Sunday, January 12, 2014

Animals and Ecology in the Middle Ages - A Spring 2014 Syllabus

Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama at David Zwirner

Hi folks,

First, thanks to the guest post from Dorothy Kim, whose promotion of medieval twitter left your humble Brooklyn medievalist longing desperately for Chicago. Very much looking forward to after reports from the entire In the Middle Team, all of whom -- except for me! -- were in the thick of everything, if the evidence of Twitter may be believed.

In the meantime, here's the syllabus for the latest version of my medieval animals course (link to pdf here). I've taught courses on this theme two or three times at Brooklyn College, but never at the Grad Center (courses listed here). I've been able to make a lot of changes to the usual run of this: I'm a different scholar now (I think), and my Grad Center students will be, for the most part, PhD students, mostly possessing a base of familiarity with medieval texts and/or critical theory that I can't assume in my Brooklyn College students, regardless of their often very considerable smarts.

Some highlights for what follows:

  • I'm taking a page from Cathy Davidson and including two (short) monographs on my syllabus, Cary Wolfe's Before the Law and Eugene Thacker's In the Dust of this Planet
  • Using Google Docs, we're going to be keeping a "living bibliography" of additional readings, editable by all my students, and available publicly to the world 
  • We're going to do the same with seminar minutes. I remember that Caroline Walker Bynum required seminar students to rotate in minutes-keeping duties; we'll do the same, but we'll post the minutes to Google Docs publicly.
  • I'm looking forward to returning, at the end, to that workhorse of a medieval text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and thinking it anew with what we've picked up along the way. 
Class starts on January 27th, so there's time for changes. Suggestions encouraged!

Animals and Ecology: The Middle Ages
ENGL 80700 [cross-listed with MSCP 80500]
CUNY Grad Center, Room 4433, Mondays 11:45-1:45

Karl Steel
Monday office hour 2:00-3:00 and by appointment
Office Phone: 212-817-8761
Email (best way to reach me):

For anyone who doubts that a horse is by its very nature better than wood, and that a human being is more excellent than a horse, should not even be called a human being.”
Anselm, Monologion

Oister: Listen then, but before we proceed in our discourse, you must promise me beforehand, that while I open (as you see) to speak, you will take care that those Roguy confounded Crabs shall not throw a stone between my two shells, which would hinder me from shutting 'em ever after.
Giovanni Gelli, La Circe
translated by Thom. Brown

Animals and Ecology: The Middle Ages” will introduce students to the more recent strains of critical animal theory and ecocriticism and consider how this thought might respond to and be transformed by its encounter with medieval cultures. Critical animal theory exploded in interest a little more than a decade ago, primarily through the work of Cary Wolfe, and a critical canon was quickly established, centering largely on Derrida's The Animal that Therefore I am and a few other books, such as Giorgio Agamben's The Open.

With its bestiaries, its art that loved to represent animal/human/vegetable hybrids, its heraldry, hunting, and “household pigs,” and a literature more than happy to include talking animals, medieval studies has been particularly well suited to engage with these fields. Articles and, eventually, books began appearing in earnest over the least 7 or 8 years, although earlier cultural engagements with literal medieval animals date back at least 20 years ago to Joyce Salisbury's The Beast Within. We are therefore now well placed to consider what might be called, clumsily, the second wave of Medieval Critical Animal/Eco Studies.

We can readily identify how the dominant medieval intellectual traditions sought to establish human difference. It's easy to link Augustine to Aquinas to Descartes as the enemies of all animalkind. Many other medieval texts, however, concentrate not on cognition and the possession of a soul but on vulnerability, heterogeneous needs, and scales of time in which humans appear as just one more comprimised actor among others. Such texts often acknowledge the existence of subjectivities completely different from the more familiar lives, emotions, and needs of humans. With these texts, we will work over questions like the following: do animals have a particular claim on us, more than, say, plants? Which animals and why? How might swarms challenge an ethics based on individuals? How does renewed interest in nonhuman materialisms compel a rethinking of the usual arguments of critical animal studies?

Credit Options:
As with most English Program courses, you can register for ENGL 80700 for either 2.0 (graded P/F) or 4.0 credits (regular letter grade). If you are not an English Program student and are registered for 2.0 credits, confirm that your home program allows this, as some programs require that every course counting toward your required 60 credits of coursework receive a letter grade. Students taking the class for 2.0 credits will do all reading, participate in class discussions, do the in-class, oral presentations, and join others in writing the weekly summaries of class discussion. Students taking the course for 4.0 credits will do all this and also write a final seminar paper along with its preparatory assignments.

Students taking the course for 3.0 credits as MSCP 80500 will do all assignments for the class, but can write a final paper that is somewhat shorter (10-15 pages) than that required of students doing ENGL 80700 for 4.0 credits.

