19.11.19 Langdon (ed.), Animal Languages in the Middle Ages

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Jeanne Provost

The Medieval Review 19.11.19

Langdon, Alison, ed. Animal Languages in the Middle Ages: Representations of Interspecies Communication. The New Middle Ages. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. pp. xv, 272. ISBN: 978-3-319-71896-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jeanne Provost
Furman University
jeanne.provost@furman.edu

In her introduction to this volume, Alison Langdon reviews the connection between language and reason made by many Greco-Roman thinkers and adopted by medieval Christian theologians. Further, language and reason were both, according to Aristotle and Aquinas after him, capacities exclusive to humans. This was seen by many theologians as perhaps the most important difference between humans and other animals, and our capacity to reason and speak gave us a privileged place in the hierarchy of creation. Langdon argues, however, that this idea was less prevalent among secular writers, who were "more willing to attribute to animals the powers of reasoning and language that theological texts claimed for humans" (3). The goal of this volume is to shed light on "a multiplicity of communicative and discursive practices through which animals signify" in medieval literature, not only as symbols for humans but also as creatures that can communicate their own desire and experience (4).

The three sections of Animal Languages in the Middle Ages approach this goal incrementally, moving from the ways that animals break out of the symbolic frames humans place around them, to depictions of animal communication that call into question any exclusive claim to transparency and truth staked out for "human" language, to decentering verbal language altogether in favor of exploring affective and embodied modes of communication between humans and other animals.

The first section, "Communicating Through Animals," contains four essays that describe what seems an uncontroversial understanding of animal language in medieval literature. That is, often nonhuman animals symbolize human ideas; when animals "speak" in medieval texts, this speech is really just human ventriloquism. Yet these four essays shed new light on this commonplace by suggesting that even when animals act as symbols, it's never quite that simple. Hints of the animal's own interiority may remain even in these instances. In "Becoming Birds," Iva Jevtić offers a Deleuze/Guattarian reading of bird imagery in Ancrene Wisse. She suggests that the enclosure of medieval anchoresses from much human connection actually opened them to unexpected animal connections and becomings. Sara Petrosillo's "'As faucon comen out of muwe'" traces the metaphor of adulterous women as mewed falcons from Chrétien's Cligés through Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. She argues that this was not merely a misogynist trope; rather, these metaphors "embed ambivalence into their very structure for the benefit of the reader" (47). When looked at closely, the metaphor comparing falcon plumage and female emotion is sufficiently unstable that it makes the notion that women are innately changeable fall apart. In "Saints and Holy Beasts," Sally Shockro suggests that the animals in medieval saints' lives are often more than just conduits of divine truth or exempla of saints' holiness. They are sometimes full peers, "collaborators with and companions of saints as they assist each other toward spiritual growth" (52). Shockro begins with traditional examples of animals as obedient servants, such as when St. Columba orders a boar to die and it complies immediately, and then traces more complex interactions, such as St. Cuthbert's preaching to penitent ravens, which in turn allows the saint himself to grow in holiness. Finally, Michelle Hamilton's "The Speech of Strangers" situates Ibn al-Saraqustī's "Maqāmā of the Phoenix" within the Arabic and Persian tales of "wonder and marvels" that explore speech as an indicator of human and animal roles in the universe. The talking phoenix in this tale troubles the Aristotelian notion that animals lack both reason and the evidence of that reason: language. Further, the tale's unreliable human narrator is proof that human speech is not always a direct conduit to truth or reason. This essay is especially impressive both for its convincing reading of the tale itself and for its breadth of scholarship, locating the tale within a larger body of Arabo-Persian literature and Catalan adaptations, brought into dialogue with Western scholasticism. Together, these four essays make a convincing case that even when animals act as symbols in medieval literature, this same literature often hints, or even openly asserts, that animals are also more than just vehicles for human meaning.

