Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Animals, Gesture, and Communication Despite it All


It's the week before Kalamazoo, so of course I've just drafted my New Chaucer Society Paper.

Yeah. So, as I'm in Berlin, I'll simply wave fondly at Kalamazoo from a distance, and as I have more stuff to write during what remains of this chunk of my sabbatical -- one thing being a chapter on medieval animals and disability -- I need to get my stuff coherent, and fast! Last week was muteness (and thank you, hugely, everyone who helped me out on twitter and so on with ideas!); this week, it's gesture, which is as new to me as muteness was last week. And next week, well, I'll simply watch what trouble you all get into at the Big Show. And wish all the mentors and mentees a charming, helpful encounter!

And OH MY GOODNESS: as I was writing this, Jonathan Hsy was posting a BABEL events at Kzoo 2016 post. READ THAT. Use it. Mark your calendars. Do that. First.

For those of you who are grading, godspeed; for those of you who are writing your Kalamazoo papers, likewise; for those of you making long-distance moves for a new academic job, congratulations and good luck; and for those of you whom the market ignored, or disdained, for those of you not yet sure what you can do this Fall, all my best for you, and for a better future for the public good of education, one freed from the ugly strictures of Spreadsheet Rationality (read Eileen Joy here, and vote YES for a CUNY Strike Authorization, if you can, and if you haven't done so yet).

British Library Yates Thompson MS 26 44r (detail)
Read on if you like! Or just finish your grading.

Like Modern English, Middle English abounds in metaphors that troped impairment as animality: "blind as a beetle," "deaf as an adder," "mad as a goose." Mainstream medieval philosophy and Christian doctrine regularly glossed the paradigmatic quadrupedal animal body as a material form of irrationality, and likewise held that animals were "mute" not because animals were silent, but because the sound they made was understood as unwritable, as senseless, as mere noise.
Within a disability rights perspective, it certainly not unjustifiable to decry these comparisons, because they reduce impaired humans to a condition of animal degradation. Without - and I hope this understood - denying the importance of human rights, my scholarly habits of critical animal studies encourage me to linger with the animal comparison, to explore what might be done with it. My training means that I can't simply say that humans are better than animals, but neither do I want just to say that animals, of whatever sort, are all subjects of a life, and deserve to have their unique perspectives respected. What I'm doing in this paper is a bit more delicate, and, as befits someone who is new to disability studies, more tentative: I'm proposing that the metaphor of "natural" animal impairment offers up as model of multiple sensory and bodily norms, helping to dislodge the idealized, able-bodied human at least implicitly at the center of so many medieval narratives of human impairment.
In medieval narrative, at least if there's a saint involved, a person who is "blind as a beetle" will leave sighted. I offer the sample of the Patrologia Latina, where the nouns surdus and mutus often travel together, and likewise often travel with stories of miraculous healing. Augustine's Enchiridion promises that the bodies of the holy will be resurrected "sine ullo vitio, sine ulla deformitate," without any fault, without any deformity. However advantageous this may be for the impaired person, in this life or the next, the at least implicit message of these healing stories is that the impairment is an inconvenience, both for the impaired person and the saint. Healing someone's muteness allows the saint and the formally mute person to talk in the language the saint knows best; it allows the saint to replace an inconveniently impaired person with one whose body works the way the saint presumes it should. With this autonomy granted, the healed person goes one way, and the saint goes another. Normalcy has been restored.
This strong medieval narrative tendency towards the miraculous normalization of impairment is simply not as common in stories of saintly encounters with animals, no matter how miraculous. To be sure, these stories of mastery, taming, protection, elimination, and especially communication often require that a saint make himself understood to animals, and sometimes involve the reverse. Nonetheless, a saint who encounters an animal that is as "blind as a bat," because it is a bat, is probably not going to make that blind bat see.
One implication of this observation becomes more obvious if we concentrate on stories where that supposed impairment could have been overcome. These are stories about saints and birds, and, especially for my talk, in the story of Cuthbert's encounter with the penitential ravens.
I am interested in birds because they're an outlier in medieval negative glossings of animality. They're bipedal, for one, and so cannot be so easily classed as beasts confined to merely terrestrial appetites. The high-flying eagle, was commonly honored with tropological admiration for its supposed ability to look directly into the sun. And birds were the animals most typically imagined to have voiced language too. No hero that I know of gains the ability to understand the language of pigs or even dogs; but in the Volsung saga, Siegfried eavesdrops on birds, while the Middle English “Bird of Four Feathers,” or, still closer to home, the Parliament of Fowles, the House of Fame, and the Squire’s and Manciple’s Tales also all furnish ready examples. As birds have a peculiar capacity to erase the supposed impairment of being animal, a saintly encounter with a bird is one where it is very easy to imagine the bird ceasing, at least for a while, to be a "mute beast." 
Knowing that helps us recognize what makes the story of Cuthbert and the penitential ravens so special. The story goes like this: when the saint sees these birds tearing thatch from the roof of his guest house on the island of Farne, he waves them away, and verbally rebukes them. They flee, and then one or more ravens returns, and by way of apology, gives the saint a lump of pig’s lard. Written versions of the story first appear in a late seventh-century anonymous life, written not long after Cuthbert's death; Bede retells it several times in verse and prose; Aelfric gives it a compressed form, and then it appears in two late medieval, Middle English versions, one a couplet attached to choir stall paintings at Carlisle Cathedral, and the other at length in the Cuthbert compilation now known as Egerton 3309.
Of course, penitential fowl are a hagiographical motif of especial popularity with British saints. Saints Columbanus, Illtud, Wereburga, Guthlac, and, on the continent, Amelburga all have their problems with birds, often voracious geese, and often extract an apology from them. But barring the Cuthbert story, all these penitential birds are always only imitating something or someone else. Jonas of Bobbio’s life of Saint Columban has its bird "oblitus ferocitatis,” “forgetful of its wild nature,” splitting the bird’s miraculous behavior from its basic wildness. Illtud’s geese "withdraw…of their own free tame animals," quasi domestica quadrupedia, a strange comparison. The posture of the geese of Amalburga - "submissive wings" with "heads laid on the ground" - is only a "simulacro" of reasonable human behavior. Wereburga’s geese act "acsi captiva pecora," as if they were captive livestock, or contrastingly, in the monk Henry Bradshaw’s 1513 Middle English Life of Werenburga, "as yf they had reason naturall." Words like quasi abound in other Latin accounts of Wereburga's miracle, while Felix describes Guthlac's birds with veluti and velut, for example, "as if conscious of its ill-doing," words that render the animal’s behavior only apparently more than instinctual.
No account of the story of Cuthbert and the penitential ravens that I know of loads its story with qualifications like this. In all of these, the birds are directly penitent, unscreened by metaphor. This is how the first, anonymous life describes them: "and settling above the furrow with outspread wings and drooping head, [they] began to croak loudly, with humble cries asking his pardon and indulgence. And the servant of Christ recognizing their penitence gave them pardon and permission to return." And here's how it looks 700 years later, in the long Middle English version:
Þe crawe spred hir wengys o brade,
And louted to him lawly þat tide
Reufully sho crobbed and cryed,
And schewed takyn expresse
Of praying of forgyfnes.
Cuthbert vndirstode hir dede
And leued hir to fle away gude spede.
Now, not every iota of Cuthbert hagiography tells the story: it's not in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, nor in Alcuin's Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, the metrical Cuthbert calendar, or the twelfth-century Cuthbert writings of Symeon and Reginald of Durham. The story's illustrated several times, most famously in Yates Thompson 26, and while these illustrations really do look like birds, they're even slimmer peg to hang an interpretation on than the texts I've offered you. I'll simply say that the story's not quite told everywhere, but it's still common, and where it exists, it is remarkably consistent.

