Friday, June 10, 2011

Nothing But Flowers: On Chaucer's 'Former Age'

by KARL STEEL

Over the past week, I've been working on a piece on Chaucer's "The Former Age" (Middle English; translation), primitivism, and pigs. I need 5000 words by July 20th for an anthology on Chaucer and animals.'But wait!' some of you will say a few months from now, 'Didn't you already do that in your book?'

Well, yes. Sort of. But this is my chance to do it right. To slow it down. To spread it out.

Most of 'The Former Age' comes from somewhere else; not this line though:
They [the people of that age] eten mast hawes & swych pownage
"But wait!" you say, because you're kind of a pedant: "aren't references to vegetarian nut-eaters, like, everywhere in the classical and medieval tradition of the Golden Age?" You start to quote Petrarch at me, and, being a pedant myself, I cut you off: "...and Ovid; and Cicero; and Jean de Meun; and Chaucer himself. I get it. The question isn't the nuts. The question's how we get from Chaucer's own translation of Consolation II.v, "they were wont lyghtly to slaken hir hungir at even [at evening: this is from Nicholas Trevet's commentary] with accornes of ookes," to "the people of the Former Age ate like pigs."'

And now you're silent, not because I silenced you, but because I'm sick of this conceit.

My key point: for Christians, pigs are only for eating. To say that the people of this age eat in the woods like pigs is to say they "eete nat half ynough" (don't eat half enough), like any number of distressed knights (Orfeo, Partenopeu, etc.) who go about on hands and knees grobbing for what they can; it is also to say that they are like beasts, and especially like the beasts meant only for our eating. We're a long way from praising these people for their asceticism, and we're a lot closer to pity or contempt (h/t Andy Galloway for this reference).

And see elsewhere in Chaucer, where Griselda's water-drinking (CT IV.215), a topos of medieval primitivism, opens her to Walter's exploitation; and the poor widow of the Nun's Priest's Tale, whose ascetic diet (VII 2836-46) incites our (clerical) admiration even as it leaves her lodged in nature, nearly voiceless and animalized (VII 4570-80).

In February, I asked my undergrads whether the people of The Former Age really had no wealth for conquerors, whether we should believe that "tyraunts [would not] putte hem gladly nat in pres / No wildnesse ne no busshes for to winne"?

The students got it right away. The people had no gold, no wealth, no cities, no linen, no delicacies; but, one said, they had their bodies. And for some tyrants, that's enough.

So: for now, I plan to go at this via four lines:
  1. other 14th-century English works where humans who refuse to eat pigs get treated like pigs. By this I mean stories like this one (lines 361-96) or this one (lines 487-530), where the child Jesus turns transforms a bunch of Jewish children (in the latter version, hiding in an oven!) into pigs;
  2. the manuscript context. 'The Former Age' survives in two manuscripts, one of which also includes Lydgate's "Churl and the Bird" and The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep: what are the animal networks of this manuscript as a whole?;
  3. the exploitation and animalization of the people of the Golden Age, especially in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. I'm inspired by Isidore of Seville's Etymologies XIV.vi.8, on the Fortunate Isles, mistaken for Paradise by the pagans. Isidore seems to mean the Canary Islands ("situated in the Ocean, against the left side of Mauretania," trans. from here), which were exploited in earnest, as I understand it, beginning in the early fourteenth century. Did Christian Europe's characterization of the Guanches have anything to do with the Golden Age tradition? How were these encounters received in England? Or perhaps by Chaucer, during his Iberian travels?;
  4. and finally, perhaps most ambitiously, the encounter of Alexander and Dindimus, King of the Brahmans, (see also: here and many, many other places), the Middle Age's most well-known vegetarian, paradisical people, whom Alexander repeatedly calls beasts. He says to the Gymnosophists that if everyone were equal, then we would be like animals; see also lines 858 and 892, and 904. Basically: the Brahmans have abandoned their responsibility to the human, and this pisses Alexander off. I intend to argue that the poetic gaze of 'The Former Age' looks on these people like Alexander looking on the Brahmans, that this gaze has stumbled into another, less anthropocentric way of being in and with the world, and that it doesn't quite know what to do with it.
My work on animals has largely, deliberately avoided discourses of the animalization and colonialism. Here I think of Cary Wolfe's "so long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well" (Animal Rites 8). This essay means to repair that fault by examining a text and a textual tradition that at once participates in discourses of animalization and offers a posthuman critique of animalization's violence.

There's work to be done, and any suggestions will be cheerfully, gratefully received.