Learning Objectives:
By the end of the semester, students will be able to do:
  • discuss, write about, and teach a wide range of medieval works;
  • analyze a variety of historical and theoretical approaches to nonhuman animals and ecology, and incorporate such approaches into their own critical writing;
  • consider how thinking about nonhuman animals and ecology in the contemporary world might be understood in ways both similar to and different from medieval understandings.

You are encouraged to do some reading before the class begins. If you are not comfortable with Middle English, try to get comfortable. Harvard's METRO site is especially useful: You might also familiarize yourself with some of the basics of critical animal studies. Read Derrida's “The Animal that Therefore I am” (available in a volume bearing the same title) and several chapters in my How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages: I recommend the Introduction, Chapter 3, and the Epilogue. It's available as a PDF here: You might also want to watch this video of my introduction to Critical Animal Studies:

We will also be generating a collaborative bibliography on critical animal studies, ecotheory, materialism, and, if possible, their relationship to medieval studies on Wikispaces here. Everyone in the class will be granted permission to edit it, and I will ask you to join me in regularly adding items.

Also, please obtain a copy of each of the following in some form. It's fine with me if you use Ebooks and PDFs on tablets or other larger touchscreen computers, but you'll want to mark key passages in advance of class discussion. Other course readings will be provided as PDFs or otherwise will be made available electronically.

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John O'Meara [from the first recension] (New York: Penguin, 1983), ISBN 0140444238.
If you'd like to check the Latin, here is the text of the first recension,; for the second recension,; for a digitized, lavishly illustrated manuscript, see British Library, Royal MS 13 B VIII, 1r-34,

Chaucer, Geofffrey. Parliament of Fowles and House of Fame. I'll be using the Riverside Chaucer, which many of you might already own; otherwise, you can use the Dream Visions and Other Poems (ISBN 0393925889) published by Norton, ed. Kathryn Lynch. Whatever edition you use should have the text in Middle English. You'll also want the Prioress's Portrait from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales.

Henryson, Robert, The Complete Works, ed. David J. Parkinson (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2010). ISBN 9781580441391
The text is available for free online at
If you are buying the book used, be careful to get this edition rather than the 1997 one by Kindrick. The 2010 Parkinson edition improves on Kindrick in several respects, perhaps most usefully, by providing a substantial introduction to reading Middle Scots and by glossing the text more thoroughly, making it easier for to read. If you'd like to see the 1570 edition like the one Parkinson used, go to EEBO (avail. in Grad Center Library Databases) and do a keyword search for “Henrisone.”

Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1. (Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2011). ISBN 184694676X

The Saga of the Volsungs, trans. Jesse Byock (New York: Penguin, 2004). ISBN 0140447385.
I do not read Old Norse, but if you do, let us know. If you're buying a different translation, get one done first within your lifetime, as earlier translations often archaize the language, which is interesting for a history of medievalism, but perhaps less interesting for us. A not cheap facing page edition is available through here:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Any edition is fine; a translation is fine, actually, if you're not comfortable with Middle English, but ideally you'll read it in Middle English.

Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), ISBN 0226922413.

Jan 27 General Approaches
Genesis 1-3
John Lydgate, “The Fifftene Tokyns aforn the Doom” (
Souillac Column:
The Wolf Child of Hesse” (translation in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt Books, 2012))
Exemplum 453, “Luporum more currit et ululat aliquis,” in An Alphabet of Tales, ed. Mary Macleod Banks, Vol II. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1905)
Feb 3 Theoretical Principles for Animal Studies
Wolfe, Before the Law
Short medieval hunting law translated here:
Short medieval readings: “Melion,”
Chaucer's portrait of the Prioress from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales
Feb 10 Animal Communities/Talking Animals
Chaucer, Parliament of Fowles and House of Fame
Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, introduction
Feb 20 (Thurs) Animals, Violence, and Sympathy
Henryson, The Morall Fabillis
Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, introduction (continue discussion)
Feb 24 Animals and Lineage
Marie de France, “Guigemar,” “Yonec,” and “Bisclavret” (from the Lais)
Androcles and the Lion [and the Bear Mother],” in The Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage (London: Trübner & Co., 1879), 327-331,
Geoffrey of Auxerre, On the Apocalypse, Joseph Gibbons, trans., 139-57 [Melusine];
Alphabet of Tales #653 on the Prince of Crete,;view=fulltext.
Jeffrey J. Cohen, “The Werewolf's Indifference,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34.1 (2012): 351-356.
Susan Crane, “Wolf, Man, and Wolf-Man,” in Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 42-68
March 3 Talking Back
Testamentum Porcelli;
By a Forest as I gan fare” DIMEV 922, from Middle English Lyrics, ed. Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman (New York: Norton, 1974): 123-25;
Middle English “Balaack and Balaam” from The Chester Plays;
Thomas Brown translation of G. Gelli, Circe, Book 1 (On the Oyster and the Mole);
Complaint of the Birds to Luther against Wolfgang,” trans. in Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 360-61;
Margaret Cavendish, “The Hunting of the Hare,”; ;
Choose any three from Phaen/Ex 8.3 (2013), on “Animal and Food Ethics”
March 10 The Manuscript Turn in Medieval Animal Studies
John Lydgate, “Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep.”
Readings on “the manuscript turn” from Sarah Kay (Postmedieval 2.1 (2011): 13-32), Bruce Holsinger (“Uterine Vellum, A Florilegium,”, Elaine Treherne (Postmedieval 4.4 (2014): 465-78), and selections from Katie Walter, ed. Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture (available through Palgrave Connect)
March 17 Other European Traditions
The Saga of the Volsungs
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, selections, (from University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 10.3 (1925)
Everyone: find a relevant or interesting scholarly article on your own and come in ready to talk about it and how it enriches this week's reading.
March 24 Theoretical Principles for Ecostudies
Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland

