Over the next week or so I'll post a few excerpts from an essay in progress, "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages." Delivered initially as a lecture last year, part of a series sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State University, I'm reshaping now for an edited collection that gathers these talks for publication. You'll see that this essay has much in common with the entry I composed for Erotic Animals a while back (see archive).
Here's the introduction, which tries to stay a bit informal.
The last few years have seen an outpouring of work on the interrelation of humans and animals. This scholarship mainly explores the precariousness of the divide which humans imagine separates them from other living things. My own pre-occupation with the animals of the Middle Ages comes in part from this critical efflorescence, but also from the fact that I have two children. At nineteen months old, my daughter Katherine self-identifies more strongly with monkeys than with homo sapiens. Her nursery is a rainbow-colored menagerie; her picture books burst with fantastic zoos. She resides in a hyperactive world of fauna. As the Disney megacorporation realized long ago, and Katherine is realizing just now, animals teach children how to become human. They also provide kids with a temporary, imaginative escape from that burden.
Over the past few years I've also been reading my eight-year-old son Alexander a nightly installment of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. The novels feature abbots and abbesses, armored warriors, perilous weapons, feasts, foundlings, tapestries, stained glass Â the very substance of the medieval world. Yet the characters in these tales are mice, shrews, hawks, stoats, badgers, weasels. Even if the Redwall novels create an alternate universe where animals enact medieval dramas, through their speech and through their actions it is clear that these beasts inhabit a nostalgic fantasy of the lost British Empire. The Middle Ages becomes an imaginative space where the problems of a complex world can be simplified, where good and evil are as self-evident as the kind of animal flesh one dwells inside. For all its talking beasts, the Redwall books are ultimately populated by humans. Animals supply the fantasy bodies through which dreams of a better world are enabled.
In this essay I examine how animals offered such "possible bodies" to the dreamers of the Middle Ages, bodies as dynamic and disruptive as they are fantastic. In animal flesh were realized some potentialities for identity that escaped the constricting limits of contemporary race and sexuality. In a closing section I will ask if it was possible, at least implicitly, for medieval authors and artists to approach the animal non-anthropomorphically, to see in the beast not a mere semblance of the human, nor to dismiss it as fully and wholly other, but to grant to the animal its status as intimate alien.