Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology (Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and ... in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 46) 9782503590448, 2503590446

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Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology (Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and ... in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 46)
 9782503590448, 2503590446

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Reading the Natur al World in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology

Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Volume 46

Founding Editor Robert E. Bjork

Reading the Natur al World in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology

Edited by

Thomas Willard

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

© 2020, Brepols Publishers n.v., Turnhout, Belgium All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. D/2020/0095/205 ISBN: 978-2-503-59044-8 e- ISBN: 978-2-503-59045-5 DOI: 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120781 ISSN: 2034-5585 e-ISSN: 2294-8546 Printed on acid-free paper

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Table of Contents Abbreviations


Introduction: Reading the Book of Nature


THOMAS WILLARD, University of Arizona

Part I: Perspectives

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment: Materially Engaged Approaches to Documentary Sources


MICHAEL BINTLEY, Birkbeck College, University of London

Rivers as Critical Boundaries in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and Titurel: Ecocritical Perspectives in Medieval German Literature


ALBRECHT CLASSEN, University of Arizona

Part II: The Medieval World

Feathers and Figuration: Ravens in Old English Literature


Nature as Worshiper: Reading “The Song of the Three Children” in the Old English Daniel and Azarias


The Exemplary Environment of Bartholomaeus Anglicus


Field Notes on the Inferno: Snakes (and Cords)


TODD PRESTON, Lycoming College

EMMA KNOWLES, University of Sydney MICHAEL W. TWOMEY, Ithaca College LORI J. ULTSCH, Hofstra University

Corruption and Redemption: An Ecotheological Reading of Ála Flekks saga


Visualizing the Medieval Park: Real Spaces and Imagined Places in Le livre de chasse


TIFFANY NICOLE WHITE, University of California at Berkeley

REBEKAH L. PRATT-STURGES, Northern Arizona University



Part III: The Early Modern World

Nature as Book and Stage in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Chronicle of Nicaragua


Saul and Paul in the Wilderness: Two Religious Landscapes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder


“I on my horse, and love on me”: Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella


Shakespeare’s Savage Trees


How to do Things with Birds: The Radical Politics of Nature’s Speech Acts in Macbeth


Notes on Contributors


SARAH H. BECKJORD, Boston College


JENNIFER BESS, Goucher College

GRACE TIFFANY, Western Michigan University

SETH SWANNER, University of Wyoming

Abbreviations These abbreviations are used in various essays fol., fols. folio, folios; used with manuscripts and printed books when only one page number appears at each opening; see r and v id. the same, used for repeated work by an author or editor or by a group KJV The Holy Bible, King James Version, 1611 n.p. no place or no publisher, in bibliographical citations OED Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn., ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, 20 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); also available with updates at: r recto or right-hand page v verso or left-hand page Vulg. The Vulgate Bible or Biblia Vulgata; Clementine edition, 1592

Introduction: Reading the Book of Nature Thomas Willard

The book of nature was a commonplace topic during the Middle Ages, when that book was regarded as a commentary on the book of God, that is to say, the Christian Bible. 1 The pairing continued well into the early modern period, though natural philosophers began to question the extent to which the Bible could explicate the natural world. Somewhere along the way, a third book was added: the book of the soul or liber animae, to which the liber mundi [book of the world] and liber dei [book of God] spoke for the body and spirit, respectively. This third book probably started as something like Everyman’s “boke of rekenyng” in the medieval morality play: an accounting of his deeds, good and bad, to be used as evidence on the Day of Judgment. 2 In later drama, the book metaphor was extended to memory, conscience, or simply private matters — for example, when a Shakespearean lover tells his go-between, “I have vnclasp’d / To thee the booke euen of my secret soule.” 3 A physical book is useless without proper lighting by which to read it. Each book therefore had its light: the light of God, which was often paired with the light of nature, and both enlightened the reader. Paracelsus called this the people’s light (Licht des Menschen), possibly with reference to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on

1 Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 36 (1948; New York: Pantheon, 1953), 319–26. 2 Everyman (London: Iohn Skot, 1528), 4r. See Thomas Willard, “Images of Mortality in Early English Drama,” in Death in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: The Material and Spiritual Conditions of the Culture of Death, ed. Albrecht Classen, Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture 16 (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 411–32, here 416–18. 3 William Shakespeare, Twelfe Night, in Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, 3 vols. in 1 (London: Isaac Iaggard and E. Blount, 1623), 1:255; 1.4.11–12.

Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. xi–xxi.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120890


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the Mount. 4 The University of Oxford still has a coat of arms bearing the motto Dominus illuminatio meus [the Lord is my light]; 5 the University of Cambridge’s coat of arms also features light in its motto. 6 Both universities were founded in the High Middle Ages and preserved the tradition of taking and indeed emanating light from both nature and God. In the seventeenth century, the Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote used the biblical statement “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord” to support the principles of right reason and natural law. 7 In all these and many similar claims, light came to people outwardly through nature and inwardly from God; however, even the sun, moon, and stars that light the natural world were said to take their light from God. In a representative text from seventeenth-century England, the clergyman George Hicks wrote of nature that, before the “book of the holy Scriptures,” there was “no other generall and visible book for mankind to read the mind of God in.” 8 Hicks added a closing reference to “the book of the creatures,” whose voices were heard in all places, though subordinate to those of mankind because lacking reason and free will. 9 Another clergyman, Godfrey Goodman, preached a sermon about farm animals praising God, published against his wishes on the ground that it served as an argument against atheism. 10 In his sermon, Goodman used and perhaps coined the English terms “natural religion” and “natural theology” as extensions of God’s natural law and humans’ natural reason. 11 To those who wondered how animals could bleat or bray God’s praises, he wrote: the praises of God require no more in effect, then the power and ability wherewith God hath first inabled the Creature: for he accepts our imperfect prayers, and descends to our weakness. Thus the stocks and the stones in their 4

See Matthew 5:16, where light is a metaphor for “good works.” Also see the prologue to Paracelsus, “Liber de nymphis,” in Paracelsus Werke, ed. Will-Erich Peuckert, 5 vols. (Basel and Stuttgart: Schwabe, 1965–1969), 3:462–65, here 463; and see Will-Erich Peuckert, Pansophie: Ein Versuch zur Geschichte der weisen und schwarzen Magie, 3rd edn. (1935; Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1976), 191–96. 5 These are the opening words of Vulg. Psalm 26 (KJV Psalm 27). 6 Hinc lumen et pocula sacra [From hence light and flowing ritual cups]. 7 Proverbs 20:27; see Robert A. Greene, “Benjamin Whichcote, the Candle of the Lord, and Synderesis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 52.3 (Oct.–Dec. 1991): 617–44. 8 George Sikes, The Book of Nature Translated and Epitomiz’d (n.p: n.p., 1667), A2r. 9 Sikes, The Book of Nature Translated, 109; citing Psalm 19:3–4. 10 G[odfrey] G[oodman], The Creatures Praysing God: or, The Religion of dumbe Creatures (London: Felix Kyngston, 1622), A2r. 11 Goodman, The Creatures Praysing God, 3; also 6–10 and 30. OED recognizes Goodman’s as the earliest use of these terms in English. See also The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, ed. John Hedley Brooke, Russell Re Manning, and Fraser Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), which offers essays on the concept’s classical origins and its development in the medieval and early modern periods.



silence, and in their naturall properties; the beasts in their sounds and their cries, in their sence and their motions, all serve to praise him. 12

Goodman expanded the sermon into a book on the fall of mankind and the loss of direct understanding of nature that followed the expulsion from Eden and the confusion of tongues at Babel. In the expanded version, which became a common text for debate about progress or decay in human society, he looked back to medieval concepts of language put forward by philosophers like Duns Scotus and theologians like Thomas Aquinas. 13 At the same time, he anticipated the apocalyptic thought about a purified language taken up by people as diverse as Jakob Böhme and Francis Bacon. 14 In recent years, scholarly attention has turned to the language authors use when they try to understand the natural world as they see it now or as others have done before them. Many citations of such scholarship appear in notes to the essays that make up this volume. The key terms in the volume’s subtitle, environment and ecology, entered the language slowly. One common Anglo-Saxon word for nature, gesceaft [creation] carries the religious concept of God as creator. Anglo-Norman French brought the verb environ [to surround], which evolved into the Middle English noun environs and the Modern English environment, with at least one Early Modern English example. The English word ecology followed the word’s introduction into scientific language in nineteenth-century German. 15 The prefix eco- has been added to an increasing variety of words, including crisis, criticism, feminism, law, poetics, and theology — topics touched on by various contributors to this volume. An earlier volume in this series emphasized the effects of nature on humanity in the pre-modern world with a glance forward to the “post-human” world that

12 Goodman, The Creatures Praysing God, 2. Goodman’s sermon takes its epigraph from Daniel 3:57 (Vulg.), part of the Benedicite in church prayers. On this topic, see the contribution of Emma Knowles. 13 Godfrey Goodman, The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature, Proved by the light of our naturall Reason (London: Felix Kyngston for Richard Lee, 1616). See Thomas S. Willard, “Godfrey Goodman on the Language of Adam,” Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 8 (1987): 177–90. 14 See, e.g., Russell Fraser, The Language of Adam: On the Limits and Systems of Discourse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977). 15 See OED, “environ,” “environment, noun 1,” and “ecology, noun” There is, however, a reference to the reference to ideas from “ecology, evolution, and epidemiology” in Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions 47 (1758): 497; cited in On the development of scientific disciplines and vocabulary in the late early modern period, see Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe, ed. Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi, Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1999).


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some have anticipated. 16 Today the prospects for such a world may look different. A television series produced by the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough begins by noting that the numbers of our species have doubled in the last half-century while those of most other species have been decimated. 17 The book on which it is based leaves no doubt that humans are the only species who can do anything about the alarming trend and that they must do it within the next two decades. 18 At the same time, geologists are debating the starting point for the new Anthropocene epoch, in which man has a major part in shaping the world climate. 19 Many essays in the present volume discuss human efforts to understand nature and coexist with it, as did other conference presentations not included here. My own talk, about the speculative fiction of Margaret Cavendish, drew upon ideas of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who maintained that the complex systems of nature and humanity had been too long in a binary relationship. Bateson proposed an “ecology of mind,” a single system in which those two systems could coexist. 20 I think that this kind of mental attitude was held by people who spoke different languages than his and earlier versions of his own native tongue. It is with the hope that this volume will reach a world with greater harmony between humans and nature that its dedication is to posterity, ad posteros. The essays collected here were first presented as papers at the twenty-fourth annual conference of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, held in February 2018. This volume has the same title as the conference with one exception. The conference title included the adjective “global,” and there were papers on several non-European cultures, including the Armenian, Chinese, Islamic, and Slavonic as well as the indigenous Australian and North American. The papers submitted and reviewed for this volume were all written from a European perspective even when they touched on other cultures such as those of colonial Spain. The European point of view provides a certain continuity in papers that reach across


The Book of Nature and Humanity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. David Hawkes and Richard Newhauser, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 29 (Turnhout: Brepols; Tempe, AZ: ACMRS Press, 2013), xxv. 17 “Our Planet,” eight-episode series, produced by David Attenborough and Silverback Films for Netflix, 2019; 18 Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey, and Fred Pearce, Our Planet (Emeryville, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2019). 19 Colin N. Waters et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and strategically distinct from the Holocene,” Science 35.3269 (Jan. 2019): 134–36. The authors note a worldwide increase in fossil fuel consumption beginning “around 1950.” 20 Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing, 1972); also id., A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, ed. Ronald E. Donaldson (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).



the better part of a millennium, moving from Italy to Iceland and westward to Nicaragua. The volume begins with two perspectives on approaches to the environment in pre-modern writing. Michael Bintley’s contribution is a reworking of his plenary address at the conference. For the talk, he chose to explain the workings of the Anglo-Saxon land charter — a legal document that identified a parcel of land, not as surveyors would do it today but by naming the principal landmarks as one walked around its perimeter: a looming tree here, a field or stream there. He discussed the value of a charter in telling about the way people related to the land, and he noted similarities between phrases in these official documents and in more literary writing, showing that descriptions of places in charters have verbal parallels to descriptions in poems such as Beowulf. For the essay in our volume, Bintley suggests that contemporary theory about the relationship between brains and things can be applied to the relationship between perceiving subjects and the perceived objects in, for example, the Anglo-Saxon world. He suggests that such application encourages the engaged researcher to develop a vocabulary of terms about the relationship between mind and matter. For people who think of maps as symbols of the territory they chart, this vocabulary would be a form of symbolism. In later passages, Bintley explains his reasons for regarding charters and maps as “exograms” and for dealing with them systematically as an “exogrammar.” In the second perspectival essay, Albrecht Classen reviews the growing body of ecocriticism in pre-modern studies: criticism that focuses on the natural environment as witnessed and experienced by literary authors and characters. He discusses the boundaries that rivers and forests created in medieval landscapes and calls for greater attention to such markers in literary works, where they sometimes indicate important transitions in the development of a character, a plot, or both. In demonstrating how topography can figure in narrative strategy, Classen takes his examples from works of the Middle High German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1160–ca. 1220). In Parzival, the eponymous hero hesitates before crossing the stream that separates the land of his childhood from that of King Arthur, and he does so because his worried mother has given him advice calculated to delay his entry into the dangerous world of knighthood and to make his first experiences there discouraging. In the same poem, the knight Gawan proves his dedication to a distressed duchess when he guides his horse through a perilous leap across the river that separates him from her. In Titurel, a river again threatens to separate a young couple. The protagonist wades into it with his fishing rod while she reads on the riverbank. When a stray dog runs away with her text, he is first distracted and then unable to catch the beast. He loses her love and, eventually, his life. In his analyses, Classen shows how the same kind of barrier can have different significance for different characters. The essays that follow these introductory studies are arranged in chronological order. They reach from Anglo-Saxon poetry, recorded mainly during the three centuries before the Norman conquest of England in 1066, through the career of


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William Shakespeare (1565–1616). The break between the medieval world and the early modern world is taken to occur with the European discovery of the New World in 1492. However, there is more continuity than change between the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Douglas Bush, a noted historian of Renaissance literature, once remarked that the European world was more than half medieval in the year 1600 and more than half modern only a few decades later. 21 Other historians have suggested that the Middle Ages continued until the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. 22 Todd Preston introduces the relatively recent field of animal studies with a focus on birds of the genus Corvus, especially ravens. This bird was often treated as a predator and scavenger in the Anglo-Saxon world — for example, as the “grædigne guþ-hafoc” [greedy-war hawk] going after carrion in “The Battle of Brunanburh.” Ornithologists now consider ravens to be highly intelligent birds capable of reciprocal relationships with humans who feed them. Recent studies of their behavior tend to contradict traditionally anthropomorphized views representative of what the Victorian critic John Ruskin called “the pathetic fallacy.” 23 For example, the Exeter Book, a tenth-century anthology of poetry housed in Exeter Cathedral, includes a poem that describes ravens as soulless monsters that seize the eyeballs first, whereas they are in fact opportunistic birds that take what is most accessible to them. Preston offers an abundance of evidence to support the view that ravens are treated variously in Old English literature. Sometimes they serve to represent a type of scavenger; in other contexts they carry echoes of biblical precursors, like the raven that did not return to Noah’s ark; while in still others their descriptions are purely naturalistic — part of the natural world the Anglo-Saxons took for granted, like the raven’s feather that serves as the scribe’s quill in a riddle from the Exeter Book. Another scholar, Emma Knowles, brings evidence to suggest that AngloSaxons did not always regard the strictly natural world, away from human settlements, as a hostile place such as one finds in famous Old English poems like “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” She takes as her text a passage from the vernacular version of the biblical book of Daniel in which the praise of God is extended to the whole of God’s creation, while the various creatures, including whales, are invited to join in the praise. The verses are now relegated to the Old Testament Apocrypha or deuterocanonical books because no Hebrew version is known, but 21 Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century: 1600–1660, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 1. 22 Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 24. Curtius remarks that the Industrial Revolution “changed human life more than did the Renaissance and Reformation.” He cites G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria (London: Longmans, Green, 1942). 23 John Ruskin, “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,” in Modern Painters, 5 vols. (London: Smith, Elder, 1856), 3:152–56, chap. 12.



they were included in the Latin canticle Benedicite, omnium opera Domini [bless all works of the Lord], which priests sang to or with their congregations. 24 The verses’ popularity in Anglo-Saxon England has been attested recently by the discovery of a short text inscribed on a piece of jewelry from the eighth or ninth century — a runic inscription that Knowles discusses. She is also able to compare two different translations, one of which differs from the other in ways that may help to show what Anglo-Saxons thought about the natural world that was so much closer to them than nature is to their descendants today. Knowles’s essay gives reason to think that Anglo-Saxons may have experienced something like the “natural theology” first named by the author of the sermon described earlier in this introduction. As our chapters move into the High Middle Ages, with the marked increase in learning that prompted one scholar to write about a twelfth-century Renaissance, 25 Michael W. Twomey examines the representation of nature by Bartholmaeus Anglicus. This Franciscan friar and teacher who spent much of his career in Magdeburg, Germany, where in the 1240s he completed De proprietatibus rerum [On the properties of things], an encyclopedia intended to support biblical study. In it, Bartholomaeus strove to update the ancient classic of Pliny, Naturalis historia [Natural History], and the early medieval encyclopedia of Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae [Etymologies or Origins]. Although he supplemented Pliny and Isidore with newly available Aristotelian and Arabic material, Bartholomaeus’s research was done in the library rather than the field, and because his emphasis was on the scriptural significance of nature rather than on science, his book had negligible practical value. To show this, Twomey imagines the chaplain of a medieval manor in Britain recommending a copy of Bartholomaeus’s work to his lord in order to help him increase the local deer population for hunting. Almost everything goes wrong, as the hunting-master could have predicted. One of the main uses of Bartholomaeus’s encyclopedia was as a source of allegories and moralizations based on nature that were adopted by preachers and secular authors in the later Middle Ages. Although Bartholomaeus lived in a time when nature could overwhelm the traveler, and although he could not have imagined a world in which humans would endanger nature, his representation of nature as what Twomey calls an “exemplary environment” shows an alienation from nature that is hardly less serious than our own in the present. The next contributor, Lori J. Ultsch, provides a different kind of “field guide” in her study of snakes in Dante’s Inferno, written approximately two generations 24 Daniel 3:24–90 (Vulg.); Song of the Three Holy Children 1–68 (KJV). The canticle Benedicite, omina opera Domini [bless all works of the Lord] from Daniel 3:57–88 (Vulg.) is a song of praise or “laud” sung at Morning Prayer in Anglican churches and included in the Roman Catholic liturgia horarum [liturgy of hours]; it is part of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Catholic Breviary, or Missal. 25 Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927).


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after the encyclopedic treatment of Bartholomaeus. Like the ravens in English literature, these are both metaphorical and naturalistic. The snakes and other reptilian creatures that accompany them inhabit the eighth circle of Dante’s Hell, with the ten Malebolge [evil pockets]. Here we find sinners who have committed fraud of increasingly serious nature; and here, in cantos 24 and 25, we find the souls of thieves. In accordance with the law of the contrapasso, by which the punishment is appropriate to the sin, myriad snakes torment the souls of thieves by enacting three horrifying metamorphoses that defraud the sinners of their human form. Dante and his guide Virgil access this pocket by flying down on the back of Geryon, Virgil’s forma tricorporis [three-bodied form] — transformed by the Christian poet into a trifold fusion of snake and scorpion with a human face, a monstrous emblem of fraud itself. Ultsch posits that the heightened self-consciousness and intertextual allusions that coalesce around snake imagery allow the poet to lay claim to a truthful mimesis inaccessible to fraudulent classical precedents. Moreover, as Ultsch argues, snakes mark a development in the poem’s rhetorical mission. Tiffany Nicole White reintroduces the concept of ecotheology, also discussed in Twomey’s essay. 26 She uses this concept as she explores the Icelandic saga of Áli Flekkr, probably written during the century after Dante’s Commedia and influenced by folk tales as well as continental literature. The hero’s story is pure romance. Though he is the son of the king of England, Áli Flekkr is born with a curse: the king has ordered that the child be killed if it is a male. His curses multiply in the saga: White counts five in all, several by trolls and one in a dream that leaves him with wounds that will not heal. As White analyzes it, the curses are representative of the curse of mankind, which led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden and their wandering in the wilderness. The curses become trials that force Áli to make a heroic journey through much of the known world and cross the sorts of symbolic borders that Classen discusses in his contribution, including a dense forest and a wide sea. In White’s reading, the trials constitute an “earthly purgatory.” To cure the curse laid upon him before birth, she says, “Áli must overcome not only the demons in the forest, but the sin within him. Only then can he become who he was destined to be.” In the last essay on medieval visions of the natural world, Rebekah Lynn PrattSturges takes us through the medieval hunting park as described by an author of the late fourteenth century and depicted in a lavishly illustrated manuscript from the early fifteenth century. The author’s park was in the French Pyrenees, but because he wanted Le livre de chasse [The book on hunting] to be encyclopedic for its time, it probably includes more species of horses, hounds, and prey than were in even the most expansive and expensive game preserves. Moreover, the illustrator of the 26 The concept is often traced to the work of Lynn White, Jr., a medievalist and historian of technology who regarded Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecology. See id., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155.3767 (1967): 1203–7.



manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, may well have consulted other hunting books. 27 Pratt-Sturges not only takes us through the luxury book, section by section, but also emphasizes the message it was intended to send about the status of the noble who could own such a book, let alone maintain such a park. We enter the early modern period and shift our attention to the New World with Sarah H. Beckjord’s essay on Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478– 1557), who became the official chronicler of Spain’s colonial expansion in the West Indies, publishing the first part of his “general and natural history” of the area in 1535. Beckjord concentrates on a section devoted to the history of Nicaragua that discusses its geography, topography, and population as well as potential riches to be found there. Oviedo is more explicit about his methods than other authors of cronistas [chroniclers] of the area and more intent on educating a broad readership, from the stay-at-home monarch to the would-be colonist. To this end, Beckjord suggests, he “stages” his accounts for dramatic effect. He notes changes in lake levels from the rainy season to the dry in order to correct older maps, and he gathers multiple perspectives on natural phenomena in a manner that foreshadows more modern scientific practices. He was also drawn to investigate the get-rich-quick schemes in the new colony, taking delight in detailing the story of a friar who thought that a volcano crater would be a good place to look for gold. Oviedo had rivals of his own and took every opportunity to question or disprove their written accounts. While in his later work he shares with his contemporary Bartolomé de las Casas a sense of the tragedy of war and colonization, Oviedo also makes room for comedy with stories like that of his prospecting friar. We return to the European landscapes with two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569). Catherine Schultz McFarland raises the question of why Bruegel places two biblical scenes, The Suicide of Saul and The Conversion of Paul, in rugged mountainous regions where the landscape is not only prominent but dominant. The main figures are almost hidden and seem to spring out at the viewer when they are finally noticed in the masses of tiny figures battling in the Jezreel Valley or among the throng of soldiers and horses on the road to Damascus. McFarland explains the allusion in both paintings and connects the paintings to the tradition of weltlandschaft [world landscape] painting, a panoramic style of Netherlandish painting that dates from earlier in the sixteenth century. She considers the possibility that Bruegel’s artistic choices, both iconographic and stylistic, were to avoid overt involvement in the debates of the day, such as the religious iconoclasm of Calvinists and the political resistance to Spanish rule that would soon erupt into the long Dutch War of Independence, while still engaging in these debates in subtle ways. She also considers the possibility that Bruegel uses the massive mountains to suggest the relative insignificance of human events in the whole 27

The manuscript is available in several facsimiles as well as on the library’s website: https://


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of God’s design. While avoiding censorship or worse by including a good share of ambiguity in these biblical representations, Bruegel still managed to create powerful works with implicit criticism of the violent conflicts of his time and place. Travel at the time was mainly on horseback, as one sees in Bruegel’s paintings, and Jennifer Bess contributes an essay about horses and horsemanship. Her focus is on the English poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586), who once spent time in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna and was instructed in the high style of riding at the newly opened Spanische Hofreitschule [Spanish Riding School]. He wrote afterward that, had he not been trained in logic, the riding master there “would haue perwuaded mee to haue wished my selfe a horse.” 28 By the time he made his visit, in 1573, there were already English handbooks of riding. Bess draws heavily upon a book translated from Italian more than a decade earlier and adapted to English readers and their needs. As the suit of armor gave way to much lighter protective wear, the demand increased for smaller, faster horses on which to ride and fight. These horses were often quite muscular and could be trained for events still featured in Summer Olympics. For a young Elizabethan male of noble birth, a sleek horse was equivalent to a sleek sports car today: a status symbol and a fun way to take the air. Bess analyzes several poems in Sydney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (literally, the star lover and the star) to show how proud he was of his horsemanship and how effectively he used the metaphor of riding. Our volume ends with two studies of Shakespeare, the poet-playwright who drew effectively on the natural scenes of his native Warwickshire. The young John Milton liked to think that Shakespeare “warble[d] his native Wood-notes wilde,” the sound resembling that of a bird in the forest. 29 Grace Tiffany discusses the functions of forests and trees in Shakespeare’s plays. She notes that some scholars regarded these trees — presented more as verbal imagery than as stage props — as always being positive and suggesting the return to a benevolent nature. However, she proceeds to show that the imagery is far more nuanced in plays throughout the Shakespearean canon. In the tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the woods outside Rome are the scene of Lavinia’s brutal rape and dismemberment; while in the comic Two Gentleman of Verona, the woods outside of town threaten the much-sought-after Sylvia, as she is almost raped by a frustrated suitor. Meanwhile, in As You Like It, the forest is beautifully, and humorously, adapted to culture when the young lover Orlando pins his silly love poems to a pillar supporting the canopy over the stage in an open-air theater — a pillar that was once a tall tree and is perhaps repainted to look like one.


Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetrie (London: Henry Olney, 1594), B1v. John Milton, “L’allegro,” in Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1645), 30–36, here 36; OED, “wood, noun 1. 29



Seth Swanner explores the political resonances of nature’s speech-acts in Macbeth (first performed in 1606). After the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot, obedience to King James was increasingly understood to be authorized by Natural Law, while treason was associated both with duplicitous speech and with unnatural political sensibilities. Swanner demonstrates, however, that the natural world of Macbeth is full of non-human voices that, like equivocating traitors, seem to be saying more than one thing. The cry of the owl could either be a rally of approval for Macbeth’s regicide or an alarm raised against it. The peal of Scottish thunder could be a “Syllable” of support for the rightful king Malcolm, or it could simply be a grumble of political indifference. 30 Even as Birnam Wood famously seems to march against Macbeth’s stronghold at Dunsinane, it is represented as grafting, a horticultural practice that functioned as a metaphor both for the spoken oath of Baptism and for the witches’ anti-baptismal covenant. Thus, while James’s defenders rooted civil obedience in Natural Law, the roots of Macbeth’s politically outspoken nature are ambiguous and equivocal. By the end of the play, Swanner writes, Scotland is “a monstrous tree of graftings, regraftings, uprootings, and transplantations.” These papers were selected largely on recommendations by the volunteers who introduced the conference presenters and their work. Session chairs were asked to identify and discuss presentations that addressed the conference theme of nature and the environment in the pre-modern world, while promising to make interesting and informative essays. I am grateful to them and to the dozens of scholars who read the first contributions and made recommendations for their inclusion and development. Without the reviewers’ specialized knowledge of areas covered in the essays and their advice for the contributors, this volume would not have been possible. I am similarly indebted to the Arizona colleagues, including three editors of recent volumes in the series, who formed an informal editorial board to help this book progress over the next academic year. At ACMRS, I owe debts of gratitude to Robert Bjork, the longtime director, for inviting me to prepare this volume; to his successor, Ayanna Thompson, who took an early interest in the volume and reviewed one of the essays; to Roy Rukkila, managing editor of its busy press, who gave advice on matters ranging from content to illustrations; and to Todd Halvorsen, manager of the team that designed and produced the book for publication by Brepols. Most of all, I am grateful to the authors of all ranks — from doctoral candidate and independent scholar to distinguished professor and emeritus professor — who have stayed with the project through all the other demands on their time.


Shakespeare, Macbeth, in Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, 3:146; 4.3.8.

Part I Perspectives

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment: Materially Engaged Approaches to Documentary Sources Michael Bintley

This paper offers a framework bringing the study of documentary representations of landscapes and environment together with the cognitive archaeological approaches of Material Engagement Theory (MET), which posits that cognition does not occur exclusively within the brain but extends to the people, things, and spaces with which the brain interacts. Its aim is to illustrate ways in which interdisciplinary approaches to the landscapes of the Middle Ages can allow access to medieval minds through their inscription in texts, topography, architecture, and numerous other forms of evidence, as inhabited signs of these minds in action. The mind, as Lambros Malafouris and others have argued, can be understood in ways that reach far beyond the confines of the brain within the skull and are constituted by the interactive processes that take place between brains, bodies, and things. Malafouris draws on Merlin Donald’s concept of exograms, objects external to the human brain that function as part of the mind by “remembering” what the brain can “forget.” 1 Following an overview of MET, this paper will show how the vernacular boundary clauses included in some early medieval English charters functioned in similar ways. Boundary clauses, which tell the reader how to determine the geographical shape and extent of specific pieces of land, were perhaps the most materially engaged of documentary sources produced in early medieval England; their 1

These “exograms” are introduced in Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1991), 313–25. See also the discussion in John Sutton, “Exograms and Interdisciplinarity: History, the Extended Mind, and the Civilizing Process,” in The Extended Mind, ed. Richard Menary (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 189–225. Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 3–20.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120891


michael bintley

creation was predicated on the relationship between the text and the landscape they describe. As functional legal texts, charters appeal to our sense of landscapes that are “real,” and many boundary clauses can be plotted against the topography of Britain today. They also, however, encode readings of the landscape on many other levels. Like place names, they can reveal important stories about concepts of ownership, the management of land and animals, religious belief, and other localized traditions. Beyond this, charter bounds also share certain qualities in common with poetry and other genres of writing that stem from the orality of early medieval English culture. This essay argues that charter bounds and poetry preserved and perpetuated a common vocabulary for describing landscapes, which in turn affected human interactions with the material environment. I will describe this common vocabulary as an exogrammar of early medieval landscape and environment, distributed across and through contemporary exograms. From here I will go on to consider some of the ways in which this approach might deepen our understanding of the development of three early medieval English ecclesiastical foundations between the seventh and tenth centuries.

Material Engagement Theory In a thought experiment discussed in his Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty questioned where the mind begins and ends for a blind man using a stick to navigate his way — a process in which the stick, as an object essential to his cognitive processes, forms part of his extended mind. 2 This approach sees the body not as a “passive container of the human mind” but as part of what “shapes the mind.” 3 Human cognitive processing may in these terms be understood as “a hylonoetic field — a mindscape quite literally extending into the extra organismic environment and material culture.” 4 Consequently, a cognitive process is not limited to what takes place within the brain but “can be what happens in the interaction between a brain and a thing,” thus extending the “traditional boundaries of the unit of analysis for cognition” outside of the individual human “to accommodate


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 165–66, 175–77. 3 Lambros Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 60; see also discussion in Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew, “The Cognitive Life of Things: Archaeology, Material Engagement and the Extended Mind,” in The Cognitive Life of Things: Recasting the Boundaries of the Mind, ed. Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew (Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs, 2010), 1–12. 4 Lambros Malafouris, “Metaplasticity and the Primacy of Material Engagement,” Time and Mind 8.4 (2015): 351–71, here 366.

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


broader cognitive events that include interactions among people, artifacts, space, and time.” 5 With this taken into consideration: Cultural knowledge and innovation are not intracranial processes; they are, rather, infused and diffused into settings of practical activity, and thus they are constituted by experience within these settings through the development of specific sensibilities and dispositions, leading people to orient and think about themselves within their environment in specific and often unexpected ways. 6

A practical and effective example Malafouris has used to demonstrate this is through a “cognitive ecology of pottery making,” in which the manufacture of pottery is dependent on the relationship between various actants, 7 including the neurons of the potter’s brain, the muscles of the potter’s body, the potter’s sense organs, the possibilities afforded by the potter’s wheel, the physical properties of the clay under transformation by all of these factors, the morphological and typological prototypes of existing pottery familiar to the potter, and the general social contexts in which the activity occurs. 8 The “finished” pot is not, therefore, the sign of something that has been achieved by a mind that is contained solely within the human brain, contained in a human body. Instead, it is an “index and constitutive residual component of the . . . mind,” signifying the processes of the extended mind in action, in which various actants, human and non-human, have participated. 9 Similarly, when we consider the development of the writing system known as Mycenaean Linear B in the fifteenth century b.c.e. as a means of recording quantities of goods, 10 we can see that as it emerged to serve “the administrative (recording keeping and accounting) demands of the gradually emerging Mycenaean palatial


Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind, 67. Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind, 116. 7 The word “actant” is commonly used in network theory to identity a human or nonhuman actor engaged in a specific network system. See, for example, Seth C. Lewis and Oscar Westlund, “Actors, Actants, Audiences, and Activities in Cross-Media News Work,” Digital Journalism 3 (2015): 19–37. 8 Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind, 209–13; also Lambros Malafouris, “The Cognitive Basis of Material Engagement: Where Brain, Body and Culture Conflate,” in Rethinking Materiality: The Engagement of Mind with the Material World, ed. Elizabeth DeMarrais, Chris Gosden, and Colin Renfrew (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2004), 53–62, here 59–60; Lambros Malafouris, “At the Potter’s Wheel: An Argument for Material Agency,” in Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, ed. C. Knappett and L. Malafouris (New York: Springer, 2008), 19–36; and Chris Gosden and Lambros Malafouris, “Process Archaeology (P-Arch),” World Archaeology 47.5 (2015): 701–17, here 703–6. 9 Malafouris, “At the Potter’s Wheel,” 22. 10 Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind, 68–77. 6


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system,” 11 rather than “simply amplifying the Mycenaean memory system,” it “brought about a radical change in the nature of the cognitive operations involved.” 12 Viewed in this way, a clay tile inscribed with Linear B “enables one to store complex information, displaying the mnemonic operational sequence of acquisition–storage–retrieval outside the biological boundaries of the human brain.” 13 Analogous to the concept of the “engram,” a “single entry in the biological memory system,” this kind of object is what Merlin Donald describes as an exogram — an “external memory record of an idea.” 14 What is particularly significant about exograms as an element of “mind” 15 is the fact that they can be reformatted, allowing “information to be altered, and then re-entered into storage, in ways that an engram clearly cannot afford.” 16

Charter Boundary Clauses as Exograms The vernacular boundary clauses appended to charters in early medieval England functioned in a similar fashion. There are more than one thousand charters surviving from this period, which generally follow the same pattern, stipulating “who is granting the land or rights and to whom,” a “list of witnesses,” and providing “in many cases a written description of the boundaries of the estate in question.” 17 Though the last element is found in Latin from ca. 700, suggesting that boundaries were mapped in this way from at least the mid-Saxon period, they appear in the vernacular from the ninth century onwards and became a standard element from the early tenth. 18 Charter boundaries take the reader on a journey around the border of an estate, often (but not always) proceeding clockwise, and defining the 11

Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind, 68. Lambros Malafouris, “Metaplasticity and the Human Becoming: Principles of Neuroarchaeology,” Journal of Anthropological Sciences 88 (2010): 49–72, here 63. 13 Malafouris, “The Cognitive Basis of Material Engagement,” 56. 14 Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind, 314; see also Karl Lashley, “In Search of the Engram,” in The Neuropsychology of Lashley, ed. F. A. Beach, D. O. Hebb, C. Morgan, and H. Nissen (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), 2–31. 15 Malafouris draws a helpful distinction between engrams as “internal ensembles of neurons” and exograms as “external ensembles of material structures and scaffolding,” though the two in isolation “are lifeless”; “the cognitive life of things, like the cognitive life of brains, can be found where engrams and exograms begin spiking, interacting, and complementing one another in such a way that memory emerges”; see Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind, 84. 16 Malafouris, “Metaplasticity,” 63. 17 Andrew Reynolds, Later Anglo-Saxon England: Life and Landscape (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 1999), 29. 18 Kathryn A. Lowe, “The Development of the Anglo-Saxon Boundary Clause,” Nomina 21 (1998): 63–100, here 68, 74; Michael Reed, “Anglo-Saxon Charter Boundaries,” in Discovering Past Landscapes, ed. Michael Reed (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 261–306. 12

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


boundary by traveling from point to point, between features such as trees, stones, or bodies of water, and along routeways, hedges, ditches, embankments, and so on. 19 As Andrew Reynolds has observed, “the language and choice of landmarks recorded in boundary clauses is that of the recording of a mental map of an estate.” 20 It is thus highly likely that boundary clauses included in charters granting land in this way were a written accompaniment to (or replacement for) boundaries remembered and circulated orally by people who knew these areas of land, though they may have been far less familiar to the scribes who wrote them down. Interestingly, this approach to demarcating areas of land can be seen in other contexts in early medieval England. Scott Thompson Smith has shown that similar approaches to the geography of possession can also be seen in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which acts as a map of West Saxon “territorial expansion, charting its moving boundaries in order to make (and reinscribe) a land and its resident peoples” under the authority of Wessex. 21 The lines of a boundary clause as a material object, ink on vellum, thus serve as a supplement to human memory. The charter as a physical object is an exogram wherein the oral and mental map of an estate boundary is locked in letters on the page. The object guards against forgetting, and against selective memory (though not forgery), preserving the fringes of an area of land for the benefit of those familiar or unfamiliar with the landscape, and facilitating and defining the interaction between humans and the material environment that constitutes the extended mind. There are various levels on which charter boundaries, as exograms, might achieve this, which are best demonstrated using a practical example. A charter issued by Beornwulf of Mercia at the Council of Clofesho in 824 (S1434) records the recovery of lands by Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 832), which had been fraudulently seized by Cwenthryth, the abbess of Minster-in-Thanet and daughter of Coenwulf of Mercia (r. 796–821) and sister to St. Kenelm. This charter records the Old English (OE) bounds of Godmersham (granted to Wulfred by Beornwulf of Mercia in 822, in S1620) and Challock, both in Kent. The clause reads as follows: Ærest fram æsce norð to stættincgforda . ðanon norð be ea to Dreaman uuyrðe on fisc pol . ðanon east rihte be suðeuueardan bradan lea . swa be suðan Pur wuda . be pytlea to Uuincelcumbe on ðæt sol . 19

Della Hooke, The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (London: Leicester University Press, 1998), 95; Lowe, “Anglo-Saxon Boundary Clause,” 69. 20 Reynolds, Later Anglo-Saxon England, 32. 21 Scott Thompson Smith, “Marking Boundaries: Charters and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” in Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History, ed. Alice Jorgensen, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 23 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), 167–85, here 185.


michael bintley of ðan sole on ða ealdan strete . ðanon onmiddan stan mere . ðanon on gerihte on cyncges lim fine . of ðære fine niðer ofer hean leah andlang mele uueges on ðone hean æsc be norðan wol tune . swa on bisceopesðorn . ðanon west ðurh suð tun onmiddan hyrst . ðanon suð up be ea on norðan bord dæne . ðanon on neolan mere . of ðam onmiddan bearcincg mere . ðanon on Sacecumb . swa on fearn edisc . swa to æsce. 22 (“first from the ash tree north to [?] ford thence north by the river to Dreama’s 23 enclosure to the fish pool thence straight east to the south of the broad wood so by the south of lambs’ wood [?] 24 by pit wood to corner valley to the muddy pool from the muddy pool to the old street thence to the middle of stone pool thence straight to the king’s lime heap from the heap down to the high wood along the mill road to the high ash tree by the north of [?] 25 enclosure and so to the bishop’s hawthorn thence west through south-enclosure into the middle of the wooded hill then south up by the river to the north of board-valley thence to the [?] pool and from there to the middle of [?] pool thence to Soakham . so to the fern enclosure . so to the ash tree”)

Charter bounds are not usually presented in this fashion; like OE poetry in manuscripts, they make more economical use of vellum. Laying a boundary out in this way, however, draws greater attention to steps taken in the course of traversing the landscape, through the interaction between the boundary clause and the 22 Text from N. P. Brooks and S. E. Kelly, Charters of Christ Church Canterbury: Part 1, Anglo-Saxon Charters 17 (Oxford: The British Academy, 2013), 584–89. The spaced periods at the end of each line indicate where a symbol appears in the prose charter to indicate a partial or full stop. The translation that follows is partially based on Brooks and Kelly’s commentary. 23 The name is unattested elsewhere in early medieval English documents. 24 Brooks and Kelly, Charters of Christ Church, Part 1, 587, suggest *pur (male lamb) + wudu (wood). 25 Brooks and Kelly, Charters of Christ Church, Part 1, 588, write that “a deserted settlement might support derivation from OE wol ‘pestilence,’ though the forest location would fit the other suggested origin from OHG wuolen ‘to burrow, turn over the ground,’” as suggested in J. K. Wallenberg, “Kentish Place Names,” Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift (1931): 150–51.

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


reader, with the latter depending on interaction of brain and eye (and everything in between), and potentially on tongue, hand, and pointer if reading aloud. Different aspects of the boundary are worth considering in turn, however indivisible they may be in other respects. First and foremost, the charter bound is a practical set of instructions. It relies on the interaction not only between reader and charter-as-exogram but also on the topography of the landscape, on elements within it, and perhaps on other humans who can locate these elements in the landscape if necessary. In the first instance, one would need to know the ash at which the boundary begins. Readers will also need to know their relationship with cardinal points, as boundary clauses often expect the reader to find their way, using them as directions. Clauses also make assumptions about readers’ familiarity with different aspects of the landscape. In the case of S1434, these include bodies of water (a ford, a fish pool, a muddy pool, a stone mere, and another mere), different types of woodland (a broad leah, a wood, a high leah, a wooded hill, and a wooded valley), and different forms of enclosure, including one that may belong to a named individual, a second that may have been abandoned as a consequence of plague, and a third characterized by ferns. Beyond this, the boundary also reveals much about the way in which this landscape formed part of local people’s daily lives, in terms that resonate with Rebecca Solnit’s observations concerning the gap that mass production has created between humans, non-human animals, things, and the landscape we coinhabit. However, as Solnit notes: There was a time not so long ago when everything was recognizable not just as a cup or a coat, but as a cup made by so-and-so out of clay from this bank on the local river or a coat woven by the guy in that house out of wool from the sheep visible on the hills. Then, objects were not purely material, mere commodities, but signs of processes, human and natural, pieces of a story, and both the story and the stuff sustained life. It’s as though every object spoke — some of them must have sung out — in a language everyone could hear, a language that surrounded every object in an aura of its history. 26

The bounds of S1434 point to a fish pool for food, various areas of woodland where animals might potentially graze, ash trees whose wood might be used for numerous purposes, a king’s lime heap, and a bishop’s thorn. Implicit in these descriptions is an understanding of the utility of these elements for humans. Equally implicit in this particular charter, thanks to mention of a king and a bishop, is a knowledge of how the landscape and its relationship with humans is also defined, contained, and maintained by a set of relationships among humans. The charter in turn, therefore, plays some part in defining, containing, and maintaining these relationships. 26

Rebecca Solnit, “The Silence of the Lambswool Cardigans,” in Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 323–39, here 323.


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There are then practical ways in which charter bounds reveal the uses of the land by humans, but also a symbolic level on which the descriptions of landscape and environment in the boundary unconsciously encode hierarchy and power relations. After this crude distinction between the functional and socio-political elements of the boundary, it is also worth appreciating how the lexis of the boundary clause connected the mundane, quotidian experience of the early medieval landscape with those landscapes found in works such as poetry, in which they might be attributed idealized or supernatural qualities. Given the orality of early medieval English culture, it is unsurprising that these texts share common features, some of their most immediate being their mnemonic qualities. Flashes of alliteration and assonance appear here and there: heading northwards, the reader moves ærest fram æsce, 27 moving north and then east before going be suðan Pur wuda, past pit wood, corner-coombe, muddy pool, along the old street onmiddan stan mere, to the king’s lime heap, then ofer hean leah, along the meal way to the high ash by the north of the abandoned tun, to the bishop’s thorn, then west ðurh suð tun to the middle of the hurst, then south by the river on norðan bord dæne, to the deep mere, bearcincg mere, Soakham, and (anaphorically) swa on fearn edisc, swa to æsce. There are also numerous adjective-noun pairings in S1434 that have counterparts both in other charters and in contemporary poetry, a few examples of which are bradan lea; ealdan street; stan mere; and hean leah /æsc. Variations on bradan lea appear in several charters (S552, S622, S689, S756), and bradan is used in conjunction with a number of other elements of landscape in charter bounds 28 and in similar pairings in verse to refer to aspects of landscape and environment, such as brada sæ (broad ocean, Christ III 278), brada scua (broad shadow, Psalm 79.10.1, brada brimstream (broad ocean stream, The Capture of the Five Boroughs 5), bradan ligas (broad flames/lights, Genesis 763), bradan rices (broad empire, The Ruin 37), bradan berewæstma (broad barley-crops, Metrical Charm 1 56). 29 Ealdan strete and similar forms appear in a comparable number of charters (S535, S664, S694, S833, S1276, S1434), and in verse ealdan appears in a similar couplings to refer to the ealdan moldan (ancient earth, Christ III 22), an ealdan byrig (ancient town, The 27

Ærest is often the first direction in charter bounds. All subsequent charter references from The Electronic Sawyer, uk (accessed August 1, 2018). 29 Christ III and The Ruin from Bernard J. Muir, ed., The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, 2 vols. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994), 82–110, 360–61; Psalms from George P. Krapp, ed., The Paris Psalter and the Meters of Boethius, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 5 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), 3–150; the Capture of the Five Boroughs and Metrical Charm I from Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 6 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942), 20–21, 116–18; and Genesis from George Philip Krapp, ed., The Junius Manuscript, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 1 (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1931). References to the Psalms in Krapp’s edition are to the numbers in the Biblia Vulgata or Vulgate. 28

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


Coronation of Edgar 3), and elsewhere in its uninflected form to refer to such eald landscape features as enta geweorc (the work of giants) in The Wanderer (87), and the eorðsele (earthen hall) in The Wife’s Lament (29). 30 Freestanding stones of various kinds appear in the charter boundaries, but the term eald and its variants is just as frequently used to refer to other aspects of landscape, including barrows, woodland, waterways and wells, bridges, and routeways. 31 In verse, stan is less often used to describe the nature of things; more often than not stone is referred to in-and-ofitself for its material properties. Exceptions to this, however, which show how poetic vocabulary mirrors charter bounds, are apparent in compounds similarly referring to landscape features, such as stanbeorh (stone barrow, Beowulf 2213); stanbyrig (stone barrow, Genesis 2214), stanbogan (stone arches, Beowulf 2545, 2718), and stanclifu (stone cliffs, The Phoenix 22, The Seafarer 23, Elene 135). 32 In addition to S1434, which includes a hean leah and a hean æsc, the former occurs once elsewhere as a hean leage (S1862) and once or twice elsewhere as a hean æsc (S661) and perhaps a hean ersc (S230). Elsewhere it defines features such as a hean hrycgg/hrycg (S123, S588), hean hangran (S360), hean wifeles hylle (S423), hean lincan (S887), and hean streat (S896). In verse, where heah frequently refers to the heavens or skies, its terrestrial attachments include buildings and settlements, examples of which include hean hofe (lofty hall, Genesis 1489, 2458), 33 hean byrig/burh (lofty town/fortification, Daniel 38, 54, 206, 665), hean muntum (lofty mountains, Psalm 103.17, 3), hean hus (lofty house, Beowulf 116, Psalm 72.6, 5), and hean beorge (lofty mountains, Psalm 120.1, 1). 34

30 The Coronation of Edgar, in Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, 21–22; The Wanderer and The Wife’s Lament from Muir, The Exeter Anthology, 219–22, 331–33. 31 These include barrows (stan beorh/beorge, S 413, stan beorge/beorwe S525, stan beorh/beorge S623, stan beorhge, S1005, stan hlæwe 1208); woodland (stan lege, S1023, stan dene, S558, stan lege S934, stan leage S993), waterways and wells (stan ea, S300, stan well broc, S593, stan wylles broc, 785, stan wyl, S999), bridges (stan brycge, S546, stan bricgge, S654, stan bricge, S673, stan bricge, S735), and routeways (stan wege, S607, stan wege, 632). 32 References to Beowulf from Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, 4th edn. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008); references to The Phoenix and The Seafarer from Muir, The Exeter Anthology, 167–90, 232–36; and Elene from Cynewulf ’s ‘Elene,’ ed. P. O. E. Gradon (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1977). A comparable correlation between verse and terms in charter bounds can be found in hara/harne stan (grey stone, Exeter Book Riddle 40, 74, Andreas 841, The Ruin 43, Beowulf 887, 1415, 2553, 2744), and in haran stan (S414, S757, S896) and haranstan (S448). 33 Used of Noah’s ark in Genesis 1489. 34 The same idea is also expressed in the phrases sele þam hean (the lofty hall, Beowulf 713, 919, 1016, 1984), beorh þam hean (the lofty barrow, Beo 3097), and træfe þam hean (the lofty tent, Judith 43). References to Judith from Judith, ed. Mark Griffith (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).


