- Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia ed. by Michael D. J. Bentley and Thomas J. T. Williams
The way we represent animals is never neutral—cultural representations always have “real-world” consequences for those we share the planet with. The decisions we make about who we eat, who we welcome into our homes, and who we fear, for example, often can be linked directly back to patterns of representations. Our relationships with animals, in other words, are directly related to cultural values that themselves are, in turn, fostered, and, at times, challenged, through representations. And yet, all too often, if representations of animals are taken seriously by scholars they tend to be characterized as symbolic vehicles for representing human ideas, values, and concerns. This is starting to shift, however, and in recent years there have been a number of authors engaging with the ways in which these patterns of representation are intimately linked with the (mis)treatment of animals—Steve Baker’s Artist/Animal and Stephen F. Eisenman’s The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights are two recent texts that I have found to [End Page 114] be particularly thought-provoking on this front.1 Baker, Eisenman, and others engaging with these questions go beyond seeing representations of animals only as symbols of human culture and values and instead consider what we can learn about the actual lives and deaths of the animals represented as well. In short, what these kinds of texts remind us of is that there is always already an important link back to the real-world referent, to the actual animals who walk, run, gallop, fly, slither, and swim alongside human societies.
As the fields of animal ethics and human-animal studies expand to include more historical perspectives, it will be paramount that scholars keep this link between lived lives and cultural representations in mind. At the most basic level, it is important to not lose sight of the very physical presence of animal bodies in much of the surviving art and material artifacts from previous eras. For example, as Bentley and Williams remind readers, vellum, “the very medium upon which knowledge was most permanently recoded and preserved” in medieval Europe, “was itself an animal product” (p. 5). What impact, they wonder, did this material quality of manuscripts made from the skin of calves have upon the ways in which the monks who worked in the scriptoriums thought about and related to the actual calves who lived in their midst?
Shifting the lens of historical studies to include questions about real-life animals can present some disciplinary and methodological challenges. As Susan Nance asks in the introduction to her recent edited volume, The Historical Animal, “How can we employ extant sources to properly historicize non-humans as beings who changed over time and space, who adapted to their contexts?”2 This question was foremost in mind as I read the essays in Bentley and Williams’s edited volume.
Representing Beasts is an interdisciplinary collection of essays which, as the title indicates, examines the ways in which “beasts” figured in the art and texts of medieval England and Scandinavia. There is, as this edited volume demonstrates, enough similarities between the two regions (England and Scandinavia) for us to think of “a degree of contact and the sharing of cultural concepts,” setting up a “north sea cultural zone” (p. 2). The use of the word “beasts” in the title is deliberate here as it signifies the broad scope of this volume. There are chapters that focus on subjects that many 21st-century readers would recognize as animals (ravens, pigs, bees, etc.), but there are also chapters that consider nonhuman life-forms in a much broader sense (mythological creatures, for example, or human-built objects imbued with a sense of “vitality”). In using this framework, the editors remind us that what constitutes “beasts” in this time period and in these locations...