The Medieval Review 10.09.20

Mann, Jill. From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 380. $110 ISBN 978-0-19-921768-7. .

Reviewed by:

Luuk Houwen
Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum

Animal fables and beast epic belong to the common stock of medieval European literature. In medieval England fables are ubiquitous but examples of beast epic, in Latin, Anglo-French or English are not so widespread as they are in France or the Low Countries. There is Nigel of Longchamp's Speculum stultorum in Latin, the Vox and the Wolf and of course William Caxton's Reynard the Fox, to which should be added a few individual tales like Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale and some of Henryson's Morall Fabillis. Although the individual genres have received some attention in the past, with most of that going to the fables, the only more or less recent publication that comes to mind in which both were tackled is Thomas Honegger's From Phoenix to Chauntecleer. [1] Honegger's monograph is not only broader in scope than Mann's but also concentrates very much on the meaning of the animals. Mann, as she explains in the Introduction, is not so much interested in what animals mean, but in how they mean (1), but before she examines the Anglo-Scottish tradition in greater detail the background of medieval fables and beast epic is outlined in the Introduction. Here we encounter the familiar, if sometimes legendary, writers from classical antiquity: Aesop, Phaedrus, Babrius, and Avianus. The tradition becomes somewhat more complex in the Middle Ages with the different recensiones of the Romulus from which the vast majority of all medieval fables derive. The beast epic genre cannot boast such a long history as that of the fable with the eleventh-century Ecbasis captivi as its earliest representative, but the influence of some of its later offshoots like the Speculum Stultorum and the Roman de Renart has been considerable, to which the later chapters in From Aesop to Reynard testify. The outline of medieval animal literature would not be complete without the mention of some other genres which may not have been as important as the fable and beast epic, but which nevertheless left their mark on them. The Physiologus and bestiaries are one such, and so are oriental tales such as those found in the Petrus Alfonsi's Disciplina Clericalis which gave us the story of the fox and the wolf in the well.

In "How Animals Mean" Mann sets out her theoretical framework, but this is not a highly theoretical chapter of the sort that one might encounter in German professorial dissertations. Instead it poses a number of practical questions such as why animals are chosen as carriers of human meaning. It is argued quite rightly that this is not because of the characteristics with which they are traditionally associated, like the slyness of the fox or the rapine of the wolf, but rather because they are polysemous and consequently resist moral evaluation (33). This is not to say that animals are not subject to natural programming, they are, but the corollary of that is that they resist moral judgement, since one cannot very well criticise an animal for acting according to its nature. Mann is not interested in establishing rules to which texts must conform but to identify the structural logic that holds together their various characteristics and to establish a "normative basis against which the individual works of British beast literature can be analysed" (52).

The next six chapters analyse British animal literature broadly chronologically, beginning with Marie de France's Anglo-French courtly fables and ending with a wonderfully acute discussion of Henryson's Middle Scots Morall Fabillis. For reasons of space I shall concentrate on the chapters dealing with the Middle English and Middle Scots works and omit the chapters on Marie de France's fables and the Speculum Stultorum.

In the Reynardian chapter Mann takes issue with Norman Blake's statement in his 1975 article "Reynard the Fox in England" in which he denied any impact of the Reynard story on either the Vox and the Wolf or the Nun's Priest's Tale, and she shows convincingly that this thesis no longer holds while also making a case for the role of contingency in the Vox and the Wolf. One narrative element that strongly suggests the influence of the Roman de Renart (Branch II) as a source in the Nun's Priest's Tale is Chauntecleer's prophetic dream, a dream, as Mann rightly points out, that is hardly necessary in a world in which instinct rules the behaviour of animals and will make them flee from their adversaries. [2] This natural element clashes with the rhetorical framework that envelops the action in the tale which, Mann suggests, merely offers us the knowledge "that human rhetoric is both supremely important and supremely irrelevant" (261).

The central argument in The Owl and the Nightingale does not revolve around who has the better arguments or what allegorical reading can or should be imposed upon the poem as earlier critics have often maintained, but around the "comic destabilization of meaning" (163). The poet achieves this by both merging the distinctions between the human and the animal and by endowing his birds with "creatural realism" (169) and keeping us guessing whether we should take the human or the animal world as a point of reference (172). Mann very much agrees with Holtei's characterisation of the Owl and the Nightingale as "play," [3] and characterises it as a kind of game in which rhetoric "both stems from and masks instinctive reactions" (191).

The chapter on Chaucerian birds first deals with the Parliament of Fowls. The Parliament, like the Owl and the Nightingale before it, is a debate, and just as in the latter its human voices merge with the animal ones, but here they do so almost imperceptibly, so that when the sparrow-hawk contemptuously speaks of "a parfit resoun of a goos" we barely notice the incongruity. The tales of the Squire and the Manciple are almost inevitably analysed in terms of deceit and betrayal and both are characterised by the fact that animals communicate with humans and vice versa, even if it requires a magic ring in the Squire's Tale. The pivotal concept in that tale is "newfangelnesse" which Chaucer identifies as the source for sexual infidelity and betrayal, but Mann explains that here the term does not necessarily denote sexual appetite alone but the more general propensity to change (206). The Manciple's Tale, in line with its Ovidian roots, is approached as a quasi-myth which transcends its aetiological origin and which highlights the chasm between reality and fiction. That truth can be as dangerous as a lie is forcefully brought home when the crow has to pay the price for speaking the truth to Phoebus.

