03.03.17, Salter, Holy and Noble Beasts

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Kathryn E. Wildgen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.017


Salter, David. Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. viii, 168. ISBN: 0-85991-624-3.

Reviewed by:
Kathryn E. Wildgen

It is my habit to consult an author's bibliography before reading a scholarly book. When I found Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being in David Salter's list, I knew I would like Holy and Noble Beasts, a book so rich, it will be difficult to resist discussing every detail of every argument.

Salter's purpose in writing Holy and Noble Beasts is stated in his Introduction: he will examine the ways in which animals are represented in a few key literary texts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries "with a view to uncovering the range of attitudes towards the animal kingdom" current at the time (2). He takes as model of the literary critic -- and thus of himself -- the lion of Aesop's fable of the lion and the man, which illustrates in narrative form Salter's basic critical point of view and also introduces the theme of anthropocentrism. The lion, like the modern critic, realizes that the "assumptions, preoccupations, and prejudices" (2) of the artist, literary or otherwise, will color or otherwise influence his representation of his subject. However, as Salter deftly points out, the fable itself is complicit in the very anthropocentrism it purports to condemn in that the lion is nothing more than a "representative of an unjustly maligned social group" (3). Were medieval authors interested in animals as animals, Salter wonders, or were animals mere "vehicles" for reflecting on humanity? Following the path of anthropologists, Salter will examine the texts he has chosen not as indicators of attitudes towards animals, but as revelatory of "our perceptions of ourselves as human beings" (6). The book is divided into three Parts: Return to Paradise: Animals in the Lives of Saints, including an examination of Niccolo Colantonio's painting of St Jerome and the lion; Knights and the Brute Creation: Nobility and Sanctity in Four Middle English Romances, again including consideration of a visual artwork, The Vision of St Eustace by Pisanello; and Nature and Supernature: The Middle English Romances of Alexander the Great. A brief Conclusion summarizes Salter's principal arguments.

Chapter One has as its subject the most popular animal story, and the one with the most influence on the arts, of the Middle Ages: St Jerome and the lion. Salter offers a judiciously crafted analysis of Colantonio's fifteenth-century painting of Jerome and the lion, rooting "the work...firmly within...the religious and cultural context of its time [as well as in] the long-established tradition of hagiographical writing" involving beasts and saints (16). There are significant differences between Colantonio's rendition of the scene and those of various literary texts: Jerome himself -- not his monks -- attends to the lion's wound and thus takes center stage; the setting is Jerome's book-filled study rather than a public area of the monastery. Colantonio's anachronistic depiction of the cardinal's hat, the galerus ruber, further propels Jerome into contemporary relevance for his fifteenth-century audience. It is precisely in the anachronistic flavor of the painting that Salter finds his subject matter. For Jerome, city life was the antithesis of the devout, holy life that leads to paradise; and animals, particularly the lion, symbolized the rigorous asceticism of the desert fathers. Colantonio's rendition of the Jerome/lion couple is antithetical to Jerome's own view of urban vs. "wild" or "natural" values. Salter's treatment of Colantonio's painting serves two purposes: it contrasts the workings of the medieval imagination with those of the Renaissance; and it has a direct bearing on the subject of animals in Franciscan spirituality, the subject of Salter's next three chapters.

In Chapter Two Salter discusses St Francis and the wolf of Gubbio, or rather, Lynn White's misinterpretation of the tale. White declared that St Francis should be the patron saint of ecologists because of his profound sympathy for all creatures in an age that possessed "an extremely destructive attitude towards the natural world..." (25). White, Salter asserts, read back into Francis's life and times "beliefs and motives that he did not in fact possess" (26). As illustration of this assertion, Salter uses the story of the wolf of Gubbio, the significance of which is far from self-evident despite White's apparent belief that it is (27). The crux of Salter's "take" on the story is that the wolf must utterly deny his wolfish nature and behave like a human being in order to coexist peacefully with humans (29).

"Francis's relationship with the animal kingdom was inextricably bound up with his complex attitude towards his own body" (33). Thus Salter begins Chapter Three, in which he explores the saint's assessment of the essentially asinine nature of the human body. In this Francis echoed St Augustine, who saw the soul's rebellion against God in Eden repeated henceforth in the body's refusal to obey the soul. According to Bonaventure, Francis's dominion over his body was mirrored in his command of animals, a state which existed throughout Francis's life. His belief in the rightness of man's control of the animal world was rooted firmly in the Bible; this attitude constitutes the subject matter of Chapter Four.

In 1213, Francis suffered a major spiritual crisis involving the nature of his vocation: should he continue to evangelize in the century or retreat instead to an eremitical life of prayer? Attendant upon this crisis was his famous sermon to the birds. Since "no animal story from the legend of St Francis reverberates with such biblical resonance" (41) as this narrative, Salter turns his attention to the sacred texts Francis used to underpin his sermon, principally Jesus' command (Mk 16: 15) to his apostles to preach to all creatures. Some animals, such as the lamb, "spoke more eloquently of God than others," and it was to these and other special symbols of Christ that Francis "reserved his special favor" (43). Goats, on the other hand, were evil or sinister, a sentiment inspired by the goat as metaphor of the damned soul (Mt 25: 31-33 & 41). Francis's inconsistent view of the natural world may thus be traced straight to the Bible as may his view that meat-eating was a "sacramental duty" (49).

