The Medieval Review 16.10.20


Bintley, Michael D. J, and Thomas J. T. Williams, eds. Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia. Anglo-Saxon Studies, 29. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015. pp. xii, 295. $99.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-78327-008-8 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Barbara Lee Bolt
University of South Carolina
barbaraleebolt@gmail.com

The simple title of this collection, Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia, belies the wide-ranging content of the included essays. More than discussions of how animals were portrayed in medieval art and literature, the contributions in this volume speak to the way medieval people perceived the natural world. However, from the outset, the editors claim no ecological agenda based on any of the emerging schools of ecocriticism. Instead, the essays express a desire for understanding the relationship between medieval people and the non-humans which had "direct interaction with humans in both symbolic and practical terms" (3). The "beasts" of the title are represented in the collection by the expected domestic, game, and mythical animals, as well as the unexpected bestial interpretation of humans and particular objects.

This broad critical and theoretical approach suits the variety of the topics discussed and the fields from which the essays stem. The editors stress that the arrangement of the chapters "...bring together topics which naturally lend themselves to proximate discussion, rather than to separate them according to disciplinary boundaries" (8). In "Between Myth and Reality: Hunter and Prey in Early Anglo-Saxon Art," Noël Adams discusses how the representations of animals during Late Antiquity influenced Anglo-Saxon depictions of the same, especially the "continuity between Classical and medieval imagery of hunter and prey" (20). Adams' essay is placed alongside Sue Brunning's "Swords and Snakes in the Viking Mind," an exploration of the depiction of swords as snakes in literary and archaeological sources. While the first essay is a detailed, yet concise, sweep through the variety of Classical art styles, the second considers a specific type of object via kennings, pattern-welding, and behavior. The link between the two essays is the human-animal-artefact relationship and the questions that this relationship elicits. Why are some animals depicted as naturally as possible, while others are highly stylized? Does the type of object (e.g., brooch vs. sword) play a role in deciding how the animal will be depicted? To what extent did the medieval user of the object believe it to be imbued with the qualities of the animal depicted? Did the type of object influence the degree of this belief? At what point, if ever, does the object stop being just an object and become the animal depicted?

As the essays in this volume defy disciplinary boundaries in their organization, each one also investigates some kind of boundary crossing or blurring: human or beast, real or mythical, practical or fantastical. The editors acknowledge that the people in the Middle Ages lived lives that were far closer to the natural world than we do today. In a world of processed food, ready-to-wear garments of synthetic fibers, and the availability of information via technology, the majority of modern-day people cannot imagine a connection with the land and an awareness of nature like that experienced by medieval people. Because of this close connection, medieval people were "more comfortable than our own with shape-shifters, monsters, talking animals, and the repeating cycle of the agricultural year..." (4). For people of the Middle Ages, the ability to negotiate the tension created by the belief that boundaries are permeable, or at the very least slippery, is the touchstone for understanding their world. By examining this tension and how people of the time responded, the essays in Representing Beasts cogently and vividly convey a broader understanding of human and non-human interaction during the Middle Ages in England and Scandinavia.

Thomas J.T. Williams' essay, "Confronting the Bestial in Anglo-Saxon Warfare," views the battlefield as a wilderness and considers how the wearing of animal images may have assisted warriors in taking on the mindset necessary to participate in battle. Citing literary, archaeological, religious, and iconographic sources, Williams states that "...the donning of boar-crested helmets or the girding on of war-gear decorated with serpents or raptors can be imagined as part of a transformative process that involved a 'bestial' identity intended in part to facilitate killing others" (177). The defensive boar and the predatory wolf were common motifs. The "beasts of battle," either on clothing and equipment as images or on the battlefield as real animals scavenging for carrion, most clearly show the boundary slippage between the real and the mythical.

The role of animals in English place-names is the focus in two essays: Della Hooke's "Beasts, Birds, and Other Creatures in Pre-Conquest Charters and Place-Names in England" and John Baker's "Entomological Etymologies: Creepy-Crawlies in English Place-Names." Hooke's essay stands out from the others in that it addresses all classes of animals, not just a single species or type. Especially illuminating is the essay's discussion of animal species no longer found in England. Legal documents "...provide an intimate view of how local people viewed their countryside" (253). Conducting a detailed study of the West Midlands, Hooke delineates the presence of domestic and game animal activity as found in boundary charters and place-names of the area. By noting these on included maps, Hooke supports her claim that it is possible to create "an intimate picture of the early medieval countryside" (282). The repetition of the word intimate underscores the local focus of the essay. By concentrating on just a small area with plenty of data, Hook demonstrates that early medieval England was "a landscape not entirely dominated by human agency, but shared with other creatures, both wild and domestic" (282).

Baker's piece is unusual in its focus on invertebrates. Bees, snails, leeches, and flies are among the more common sources for microtoponymic place-names. While charismatic megafauna--wolves, boars, eagles, and the like--usually draw the most attention, Baker asserts the importance of the study of invertebrates as a window into daily Anglo-Saxon life. By parsing out place-names that feature references to invertebrate species, it is possible to imagine how medieval people used the landscape. For example, the prevalence of words pertaining to apiculture, either on their own or compounded with landscape features, paints a clear picture of active beekeeping in towns such as Bykelege, Bikele, Bykeley, and Bikerly around 1240 (245). The inclusion of this topic--invertebrate-based place-names--in this collection is revealing in that it is evidence of the need to consider and study the impact of the small creepy-crawlies in addition to the large and furred or feathered.

The most fascinating essay in the collection for its sheer cleverness is "Confronting Serpents in Beowulf and Beyond" by Victoria Symons. Viewing runes as characters of revelation and dragons as characters of concealment, basically "representations of conceptually opposing forces" (88), Symons crafts an essay that includes the sword Beowulf uses to decapitate Grendel's mother, Hrothgar's sermon about greed, Scandinavian memorial stones, inheritance rights, and the transfer of wealth. The hallmark of a good essay is that it makes the reader consider familiar things in new, unexpected ways, and Symons' "Confronting Serpents" does just that.

Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia contains eleven essays, thirty-nine illustrations, and four tables, all of which enhance the written content. The index is complete and well done. The footnotes are detailed but not overwhelming. This tightly constructed collection of essays would be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in ecomedievalism and/or animal studies.



Copyright (c) 2016 Barbara Lee Bolt



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