(image from Bodley 264, a manuscript containing a French Alexander romance and, beginning at f. 209v, the sole exemplar of the Middle English alliterative Alexander and Dindimus, whose illustrations (209v; 210r; 211r; 212r; 213r; 213v; 214v; 215r; 215v) could use further study, especially in the ecocritical mode as exemplars of "green men" or "wodwose": for more, and for a kind of presiding spirit for this project, see Lorraine K. Stock))

(blog post title from here)

13 comments:

Karl Steel said...

If you're curious, I've just asked my library to send me David Salter's animals book (which has a section on Alexander and Dindimus), Frank Grady's Righteous Heathens book (likewise, but I've already read the YLS article), and Robert Grosseteste's Hexameron, whose introduction talks about the Brahmans.

Rob said...

How about this from an early 14C seneschal's manual: http://tinyurl.com/3g4s8ap (translation on following page).

Pigs pose a threat to the human in ways that cows, sheep, chicken, and even fish do not. The pig differs distinctly from cow and sheep who are fed on grass and live in pasture and must be maintained through the vigilance and intervention of the cowherd and shepherd. Unlike sheep, cows, or Chauntecleer in his enclosed yard, the pig has no need for human protection. In the forest the pig is self-sufficient and threateningly so. The swineherd's task is not, like the cowherd or shepherd, to care for the animals but to keep the pigs away from the cornfields and the human sphere of the manor.

Which is a roundabout way of asking, is Chaucer less anxious about the people of the former age when he calls them "lambish" in line 50?

Karl Steel said...

Rob, that's very useful! Thanks. I looked at the Walter of Henley volume myself without making those connections, so this is doubly helpful.

Another approach to the lambish people might be via Horse Goose and Sheep, where the Sheep (or rather the Ram, speaking instead of the meek sheep) says

``Ther is also made of [the] Sheepis skyn,
366 Pilchis & glovis to dryve awey the cold.
367 Ther-of also is made good parchemyn,
368 To write on bookes in quaiers many fold;

Calling someone lamblike of course witnesses to their meekness, goodness, etc., but (as Holsinger and Kay and me have observed) to talk of lambs in a medieval text is to talk about the animal whose skin you've written on.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

That's a tough nut to crack, or to digest. Thanks for complicating that passage so well.

The hardest connection for me to see is one between the Canaries and the porcine acorn gobblers. On the one hand: yes, discourse of species intersects that of primitivism and race ... yet on the other the poem is so nonspecific that it hard to read a colonial encounter into any way but VERY loosely. Unless, for example, you could find similar imagery of provender around such an encounter, or something about pigs.

Then again, are you sure you want to declare "pigs are only for eating"? They are also good to think with, and I'm also recalling the story told by Gerald of Wales of a demon who talked about not liking to inhabit bodies that ingested pork, which was really a weird displacement I think of the communion wafer.

Karl Steel said...

In re: pigs. Good to think with, yes, and I love that Gerald bit: where's that from? Ireland or Wales? Or elsewhere?

When I say pigs are for eating, I'm just differentiating pigs from most other domestic animals, which have other purposes. Chickens give eggs, cows and oxen milk and labor, sheep wool; pigs just give their bodies.

The stretch in re: Canary Islands and Former Age. I know, I know (he sighs). BUT here's what I'm hoping to do:

a) the very little Former Age criticism that's out there often tends to read it into the 14th century. They say, yes, it's traditional, but the changes Chaucer makes (about hand mills, about cloth dying, about Jupiter's lechery and Nimrod) can be read as engagements with 1381, or the cloth trade (natch), or Richard II. I'm planning to do something similar....

b) BECAUSE in the 14th century, European people encountered, for the first time, people of the Golden Age. So to speak. The Canary Islands were reputed to be the Fortunate Islands (per Isidore and perhaps later? I'll check my Higden/Trevisa and others), and the inhabitants would've thus been Golden Agers. Maybe! I'm very, very curious to see how this 'first contact' played out in 14th-century texts...especially (?) since Chaucer may have been in Spain in the 1360s;

c) there's already a textual tradition of 'animalizing' the Golden Age people. This occurs in the Alexander and Dindimus tradition, where Alexander insults the Brahmans. This tradition's done in alliterative verse (probably unknown to Chaucer) but also of course in a widespread Latin tradition, known to Gower certainly, bc of his use in Confessio Amantis, and thus probably available to Chaucer.

Here's my hope. Former Age animalizes its primitives; this is a key element in the OTHER (non-Boethian/non-Ovidian) "Golden Age" paradisaical primitive tradition; AND we have the FIRST "actual encounter with such people in the 14th century, and Chaucer may have known about it: the big q. is "how did 14th-century Europe talk about these people? What did they do with them and why? What were their justifications?"

