Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Banal and Enchanting

Yesterday in discussion, we began and ended the class period asking the question: what is the hunt? What is its purpose? How is it depicted? What do we make of the metaphor of the hunt? We began the class by looking at the illustrations in Gaston Phoebus’ book, and ended considering the hunt’s depiction in literature. To further our discussion, I will discuss the metaphor of the hunt—how the hunt can be at once banal and enchanted and how this duality can highlight how important animals were in both high and lowbrow activity. The fact that the hunt, an activity that involved animals in all aspects, was depicted both in extreme, germane detail in Phoebus’ book and canonized as enchanting and transcendent in literature, as Thiebaux discusses, reinforces the integral role animals played in medieval society.
First, I will discuss the illustrations that accompany Phoebus’ book. In class, we talked about how detailed each species was depicted, how the artist shows the animals in context. And not only one animal—the whole range, young to old—and animals engaged in a variety of activities. The fox eats a goose, for example. What is striking to me is not only the myriad species the artist chooses to depict, but also the detail he goes into. This indicates that animals were not viewed in a monolithic way. There was not one iteration of a species of animal with a set behavior and characteristics. Animals were individual with distinct attributes. This indicates a nuanced view of animals. They were known. Their known status allowed animals to be integrated into the knowledge systems of hunters.
This detail mimics the detailed steps of the hunt itself. Thiebaux describes the ten steps of the hunt. This degree of detail indicates the knowable quality of the hunt itself. It was studied; it was quantified. This indicates the day-to-day aspects of this event. It was banal and involved many steps—quite a bit of waiting, of tracking the deer, of the limerer going off into the deer park to search, of the nobles waiting for the limerer to declare he’s found a warrantable hart. This necessitated a very close relationship with both the dogs and the deer. The huntsman must know how the deer live, and how the dogs detect them to do his job well. There was little glamor in this pursuit, however. The hunt can be seen in literature as a noble pursuit. This is because it is from the nobleman’s point of view. In actuality, the noblemen waited and drank and picnicked while the huntsmen searched for deer—benefiting from the work of others.
Now, I will discuss the depictions of the hunt in literature. Just as there is a banal side to the hunt, there is an enchanted side. The art form used to depict the hunt, poetry, is important in this case. Poetry pushes a person to focus on the current moment, on the glistening now. Day-to-day pursuits may be discussed in poems, but they are often teased apart to reveal the extraordinary in the banal. That is to say, not every detail is accounted for.
This enchanted quality mimics the extraordinary in the hunt. The extraordinary quality is revealed in literature, in what is written about the hunt. The activity of hunting could bring the hunter into a “transcendent universe,” it could “placed [the hunter] under enchantment”. Despite the fact that actual hunting is mostly waiting, it is depicted as a noble, high-class, form of art. There were myths that hunting made a person free of sin, or nobler, there were illusions to the hunt as a Journey. Thiebaux, in The Stag of Love, says that the verb malmene was used to describe the hunt—the same verb used to describe “martyrs, heroes and lovers driven to the extreme or suffering to death.”
This extreme that was used to describe the hunt was being used to describe nobles, benefiting from the limerer’s work, to kill a deer, an animal whose population was controlled and culled, in a deerpark, a curated bit of land made for their own enjoyment. The noble attained glory while the huntsmen did the work of pursuing and finding the deer. In fact, according to Thiebaux, lower officials did the skinning and butchering of the deer. The noble had no part in this bloody pursuit. After the hunt was over, he returned to the manor, having sweated out his bad humors in his day of picnic.  
            We see that the hunt was both quotidian and extraordinary. There is one element common to both the banal hunt and the enchanted hunt: animals. In the banal hunt, huntsmen had close relationships with their dogs. The dogs became an extension of the huntsmen themselves—there were specific pet names used to refer to the dogs, they were cared for in kennels, they were spoken to in a particular manner at different stages of the hunt. The working relationship between man and animal was strong. In the enchanted hunt, the stag was seen as iconographic. In both, the human animal relationship was a key part of making the hunt what it was. Without animals, the hunt could be neither banal nor quotidian. Without the animals, there is no hunt.

            And so I return to the question with which I began: what do we make of the metaphor of the hunt? I say that making the hunt into a metaphor does not contort its significance. It stretches what the hunt is through the means of language and literary illusion. This is because of the medium through which the hunt is being described: poetry. How could an activity, comprised mostly of waiting and tracking be translated into literature? It would be curated—not in a negative way, but simply because a poem in and of itself is curated. To discuss the metaphor, however, strikes me as an activity in skirting the point. I feel the fact that animals could be made banal and enchanting, boring and ennobling, shows their integral nature in medieval life.  


1 comment:

  1. You capture well the paradox at the heart of the hunt: how can something that was, in practice, relatively banal and boring have been described in poetry as so enchanting and exciting? Perhaps because it was not, in practice, necessarily boring, but involved some element of risk even for the nobles? How, otherwise, could the nobles, who as you rightly point out participated only incidentally in the details of the hunt, have had the emotional attachment to it that their literature suggests they did? And if the nobles knew so little about the day-to-day management of the hunt, how do we account for Gaston Phoebus's description of this very management? There are many paradoxes at play here! It is, after all, Gaston who tells us about caring for the dogs, even though it was the huntsman's job. This needs more unpacking! RLFB