The first session of the IMS Paris workshop series was held March 27 at the Bibliotheque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne and ended with a visit of the Réserve where a few medieval manuscripts related to animals were exhibited under the supervision of curator Jacqueline Artier. With about 30 participants, the panel presented a range of new ways of thinking L’Animal in the Middle Ages. Irène Fabry-Tehranchi (University of Reading) and Fanny Madeline (CNRS) introduced participants and served as moderators for the event.
Opening the panel, Jacques Voisenet (Université Toulouse II) provided a history and a state of the field in Animal Studies in France, situating his own scholarship in a continuum of studies that have increasingly acknowledged the importance of animals as symbols across disciplines in Medieval Studies. Touching on groundbreaking works in “zoohistoire” such as Robert Delort’s work on the medieval fur trade and Les Animaux ont une histoire (1984), as well as shifts in thinking introduced by Jacques Le Goff’s approach to questioning the relation between image and text, Voisenet showed how early scholarship often focused on representations of the animal, rather than the sources and roots of such representations. In the medieval text, animals were viewed as submissive and part of an ordered system that was linked to origin stories; here animals are often ambivalently portrayed as natural or miraculous guides to heaven or hell. Providing examples, Voisenet touched on the early representation of animals in the works of Dhuoda, Augustine, Isidore of Seville, and bestiaries such as the Bern Physiologus, each of which sought to understand the role of animals through naming, categorization, signs, and metaphor, and speaking to the powerful ways in which animals served as exemplars in the medieval imaginary. He concludes that there is a host of vocabulary associated with animals – metaphoric, emblematic, allegorical, representational – which reflects a new system of emerging values at the close of the High Middle Ages.
Christopher Lucken (Université Paris VIII-Université de Genève) spoke next, looking to the representation of animals in the fable, the exempla and the farce, and using the poetry of twelfth-century Champenois trouvère Gilles de Vieux-Maisons as a starting point. Lucken spoke to the importance of naming in the Middle Ages, where to imitate Adam in naming God’s creatures not only speaks to the human’s ability to differentiate the self from the animal, as well as to ‘know’ through naming, it likewise echoes divine creation and dominates the named subject. For Lucken, animals were perceived in three senses in the Middle Ages: like humans, though without language and essentially different; of its own distinct category along with the vegetal and the human; or completely ignorant, without reason, thus bête or brute. Speaking to Isidore de Seville’s influence as well, Lucken focused on the need to categorize animals during the Middle Ages in order to better understand the category of ‘human,’ where language serves as a means of distinguishing what is essential to humanity, despite the fact that man can ultimately be reduced to an animal state as well. Ending with Aristotle to Boethius’ consideration of logos within the human experience, Lucken brought to light the porosity of the frontier between man and animal, whether expressed in philosophy or through the trouvère’s verse.
Susan Crane (Columbia University) spoke next, evoking a paradigm shift happening in the field of Animal Studies today. Citing recent trends in the field, Crane notes a growing interest beyond a consideration of symbolic and representational studies on animals to more conceptual questions which interrogate ethical, ecological, and cognitive aspects of the medieval animal. While a classical approach may read humans as distinct and superior to non-human animals, she notes that theorists such as Bruno Latour resist this binary, seeking to move beyond modern categories of nature/culture and animal/human. Pointing to Augustine’s writing, Crane evokes some of the ethical questions around human-animal relations which have yet to be explored, asserting that literary and philosophical questions about animal sentience, cognition, or suffering demand further inquiry. Indeed, Crane suggests there is much to be gained in shifting our focus from figurations of animals to their lived experience and living attributes, as well as the dynamic of human-animal encounters within a given social structure. While animal miracles are often dismissed in scholarship, Crane explored one of the ways in which animal interactions are preserved and prioritized in the medieval text as demonstrated in the collection of Geoffrey of Burton’s Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna (Oxford, 2002). Here, Crane shared her reading of the miraculous story of “The Wolf and the Cow,” which seeks to move beyond the symbolic representation of animals in relation to humans to an understanding of medieval perceptions of inter-species behavior. As such, Crane linked the ‘miraculous’ changes in canine behavior, as well as the shifting interactions between dog, wolf, and cow, with real techniques in medieval animal herding and domestication which still exist today.
Pierre-Olivier Dittmar (EHESS, Paris) presented last, examining the interface between historicity and animalité for the modern scholar. Dittmar contends that our modern approach is undeniably influenced by the naturalization movement of the eighteenth century, which definitively divided man and animal into separate categories, and which ultimately defined the animal as the negative projection of the human. As such, we are given to the idea that the animal has no history; a groundhog today is the same it was in the fourteenth-century. Beyond being a relatively modern perspective, this idea of the ahistorical animal likewise serves a range of conservative views of sexuality when tied to the “animal,” where for example, the man “naturally” hunts and the woman “naturally” raises offspring. Instead, Dittmar insists scholars should think beyond these modern paradigms, and looks to animal anthropology as a field with great potential in doing so. The history of the economic exploitation of animals, for instance, continues to remain one dimensional, with Dittmar observing that humans and animals are rarely studied together in anthropology. Like Crane, Dittmar concludes by insisting that scholarship move beyond the symbolic analysis of animal representation in the text, noting the way in which the animal is jettisoned in French scholarship. Instead, he suggests scholars consider animals from an ontological perspective, (re)considering them rather as interlocutors, individuals, and actors in various facets of medieval society.
Rachel D. Gibson (University of Minnesota)