13.07.18, Van Dyke, ed., Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts

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Barbara Newman

The Medieval Review 13.07.18

Van Dyke, Carolynn. Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. xiii, 286. ISBN: 978-0-230-33858-6.

Reviewed by:
Barbara Newman
Northwestern University
bjnewman@northwestern.edu

"Awak!" When Chaucer's eagle arouses him in The House of Fame, it speaks "in mannes vois" even as it squawks. For Carolynn Van Dyke, this moment epitomizes Chaucer's treatment of nonhuman characters: while they are always anthropomorphized, he never lets us forget their beastliness or (more often) birdliness. This book of sixteen short essays offers Chaucerians an array of perspectives, some theoretically adept, others easing readers gently into critical animal studies. The essays are divided into five groups: The Natural Creature, Animal Lessons, Becoming-Animal, Contested Boundaries, and Cross-Species Discourse. While the first three chapters treat the "animal real," the other categories mingle discussions of anthropomorphism, hybridity, animal ethics, and empathy with old-fashioned imagery and symbolism. I will arrange them here according to the more useful criterion of which Chaucerian texts they address.

Aranye Fradenburg gets the volume off to a bracing start in "Among All Beasts: Affective Naturalism in Late Medieval England." In deliciously quirky prose, she argues that when medieval authors portray animals, symbolism and sympathy merge. Trevisa's translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus evinces sadness over the death of dogs and amazement at the ingenuity of spiders; Sir Gawain imagines the terror of a hunted beast; The Second Shepherds' Play reminds us that what we feel for a lamb is much like what we feel for a baby. Similarly, The Parliament of Fowls "affirms the value and pleasure of minds speaking to other minds" (19) across species boundaries, as Chaucer celebrates "the always-already erotopolitical and artful behavior of all creatures great and small" (21). Knowledge gained by observation complements learned lore, as it still does, and empathy is conveyed by many means, among them "habitual gestures, horripilations, fluffings-out, prosody, and language, all of which mingle us, for real" (27).

The Parliament attracts several responses. In "Talking Animals, Debating Beasts," Wendy Matlock compares it with Lydgate's popular Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep; both highlight the "connaturality" of man and beast. While Chaucer's eagles debate the intricacies of courtly love, birds lower in the pecking order cry, "Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!" This moment is comic because it plays up the artificiality of the anthropomorphic debate, as does the duck that swears "by myn hat" and the formel eagle, whom Nature kisses on her beak. Lydgate's poem may read more poignantly than it once did, for the three animals boast of their sufferings to determine which is most serviceable to man. The horse exults in his warlike role, as does the goose whose feathers make the finest arrows. In an unsettling moment, she praises the taste of her own roast flesh, while a ram notes that sheepskin produces soft parchment.

Melissa Ridley Elmes surveys the encyclopedic sources for Chaucer's catalogue of birds, among them Isidore of Seville, Bartholomaeus, and Alan of Lille. In "Species or Specious? Authorial Choices and The Parliament of Fowls," she shows that he adds many English birds from direct observation, while omitting those not indigenous to the island. Generic models for the Parliament include the dream vision, the demande d'amour, and earlier bird debates, but Elmes adds a fourth, estates satire, arguing that the Parliament anticipates Chaucer's elaboration of that genre in the General Prologue. His birds, she maintains, "are both species and specious" (244): real, observable English birds who put forth self-interested claims based on human, not avian mores.

Lesley Kordecki takes on the bête noire of animal studies in "Chaucer's Cuckoo and the Myth of Anthropomorphism." She supplies a learned account of the cuckoo's "brood parasitism," a trait that led medieval writers to perceive the whole species as criminal, but may look to modern eyes more like a form of interspecies cooperation. Ironically, the cuckoo's moral condemnation is voiced by the merlin, a predator that kills far more birds than the cuckoo and her chicks. Kordecki proposes that Chaucer's debate parodies our tendency to over-classify other creatures and the meanings they hold for us. She skewers the brand of anthropomorphism that either denies all cognition and emotion to nonhumans, or asserts that only humans feel virtuous emotions (love, mercy, reverence) while other creatures both feel and signify vicious ones (greed, cruelty, rage).

