Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Animals as humans

In interpreting the decision to write stories with anthropomorphic animals, a common reason given is that of political necessity—the classic Aesop argument. As Phaedrus explains (and here I'm quoting from Ziolkowski, thanks for the reference CR!), "the slave, being liable to punishment for any offence, since he dared not say outright what he wished to say, projected his personal sentiments into fables and eluded censure under the guise of jesting with made-up stories" (Ziolkowski, 7). Ziolkowsi points to many medieval authors whose one-to-one identification of animals with specific social groups is perfectly clear, among them Odo of Cheriton, Marie de France, and Berechiah Ha-Nakdan (ibid., 9). If we imagine these writers living in an environment in which criticizing the nobility and the clergy could land you in a lot of trouble, the animals-as-metaphor argument would seem reasonable enough and offer a good basis analyzing and interpreting the Reynard stories.

I do not deny that such an interpretive strategy is very useful. It should be noted, however, that one did not need to resort to animal stand-ins to criticize the elite. Take the clergy, for example: the feud between the Friar and Summoner in the Canterbury Tales witnesses the direct condemnation of all number of religious figures, from the swindling mendicant to the corrupt archdeacons: "Pardee, ye may well know by the name / That of a somonour may no good be sayd" (Friar's Prologue, ll. 1280-81); "This Frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, / And God it woot, that it is little wonder; / Freres and fends been but lyte asunder" (Summoner's Prologue, ll. 1672-74). In Canto 19 of the Inferno, Dante comes across Pope Boniface VIII, stuffed head-first into the ground, and takes the opportunity to rebuke him: "You have made gold and silver your god; and what difference is there between you and the idol-worshipper, except that he prays to one, and you to a hundred?" (ll. 112-115). Perhaps the most forceful example I can think of can be found in Petrarch's writings, where, in his "Invective against a man of high rank," (i.e., a clergyman), he says:

Grown fat, you spur along, unaware how obscene your corpulence is amid Christ's thin and wasted flock, or how disgusting your bloated nausea is amid the great hunger of Christ's paupers. For if you don't know it, it is in their tears and sweat that you have dipped the bread that swells you, breeding diseases and death in your soul." (Petrarca, 205)

As we can see, one did not have to resort to animal fables to criticize a powerful elite in the Middle Ages; it was a tool among various tools at their disposal, and as an ultimately absurdist project, the animal bodies of the Renard cycle offer interpretive latencies that cannot be accomplished with a more direct form of satire. I agree with the general discussion that we should not stop at reading Renard as an animals-as-humans metaphor. Although the metaphor works in a lot of places, even with my own observation that the animals, as nobility, are all "kin" to one another and thus are mutually obligated to their fellows just as much as they plot behind each other's backs, we would lose a lot if we try to argue that the text is "about" so-and-so group of people. If we start assigning names and classes to the various animals, we have to then determine who stands for what, who is the good guy, and worst of all, what are we supposed to learn from it. As we have seen, the metaphor undermines itself even as it appears as a viable structure upon which to build an interpretation—just as we have convinced ourselves that Tibert and Renard are really noblemen at parley, a bunch of humans burst onto the scene, revealing that Tibert is nothing more than a cat. The shifting and unreliable narratability of the Renard cycle may, in its very structure, touch on the theme of interpretation and its many, many pitfalls, which I'll continue on in my next post.


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Co., c1987.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Edited and Translated by Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996-.

Petrarca, Francesco. Invectives. Edited and Translated by David Marsh. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Renard the Fox. Trans. Patricia Terry. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 1983, 1992.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.


  1. Good point! I would, however, point out that it seems Renard (and similar pieces like Marie de France's Fables) had more popular versions and recitations than the Inferno or similar pieces. Thus, the use of animals instead of humans might serve two purposes: 1)It might allow for a wider spread of the stories although that may lose us some of the original animal=person understandings (when it was first told, Bear may have stood for a specific person, but after spreading across the country may have only represented a certain TYPE of person) and 2) it might have allowed the authors to escape consequences. I'm not familiar with the life of Chaucer, but Dante (for instance) was exiled for his political and literary work! I definitely agree that it would have been possible (assuming the purpose was strictly satire) to use human characters, but it seem there were also clear benefits in terms of spread and safety to using animals.

  2. I myself am skeptical about the "using anthropomorphic animals to criticize your superiors" argument. Are we then to assume that said superiors would be so stupid as not to realize that they were being criticized? On the other hand, Barbara Newman has made an interesting argument in her God and the Goddesses about the way in which medieval poets used personification imagery to explore aspects of theology for which they might have been severely criticized if presented as doctrinal truth. The problem is, the poets never were criticized except in one instance (Marguerite Porete), whose allegories in no way enabled her to escape the stake. I think it is much closer to the mark to look (as you suggest) at what using such imagery helps authors to do that they would not be able to otherwise. That said, I agree with Hannah that it is also possible that some of the characters in the animal stories may originally have had a more specific reference which they subsequently lost when the stories circulated beyond their originally intended audience. Does it matter that the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm were specific historical characters when you have pigs in other stories simply representing corrupt leaders?