Inventing with animals in the middle ages

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Abstract

The last few years have seen an outpouring of scholarship engaged in rethinking the interrelation of humans and animals. This boundary-challenging work mainly explores the precariousness of that divide we imagine separating us from other mammals.1 My preoccupation with the animals of the Middle Ages is spurred in part by this critical efflorescence, with its bracing challenge to the supposed solitariness of species and identity. My interest also derives from the fact that I have two children. At the age of nineteen months, my daughter Katherine self-identified more strongly with monkeys than with homo sapiens. Her nursery a rainbow-colored menagerie, her picture books bursting with fantastic zoos, she resides in a hyperactive world of fauna. As the Disney megacorporation realized long ago, and as Katherine is realizing now, animals teach children how to become human. They also provide a temporary escape from that burden. Over the past few years I have been reading my young son Alexander a nightly installment of Brian Jacques's Redwall novels. The books feature abbesses and armored warriors, perilous weapons, feasts, foundlings, tapestries, stained glass- The characters and substance of the medieval world. Yet the actors in these tales are mice, shrews, hawks, stoats, badgers, and weasels. Although the Redwall novels create an imaginary geography where beasts enact medieval dramas, through their speech and their actions it is clear that these animals inhabit a nostalgic fantasy of the British Empire. Jacques's medieval beasts open an imaginative space where the problems of a complex present can be simplified, and where good and evil are as self-evident as the animal skin one dwells inside. For all its talking creatures, the Redwall books are ultimately populated by humans. Animals are the vehicles through which desires for a differently configured (if obdurately anthropocentric) world are expressed. Animals similarly offered "possible bodies" to the dreamers of the Middle Ages, forms both dynamic and disruptive through which might be dreamt alternate and even inhuman worlds.2 In animal flesh could be realized some potentialities for identity that might escape the constricting limits of contemporary race, gender, or sexuality. Animals were fantasy bodies through which denied enjoyments might be experienced and foreclosed potential opened to exploration. For the most part, the purpose of inventing with animals was to yield more possibilities for humans, and therefore it proceeded only from a historical and rather limited point of view. Yet medieval authors and artists could, at least implicitly, approach the animal nonanthropomorphically. Though never likely, it was nonetheless sometimes possible to see in the beast more than a mere semblance of the human, not some lifeless allegory or a thing so nonhuman as to be wholly other. At times it was possible to grant to the animal its enduring status as intimate alien, as an intractable and ahistorical melding of the familiar and the strange.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEngaging with nature
PublisherUniversity of Notre Dame Press
Pages39-62
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9780268030834
StatePublished - Dec 1 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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    Cohen, J. J. (2008). Inventing with animals in the middle ages. In Engaging with nature (pp. 39-62). University of Notre Dame Press.