In "Chaucer's Chicks," Sara Gutmann explores "Feminism and Falconry in 'The Knight's Tale,' 'The Squire's Tale,' and The Parliament of Fowls." Treatises on falconry prize the larger, stronger female above the male bird--and frequently liken the training of falcons to that of wives. Pursuing this comparison, Gutmann examines the parallel fates of birds and women. While Chaucer grants his formel eagle at least enough agency to defer her unwanted marriage, the lovesick falcon of "The Squire's Tale" is a pure victim. She and Canacee "share not only the same sentimental DNA, but also the same cage crafted by the rhetoric of femininity and chivalry" (77). In "The Knight's Tale," we see one of Emelye's rare moments of freedom in Theseus' hunting party--yet Chaucer cuts almost all the details that mark her as a huntress in Boccaccio.

Jeremy Withers interprets the same tale in "'A Beest May Al His Lust Fulfille': Naturalizing Chivalric Violence in Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale.'" When Palamon and Arcite fight like two wild boars, or like a "wood leoun" and a "crueel tigre," Withers reads this animal imagery as not vilifying the young warriors, but bestowing an "instinctual purity" (178) on their violence and thus naturalizing it. Earlier in the poem, Palamon laments that, although man and beast alike are mortal, the beast is happier because he "may al his lust fulfille," whereas man must bridle his passions with moral law. But the tale belies this claim when it depicts horses literally bridled to serve man's lust, not to mention the tame lions and leopards that frisk around King Emetrius. Finally, when Theseus clear-cuts a forest to procure wood for Arcite's funeral pyre, the Knight remarks how "the beestes and the briddes all / Fledden for fere" from their ruined habitat, destroyed in a gratuitous assertion of human will.

The cross-species friendship of Canacee and her falcon inspires Sara Deutch Schotland's essay, "Avian Hybridity in 'The Squire's Tale': Uses of Anthropomorphism." Defending that much maligned –ism, Schotland maintains that we cannot help being anthropomorphic, but in doing so, we can find valuable motives for empathy. Just as the relationship of falcon to falconer involves a reciprocal taming, so Canacee and her bird form a sisterly alliance in which their shared gender overcomes their specific difference. Schotland pleads the value of a feminist ethics of care for animal advocacy, moving from Carol Gilligan's defense of feminine difference to Martha Nussbaum's utopian vision of a world order that extends citizenship to all, regardless of gender, nationality, or species.

Like Schotland, Lorraine Kochanske Stock aims to rehabilitate an undervalued tale in "Foiled by Fowl: The Squire's Peregrine Falcon and the Franklin's Dorigen." Stock makes a counterintuitive case that the falcon's despair is more authentic, and her self-harm more poignant, than the catalogue of suicides deployed by Dorigen to buy herself time. In fact, since "The Squire's Tale" precedes the Franklin's, we might even say that Dorigen's adventure parodies the falcon's. In asking us to sympathize profoundly with a seduced and abandoned bird while we only smile at Dorigen, whose plight is of her own making, Chaucer--or Stock--pushes the envelope of empathy well beyond its normal bounds.

"The Nun's Priest's Tale" inspires much thought. Carol Freeman's remarkable essay, "Feathering the Text," intersperses a reading of that tale with an exposé of what animals suffered in medieval book production. It would have taken 200 to 225 sheep or goats to produce a Bible, she estimates, and at least 58 calfskins to create the Ellesmere Chaucer. Every beginner in codicology should read her account of the beast within the book: not only sheep and calves, but the geese whose feathers furnished quill pins, the gall flies whose egg caches produced the oak galls required for ink, the burrowing worms and nibbling mice--and we might add the now-celebrated cat that left its pawprints on a manuscript in Dubrovnik. As for Chauntecleer and Pertelote, today we would call them free-range poultry, unlike the 20,000 unlucky chickens in factory farms, who would never be able to display such plumage.

