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  • Ridiculous Mourning: Dead Pets and Lost Humans
  • Karl Steel

One May day, a knight goes out to join a nearby tournament. His wife follows, while their two nurses climb a tower to see the hubbub below, leaving behind both the knight’s greyhound and his infant son. Then from a crack in an ancient wall, woken by the noise, an adder emerges and heads for the baby. The adder and dog struggle: the cradle’s overturned, the adder wounds and poisons the dog, but the dog finally prevails. When the nurses come home, they find a room covered with blood, the baby nowhere to be seen, and amid all this, the dog, howling with pain. They run away, the knight’s wife intercepts them, and they tell her the dog has gone mad and killed the baby. She in turn tells her husband, who rushes home to be met by his dog, who stands and proudly puts its forepaws on the knight’s chest. The knight cuts his dog in two and then orders the cradle removed. Seeing the baby underneath, unharmed and happy, “thay fanden alle / How the cas was byfalle, / How the naddir was yslawe / That the grewhound hadde todrawe” (874–77).1

This is the canis legend, perhaps best known to medievalists from Stephen of Bourbon’s account of the dog-saint Guinefort.2 The story finds its widest distribution in the many versions of The Seven Sages of Rome, where it numbers among several told to caution a father against believing his wife’s lies and rashly executing his son.3 Even in itself, canis [End Page 345] reaffirms a set of medieval proverbs that distinguish the steady love of dogs from the mutable affections of women.4

The knight thus errs by betraying an aristocratic—and interspecies—company of men.5 But he betrays much more than this: uniquely, in this, the Midlands version of The Seven Sages, he goes out into his orchard, finds a fish pond, and “for dule of hys hounde . . . lepe in and sanke to gronde” (884–85). The suicidal knight commits something far worse than self-murder. He absurdly betrays the human community as a whole by treating as a grievable life or even as a friend what should be understood only as a divinely provided tool, like all animals. Irrational animals, Aquinas explains, cannot be the subjects of direct charity: since they lack the free will that would allow them to choose good, humans can wish no good for them; for the same reason, humans can have no authentic friendship with animals; animals’ inescapable mortality also bars them from charity, since humans wish other humans charity “based on the fellowship of everlasting happiness.”6

Had the dog actually killed the baby, the knight would therefore have done right in killing it for the simple reason that in the human system animals are worth less than any human. Their lives do not merit the same respect and certainly not the same mourning. In the terminology of Judith Butler’s recent work, frames of representability, like the one Aquinas establishes between humans and animals, divide grievable lives from nonlives, whose loss does no injury or no lasting injury to a community.7 Like any community, the human community sustains itself as much by the deaths it does not acknowledge as by the deaths it does. [End Page 346] For humans to know themselves as human, what they call animal must be outside the frame.

However, while the knight loves his child dearly, he considers his greyhound “anoþer iuel” (736), his other love. He proves this love by killing himself. The wise horse Bonus Amicus in the Otia imperialia kills itself when its master dies.8 The knight has become like this horse. He grieves like an animal lover, like someone who loves animals, like an animal that loves. In grieving an improper object, the knight splits himself altogether from the human community. His frame has slipped. What he does can make no sense, for outside of this and a handful of other medieval texts—Bevis of Hampton, for example—there is no medieval allowance for according any animal...


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