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From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 357-358 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0032

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In what Susan Crane described as “scholarly haiku,” the colloquium participants offered initial responses to the collected papers in around one hundred words. Those responses are given here without further comment. Full discussion must take place elsewhere, but taken together these responses go some way to indicate the directions open for animal studies in Chaucer and medieval studies generally.


Given the symbolic weight that animals are so often made to bear in medieval literature, I think Susan Crane makes an important point in emphasizing that animals are sometimes simply that, rather than figures for something else. Karl Steel’s discussion of the knight’s response to his murder of his greyhound prompted me to return to medieval hunting manuals to remind myself of the special significance afforded hunting dogs in aristocratic circles—some sense of which may be found in Edward of York’s regretful statement (in The Master of Game) that “The moost defaute of houndes is 3at 3ei lyuen not longe inowe.”


Karl Steel’s greyhound offers an ethical as well as an affective challenge. To kill the greyhound may be to sin against love, but it also does an enormous injustice to the hound. The master’s awakening to the hound’s virtue in contrast to his own injustice contributes to his complete “self-abandonment.” Analogously, the “undifferentiated concurrency” of Jeffrey Cohen’s werewolf offers a cross-species distribution of justice. Who within Bisclavret is punishing the wife—anthropophagous wolf, loyal hound of the king, or wronged husband? For Aquinas, no ethical question can refer to animals, yet these two tales place greyhound and werewolf inside the ethical circle.


Susan Crane’s discussion of the cat in The Summoner’s Tale brings to mind the detail from The Miller’s Tale of the hole at the foot of Nicholas’s bedroom door through which “the cat was wont in for to crepe” (I.3440). Both hint at human lives led in conditions of extremely close proximity, even intimacy, with cats, although the narrators are silent about whether these are simply instances of utilitarian cohabitation based on mutual self-interest, or if the cats’ access to the most private of human spaces might imply that there is something more involved: possibly that there is an emotional component to the relationship.


Given the frequency with which our essays address the framing of human identity and the animal/human divide, it is interesting to note how often Chaucer self-identifies with nonhumans (the hound seeking a hare in the Prioress-Thopas Link, the puppy in The Book of the Duchess, the mouselike prey in the claws of The House of Fame’s eagle, the caged bird in The Manciple’s Tale, etc.). He even becomes a kind of plant in his imitation of the daisy’s pattern of tracking the sun in The Legend of Good Women. Finally, as a “popet,” he is only a sign of a human, having no independent life whatsoever. How might we analyze Chaucer’s attempts at emptying himself of humanity?


Several essays here seek out those Chaucerian animals irreducible to symbolic appropriation: his cats and polecats, his cervids, and so on. The Reeve’s Tale offers others: the clerks’ horse, disappearing with a “wehee” (I.4066) after wild mares, and the clerks themselves, returning from their chase “wery and weet, as beest is in the reyn” (I.4107). Often lassoed into signifying the tale’s wild sexual energy, the horse might instead be seen as nearly escaping the story by following its own desires. As for the clerks, they return as animals: not irrational, but rather vulnerable bodied subjects caught by the weather, whether they like it or not.


I wonder about what we have all taken for granted . . . or for granite. Jill Rudd observes in her opening remarks that animal comes from anima, and marks a creature possessing breath. Dividing animals from humans is therefore an unceasing labor. Separating both from mere minerals is easy. One group is organic and lively, the other inert. Yet as Dorigen suspected when she looked at the coast of Brittany and saw rocks intending harm, medieval people knew that stones...

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