Friday, May 29, 2015

The Many Species of Dragon

Rather like cats, dragons seem to have taken on a reputation for being especially symbolic creatures.  As Samantha J. E. Riches describes, “a cursory study of the imagery, legends and lore associated with dragons and related monsters clearly demonstrates that these mythical creatures have a multiplicity of associations and can exemplify many different ideas” (“Encountering,” 197). The questions that our readings and discussion raised for me, however, was whether they were indeed a “special” type of animal in some way, more legendary than real, or simple, real creatures just like any others, with diabolical meanings attached to their wings instead of holy ones, just in a far away place—or even real creatures that one can encounter in one’s own backyard swamp. After our discussion, I believe I have come down on the side of “yes” to all of these, leaning more one way or another depending upon the context. As we ended up asking in class, can it truly be said that there is just a being of a “dragon” in the medieval era? Can we think of it rather as different species? Or perhaps different manifestations based on need? In the case of symbolic dragons, if they do indeed have any sort of enhanced symbolism, can we, as in the case of cats, possibly attribute that quality either to their physical form or their liminal role in the animal kingdom?
As we saw in the case of Beowulf’s dragon, or rather dragons, even in just the one text there was the possibility of two interpretations of dragon-kind: Fafnir and what I will refer to as simply the Dragon (with a capital D, which I feel it deserves). For the first type, we see Fafnir, who is a crawling, snake-like creature without flight (Shilton, 68). Fafnir was also not originally a dragon, at least according the the Volsunsaga, and he therefore seems to be a much more direct representation of symbolism than the other. This dragon, we are told, was not originally a dragon. Instead, he was a man who was excessively greedy as well as being murderous, and he transformed into a dragon as a result of these failures of virtue (71). On the other hand, we have the Dragon, who Howard Shilton argues, though it may also have been assumed to be originally human, appears to be more literally an animal. This Dragon has flight, has the ability to “spew” fire and wreak havoc on towns, and flies wreathed in flame (67). Although it is possible that this Dragon was originally interpreted as the result of a transformation similar to Fafnir’s (72), in Beowulf, it is “a real dragon, it is a primordial creature, a beast” without, tellingly, Fafnir’s capacity for human speech (73). Although it is not a common creature, such a beast may have been regarded as something akin to a komodo dragon: unusual and foreign, but there (71). The Dragon is “evil” without intentionality rather than “Evil” (74). It does still share the non-virtuous features seen in Fafnir, however. This Dragon is associated with greed, hoarding treasure, and murderousness, “fuelled by the desire to appease its anger and malice” (74), though Shilton claims that it is not “immoral” (74).
Though this is Shilton’s interpretation rather than necessarily that of the writer, this reminds me (of course) of the bestiaries, discussing the emotions of animals. An animal can perhaps be wrathful, but can it be sinfully wrathful in the same way as a human being? That question also brings again to mind the animal trials, where animals were put on trial for murder. Given our failure to make total sense of that extremely puzzling historical phenomenon, it is uncertain whether people ascribed intentionality to animal emotion and activity. In the transformation of Fafnir, though, there seems to be another, clearer similarity to the animal trials: the blurring between the animal and the human. Sinfulness in humans might create a real transformation into animality. 
In our other readings, more pieces of the dragon puzzle continued to reminded me of the animal trials through one interpretation of interaction with these creatures seen across multiple readings. The first is again in Shilton’s piece, where he describes the Dragon, arguing for its animality, as “an inimical force of nature,” evil only in the sense that “a natural phenomenon is evil” (Shilton, 74). Riches (interesting name for a dragon scholar, by the way) similarly describes some dragons in her more general piece covering dragon representations, “Encountering the Monstrous.” There are violent encounters between humans and these monsters, such as the famous battle between St. George and the dragon, but there also episodes of non-violent encounters between saints and dragons. In these, “a dangerous monster, symbolic of the hostile natural world, is contained and tamed rather than annihilated,” and it may be driven off by the sign of the cross or the saint’s injunction (Riches, “Encountering,” 208). In one story, discussed by both Peregrine Horden and Riches, a saint divides an area into separate parts using his staff, reserving one side for the continued life of the snakes (208). Rather than destroying them, the saint gives the snakes their own place to live where they will not be of harm to people. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
In the week on animal trials, we puzzled over ecclesiastical animal trials and the habit of giving pest animals their own plot of land, which they were enjoined to take for their own in the stead of the land which they were then occupying. Do the saint and dragons stories give us a new way to think about those trials, in seeing them as a potential imitation of popular Christian methods for dealing with the holy world which apparently had worked before in Saints' lives? Or, ascribing less causality to the situation, which brings up chicken and egg issues, might we at least see them as a very similar manifestation of the view of the natural world in the medieval era? As Shilton argues, natural was not necessarily seen as Evil, or a force of Satan, although it could be, just as we see that the dragon could similarly be a diabolical symbol. Instead, it could just be a threat to be redirected, or, as Horden puts it, an “ecological hazard” to be removed, at least in some instances (46).
The story of the saint dividing the island also appears in Horden’s argument for the dragon as a largely literal, physical, beast-representation of malarial sorts of disease. The dragon is the natural world (or malarial swamps and their products), and getting rid of the dragon is draining the swamp, getting rid of the source of disease. As we discussed in class, however, it is a bit unclear as to how the dragon can both be representative and literal, although Horden left me engaged with the lack of clarity in the issue rather than unconvinced. I think, again, the answer is "yes" to that either/or question. It is true that, as Professor Fulton Brown said, of course people did not see literal dragons—after all, we know now that dragons are imaginary (at least in this world/universe), and the most obvious rebuttal to this is again the bestiary argument: it depends on what you mean by “dragon.” Dragons as Albertus Magnus saw them certainly did exist, they were simply the gigantic snakes found in India, no more misrepresented than the elephant was. But I am not sure that we can totally discount people seeing dragons up close in dragon form, if we get into the psychology arena. I believe that it is in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic that he mentions the idea that the imaginary things people see, or how they misinterpret what they see, depends on the time period. People arguably really did see armies battling in the sky in the aurora borealis or ghosts in flickering candlelight. I am not entirely sure that we can say that when a person visited a swamp and saw a monster, they actually saw a crocodile and just did not know its name, or they were simply misnaming a thing they never saw. Instead, they may have really seen what was, to them at that moment, a dragon. The point being, as Horden describes in the opening vignette of the malaria article, even recently an anthropologist was in a situation where someone told him there was a dragon afoot (45). Were dragons only distant comets in the sky and only off living in India where no one in Western Europe could have seen them personally, like the other monsters Wittkower describes (allowing again, in that instance, that there were indeed actual “monsters” as well)? Not necessarily, I think. The human brain is a pretty marvelous thing, and it has a tendency to see what it expects to see. In medieval, malaria-ridden France (malaria also causes hallucinations, does it not?), they very likely expected to encounter a dragon in that swamp, and perhaps they did! Going back towards the more metaphorical perspective, perhaps, in addition to the natural world seeming in many ways to be dragon-like, and vice versa, in terms of the relationship between wilderness, disease and medieval people. perhaps it helped to put a face and a physical form to an otherwise seemingly unknowable, unfightable evil.

