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Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts ed. by Carolynn Van Dyke (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 127-128 | 10.1353/art.2013.0048

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The ethically and philosophically praiseworthy purpose of Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts, a collection of sixteen essays, is to push the vertical axis of traditional human-animal relations on its side. In part this involves resisting, and sometimes actively deconstructing, metaphoric animals (e.g., ‘the greedy wolf’)—those that are to be decoded as readily as livestock to be butchered. In her essay ‘Among All Beasts: Affective Naturalism in Late Medieval England’ (a kind of theoretical prologue), Aranye Fradenburg argues that, ‘when animals appear, they are never simply symbols for something else; the very fact that they can serve as such is already the sign of our commonality with them’ (27). Hardly subservient, animals exist alongside humans in an interdependent, sometimes co-adaptive, earthly community.

While too often instrumentalized by Homo sapiens, animals in Chaucer’s texts are not, according to these authors, easily reducible to anthropocentric conceptualization and activity; they may, for example, point to what Karl Steel describes as all mortals’ shared ‘noncapacity…to elude exposure to injury’ and decay (189). Similarly, the image of ‘proude Bayard’ subdued with the lash in book five of Troilus and Criseyde, Carolynn Van Dyke argues, suggests not that Troilus is compelled by erotic impulse but instead that humans (like horses) are vulnerable to an indifferent fortune that puts both on the same plane and thus ‘limits human exceptionalism’ (110). This is probably for the better, as humans’ egotistical objectification of nonhumans’ is cousin to other forms of domination—sexist, feudal, theocratic. And as Jeremy Withers reveals about animal imagery in the Knight’s Tale, masculine elites seek to naturalize their violence with fallacious notions of nonhuman predators, so that beings like boars and lions doubly suffer, becoming prey and pretext.

Of course, Van Dyke reminds us that the horse functions as an idea, not a concrete being, in Troilus. Other authors draw attention to the nonhumans that occupy physical space and interact with humans: the Nun’s Priest’s protagonist Chauntecleer has real agency, and while we might assume that the rooster figures for a man as in a beast fable, we find, writes Carol Freeman in ‘Feathering the Text,’ that the narrative privileges Chauntecleer by endowing him not only with more vitality than his marginalized human keeper but also with the desire to live beyond the enclosure that ‘protects’ him. Freeman attends to the species-specifics of the rooster (and Lesley Kordecki to those of Chaucer’s cuckoo) without denying alterity and resorting to anthropomorphism—that complacent and often self-serving projection of human attributes upon the nonhuman.

Freeman’s essay does something more, however, in fusing her reading of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale with a cultural materialist description of medieval manuscripts that recalls Walter Benjamin’s Thesis VII: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ In brief, the making of the Ellesmere Chaucer demanded over fifty calves’ skins, with script partly provided by avian quills plucked from birds, some alive. Here the nonhuman, no longer merely ideal, becomes an index to the material world, including its institutions, economic and intellectual. To recognize the animal in the book (not the ‘text’) is to look laterally to the creatures on whom we depend—here the calf but also, implicitly, the peasant who raised it—and there, the scribe with aching fingers and eyes. The nonhuman invites us to reject hierarchies to find what the Parliament’s cuckoo calls the comune spede.

Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts’ emphasis on this and other aspects of what Fradenburg calls ‘extimacy’ (14) is a real strength. The primary weakness is that it bears too many signs of its contingent scholarly origins: the five ‘Animal Discourses’ sessions of the 2010 meeting of the New Chaucer Society. These are smart, polemical essays, some of which deserve to appear in peer-reviewed journals; but as an aggregate there is significant redundancy. The same primary and secondary texts recirculate. And the five sections into which the non-linear ‘chapters’ are organized (‘The Natural Creature,’ ‘Becoming-Animal,’ ‘Cross-Species Discourse,’ etc.) don’t diminish the sense that these scholars are overworking a small plot. This problem lies, of course, with academia’s...



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