As with Part I, Salter commences Part II, "Knights and the Brute Creation," with a chapter on another fifteenth-century painting, Pisanello's The Vision of St Eustace, and its relationship with Sir Isumbras (55). For Salter, the most salient feature of the painting is the manner in which "saintliness and nobility...are fused and celebrated simultaneously" (57). What Salter emphasizes are the affinities and similarities between heroes of romance and of hagiography, who all inhabit "a magical world, suffused with mystery and enchantment" (58). (Thomas E. A. Dale, in Speculum 77: 707-43, noted with reference to the tomb effigy of Rudolf von Schwaben that noble heroes were imaged using the traits of reliquary portraits of saints.) Salter uses a comparison between the legend of St Eustace and Sir Isumbras to illustrate the "blurring of the boundaries between the two genres" (59) and to show how deeply chivalric romances shaped saints' perceptions of their relationship with God.

In Chapter Six, Salter emphasizes the "hybrid" nature of Sir Gowther, which "reverberates with biblical and hagiographical echoes" (71). In its mingling of topoi from both hagiography and chivalric romance, Sir Gowther "refuses to recognize a clear division between the genres of romance and hagiography" (74). Gowther's knightly status is essential to his eventual saintliness and central to his personality. As in previously considered narratives, animals are involved in Sir Gowther's adventures: he is ordered by the Pope to eat only food taken from the mouths of dogs; his horse changes color to indicate his passage from fiend to saintly hero; and a greyhound supplies him with food on three successive evenings.

Octavian is the subject of Chapter Seven. The helpful animal involved here is a lioness, which, according to several Middle English romances, is incapable of harming those of royal lineage. She, in fact, suckles the child Octavian after snatching the boy from his unjustly maligned mother. The reason Salter includes Octavian in his argument is that "the lioness...completely fails to distinguish between the religious virtues of [Octavian's] mother, and the secular attributes of the son," another example of the blurring of the lines between hagiography and romance. Octavian's brother, Florent, interacts with a falcon, exchanging his low-born adoptive father's oxen for the bird most closely associated with knightly pursuits. He further angers the ironically-named Clement by handing over Clement's gold for a horse, another "noble" beast. In conclusion to this chapter, Salter points out the difference between the attitudes of saints and those of heroes of romance towards animals, the latter being the more empathetic.

This discussion continues throughout Chapter Eight, whose subject is Sir Orfeo. As is the case with many saints, while Orfeo is living in the wilderness in self-imposed semi-penitential exile, his words and music have the power to tame wild beasts. Once his exile has ended, and he comes upon an aristocratic hunting party, his innate nobility, and its concomitant attitude towards animals as inferior prey, come to the fore, triggered by the sight of falcons. Orfeo changes; he reverts to his former self after his period of exile. Salter makes two important points in this section of the book: nature, not nurture, forms character; the deeply hierarchical divisions of human society are repeated in the animal kingdom. As corollary, noble beasts and humans instinctively recognize and interact with each other. It is in examining Sir Orfeo that Salter finds Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism particularly apposite. Frye claims that "all literary works...make use of a small number of recurring narrative patterns, which embody the deepest wishes and anxieties of humans" (107), a claim that C. G. Jung extends not only to narrative but also to symbols -- images, shapes and forms -- as found primarily in dreams. Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance, as well as the works of Mircea Eliade, may also have been of use and of interest to Salter in this section of the book.

Part II, comprised of Chapters Nine through Eleven, is devoted entirely to the history and romance of Alexander the Great. Salter offers a precis of Alexander's life and a list of sources of his exploits that were available to a medieval audience. Alexander is included in Salter's study because of Bucephalas, mentioned primarily to magnify the attributes of the man. Salter bases his comparison of the historical Alexander and the Alexander of romance on Frye's distinction between the hero with a whiff of the divine about him and the extraordinary mortal. It is in his manner of the taming of Bucephalas that Alexander is revealed as one or the other.

Despite "Christian skepticism about pagan spirituality...an aura of the supernatural persistently surrounds Alexander" (132). Alexander's "semi-divine" ability to tame the forces of nature is the subject of the last chapter of the book. According to Kyng Alisaunder, Alexander waged war on the extremely ferocious animals in India, a country with a reputation dating back to the 5th century BC, for "terrifying animals and monstrous peoples" (136). (I would add: such as those depicted in medieval sculpture, most notably at the abbey church of Vezelay in Burgundy.) Towards the end of the last chapter, Salter returns to the figure of St Jerome and his perception of India as "a place of wonder" (142, n. 20), thus closing the circle and bringing the exotic pagan Alexander into the fold of medieval European hagiography and romance.

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Kathryn E. Wildgen