The essays in Part II describe literary representations of animal vocalizations and other semiosis. In "Bark Like a Man," Robert Stanton examines the descriptions of animal sounds in the Anglo-Saxon voces animantium catalogs. He concludes that the rendering of animal sounds in human language "explores and tests the putative differences and boundaries between rational, articulated human speech and instinctive, inarticulate nonhuman noise" (92), casting doubt on the rigidity of such categories. Angela Jane Weisl's "In Briddes Wise" argues that Chaucer's representation of bird language "endows the avian world with a series of communicative strategies as diverse as--and profoundly linked to--his own poetic strategies; however, its meaning can be derived only through anthrosemiotic representation" (114). This essay's exploration of various moments when Chaucer "translates" birdsong into human poetry is useful and enlightening. In "Understanding Hawk-Latin," Carolynn Van Dyke offers a Derridean reading of medieval depictions of bird language, focusing on Chaucer. She subdivides ways that medieval writers "translate" bird sounds into human language into categories: "existential, onomatopoeic, and catachrestic" (137). This essay's section on catachresis is especially intriguing; here Van Dyke argues that the misattribution of human language to animal speakers actually gestures doubly--both towards the more "proper" ways that animals sometimes dissemble to other creatures and towards the shifting meanings in human poetry. The last essay in this section, Alison Langdon's "Dites le mei, si ferez bien," suggests that the problem at the heart of Marie de France's werewolf lai "Bisclavret" is not, as critics have often argued, that Bisclavret loses human language and becomes a savage werewolf. Langdon argues, rather, that the tale explores the instability of human language and the savagery that human dishonesty and misrepresentation often involve. This essay contains an especially intriguing section on ways that Marie's lai acknowledges things we now know about canine communication. The point of this section, that signification in any language--be it animal or human--has its limits, comes across clearly. The suggestion that animal language acts as a Derridean trace of human communication unifies these four essays and also brings new perspective on the topic.

In Part III, "Embodied Language and Interspecies Dependence," the essays turn towards affective readings, describing interspecies understandings communicated through bodies and emotions. Elizabeth Leet, in "On Equine Language," reads a medieval horse training manual to explore ways that its author, Jordanus Rufus, emphasizes physical empathy and emotional honesty with horses as the best way to train them. In "No Hoof, No Horse," Francine McGregor traces references to horse hooves and hoof care in both veterinary manuals and literature from the Middle Ages. She argues that in these texts the hoof is less likely than horses themselves to be used to symbolize human concepts; hooves in medieval writing are usually just hooves, not ciphers for courage in battle or high breeding or hard work. As such, depictions of hooves provide a window into the otherness of medieval horses, as animals with their own, different, embodiment and interiority. In "Medieval Dog Whisperers," Jamie Fumo analyzes scenes in medieval literature where dogs rehabilitate emotionally damaged humans. This convincing reading focuses on Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and brings in further examples from bestiaries, hunting manuals, and romances. Finally, Monica Antoinette Ehrlich's "Embodied Emotion as Animal Language in Le Chevalier au Lion" suggests that, in Chrétien's romance, the physical and emotional connection that grows between the knight Yvain and his lion companion teaches Yvain to be more compassionate and emotionally literate towards his fellow humans. This in turn makes him a better husband, king, and human being. This section of the volume is exciting for its affective approach to animal/human communication, and it illustrates clearly that many medieval writers acknowledged and celebrated physical and emotional communication between humans and nonhuman animals.

The volume as a whole makes a strong case that medieval thinkers understood our communication with other animals as more than a simple assertion of divinely ordained Aristotelian hierarchy with humans at the top. Though medieval literature, of course, provides many examples of such hierarchical ideology, the essays here set forth many examples of a more nuanced set of ideas about how animals communicate with humans and with each other. For this reason alone, Animal Languages in the Middle Ages makes an important contribution to medieval animal studies. Beyond this, some of the individual essays here bring to light less familiar texts featuring interesting accounts of animal communication. These sources will no doubt be useful for scholars interested in medieval representations of animals. Finally, the essays here are clearly argued, many with very skillful close readings of medieval literature about animals, so they are appealing to read on their own as well as enlightening collectively.

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