- Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain by Susan Crane
The textual encounters that Susan Crane explores in this book “are poised between cross-species contacts and thoughts about contact” (2). They range from the time of Bede until the late middle ages, and across the British Isles from Ireland to Chaucer’s London, a generous spread that means they begin to map a territory. Other medievalists have brought Animal Theory to the study of individual texts or used it to follow a particular thread through a series of texts, but Susan Crane casts a wider eye. She shows different ways in which to “bring literary approaches to genre, language, gender, and culture together with perspectives from evolutionary biology, taxonomy, language acquisitions, ethology, and environmental studies” (3). Because Animal Encounters is a series of linked essays applying a methodology rather than an argument with a strong central thesis, I will review high points in several chapters. [End Page 250]
In chapter 1 Crane introduces the lens through which she is reading with two examples of medieval human-animal cohabitation. First she shows how, in “the finest poetic rendering” (14) of the well-known Old Irish lyric “Pangur Bán” into English, Seamus Heaney nudges the mouse-hunting cat toward modern pet status; in the original poem, the cat and scribe “are depicted loving their separate endeavors, not loving each other” (16). The first of several fascinating sub-essays follows, this one about the “co-domestication” of the cat over the centuries since early agriculture began attracting mice to stored crops. From the human need to protect crops and the cats’ enjoyment of easily available prey evolved a “mutually sustaining relationship” (21). The cat and scribe of the poem are equally pursuing their own purposeful work. The second part of chapter 1, subtitled “Saints and Animals,” focuses on the Anglo-Saxon St. Cuthbert’s interactions with wild animals in his wilderness home. While anecdotes about him offer examples of “hosting” that strengthen the idea of Cuth-bert’s saintliness, at the same time “a trace of lived experience hovers just beyond the miraculous narrative” (39). Throughout her book Crane seeks to reveal the living creature behind the text, sometimes to quite surprising effect.
Chapter 2 again examines a theme through two works: wolves in fable and lai by an Anglo-Norman woman named “Marie,” who may or may not be the same woman in each case. Marie the fabulist’s tale of “The Priest and the Wolf” doesn’t offer much trace of the “real animal” other than his having a taste for lamb, but then the chapter perks up by placing the fascinating and recently popular species-crossing lai of Bisclavret within a quick survey of “Animal Philosophy” stretching from biblical Adam, whose naming of the beasts distinguishes him from the beasts, to Derrida, who advocates rethinking such boundaries. Again concerned with boundaries, chapter 3 examines the “dual nature” of second-family bestiaries as a non-competing juxtaposition of natural history with religious commentary and shows how these bestiaries’ taxonomies place animals in a spectrum including, rather than opposed to, “Man.”
Chapter 4 examines “The Noble Hunt as Ritual Practice,” defining it first as a “cultural performance” (Clifford Geertz) in the form of a game, staged festival, and spectacle “designed to be watched by a public that is not performing” (102–103). According to medieval treatises, the hunt à force “is a highly organized pursuit of a large beast that runs well before hounds, is difficult to capture and kill, has positive symbolic associations, and provides meat that is considered edible” (103). The subsection titled “Hunting as a Mimesis of Noble Authority” examines the ideological image generated by this sport as the noble household ruled by a lord “dominate[s] the fearsome and adversarial realm of beasts” (107). Nobles in pursuit of noble prey are aided by hounds and peasants, one treatise combining these helpers into an abjected category by advising the hunter to carry a long switch for striking “one’s servant or one’s hound, as...