I acknowledge as well that exegetical ravens are thickly symbolic, and I acknowledge that medieval commentators often agree with Dominic Alexander in taking stories like this as a sign of a saintly return to prelapsarian mastery over the animal world. I likewise acknowledge that this unique feature of the Cuthbert lives may be due to the inertia of storytelling or a respect for the integrity of the text: Bede makes some small changes, but mostly he just bookends it with explanations, “look to the ant o sluggard,” and so on. But I'm still struck that the stories that precede it - in Columbanus and in Athanasius's story of Saint Anthony and the hungry donkeys, which Bede himself cites - do not do what the Cuthbert story does, nor do the many avian miracles that follow Cuthbert's. Surely this unusual feature merits some kind of commentary.
Most striking is how much like ravens these ravens are. Paul Cavill emphasized this in his early article on animals and Cuthbert, and so does Susan Crane's superb commentary on the story, which stresses both the encounter's pastoral quality, with its notable combination of hospitality and submission, and what she calls the birds' "own ravenly, ravenous obedience," which is not just "a divine puppet show." 
For that "ravenly, ravenous obedience" to happen, and to happen meaningfully, the story needs translation, between the saint and the birds. Again, there are a number of ways this could happen: Goscelin of St Bertin's Wereburga life has its geese plead their case "as if with a human voice." This page from Tom Peete Cross's Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature neatly demonstrates that if an animal's going to talk, it's probably going to be a bird. The Cuthbert raven encounter could easily enough have been resolved simply by having the birds apologize vocally. Instead, with "humiliata uoce," a humble or abased voice, they begin, in the Middle English, to "ruefully" "crob and cry," or, in the anonymous life, to "crocitare," to croak, a word whose very rarity in medieval Latin marks a real effort to rightly represent this avian communication.
And when the ravens bow and stretch their wings, Cuthbert recognizes what they mean. This communication is in the style of monks, which discouraged or even forbade speaking, and which required a set of bodily movements to communicate the essentials of being a monk, chiefly, obedience and submission to the community. By bowing, the birds are "speaking" in a language that is understandable both to Cuthbert and the monks who produced these stories and among whom they chiefly circulated. Bede says that the raven uses "such signs as it could," or, to put this another, way, such signs as could be understood by a human. They are accommodating the communicative needs of this human monk. And when they furnish him with a chunk of pig lard, which he uses to waterproof his shoes, they are doing what they can to help him thrive in an environment much better accommodated to their capacities than to his.
That formulation is perhaps bizarre and over-clever, yet I am framing it this way to stress that this story strikes me as being about meeting in the middle. By preserving difference, by not likening the ravens' behavior to anything else, by requiring that Cuthbert recognize what the birds are doing - he "vndirstode hir dede" in the Middle English - the story preserves enough difference for translation to be both necessary and possible. The story refuses to simply wave away the difference in capacities and lived bodily experiences of human saint and penitential birds. Without requiring assimilation, it imagines the possibility of the satisfaction of mutual dependencies.
Medieval narrative was willing to imagine communication between humans and nonhumans; and on occasion it imagines these nonhumans making themselves understood not by speaking, but by making gestures suitable to the profession of their audience: kneeling ravens with a monk, or, another example, the outstretched paws, a gesture of homage, from the lion to Yvain, a knight. When we recognize that medieval texts also often trope nonhumans as impaired, and that communication still happens, without that impairment being miraculously "cured," we can take these medieval narratives of interspecies communication as a model for thinking impairment as something other than a condition that must be overcome for the sake of monolithic normativity. For these encounters are stories of multiple nodes of normalization, multiple ways of life: what is good for a raven is not good for a saint, necessarily, and still they can meet, and make themselves understood as they are.