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An Exogrammar of Early Medieval Landscape Although ways of describing the landscape in charter bounds and verse differed substantially in many ways, it is no great revelation that the landscapes of the worlds presented in literature were grounded in landscapes of the everyday. Whether writing charter bounds or poetry, the people who created these texts were drawing on a common vocabulary to represent the world they inhabited and the worlds they imagined. This was naturally a sliding scale. We would not expect charter bounds to feature heaven or hell, and while there are fish in the sea in early English poetry, fish ponds are less prominent. These commonalities were to some extent the product of language and a culture that relied on oral memory for the circulation of information of various kinds, including charter bounds and poetry. However, though reading and writing were by and large limited to elites, it was also to some extent a literate culture. One of the functions of writing, as this essay has already discussed in the case of Mycenean Linear B clay tablets, is to enable human brains to forget information that can be re-accessed through the interaction of brains, bodies, and exograms. An exogram allows forgetting, but also — through the clay tablets’ interaction with other human brains and bodies — the extension of this information to other minds. Interaction with a boundary clause, for those who did not know the physical land itself, allowed access to the various factors that had produced the clause, including interactions between human brains and bodies, the landscape, and the various cultural factors that had led to the selection of the elements defining the boundary. The forms of boundary clauses, embedded in the culture that produced them, were also defined by existing approaches to the writing and recording of information, formulae governing the production of charters, and lexis describing elements of landscape that was shared in part with other written works. This shared vocabulary might be described as an exogrammar of landscape (reliant on the existence and ongoing development of a mesh/ web/network/entanglement of exograms), which both defined and was defined by ongoing feedback loops between humans, environment, and landscape, in addition to numerous other factors. An exogrammar of this kind (sharing various intersections with existing concepts of discourse, assemblage, and lexical fields) might be visualized in the following fashion. A hundred manuscripts or charters sit side by side. Each in some way contains a reference to hedges, describing their form and function in the material world in such a way that readers of these documents understand and interact with hedges on the basis of the information shared across these exograms — an exogrammar of hedges. Such an exogrammar, far from being fixed, was strung out across the period and its texts in a rhizomatic Deleuzoguattarian fashion, evolving and dissolving through time and place as the lexis of landscape changed and

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


developed. 35 Replacing eighty percent of these manuscripts with works representing an entirely different understanding of hedges might drastically alter this exogrammar, as might replacing them with works in a language accessible to fewer people, or limiting access to them on the basis of other criteria determined by wealth, ethnicity, gender, and so on. Control over the production, circulation, and access to exograms has the power to determine exogrammar, and thus dramatically affect human interactions with the material environment. If the bones of an exogrammar of the early medieval English landscape and environment might, in this context, be found in charter bounds, verse, and other written sources, it is worth considering where else one might find evidence for the way in which it played a part in determining the relationship between actants including humans, non-humans, landscapes, and other objects. Taking a step further, an interesting episode from the ‘Mildrith Legend’ concerning the foundation of Minster-in-Thanet in Kent ca.  700, shown by David Rollason to have likely originated in the eighth century, brings together all of these elements. 36 In a recent study Joshua Davies has discussed how this legend offers an example of the “interaction and interdependence of human and nonhuman beings and histories through and across time.” 37 The episode in question involves the daughter of King Eormenred of Kent, grandson of Aethelbert (560–616), and father to three daughters, one of whom was Domne Eafe, who was married to Merewalh of the Magonsætan and gave birth to saints Mildrith, Mildburg, and Mildgith, and a son (Merefin) who died in his infancy. 38 Domne Eafe’s brothers were murdered by her cousin Egbert of Kent (664–673), encouraged by his servant Thunor, who persuaded Egbert that they posed a threat to his kingship. The bodies of these brothers were buried beneath the throne in his hall at Eastry, where their location

35 Rhizomes, a key principle in Deleuze and Guattari’s works, are described variously in the introduction to their A Thousand Plateaus. The “principal characteristics of a rhizome,” they write, are “unlike trees or their roots” as they connect “any point to any other point.” They are “reducible neither to the One nor the multiple . . . composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion.” A rhizome “has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills. . . . Unlike the tree, the rhizome is not the object of reproduction: neither external reproduction as image-tree nor internal reproduction as tree-structure. The rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots”; see Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 21–22. 36 D. W. Rollason, The Mildrith Legend: A Study in Early Medieval Hagiography in England (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1982). 37 Joshua Davies, “The Landscapes of Thanet and the Legend of St. Mildrith: Human and Nonhuman Voices, Agencies and Histories,” English Studies 96.5 (2015): 487–506, here 487. 38 Rollason, The Mildrith Legend, 10.


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was miraculously revealed by a column of light. 39 As compensation for their killing, Domne Eafe: Chose to have as much land on the Isle of Thanet as her tame hind would run round in one circuit and accordingly accompanied the king and his court to the isle, which was at that time completely detached from the mainland. As they all followed the hind’s course, Thunor, who resented the proposed grant to Domne Eafe, tried to dissuade the king from continuing the proceedings. He was at once swallowed by the earth and the site, covered with a pile of stones, came to be called Thunores hleaw, which means Thunor’s mound. The hind then finished its course and, on the land thus designated, Domne Eafe founded the monastery of Minster-in-Thanet and became its abbess. 40

Foundation legends like this offer an excellent opportunity to consider how such understandings of the landscape influenced the development of early medieval ecclesiastical centres, and how exogrammar, environment, humans, and humanmade objects (large and small) were all brought together as part of this process. As Davies notes, in this account human history “is one part of the landscape, just as the landscape was part of the histories, identities and aspirations of the communities who lived in and through it,” and this story relies on non-human animals, mounds, and other elements of landscape just as much as people. 41 The origin mythology for Minster-in-Thanet’s boundaries, the influence of which was still sufficiently substantial to see its inclusion on an early fifteenth-century map (Cambridge, Trinity Hall MS I. fol. 28b), does not just rely on these elements as things in and of themselves, but also on the interaction of their discrete mythologies and associations. 42 Kings, abbesses, deer, shorelines, earth, barrows, stones, and minsters all have different symbolic meanings and resonances, and these change when each of these elements (and the things that comprise them) are made to interact. This exogrammar is not fixed; it is in process, and changed over time. Thus elements of the earlier versions of this narrative and its landscape in Latin are differently arranged to those found in the version more than two centuries later in Old English. 43

Applications of Exogrammar: Gloucester and Folkestone Although a sustained exposition of exogrammar’s potential is beyond the scope of this study, by considering the establishment of ecclesiastical sites under royal patronage in other instances, it is possible to see some of the ways in which similar 39 40 41 42 43

Rollason, The Mildrith Legend, 11. Rollason, The Mildrith Legend, 11. Davies, “The Landscapes of Thanet,” 491–92. Rollason, The Mildrith Legend, 10; Davies, “The Landscapes of Thanet.” Davies, “The Landscapes of Thanet,” 490–91.

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


exogrammars of landscape may have influenced decision making elsewhere. 44 The present author has argued elsewhere that when the New Minster was founded at Gloucester, it was furnished with the relics of Saint Oswald in order to evoke connections with seventh-century Northumbria and the fourth-century Roman Empire, thus furthering the dynastic and imperial pretensions of West Saxon and Mercian elites.. 45 The minster was established at the very end of the ninth century, or very early in the tenth, likely at around the time a burh was established at Gloucester. 46 As Carolyn Heighway notes, an intramural minster had been founded at Gloucester in 679, during the first phase of minster building, drawing on the Romanitas of the former Roman colonia — an aspect of Gloucester’s past that was no less significant in the ninth and tenth centuries than it had been in the seventh. 47 At the beginning of Edward the Elder’s reign, Gloucester occupied an important position between Wessex and Mercia, and close to the border with Wales. 48 It also sits at the mouth of the river Severn, Britain’s longest river, which arcs northwards through the heartlands of Mercia before crossing Offa’s Dyke near Oswestry in Shropshire. What was practical about the creation of a burh at Gloucester and the founding of New Minster by Edward’s sister Aethelflaed and her husband Aethelred of Mercia was also highly charged with symbolism. Practically speaking, it controlled routes over and up the river, and served as a powerbase in the Severn basin for Mercia and Wessex against threats from land and sea. But this interaction between the human and the topographical was not the whole story. As noted, an understanding of the significance of the landscape’s Roman past was likely an important factor in the establishment of both seventh- and ninth- or tenth-century foundations. This understanding was dependent on the landscape exogrammar that connected these sites with the martial-religious qualities of Rome, which is well known from influential


Proceeding on the understanding that exogrammar is fluid, and differently constituted throughout time and space, but often shares form and function in temporal and spatial proximity. 45 Discussed in Michael D. J. Bintley, “The Translation of St. Oswald’s Relics to New Minster, Gloucester: Royal and Imperial Resonances,” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 19 (2015): 171–81. 46 Carolyn Heighway and Michael Hare, “Gloucester and the Minster of St. Oswald: A Survey of the Evidence,” in The Golden Minster: The Anglo-Saxon Minster and Later Medieval Priory of St Oswald at Gloucester, ed. Carolyn Heighway and Richard Bryant, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 117 (York: Council for British Archaeology, 1999), 1–29, here 7–9; Michael Hare, “The Documentary Evidence for the History of St. Oswald’s Gloucester to 1086 ad,” in The Golden Minster, ed. Heighway and Bryant, 33–45, here 34. 47 Carolyn Heighway, “Gloucester,” in Twenty-Five Years of Archaeology in Gloucestershire: A Review of New Discoveries and New Thinking in Gloucestershire, South Gloucestershire and Bristol, 1979–2004, ed. Neil Holbrook and John Juřica, Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Report 3 (Cirencester, Gloucestershire: Cotswold Archaeological Trust, 2006), 211–29, here 219. 48 Andrew Reynolds, “The Early Medieval Period,” in Twenty-Five Years of Archaeology in Gloucestershire, ed. Holbrook and Juřica, 133–60, here 148–49.


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works such as the Historia of Bede (translated into Old English at around this time), as well as from numerous other Latin and vernacular texts. Beyond these quite straightforward associations, Oswald’s relics may also have been chosen for Gloucester as a consequence of his deeds in life and his perceived role in promoting Christianity in seventh-century Northumbria. The third book and central pillar of Bede’s Historia opens with Oswald’s raising of a cross at Heavenfield before the battle at Denisesburn in 633/34, in which he achieved a decisive victory over Cadwallon ap Cadfan, king of Gwynedd. 49 Bede writes that before the battle, once a cross had been manufactured and a post hole had been dug in which it was to be secured, Oswald himself seized the cross and placed it in the hole, holding it steady whilst his men piled up the earth around its base to secure it in position. 50 In Bede’s narrative this act, as the present author has argued elsewhere, serves to represent the unification of Bernicia and Deira around Oswald and the cross, whilst passing over in silence the Christianity of Oswald’s enemies. 51 Numerous commentators have observed the parallels between Bede’s depiction of Oswald and Eusebius’s depiction of Constantine the Great in his Vita Constantini. Six years after he had been proclaimed Augustus as York, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) in which he defeated the emperor Maxentius, Constantine experienced a vision in which the labarum appeared before him emblazoned with the legend “by this conquer.” 52 Having his men mark their shields with this symbol the following day ensured Constantine’s victory, later leading to the Invention of the Cross — his mother St. Helena’s discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem — and as far as tenth-century readers of Cynewulf ’s poem about this episode were concerned, the promotion of Christianity throughout the empire. 53 The relics of Oswald were seized from the monastery at Bardney Abbey in Lindsey (where they had been held since Osthryth of Mercia (d. 697) brought them there), in what has been seen as a daring expedition into the Danelaw undertaken on the orders of Aethelflaed and Edward. It is reasonable to question what sort of powers were thought to accompany these relics to Gloucester, beyond the ubiquitous properties of healing and so on. Oswald’s mythologies connected him with the unification of Northumbria, and Bede had consciously modelled Oswald on Constantine, whose role in a simplified history of European Christianity was 49

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 3.2; 214–19 (hereafter cited as Bede, HE). 50 Bede HE 3.2, 214. 51 Michael D. J. Bintley, Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2015), 91–99. 52 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1.28, trans. and ed. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 81. 53 The news of this discovery is announced throughout all of the cities and towns embraced by the oceans in Elene, lines 967–978.

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


known to vernacular audiences through works like Elene. For this reason, when considering the mythologies that lay behind the establishment of New Minster, we might consider not only the interactions between humans and the physical landscape, including the city’s Roman past, but also the way in which Oswald’s relics were connected with an exogrammar that translated ideas about the unification of kingdoms that were at least as old as Bede’s Historia (another exogram replicated and variously transformed) into this entirely new context. Just as Oswald and Constantine had brought together Northumbria and the Roman Empire beneath the banner of Christ, so too would Aethelflaed and Edward, drawing together Wessex and Mercia through this same set of associations. A similar approach might also be employed in the case of sites that are far more dimly illuminated in the documentary historical record, such as the foundation of the likely seventh-century minster at Folkestone, where the relics of St. Eanswythe, granddaughter of Aethelberht of Kent, were reported to lie in later Latin and Old English sources, some of which credited her with the minster’s foundation. 54 If the seventh-century minster stood in the vicinity of the later priory church, as is thought to have been the case, a number of factors are likely to have influenced its positioning, several of which — as in the case of Minster-in-Thanet and New Minster, Gloucester — are likely to have been direct consequences of its founders’ understanding of the landscape and existing elements within it. If the early medieval church was located here, it would have occupied a prominent position on the West Cliff overlooking the sea, like comparable early churches in Kent at Dover, Richborough, and Reculver. The reasons for this are likely multiple, communicating the power and authority of the Church over the island, but also serving as a point of connection at the edge of this maritime highway with the Church on the Continent in Francia (homeland of Eanswythe’s mother Ymme) and further afield, in Rome. The minster’s relationship with water also seems to have been an important factor in its development, for reasons that were certainly practical, and also likely of symbolic importance. The seventh-century minster at Lyminge, sited near to the earlier complex of royal halls, stood close to the source of the Nailbourne (aka the Little Stour). 55 This river now joins the Great Stour at Plucks Gutter, near Sarre, the point where the two met the Wantsum Channel in the early Middle 54

For the full range of these, see Rollason, The Mildrith Legend, 73–87. Barbara Yorke has recently argued that the minster is more likely to have been founded later in the seventh century, suggesting that those who attributed its founding to her were doing so with the aim of enhancing its antiquity and royal connections. This does not preclude Eanswythe’s potential involvement with early Christianity in Folkestone; see Barbara Yorke, “Queen Bathild’s ‘Monastic Policy’ and the Origins of Female Religious Houses in Southern England,” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 20 (2017): 7–16. 55 Gabor Thomas, “Monasteries and Places of Power in Pre-Viking England: Trajectories, Relationships and Interactions,” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 20 (2017): 97–116, here 97.


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Ages, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent. Water was even more important at maritime Folkestone — a harbor where the presence of any early church, especially if built using Roman stone (like St. Mary in Castro at Dover, which incorporates a Roman pharos), is likely to have been a notable feature from land or sea, as it certainly was by the time J. M. W. Turner came to paint it in the early nineteenth century. Two other channels of water were certainly important at Folkestone by the later Middle Ages: the naturally occurring Pent Stream, which fed into the harbor, and a watercourse revealed by excavation to have carried spring water to the priory church by at least the High Middle Ages. In addition to the minster’s relationship with the sea and other bodies of water, one might also bear in mind its relationship with other pre-existing aspects of the landscape. Some of these are naturally occurring. For people traveling westwards from Dover, and viewing Folkestone from Dover Hill, the twelfth-century church occupies a commanding position in the landscape on the West Cliff, as the chalk of the downs gives way to greensand. Facing it on the East Cliff stood the remains of a Roman villa. Although it is unclear how much of this was still standing in the seventh century, relationships between early churches in Kent and Roman sites and reused building materials are well known. The significance of a site like this at the time of the minster’s foundation is likely to have been a consideration for its builders. Like those who constructed early churches at places like Canterbury, Reculver, and Richborough using reclaimed materials, builders at Folkestone may have used the remains of the villa and other buildings for the benefit of these stones’ associations with Rome, in addition to their availability in the immediate area. 56 Moving down Dover Hill into the town, one passes the pre-Christian sixthand seventh-century cemetery, which seems likely to have been known to the early ecclesiastical community. 57 Even if it had passed out of use, its location may not have passed out of local memory, raising interesting questions about how local people and visitors may have thought about Folkestone’s immediate ancestors. An even deeper past lay beyond this. In addition to considering the minster’s potential relationship with Roman and more recent burial and settlement, the prehistoric imprint on the landscape is noticeable to this day. The chalk ridge of the North Downs is dotted with barrows like the one at Cherry Garden Hill, which is “best regarded as a Bronze Age barrow cemetery with associated secondary Anglo-Saxon inhumations,” 58 and at nearby Lyminge a Bronze Age barrow is thought to have 56 Andrew Richardson, “Late Roman and Anglo-Saxon Folkestone (c ad 300–900),” in Folkestone to 1500: A Town Unearthed, ed. Ian Coulson (Canterbury, Kent: Canterbury Archaeological Trust, 2013), 55–76, here 60. 57 Andrew Richardson, The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of Kent: Volume II (Appendices), BAR British Series 391 (Oxford: BAR, 2005), 36–37, 211–14; also Richardson, “Late Roman and Anglo-Saxon Folkestone,” 60–64. 58 Richardson, “Late Roman and Anglo-Saxon Folkestone,” 63.

Reading Early Medieval Landscape and Environment


been an important consideration in the siting of the hall complex. 59 The diverse and changing responses in the period to prehistoric mounds of various kinds, in addition to other material remains up to and including those of the Romans — which have been discussed by Sarah Semple, Howard Williams, and others — are an equally important consideration when assessing the ways in which those who built and inhabited the minster were thinking about their landscape. 60 Beyond this, perhaps more speculatively, the establishment of the minster raises further questions about the sort of place Folkestone had been before this foundation. At nearby Lyminge, the pre-Christian royal center was succeeded by the minster. Although no material evidence has yet been found to suggest that the minster supplanted a similar center of royal authority in Folkestone, it is not beyond the realms of possibility. The constraints of space necessarily limit discussion of the various ways in which exogrammars of the early medieval landscape affected the establishment of minsters at Gloucester and Folkestone. What I have suggested here, in lieu of fuller exposition, is primarily intended to illustrate how exogrammar might be used to broaden and deepen our understanding of how people interacted with the early medieval landscape. Action in the environment did not take place divorced from texts, because they were fundamentally in and of it, sharing, directing, and determining material engagement on multiple levels.

Conclusions Material Engagement Theory presents a variety of new possibilities for the understanding of human interactions with objects of various kinds and on various scales, including artefacts, architecture, and landscapes. For medievalists, MET’s understanding of the role of exograms as objects external to the human that enable storage and transmission of information that, interacting with the human, constitutes mind, presents a variety of intriguing possibilities for the study of numerous aspects of the medieval world. I have suggested that exogrammar may be a useful way of integrating the study of written sources into this framework, describing a vocabulary shared across exograms that influences human interactions with the material environment — in this case sets of common ideas about, and descriptions of, elements of landscape. Exogrammars, like the things they describe and shape through their impact on humans, are in process. They are not fixed. Exogrammars of cloud 59

Thomas, “Monasteries and Places of Power,” 101. See discussion in (e.g.) Sarah Semple, Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England: Religion, Ritual, and Rulership in the Landscape (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Howard Williams, “Beowulf and Archaeology: Megaliths Imagined and Encountered in Early Medieval Europe,” in The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Europe, ed. Marta Díaz-Guardamino, Leonardo García Sanjuán, and David Wheatley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 77–97. 60


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pour into rivers and lakes before entering oceans. Their use as a conceptual tool for studying the past is their potential to reveal vocabularies (literal, symbolic, and otherwise) shared across exograms, which influenced human interactions with the material world. They do so in a way that offers greater potential parity for those undertaking interdisciplinary work, providing fresh scope for insight into the deeper workings of the extended minds of people in the past and present and the manner in which they, and we, shape minds through the workings of our brains and bodies in the world around us.

Rivers as Critical Boundaries in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and T iTurel: Ecocritical Perspectives in Medieval German Literature Albrecht Classen

Human perception is always co-determined by external, geophysical markers; we need topographic features to orient ourselves in this world if we want to move around it effectively. Mountain tops, hills, valleys, trees, lakes, ponds, and the ocean are important for that purpose. For a person wandering through a flat and meaningless desert landscape with no particular points on the horizon, it is difficult to avoid walking in circles and getting lost. A dense forest also presents such a challenge, especially because the canopy prevents the wanderer from scanning the night sky for the star constellations and then, if there is no cloud cover, gaining some orientation. Medieval literature is filled with examples of protagonists who get lost in a forest and desperately try to gain a sense of location. 1 Bodies of water constitute a closely related phenomenon.


Albrecht Classen, The Forest in Medieval German Literature: Ecocritical Readings from a Historical Perspective, Ecocritical Theory and Practice (Lanham, MD; Boulder, CO; et al.: Lexington Books, 2015); see also the older but still valuable study by Marianne Stauffer, Der Wald: Zur Darstellung und Deutung der Natur im Mittelaltler, Studiorum Romanicorum Collectio Turicensis 10 (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1959). Also very useful is Arnim Schulz, “‘In dem wilden wald’: Außerhöfische Sonderräume, Liminalität und mythisierendes Erzählen in den TristanDichtungen: Eilhart — Beroul — Gottfried,” Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 77.4 (2003): 515–47. As to the notion of tracks and trails, see the more essayistic but impressive book by Roger Moor, On Trails (New York, London, et al.: Simon & Schuster, 2016). Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 21–34.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120892


albrecht classen

Ecocritical approaches in medieval studies have recently drawn our attention to the natural environment as it was experienced and witnessed. While older research tended to view the natural descriptions offered by medieval writers and later scholars as topical and far removed from the material reality, we have begun to differentiate experiences and to recognize the specifically environmental awareness behind even the most stereotypical descriptions in love poetry and paintings. 2 Consequently, we have also realized that such barriers as mountains and rivers were not simply locations dreaded by medieval travelers, surrounded by myth and fantasy. 3 In fact, medieval and early modern literature regularly explored space, as Matthew Boyd Goldie recently emphasized, but that space was also clearly marked by landmarks, barriers, and limits. 4 This chapter examines the function of rivers within the narratological context of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Middle High German works.

Rivers in Medieval Literature Rivers have always represented significant landmarks, orientation lines in the material landscape and on the mental maps of travelers, settlers, warriors, merchants, and countless other people. The ancient Roman world was deeply determined by fluvial concepts, and this was not to change in the following centuries. 5 All 2

Older research on this topic is best represented by Derek Pearsall and Elizabeth Salter, Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World (London: Elek Books; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973). For more recent studies, see Classen, Water in Medieval Literature; Alexander Demandt, Der Baum: Eine Kulturgeschichte, 2nd rev. and expanded edn. (2002; Cologne, Weimar, and Vienna: Böhlau, 2014); and Richard C. Hoffmann, An Environmental History of Medieval Europe, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 3 Lieselotte E. Saurma-Jeltsch, “Der Berg als Bildmetapher in der Kunst des Mittelalters,” Das Mittelalter: Perspektiven mediävistischer Forschung 16.1 (2011): 47–71; Albrecht Classen, “Terra Incognita? Mountains in Medieval and Early Modern German Literature,” [edited to match TOC in book] Heights of Reflection: Mountains in the German Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century, ed. Sean Ireton and Caroline Schaumann, Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012), 35–56. 4 Matthew Boyd Goldie, Scribes of Space: Place in Middle English Literature and Late Medieval Science (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2019). 5 Fluvial Landscapes in the Roman World, ed. Tyler V. Franconi, Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series 104 (Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2017); for the relationship between people and rivers in the modern period, see the contributions to Rivers Lost, Rivers Regained: Rethinking City-River Relations, ed. Martin Knoll, Uwe Lübken, and Dieter Schott, History of the Urban Environment (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017), 1063–64; for rivers in modern-day American history, see James F. Barnett, Jr., Beyond Control: The Mississippi River’s New Channel to the Gulf of Mexico (Jackson: University Press of

Rivers as Critical Boundaries


medieval maps, whether from Hereford in England or Ebstorf in Germany, highlight the major rivers, which could be regarded as arteries of the global body and as extensions of the four rivers flowing from Paradise. 6 Just as the human observer is deeply involved in world-making by projecting personal perceptions onto maps and into travelogues, as Nelson Godman has remarked, 7 poets and others have viewed the actual presence of rivers as barriers, but also as suppliers of countless resources, means of transportation, and physical identifiers. Both in economic and in environmental terms, both concerning their history and identity, people and waterways have always been connected with each other, so it would make good sense to ask how and why rivers figure prominently in some of the major medieval texts. There is no need to highlight all the major rivers that have determined the European landscape and the corresponding cultures, peoples, and nations throughout time, but let us list at least some of the names: the Thames, the Seine, the Rhine, the Danube, the Elbe, the Po, the Arno, the Ebro, the Vistula, the Volga, the Don, and the Dnieper. There is also the Nile, which, though in Africa, figured prominently in the accounts of many European travelers.

Mississippi, 2017); for the situation in South Asia, see Paul Hanasz, Transboundary Water Governance and International Actors in South Asia: The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin, Earthscan Studies in Water Resource Management (London and New York: Routledge, 2018). 6 Anna-Dorothee von den Brincken, Fines Terrae: Die Enden der Erde und der vierte Kontinent auf mittelalterlichen Weltkarten, Monumenta Germaniae Historica 36 (Hanover: Hahn, 1992); Brigitte Englisch, Ordo Orbis Terrae: Die Weltsicht in den Mappae mundi des frühen und hohen Mittelalters, Orbis mediaevalis, Vorstellungswelten des Mittelalters 3 (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2002); Margriet Hoogvliet, Pictura et scriptura: textes, images et herméneutique des Mappae mundi (XIIIe–XVIe siècle), Terrarum orbis 7 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007); Marjo T. Nurminen, The Mapmakers’ World: A Cultural History of the European World Map (Oxford and Havertown, PA: Pool of London, 2015). For significant Arabic perspectives, see Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, “Introduction,” Rivers of Paradise: Water in Islamic Art and Culture, ed. id. (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 1‒26. For the four rivers flowing forth from Paradise, as mirrored in the myth of the Grail, see G. Ronald Murphy, s.j., Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 14, 55, 60, 115, 180‒83, 185‒87, and passim. 7 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1978). See also J. B. Harley, “Maps, Knowledge and Power,” The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments, ed. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, Cambridge Studies in Historical Geography 9 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 277–312; Beat Wolf, Jerusalem und Rom: Mitte, Nabel – Zentrum, Haupt. Die Metaphern ‘Umbilicus mundi’ und ‘Caput mundi’ in den Weltbildern der Qantike und des Abendlands bis in die Zeit der Ebstorfer Weltkarte (Bern, Berlin, et al.: Peter Lang, 2010); Die Ebstorfer Weltkarte, kommentierte Neuausgabe in zwei Bänden, ed. Hartmut Kugler with Sonja Glauch and Antje Willing (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2007).