Speaking of the physical dragon form, the question remains as to what inspires the rich symbolism of the dragon. Perhaps it is this idea of the dragon as linked to both wilderness and humanity, the possible forms of the dragon as both an animal and as a transformed human. Or is it just that the dragon is so mightily formidable? I believe someone referred to it in class as a “top-tier predator.” As it is described in Beowulf, at least, certainly. The Dragon is massive and terrifying. As we established, it is a force of nature, and as Shilton concludes, it is a naturally fitting counterpart for a hero (Shilton, 77). It is also reptilian, flying, poisonous, scaly, associated with fire, and man-eating, making it a good symbol for Satan. Again, it is a strong representation of wild, devastating nature. Given Horden’s hypothesis on the role of saints in driving out disease (73), as well as the role of the saint as hero and conqueror of the non-Christian, the dragon makes sense as an opponent. Similarly, as a force of nature, the dragon might be perceived as an agent of God (Riches, “Encountering,” 211). It could also be perceived as the uncontrolled female, a concept linked to animality, sinfulness, diabolism, Lilith, and the Fall from Eden, as Riches so disturbingly and compellingly argues in her second article, tracing the associations across related images and understandings of the Saint George legend (Riches, “St George,” 156-78). As we saw earlier in the quarter in Sperber's piece on categorical anomalies and symbols, it seems likely that the symbolic richness came less from it being a categorical anomaly among non-human animals (though, as I mentioned, perhaps it was a bit because of its liminal place on the edge of civilization/the human) and more to do with an obvious Biblical link and an intimidating and noxious physical form. Monsters, just in being monsters, might not necessarily be especially symbolic, but perhaps dragons, as incredibly large monsters with a close Biblical cousin, are.

Monsters as Positive Figures in Medieval Thought

                 In class, we discussed medieval conceptions to creatures we know call “fantastic” or “monstrous” especially dragons. We looked at the dragon as a thing of the wilderness and the swamp, a sign of a place inimical to human life. It became very complicated, though, since it was clear that medieval society viewed dragons and other monsters as very real. We eventually learned that most of our conceptions of medieval monsters come from the Early Modern period. The Satanic connotations of the creatures were more a product of the humanists than any other group. So, that left us with the idea that often, the creature was just another creature, created by God to beautify His creation.
                 However, a situation that we didn't discuss is when “monsters” have very positive connotations, instead of being symbolic of disease or personified sins. The primary example of this is Saint Christopher, a holy cynocephalus. His story, as told in the Nowell Codex (the Beowulf manuscript), tells that he was initially unable to speak except in barks, which is supported by the other tales of dog-headed men. However, through baptism, he gained human speech. During his travels, he was captured by a pagan king, Dagnus. After enduring various tortures, including being burned on an iron table and being shot with arrows for an entire day, Saint Christopher reproaches Dagnus’ arrogance by striking him blind. After this, he does die and go to heaven, but by mixing Christopher’s blood with dirt and applying it his eyes, Dagnus was cured of blindness and promptly converting to Christianity (translation of the Old English can be found at
                It seems to me that St. Christopher provides a useful consideration for us looking at medieval attitudes towards monstrous things. It is the human, not the inhuman, which is portrayed as wicked and cruel. In this case, then, it becomes clear that our discussion was on the correct track regarding monstrous things. As long as the individual believes in Christ, they shall be accepted and redeemed by the Church. If the person does not, and seeks to harm and destroy the will of God, then they shall be punished. Dagnus is punished by blindness, but at the moment of conversion, he was redeemed.
                However, there is a complication to the picture. Firstly, while St. Christopher was holy, his kin were not. A different manuscript of the text tells us that cynocephali are “from the country where men devour each other” (translation by George Herzfeld, found at the site listed above). It seems, then, that the pagan monsters are not viewed so favorably. It seems that these can symbolize the all-destroying nature of sin. A “wulfes heafod” is the mark of an outlaw according to Edward the Confessor, and so the rest of the cynocephali are symbolic of how those outlawed from Christ’s society tear each other to shreds, mirroring the self-blinding actions of Dagnus (the Old English claims that the points of two arrows he had fired struck his eyes). St. Christopher, then, is the outlaw redeemed, which certainly would be an encouraging tale for the actual outlaws of England. In that sense, St. Christopher is a positive allegorical figure, despite being a creature quite different from other humans.
                Looking at dragons specifically, Riches mentioned a different sort of positive encounter with the beast. St. Ammon, she writes, “kept two dragons as guards against persistent thieves at his remote monastery” (page 205). This encounter is extremely interesting, as, unlike most cases we discussed in class, this is an instance in which the dragon cooperates with the saint, and serves as a protector rather than an enemy to be driven out. This reverses every understanding other texts give us as dragons as being creatures of wilderness, kept at the edge of society. In this case, in the micro-society of Ammon’s monastery, the people are the creatures kept at bay, and the dragon is an integral part of society. There is no reason to view these dragons as merely symbolic, but as real things protecting the monastery. Admittedly, this monastery is “remote” and is therefore part of the wilderness, bringing Christian faith into the home of these beasts, but it makes it no less odd. St. Marcellus, St. Senan, and many others drive out the beast in order to somehow make the location habitable; Ammon uses the beast to do the same thing. Many of the authors we read suggested that the driving out of the dragon symbolized man controlling nature to suit his own ends. In this suggestion, the preserving of the dragon could symbolize the simplicity of Ammon’s life; he does not need to corral nature, but lives among it. The thieves then serve the role the dragons used to; they are the creatures who stand against society. The wicked nature of humanity must be kept outside of the monastery to preserve its holiness, and the placing of the monastery in the wilderness where these beasts live and are compelled by the power of God to protect it is a way to do this.
                In this case, the role of the dragons is undoubtedly a positive one. They are protectors and guardians, bring security for the monks in Ammon’s monastery. Just like with St. Christopher, the monstrous is not working against humanity, but is preserving it. They are not Satanic, or even “evil”, as Shilton describes Beowulf’s dragon, but beneficial parts of the divine Creation. Sometimes, it is the humans who are the outlaws in need of saving, and those from the margins are those who hold out and destroy sin. So, it is clear that a discussion of whether dragons are primarily symbolic creatures in medieval thought is incomplete without acknowledging that dragons can be positive symbols instead of negative ones. As real things in this world, they cannot be only things of the wilderness, living by rules completely apart from human society, but as cooperators, placed by God as a marker and a tool for the saint to utilize to redeem the world.


