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Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain by Susan Crane (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 177-179 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0109

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Susan Crane's new monograph, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain, provides an informed, complex analysis of animal and human interactions and impressions across time and place in medieval Britain. Significantly, this work extends the established approaches and understandings of animal studies. It challenges many preconceptions regarding medieval society and their animals: medieval society did not simply or only consider animals through the Christian allegorical lens of the bestiary, but also in myriad other ways. To reveal the complexity of these relationships, Crane employs an extensive methodology that combines traditional and novel perspectives, and builds on the animal studies of Wolfe, Burt, and Cohen. In her focus on the living animal, Crane provides a close reading of many diverse texts and the result is a nuanced study that avoids the anthropomorphism of animals, preferring to focus on the animal and its encounters with the human in actual and imagined worlds.

The medieval Britain that Crane examines is extensive: she presents a variety of genres from far-reaching temporal and geographical provenances. Textually, there are hagiography, lyric poetry, lais, fables, bestiary, hunting treatises, romances, and chivalric texts. Temporally, the selected works span the eighth to fifteenth centuries, while geographically there are Celtic, Anglo-Norman, and cross-channel texts. As for the animals, the six chapters principally feature a cat, wolf, stag, boar, falcon, and horse. The first two chapters deal with cohabitation, while aristocratic contacts with animals feature in the final three.

Methodologically, the extent of Crane's analysis is stimulating. She has combined established 'literary approaches to genre, language, gender and culture' with innovative 'perspectives from evolutionary biology, taxonomy, language acquisition, ethology and environmental studies' (p. 3). In Chapter 1, for example, Crane examines an old Irish lyric, Pangur Bán, found in a ninth-century manuscript. This poem tells of a symbiotic relationship between a monk and a cat each able to do their respective 'work' because of the other: the monk writing while the cat is mousing. Crane applies an evolutionary biological theory to understand the symbiosis, revising existing theories of domestication. She draws on Stephen J. Gould's work on the concept of 'neoteny' whereby, through genetic evolution, animals retain their juvenile traits into adulthood. Crane posits that this evolutionary genetic process has enabled the animal to 'tolerate' human contact, rather than the human practice of domestication (pp. 21-22). In the resulting analysis of Pangur Bán, Crane argues for a positive reading of this particular human-feline relationship that contrasts sharply with other medieval texts that feature cats in a pejorative way.

The final chapter considers the relationship between knight and horse. As Crane observes, the knight is a customary character in chivalric literature but rarely do such texts have an equine focus. Crane's analysis reveals a lesser-considered aspect of knight and horse in medieval texts, namely, companionship, or the bond between the knight and his horse. While mutual comprehension between rider and horse is a primary element synonymous with chivalry, Crane's examination of a particular chivalric romance reveals a more intense animal-human attachment exemplified through interdependence and 'isopraxis' or mirrored behaviours. In the Middle English text Bevis of Hampton, the relationship between the protagonist, Bevis, and his horse, Arondel, inverts the chivalric convention, and reveals a human dependence on the animal. Essentially, in contrast to chivalric conventions, whereby a knight's horse might die after its owner's death, in this tale, Bevis reveals his devotion to and dependence on his horse by succumbing to death once Arondel has died. After the horse's death, Arondel is included in prayers for the dead, which, while unorthodox, reveals, Crane suggests, a 'clash of shifting gears' (p. 167); some medieval writers recognised that cross-species contacts could expose an awareness that transcended the human consciousness.

Crane's remaining chapters are no less erudite. In her Conclusion, Crane acknowledges the dichotomy between human and animal in the medieval experience but as her work reveals, medieval society could also understand relationships with animals on more extensive levels. Crane's careful scrutiny of medieval texts reveals the multivalency of these relationships and enriches scholars' awareness and appreciation of animal experiences in medieval Britain...

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