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Similarly, we would not need to examine all the trading cities and urban centers situated on the banks of rivers, such as London, Marseille, Florence, and Barcelona. Human society and rivers have always enjoyed a close symbiosis, which has been reflected in literary texts. Isidore of Seville (560–636) dedicated an entire chapter to significant rivers, for he regarded them as topographical elements of great importance for human life. 8 Moreover, as these observations indicate, Isidore possessed a global perspective and also knew of many rivers in Asia. Little wonder that subsequent encyclopedists and creators of world maps (mappae mundi) drew from this major reference work, which also included detailed comments on the four rivers flowing from Paradise and thus created an impressive symbiosis of spiritual and material information and interpretations. 9 Rivers have regularly evoked a great diversity of practical considerations as well as mythical and religious concepts, as the situation with the River Rhine powerfully illustrates, perhaps better than any other in medieval Europe. 10 Virtually every aspect of human existence, both religion and the arts, economics and politics, but then also the physical nature of the Rhine and its valley, including the wider Umland, has been of great significance. 11 Every river has a natural and a cultural history, not to mention its economic and political dimension, as numerous studies by ecologists, historians, hydrologists, and geographers have confirmed. 12 With the 8 The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof, with the collaboration of Muriel Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 13.21; 280–82. 9 Brigitte Englisch, “Weltflüsse,” in Burgen, Länder, Orte, ed. Ulrich Müller and Werner Wunderlich, Mittelalter Mythen 5 (Constance: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 2008), 981–96; see also Eva Locher and Thomas Poser, “Fluss, Quelle, Brunnen,” in Literarische Orte in deutschsprachigen Erzählungen des Mittelalters: Ein Handbuch, ed. Tilo Renz, Monika Hanauska, and Mathias Herweg (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2018), 346‒62. 10 Albrecht Classen, “Der Mythos vom Rhein: Geschichte, Kultur, Literatur und Ideologie. Die Rolle eines europäischen Flusses vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart,” MittelalterMythen, ed. Ulrich Müller and Werner Wunderlich, 5 vols. (Constance: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 1999–2008), 5:711‒25. 11 Georg Hölscher, Das Buch vom Rhein: Eine Schilderung des Rheinstromes und seiner Ufer von den Quellen bis zum Meere unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner 2000jährigen Geschichte (Cologne: Hourse & Bechstedt, 1924); see, for instance, Elbe, Rhein und Delaware: Flüsse und Flussübergänge als Orte der Erinnerung, ed. Karl Holl and Hans Kloft (Bremen: edition lumière, 2017); Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Antje Johanning, Mythos Rhein: zur Kulturgeschichte eines Stromes (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 2003). The literature on this topic is legion. 12 See, for example, Heather J. Hoag, Developing the Rivers of East and West Africa: An Environmental History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); Peter Coates, A Story of Six Rivers: History, Culture and Ecology (London: Reaktion Books, 2013); Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted, Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building: A History of the Volga and Mississippi Rivers, Environment in History: International Perspectives 4 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014).


Rivers as Critical Boundaries

focus on the river as the essential artery in the body of an entire world, there are many opportunities for a wide-ranging approach to all those cultural, economic, and historical aspects. This was already true in the Middle Ages, as the contributors to the recent volume on Wasser in der mittelalterlichen Kultur: Gebrauch Wahrnehmung Symbolik have claimed convincingly, and as James L. Smith has explored regarding river metaphors in twelfth-century Cistercian writings. 13 The river is a sort of kaleidoscope, providing resources, a sense of direction, and a cultural identity for those living nearby, especially because every waterway associated with humans has its own history.

Wolfram von Eschenbach This allows me to turn to specific literary examples where we find that the experience with, at, and on a river can have great significance for the narrative development. Topography and narrative strategy interlace thereby, carried by a metaphorical reading of natural phenomena that alert us to the importance of space and liminality. In medieval literature, we come across numerous examples of the individual’s range of operations that determine his or her various stages in life. Transgressing those geophysical borders or limits represents growth into one’s new stage in life. 14 13

Wasser in der mittelalterlichen Kultur: Gebrauch Wahrnehmung Symbolik, ed. Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich, Christian Rohr, and Michael Stolz, Das Mittelalter 4 (Berlin and Boston, MA: Walter de Gruyter, 2017). The range of topics relating to water is so broad and diffuse, however, that it seems almost impossible to gain a better understanding of the central function of water. James L. Smith, Water in Medieval Intellectual Culture: Case Studies from Twelfth-Century Monasticism, Cursor Mundi 30 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017) considers both the significance of running waters for the Cistercian community and the symbolism of the river in a variety of Cistercian texts. He concludes: “Life is fluvial, with the pulsing veins of Earth and the arid and dusty tracks of Mars drawing the snaking line between green, blue, and white, and a dull and baleful red.  .  .  . For twelfth-century monasticism, water in medieval intellectual culture was present within every area requiring pattern, form, energy, and motion, and yet it followed patterns carved by the structural conceits of medieval intellectual culture” (177). 14 Roxanne Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge (Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006). For more theoretical reflections on space and limits, see Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Influence of Symbols on Social Change: A Place on Which to Stand,” in id., Map is not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 129–46; Steele Nowlin, “Between Precedent and Possibility: Liminality, Historicity, and Narrative in Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale,” Studies in Philology 103.1 (Winter 2006): 47–67; Jean Jost, “Urban and Liminal Space in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale: Perilous or Protective?” and Britt C. L. Rothauser, “‘A reuer . . . brighter þan boþe the sunne and mone’: The Use of Water in the Medieval Consideration of Urban Space,” in Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age, ed. Albrecht Classen, Fundamentals


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My primary example is contained in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s famous grail romance, Parzival (ca. 1205), and in the follow-up fragments in Titurel (ca. 1220). In Parzival, the young protagonist is artificially kept by his mother Herzeloyde in a sylvan hermitage, known as Soltane. She is trying to protect him from the dangers of the outside world, where knightly conflicts rage and result in death, as in the case of her own late husband, Gahmuret. 15 She is so grief-stricken that she cannot tolerate the thought that she also might lose her young son, who is growing up and already demonstrates his father’s knightly prowess in embryonic form when he hunts wild animals. Once Parzival learns by accident about King Arthur, he desires nothing else but to join his court and become a knight in shining armor. His mother cannot stop him from attempting this goal, though she tries to make his experience of the outside world as unpleasant as possible, dressing him in foolish garb and giving him enigmatic advice about proper etiquette in the adult world. When he is leaving her, she sinks to the ground and expires, too deeply affected by grief. Parzival does not even turn back when he departs, and he learns of his mother’s death only much later. Very soon, while riding through the forest, he reaches a creek. He does not dare to cross it because his mother had taught him to take care in uncertain waterways: “When riding across country avoid murky fords,” she had cautioned. “Where they are clear and shallow trot in briskly” (75). Wolfram does not inform us specifically about the location of that creek, only that it runs close to the Forest of Brizljan (English Broceliande). From the circumstances as they emerge, we can deduce that on the other side of the creek is the world of King Arthur, or at least the world of courtly and knightly society. Whereas Parzival has only roamed the wilderness of Soltane, never encountering other people and disregarding a group of three knights in hot pursuit of a rapist that inspired him to leave his mother’s home, he suddenly stumbles upon something almost like a locus amoenus, a field with a pitched tent in which lady Jeschute, wife of knight Orilus, is resting. She is all alone there, without her maids. Her husband has departed for knightly adventures, so Parzival has free rein and, closely following his mother’s advice, robs a brooch and a ring belonging to the lady and kisses her twice against her will. He eats enough to satisfy his hunger and then leaves, without committing any sexual offense. However, Jeschute’s husband assumes, when he returns to the tent, that his wife has a lover and has committed

of Medieval and Early Modern Culture 4 (New York and Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 373–94 and 245–72, respectively. 15 Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans. A. T. Hatto (London: Penguin, 1980), from which I quote. For a critical edition of the German text, see Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival: Studienausgabe, Mittelhochdeutscher Text nach der sechsten Ausgabe von Karl Lachmann, Übersetzung von Peter Knecht, Einführung zum Text von Bernd Schirok (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1998).

Rivers as Critical Boundaries


adultery. This leads to a long-lasting sequence of mistreatment and abuse by the husband, all because of Parzival’s foolish behavior. Although Parzival manages to cross the creek at a spot where no foliage darkens the water, following his mother’s advice to wait for the right spot, he does not grasp the real meaning of her words, which she probably formulated in a rather deliberately opaque fashion in order to make him feel like a fool who does not belong in the world of men. This water barrier is only a creek, not a deep, raging river. Nevertheless, despite his long hesitation, he eventually reaches a point where the ford is clear. But even though he is able to enter a new world, he is still a foolish lad when he arrives at the tent, having learned nothing about the adult world. He thus commits a serious transgression that could cost Jeschute her life, considering Orilus’s insecurity, jealousy, and fear. All the imagery employed by Wolfram — the shallow creek, the murky water, the entirely clear crossing — combine to convey the message that young Parzival’s entire existence is limited by the creek or river. Only after he has crossed it can he finally move forward and grow into manhood. Throughout Wolfram’s romance there are many other bodies of water, but none so symbolic as the little stream in this early episode. There does not seem to be any place where crossing would have represented a significant problem, but Parzival only thinks of his mother’s words and thus misreads the simple signs in front of his eyes. He often encounters such epistemological grail questions before he is prepared to ask the critical question that shows his empathy for the current Grail king, Anfortas. After all, Wolfram’s romance basically deals with the quest to redeem the sin of Anfortas and eventually to assume his throne. In this sense, Parzival could be called a Bildungsroman about a young man’s development, a pilgrimage account in knightly terms. The young man has to learn many lessons before he is qualified to ask the crucial question about whom the Grail serves and what ails him. Only then does he solve the issue at the Grail castle and, by extension, the whole world of knighthood. He can only achieve his goal once he has left behind the advice of his childhood teacher and has received spiritual instruction from his uncle, Trevrizent. 16 We cannot overlook the

16 While these observations are not really new in Wolfram research, they deserve attention in the present context with its focus on rivers as epistemological markers. For some of the standard Wolfram research, see Heiko Hartmann, Einführung in das Werk Wolframs von Eschenbach, Einführungen Germanistik (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2015), which includes a good selection of relevant research literature (124–30). Also see Joachim Bumke, Wolfram von Eschenbach, 8th, completely rev. ed., Sammlung Metzler 36 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004); and the contributions to A Companion to Wolfram’s ‘Parzival,’ ed. Will Hasty, Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1999). Many volumes of the famous Wolfram-Studien published by the Wolfram von Eschenbach Gesellschaft contain a bibliographical survey article by Renate Decke-Cornill. A significant bibliography can also be found in Wolfram von Eschenbach: Ein Handbuch, ed. Joachim Heinzle, vol. 2: Figuren-Lexikon,


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symbolic significance of the little creek at the beginning of his career, which proves to be the highly problematic entrance way to the world of King Arthur. There are two other instances in Wolfram’s romance when a river matters critically. Although those are real rivers, each down in a gorge, Parzival still has the fear of transgressing his mother’s teaching. When he approaches the grail castle Munsalvaesche a second time, now much better informed about the expectation that he ask the crucial question, he gets lost in the underbrush and then encounters a Grail knight who challenges him. They engage in a joust, which Parzival wins, though he almost dies in the process. While he manages to kick his opponent off his horse, his own thrust is so strong that he races beyond the rim of a deep gulch, where, as we might assume, a river is running. The unnamed Grail knight falls down into the abyss but gets away without harm. Parzival’s horse tumbles down into the depth and is killed, but the protagonist survives because he manages to climb back up again (227–28). It will still take him a long time to reach his ultimate goal, and maybe the fact that the river valley below him is dry might signal why he cannot proceed further at that point. In his typically ironic fashion, the narrator remarks: Down below him his charger lay dead in the thick undergrowth. The other knight was making all speed to safety up the farther side of the gulley. Had he been intending to share any gain won from Parzival, as matters turned out, the Gral [Grail] back home had more to offer. (228)

Granted, water is apparently missing in the ravine, which the narrator identifies as “eine halden reis” [a trip down the slope”; 9.444; v. 24]. However, the topographical description fits the same pattern insofar as another geological feature prevents the protagonist from proceeding further, still unable to reach the Grail. Whether there is water or not, the narrator might have intentionally contrasted this deep gulch, where death awaits the unfortunate horse, with the shallow creek that Parzival did not dare to cross in his youth. In the course of the romance, rivers, hence borders, gain in significance and become deadly challenges. This finds its reflection also in Gawan’s experience when he is wooing the obstinate and sullen Orgeluse, who challenges him to jump over a canyon in order to reach the magician Clinschor’s garden and to fetch a twig from a tree as a symbol of his defeat of the man who killed her previous lover. 17 beschreibendes Verzeichnis der Handschriften, Bibliographien, Register, Abbildungen (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2011), 1003‒1346. 17 Richard Norbert Wolf, “Die Gestalt Klingsors in der deutschen Literatur des Mittelalters,” Südostdeutsche Semesterblätter 19 (1967): 1‒19; Walter Blank, “Der Zauberer Clinschor in Wolframs ‘Parzival,’” Studien zu Wolfram von Eschenbach: Festschrift für Werner Schröder zum 75. Geburtstag, ed. Kurt Gärtner and Joachim Heinzle (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1989), 321‒32; Timothy McFarland, “Clinschor Wolfram’s Adaptation of the Conte du Graal: The Schastel

Rivers as Critical Boundaries


Defeating Clinschor would give Orgeluse a sense of revenge and redemption, after which she would grant her love to Gawan. The latter does not hesitate to accept the challenge, but his horse does not quite reach the other rim, and both fall into the river — which now is even given a name, Sabins. Gawan and his steed barely survive, but they do, and he manages to enter the garden, fetch a twig, and bring it to his beloved. The story involves another knight, Gramoflanz (actually identified as a king), but the two men quickly find that they share similar interests and can help each other since Gramoflanz is in love with Gawan’s sister, Itonje. At that point, at least, arrangements are made, and peace follows in due course. Gawan returns to Orgeluse, and on his second trial he succeeds in jumping over the gorge: “Gringuljete timed his leap so well and made such ample allowance that Gawan did not come down” (307). Here again the poet has included a river as the critical marker of space and limitations — as a danger to the hero’s life and a catalyst for him to prove his prowess and worthiness as Orgeluse’s lover. Whereas Parzival faces possible death when he falls into the dry ravine during his battle with the guardian of the grail castle, Gawan crosses the river as proof of his true dedication to his beloved. Once he has returned from the garden, she breaks down in tears, reflects on the loss of her husband at the hand of Gramoflanz, and admits her new love of Gawan: “‘My lord,’ said the lovely Duchess amid a flood of tears, ‘when I tell you of the distress that weighs on my heart you will grant that mine is the greater sorrow. Let any I have slighted have the courtesy to pardon it’” (307). In all three instances, the encounter with a body of water indicates the arrival of a critical juncture in the narrative, but at the end there is no more word about a river; instead, once happiness has set in after the protagonists have experienced much sorrow and suffering, tears well up and signal that the happy fulfillment is near. Orgeluse cries upon Gawan’s return from the garden, and Parzival receives the news that the Grail has granted him a second chance to return and to ask the crucial question: “Tears — the heart’s true foundation — streamed from his eyes, so happy was he” (388). When we turn to Wolfram’s last work, the fragmentary Titurel (ca. 1220), we come across yet another episode where a seemingly innocent stream in the forest Marveile Episode,” Chrétien de Troyes and the German Middle Ages: Papers from an International Symposium, ed. Martin H. Jones and Roy Wisbey, Arthurian Studies (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; and London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1993); Stephan K. Maksymiuk, The Court Magician in Medieval German Romance, Mikrokosmos: Beiträge zur Literaturwissenschaft und Bedeutungsforschung 44 (Frankfurt a. M., Berlin, Bern et al.: Peter Lang, 1996); Christopher R. Clason, “The Magic of Love: Queen Isolde, the Magician Clinschor, and ‘Seeing’ in GottfrieJd’s Tristan and Wolfram’s Parzival,” in Magic and Magicians in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Time: The Occult in Pre-Modern Sciences, Medicine, Literature, Religion, and Astrology, ed. Albrecht Classen, Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture 20 (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2017), 291–313.


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matters profoundly, though very differently than in Parzival. Probably composed shortly before his death, Wolfram’s poem picks up a loose narrative strand from Parzival and develops it further, though without creating a comprehensive narrative plot. 18 The first part mostly mirrors the tragic destiny of the Grail family, of whom only young Sigune has survived. She is wooed by the squire Schionatulander, who meets the full approval by the older generation to pursue that goal. The second fragment is situated in the middle of the forest where the couple is enjoying some leisure time, when suddenly a mysterious dog appears, dragging an enormous leash behind him. Schionatulander, who is fishing in a creek, runs after the dog, catches it, and takes it to Sigune, who ties the leash to a tent pole. She begins to read a miraculous text written with gems on the leash with gemstones and learns about dramatic accounts of love and death. Unfortunately, she is too anxious to learn about the continuation of the narrative, loosens the knot to read further, and thus allows the dog, called Gardeviaz (“Guard thy way”), to escape. Schionatulander tries to run after it, but he is not successful this time and has to return by himself. The two lovers lament their physical wounds: Sigune’s palm is bleeding after the leash ran through her hands and caused the gems to cut into her skin; Schionatulander’s feet and ankles are bloody from his attempt to run after Gardeviaz, cut by brambles and tree stumps. While they express their sympathy for each other, she demands that he retrieve the dog so that she can finish reading about those tragic lovers. Even though Schionatulander wants to dismiss those stories, he pledges to carry out her command. Then the text breaks off. Readers of Parzival today, like listeners who enjoyed it in Wolfram’s time, know that the young man will die on this quest, that he is killed by Orilus, who has caught the dog and will not hand it over without a fight. By contrast, in Titurel, readers can only proceed with the hint of tragedy about to occur. This is especially


Wolfram von Eschenbach, Titurel, ed. and trans. with a running commentary and introduction by Helmut Brackert and Stephan Fuchs-Jolie (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2003). Parenthetical references are to stanza and verse. For the English translation, see Wolfram von Eschenbach, Titurel; and, the Songs: Texts and Translations with Introductions, Notes, and Comments, ed. Marion E. Gibbs and Sidney M. Johnson, Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 57, Series A (New York and London: Garland, 1988); for critical approaches, see my study Utopie und Logos. Vier Studien zu Wolframs von Eschenbach “Titurel- Fragmenten, Beiträge zur älteren Literaturgeschichte (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1990); see also Michael R. Ott, “Beschriftetes Brackenseil: eine Hundeleine in Anlehnung an den ‘Titurel’ Wolframs von Eschenbach,” in Leben, Dinge, Texte: Begleitheft zur Ausstellung des Sonderforschungsbereichs 933 “Materiale Textkulturen — Materialität und Präsenz des Geschriebenen in non-typographischen Gesellschaften”: 2. Februar–7. März 2015 im Universitätsmuseum Heidelberg, Kataloge/Universitätsmuseum Heidelberg 10 (Heidelberg: Universitätsmuseum, 2015), 36–37.

Rivers as Critical Boundaries


true because the text begins with a long list of deceased members of the Grail family, which seems close to extinction. 19 What role does the creek play in the second fragment? Is it only a secondary feature of the peaceful forest setting, contributing to the atmosphere of a locus amoenus, or does it matter more significantly? As we have noticed already in Parzival, the seemingly innocuous creek reflects in a variety of ways on the young protagonist’s youthfulness, isolation from the world, inexperience, and strong dependence on his mother, whose words of advice almost made it impossible for him to leave Soltane. In Titurel there is at first no mention of the creek; instead, Schionatulander appears to have rested in the camp before he jumps up and races toward the dog when he hears it barking (134). Although he can catch the beast with its enormous leash, the narrator immediately warns us: “The hound’s leash was indeed for him the source of joyless times” (138.4). Greatly delighted, Sigune turns her full attention to the text on the leash and does not share anything with Schionatulander, who seems to be entirely neglected until the dog manages to escape again. Most significantly, at the very moment when Sigune learns about the love between Duke Ehcunat de Salvâsch (of the flowering wilderness) and Clauditte, who had sent her “wild” lover a “wiltlîchen brief, den bracken” [a wild letter, the dog; 153.2], Schionatulander has withdrawn to his own activity and is standing barefoot in the creek, “catching graylings and trout with an artificial fly” (154.1), as if he has withdrawn from the courtly realm into a natural refuge, dedicated entirely to a leisure activity and clearly removed from his beloved and her avid reading of the mysterious “letter.” Relying once again on his metaphorical language, the narrator sarcastically, if not pathetically, comments that “he landed a loss of joy as well, so that he was never happy afterwards” (154.2–3). The dog, meanwhile, simply follows its own destiny, being part of wild nature and driven by fundamental hunting instincts. Neither Sigune nor Schionatulander understands that, and both ignore the ominous signs that indirectly announce the end of their happiness in this seemingly peaceful setting. She blithely loosens the knot in order to read further, while he has taken off his footwear and is standing barefoot in the creek, hence is not able to run quickly enough after the dog escapes. The narrator surprisingly spends another whole stanza to explain Schionatulander’s activity fishing in the creek, which makes him look vulnerable, helpless, and almost childish: “dâ er stuont ûf blôzen blanken beinen / durh die küele in lûtersnellem bache” [standing with bare white legs in the swift, clear brook to enjoy the coolness; 159.2–3].


This was noted, above all, by Walter Haug, “Erzählen vom Tod her: Sprachkrise, gebrochene Handlung und zerfallende Welt in Wolframs ‘Titurel,’” Wolfram-Studien 6 (1980): 8–24; see also Petrus W. Tax, “Tragische Spiegelungen: Herrschaft und Sukzession, Rang und Stand in Wolframs ‘Titurel,’” Zeitschrift für Deutsches Altertum und Deutsche Literatur 140.1 (2011): 38–57; and Sonja Kerth, “Wolframs Greise: Alter(n) im ‘Parzival’, ‘Titurel’ und ‘Willehalm,’” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 144.1 (2015): 48‒76.


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Just as in the case of young Parzival, the lucidity and crystal transparency of the water proves highly deceptive, a typical feature of Wolfram’s general narrative strategy of using opaque and ambivalent images in order to force his audience to think carefully about the true meaning of his words. 20 Although the narrator does not criticize Schionatulander for his interest in fishing, he places him in the water from which he cannot run fast enough to catch the hound. Hence, when he returns empty-handed, there is nothing left for his beloved to read, except for the bloody stains on her palms and on her lover’s legs. Even though Schionatulander then simply dismisses, maybe foolishly, the significance of such “brievebuoch en franzoys” [books of love letters in French; 164.2] and encourages Sigune to ignore the lost leash, he does not understand how much she is lured into the story of the tragic lovers and simply has to regain the letter. Otherwise, nothing in her life would matter (165–166). As idyllic as the water in the creek appears to be — clear, cool, and transparent, running down at a fast pace — it proves treacherous for Schionatulander, since he has forgotten to stay on guard and is taken by surprise when the dog escapes. As a member of the courtly world he should have known about the nature of hunting hounds, which are almost irrepressible. Then too, it is clear to everyone else that Gardeviaz has escaped from its previous owner, entirely possessed by its huntingand-killing instinct. Finally, the leash itself is an extraordinary object of art, not to mention the text “written” on it. Schionatulander apparently realizes how enthralled Sigune is by the account on the leash, yet he leaves her alone and returns to the creek, taking off his leggings and shoes. He thus almost reduces himself to a childlike state, as young Parzival does in Soltane. Not surprisingly, the young man is incapable of catching the dog and has to return to the camp with only his bloody legs to display. There are now new letters to be read, and this time neither one of the lovers understands how to interpret the implications of the blood red traces on their skin. 21


Ulrike Draesner, Wege durch erzählte Welten: Intertextuelle Verweise als Mittel der Bedeutungskonstitution in Wolframs “Parzival,” Mikrokosmos 36 (Frankfurt a. M. and New York: Peter Lang, 1993); see also Harald Haferland, “Die Geheimnisse des Grals: Wolframs “Parzival” als Lesemysterium?” Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 113 (1994): 23‒51; Larissa Schuler-Lang, Wildes Erzählen ‒ Erzählen vom Wilden: Parzival, Busant und Wolfdietrich D, Literatur | Theorie | Geschichte 7 (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014); esp. regarding Tristan, see 191‒99. 21 Albrecht Classen, “The Dangers and Promises of Reading, Two Medieval Viewpoints: Wolfram von Eschenbach and Geoffrey Chaucer,” Medieval Perspectives, SEMA 12 (1997): 46–63; id., “Reading, Writing, and Learning in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival,” in A Companion to Wolfram von Eschenbach, ed. Hasty (n. 16 above)), 189–202; id., “The Book and the Power of Reading in Medieval High German Literature: Mystery, Enlightenment, Spirituality, and Love,” The Book and the Magic of Reading in the Middle Ages, ed. Albrecht Classen (New York and London: Garland, 1998), 61–97; id., The Forest in Medieval German Literature (n. 1 above),


Rivers as Critical Boundaries

Ironically, the very translucency of the water in the creek contrasts with the cloud that dims Schionatulander’s future life — or, rather, anticipates his early death. While some scholars have emphasized the idealized form of innocent love between these two individuals, others have recognized the deadly pessimism that permeates the entire world of Titurel. To be sure, Sigune’s reading and Schionatulander’s fishing could support either interpretive approach, but in both cases we are confronted with the deeply troubling observation that the creek becomes, just as the dog leash does, a death trap for both, since they fall into a trance of self-absorption and cannot free themselves from their activities (reading and fishing) and are thus prey to the tragedy waiting to happen. 22 In a way, the creek was Schionatulander’s destiny. Because he stepped into it, he could never recover Sigune’s love. He had to die in his desperate quest at Orilus’s hand, as related in Wolfram’s Parzival.