Can We Evade the Scaly Claws of Euhemerism?

 For all their insistence that we must understand medieval dragons as “real,” since our medieval subjects thought they were, our authors can give us frustratingly little to grasp. Faced with the undeniably corporeal nature of beasts that require physical smiting, they resort to euhemerism, with varying degrees of awkwardness and ingenuity. Samantha Riches unenthusiastically offers travelers' tales of “fearsome crocodiles” (140, St George) though most of her examples on 141 seem more like astrological or meteorological phenomena – meteors, comets, ball lightning – than reptiles. (And ball lightning can indeed look stunningly dragon-like, as here: In another article, she suggests that some might be read as “metaphors of pre-Christian and heterodox beliefs” (197-198, “Saints”), though she questions Sabine Baring-Gould's contention that one particular wyrm represents “a serpent temple of upright stones” (quoted on 202). Then of course there is Peregrine Horden's serpentine evasion of the fact that his dragons in “Disease, dragons, and saints: the management of epidemics in the Dark Ages” are rather straightforward euhemeristic stand-ins for swamp diseases and other disagreeable features of wild wetlands. Additional explanations not mentioned by our authors include Vikings (with their dragon-prowed ships), Roman legions (with their scaly armor), ancestral memories of human sacrifice, a Naga-worshiping silk merchant (this in a respected publication on a dragon in 3rd century Iran) and, of course, a bevy of living dinosaurs (who said creationists couldn't be creative?). Those who suffered through The Thirteenth Warrior may recall its rather disappointing explanation of no less venerable a dragon than Beowulf's nemesis – a band of cavemen riding ponies and carrying torches.
Adrienne Mayor's concept of “geomythology” is one slightly more convincing evasion. Fossils, she notes, have always been objects of great fascination to humans, and stories have always been told about them. These tales tend to combine attempts at reconstruction (what the animal looked like in life) with an account of extinction (why such an animal is not seen alive any longer). There are certainly dragon stories that fit this template – one particularly notable example is the Dragon of Klagenfurt in Austria, commemorated in a statue that seems to have been based on a wooly rhinoceros skull unearthed nearby in 1335. But geomythology cannot be invoked in every case – and even where it can, evidence often suggests that bones supplemented existing tales rather than shaping them entirely.
The problem with all of these ideas, much as we raised in class, is that both simplistic euhemerism and simplistic symbolism is that they assume a code that scholars can and should break to read the truth. Any story that fails the litmus test of modern scientific rationalism is not a fundamentally different type of tale, but rather a simple historico-cultural fact hidden behind a scaly cipher. Medieval monks, in this paradigm, become tricky obfuscators whose meanings are only made intelligible when we understand that by “dragon” they meant “pagan,” or any other similar solution.
But the cases in which these equations are most direct, the bestiaries, complicate rather than clarify the picture. The bestiary dragons at first seem rather straightforward – they are exaggerated accounts of pythons, dwelling in distant Africa and Nubia, and they symbolize the Devil. But what is striking is that almost none of the bestiary authors or commentators seem to have linked these exotic creatures to the local legends and phenomena that they called by the same name and pictured in roughly similar reptilian guise (Bartholomaeus Anglicus, in a rare exception, does include a brief note about sea dragons attacking ships – a bit of a different category, in any event). Otherwise, there is no attempt to note that dragons were once a native species, or were still occasionally seen jaunting through the air in times of disaster. Of course, the formulaic and derivative nature of most of these texts discouraged empirical observation and comment even on more easily observable beasts. Yet the conceptual gap remains troubling. The question remains open of how much any one reading of “dragon” was meant to bear upon any other instantiation of the category.
One instructive comparative account might be the tale of the Black Shuck of Bungay. It is early modern (1577) and canine rather than dragonish, but still useful. A contemporary clergyman named Abraham Fleming described how, in the midst of a fierce thunderstorm, a monstrous black dog (“or the divel in such a linenesse”) ran down the aisle of a Suffolk church, leaving scorch marks, structural damage, and two slain parishioners in its wake. The setting and result make it fairly clear that Fleming is describing a powerful lightning strike, an event that, while awe-inspiring, neither resembles a hellhound nor dispatches its victims in a similar fashion.

