Friday, December 3, 2010

A man looks at an animal...

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

Thanks for the class discussions, everyone!


1 comment:

  1. Excellent question! It seems wholly appropriate that St. Francis would be the one to be able to synthesize all of the different ways medieval people seem to have thought about animals, but whether everyone did on a daily basis, well, do we? One of the things that I was hoping this course would help us do is to problematize the way those of us alive now think about animals by analogy with the complexity of medieval thinking. People sometimes talk now as if we have only one way of thinking about animals, with the assumption that it should be consistent, but even for those of us who believe that animals, e.g, should have rights (thinking of the animal trials), there are layers of reasoning and symbolism at stake. Almost everything we talked about this quarter has potential continuities and analogues with our present conversations: about hunting, meat-eating, story-telling, ethics. How many of us keep all of these in mind when interacting with actual animals? How many of us who enjoy stories about animals then go eat steak? Who in our society understands animals better: the hunters or the members of PETA? And isn't it interesting how many questions thinking about animals raises for what it means to be a human being? Thank you all for the discussions! I hope you keep thinking about these questions, too.