Conclusion We can now conclude with a number of observations predicated not only on Wolfram’s works but also on other contemporary, later medieval, and early modern literary examples. When we pay closer attention, we recognize that many medieval and early modern poets were deeply conscious of the symbolic significance of rivers in their many different contexts. Even though it may be difficult to apply specifically ecocritical perspectives to the various descriptions of rivers, because few of these poets deeply engage with rivers as essential elements within the natural environment, they all pay attention to rivers as significant topographical markers where crucial events take place. Whether we have creeks or mighty rivers, any waterway can prove decisive in the protagonists’ lives, determining the extent to which there is retardation or progress, transformation, or catastrophe. Crossing the water constitutes a life challenge, and only the wise and circumspect know how to survive. Both in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s works and in the Nibelungenlied, for instance, the future is at stake near or in creeks and rivers; this is partially true also in Njál’s Saga and other Icelandic sagas. For Dante in his Inferno, the crossing of the River Styx means entering the lowest levels of hell, and sheer terror fills his heart. In Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptaméron (1558), to cite an early modern example, flooded rivers threaten the lives of women and men going to spas; however, in the fifth story, the ferrywoman demonstrates how rationality, clever strategies, and an energetic approach can help to preserve her own virtue, including her chastity. In short, the appearance of rivers in those various narratives consistently signals that

81–101; Alexander Sager, “Geheimnis und Subjekt in Wolframs ‘Titurel,’” Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 125.2 (September 2003): 267–91. 22 See the useful summary of the various positions by Hartmann, Einführung in das Werk Wolframs von Eschenbach, 80; see n. 19 above.


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great meaning is at stake and that the protagonists are going through major transformations when they reach a river or have to cross it. As fleeting as some of those references to rivers might be in the changing literary contexts, their appearance in those specific moments powerfully underscores the importance of topographical features for the overall text. The creeks and rivers not only delineate a geophysical map but also trace the map of human existence. This ecocritical perspective may be different from the modern one to some degree, but it is critically important for a better understanding of those pre-modern narratives where people interact with their natural environments. Here the aquatic world of creeks, streams, and rivers matters much more centrally than previously assumed. 23 All those waterways serve as crucial elements on the map of human life, often ignored or misunderstood yet always there and carrying meaning — sometimes simply geographic, sometimes esoteric, and often even spiritual, inviting the audience to trace their way to the long-desired goal of all existence.

23 As to the foundational concepts regarding ecocritical thinking, see Thomas von Uexküll, “Introduction: The Sign Theory of Jakob von Uexküll,” Semiotica 89.4 (1992): 279–315; Alfred K. Siewers, “The Green Otherworlds of Early Medieval Literature,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, ed. Louise Westling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 31–44; and Albrecht Classen, “‘Der Wald war sein Schicksal . . .,’ An Ecocritical Reading of the Nibelungenlied,” Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 76.2 (2016): 270– 89; see also the introductory chapter to my Water in Medieval Literature (n. 1 above).

Part II The Medieval World

Feathers and Figuration: Ravens in Old English Literature Todd Preston

In 2015, a widely reported BBC news story circulated in the mainstream press about Gabi Mann, an eight-year-old girl who forged a unique relationship with the crows in her suburban Seattle neighborhood. 1 After she had established a regular routine of feeding these crows, something remarkable began to happen: the crows started leaving small, shiny objects at the feeding station as apparent “gifts” to their benefactor. The girl and her mother further claim to have video that shows a crow returning the mother’s recently lost camera lens cap to the feeding area, specifically in return for the family’s benevolence. While biologists may argue about precisely how to define such animal behavior and its motivations, one thing is clear: these episodes portray an evocative example of the possibilities of interspecies relationships. The possibilities of the relationships between humans and animals have been receiving increasing scholarly scrutiny in the burgeoning field of animal studies. One broad strand of thought in this field interrogates the artificial and somewhat arbitrary distinctions between the human and the animal as conceptual categories. This approach is most often traced back to Jacques Derrida, who questioned the oversimplification of the divide between humanity and animals: “This rupture doesn’t describe two edges, a unilinear and indivisible line having two edges, Man and the Animal in general.” 2 Derrida approached the divide between human 1 Katy Sewall, “The Girl Who Gets Gifts From Birds,” BBC News Magazine, February 25, 2015, 2 Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008), 31. Across the previous four decades, a sampling of other landmark texts in the field of animal studies in the humanities would include Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: HarperCollins, 1975); Margot Norris, Beasts of the Modern Imagination: Darwin, Nietzsche, Kafka, Ernst and Lawrence (Baltimore, MD: Johns

Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 37–51.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120893


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and animal “in complicating, thickening, delinearizing, folding, and dividing the line precisely by making it increase and multiply.” 3 Problematizing the distinction between what is typically categorized as “human” and “animal” opens up new, more nuanced avenues of understanding in both our practical and critical relationships to animals. Another complementary strand of animal studies seeks to consider the animal on its own terms, and not necessarily or primarily through its relationship to humanity. In this approach, an animal can be considered not only as a particular representative of its species but also as an individual. Carey Wolfe, in delineating the development of animal studies in the humanities, notes that “scholars in animal studies, no matter their home disciplines, now appear challenged not only by the discourses and conceptual schemata that have shaped our understanding of and relations to animals but also by the specificity of nonhuman animals, their nongeneric nature.” 4 Such a decentering of the human is particularly informative when applied to animals as found in medieval literature. Wolfe points out that, “As any medievalist or early modern scholar will tell you, the question of the animal assumes, if anything, even more centrality in earlier periods” of history. 5 This is due in no small part to medieval people’s greater interaction and familiarity with these animals. Reassessing the importance of actual animals as an integral part of early medieval life and culture, animal studies seeks to approach these creatures with fresh eyes, forcing us to reconsider our critical approaches to their appearance in art and literature. It is this second avenue of inquiry that informs the current study. In assessing the role of this critical model in approaching medieval literature, specifically, Susan Crane asserts that “human cultures are interspecies systems” and “animal studies contribute to the posthumanist critique of ‘the human’ as an autonomous, privileged, and securely defined category. When the species components of medieval culture are appreciated in their daily, material, and cognitive dimensions,

Hopkins University Press, 1985); Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989); and Carey Wolfe, Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). 3 Derrida, The Animal, 29. 4 Cary Wolfe, “Human, All Too Human: ‘Animal Studies’ and the Humanities,” PMLA 124.2 (2009): 564–75, here 567. 5 Wolfe, “Human,” 564. Other recent key works in animal studies relevant to the medieval period include Dorothy Yamamoto, The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Karl Steel, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio University Press, 2011); and Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2013).

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literary scholarship can move beyond the oversimplifications of the past.” 6 Using this approach to reassess the role of the animal in Old English literature, this study seeks to present a reconsideration of the raven in these texts. Rather than read the birds as mere metaphors for humanity’s fears and struggles, 7 I endeavor to illuminate the complex relationships between the birds and their environment, other animals, and the humans who, wittingly or not, record and represent their respective roles in the ecosystem. Marijane Osborn, in her consideration of the dayraven in Beowulf, asserts that the bird’s “symbolic capacity . . . need not make the Beowulf raven relinquish its status as a real creature in the world of the story, and beyond [it].” 8 By comparing the appearances of the raven in Old English texts to current archaeological and ecological discoveries and theories, we can follow Osborn’s lead and come to see how the raven functions as both real bird and symbol across the Old English corpus, even in some of its more seemingly fantastic appearances. Ultimately, my objective is not to undermine or eliminate figurative readings of the raven in Old English literature but to encourage the possibility of seeing both the real and metaphorical bird simultaneously and to consider how these representations of the raven work together to engender a richer reading of the texts. Before delving into the literature itself, I need to clarify my use of the word “raven” and its Old English form, hrefn. The raven is a member of the corvid family: a group of birds including crows, jays, magpies, and nutcrackers. More specifically, ravens, crows, and rooks belong to the genus Corvus, large-bodied and dark-plumed birds known for their intelligence, wide-ranging (and occasionally off-putting) diets, and distinct vocalizations. In Old English, the words for “raven” are hrefn and, less frequently, hremn. As for the representation of other corvids in Old English, the term for “crow” is crawe and the word for “rook” is hroc. 9 These terms refer to four species of similar corvids that could be found in Anglo-Saxon England and remain extant there today. In what is now referred to as Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), Dale Serjeantson and James Morris identify the current and historical raven species 6

Susan Crane, “Medieval Animal Studies: Dogs at Work,” Oxford Handbooks Online, last modified May 2015, doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935338.013.103. 7 For an example of a largely symbolic reading of ravens in Old English literature, see Sylvia Huntley Horowitz, “The Ravens in ‘Beowulf,’” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 80 (1981): 502–11. 8 Marijane Osborn, “Domesticating the Dayraven in Beowulf 1801 (With Some Attention to Alison’s Ston),” in Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honor of Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., ed. Helen Damico and John Leyerle, Studies in Medieval Culture 32 (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993), 313–30, here 326. See also Thomas Honegger, “Form and Function: The Beasts of Battle Revisited,” English Studies 79 (1998): 289–98. 9 Dictionary of Old English: A to H Online, ed. Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey et al. (Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2016), https://


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as the common raven (Corvus corax) and the sole rook species as C. frugilegus. Further, their archaeological survey of Iron Age and Roman Britain also identifies two insular crow species: the carrion crow (C. corone) and the hooded crow (C. cornix). 10 The archaeological evidence suggests that the Anglo-Saxons’ familiarity with ravens was more than just an effect of the birds’ literary appearances or mythological significance. These birds were common members of the Anglo-Saxon ecosystem, and archaeological sites dated to the period attest to their physical presence throughout early medieval Britain. According to Kristopher Poole and Eric Lacey, “the crow family, in particular the similar-looking ravens, rooks and crows . . . are found on over a quarter of Anglo-Saxon sites.” 11 Ravens and their kin, then, were quite familiar creatures to the Anglo-Saxons. Yet, despite this ready knowledge of corvids, the Anglo-Saxons did not seem to clearly differentiate between the larger species. As Eric Lacey has ably demonstrated in his investigation of the “folk-taxonomy” of corvids in Anglo-Saxon England, “hrefn, hroc, and crawe were seen, to some extent, as the same creature.” 12 He finds fascinating evidence in the literature that some taxonomic distinctions were evident in the representation of the calls of these birds. Ultimately, he asserts that “although it is tempting to translate hroc and crawe with their modern reflexes [the taxonomically distinct rook and carrion or hooded crows], there is no justification for doing so.” 13 Therefore, unless otherwise specified, I will follow suit and use the terms “raven” and hrefn throughout in reference to all Anglo-Saxon corvids. Of course the most common association of the raven in Old English literature is with its scavenging behavior, especially in reference to the fate of human corpses. While ravens are often presented in the literature as forbearers of doom, this framing of the ravens’ behavior privileges the human perspective. In this context, the appearance of the raven is portrayed as if in joyful anticipation of human death. Such a portrayal appears in the Old English Genesis A, just prior to a battle over the rulership of Sodom and Gomorrah: 14 Sang se wanna fugel under deoreðsceaftum, deawigfeðera, hræs on wenan. (1983–1985) 10

Dale Serjeantson and James Morris, “Ravens and Crows in Iron Age and Roman Britain,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30 (2011): 85–107. 11 Kristopher Poole and Eric Lacey, “Avian Aurality in Anglo-Saxon England,” World Archaeology 46 (2014): 400–415, here 403. 12 Eric Lacey, “When Is a hroc not a hroc? When it is a crawe or a hrefn! A Study in Recovering Old English Folk-Taxonomies,” in The Art, Literature and Material Culture of the Medieval World: Transition, Transformation and Taxonomy, ed. Meg Boulton, Jane Hawkes, and Melissa Herman (Dublin: Four Courts, 2015), 138–52, here 151. 13 Lacey, “When Is a hroc not a hroc?” 151. 14 See Genesis 14:1–11.


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under the spear-shafts, in hope of a corpse]. 15

[The dark bird sang dewy-feathered,

The key Old English term here is wenan (in the sense of to hope, expect, or look for). 16 This term implies a desire on the raven’s part for future human conflict. Of course, in reality, the birds themselves likely have no opinion regarding such human machinations. As observant and intelligent creatures, they have simply been conditioned to correlate certain behaviors of possible prey with the likelihood of food availability. Daniel Ratcliffe, former chief scientist for the British Nature Conservancy Council, cites the longstanding observation that ravens likely “learned to follow our early ancestors, as they followed . . . other carnivores, in order to scavenge from their leavings of food.” 17 Of course, whether those leavings of food are discarded table waste or the bodies of the slain would be of little consequence to the raven. That people would find the scavenging of human corpses distasteful is the humans’ problem, not the ravens’. Yet the raven cannot seem to shed its symbolic role as harbinger of death in Old English literature. Its natural scavenging behavior, like its association with scenes of natural or manmade carnage, yields one of the more recognized meldings of the actual and symbolic raven. This has been identified as the animal grouping known as the Beasts of Battle. First identified as a literary topos by Francis Magoun, they typically appear as a triad consisting of the eagle, raven, and wolf. 18 In this context, these animals have come to represent the embodiment of the ravages of war in Old English poetry. While this symbolic grouping occurs in numerous epic Old English poems, including “The Battle of Maldon,” Beowulf, the Old English Exodus, and Judith, among others, “The Battle of Brunanburh” provides a succinct depiction of

15 A. N. Doane, ed., Genesis A: A New Edition, Revised (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2013). All translations from the Old English, poetry and prose, are my own. Elsewhere in Genesis, the raven’s failure to return to Noah’s ark leads the poet to characterize the bird as a “feond” (1447), a fiend or enemy, who scorns Noah in preference for corpses. Doane cites this representation of the raven as participating in the longstanding Jewish midrash of the raven symbolizing contemptuous greed; see Doane, Genesis A: A New Edition, Revised, 337–38. 16 See the online Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary under “wenan,” sense II, http:// 17 Derek Ratcliffe, The Raven: A Natural History in Britain and Ireland (London: T & AD Poyser, 1997), 8. 18 Francis P. Magoun, Jr., “The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 56 (1955): 81–90. See also M. S. Griffith, “Convention and Originality in the Old English ‘Beasts of Battle’ Typescene,” Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993): 179–99; Judith Jesch, “Eagles, Ravens and Wolves: Beasts of Battle, Symbols of Victory and Death,” in Judith Jesch, The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2002): 251–80.


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these animals’ appearance and function. In the wake of the Anglo-Saxon triumph over the Vikings, the poet relates that the victors Leton him behindan hræw bryttian sealwig-padan, þone sweartan hræfn, hyrned-nebban, and þone hasu-padan, earn æftan hwit, æses brucan–– grædigne guþ-hafoc, and þæt græge deor, wulf on wealde. (60–65) 19 [They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses, the dark-coated one, the black raven, the horny-beaked one, and the grey-coated one, the eagle white from behind, to eat of the carrion, greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal the wolf in the wood.]

As early as the Beasts of Battle were recognized as a typological unit, critics also acknowledged that these creatures are “part fact and part fiction,” 20 and most modern readers would be readily familiar with the raven and wolf as real-world scavengers. The most likely species of the “Brunanburh” eagle, the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), is cited by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as a “versatile and opportunistic hunter and carrion feeder” and thus would be another scavenger recognizable to the Anglo-Saxons. 21 However, literary criticism most often treats these creatures as a typological unit, not as individuated animals. In fact, Joseph Harris notes that “the phrase ‘beasts of battle’ would itself now probably be felt as an allusion to Oral Theory by most Old English scholars.” 22 As a result, an appreciation of the seemingly obvious natural scavenging behavior of the eagle, raven, and wolf appears to have been subsumed by the critical approach associated with their collocation in a poetic context. Yet reading these creatures as abstractions belies their identities and function as actual animals, and it obscures the Anglo-Saxons’ connection to the natural world through them. This is not to say that animals in Old English literature are 19

John C. Pope, ed., Eight Old English Poems, prepared by R. D. Fulk, 3rd edn. (New York: Norton, 2001). 20 Eric G. Stanley, “Old English Poetic Diction and the Interpretation of The Wanderer, The Seafarer and The Penitent’s Prayer,” Anglia 73 (1955): 413–66, here 443. 21 Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, “White-tailed Eagle,” uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/white-tailed-eagle/. 22 Joseph Harris, “Beasts of Battle, South and North,” in Source of Wisdom: Old English and Early Medieval Latin Studies in Honour of Thomas D. Hill, ed. Charles D. Wright, Frederick M. Biggs, and Thomas N. Hall, Toronto Old English Studies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 3–25, here 4.

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always to be read in a strictly literal sense. While many literary appearances of animals quite obviously serve a metaphorical function, they may also reveal real behaviors and relationships between species, when the text provides relevant ecological detail. A closer look at the particulars of the raven’s actual consumption of human dead as it is portrayed in Old English literature can begin to show how the symbolic and the naturalistic interrelate. The Exeter Book’s gnomic poem “The Fortunes of Mortals” provides one of the more detailed descriptions of the raven’s consumption of the human dead. At first glance, it appears to fully participate in perpetuating the bird as, first and foremost, a symbol of death: Sum sceal on geapum galgan ridan, seomian æt swylte, oþþæt sawl-hord, ban-cofa blodig, abrocen weorþeð. Þær him hrefn nimeþ heafod-syne, sliteð salwig-pad sawelleasne; noþer he þy facne mæg folmum biwergan, laþum lyft-sceaþan, biþ his lif scæcen, ond he feleleas, feores or-wena, blac on beame bideð wyrde, bewegen wæl-miste. (33–42) 23 [One must ride on the broad gallows, to hang in death, until his soul-hoard, his bloody bone-coffer comes to be broken. There the raven seizes his eyeball, the dark-coated one tears the soulless one; neither can he defend himself from that evil with his hands, from the hated sky-robber, his life is departed, and he is without feeling, despairing of spirit, pale on the beam, he waits for his fate, surrounded by the mist of death.]

The gruesome details of the raven coming to feast seem engineered to cast the bird as villainous. It feeds only after its victim’s “ban-cofa blodig, abrocen weorþeð” (“bloody bone-coffer comes to be broken”), and specifically exploits the corpse’s defenselessness as it “nimeþ heafod-syne” (“seizes his eyeball”). In this scene, the human is cast as defenseless victim, while the raven takes the role of an actively ill-willed tormentor. In actuality, here too is simply a natural behavior of the raven distorted through the lens of human perception. The raven comes to its feeding choices and behaviors 23

Robert E. Bjork, ed., Old English Shorter Poems, vol. 2, Wisdom and Lyric, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 32 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 58.


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biologically, not by dint of some elemental character flaw. The key to ravens’ feeding behavior is opportunism, which means acquiring the most readily accessible parts of larger potential food items. Thus, in relation to human corpses as a possible food source, ravens would be attracted to the easiest-to- obtain morsels, namely the soft tissue of the eyes and exposed viscera. This correlates well with their feeding behavior as observed with other large mammals. As Ratcliffe notes, “While ravens remove the eye and the tongue of a dead sheep or other large animal — as they habitually do first — entering the main carcass is more difficult.” 24 The raven’s behavior in the poem, then, follows the natural order: first, it “nimeþ heafod-syne” (“seizes the eyeball”). It cannot avail itself of further sustenance form the corpse until the “ban-cofa blodig, abrocen weorþeð” (“bloody bone-coffer comes to be broken”). These conditions and actions are in keeping with the raven’s natural feeding process. As ornithologist Thomas Sherry explains, “lacking the built-in tools of raptors to kill hide-bound animals, . . . ravens cannot open carcasses and therefore need other predatory animals to do so.” 25 In the case of these lines in “The Fortunes of Mortals,” the predatory animal is another human. On the surface, the poem posits the raven as an active enemy, a “laþum lyftsceaþan” (“hated sky-robber”), for its corpse-rending behavior. Yet once the reader decenters the human corpse as the raven’s victim and considers the context of the bird’s behavior in light of the rest of the poem, the symbolic bird fades from view even as the actual animal steps forth. Lindy Brady suggests just such a reading by recognizing that, while “the ravens that tear at this corpse [seem to] further indict nature as the agent of destruction .  .  . only a man could hang another from the gallows.” 26 If we follow Brady’s thesis that the poem “displaces human agency for its gruesome fates onto the natural landscape,” 27 the text comes into focus as less an indictment of the raven’s natural behavior and more about the human violence that set the stage for it. The raven in secular epic and wisdom poetry can serve not only as a shadowy symbol of death but also as a realistic reminder of the wages of humanity’s violence against its own. The Old English hagiography is another genre where a reconsideration of the relationships between animals and humanity yields particularly rich readings. Saints’ lives have long been acknowledged as a means by which the Church could bridge the gap between Christian doctrine and a lay audience. Fundamentally, one object of vernacular hagiography was “to make the Christian devotions of the


Ratcliffe, The Raven, 94. Thomas W. Sherry, “Avian Food and Foraging,” in The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology, ed. Irby J. Lovette and John W. Fitzpatrick, 3rd edn. (West Sussex: Wiley & Sons, 2016), 265–312, here 272. 26 Lindy Brady, “Death and the Landscape of The Fortunes of Men,” Neophilologus 98 (2014): 325–36, here 333. 27 Brady, “Death and the Landscape,” 333. 25

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liturgical year comprehensible to a lay audience.” 28 Ælfric of Eynsham explicitly cites this function of hagiography in summarizing his Passio of St. Edmund: “Crist geswutelaþ mannum þurh his mæran halgan þæt he is ælmihtig God þe macað swilce wundra” (“Christ makes known to men, through his great saints, that He is almighty God who makes such wonders”). 29 The process of establishing the accessibility of hagiographies was often accomplished through presenting the saints therein, despite their sanctity, in recognizable settings and situations. Clare Lees confirms this notion, stating, “the local and the historically particular are connected intimately, that is to say, theologically, to the expansive and the universal” in saints’ lives. 30 Just as Ælfric establishes the role of hagiography in his Passio of St. Edmund, so too does he make the connection between hagiography and the importance of location when he notes that, aside from the king, “Synd eac fela oðre on Angelcynne halgan þe fela wundra wyrcað, swa hit wide is cuð þam ælmihtigan to lofe, þe hi on gelyfdon” (“There are also many other saints among the English who perform many miracles, as it is widely known, to praise the Almighty, in whom they believed”). 31 Hugh Magennis recognizes the local function of hagiographies as being part of “a coherently conceived pastoral mission, contributing also to a sense of national identity.” 32 Therefore, Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives provide a place of close association between place and subject and, by extension, a fertile site for a study of the relationship between saints and the animals in their native local environments. Thus the vernacular prose hagiographies of Anglo-Saxon saints are sites of particularly striking portrayals of the interaction between these sanctified people and animals because of the relative geographic and temporal proximity of the saints’ hagiographies to their immediate audiences. The saints’ interactions with the animal kingdom can provide an immediately recognizable element to the tales of these holy men and women, aiding the hagiographies’ didactic aims. Yet even here, the relationship between the natural world and the saint is too often seen as more symbolic than actual. Dominick Alexander gives voice to a common critical interpretation of animals in hagiographies, stating that the “animals 28

Michael Lapidge, “Ælfric’s Sanctorale,” in Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 115–29, here 115. 29 Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, Aelfric’s Lives of Saints: Being a Set of Sermons on Saints’ Days Formerly Observed by the English Church, ed. W. W. Skeat, Early English Text Society o.s. 76, 82, 94, 114 (London: Trübner, 1881–1900; repr. London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 334. 30 Clare Lees, “In Ælfric’s Words: Conversion, Vigilance and the Nation in Ælfric’s Life of Gregory The Great,” in A Companion to Ælfric, ed. Hugh Magennis and Mary Swan, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 18 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 271–96, here 273. 31 Ælfric, Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, 332, 334. 32 Hugh Magennis, “Approaches to Saints’ Lives,” in The Christian Tradition in AngloSaxon England: Approaches to Current Scholarship and Teaching, ed. Paul Cavill (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004), 163–83, here 166.


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of miracle stories cannot be taken as straightforward representations of the natural world. They are apt to be associated with metaphors, whether theological or folkloric in origin.” 33 Although there are a great number of saints’ lives where animals play such symbolic roles, divorced from their ecological realities, closer inspection reveals a significant departure from this primarily figurative depiction of wildlife when considering the Anglo-Saxon prose saints’ lives. In these texts, animals are not always entirely symbolic. Rather, their representation often hinges on some aspect of a naturalistic portrayal. By presenting animals in more recognizable contexts and displaying (at least at times) species-specific naturalistic behavior, the hagiographies employ animals as individuated creatures as part of the hagiographer’s mission to create a miraculous narrative that is still relevant to his audience. Such an interweaving of the natural and the miraculous becomes especially clear in the case of the raven, particularly in light of recent ecological research. While Michael Bintley and Thomas Williams rightly cite “the raven’s ambiguous symbolism (either of triumph or impending doom),” 34 its appearance as a “beast of battle” also hinges upon its readily observable scavenging behavior. Despite the natural behavior apparent in the Old English texts, literary scholarship often privileges a reading of the raven as an element of a topos rather than as a distinct animal. However, some particularly curious raven behavior in hagiography brings the actual animal into sharper focus. As Eric Lacey points out, “allowing for naturalistic details does not undermine the bird’s potential for literary significance, but can in fact contribute to it.” 35 Two Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives serve as cases in point. In the Old English prose life of Saint Guthlac, the holy man is pestered on his island retreat by thieving ravens. The narrator explains, “Wæron on þam ylcan yglande twegen hrefnas gewunode, to þæs gifre, þæt swa hwæt swa hi mihton gegripan, þæt hi þæt woldon onweg alædan” (“There were on that same island two ravens dwelling, so greedy, that whatever they could grab, they would carry it away”). 36 In one particular incident, a guest of Guthlac’s writes on a sheet of paper, and, when he leaves the room, “Ða com þær sum hrefen inn; sona swa he þa cartan geseah, þa genam he hig sona and gewat mid on þæne fenn” (“Then a raven came in; as soon as he saw the paper, then he immediately took it and departed with it into the fen”). 37 Although the paper seems to be irretrievably lost, Guthlac instructs 33

Dominick Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 14. 34 Michael Bintley and Thomas Williams, eds., Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon Studies 29 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2015), 10. 35 Eric Lacey, “Beowulf ’s Blithe-Hearted Raven,” in Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia, ed. Michael D. J. Bintley and Thomas J. T. Williams, Anglo-Saxon Studies 29 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2015), 113–30, here 119. 36 Das Angelsächsische Prosa-Leben des Heiligen Guthlac, ed. Paul Gonser, Anglistische Forschungen 27 (Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1909), 100–173, here 142. 37 Prosa-Leben des Heiligen Guthlac, ed. Gonser, 140–41.