Thunderbolts to black dogs – the folkloric transition defies Horden's careful correspondences. The two share nothing besides the capacity for sudden appearance and grim fatalities. In this case, the logic is not one of direct correspondences but . The Black Shuck story suggests that many monsters, and dragons particularly, are in fact less real beasts than a shape assumed by inexplicable phenomena. Their pattern is drawn partly from the draco serpents of Classical naturalists, but it seems equally true – and here Le Goff may not have been as off-base as Horden makes out – that the quintessential combat of knight and dragon derives from the Chaoskampf motif present in a vast range of Indo-European and Middle Eastern mythologies. Many of the major traditions out of which medieval European culture grew – Biblical, Classical, Germanic – contain similar accounts of snaky primordial chaos driven into retreat by divine power (YHWH and Leviathan, Zeus and Typhon, and Thor and Jormungandr, respectively). From this perspective, St. George and St. Marcellus are participants in an age-old iconographic tradition, and while they may have earned their place in it by killing a crocodile or draining a malarial swamp, there is no particular reason to assume that their deeds needed to involve anything with traditionally dragonish features. Slaying a dragon makes sense of the world, and in order for such a process to be effective, dragons must be impossible creatures, twisting from rather than inviting interpretation. 


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Lovell whose dog? The multivalent bestial symbolism of medieval Europe

 One of the more vexing questions in medieval animal symbology – and one barely addressed in our readings for the week – is the tension between universal values (in Western Europe, primarily but not solely Catholic Christianity) and local cultures (delineated on a variety of ethnolinguistic and political bases.) Symbolic discourse allowed the latter to prosecute varying degrees of distinction from or assimilation with the former through the use of multivalent symbols. Part of our difficulty in interpreting these representational exchanges is determining the extent to which both the general and particular readings might operate upon a specific image at the moment of production or reception. These readings are complicated by a huge diversity of contextual factors – literacy, medium, ecology. We should not, for instance, necessarily assume a clean relationship between the symbolic lions of authors who knew such creatures only from Bibles and bestiaries, and those of writers such as al-Isfahani (in reference to Saladin, mentioned on Cuffel, 214), for whom lions were a significant feature of the local fauna. By the same token, we should not let our modern empirical bias lead us to assume that the former were more susceptible to rigid and formulaic interpretations than the latter.
One ubiquitous source of medieval animal system was heraldry, which may have begun with the totemic beasts of the Germanic and Asiatic tribes who invaded the dying Roman empire but by the High Middle Ages had blossomed into a pictorial language encoding history, lineage, and moral quality. As a test case of symbology, heraldry is particularly useful, with its vast menagerie of beasts, real and imagined, standing in for clearly defined sociopolitical entities (noble families, towns, nations, religious orders, etc.).
Devilish dragons and serpents were frequent heraldic devices – often, as Samantha Riches notes in our readings for Thursday (“Encountering the Monstrous,” 98) as emblems recalling a historic combat between a knightly ancestor and a savage beast, but not always. Y Ddraig Goch, Wales' red dragon, whose pedigree goes back at least to the ninth century, is rather explicitly identified as an emblem of the Welsh (rather than as an enemy conquered by them). Boars and pigs, however derided they may have been in Cuffel's intrareligious polemics, were incredibly popular choices, linked to bravery and fertility. Sows with piglets – the visual basis for the incredibly demeaning Judensau trope – were rare but not unknown. They survive on the town blazons of Morcote in Switzerland and Albano Laziale in Italy, in both cases representing “abundance and fertility.” Morcote's town website even claims that the sow and piglets were the emblem of a religious order, the Antoniani Friars.
In some cases, it is impossible to distinguish reality from insult. A heraldic legend dating back to at least the thirteenth century claims that upon converting to Christianity, the fifth-century Frankish king Clovis relinquished his former shield, which sported three black toads. Does this reflect a genuine tradition of ancient French toad reverence? Or were “three black toads” the sort of stereotypical – even caricatured - symbol that a medieval Christian thought might appeal to a godless pagan? Taking the tale even further, some ingenious, if fanciful, commentators have speculated that herein lies the origin of various amphibian insults that the English apply to the French.
Names are another site of contested symbolic meaning. Modern English naming practice has shed many of its old beastly terms in favor of Hebrew-derived theophorics, though it was once rich with them – Eadwulf (fortune-wolf), Eoforhild (battle-boar), Osborn (god-bear). (One does have the impression that most Anglo-Saxon names consisted of a combination of two nouns that the parents considered cool). Actually, one of the only survivals of these Germanic creature names is “Rudolph” – which of course has its own animal associations in English now. It and its Saxon cognate Hrodulf mean “fame-wolf.” And in a direct repudiation of the notion of universal symbolism, even within Western Europe, a cross-cultural look at names does not reveal a clear typology of positively and negatively associated creatures. Most animals that became commonplace indicators of evil or witchcraft – pigs, goats, rabbits, canines – have, in one language or another, made for popular and desirable names. “Son of a bitch” makes canine ancestry an insult; yet that is nearly the exact meaning of Mac Con, the honorary epithet of an ancient Irish king. And naming could also move fluidly between signifier and signified – Thibert began as a common Germanic name, became so deeply associated with the cat in the Roman de Renard that it was virtually synonymous with “cat” (as “Renard became fully synonymous with “fox,” replacing the Old French goupil almost entirely), still remained an acceptable personal name, and yet could be freely punned on with insulting feline allusions (as Mercutio does in Romeo and Juliet).