Alcuin of York on Cuthbert, Latin.
Amelberga and the Geese, Acta Sanctorum, Julii III. Latin.
Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Saint Anthony. Translation.
Bradshaw, Henry. The Life of Saint Werburge of Chester, ed. C. A. Horstmann. EETS. N. Trübner, 1887. Also includes Goscelin of Saint Bertin’s Life of Wereburga. Note that her name can be spelled many different ways.
Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge UP, 1985.
Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South. D. S. Brewer, 2002. Summary.
Illtud and the Geese, English. Manuscript image for the Latin. John of Tynemouth Latin, here.
Jonas of Bobbio, Life of Saint Columban. Translation. Latin.
The Life of Saint Cuthbert in English Verse, ed J. T. Fowler. Surtees Society, 1891 (for the Carlisle Couplets and Egerton 3309 (olim Castle Howard Ms)
Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge UP, 1940.
Wereburga in John of Tynemouth, Latin.
Wereburga in William of Malmesbury, Latin.

Alexander, Dominic. Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages. Boydell & Brewer, 2008.
Baker, Malcolm. "Medieval Illustrations of Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 41 (1978): 16-49.
Barrett, Robert W. Against All England: Regional Identity and Cheshire Writing, 1195-1656 University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. [for the politics of Bradshaw and Wereburga!]
Cavill, Paul. "Some Dynamics of Story-Telling: Animals in the Early Lives of St Cuthbert." Nottingham Medieval Studies 43 (1999): 1-20.
Colgrave, Bertram. "The St. Cuthbert Paintings on the Carlisle Cathedral Stalls." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 73.424 (1938): 17-21.
Crane, Susan. Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
Cross, Tom Peete. Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature. Indiana University Press, 1952.
Crumplin, Sally. Rewriting History in the Cult of St Cuthbert from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries. (PhD Thesis, U of St Andrews, 2004).
Duncan, Sandra. "Signa De Caelo in the Lives of St Cuthbert: The Impact of Biblical Images and Exegesis on Early Medieval Hagiography." The Heythrop Journal 41.4 (2000): 399-412.
Gretsch, Mechthild. Aelfric and the Cult of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge University Press, 2006 (Chapter 3, “Cuthbert: from Northumbrian saint to saint of all England)
Letty, Nijhuis Jantje.'Deor and nytenu mid us': Animals in the Works of Ǽelfric (PhD Thesis, U College Cork, 2008).
Newlands, Carole E. "Bede and Images of Saint Cuthbert." Traditio 52 (1997): 73-109.
Taylor, Sunaura. "Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights." Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 191-222.
Wakeford, Mark Reginald. The British Church and Anglo-Saxon Expansion: The Evidence of Saints' Cults. (PhD Thesis, U of Durham, 1998) [enormously useful for collecting goose miracles]

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