If I can draw all this together: hurrah! If I can't...well, I won't. The Canary Islands thing will just have to be dropped.

It's definitely a stretch currently. Lee Patterson's awe-inspiring article on the Prioress's Tale is kind of what I want to do here...

Rob said...

How about Alfred Crosby Ecological Imperialism: Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900? He talks about ovine imperialism in the Canaries as an impetus for Spanish conquest (transformation of land for piggish people into lands for sheep?). The Spanish wool trade is in many ways the bellwether of "profit," "richesse," and "swety bysinesse."

Crosby also talks about the fifteenth-century introduction of sugar cane mills to the Canaries where before "unknowen was the quern and ek the melle," but that's of course too late for this poem.

Again, not directly helpful, but I also like Virginia DeJean Anderson Creatures of Empire and her work on animals as agents of empire in the Americas. In her chapter on pigfarming in the Chesapeake region, pigs occupy the feral middle space between Indian and colonist, wild and domesticated, the past idyll and the future economy.

Karl Steel said...

Rob, this is great. Thank you! I'll look at the Anderson and Crosby very soon.

andrea said...

Forgive me for butting in, but pigs gave more than just their bodies in North America (at least, up where I live): they cleared the land as they ate. Around here in the early 19th century, the family pig(s) would root stones out of the ground while grubbing for their own food (stones, raspberries and trees are about the only things which will grow here without a lot of help). Every few days, you'd move the fence a bit and the pig would do the next section. I don't know if they were used that way in Europe, but they would have been useful to farmers of flinty places like East Anglia. More germane perhaps is that the pig is a threat inside the house as well in the forest. Rob's point about the swineherd keeping the pigs away from the human sphere made me think of the ongoing anxiety that, because pigs were often kept in the farmhouse, they could eat babies in the cradle. I don't know if this is any more valid than the fear of wolves, but the pig is a lot closer than the wolf.

Karl Steel said...

Andrea, no apologies necessary!

So far as I know (which is making no enormous claims) about medieval pig husbandry, pigs weren't forused in any large-scale way for land reclaimation. The forest law would have prevented it. Various areas in later medieval England encompassed by the forest would have allowed pigs in for a time, but no way would the pig owners have been allowed to expand their farming plots into the forest. So far as I know.

In re the porcine threat to children. I write about this in my forthcoming book. Chaucer has a reference in Knight's Tale; Deschamps too in a ballad whose theme is 'the only good pig is a dead pig'; and Edward II's terrible kingship was blamed on his being a swineherd, because the actual EII was devoured in his cradle by a pig. But *these* primitive-pig-people in The Former Age aren't scary omnivores. I'm already stetching my reading of thsi poem a ways, but I don't think I can stretch it *that* direction.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I'm very, very curious to see how this 'first contact' played out in 14th-century texts...

As far as the Canaries go, the only writing I know about on this subject is an article by David Abulafia, "Neolithic meets medieval: first encounters in the Canary Islands" in idem & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot: Ashgate 2002). This is historians rather than literature people talking, and I think the texts he uses are mainly correspondence and chronicles, but just because of that, you may not have met it and might find it useful to know how `the other side' writes about this contact. If you know it already then I apologise for being redundant!

Karl Steel said...

JJ: I don't know this essay, and it is EXACTLY the kind of thing I want. Thanks so much!

Jim Vincent said...

It's not a "translation"; Chaucer did not write in a foregin language, but in an earlier versionof English; modernized texts are a "transliteration."

Karl Steel said...

Hi Jim -- that's not really a use of transliteration I've encountered. Chaucer wrote using Roman letters. Cheekily, I might suggest it'd be transorthographosis.

Anyway, because English vocabulary, its definitions, and its syntax have not stayed the same since Chaucer's English (let alone other Middle English dialects), turning Chaucer's English into modern English definitely requires translation.

For example, I often start my Chaucer classes by having students translate 'The Former Age', and they invariably go wrong on the following bit if they just regularize the spelling without translating from Chaucer's dialect to theirs:

Thise tyraunts putte hem gladly nat in pres
No wildnesse ne no busshes for to winne,
Ther poverte is, as seith Diogenes,
Ther as vitaile is ek so skars and thinne
That noght but mast or apples is therinne;
But, ther as bagges ben and fat vitaile,
Ther wol they gon, and spare for no sinne
With al hir ost the cite for to asayle

Your larger point might be: what counts as a language? where do we draw the line between one language and another? Jonathan Hsy's book might be a good place to start thinking about these things