There is a problem when it comes to talking about animals that is hinted at in the title of this paper colloquium. Animalia now signals the group, animals, as distinct from vegetables and minerals. Those within this group are distinguished from vegetables by their inability to convert inorganic matter into organic matter (which means they have to consume organic matter in order to live) and from minerals by being organic rather than inorganic. In the Middle Ages, animals were distinguished by being things that had breath (anima) and the term could include all such creatures, so that it lumped humans and nonhumans together. While these were the technical divisions, there was and is also the familiar and persistent division, human/animal, which has given rise to so much discussion over what we humans mean when we use the term “animal” and what we ought to mean. Animal studies is now again troubling the waters of human identity and moral (in)action. The meeting of animal studies with ethics and literary study has resulted in a surge of discussion marked by the sudden rash of journals devoting space to the topic. Among these, two are of particular relevance to medievalists: PMLA dedicated a special number to animal studies in 2009, and in 2011 postmedieval brought out its special number “The Animal Turn.” These two confirm current interest in the area, but it is a renewed interest, not a new one. The work of Beryl Rowland alone testifies that animals have long furnished topics for debate in medieval circles, with Jill Mann’s book on beast fable carrying on and developing that tradition of scholarship, while Joyce Salisbury’s The Beast Within offers a more animal-studies viewpoint.1 The arrival of broader ecocriticism [End Page 309] in medieval studies was affirmed by Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa Kiser’s collection Engaging with Nature.2
It is thus into a well-established field of debate that the following colloquium enters. The group of contributors gathered here comes from a variety of backgrounds and interests, but all have agreed to focus for a short space on the animal in some form or another; to offer a short initial piece and then to respond in brief to what the others in the group have written. These responses are by no means final words on the topics or even on the papers here offered. Rather, they are ways into discussion yet to be held, indications of routes that may be followed at leisure and in more depth elsewhere.
We begin with Lisa J. Kiser’s consideration of instances of animals in the Canterbury Tales that do not fit the prevailing types of the fourteenth century. From there we move to Susan Crane’s discussion of the crucial and perhaps unexpected roles of the three domestic animals (housecat, pig, and capon) in The Summoner’s Tale and then on to Gillian Rudd’s discussion of the figurative use of animals in the Host’s comments that top and tail The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. This is followed by David Scott-Macnab’s observations about Chaucer’s use of hunting, followed by David Salter, who draws our attention to the oddity of the comedy of Palamon and Arcite fighting like dogs over a bone. Dogs take us to Karl Steel’s dead pets and the canis legend, and our dog finally becomes a werewolf in the piece by Jeffrey J. Cohen that concludes the formal paper part of our virtual colloquium. [End Page 310]
1. Jill Mann, From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Joyce Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 1994).
2. Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser, eds., Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).