Saturday, April 4, 2015

Categorizing and Making Meaning in the Bestiaries

From my perspective, our discussion yesterday focused around two main themes, as well as a third that elicited a few specific mentions, also seen in our readings: the purpose/meaning-making of the bestiaries, categorization, and, relatedly, the role or place of the "imaginary" creature.

In our conversation on the first theme, we seemed to do a bit of a circle dance around what we were all trying to get at without quite hitting the nail on the head (my own comments included), but this was useful in thinking with the complicated meaning and intent of the bestiary, which itself does not seem to be entirely clear nor flow in a single direction. I found particularly interesting one student's comment, and our professor's response, that, although bestiaries in many ways seem to be intended to say more about religion, the nature of the Christian God, etc., than about the animals themselves, the people writing and, at least to some degree, reading these texts probably knew a great deal more about religion than they did about animals. The bestiaries, therefore, should perhaps instead be seen as teaching more about exotic animals and their behavior than about God. Of course, as Brigitte Resl points out in her Introduction to A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age, "the early Church fathers saw the study of animals, and nature in general, as vital to the interpretation of meaning in the Bible, and as a source of moral exempla, but were little interested in it for other purposes." Snakes, for example, had to be understood so as to best understand the meaning of passages in scripture featuring them (Resl, 10).

On the other hand, T. H. White contends that the bestiary was a "serious work of natural history," implying that studying the natural world was at least part of the point (White, 231). As we saw in the Aberdeen Bestiary, and as Resl also discusses, the authors in some second generation bestiaries paid more attention to observed behavior of beasts, and much of the scriptural reference was omitted, leaving only more zoological information (Resl, 13-14). However, while we say "observed behavior," this was not done directly by authors. Instead, information on even a domestic animal like the lamb, for example, was taken from Isidore's Etymologies (Resl, 13). This perhaps speaks more to medieval knowledge-making, though, and the shift towards including specifically zoological information stands. I believe that we did also touch on the point that Resl does not appear to directly address, but that White describes in his section on symbolism (White, 244-45): even without that sort of scriptural reference and use of allegory, these zoological descriptions of animals and their behaviors could be understood as the study of God. This is one of those pieces of information that I have also read about in my personal research but I cannot remember exactly where (though I have just gone and located a bit on it in Hugh Raffles' Insectopedia, in "The Ineffable"). The idea I am thinking of is that of the book of nature, in which the study of nature in itself was considered similar to the study of scripture, as God's direct creation. It is possible that this is an anachronism, and that this exact idea did not come about until later- but it makes sense to me as a possible way in which one might understand something like the Aberdeen Bestiary.

I also found it interesting and entertaining how much time we spent in class trying to make sense of the categories in White's translation of A Book of Beasts and the Aberdeen Bestiary. What exactly qualifies something as a beast, a bird, a snake, a worm? An animal? Again, Resl offers some illumination on the background of how people drew definitions between the human and the animal,which we saw also in our readings from Daston and Sobel last week. Regarding the usage of the terms "beast" and "animal," Resl provides the history of the specific uses of the terms. As she describes, "beast" typically indicated wild animals, transitioning into applying to all of them in the twelfth century, and "animal" began to refer to that broad category of beasts in the fourteenth century (Resl, 10). However, if this is so, then the division in our bestiaries into "beasts," "birds," etc. is puzzling, as is, as we discussed, the selection of animals within those groups. Ants, we saw, are labeled beasts, bees are called birds, sirens are snakes, and tortoises (land creatures) are fish. We mentioned that these groupings might correspond to locomotion or means of origin- the "worms" category may be referring to creatures who apparently generate spontaneously. As White points out, the universe was considered to be drawn in "parallel lines," and things existing in each strata typically had a counterpart in others, such as in the horse of land echoed by the seahorse and Pegasus (White, 245, 250-51), and this concept could lend us another aid in interpreting the divisions- strata of existence? But still, then, the groupings do not quite fit, and we are left confused about why on earth stones and trees are included at all, and why man is sandwiched between them.

However, this might be a point at which Dan Sperber's piece, "Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought?" could be good to think with. Sperber spends the article largely discussing different ways of categorizing and whether such categorizations provide ground for meaning making, such as in Mary Douglas's theory that significant symbolism rises in categorical anomalies, which, she asserts, is why monsters receive so much symbolic attention (Sperber, 143). As Sperber convincingly argues, this theory is pleasant to look at, but it does not stand up terribly well to facts. He also continuously shows the flexible and perhaps even arbitrary nature of category. Arising from his discussion is a sense of how artificial our impositions of category can be, at least in how they are actually conceived and discussed and used (Sperber, 151-52). We are also, I think, applying extremely modern, biology-educated viewpoints to these categories of creatures in the bestiary. It occurred to me in class that, rather than look at the actual qualities of the animals as we were doing, perhaps, in line with the means of knowledge production, it might make sense simply to look at from whence the knowledge about them came. Perhaps the feature that unites the worms is that they are all referred to as a nuisance in some ancient text, and perhaps a tortoise is mentioned as a fish in the Bible. It is also an interesting logical drive of ours to try to categorize things into groups to the exclusion of other things and other groups, as well as to see them as being organized this way naturally. Otherwise put, perhaps we are simply failing to put ourselves sufficiently in the minds of our medieval scholar friends in trying to interpret their titles and groupings, if that is even what they really intended.

Finally, as to Douglas's supposed anomalies to taxonomic category, the monsters and "imaginary" creatures of the bestiaries receive a great deal of attention in our readings, though I felt we had a fairly good handle on the basic arguments surrounding them and did not need to linger on them much in our class discussion. As White convincingly argues (248-50), and as Resl describes in her discussion of Marco Polo's encounter with the rhinoceros (Resl, 20), the supposedly imaginary creature was thought to be real, and it made perfect sense that this was so, or, as White puts it, "A little humility in this matter can hardly come amiss" (White, 249).The animals described were largely inaccessible and exotic, much got lost in translation, the theology that saw the horse and the seahorse also suggested the existence of the Pegasus, and it is fairly astounding that the real knowledge these bestiaries did hold successfully made their long journeys into the texts we see before us.

-Stephanie Gustafson

1 comment:

  1. Nice suggestion that we consider the process of knowledge-making in our effort to understand the categories of the bestiaries. One which we have now read, but had not when we look at the bestiaries proper, is of course Isidore, whose Etymologies lie behind many efforts at categorization in the period, but as we saw in comparing his lists with Albert's, even these don't solve the "where did these categories come from" question quite in the way we might expect. Good thought, too, about how we were struggling to put ourselves into the minds of our medieval scholar friends: part of what I wanted you to get from the discussion was precisely how difficult this is! Nice reflections on Douglas and Sperber and the continuing breakdown of category formation for accounting for the symbolic uses of the animals. You are absolutely right to sense that in the bestiaries we find the "book of Nature" being read as Scripture--but as we noted in class, even this doesn't always help up out of the particular significance given to the animals, for example, the dog. To a certain extent, this problem is still with us, even in our modern taxonomies! RLFB