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. 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,” 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. 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”), 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. 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.