Friday, May 15, 2015

Dove as symbol

The Sign of the Dove is ostensibly about a dove. It is about a bird, its coloration, its sigh and its nature. By analyzing The Sign of the Dove in more depth, however, it becomes clear that this text and image pairing is not solely a bird. Rather, it is about the sign. The sign, this sign of the dove, was a way to use metaphor to extract meaning out of a text and an image. Its purpose: to indicate the spiritual nature of what’s signified. Metaphor is the medium through which this spiritual world is visible. The Sign of the Dove was used, not to be looked at, but to be looked through to the invisible, to the conceptual and the spiritual. To illuminate the theological and determine that life of sublimity.
While this image could illuminate another world, it could also be used to collect knowledge about a place, a world. The Sign of the Dove was part of a larger book—a book on many types of birds and their significance. This book, like many texts and images we have analyzed in this course, is a bestiary. It is an encyclopedia. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I believe that these complications with the express purpose of collecting knowledge about the outside world were very powerful tools. Encyclopedias, bestiaries, indicate that the author is trying to learn. They are trying to master some part of the physical environment. Cataloging is a first step to having power over something. By cataloging these animals, the authors of these bestiaries were attempting to gain partial control over the animals contained therein. It can be imagined to be a respite from the great fear of the unknown. 
The Sign of the Dove seems to be something else, also. Not only was this other, spiritual world something that could be used to understand complex topics—sin and love were two we touched on—but the self. As we went on to discuss at the end of class, the Sign of the Dove indicates the occurrence of an intricate psychology. By looking at this text and image, one could understand themselves better through the aide of looking at a particular creature. Again, we see here that people were attempting to understand themselves and the world around them—to gain a grasp of the world through cataloging language and, as evidenced here, through metaphor.
This world within a world signification indicates, to me, something broader about how animals were used in the Middle Ages. Throughout this course, we have been asking the question what are animals for? What is their relationship to humans? Perhaps we can use the Sign of the Dove to flesh out our understanding of that relationship. The use of metaphor in the interpretation of the Sign of the Dove could be akin to the use of animals in the interpretation of the world. That is to say, people used metaphor to interpret an image of a dove to extract meaning out of the world around them. Within this comparison, animals can take the place of metaphor, here. To people in the Middle Ages, and perhaps to people now, animals can be used to extract some meaning out of the world around them. Animals can be, and are, symbols. They are symbols used to get at some larger meaning, to analyze the way in which humans themselves navigate the world around them.
We see this animal as symbol or signifier just as we saw dove as signifier in the three ways outlined above. First, as first and foremost a symbol. As we have seen before, animals were not only economically useful, but also served as signifiers. Here, though, the broader meaning that animals help humans to understand the spiritual world, the natural world, what is real and what is not. Animals could serve as approximations of what could seem to be ungraspable to the intellect. Next, as a way of knowledge collection. To learn about animals is a way to learn about the world. Animals live in the woods, and the woods can symbolize the great unknown. By learning about small pieces of what lies in that great unknown, the fright that accompanies that great void can be lessened. Finally, as ways to understand people themselves. They also attained class distinctions, were described in ways similar to humans. They were extensions of humans. By giving animals certain characteristics, they could be used to help humans understand more about their own world, their human world.
Many could give a counterargument. In class, we asked some very good questions—why not just get a real bird? Why interpret both the picture and text instead? What does this illustration do that a flesh and blood animal does not? I will elaborate on these questions to provide a counterargument. If we cannot just use a bird as a symbol in interpreting The Sign of the Dove to examine the spiritual world and get closer to God, how can we use flesh and blood animals to extract meaning out of the world of humans? Aren’t flesh and blood animals not enough to use as a symbol, or an interpretive device?
I believe that animals are enough to analyze the human world. Metaphor is just different enough from matter of fact speech, just as animals are just different enough from humans such that they can be utilized as an interpretive device. I am trying to argue that animals can be used to make sense of the human world just as metaphor can be used to make sense of the spiritual world in the Sign of the Dove. In the former case, the thing being analyzed, the human world, is broad enough such that animals as interpretive devices makes sense. Not just animals as pictures and text, but as animals. In the ways humans use animals to understand their world, it works. As we have seen, humans have used animals as flesh and blood, when they keep them as pets, or use them to fight, as textual representations, as when they are described in bestiaries and representations of the hunt, and as painted pictures, as in many of the unrealistic groupings of animals we looked at last week.

