Tuesday, May 26, 2015

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.


  1. You make a really great point about the context-specificity of complexity. To say that representations of pigs or cats are complex is meaningless without tying the various facets of their complexities to particular times, places, and actors. I also think you're right in drawing our attention to this point; even if it might seem obvious, it's very easy to forget, and thus all the more necessary to make sure we stay aware of. That said, when it comes to evaluating arguments, I think there is another side to this recognition of the specificity of complexity that we should also keep in mind. While we should be wary of generalizations about "Christians in medieval Europe" and the like, I also think we should temper our reactions when we encounter such arguments lest we toss out the baby with the bathwater. The Enders and Cuffel texts are those I have in mind that we've read lately. We may not want to follow the authors as far as their ultimate conclusions, but this is not to say that they don't accomplish anything of value that we can take up along the way. As was said in class, though we aren't with Cuffel when she says that Jews or Muslims generally thought in particular ways about each other, we can at least accept from the evidence that there existed traditions in which specific individuals were situated that involved denigrating other religious groups through symbolic comparisons to particular animals.


  2. "Accepting complexity only works when recognizing different contexts." Exactly! It is one thing that say that animals such as pigs and cats were used by Christians as symbols in certain contexts for Jews, Muslims, heretics, and sinners. It is wholly another to say that every instance of a pig or cat must carry all of these valences, even when the authors of our texts do not explicitly invoke them. If the bestiary author says that "sows signify sinners, the unclean, and heretics," but does not mention Muslims or Jews, we should ask why he does not mention Muslims or Jews, not assume that he meant to and somehow forgot, especially when there are contemporary authors like Guillaume le Clerc who were quite explicit about the comparisons. Is every representation of a capitalist pig also a Jew? (I would say no.) Why then should we read every representation of a sinner pig as also a Jew as well? RLFB