Given this plethora of associations attending any one creature in any one cultural context, we might ask whether animal symbols were too overdetermined to have meaning outside of any specific instance of use (such as Sara Lipton identifies for her heretical cats in “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisée”). Yet it seems that naming, heraldry, and moralistic interpretations could and did come together. Perhaps the best example is William Colyngbourne's famous 15th century rhyme: “The cat, the rat, and Lovell our dog / rule all England under a hog” (quoted in Gray, 196). The “cat” and “rat” are puns on the first syllables of William Catesby and Richard Ratcliffe's last names; a silver dog was the heraldic emblem of Lord Lovell; and the “hog” is a derisive reference to King Richard III's white boar badge. Catesby and Ratcliffe, we might assume, were born with names rather than destinies, and the silver dog and white boar were symbols chosen and worn with great pride by Lovell, Richard, and their supporters. Yet the rhyme requires a double vision, understanding the positive identifications of these animals while attaching to them the moral censure of a different symbolic system, in which they are vermin and foul beasts, and the natural order has been so perverted that a gross pig rules “all England.” At least in this instance, different interpretations of beasts not only could bleed together but needed to do so for meaning to be constructed. It is perhaps this model, rather than more reductive approaches, that offers the most productive prism for understanding the creatures of reverence and insult in the diverse collective of medieval Europe.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Complexity, especially cats

Based on the variety of ways in which they were discussed in the secondary source material we read for class today, cats seem to be particularly good to think with in terms of their complexity and many roles in medieval and early modern life. Cats, we learned, are good for gloves, though only for the cheap sort.[i] This actually surprised me a bit, if we make any assumption that value is attached to difficulty of procurement: as Arya in Game of Thrones learned a few seasons (or books) ago, cats can be rather difficult to catch, and they tend to put up a fight.  If we are convinced by Barbara Newmann’s argument in “The Catte’s Tale,” in spite of her fictional primary source with which she tricks us, cats were also pets and companions. Cats seem to serve as an emblem both for instinct and for the natural order of the world, wherein cats hunt mice.[ii] Conversely, rather outside that order, cats apparently have a fondness for playing the fiddle, an unnatural, non-instinctual activity, and they are associated with those ultimate inverters of order, witches.[iii] In fact, as is well-exemplified by Douglas Gray in his aptly titled “Notes on Some Medieval Mystical, Magical and Moral Cats,” cats seem to both have served many roles and stood for a huge array of things. They can be the devil or God, magical in the fairy sense or magical in the witch sense— as in, they might actually be witches, occasionally.[iv]
Given this wild variety of meanings possible for just one animal, as we discussed at some length today, it seems inaccurate to assume that, whenever an animal appears in any context, it likely holds a particular symbolism. How, then, might we interpret a potentially symbolic animal? Sara Lipton seems to have provided something of a solution to the problem of determining which among any number of symbolisms one might choose from in a given situation. Lipton examines cats in the context of a couple of medieval Christian texts, working out how these texts built an association between Jews, Christian heretics, and cats through images of heretics kissing cats beneath the tail in a heretical ceremony, then in the placement of cats alongside Jews. As Lipton describes, in one folio of the Latin manuscript, a “Jew holds a domestic cat,” and the fact that the other depictions of cats in the text are “so unusual and so graphic” leaves “no doubt” that the cat should be interpreted as a symbol for heresy,[v] at least in this instance— and that seems to be the important part. Here, the manuscript goes out of its way to make the symbol it intends clear, and the associated symbolism suits the context for which it is being used. Lipton’s reading, therefore, seems quite persuasive, while, as we discussed, Alexandra Cuffel’s broader, less nuanced argument that projected symbolisms beyond their context was arguably less so.
            As I pointed out at the end of class, our class discussion on complexity and my concluding argument for the importance of time and place can also be found in fairly famous historical debate between Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier, and it may be helpful to provide a bit more background on that here. Coincidentally (or perhaps not— maybe symbolic complexity is one of the occult qualities of cats?), this argument about symbolism happened to center on the symbolism of cats in Darnton’s analysis of a massacre of those creatures by a group of workers at a printing shop in France in the 18th century. In attempting to explain why a massacre of generally harmless, useful animals struck the workers as wildly funny, Darnton argues that this was because the cats were not just cats.There is something about cats, Darnton argues, an “ambiguous ontological position” that makes them, along with “pigs, dogs, and cassowaries,” particularly suited for use in ritual and taboo symbolism.[vi] Ultimately, in the cat massacre he is investigating, the massacre is funny because cats represented witchcraft, the occult, women, charivari, and cuckoldry: “Cats bore enormous symbolic weight in the folklore of France and that lore was rich, ancient, and widespread enough to have penetrated the printing shop.”[vii]