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his guest to follow the raven into the fen, where the guest later remarkably recovers the text. In another instance, the stolen item is a glove. According to the narrative, the abbot Wilfred brings the Mercian nobleman Æthelbald to Guthlac’s retreat to visit the famous saint. When Wilfrid remembers that he left his gloves on the boat, the company goes outside to find “þone hræfn mid þan sweartan nebbe þa glofe teran uppe on anes huses þæce” (“the raven with that black bill tearing at the glove up on the house’s thatch”). 38 Guthlac scares off the bird, only to encounter three new visitors, who “þa brohton hi forð ane glofe, sædon, þæt heo of anes hrefnes muþe feolle” (“then brought forth another glove, and said that it fell from another raven’s mouth”). 39 As for his relationship with these thieving ravens, “he þeahhwæþere heora gifernysse ealle æbær and geþolode, þæt he eft sealde mannum bysene his geþyldes” (“he nevertheless bore and endured all their greediness, so that he afterwards might give to men an example of his patience”). 40 Here the hagiography’s mission of imparting a Christian moral through the example of the saint’s actions (in this case, forbearance in the face of adversity) is made plain. Similarly, in Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies, Saint Cuthbert is also a victim of these larcenous birds. When he attempts to grow grain, “Þa woldon hremmas hine bereafian æt his gedeorfum” (“then would ravens rob him at his labor”), and the birds even “his hus tæron mid heardum bile and to neste bæron heora briddum to hleowðe” (“tore [the thatch of] his house with their hard bills, and bore it to their nest, as a shelter for their young”). 41 As opposed to Guthlac’s relative patience with the birds, Cuthbert “afligde of ðam eðele mid anum worde” (“drove them [the ravens] from the place with a word”). 42 Despite the saints’ divergent reactions to these kleptomaniacal ravens, the birds are often similarly interpreted as largely symbolic obstacles over which the saints must prevail through their devotion. David Salter proposes just such an approach to both hagiographical texts and romances, stating, “through their depictions of animals, medieval writers were able to reflect upon their own humanity, as well as [clarify] . . . the meaning of more abstract values and ideas . . . that were central to the culture of the time.” 43 In this view, nature is merely a mirror humanity holds up to itself, without an interior life of its own. While it is quite possible that the ravens might be taken to be functioning in this largely symbolic role merely as generic non-human obstructions for the saint to surmount, these birds were also performing a specific, recognizable natural behavior of corvids known as neophilia. Biologist Bernd Heinrich specializes in the study 38

Prosa-Leben des Heiligen Guthlac, ed. Gonser, 144. Prosa-Leben des Heiligen Guthlac, ed. Gonser, 145. 40 Prosa-Leben des Heiligen Guthlac, ed. Gonser, 142. 41 Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The Second Series, Text, ed. Malcolm Godden, Early English Text Society Supplementary Series 5 (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), 81–91, here 86. 42 Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, ed. Godden, 86. 43 David Salter, Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2001), 7. 39


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of ravens and observes that they “are generally well-known for their attraction to novel inorganic objects” and have “an extraordinarily large tendency for object play by which they sample the environment.” 44 The implied repetition of the ravens’ thieving behavior is explained by Heinrich’s further observation regarding neophilia: “once access to [a resource] has been achieved, the birds immediately begin to haul off one load . . . after another.” 45 In both cases, what at first appears to be a remarkable interspecies conflict, fitting for a tale of miracles, becomes more clearly located in an ecological context. Recognizing the ravens’ behavior as natural, as well as figurative, renders the animals as individuated and recognizable as fellow creatures in the environment, rather than merely as abstract obstacles to the saints. A lay Anglo-Saxon audience could hear these stories and understand the ravens as a symbol of nature’s challenge to humanity, but they could also very well recognize the specificity of corvid behavior, making the saints’ stories more real to them than they otherwise might be. While the ravens’ kleptomania may well have been a fairly common natural behavior apparent to the hagiographer’s audience, the reaction of Cuthbert’s ravens to his banishment of them might appear more distinctly miraculous. Discovering the ravens’ theft of his thatch, Cuthbert banishes the birds “with a word,” and they summarily depart. Soon after Cuthbert drives the ravens off, one returns, “þearle dreorig” (“exceedingly sad”) and “fleah to his foton friðes biddende þæt he on ðam lande lybban moste” (“flew to his foot, asking that he may live in that land”) alongside the saint. 46 When Cuthbert grants the ravens forgiveness and sanctuary, the birds returned “and brohton ðam lareowe lac to medes, swines rysl his scon to gedreoge” (“and brought to the teacher a gift as reward, swine’s fat to oil his shoes”). 47 Initially, this appears to be outright anthropomorphism, granting the ravens feelings and behaviors they could not possibly have. But this too falls into an anthropocentric reading of the text that Jeffrey Cohen categorizes as “ignoring what might occur between animals and humans, what processes, desires, identities might circulate in the interspace where animal and human differences come together or come apart.” 48 Zoologists John Marzluff and Tony Angell are a pair of the growing number of researchers recording and analyzing gift exchange between corvids and humans. As Marzluff and Angell put it, “reciprocity may not be a practice exclusive to humans. The ability to quickly associate behavior with reward that is so prevalent in corvids may underlie their innovative behavior. Leaving gifts

44 Bernd Heinrich, “Neophilia and Exploration in Juvenile Common Ravens, Corvus corax,” Animal Behaviour 50 (1995): 695–704, here 695 and 703. 45 Bernd Heinrich, “Conflict, Cooperation, and Cognition in the Common Raven,” Advances in the Study of Behavior 43 (2011): 189–237, here 208. 46 Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, ed. Godden, 86. 47 Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, ed. Godden, 86. 48 Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, 42.

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suggests that crows understand the benefit of reciprocating acts.” 49 What at first glance, and at face value, may seem to be yet another example of what Alexander identifies as a hagiographic “obedience story” in which “ wild animals are tamed and shamed by the virtue of the saint” 50 may simultaneously be a description of naturalistic corvid behavior that would be recognizable to a lay Anglo-Saxon audience, therefore making the seemingly miraculous events of the story more recognizable and relatable to them. A secondary question in this episode is the gift itself: “swines rysl” (“swine’s fat”). That a raven would be interested in such an item is not surprising. In his field experiments on raven feeding behavior and social hierarchy, Heinrich provided a large meat-pile over which he could observe how low-status birds feed differently in the presence of both low- and high-status conspecifics. Despite the fact that there was about 150 pounds of meat, the subject raven “began eating fat. She hacked off gob after gob and swallowed each one.” 51 After negotiating an incursion of higher-status birds, she returned to eat “fat only, although there was plenty of muscle meat.” 52 While this was an observation of a single animal, Marzluff and Angell also record feeding behavior in which ravens “at a large mammal carcass in winter fly continuously from the feast with their mouths overflowing with fat and meat.” 53 Moreover, these researchers have observed how “southern crows appear to clean lice and ticks from feral hogs. . . . To do so, they clamber about, over, and under sleeping piglets, [and] walk on full-grown hogs.” 54 These dietary predilections and ready association with swine may go a long way toward explaining how a raven ended up with a beak full of pig’s fat. Adding these observations to Marzluff and Angell’s hypothesis of corvid gifting might ultimately explain the thatch-for-fat exchange in Cuthbert’s tale as simultaneously miraculous and commonplace. On the one hand, the raven’s deference can clearly be taken as a symbol of God and the saint’s power over nature. On the other, the incident can be read as a surprising, but not truly unnatural, description of an interspecies relationship. This same pattern of the superimposition of the miraculous and the naturalistic holds true for Old English translations of Latin hagiographies. The depiction of the raven in the life of St. Benedict, as described in Pope Gregory I’s Dialogues, provides a clear parallel to the Anglo-Saxon hagiographies. In this version of the saint’s life, Benedict befriends a raven: “Soþlice an hrefn wæs gewunod, þæt he com of þam neahwuda symle to his gereordungtide & onfeng hlaf æt his handa” (“Truly, 49 John Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 114. 50 Alexander, Saints and Animals, 90. 51 Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven: An Investigation into the Mind of the Raven (New York: Cliff Street Books and HarperCollins, 1999), 16. 52 Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, 20. 53 Marzluff and Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, 228. 54 Marzluff and Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, 238–39.


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a raven was accustomed such that he always came from the nearby woods for his mealtime and took a loaf at his hands”). 55 When one of Benedict’s rivals tries to poison the saint with tainted bread, the saint orders the raven to dispose of it. The raven then puts on a remarkable display of resistance to the saint’s directive: “Se hrefn þa mid openum muðe & mid aþenedum fiðerum ongann yrnan hoppetende & crakettan ymbutan þone ylcan hlaf, swilce he openlice cwæde, þæt he him hyran wolde ond swa þeh his hæse gefyllan ne mihte” (“Then the raven, with open mouth and extended wings, began to run about hopping and croaking around the same loaf; likewise he openly called, as if he wished he could obey him and as though he could not fulfill his command”). 56 Ultimately, Benedict compels the raven to obey, and the bird complies, safely removing the poisoned bread. This remarkable display can certainly be read as an example of Alexander’s “obedience story, where nature acts for the saint’s convenience” 57 and the raven is bent to the saint’s will as an example of God’s power and the saint’s sanctity. While this behavior may represent the power of the divine over the natural world, it also has a natural analogue. Heinrich observed this same behavior, which he terms “neophobia,” among wild ravens. When approaching a new food item, “the raven almost always made sudden violent vertical leaps assisted by one or more wing beats. It then approached a few more steps and again repeated the leaps . . . where it continued to jump up and down in a seeming ‘dance’ that sometimes lasted several minutes.” 58 Elsewhere Heinrich has observed how ravens treat unfamiliar food items “hesitatingly, opening their bills in fright and performing what looked like numerous jumping jacks.” 59 This behavior is often accompanied by raucous calling, as “the presentation of novel objects close to the feeding sites lead to an increase in ‘haa’ call rates before feedings.” 60 Even the extension of the wings may indicate “a submissive display with . . . neck pulled in, wings lowered, and tail vibrating. This

55 Bishop Werferth of Worcester, Bischof Wærferths von Worcester Übersetzung der Dialoge Gregors des Grossen, ed. Hans Hecht, 2 vols., Bibliothek der Angelsächsischen Prosa 5 (Leipzig: Wigand; Hamburg: Grand, 1900, 1907; repr. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1965), 1:118. 56 Werferth, Übersetzung der Dialoge Gregors des Grossen, 118. Here Werferth provides a close translation of his Latin source. See S. Benedicti, Opera omnia, ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina 66 (Paris: Migne, 1866), 148: “Tunc corvus aperto ore, expansis alis circa eumdem panem coepit discurrere, crocitare, ac si aperte diceret, et obedire se velle, et tamen jussa implere non posse.” 57 Alexander, Saints and Animals, 76. 58 Bernd Heinrich, “Why Do Ravens Fear Their Food?” The Condor 90 (1988): 950–52, here 950–51. 59 Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, 189. 60 Georgine Szipl and Thomas Bugnyar, “Craving Ravens: Individual ‘Haa’ Call Rates at Feeding Sites as Cues to Personality and Levels of Fission-Fusion Dynamics?” Animal Behavior and Cognition 1 (2014): 265–80, here 272.

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is the raven’s extreme entreating display saying ‘Please . . .’ (‘. . . let me feed,’ ‘. . .let me mate,’ ‘.  .  . don’t pick on me,’ depending on context).” 61 While every one of the raven’s behavior described in the Dialogues may be read as a sign of the raven’s miraculous submission to the saint’s power over nature, they also directly map on to natural behaviors of a stressed corvid. The specificity of the bird’s reactions to this new, dangerous food item would be recognized by anyone who had spent much time around ravens, as the archaeological and literary evidence suggests the AngloSaxons had. Thus, the remarkable behavior of this bird could serve as an important point of entry for an Anglo-Saxon audience of this continental saint’s life. Seeing the ravens as real animals does not subvert the spiritual mission of these hagiographical texts but can actually enhance it. These ravens of the Anglo-Saxon hagiographies, with their thieving ways and curious attempts at reconciliation, may well serve a symbolic function in demonstrating the saints’ God-given power over the natural world. At the same time, these behaviors also could be immediately recognizable as that of actual animals observed at first hand by the native, local audience. Presenting the ravens as enacting recognizable animal behavior might well have served to ground the miraculous text in an ecosystem familiar to the Anglo-Saxon audience. Reconsidering the ravens of these texts with an eye towards ecological relationships reveals their function to be as co-inhabitants of an ecosystem rather than as strictly metaphorical and literary constructs. As such, the saints’ miraculous stories might then have been more readily integrated into the worldview of the Anglo-Saxons, thanks to the recognizable behavior of the ravens. For the lay audience, the details of the natural world provide an identifiable background to the hagiographies, making them more comprehensible and relatable. A survey of the appearance of the raven in Old English literature reaffirms that the bird can and does serve a typological purpose, as many critics have attested. These animals unmistakably can function as metaphors for death and the ravages of war or, through their servitude, as living examples of God’s power over nature. In these roles, these animals function as relatively undifferentiated symbols against which humanity defines itself. However, to limit our critique of the ravens’ appearance in Old English literature to the formulaic or thematic does a disservice to both the texts and the animals themselves. What I have sought to do here is suggest a reading of the raven that, when the specifics of their representation merit it, posits that the bird can function simultaneously as a symbol as well as a species-specific naturalistic representation of the animal. An examination of these birds in Old English literature through the lens of animal studies, as individuated creatures who function as discrete members of an ecosystem that interacts with both humans and human culture in complex ways, enables a reassessment of the raven that provides a deeper understanding of the intersections of the literary and the ecological, the metaphorical and the biological. 61

Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, 271.

Nature as Worshiper: Reading “The Song of the Three Children” in the Old English Daniel and azarias Emma Knowles Bletsige þec, bilwit fæder, woruldsceafta wuldor and weorca gehwylc, heofonas and englas and hluttor wæter, and eal mægen eorþan gesceafta. 1 (Azarias 73–76) [Merciful Father, may the glory of the created world and each of its works bless you, the heavens and angels and clear water, and all the virtue of the created world.]

These lines from the Old English poem Azarias 2 call on both humans and nonhumans to praise and worship God and, in doing so, construct links between humanity and nature. They begin the “Song of the Three Children” section in the poem, an adaptation of a deuterocanonical hymn from Chapter 3 in the biblical book of Daniel that also circulated separately as the canticle Canticum trium


All quotations from Azarias and Daniel are taken from R. T. Farrell, ed., Daniel and Azarias, Methuen’s Old English Library (London: Methuen, 1974). I have occasionally changed Farrell’s punctuation. Line numbers are given in text. Translations are my own after consulting Daniel Anlezark, ed. and trans., Old Testament Narratives, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 7 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). 2 Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501 (hereafter the Exeter Book). While there have been arguments made to rename the text, I have opted to use its more traditional name. See Paul G. Remley, “Daniel, the Three Youths Fragment and the Transmission of Old English Verse,” AngloSaxon England 31 (2002): 81–140, here 82. Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 53–69.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120894


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puerorum [Song of the three children]. 3 The youths sing it as they stand in the flames of the furnace to which King Nebuchadnezzar has confined them, glorifying God and calling on the angels, humanity, and various aspects of the created world to bless him too. The hymn was “one of the most popular lyrical pieces of the medieval church,” 4 sung as part of the monastic office on a Sunday during Lauds, 5 and would have been familiar to “many if not most Anglo-Saxon Christians.” 6 This popularity is evident in the Anglo-Saxon context by its presence not just in Azarias but also in the more-developed (and likely older) poem Daniel, 7 an Old English versification of the first five books of the biblical Daniel. 8 In addition, as well as being repeatedly included in psalters — the “commonest book in AngloSaxon times” 9 — the “Three Children” found its way, in part (and in a runic form), onto the recently discovered Honington Clip, 10 as well as into popular charms such as Against Elf-Shot. 11 It was a widely known aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture. This popularity implies that the positive attitude to the natural world reiterated in the hymn, which presents the non-human as an equal partner with humanity when acting with the common purpose of praising God, was known and accepted amongst Anglo-Saxon Christians. In the discussion that follows, I analyze the implications


Paul G. Remley, Old English Biblical Verse: Studies in “Genesis,” “Exodus” and “Daniel,” Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 16 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 336 n. 7. 4 Remley, Old English Biblical Verse, 370. 5 Jesse D. Billett, The Divine Office in Anglo-Saxon England, 597– c. 1000, Subsidia Henry Bradshaw Society 7 (Woodbridge, Surrey, and Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2014), 16–19. 6 Remley, Old English Biblical Verse, 370. On the lay connection, see M. Bradford Bedingfield, The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon Studies 1 (Woodbridge, Surrey, and Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2002), 20–25. It remains in use today, for example as part of the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours and in Anglican common worship. 7 On the dating of these poems, see below. 8 On the unity of Daniel and its relationship with the biblical text, see Robert T. Farrell, “The Structure of the Old English Daniel,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 69 (1968): 533–59; Robert E. Bjork, “Oppressed Hebrews and the Song of Azarias in the Old English Daniel,” Studies in Philology 77.3 (1980): 213–26; and Earl R. Anderson, “Style and Theme in the Old English Daniel,” English Studies 68.1 (1987): 1–23. 9 Kenneth Sisam and Celia Sisam, eds., The Salisbury Psalter, Early English Text Society o.s. 242 (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 75. 10 John Hines, “The Benedicite Canticle in Old English Verse: An Early Runic Witness from Southern Lincolnshire,” Anglia 133.2 (June 2015): 257–77, here 264. For more on the Honington Clip, see below. 11 Phyllis Portnoy, “Weekly Weather from the Anglo-Saxon Psalter: Rainfall and Dewfall in Picture and Prayer,” in The Daily Lives of the Anglo-Saxons, ed. Carole Biggam, Carole Hugh, and Daria Izdebska, Essays in Anglo-Saxon Studies 8; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 518 (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS Press, 2017), 241–59 (electronic edition), here 251.

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of the canticle’s popularity in the light of its representation of nature, while linking the song to a wider consideration of the relationship between Daniel and Azarias. The unity of human and non-human represented in the “Three Children” hymn is unusual in Old English poetry and jars with traditional readings of the natural world, which often see it as both a dangerous opposite to the human and a means through which human concerns are advanced. Such an approach underpins Jennifer Neville’s monograph Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry, which remains arguably the most important book-length study of nature in Old English. Neville contends that the “division between the human and the nonhuman defines humanity; it characterizes human nature through negation.” She adds that, while not morally evil, the natural world is often negative and hostile. 12 For Neville it is a “literary device” — it is “always invoked for a discernible purpose, and the point of interest is the power with which it opposes human concerns.” 13 This statement highlights a general culture of reading nature in Old English literature as something separate from, less than, and opposed to the human. However, there is increasing interest in instances that do not fit this understanding, such as the positive links between humanity and nature found in Daniel and Azarias. It is at these points of exposure that readings building on the insights of ecocriticism, defined by Cheryll Glotfelty as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment,” 14 are making an effective entry into Old English scholarship. 15 Heide Estes argues that “reading Old English texts with attention to environmental depictions and concerns allows for new readings and interpretations of those texts.” 16 Re-reading this section of Daniel and Azarias with an interest in the natural world reveals the underlying complexity of Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards the non-human. It suggests that understandings of nature as more than a

12 Jennifer Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 27 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 36. 13 Neville, Representations of the Natural World, 18, 21. 14 Cheryll Glotfelty, “Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis,” in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996): xv–xxxvii, here xviii. 15 Some examples include Corinne Dale, The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles, Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017); Heide Estes, Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes: Ecotheory and the Environmental Imagination, Environmental Humanities in Pre-Modern Cultures (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017); and Carl Phelpstead, “Beyond Ecocriticism: A Cosmocritical Reading of Ælfwine’s Prayerbook,” The Review of English Studies 69.291 (2018): 613–31. 16 Heide Estes, “Beowulf and the Sea: An Ecofeminist Reading,” in The Maritime World of the Anglo-Saxons, ed. Stacy S. Klein, William V. Schipper, and Shannon Lewis-Simpson, Essays in Anglo-Saxon Studies 5; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 448 (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS Press, 2014), 209–26, here 209.


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negative other would have been widely known. Such a reading also provides evidence regarding the overall unity of these two poems and their relationship to one another. Taking this approach, I will consider how the expansion and reshaping of the Latin canticle in these vernacular poems offers a positive interpretation of the relationship between God and both the human and the non-human. These texts emphasize the unity of creation and erase barriers between human and non-human that are present in (or critically imposed on) other Old English texts.

The Relationship between Daniel and Azarias Daniel 362–408 presents a vernacular poetic rendering of the “Three Children” hymn. 17 It is sung by three Israelite youths who, having been thrown into a furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar, are saved by an angel. In the hymn, a series of parallel statements describes both humanity and nature praising God. It follows the equally prayerful “Song of Azarias” (also found in Daniel 3) but has a noticeably different emphasis, celebrating creation’s worship of God. In a correspondence that is extremely rare in Old English literature, Azarias, which also relates events from Daniel 3, shares close parallels with Daniel 279–439, including a related version of the “Three Children” hymn at 72–161a. The poems are most closely connected in the “Song of Azarias” section and then become increasingly separate. Various theories have been put forward regarding the relationship between these texts. 18 Daniel is thought to be an early work, dated to around the start of the eighth century. 19 However, Paul Remley dates Azarias to the mid-to-late tenth century. 20 Remley provides a meticulous and widely accepted analysis of their connection. He contends that the text of Azarias was adjusted after material damage caused an exemplar close to the version extant in Daniel to become increasingly illegible. This process had two stages. Reviser(s) repaired the damage, but this repair caused some deviations in the first seventy-six lines of Azarias and a largely divergent ending following the miracle of the furnace. 21 Then — most likely as a 17 Remley, Old English Biblical Verse, 370–413, concludes that the Daniel text is based on an Old Latin glossed copy of the canticle, the closest examples of which are the glosses in London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian A. i (?Canterbury, s. viii), 150r–151r (hereafter Vespasian Psalter) and Cambridge, University Library, Ff. 1. 23 (s. xi), 517–19 (hereafter Cambridge Psalter). 18 See Kenneth Sisam, Studies in the History of Old English Literature (1953; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 32–34; and Peter Orton, The Transmission of Old English Poetry, Westfield Publications in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 12 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), 201. See also the summary in Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 82–84. 19 R. D. Fulk, A History of Old English Meter, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 61–64. 20 Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 100. 21 Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 122.

Nature as Worshiper


second, distinct phase of restoration — an additional corrector, whom Remley calls the “Canticle-Poet,” performed a “liturgically informed revision” of the “Three Children” section (which he terms the “canticum-revision”). This poet most likely worked with a Vulgate exemplar in mind. He also added several extra-biblical lines of botanic imagery, perhaps reflecting the locus amoenus tradition. 22 This approach accounts for the differences between the texts, and, because of the botanical interest of the Canticle-Poet, it makes them ripe for consideration in the light of their differing portrayals of the non-human environment. The recent discovery of a clip near Honington, Lincolnshire, complicates the process of linking the poems and considering their representation of the natural world. It also demonstrates the widespread circulation of the “Three Children” hymn and the attitudes it espouses in Anglo-Saxon England. The clip contains a runic inscription that John Hines reads as the opening verses of the “Three Children” hymn — corresponding to Daniel 362–364 and Azarias 73–75. 23 Hines dates the clip to likely 725–825. 24 He argues, largely in harmony with Remley’s thinking, that the “Three Children” in Daniel had a separate source, 25 and he suggests that the connection between the clip and the poems implies that there was a pre-existing version of the “Three Children.” Hines’s analysis sits neatly alongside Michael Drout’s and Elie Chauvet’s “lexomic” study, which reasons that the “Three Children” section of Daniel is older than other parts of the poem due to its different distribution of the characters thorn and eth (ð and þ). 26 These studies together argue for an independent Old English version of the “Three Children” hymn circulating prior to 825 (the latest possible date for the clip). 27 Additionally, Phyllis Portnoy’s argument that the furnace episode in Daniel has links with representations on Irish stone crosses suggests an Insular convention distinct from continental examples, 28 which also implies the independent circulation of the canticle in Anglo-Saxon England. That the source of the “Three Children” section in Daniel is separate from the rest of the text, and most likely in Old English, points to divisions in Daniel. In the 22

Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 107–8, 137–38. Hines, “Benedicite Canticle,” 264. 24 Hines, “Benedicite Canticle,” 269–70. 25 Remley, Old English Biblical Verse, 413–28. 26 Michael D. C. Drout and Elie Chauvet, “Tracking the Moving Ratio of þ to ð in AngloSaxon Texts: A New Method, and Evidence for a Lost Old English Version of the ‘Song of the Three Youths,’” Anglia 133.2 (2015): 278–319. 27 Hines, “Benedicite Canticle,” 269–70. 28 Phyllis Portnoy, “Daniel and the Angel’s Embrace: An Insular Innovation?” in England, Ireland and the Insular World: Textual and Material Connections in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Mary Clayton, Alice Jorgensen, and Juliet Mullins, Essays in Anglo-Saxon Studies 7; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 509 (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS Press, 2017), 123–141 (electronic edition). 23


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case of Azarias, examining the natural world complicates the division of the text because there are a range of attitudes present that do not always align with the sections that Remley proposes were revised by a single “Canticle-Poet.”

