Georgia  in 1981, local resident Carl Miles took to the streets to show off his incredible talking cat, Blackie. Carl and his wife Elaine made a pretty good living off of Blackie and her two catchphrases, "I love you" and "I want my momma." They made such a good living, in fact, that the state informed them that they needed to file for a business license in order to continue or face jail time. The Mileses eventually caved, but appealed the case in an effort to challenge the constitutional validity of the Augusta city ordinance as they believed it infringed on Blackie's 1st Amendment rights.

However, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower-court decision, adding the following in a footnote:

This Court will not hear a claim that Blackie's right to free speech has been infringed. First, although Blackie arguably possesses a very unusual ability, he cannot be considered a "person" and is therefore not protected by the Bill of Rights. Second, even if Blackie had such a right, we see no need for appellants to assert his right
jus tertii. Blackie can clearly speak for himself.