So, animals are not perceived as just flesh and blood. They are multifaceted, can be represented in many ways, and in this way, animals can be used to interpret the human world. They can be used to grasp something larger about humans that would not be achievable without these animals. They are ultimately very valuable, just as the Sign of the Dove is valuable, in that they help humans see beyond their visible, graspable world into the invisible, the ungraspable. The human nature of the world is graspable through the study of animals.

--B. Alderete Baca


  1. "The human nature of the world is graspable through the study of animals." Yes--but why? You do a good job wrestling here with the interplay between metaphor and physical animal, but you miss an important step for medieval Christians in arguing why the animals can function as signs: because they are not just living beings like human beings, but more importantly creatures, again, just like human beings, both made by the same Maker. This is what Ohly was trying to explain: how it was that medieval Christians saw the world as a made thing through which they could look to the invisible, the ungraspable Maker. We moderns tend to think in terms of humans and animals, but medieval Christians like Hugh of Folieto thought in terms of human, animals, and God--a much more complicated dynamic. We moderns use animals to think about who we are as animals, but medieval Christians used animals to think about who they were as creatures as well. RLFB

  2. I'm very struck by your assertion that "Cataloging is a first step to having power over something." You're certainly right - if something can be categorized and explained then it is clear and understandable, or so one would hope. The idea that the act of creating a bestiary is an attempt to control the animals contained within is not something I considered when we discussed bestiaries earlier in the quarter. It certainly makes me wonder about the presence of fantastic beasts, like unicorns and dragons, in bestiaries - what sort of control do bestiary authors try to get by including these types of creatures? But I digress. This conception of cataloging in order to gain control of something helps elaborate the argument later in your post, "[Animals] are symbols used to get at some larger meaning, to analyze the way in which humans themselves navigate the world around them." Today we perceive the quest for control of the natural world as being attained through scientific discovery, but you suggest that in the Middle Ages, this was done by writing extensively about animals and the lessons they teach about the nature of humans, and more importantly, the nature of God and His creation. By your argument, the unknowable mysteries of God can be understood through the study and cataloging of animals. I think that's what you're getting at when you say "They can be used to grasp something larger about humans that would not be achievable without these animals." If we are created by God, and we understand ourselves, then we understand something more about God and His Creation. I think this concept is at the heart of understanding your post, even if it's not explicitly stated. RAE

  3. I'm not entirely persuaded by the idea that you end your argument with. Part of the issue is that you provide this ambitious claim that animals as animals are useful for understanding human nature, which is certainly sometimes true. As our discussion about animals as insults revealed, sometimes the insults based on animals provide a lot of knowledge about what connotations animals carry, and how they demean and insult people different fro the self. However, it seems to go too far in that the animal is always, or even usually, a mirror of human nature in its form. The bestiary becomes useful for this. While the exotic and the wild are moralized heavily, and lessons are brought for humanity's improvement, the domestic are discussed very sparsely. On a lamb, an animal where we would expect a great discussion of the animal as Christ, we get nothing more than its physical properties. And, as the record of manors show, often animals were just another resource. While perhaps even the lack of moralizing is meaningful, that would require far more analysis than is present here.
    While your idea is very interesting and very ambitious, it goes too far without support, and forgets that, even in the Middle Ages, sometimes animals were just animals. No deeper meaning, just other creatures that are used to clothe, move and feed humans.