Henryson's late fifteenth-century Morall Fabillis round off this work on beast literature in Britain. In his fables the schoolmaster from Dunfermline is shown to combine both the Aesopic and Reynardian traditions into a tightly controlled whole which, in turn, is preceded by a "Romulan" Prologue. Seven of his thirteen fables have counterparts in the elegiac Romulus, whereas five others are Reynardian and this includes Henryson's version of Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale--the "Cock and the Fox". In their comic exuberance, their great detail, seasonal descriptions and lengthy dialogues Mann regards them as excellent examples of what Erwin Leibfried called the "epicization" of beast fable (267). What is also quite striking about Henryson's fables is the presence of the narrator, both in the fables themselves and in the moralitates, but this is not unique to the Morall Fabillis, witness, for example, the Testament to Cresseid. There is much to admire in this chapter which singles out the tales of "The Paddock and the Mouse," "The Preaching of the Swallow," "The Fox and the Wolf," "The Trial of the Fox" and "The Wolf and the Wether" for further study. As before, rhetoric reigns supreme and Mann's observation that verbal argument in the fables is generally ineffective is beautifully illustrated in "The Wolf and the Lamb." She also argues that the moralitates continue the rhetorical play of the main body of the fables. Thus Henryson's rhetoric and that of his animals tend to overlap, and if we accept that the verbal skills of the animals is generally ineffective (except for "The Lion and the Mouse") then this may well shed light on Henryson's attitude towards his own poetry (304).

In From Aesop to Reynard Mann succeeds admirably in her aim to show how animals mean in the texts under discussion. In the process she has identified two major themes by which all these texts are governed, namely the power of nature and the dichotomy between rhetoric and actions. Although Mann is at pains to warn that the latter theme is not the result of a postmodern scepticism towards referential language (307) one cannot help to observe how medieval scepticism towards language in some ways converges with postmodern thoughts on the subject and how what Mann calls the "connaturality" between human and animal--a manifestation of the power of nature in beast literature--is akin to similar notions discussed in such works as Donna Haraway's When Species Meet (2008). Be that as it may, the emphasis on the how rather than the what has proven to be a productive one and holds great promise for future research in the field.

It is inevitable that in such a wide-ranging work which also had a long gestation period, there are the occasional weaknesses. Surely fables had other functions in classical antiquity in addition to being "invoked in order to recommend or warn against some course of action in a specific historical situation" (5). Here the discussion would have benefitted from J.G.M. van Dijk's analysis of the numerous uses fables were put in his 1997 book Αinoi, Logoi, Μythoi: Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Literature. Similarly the discussion of the bestiary tradition in chapter four is not quite up to date. The most important omission there is surely Willene Clark's discussion on the Second Family bestiaries as school texts which sheds new light on the old debate of whether bestiaries are primarily moral or scientific texts (cf. p. 160, n. 44). [4] Also quite striking is the analysis of Chaucer's Manciple's Tale of Phoebus and the crow. In line with older analyses its warning against language and more particularly hasty speech receives a fair bit of attention, but to regard the relationship between Phoebus and the crow as one belonging to a kind of pre-Lapsarian age when animals and men could still talk together may be pushing the analysis a little too far. The mythical setting in a Golden Age is beyond dispute and so is the crow's ability to deliver a verbal message, but the notion that the crow's loss of the ability to imitate human speech suggests "the rupture of the relationship between the human and the animal" and hence a "loss of Eden" (218) is somewhat tenuous. Its ability to communicate is, in fact, much more ambivalent. It may have been able to inform Phoebus of his wife's adultery, but Chaucer is also at some pains to demonstrate that the crow is merely able to "countrefete the speche of every man" (IX, 134; my emphasis) and he generally, though not always, uses this verb to signify irrealis; thus the prioress exerted herself to "countrefete cheere of court" (I, 139-40), letters and bulls are "countrefeted" in the Man of Law's Tale and the Clerk's Tale (II, 746, 793; IV, 743) and so are keys (IV, 2121; MerT) and words (VI, 51; PhysT) and even when the verb leans towards the more neutral sense of "to imitate" as in the Squire's Tale (V, 554) its negative connotations are never far away as the next word ("sophymes") makes abundantly clear. These, however, are minor quibbles in an otherwise meticulously researched study that shines particularly in the (sub)chapters devoted to the Middle English and Middle Scots material and should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the medieval English fable and beast epic traditions.

-------- Notes

1. Thomas Honegger, From Phoenix to Chauntecleer: Medieval English Animal Poetry (Tübingen: Francke, 1996).

2. Her attribution of this last idea to Seneca (257, n. 106), on the other hand, is less to the point; it goes back at least as far as Aristotle; see L.A.J.R. Houwen, "Fear and Instinct in Chaucer's 'Nun's Priest's Tale'," Fear and Its Representations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Anne Scott (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002), 17-30.

3. Rainer Holtei, Norm und Spiel in The Owl and the Nightingale (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1990), 36.

4. In Willene B. Clark, ed., A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-Family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006), chapter 8.