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THE BIENNIAL CHAUCER LECTURE The New Chaucer Society Fifteenth International Congress July 27–31, 2006 Fordham University PAGE 21 ................. 16596$ PRT2 11-01-10 14:05:54 PS PAGE 22 ................. 16596$ PRT2 11-01-10 14:05:54 PS The Biennial Chaucer Lecture For the Birds Susan Crane Columbia University My title’s dismissive cliché, ‘‘that’s for the birds,’’ reflects the low status that creatures other than human have held in literary and wider cultural studies. At the same time, my title claims a contribution on this low-status question, which I think gets set aside because it’s so complex, rather than so unimportant. Animals (conventional shorthand for animals other than human) have myriad, sometimes contradictory uses in medieval as in modern culture. A swan can be a dish at dinner, or an ancestor represented in a crest and seal, or a sign of good luck for sailors.1 In The Squire’s Tale, Chaucer draws on the genre of romance as a way into thinking about the cultural place of falcons. He presents the peregrine falcon of this tale as richly symbolic, but also as a living bird, raising the issue of species difference and the question of how to respond to this difference—what Chaucer would call difference of ‘‘kynde.’’ For such a project, the genre of romance has several facilitating strengths. The genre’s appreciation for exotic encounters, its worldly rather than theological commitments, and its easy suspension of ordinary realities allow for presenting contact with animals in positive terms. Bevis of Hamtoun and Guy of Warwick, both cited in Sir Thopas, For their insightful comments on a preliminary draft of this lecture, I am grateful to Chris Chism, Rita Copeland, Karl Steel, and Paul Strohm. 1 Peter Hammond, Food and Feast in Medieval England (Phoenix Mill, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1993, rev. ed. 2005), pp. 135–36, 144–45; Anthony Richard Wagner, ‘‘The Swan Badge and the Swan Knight,’’ Archaeologia 97 (1959): 127–38; Isidore of Seville, Etymologies: Livre XII, Des animaux, ed. and trans. Jacques André (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1986), pp. 236–39 (swans as signs of good luck: this information is repeated in most of the insular Bestiaries). PAGE 23 23 ................. 16596$ $CH2 11-01-10 14:06:21 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER provide typical examples of such contact. Bevis’s horse Arundel is not only his partner in battle but an independent actor on Bevis’s behalf. At one point Arundel is nearly hanged for murdering one of Bevis’s enemies , but Bevis prefers exile with his horse to life in England without him. Bevis names his principal manor after his horse, and he, horse, and wife die on the same day.2 Guy of Warwick makes an alliance with a lion he rescues from a dragon. The lion follows Guy everywhere, fasts when Guy is ill, and drags himself to Guy’s side to die of an enemy’s wounds: ‘‘His hondes he gan to licky: 3at was his loue, sikerly.’’ Guy’s sorrow nearly splits his heart, and he very soon splits the killer ‘‘Fram 3e heued doun to 3e fot.’’3 In these romances, a powerful animal’s devotion reflects well on the hero, and the hero’s responding devotion also reflects well on him, even when it puts his life and his patrimony at risk. Romances’ opportunities for thinking about animals come with restrictions on the kinds of thinking they welcome. The genre’s discursive and ideological limitations are as evident as its strengths: elite and secular in its orientations, narrative rather than scientific or philosophical in approach, romance is as partial as any other genre. Romance would not endorse the peasant’s perspective on a nobleman’s hawk, ‘‘Ha! that kite will eat a chicken tonight that would have sated my children.’’4 Nor do romances adopt the clear distinctions of patristic and scholastic writing on animals: as Thomas Aquinas puts it, ‘‘irrational creatures can have 2 The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun, ed. Eugen Kölbing, 3 vols., EETS, e.s. 46, 48, 65 (London: Trübner, 1885, 1886, 1894), 1:165–218. Bevis and Guy appear in many manuscripts, including Edinburgh, Advocates...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 23-41
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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