In return, Roger Chartier contends in his review of Darnton’s book,  rather than being universally shared and agreed upon signs, symbols are “unstable, mobile, equivocal.”[viii] A historian must pay extreme attention to context, and she likely should not assume that every meaning and understanding is in play all at once, as Darnton appears to do. Again, as we argued in class, it might be too easy to project symbols beyond their domains and see things where we shouldn’t, such as in assuming that every pig is meant to represent a religious group. As Professor Fulton Brown also emphasized, it is similarly important to not assume that every person is attaching the same symbolisms and, relatedly, holding the same prejudices.
Plus, assuming one symbolism can blind us to the symbolisms that are actually there, or a more complicated picture, perhaps one in which the lived reality of the animal plays a significant part. For example, in William Baldwin’s 1553 Beware the Cat, which Barbara Newmann mentions in her “The Catte’s Tale” article[ix] and which I am examining in my final project, cats appear as main characters in a satire about Catholicism, were often associated with Catholicism at the time, and at one point in the text, they are explicitly compared to both Catholics and witches. These seem to be the most obvious meanings behind the cat characters. However, the closing message of the text is that the reader should beware of cats, who live in households and have the capacity to spy on their masters. Cats, in this context, seem to also represent moral, state, or neighborly surveillance in an England that was increasingly concerned with such an issue in the 16th century, and this representation seems to rest in large part on their real capacity to enter and leave households, see clearly, and sneak about. I believe it would be a mistake, methodologically speaking, to allow dominant, agreed-upon symbolisms to dictate the way we automatically read an animal character. If we simply assume that cats represent heresy, or witchcraft, or Jews, what are we missing out on about possible reflections of real, lived interactions between people and animals? It seems to me, as well as to a number of animal studies scholars, that universally subsuming animals to their symbolism is doing them a disservice.[x]
Finally, thinking about the many symbolisms as well as the living animals behind those symbolisms raises a couple of questions for me about symbolic animals in general. As Darnton contends, cats are supposed to be some of the most richly symbolic animals out there. After all, the title of this section was of readings had “especially cats” at the end of it. Why is that, exactly? Is it, as Darnton contends, that they are liminal sorts of creatures, or is that they have a particular, as he describes it, “je ne sais quoi”?[xi] Is there something physically special about cats that makes them especially symbolic? Or is this even true? As we discussed in class, and as a couple of our readings mention, “Cats rarely appear in bestiaries, probably because they are absent from the Bile and thus void of allegorical auctoritas.[xii] For such an apparently symbolic animal, it is also striking that, as Lipton mentions, the cat does not appear as a common symbol in Gothic art, and generally in bestiaries, those “that do include a cat refer merely to its ability to see at night and to its skill at catching mice.”[xiii] Plus, in Chaucer, for example, cats appear— but they are just cats being cats. Very often, in fact, they seem to be just cats being cats, doing what cats are known to do best: hunting rodents and cleaning themselves.
Doves, on the other hand, as we saw, have about a million pages of symbolism explicitly attached to them in the authorities we have had a tendency to refer to for animal symbolism in this class: the bestiaries. However, we do not historically think of the dove, necessarily, as an especially symbolic animal. It is a symbolic animal like all of the other symbolic animals in the bestiaries. I think it is worth considering why this might be. Is it because, while the bestiaries drifted out of fashion around the seventeenth century, witch hunts and folk-tales, where we attach and find a lot of the cat symbolism, stuck around longer, especially in popular memory? Do we, as historians, think of cats as particularly symbolic anachronistically? Or is it a preference for popular symbolism that we are displaying? What, exactly, makes an animal lastingly symbolic, and can we assume that our preferences for them are shared? Does it have anything to do with the animal itself or more to do with us?
As a closing thought, this may simply have been a coincidental consequence of the selections of readings for the course, but I found it particularly interesting that our authors did not particularly link cats with women, except for an offhand remark that we found in Newmann’s piece: “This feminist passage is especially interesting because cats were so often used to vilify female sexuality.”[xiv] To again bring in Darnton, he insists that “Cats connoted fertility and female sexuality everywhere.”[xv] Why do we not see this in these readings, and what might we make of, among a number of listings of all the possible symbolisms of cats, this is not one of them? Apart from coincidence, my only idea is that Darnton’s focus was later in the early modern period, and perhaps the link with femininity developed more heavily later on. Symbols, after all, are not static.