Megan Palmer Browne, like Freeman, resurrects Lalia Phipps Boone's old identification of Chauntecleer's breed as the Golden Speckled Hamburg rooster. His hues are not merely heraldic, Browne insists, but "a carefully crafted paean to the actual beauties of a specific kind of body" (205). In "Chaucer's Chauntecleer and Animal Morality," she dwells on the very human soul within that avian body, pointing out that we know much more about Chauntecleer's thoughts than about the Nun's Priest's. Moralitee in Chaucer's era normally meant "ethical wisdom" rather than a specific moral lesson, and Browne argues that such is still the case in "The Nun's Priest's Tale." Its much-disputed moralitee could be the cross-species compassion and creaturely humility it models.

The least-celebrated of all Chaucer's beasts may be the "Shrews, Rats, and a Polecat in 'The Pardoner's Tale,'" investigated by Sandy Feinstein and Neal Woodman. The murderous riotour mentions these vermin as an excuse to buy poison, inspiring the authors to describe the traits and taxonomy of the beasts in question. But the sins the riotour projects onto these animals are in fact his own--murder and greed. Since he probably did not resemble a peasant or householder, we can assume that the apothecary knew enough to suspect his motives, but sold him the poison anyway, adding another layer to this tale's depth of cynicism.

Laura Wang identifies an unexpected use of animal imagery in "Reimagining Natural Order in 'The Wife of Bath's Prologue.'" Comparing women to animals was an age-old misogynist tactic, but the Wife makes a virtue of necessity when she embraces her own animality as a charter of freedom. Like a cat that delights "to shewe her skyn and goon a-caterwawed," she resolves "to be right murie," come what may. Spirited as a horse, stubborn as a lioness, she tells her husbands that they, the more rational sex, must patiently endure her bestial ways. But Wang sees much affection lurking behind the Wife's aggression. When she retells the tale of King Midas's ass's ears, perhaps her open secret is that all men have ass's ears, and all wives are aware of this.

In "That Which Chargeth Not to Say: Animal Imagery in Troilus and Criseyde," Carolynn Van Dyke discusses the strangely inappropriate similes in that poem. Criseyde compares herself without Troilus to a fish out of water, yet does well enough without him; the narrator likens her to a "sely larke" seized by a sparrowhawk, but Troilus is hardly that kind of lover. Both Criseyde's dream of exchanging hearts with an eagle and Troilus's dream of a wild boar embracing his beloved imagine sexual encounters across species lines. But Van Dyke finds in these dreams "not bestiality but metamorphosis" (107); each portends change in a poem where boundary crossings are both literal and metaphorical threats.

Christopher Roman and Ryan Judkins explore The Book of the Duchess. In a dense Derridean essay, "Contemplating Finitude: Animals in The Book of the Duchess," Roman analyzes the mysteriously interrupted hunt as a figure of mortality. As he becomes present to the life and death of his lady, the Black Knight is also becoming-animal in his contemplation of loss. Judkins raises the question of anthropomorphism again in "Animal Agency, the Black Knight, and the Hart in The Book of the Duchess." Medieval people, he claims, lived far too closely with animals ever to doubt that they could think, feel, and act in their own interests. A beast viewed from a subjective, anthropocentric point of view may still exercise agency, as does the hart which finally eludes its hunters. The Black Knight, in contrast, seems so paralyzed by grief as to have lost his agency and virility--a plight for which Chaucer designed the Book as a specific remedy to reinvigorate his patron, John of Gaunt.

I end with Karl Steel's provocative piece, "A Fourteenth-Century Ecology: 'The Former Age' with Dindimus." Steel reads this little-studied lyric about the Golden Age as an "antihumanist" poem that challenges the values of civilization by eliding the boundary between humans and nonhumans, or even life and non-life. Dindimus, the philosopher-king of India, figures in the Alexander tradition as the conqueror's radical other: vegetarian, ascetic, non-violent, egalitarian. In Chaucer's sources, including Boethius, Grosseteste, Mandeville, and Higden's Polychronicon, Dindimus and his people represent an ideal world prior to any split between nature and culture. While Chaucer depicts the Golden Age in a reformist spirit, he also acknowledges the price of its universal peace and justice--a condition of chronic hunger and misery. Steel's conclusion challenges all who ponder the far-reaching implications of critical animal studies: "This is the perfectly ethical life, wished for perhaps, but also one that might not be wished on anyone" (195).

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Barbara Newman

Northwestern University