Serenella Iovino, “Steps to a Material Ecocriticism. The Recent Literature About the
New Materialisms” and Its Implications for Ecocritical Theory,” Ecozon@ 3.1 (2012):
Pick two from Postmedieval 4.1 “Ecomaterialism”
March 31 Into the Wild?
The Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, translation from Appendix 2, Jude S. Mackley, Northern World : The Legend of St Brendan : A Comparative Study of the Latin and Anglo-Norman Versions
Jane Bennett, “A Vitalist Stopover on the Way to a New Materialism,” in Diana Coole and Samatha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 47-69
Pick two more from Postmedieval 4.1 “Ecomaterialism”
April 7 Settlement, Food, and The Origins of Culture
Ruth Evans, “Gigantic Origins: An Annotated Translation of De Origine Gigantum,” Arthurian Literature 16 (1998): 197-211.
Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques et anchiennes istories de la Grant Bretaigne, in A Collection of the Chronicles and Ancient Histories of Great Britain, Now Called England, trans. William Hardy (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864), 1: 4-29,
Serpil Oppermann, “Material Ecocriticism and the Creativity of Storied Matter,”
to appear here:
selections from Marx, The German Ideology on human/animal difference
Due: One paragraph sketch of final project
April 28 Death and Waste
Middle English “Debate Between the Body and the Worms”
Middle English Vision of Tundale
Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of this Planet
May 5
Plant Thought
Two episodes from the Alexander Legend: Alexander and Dindimus and the “Tree Women”
Alexander and Dindimus: Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby (London: Longman & Co., 1865), 3:454-79
Tree Women: read Peggy McCracken, “The Floral and the Human,” in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt Books, 2012), 91–122
Dominic Pettman, “The Noble Cabbage [Review of Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking],” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 28, 2013,
Due: Prospectus/Annotated Bibliography for Final Project
May 12
The Nonhuman in/with the Familiar
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Eileen A. Joy, “Weird Reading” in Speculations IV
May 19 Final Paper presentations
Even if you're not writing a paper, please attend and give your colleagues your support.
May 26 Final Paper (15-20 pages) Due


Ryan Judkins said...

This syllabus looks completely fabulous, Karl! I'll be following your updates on the course with great interest.

medievalkarl said...

thanks Ryan, and THANKS for the review in Arthuriana too!

Cindy said...

I love the living bibliography idea. I'm going to try it with my Social Advocacy and Ethical Life students this semester. Thanks for the idea, Karl.

medievalkarl said...


If you're still here, I've decided to try to avoid requiring that my students participate in the googlosphere. So now I've transferred everything over to Wikispaces, and it should work PERFECTLY. here is the 'Living Bibliography' now.

Tobias said...

The syllabus looks great! This spring I've finally gotten around to teaching the "end-time narratives" class you inspired by posting a syllabus last fall. If you haven't seen it, do check out Eduardo Kohn's new book _How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology of the Nonhuman_. It's an extraordinary work, which offers a deeply compelling model for conceptualizing human-nonhuman interrelation (drawing both on his fieldwork with the Runa people of the Amazon and Peircian semiotics).

medievalkarl said...

Tobias, could you share that syllabus with me? I'd love to see it. AND thanks for the rec on the Kohn - adding it to the living syllabus now, which is as much a to-read list for me anything.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Just wanted to say thanks, Karl, for posting this syllabus -- and for making the living bibliography public. It's a great resource and I've already pointed some people towards it.

medievalkarl said...

Excellent and thanks. I'm having a lot of fun updating it. I'm planning to have the 'class minutes' be public too, so we'll see how that works. Now will update the syllabus above to ensure it links to the wikispaces living bib rather than the google docs.