[i] Jones, 108.
[ii] Jones, 98, 104.
[iii] Jones, 99-101.
[iv] Gray, 189-191, 198.
[v] Lipton, 364.
[vi] Robert Darnton. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 89-90.
[vii] Darnton, 96.
[viii] Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness” The Journal of Modern History 57 (1985): 689-90.
[ix] Newmann, 418.
[x] See, for example, Susan Crane, Animal Encounters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
[xi] Darnton, 89.
[xii] Newmann, 414.
[xiii] Newmann, 364.
[xiv] Newmann, 415.
[xv] Darnton, 95.

Context and Complexity: Cats, Pigs, and Jews in Art and Literature

            Throughout the quarter, we have constantly been told and been saying that what we know or believe about medieval animals is much more complex than what one author or interpretation offers. At times, this response seems almost automatic – if an explanation doesn’t explain everything or contradicts another argument, then the disagreement is reconciled by a simple, “It’s really more complicated than that.” Even Prof. Fulton Brown today commented on how quickly we concluded that the use of animals for insult and disgust was a complex situation. I hope to make it apparent that “complexity” needs to be more than an automatic response to differing arguments; complexity must be discussed in the context of the scenario or argument presented. It is context and specificity that lead to and enhance complexity. I propose to make this point by discussing the arguments made by Alexandra Cuffel in “Sign of the Beast: Animal Metaphors as Maledictions of Resistance and Opposition” and in Sara Lipton’s “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisée.
            In her chapter “Sign of the Beast,” Cuffel proposes that medieval Christians, Jews, and Muslims all used similar visual vocabulary when talking about each other, such as lions for Christians or donkeys for Jews. More importantly, when one group was negatively targeted in the guise of an animal (Jews and donkeys, for instance), some authors subverted the attack by playing up the positive qualities of animal assigned to their group while pointing out the negative qualities of animals the attacker identified with.[1] However, a potential point of criticism arises from Cuffel’s tendency to make sweeping conclusions about all Christians or Jews or Muslims based on the mass of evidence she has gathered. For example, Cuffel cites a bestiary that states the following: “Sows signify sinners, the unclean, and heretics,”[2] which she uses to equate Jews with pigs. It is problematic that her source does not explicitly list Jews in addition to sinners, the unclean, or heretics. She does later admit, “Muslims are not mentioned in the bestiary texts, although Christian hearers and readers could have substituted ‘Muslim’ for ‘heretic’ and made an indirect association with certain animals in that way.” This implies that the same substitution could be made for Jews, which is perhaps the route her train of thought took. But regardless of the semantic structure of her argument, the fact remains that Cuffel takes specific instances, such as pigs associated with sinfulness and heresy, and generalizes them, implying that pigs are always symbols of heretics and Jews. 
            What Cuffel should have done, and what Lipton does do, is focus on the specific context in which statements are made. Lipton’s article discusses a specific type of text, the bible moralisée, and specific images of cats and Jews within extant manuscripts of that text. She proposes that the image of humans kissing the anus of cats arises as a criticism of the teaching of Aristotle using Jewish commentaries in early 13th century Paris.[3] Lipton does not make some broad claim, like any time a cat appears in medieval art it carries an association with heresy and Judaism, as Cuffel seems to do. She is careful to confine the feline-Jewish relation to the bible moralisée, and even goes so far as to connect the contents of the manuscripts to the political and academic situation that they were likely created in. She analyzes these images in a very specific context, and keeps her analysis only in that context.
            We can see why Lipton’s form of analysis is preferable to Cuffel’s when we consider other texts about medieval cats. Malcolm Jones, in “Cats and Cat-skinning in Late Medieval Art and Life,” discusses the use of cats for cheap fur, a topic he was led to by a Hieronymus Bosch painting. But in seeking to identify the man shown with a cat-skin in the painting, (which he names a “pedlar”[4]), Jones does not even consider that the man must represent some sort of Jew-hunter, because he has a cat skin and cats are symbols of Jews, so the man must have symbolically killed a Jew. Nor does Barbara Newman, in her cruel joke of an article “The Catte’s Tale” propose that a Barking abbess possessed a cat as the result of some sort of hidden philo-Semitism. Why do neither Jones nor Newman make such claims? Because given the context of the image or the alleged poem, those claims would be ludicrous. They could have taken Cuffel’s approach and culled any evidence that would have supported such ridiculous hypothetical claims, but instead, they restrained their argument to a tightly-defined context of time and place of creation.
            I may just be harping on the need to be aware of context when stating that medieval views are ambiguous or complex, because in our class discussions no one proposes such laughable arguments as I have just proposed. We are implicitly aware of the need to remain within the context of time, place, and argument, but as we begin to write papers, it is important to be explicitly aware of it. Perhaps I am just concerned about my own argumentative writing. I admit, I was guilty of being sucked into Cuffel’s way of thinking when reading her article. She asserts that rabbits and hares were associated with Judaism, which I was tempted to use to counter Stoker and Stoker’s claim that rabbits were souls in need of salvation.[5] If rabbits were a symbol of Judaism, then the pillow mounds they use as evidence are actually somehow homes for Jews, rather than wandering Christian souls. This whole line of thinking was related to my paper topic, but admittedly, I neglected to consider that Stoker and Stoker made their argument with specific evidence in a specific context of how rabbits were viewed. “It’s more complex than that;” rabbits could be (and probably were) both representatives of lost souls and the Jewish people, just as pigs and cats were more than just stand-ins for Jews. Accepting complexity only works when recognizing different contexts.  

[1] Cuffel, 205-209.
[2] Ibid., 226.
[3] Lipton, 373-377.
[4] Jones, 110.
[5] Stoker and Stoker, 270.

Monday, May 25, 2015

(Legal) Standing on All Fours: Animals in Modern Courts

The role of animals in the courts has changed slightly since Pigs were murderers sometime in the Middle Ages, but that does not mean that animals have stayed out of court since. For this blog post, I wanted to examine some other recent cases in which animals were the focus of a court ruling, and see if there was any connection that could be drawn to the readings, in terms of how animals were viewed in terms of the law.
            The most notable example to come out in recent years was the “Monkey Selfie” case which was decided in 2014. Back in 2011, a wildlife photographer traveled Indonesia to take photos of crested macaques. In the process, one of the monkeys took one of the cameras, and somehow snapped  a picture or two which could be identified as a “selfie.”[1] Wikipedia, who one would think would be an unlikely target for legislation, became the defendant in a copyright lawsuit after they posted the macaque’s photo on their website. Slater sued, claiming that the photos were in fact his, and that Wikipedia could not post the image for free without payment or requesting the photo from the him. . The Wikimedia company argued that the photos were in the public domain, as they were taken by the macaque, and macaque’s are not subject to copyright protection.[2]
Shortly after the controversy, and shortly before the case were to be brought to court, The U.S Copyright Office released an updated version of their Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, which governs what is and isn’t considered to be copyrighted material. In it, they specified that “Copyright law only protects the fruits of intellectual labor that are founded in the creative powers of the mind.” Among the items which is declared outside the bounds of copyright included murals painted by elephants, patterns occurring in stones or skins, and, in what was certainly not coincidence, “a photograph taken by a monkey.”[3] Meanwhile, law in the UK and Indonesia both illustrated that only a human creator of content could receive copyright protection. With this distinction made by the Copyright Office and with other laws internationally, the case was ultimately never brought to court.
So if your dog ever plays fetch with your selfie stick, know any photos taken are in the public domain.

What about examples in court? In a paper written by Cass Sunstein at the University of Chicago Law School, Sunstein examined in what cases animals would have legal standing to challenge their mistreatment, and in what cases humans would be able to raise a challenge on their behalf. Obviously, an animal cannot walk into a courthouse and file paperwork, as thumbs and the use of utensils are prerequisites for filling out said paperwork. But what about representing an animal, or its interests? As it currently stands, one could not, for example, represent a wounded bear in suit against a hunter. For one to have standing on behalf of the animal, a presumptive plaintiff must show three things. First, that an injury of some sort (physical or mental) has occurred, second, that it was the result of a defendant’s action, and third, that the problem would be redressed by a ruling in the plaintiff’s behalf.[4] If, say, a company’s polluting a riverbed and killing fish, a fisherman could have standing if they can demonstrate that the conditions have changed to the point that their annual fishing trip can no longer be undertaken.
            That requirement of a personal, human effect has often been the focal point of arguments on standing. In one case, Animal Lovers Volunteer Association v. Weinberger, the plaintiffs sought to enjoin aerial shooting of goats on a military enclave for which public access is unavailable. The court held that standing was unavailable because the members did not visit the enclave hence lacked any concrete injury. On the other hand, in Japan Whaling Assn. v. American Cetacean Soc., the court held that the organizations, who were dedicated to whale watching and the study of whales, had standing, because the legislation they challenged would have allowed greater whale fishing and, thus, removed opportunities to study the animals.[5]
            None of this is to say that animals have the same legal protections as, say, a mailbox or fence. In 2012, a California court ruled that pets, at least, are fundamentally different than other forms of property. California’s Second District Court of Appeals ruled that an aggrieved party was entitled to compensation greater than just market value for an injured animal. Unlike if a guitar or furniture was broken, the loss or injury to a domesticated pet would be greater, tied to emotional distress and other factors.
            Obviously, we have come a long way from Pigs being on trial. Now, with animals lacking legal standing, we don’t see animals trotted to the gallows. But as humanity has become more environmentally conscious, we face a new series of issues. As Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy had to grant petitions of pardon,[6] different officials must decide the fate of animals in court. Today, though, the rule of law is strictly human, and the right to trial is strictly human as well. We may very well argue the idea of “Animal Rights,” but in terms of the courts, all rights start with standing, and animals do not have standing now, and may never. Someday, societies may look back at our relationship to animals as barbaric, in the same way we look back at pigs on trial and scoff. But for now, we live in a world in which humans can only protect animals, and only when they themselves have been harmed.

- Jeramee Gwozdz

[1] Jeong, Sarah. “Wikipedia’s monkey selfie ruling is a travesty for the world’s monkey artists.” The Guardian. August 6, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2015
[2] ITN. “Monkey photo not photographer’s, claims Wikimedia – video.” The Guardian. August 7th, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2015.
[3] Chappell, Bill. "Who Owns A Monkey's Selfie? No One Can, U.S. Says." NPR. August 22, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2015.
[4] Sunstein, Cass. “Standing for Animals.” Chicago Public Law and Legal Theory. The Law School, The University of Chicago.
[5] Sunstein 18.
[6] Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary history, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Winter, 2002,) pp 405-421.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Renard and Animal Trials

After our discussion last class of the moral and legal culpability of animals, I thought I would look back to The Trial of Renard.  I found two passages there that I think could shed light on the relationship between justice and guilt with respect to medieval animal trials.  Of course, it’s important to note that Renard’s trial is conducted by anthropomorphized animals against an anthropomorphized animals, and is not directly comparable to the trials of pigs, rats, locusts, etc. held by real, institutional human courts.  Nonetheless, some issues raised in Renard’s trial are relevant to the real-life prosecution of non-human animals.
            The first passage is spoken by Pinte the hen, upon her arrival in court with the body of her sister, who has been killed by Renard.  After explain the circumstances of her sister’s death, she bemoans,

                        “But no force
Can bring justice to one who grins
At threats, and doesn’t care two pins
For anyone’s wrath.” (Trial of Renard, 102)

Can justice be done against someone (or something) who has no fear of punishment or respect for authority?  Renard certainly understands the horrible things he’s doing, he just doesn’t care.  Pinte’s remarks suggest that for her, force is not enough, that justice requires some notion of repentance or guilt on the part of the perpetrator.  This is a much more common-sense principle when it comes to human criminals, but it may also have been applied to offending animals.  Joy Enders cites a claim from Arthur Magnin that accused pigs would sometimes be tortured on the rack, and “the cries which [the animals] uttered under torture were received as confessions of guilt” (Enders).  Peter Dinzelbacher cites another example, a trial in Leiden, in which a dog who had bitten a child “confessed without torture” and was executed. 
            What does it mean for an animal to confess?  Is true understanding of the crime necessary for a confession to be valid?  In the case of the pigs, it seems certain that their squeals indicate intense pain rather than any understanding that they’ve committed a crime, let alone a valid admission of guilt.  It’s easier to understand a dog looking “guilty,” but there’s still the question of whether they’re able to link their punishment or scolding to a particular act of theirs.  In absence of this understanding, can the execution of the offending animal be considered justice?
The second passage is spoken by King Noble, in response to Pinte’s complaint aginst Renard:

“I feel great sympathy with you,
And wish somehow to relieve your woe.
Renard shall come if he will or no!
By what you shall see with your own eyes,
Hear with you ears, you’ll realize
How truly justice has been done.
Vengeance I’ll have on anyone
For breaking the peace and murdering!” (Trial of Renard, 104)

Here, justice is equated with vengeance.  What matters is not the state of mind of the punished, but the fact that they are punished in the appropriate degree for their deed.   Bringing comfort to the family of a victim is also a compelling reason for the trial and execution of an animal, particularly one accused of murder.  Dinzelbacher proposes that one of the reasons for animal trials might have been “comfort derived the ritual ‘magic’ of legal formalism, and public execution” (Dinzelbacher, 421).  For the animal community in the story, trying and punishing Renard would be a way to represent assert control over a dangerous individual who scorns authority.  In a similar way for the family of a child killed by a pig, the process of accusing, trying, and executing the pig might bring some sort of satisfaction.

W. A.

Bonus content:  absurd-sounding trials against non-human defendants are not yet a thing of the past,695_Pounds_of_Shark_Fins