The Natural World in the “Three Children” Hymn In the “Three Children” section of Daniel and of Azarias, nature is urged to praise and worship God. It is not in a hierarchy below humans but is alongside them as an equal subject, as various representatives of humanity are called on in the same way. This is a positive representation of the natural world that seems far removed from the mere of Beowulf or the wintry landscape of The Wanderer. Neville observes that the hymn includes natural elements praising God that are “sources of discomfort, fear and danger in other Old English poems” and offers this observation as evidence that nature is used as a device to exemplify God’s power. 29 However, the poets’ reworking of this well-known source material does more than Neville suggests, partly because the representation of humanity is so like that of the natural world, which draws them together. More than just highlighting God’s authority, these texts offer insights into how the relationships between humanity, nature, and the divine were understood and communicated and reveal that these connections were not necessarily negative. The popularity of this hymn in Anglo-Saxon England demonstrates that this positive and balanced understanding of the natural world was not confined to one idiosyncratic poet. Instead, it would have been a widely recognized approach. Noteworthy in the Old English poems’ version of the canticle is their emphasis on creation as a whole. This is especially evident when compared with the vernacular gloss of the Old Latin canticle in the Vespasian Psalter, which Remley argues has a close affinity with the text in Daniel. The canticle in that psalter opens “Benedicite omnia opera domini dominum” 30 [All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord], which is glossed “bledsiað all werc dryhtnes dryhten” 31 [Let all the works of the Lord bless the Lord]. While this universal tribute begins the canticle, its remainder focuses on individual aspects of creation, which each takes a turn to worship. Uses of omnia in the Latin version of the canticle in the Vespasian Psalter, 29

Neville, Representations of the Natural World, 141–42. Sherman M. Kuhn, ed., The Vespasian Psalter (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965), 156. The equivalent line in the Vulg. (at Daniel 3:57) reads “Benedicite, omnia opera Domini, Domino: laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula” [All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever]. All references to the Bible, unless otherwise stated, are to Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam Versionem, ed. R. Weber et al., 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994). All Bible translations are from the Douay Rheims Bible, revised by R. Challoner. 31 Kuhn, ed., Vespasian Psalter, 156. All translations are my own. 30

Nature as Worshiper


glossed with all, each give a sense of the universality of the praise but also single out “all” of a certain part of creation rather than referring to the creation in its entirety. 32 There is some crossover with Old English glosses of the canticle where eall (all) repeats in Daniel and Azarias; for example Azarias refers to “ealle þa þe onhrerað hreo wægas / on þam bradan brime” [all those who agitate the rough waves on the broad sea] (141–142a). 33 Yet there are also moments when eall in the vernacular poems does not line up with the Latin. In particular, eall is associated with the repetition of gesceaft, both as a simplex and in compounds. This repeatedly highlights a sense of creation as a whole, creating links between human and non-human by uniting them as “eall gesceaft.” In Daniel, uses of gesceaft cluster at the beginning of the song, expanding the opening of the Latin canticle. Bædon bletsian bearn Israela eall landgesceaft ecne drihten, ðeoda waldend. . . . “Đe gebletsige, bylywit fæder, woruldcræfta wlite and weorca gehwilc. Heofonas and englas, and hluttor wæter, þa ðe ofer roderum on rihtne gesceaft wuniað in wuldre, ða þec wurðiað. And þec, ælmihtig, ealle gesceafte, rodorbeorhtan tunglu, þa þe ryne healdað, sunna and mona, sundor anra gehwilc herige in hade.” (358–360a, 362–370a) [The children of Israel entreated all the earthly creation to bless the eternal Lord, ruler of nations. . . . “May the beauty of the world’s works bless you, virtuous Father, and each of its works. Heavens and angels and clear water, those which dwell in glory over the heavens in right creation, these worship you. And you, almighty, all creation, the bright heavenly stars, those which hold their course, the sun and moon, may each of them respectively praise you in their manner.”]

Here, sprinkled amongst addresses to the individual aspects of creation, are references to it as a whole. The second use of gesceaft above refers to the then-correct ordering of the stars. However, because it is framed by uses that mean “creation,” the repetition contributes to the overall sense of worship that encompasses all of 32 For example, “omnes virtutes domino” [all powers of the Lord]. Kuhn, ed., Vespasian Psalter, 156. 33 Equivalent to “omnia quae mouentur in aquis” [all who stir in the waters]. Kuhn, ed., Vespasian Psalter, 156.


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the created world. In addition, the verbal resemblance of cræft in woruldcræfta accumulates and intensifies these references: this similarity is such that in Azarias the compound woruldsceafta [created world] occurs at this point (74a). Similarly, in Azarias the introduction to the song has the youths commanding “ealle gesceafte” (70a) to bless the Lord. The inclusivity of the language ties human and non-human together in the act of worshiping God. Though gesceafta is a common word in both Old English poetry and prose, found in several psalter glosses of Psalms 73 and 103, 34 it is not present in any glosses of the Canticum trium puerorum. Yet it features prominently in both Daniel and Azarias as a means of bringing together all aspects of creation. Though there is good evidence for a separate source for the “Three Children” section in Daniel (and thus Azarias, which largely derives from it), the awareness of God’s status as Lord of all creation is not confined to this section of either poem. In the “Song of Azarias” in Daniel, he is “weroda waldend, woruldgesceafta” [ruler of nations, of the created world] (331) — with an almost identical statement at Azarias line 48 — and at the end of the poem Daniel describes God to Belshazzar as “ealra gesceafta / drihten and waldend” [Lord and ruler of all creation] (760b–761a). 35 This united sense of creation is prominent in the “Three Children” section, but not unique to it. Its repetition perhaps hints at the ways that Daniel’s sources have been linked. Poetic formulas present in other Old English texts may have been coopted for service in the “Three Children” section to expand its view of creation and smooth the gaps with the rest of the text. Creation’s connectedness is also developed through the repetition of formulas to describe praising God. Within the stylistically rich “Three Children” section, several formulas recur. The construction in the b half-line of “ða ðec” or “þa þec” followed by a plural verb (for example “ða þec wurðiað” [these worship you] (366b)) ends the description of how several different aspects of creation are called to praise God. Despite the verbs varying, the repetition of the structure links each of these aspects of creation together. 36 This connects, amongst others, the stars, dew, and 34

The Dictionary of Old English (DOE) corpus search finds eleven examples across six psalters (Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus, compiled by Antonette diPaolo Healey with John Price Wilkin and Xin Xiang (Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2009)). In both the Vespasian Psalter and the Cambridge Psalter, which hold the versions of the canticle gloss that Remley thinks are closest to the original source of the “Three Children” in Daniel, gesce(a)ft occurs at Psalm 73:18 and 103:24. 35 In contrast the Vulg. at Daniel 5:21 has a human focus: “cognosceret quod potestatem habeat Altissimus in regno hominum” [he (Nebuchadnezzar) knew that the most High ruled in the kingdom of men]. 36 Unlike Old English glosses of the canticle, which replicate the repetition of the Latin, glossing benedicite (and its forms) with bletsiað and laudate (and its forms) with heriað, Daniel and Azarias make use of a wider variety of verbs. This is due to the structure of Old English poetry, which relies on variation to maintain its alliterative structure.

Nature as Worshiper


showers (“ða ðec domige” [let them glorify you] (371b)) as well as lightning (“þa þec bletsige” [let them bless you] (380b)). 37 The variation of this formula for those singing — “We þec bletsiað” [we bless you] (399b) — ties the youths to other aspects of creation, though they take more ownership of the action because of the first-person pronoun. Additionally, the formula herige or herigað “in hade” [praise in their or its manner] occurs three times in Daniel. It denotes the action of all creatures (370a) and various oppositions in the natural world such as night and day (376a). It refers finally to the Israelites as God’s servants (392a). In this formula — unique to Daniel 38 — each of these aspects of creation is called on to praise God “in [its] manner.” This suggests an awareness of the differences between each of their roles, but it does not create a linguistic hierarchy among them, even though one group is human and the others are not. It is possible that referring to everything’s hade [manner or degree] might imply separate, differently valued positions. 39 However, there is no distinction between the human and non-human in the use of this verb. It suggests each is equally capable of praising God. The Daniel-poet uses a comparatively large number of compounds to represent the natural world in the “Three Children” section. 40 Jonathan Davis-Secord has argued that clustered compounds can produce a “concatenation of emphasis.” 41 This is evident in the density of compounds describing elements of creation worshipping God: And þec, frea mihtig, forstas and snawas, winterbiter weder and wolcenfaru, lofige on lyfte. And þec ligetu, blace, berhtmhwate, þa þec bletsige. Eall eorðan grund, ece drihten, hyllas and hrusan and hea beorgas, sealte sæwægas, soðfæst metod, eastream yða and upcyme, wætersprync wylla, ða ðec wurðiað. Hwalas ðec herigað, and hefonfugolas, lyftlacende; þa ðe lagostreamas, 37

The equivalent Vulg. references are found at Daniel 3:63–64 and 73. DOE Web Corpus. 39 I am grateful to an audience member at the ACMRS 2018 conference for suggesting this interpretation. 40 Looking at the entirety of Daniel and counting its compounds, there are approximately thirteen compounds for every fifty lines of poem. This ratio increases for its “lyric” sections: the “Song of Azarias” is fifty lines long and includes nineteen compounds while the “Three Children” is forty-seven lines long and also has nineteen compounds. 41 Jonathan Davis-Secord, Joinings: Compound Words in Old English Literature, Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series 20 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 84–85. 38


emma knowles wæterscipe wecgað, and neata gehwilc

and wildu deor naman bletsie. (377–389)

[And, mighty Lord, let the frosts and snows, winter-bitter weather, and the host of clouds, praise you in the sky. And the lightning, bright and swift as an eye-blink, let them bless you. All of the earth’s surface, eternal Lord, hills and the ground and high mountains, salty sea-waves, righteous Creator, the current of the waves and the rising and springing-water of wells, let these honor you. Whales praise you, and the birds of the air playing in the sky; and let those which move in the seas and bodies of water, wild beasts and all cattle bless your name.]

The volume of compounds clustered here slows down the audience’s processing of the passage and highlights the various natural entities described. 42 As many of these compounds participate in doubled alliteration, the ornamentation of the section further emphasizes the natural world. The accumulation of various nonhuman participants here follows that in Latin versions, but this use of compounds expands those references, and the variation makes it the poet’s unique interpretation of the Latin. 43 These compounds also create a dialogue within the text, as simplexes are reused. For example, -stream is repeated twice in this short passage, constructing connections between watery elements of creation. This passage and the wider “Three Children” section in Daniel expand references from the Latin canticle to create an image of various natural entities that, either independently of humanity or alongside it as an equal partner, work to praise God as his faithful subjects. Azarias presents a more positive version of the natural world; examining this in detail offers potential insight into the unity of its “Three Children” section. As noted previously, Remley argues that certain parts of Azarias were originally closer to Daniel. He links the “botanical imagery” in Azarias with the Canticle-Poet/ reviser and examines it in order to determine which sections may have been composed by that poet, 44 but without considering its thematic importance. He attributes lines 80b–85a to the Canticle-Poet: Ful oft þu, wuldorcyning, þurh lyft lætest leodum to freme mildne morgenren. Monig sceal siþþan wyrt onwæcnan, eac þon wudubearwas


The effect of compounds on processing is described in Davis-Secord, Joinings, 71–108. Of these compounds, two — wætersprync and wolcenfaru — are hapax legomena (DOE Web Corpus). In contrast, the Vespasian Psalter has only two compounds in its gloss: wilddeor and eaðmode (Kuhn, ed., Vespasian Psalter, 156). 44 Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 101–4. 43

Nature as Worshiper


tanum tydrað. Trymmað eorðwelan, hleoð and hluttrað. (80b–85a) [Very often, king of glory, you allow mild morning rain to fall through the sky to benefit the people; afterwards many plants rise, likewise the groves of trees bring forth branches. It strengthens with fertility, fosters and cleanses.]

This section is not found in Daniel, 45 and it clearly underlines the positive aspects of the non-human environment. There is an additional focus (not present in Daniel or the Latin canticle) on the control that God has over the natural world and a focus on nature’s ability to benefit human and non-human. The verbs associated with the rain demonstrate the important difference that it makes. Trymmað [strengthens], hleoð [fosters], and hluttrað [purifies] all have the rain as their subject, while the action of the plants to onwæcnan [rise] and the forest-groves to “tanum tydrað” [bring forth branches] is also connected to the rain. Here hluttrað relates to a cluster of repetitions of the adjective hluttor and its variations in Azarias. 46 Both human and nature are described using hluttor [clear or pure], bringing them together as God’s subjects. This is part of an emphasis on clarity and purity in Azarias’s version of the “Three Children,” 47 both in those sections that Remley confidently identifies with the Canticle-Poet and elsewhere. 48 By developing this part of the canticle, 49 the poet creates constructive links between human and non-human. Nature is connected to God as he lætest [allows] the morning rain to fall. God is caring because he does this “ful oft” [very often], and the rain comforts both people and nature. The natural world is not a punishment for those who have disobeyed God’s word but is a gift, and one that benefits both humanity and the rest of creation. Following this description, and outside Remley’s assignment to the CanticlePoet, the text continues that God “never has more fame” than when he does these good things for the “children of men.” 50 This seems a more instrumental view of 45

Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 103. Hluttor: 75b, 79a, 135b, 151a. Hluttrian: 85a. 47 Daniel only uses hluttor once to describe water (366b), in an almost identical use to the first in Azarias (75a) (though there is no reference in the Latin versions to the “clear” waters) (364b). Remley notes that hluttrian seems to be specific to the Canticle-Poet but does not comment on the association between this and the adjective hluttor, which occurs in both texts (“Transmission of Old English Verse,” 111). 48 Hlutre at 79a, for example, is not credited to the Canticle-Poet, while the use at 151a is in a section Remley thinks has been revised (Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 124). 49 This section appears to be an extension of the Vulg. Daniel 3:64 “omnis imber et ros” [every shower and dew] (Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 103 n. 81). 50 “Næfre hlisan ah/ meotud þan maran þonne he wið monna bearn/ wyrceð weldædum” [The creator never has more fame than when he works good deeds for the children of men] (85b–87a). 46


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nature, one that erases the usefulness of the rain for everything except humanity. It potentially supports Remley not attributing this section to the reviser because it hints at a different attitude to the natural world, although it could be said the rain assists God by bringing him “fame.” However, following this passage (also outside the scope of the Canticle-Poet’s identifiable input) the youths sing “wis bið se þe con / ongytan þone geocend” [he is wise who can perceive in you the preserver] (87b–88a). Here the description of God as a “milde meotod” [mild creator] (90a) links back to the “milde morgenren” [mild morning rain]. The placement of this statement soon after the description of the rain’s benefits connects the actions of the natural world with an improved understanding of God. This is not just nature operating as a literary device; its helpful and obedient actions are a model and lesson for the poem’s audience. The association between nature and an improved understanding of God, as well as the verbal link between God and the rain, crosses the boundaries Remley has tried to draw around the Canticle-Poet’s specific contributions. In Azarias, more so than in Daniel, there is also the sense of a separate understanding between the natural world and God. In this representation the poem is perhaps influenced by biblical examples other than the “Three Children,” suggesting the importance of biblical sources more broadly in shaping Anglo-Saxon perspectives towards nature. Robert Barry Leal describes the need to “recover the biblical tradition of the earth as a living, vibrant organism, which has a life and activity dependent on the Spirit without being necessarily linked to humans and their needs.” 51 He finds such a tradition in the stories of creation and Noah in Genesis, as well as in the psalms and Job. 52 Similarly, Jeanne Kay argues that in the Bible the natural world has separate commandments and its own “covenantal relationship” with God. 53 Such a relationship is identifiable in Azarias. The youths pray: Bletsige þec, soðfæst cyning, sæs ond wætra, hea holmas haligne dryhten, domlice deop wæter; and dryhtnes bibod geofonfloda gehwylc georne bihealdeð; þonne merestreamas meotudes ræswum wæter onwealcað. Witon ealdgecynd þæt ær gescop ece Dryhten lagufloda bigong (122–129a)


Robert Barry Leal, Wilderness in the Bible: Toward a Theology of Wilderness, Studies in Biblical Literature 72 (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 197–98. 52 Leal, Wilderness in the Bible, 197–98. 53 Jeanne Kay, “Concepts of Nature in the Hebrew Bible,” Environmental Ethics 10.4 (1988): 309–27, here 313–14.

Nature as Worshiper


[Righteous king, let the seas and waters, high waves, gloriously deep water, bless you holy Lord; and each of the ocean-floods eagerly maintains the Lord’s command, when the sea-streams roll the waters by the creator’s counsels. They know their ancient nature, that the eternal Lord previously created the expanse of the seas.]

Here, because the natural world has been created, it should “repay” God with praise. Deop [deep], Dryhtnes [Lord’s], and bibod [command] are collocated elsewhere in Azarias, when Azarias in his prayer describes how night and day, light and darkness, all praise God, and states that “deop dryhtnes bibod drugon hi þæt longe” [they have performed it for a long time, the Lord’s deep command] (102). These references to divine commands, which are linked with the observant actions of the natural world, suggest a covenant between nature and God. That the nonhuman performs obediently constructs this as an ideal relationship. In contrast, the other use of bibod in Azarias refers to the failure of the Israelites to follow God’s commands, as Azarias states “in oferhygdum / þin bibodu bræcon burgsittende” [in pride the city-dwellers broke your commands] (18b–19). This other use juxtaposes nature, which follows God’s laws, with the humans, who break them. Not only does the sea in the above passage keep the commands; it does so georne [eagerly]. This example is not present in Daniel, yet Remley does not explicitly identify it with the work of the Canticle-Poet; he only suggests that the collocation of deop, drytnes, and bibod implies their involvement. 54 The positive expansion of the role of the natural world either supports the Canticle-Poet’s having more extensively revised the text or implies that positive attitudes towards the non-human environment (beyond those in Daniel) are not present just because of that poet’s additions. The relationship between God and the natural world in the “Three Children” in Azarias is also clear from the epithets and verbs associated with him. James Kirkland and Charles Modlin note that, in Azarias, the formulaic variation of names for God in the “Prayer of Azarias” (also present in Daniel, for example 283a, 331b) emphasizes God’s rulership over all aspects of the heavens and earth; this “provides the structural rationale for the Song of the Three Children.” 55 In the “Three Children” God is creator, as (ge)scop [created] occurs twice in the passage to describe his actions (128a, 137b). 56 There are also connotations of pastoral care in the twice-repeated epithet “leohtes hyrde” [shepherd of light]. 57 This positive image of a shepherd is frequently used in the New Testament to describe Jesus’s relationship 54

Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 112. James W. Kirkland and Charles E. Modlin, “The Art of Azarias,” Medium Ævum 41.1 (1972): 9–15, here 10. 56 Remley notes that (ge)scieppan is not found in Daniel, though scyppend occurs three times: 291b, 314b, and 391b (“Transmission of Old English Verse,” 113). 57 Remley identifies this as potentially the work of the Canticle-Poet though only one use is in a section he is confident is by that reviser (“Transmission of Old English Verse,” 113). 55


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with his followers. 58 Both times this epithet refers to God in the context of his relationship with the natural world, while also noting his role as creator: “waldend scop wudige moras, / lofe leanige leohtes hyrde” [because the ruler created woody mountains, let them repay the shepherd of light with praise] (120–121) and “Witon ealdgecynd / þæt ær gescop ece Dryhten/ lagufloda bigong, leohtes hyrde” [they know their ancient nature, that the eternal Lord previously created the expanse of the seas] (127b–129). Once again this is a connection entirely between God and the non-human environment; the mountains have a reciprocal obligation to praise their creator and guardian, while the seas’ awareness of their ealdgecynd [ancient nature] hints at a relationship that predates human creation and looks back to God’s separation of the watery expanses in the earliest days of creation. God is later described as the “ðeoda hyrde” [shepherd of nations] (150b), demonstrating that he nurtures both the human and non-human elements of his creation. The representation of the natural world in these examples from Azarias, moves beyond the idea of the non-human being able to praise God. It suggests the possibility of a relationship between God and nature that is covenantal in character and generally unmediated by humanity. Once again, these examples are not entirely the work of the CanticlePoet; Remley credits him with 120–121 but is less confident about 127b–129. 59 Concomitantly, some moments in the “Three Children” in Azarias present a more traditional idea of nature as an instrument for humanity. In a section without biblical or liturgical precedent, which is also not found in Daniel, 60 the youths identify the natural world’s purpose with humanity: Ful oft þu hluttor lætest wæter wynlico to woruldhyhte of clife clænum. Þæt us se cyning gescop monnum to miltse on to mægeneacan. (135b–38) [Very often you allow the clear water to fall, joyfully, in earthly-joy, cleanly off the cliff. The king created that for us, for men in kindness and for support]

This section appears linguistically connected with that which Remley identifies as the first contribution of the Canticle-Poet (80b–85a). 61 Connections such as the adverb ful and the use of gescop suggest that elements of this passage could also be

58 Perhaps most famously at John 10:11: “Ego sum pastor bonus. Bonus pastor animam suam dat pro ovibus” [I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep]. 59 Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 113. 60 Though Daniel offers a more reserved representation of the natural world than Azarias and does not hint at the same level of covenantal connection between the non-human and God, it also does not include any statements such as this offering an explicitly instrumental interpretation. 61 Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 103.


Nature as Worshiper

his work. 62 On both occasions the water is associated with clarity and purity — it hluttrað [cleanses] in the first example and is hluttor [clear] in the second. The second passage offers, in some ways, a similarly positive attitude toward nature. God lætest [allows] it to act beneficially rather than as a hostile threat. What is missing in this second example is the reference to the natural world benefiting non-human as well as human. There is only a glimmer of independence in the anthropomorphism of the water falling wynlico [joyfully], suggesting that it benefits both humanity and itself. This section demonstrates that, though some of the apparent additions in Azarias offer a positive view of nature, if the Canticle Poet is responsible for this section, the views waver between different understandings of the non-human environment. Nature is represented as capable of connecting separately with God while also existing mainly for the benefit of humanity.

Conclusion Studying the representation of the natural world in the “Three Children” hymn in Azarias and Daniel reveals that these poems minimize barriers between human and non-human and present a positive view of the relationship between God and all aspects of his creation. Significantly, this examination also offers additional evidence regarding the unity of, and relationship between, these texts. Drout’s and Chauvet’s analysis and Hines’s discussion of the Honington clip propose that the “Three Children” section in Daniel is older than other parts of the poem. That it also includes something of a departure from attitudes towards the natural world present in the rest of the text further highlights this separation. There are some links with other sections that suggest an attempt to smooth the transition between sources; however, the distinct sense of the non-human environment in the “Three Children” — echoed and amplified in Azarias — is potentially another means of identifying those parts which were initially separate from the rest of the poem. Even more so than in Daniel, the “Three Children” section in Azarias is an example of the complexity with which the natural world is represented in Old English poetry. It moves beyond the assumption that nature is necessarily dangerous or unequal, expanding on the positive attitudes present in the biblical source material, while at the same time including moments that conform to more traditional expectations. This oscillation from a sense of nature in its own covenantal relationship with God, to one in which it works specifically for humanity, potentially implies something about the various revisions that Azarias went through. Remley identifies four sections of the poem that have the “unambiguous” stamp of the


Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 112–13.


emma knowles

Canticle-Poet. 63 He finds other segments that are potentially additional contributions because of their linguistic similarities. These broader links suggest that it is “reasonable to conclude that this individual was the main architect of the canticumrevision,” though “the possible contributions of other Daniel-revisers . . . should not be ruled out of the question.” 64 A closer examination of the natural world supports both aspects of this conclusion. While Remley points to the “botanical” imagery as being the work of the Canticle-Poet, there are other equally positive moments for the non-human environment not attributed to this figure. An instrumental view of nature is only subtly present in those sections Remley credits confidently to the reviser, 65 but there is not a clear divide that would enable a uniquely positive attitude to be attributed to them. There are thematic links between passages Remley identifies with the Canticle-Poet and passages that he does not. The expansion of the role of the natural world thus could support the view that the CanticlePoet more extensively revised the text, or it could imply that the positive attitudes towards the non-human environment beyond those present in Daniel are in the text not only because of that reviser’s additions. That both the Daniel-poet and those involved in the creation of Azarias expanded the role of nature (though to a lesser degree in Daniel) suggests that this was not the thinking of one anomalous figure. It points to a more general understanding in Anglo-Saxon England. The “Three Children” hymn is present in a variety of forms in Anglo-Saxon texts, including not only these vernacular poems but also on the Honington Clip and in psalters and charms. It was obviously a widely recognized aspect of Christian culture, most likely memorized and studied with frequency similar to that of the psalms themselves, given the extent to which it is found (and glossed) in AngloSaxon psalter manuscripts. In addition, the role that the canticle played in secular life, evident from its inclusion in various charms, demonstrates that it was “very familiar beyond the sphere of formal liturgical recitation.” 66 The Latin versions, whether in the Vulgate or in one of the liturgical variations, proclaim the ability of the natural world to join with humanity in worshipping their common creator. The adaptation and development of these attitudes in Daniel and especially Azarias demonstrate that they not only were familiar to Anglo-Saxon poets but also were considered worthy of expansion. The non-human environment praises God alongside humanity in both poems, indicating that this was not just the thinking of one composer. It points to the popularity of this understanding more generally, tied as it was to the familiarity of the “Three Children” canticle from the liturgy.


Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 137. The sections he identifies are noted at 103–4 and 106–7. 64 Remley, “Transmission of Old English Verse,” 113. 65 Such an attitude is suggested by the morning rain falling “to benefit the people” (81b) and the extra-biblical mention of the nations observing night and day (101). 66 Portnoy, “Weekly Weather,” 251.

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This challenges the perspective that the natural world exists in the Anglo-Saxon understanding as a negative Other to humanity. Studying the representation of nature in Daniel and Azarias thus points to the ways in which biblical and liturgical models can effect a positive understanding of the non-human environment. The ability of deeply ingrained biblical models to shape literary texts is increasingly noted with regards to the influence of psalms on Old English literature. 67 Given the extension of glosses (or, as M. J. Toswell calls them, “interlinear translations”) 68 to several canticle texts found in Anglo-Saxon psalters — demonstrating engagement with them in the vernacular — it is likely that canticles such as the “Three Children” were almost as capable of influencing Old English literature as the psalms themselves. The positive approach towards the non-human evident in both Daniel and Azarias (also familiar from Psalm 148), 69 therefore, should not be viewed as unexpected or unusual. It is one more example of well-known biblical source material making its way into Old English literature, and it should be examined in the same way in which scholars such as Toswell are thinking about the interplay between the psalms and other vernacular texts. This understanding offers an interesting point of contrast with attitudes towards nature more commonly identified in Old English poetry and is worthy of further investigation.


See M. J. Toswell, The Anglo-Saxon Psalter, Medieval Church Studies 10 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 282–364; and also the summary in Francis Leneghan, “Introduction: A Case Study of Psalm 50.1–3,” in The Psalms and Medieval English Literature: From the Conversion to the Reformation, ed. Tamara Atkin and Francis Leneghan (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, Woodbridge, Surrey: Boydell & Brewer, 2017), 1–36, here 15. 68 Toswell makes the argument that these psalters should be thought of as “bilingual psalters,” as this gives a better sense of the level of engagement of the interlinear glosses with the text (Anglo-Saxon Psalter, 23 and 261–82). 69 On the theme of all creation worshipping God in the Bible, see Richard Bauckham, “Joining Creation’s Praise of God,” Ecotheology 7 (2002): 45–59.

The Exemplary Environment of Bartholomaeus Anglicus Michael W. Twomey

This essay critiques the representation of the natural environment in one of medieval England’s most widely disseminated encyclopedias: Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum [On the properties of things, henceforth DPR]. Completed in the 1240s, then copied, translated, and printed into the late sixteenth century, DPR was the last medieval encyclopedia to circulate in England. 1 We may presume that Bartholomaeus would have known England first-hand, because the appellation “Anglicus” suggests that he belonged to the English “nation” at the University of Paris before his Franciscan order transferred him to Magdeburg, where he would have completed DPR. 2 However, if we were to presume that DPR presented local knowledge of England’s topography, flora, and fauna, we would be wrong. In the 1 The Speculum maius of Vincent of Beauvais post-dates Bartholomaeus’s De proprietatibus rerum by twenty years, but except for the Speculum historiale it was virtually unknown in England. Manuscripts and printed versions of DPR are listed and described in Heinz Meyer, Die Enzyklopädie des Bartholomäus Anglicus: Untersuchungen zur Überlieferungs- und Rezeptionsgeschichte von “De proprietatibus rerum,” Münstersche Mittelalter-Schriften 77 (Munich: Fink, 2000), 41–186. The nineteen-book version is regarded as the original, but there are thirteenand twenty-book versions with the same or reduced contents; and there are many manuscripts simply of extracts. Early printed editions in Latin, English, and French are listed and described in Michael Twomey, “Bartholomaeus Anglicus,” in Oxford Bibliographies Online, section “Medieval Studies,” ed. Paul E. Szarmach (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); doi: 10.1093/ OBO/9780195396584–0225. 2 For what is known of Bartholomaeus’s origin and career, see Meyer, Die Enzyklopädie, 13–14; and Juris Lidaka, “Bartholomaeus Anglicus in the Thirteenth Century,” in Pre-Modern Encyclopaedic Texts: Proceedings of the Second COMERS Congress, Groningen, 1–4 July 1996, ed. Peter Binkley, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 79 (Leiden, New York, Cologne: Brill, 1997), 393–406.

Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 71–88.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120895


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main, the natural world of DPR is that of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, completed in Spain in 636. The point is not that Bartholomaeus composed his encyclopedia out of book authorities: medieval preference for auctoritates over empirical observation needs no explanation. It is that Bartholomaeus viewed nature through the eyes of his sources, a perspective that removed him from his native English environment in time, space, and environmental sensibility. 3 Isidore’s Etymologiae is important for this study because it defines DPR as a chronologically and temporally fixed verbal enterprise. Manuscripts of it were plentiful in England and throughout Europe from the tenth century through the end of the Middle Ages, but Bartholomaeus enhanced Etymologiae’s authority by using it as his usual first source in most chapters of DPR that treat the natural world. 4 Etymologiae’s already significant influence spread along with DPR’s when DPR was translated into vernacular languages. In 1385 Jean de Corbechon translated DPR as the Livre des propriétés des choses, which circulated in England as well as in France. John Trevisa’s English translation of DPR, made in 1398/99, was published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1495 (STC 1536), Thomas Berthelet in 1535 (STC 1537), and Stephen Batman in 1582 (STC 1538), carrying DPR’s and Etymologiae’s English readership past 1600. 5 Isidore’s world is the late Roman world of authorities such as Orosius, Pliny, and Solinus, combined with the biblical world of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Etymologiae’s aim is to connect the thing (res) to the word (verbum) that names it. 6 3

My argument for Bartholomaeus’s alienation from nature complements that of Lynn White’s classic essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155.3767 (1967): 1203–7; but see critiques of the White hypothesis in Timothy Weiskel, “The Environmental Crisis and Western Civilization: The Lynn White Controversy,” enca-001.htm (last updated Feb. 19, 1997); and Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination, Blackwell Manifestos (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 150, n. 1. 4 European manuscript dissemination of the Etymologiae from the seventh through sixteenth centuries is surveyed in Baudouin Van den Abeele, “La tradition manuscrite des Étymologies d’Isidore de Séville: Pour une reprise en main du dossier,” Cahiers de Recherches Médiévales et Humanistes 16 (2008): 195–205; available online at: 5 Manuscripts of the French translation in English possession before the end of the Middle Ages are noted in M. C. Seymour, “Some Medieval English Owners of De Proprietatibus Rerum,” Bodleian Library Record 9 (1974): 156–65, here 159–60. Manuscripts and early English printed editions of Trevisa’s translation are described in Meyer, Die Enzyklopädie, 379–81 and 407. 6 See Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper Row, 1953), 495–500. Isidore’s precedents were both classical and biblical: e.g., Cicero, Topica 35; Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 1.6.28; Matthew 16:18; and Jerome’s Liber interpretationis hebraicorum nominum. Modern scholars have inferred that he wrote both “for the general literate governing class” of Visigothic Spain and for priests and monks, so that they might “possess a general knowledge” of book learning, “and to possess the preliminary skills that make intelligent reading, especially of Scripture, possible”; The Etymologies of Isidore

The Exemplary Environment of Bartholomaeus Anglicus


Ancient etymology as understood by Isidore “served as a heuristic strategy in establishing the essence of things and, accordingly, the ‘true’ grounds for their names,” as Tim Denecker puts it. 7 Isidore subsumed the study of nature under the study of language, the basis of ancient and medieval liberal arts education. By quoting Etymologiae in chapter after chapter of DPR, Bartholomaeus promoted Isidore’s view of the natural world as a vehicle for mastering language and, by extension, the liberal arts. In doing so, Bartholomaeus ignored far more realistic environmental information found in local witnesses such as land charters and hunting manuals — information needed for practical purposes such as property management and transfer. By reproducing Isidore and his classical sources, and by augmenting these with medieval authorities whose sources were also classical, such as Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum [Ecclesiastical history of the English people], Bartholomaeus described a natural environment inhabited only in the imagination. In order to present this case in a short essay, I will focus on topography, plants, and animals before turning to Bartholomaeus’s spiritual interpretation of nature and its environmental implications.

Topography, Plants, Animals The striking differences between Isidore’s late-classical environment adopted by DPR and the actual topography of medieval England can readily be seen in this example of a “perambulation” (walk about the boundaries) described in an AngloSaxon charter from the year 901 that is quoted by Oliver Rackham in his classic study of British landscape: Start from Twyford along the road to Bracken Ridge; from there along the road to Carrion Barrow; then in a straight line to the pear tree; then along the road to Ceardric’s Barrow; then to Withy Grove; then to the road that shoots over the ditch; then along the road to the pollard oak; from there along the road from where it adjoins the wood . . . by the little hedge along the spinney . . . along the hedge to the old maple tree . . . from there to the hoar [i.e., lichen-covered] apple tree; then along the ditch out to the river Test; to its southern bank; then along the bank; then below the timber weir to the northern bank; along the bank back to Twyford. 8

of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghoff, with the collaboration of Muriel Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18. 7 Tim Denecker, Ideas on Language in Early Christianity from Tertullian to Isidore of Seville, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 142 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017), 291. 8 Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, rev. edn. (1976; London: Dent, 1990), 39; Anglo-Saxon sources are cited in note 40. For more information on AngloSaxon land charters, see Michael Bintley’s contribution to this volume.


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The barrows, ditches, hedges, spinneys, and weirs of this charter, along with the millstreams, country lanes and paths, heaths, moors, downs, briar-bushes, forests, hill forts, and Roman roads that we recognize as distinctively English are all present in the Anglo-Saxon period. Hedges, briar-bushes, and Roman roads are found in Etymologiae. 9 However, not even these occur in the landscapes treated in DPR’s Book 14, De terra et eius partibus [On the earth and its parts]. 10 Since under the earth are stones, metals, and ore and above it are plants and animals (14.Prol.–1), which he treats in Books 17 and 18, Bartholomaeus describes the earth’s properties with attention only to a few geological formations and landscapes on and below the surface. After two chapters on the earth and mountains in general, Bartholomaeus devotes the next forty-two chapters to named mountains in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and he concludes (14.46–57) with generic terrestrial features: hills, valleys, plains, fields, farms, meadows, wildernesses, deserts, caves, pits, and caverns. Book 14’s treatment of topography is not a guide to specific features of particular geographical locations but a hierarchical classification determined by the four elements that structure DPR’s overall organization of nature. Mountains are first because their summits are covered by clouds or snow (air, water), they produce rivers and winds (water, air), they are struck by lightning (fire), and their feet (or “roots,” 14.2) rest on the earth. The named mountains in Book 14 are scriptural and classical because of the stated purpose of DPR as a whole: understanding the things of nature so as to enable an exegetical reading of Scripture and the “philosophers” — natural philosophers such as Aristotle. Bartholomaeus presents this purpose in the opening sentence of DPR’s Prohemium: Cum proprietates rerum sequantur substantias, secundum distinctionem et ordinem substantiarum erit ordo et distinctio proprietatum, de quibus adiutorio divino est presens opusculum compilatum, utile mihi et forsitan aliis, qui naturas rerum et proprietates per sanctorum libros nec non et philosophorum dispersas non cognoverunt, ad intelligenda enigmata Scripturarum, que sub symbolis et figuros proprietatum rerum naturalium et artificialium a Spiritu Sancto sunt tradite et velate. [Because the properties of things follow their substances, the order and distinction of properties will be according to the distinction and order of their 9 Isidore mentions hedges (sepes) in 15.9.6, but not hedgerows as they are known in England; briar-bushes (sentes) are in Etym. 17.7.60, and Roman roads (viae, stratae) in Etym. 15.16.1– 13. All citations from the text of Etymologiae are from Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum sive Originum Libri XX, ed. W. M. Lindsay, 2 vols., Oxford Classical Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911); henceforth abbreviated to Etym. in the footnotes. 10 By way of contrast, see the rich accounts of medieval English landscape formations and terms for them in Ralph W. V. Elliott, The Gawain Country, Leeds Texts and Monographs, n.s. 8 (Leeds: School of English, 1984), which covers the northwest Midlands.

The Exemplary Environment of Bartholomaeus Anglicus


substances, about which, with divine help, the present work has been compiled, useful to me — and perhaps to others who do not recognize the natures and properties of things that are scattered throughout the books of the saints and philosophers — for understanding the obscurities of the Scriptures which, under symbols and figures of the properties of natural and artificial things, are hidden and concealed by the Holy Spirit]. (Prohemium 1–10) 11

Bartholomaeus does not entirely ignore the biological association of vegetation with landscapes, but he gives both vegetation and landscapes only passing notice in Book 15 on geography; and in Book 17 on plants he omits information about the landscape needs of the various flora he includes. Thus, in the course of describing an environment far to the south of the one in which he lived, Bartholomaeus shows even less concern for environmental management than Isidore, who at least introduced his plants book with a bibliography of agricultural manuals and some rudimentary information on the cultivation of crops (Etym. 17.1.1–17.2.7). The ancient landscapes described by Isidore from his Roman sources can be classified either as “roughland” or as cultivated land. Roughland is uncultivated land where vegetation grows naturally, without human agency. In Isidore’s world, roughland means wetlands; shrubland with short, dense evergreen shrubs, now called maquis; and shrubland of soft-leaved plants in woodlands and scrub, now called phrygana or garrigue, usually found near seacoasts. Roughland plants include live oak, cork, and, especially in Spain, esparto grass, which was used for making mats, nets, and rope. 12 Despite the name, roughland is neither wasteland nor wilderness. Providing “pasturage, fuel, snails and other edible animals, [plus] edible and medicinal herbs,” as A. T. Grove and Oliver Rackham put it, roughland was occupied and used by human beings. 13 Cultivated land produced the crops that we still associate with the Mediterranean and Middle East, such as olives (olivae); “ancient grains” such as spelt (far), emmer wheat (triticum), and barley (hordeum); wine grapes (uvae), legumes (legumina), figs (fici), and citron (citria) — a lemon-like fruit that Isidore believed to be an antidote for poison and from which modern citrus fruits were developed. 14 None of the roughland plants of the Mediterranean and Middle East grew in medieval England, and only a few, such as mountain ash (17.7.39) and briar-bushes 11

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. I, Libri I–IV, ed. Baudouin Van den Abeele, Heinz Meyer, Michael W. Twomey, and Bernd Roling, De Diversis Artibus (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 51; this and all other translations from DPR into English are my own. 12 A. T. Grove and Oliver Rackham, The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History (New Haven, London: Yale University Press 2001), 167. 13 Grove and Rackham, Nature of Mediterranean Europe, 174. 14 Etym. 17.7.8. The genetic relationship of modern citrus fruits to citrons is explained in Guohong Albert Wu et al., “Genomics of the Origin and Evolution of Citrus,” Nature 554 (February 15, 2018): 311–16.


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(17.7.60), made their way into Etymologiae, because for Isidore the chief significance of plants is their usefulness to human beings — e.g., as food, medicine, or building material. The same is true for Bartholomaeus, except that instead of focusing on native flora, which would be more easily available than exotics, he adopts Isidore’s roster of plants. Of the 197 chapters on plants in DPR, only twenty-two do not cite Etymologiae, and these cite no source at all, an ancient source such as Pliny, or a medieval source based on ancient sources, such as the Salernitan Circa instans. 15 As it happens, many of the plants listed in DPR 17 existed in medieval England — too many, in fact, to list here — but significantly, Bartholomaeus does not locate plants geographically unless his source does, and the location is never north of the Alps. 16 Bartholomaeus includes them because they occur in Isidore and other authorities, not because they occur in England. Perhaps the most striking environmental difference between Bartholomaeus’s and Isidore’s topographies is that dense forests of deciduous and evergreen trees with their flourishing understories grew abundantly in medieval England but did not exist in the late-Roman Mediterranean, when forests grew only below the tree line in mountain ranges. 17 The one mention of forests in DPR’s Book 17 begins with a lexical comparison of the woodland words saltus, silva, nemus, and lucus [roughly: forest-glade, forest-thicket, forest-grove, sacred grove] grouped under one heading, “De saltu” [On the forest-glade, 17.142]. Bartholomaeus begins this chapter by defining terms on the basis of Isidore. Quoting Etym. 17.6.5–8, he says a saltus is a “densitas arborum alta vocata hoc nomine, eo quod exiliat in altum et consurgat” [high area of dense trees, thus called because it springs up and rises on high]. It differs from a silva in that its trees are higher: “Unde silva est spissum nemus et breve, et dicitur a silen, quod est lignum, quia multa ligna ibi ceduntur et vastantur” [whence a forest-thicket is a dense and short forest-grove, so-called from ‘tree’ (silen), which is wood, because many trees fall and are wasted there]. Nemus “a numine nuncupatur, quia ibi, scilicet in silvis, idola statuebantur et pro numine adorabantur; sunt autem nemora arbores maiores umbrose frondibus” [takes its name from ‘divinity’ (numen) because there, namely in forest-thickets, idols were set up and worshipped as gods; forest-groves are also great trees with shady boughs]. A lucus, in contrast, is a “densitas arborum solo lumen vel lucem detrahens, et dicitur per antifrasim a luceo luces lucus quasi minime lucens sicut picina minime pisces habens” [density of trees stealing brightness, or light (lucem), from the ground, and it is thus called a sacred grove (lucus) by antiphrasis from luceo-, luces, as if (to say)


For an account of DPR’s sources for Book 17, see Iolanda Ventura, ed., Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), xii–xxx. 16 For a list of medieval English plants known from textual and archaeological evidence, see S. E. S. Eberly’s useful website Wyrtig, at 17 Rackham, Trees and Woodland, 26–90; Grove and Rackham, Nature of Mediterranean Europe, chap. 11, esp. 171, 188–89, and the map on 176.

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‘shining very little,’ just as a pool (piscina) has very few fish (pisces)]. 18 These etymological howlers from Isidore are straight-faced fact to Bartholomaeus — important points in his aim of educating students about the things of nature encountered in Scripture and the philosophers. It was to keep this aim that John Trevisa’s English translation of DPR left the key terms of each chapter in Latin. The rest of “De saltu” may at first glance appear to portray the actual forest of England, but in it, Bartholomaeus’s seemingly realistic account of forests turns out to be a close cousin of the literary convention of the forest as wilderness, only lacking a source-citation. 19 Bartholomaeus’s forest is: Locus deductionis et venationis: nam venantur in eis fere et multiplices insidie a canibus et venatoribus preparantur. Item est locus occultationis; nam in silvis sepius predones et latrunculi occultantur, in quorum incidentes insidias transeuntes spoliantur sepius aut iugulantur. Item in silvis propter viarum multitudinem et semitarum incertitudinem sepe deviant ignoti, et viam incertam et ignotam pre cognita eligentes, sepe ad latronum latibula non sine periculo deducuntur. 20 [A place of deception and of hunting, for wild beasts are hunted there, and many ambushes are laid by hunters and dogs. Furthermore, it is a place of hiding, for quite often in forest-thickets are hidden robbers and thieves, in whose attacks travelers are often robbed or slain. Furthermore, in forest-thickets, because of the multitude of roads and the incertitude of paths, the unwary often go astray, and, choosing an uncertain and strange road beyond recognition, not without danger they are often led to the dens of thieves.]

As with landscape, so with greenery: once again, DPR ignores the particulars of the British landscape. Bartholomaeus’s sacred groves are not the haunt of woad-painted Druids, since the pagan practices he refers to are of the Roman world in Etymologiae, his source. Where Bartholomaeus sees woodland as the hideout of wild beasts and lawless men, medieval English legal documents see woodlands as the source of acorns and beech mast, called pannage, for domesticated swine; as the sites of royal game parks patrolled by sheriffs and other officers of the law on the lookout 18

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII, ed. Ventura, 206. See Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), esp. 91–132; Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); 61–105; and Corinne J. Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden (Cambridge, UK, and Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 1993). 20 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII, ed. Ventura, 206. 19


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for poachers; and as the centers of forest industries such as mining, ironmaking, and glass-making. 21 Describing England and Britain separately in DPR 15.14 and 15.28, Bartholomaeus took no account of the flora of his native land: no forests, no wine-grapes, no grains appear in DPR’s insular geography. Citing Bede, but quoting Isidore more or less verbatim and without a citation, Bartholomaeus reports only generally of England: “multa et magna flumina sunt in ea, fontes calidi. Metallorum etiam larga copia. Agates [sic; i.e., gagates] lapis ibi plurimus, et margarita. Gleba optima, et diversis fructibus valde apta” [Many and great are the rivers in it, and hot springs; a large supply of metals, in addition. Jet and pearls are plentiful there. The soil is excellent and suitable for diverse crops]. 22 Like most of Book 15, the chief subjectmatter of DPR’s chapters on the British Isles — England (15.14), Britain (15.28), Ireland (15.80), Orkney (15.111), Scotland (15.152), and Thanet (15.155) — is ethnography, and it is taken from various ancient authorities. These examples suggest that DPR had negligible practical value as a guide to nature in England. Its limitations regarding topography and plants hold true also for animals. Imagine a young lord living in about 1400 who wants a plentiful hunt in his deer park. He orders his chaplain to consult a book treating the subject of deer and then report back to him. The chaplain, once a fellow of Cambridge University, remembers a copy of DPR that he is able to borrow from Peterhouse. 23 Unsurprisingly, DPR’s chapter on deer (18.29) begins by paraphrasing Isidore, who claims that deer inhale serpents when they are ill, so as to heal themselves; 21

See Rackham, Trees and Woodland, 39–90; Leonard Cantor, “Forests, Chases, Parks and Warrens,” in The English Medieval Landscape, ed. Leonard Cantor, The Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 56–85; and Charles R. Young, The Royal Forests of Medieval England, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979). 22 Cp. Etym. 14.6.2. Quoted from Bartholomaeus Angelicus [sic], De rerum proprietatibus (Frankfurt: Wolfgang Richter, 1601; facsimile repr. Frankfurt a. M.: Minerva, 1964), 632, with abbreviations expanded, use of u and v normalized, and some repunctuation. Until the Brepols edition is completed, this is the most accessible text for Books 5–16 and 18–19. Note that whereas the Brepols edition uses the medieval spelling of its base manuscripts, the Frankfurt 1601 edition adopts classical spelling. Bartholomaeus’s cited source for this passage is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (1.1), which is far more detailed than the passage in DPR, mentioning not only England’s pearls and jet but also its grains, trees, wine-grapes, land- and sea-birds, rivers full of salmon and eels as well as its seals, dolphins, and whales, and its shellfish; see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 15–17. 23 Cambridge, Peterhouse, Old Register, 1, a catalogue of 384 chained and electio books dated December 24, 1418, lists a copy of De proprietatibus rerum that is now Cambridge, Peterhouse 67 (s. xiv), which I have chosen for this example. See University and College Libraries of Cambridge, ed. Peter D. Clark, introduction by Roger Lovatt, Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues 10 (London: British Academy, 2002), UC48.*155 = UC49.*67.

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that they cannot hear when their heads are lowered; that they eat dittany in order to become invulnerable to arrows; and that they are drawn to the music of pan-pipes (Etym. 12.1.18–19). Bartholomaeus then adds information about the habits of deer and about deer hunting that he attributes to Pliny and Aristotle. First, their habits: Post ortum arcturis sideris concipiunt, et octonis mensibus partus ferunt. . . . Diutissime vivit, plus quam centum annis. . . . Cervae difficilter pariunt fœtus suos . . . et ideo comedit dracontium, ut facilius a partu liberetur. . . . Hucusque Plinius libro 8, cap. 33 [They conceive after the rising of Arcturus (i.e., October) and they give birth eight months later. . . . (The deer) lives a very long time, more than one hundred years. . . . Female deer give birth to their fawns with difficulty . . . and therefore it eats dragonwort, so that it may be delivered of its offspring more easily. . . . Thus far Pliny, book 8, chapter 33]. 24

Next, deer hunting: Item Arist. lib. 8: . . . Venatio autem cervorum sic fit. Unus venatorum sibilat et canit, et cervus delectatur in cantu et sequitur ipsum cantum, et interim alius eum trahit cum venabulo et occidit. Et quando agitatur cervus fugit ad fluvium vel ad stagnum, si potest transnatare aquam. Resumptis viribus ex aquae frigiditate, evadit venatores. Quando autem capitur, mugit et lacrymatur. Item quando canes ipsum insequuntur et invenit bivium, non directis currit vestigiis, sed nunc istac nunc illac transversaliter mutat saltus, et tunc conatur transilire per multos passus, ut sic per contrarios et ambiguos saltus eius vestigia a canibus odore ipsum insequentibus difficilius sentiatur. [Furthermore, Aristotle, book 8: . . . Deer-hunting is accomplished thus. One of the hunters whistles and sings, and the deer is delighted by the music and follows it, while in the meantime another one of the hunters lances the deer with a hunting-spear and kills it. And when frightened, a deer flees to a river or a pond, if it can swim across the water. Its strength renewed from the water’s coldness, it will escape the hunters. But when it is captured, it bellows and weeps.

24 De rerum proprietatibus, 1045–1046. Pliny’s Naturalis historia circulated widely in medieval Europe; a full text with an English translation is the Loeb Classical Library edition by H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones, and D. E. Eichholz, 10 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938–1962). The passage cited here by Bartholomaeus is correctly 8.50. On the properties of dragonwort, which like dittany is indigenous to the Mediterranean, see DPR 17.50, “De draguntia,” in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII, ed. Ventura, 84; and compare Bartholomaeus’s source in Etymologiae 17.9.35. Dragonwort is now also called snakeweed in English: see OED dragonwort, n. 3.


michael w. twomey Furthermore, when dogs pursue a deer and it comes to a fork in the path, it does not leave a straight track, but crosswise, now this way, now that way, it varies its leaping, and then it attempts to spring ahead with many steps, so that on account of these contrary and confusing leaps the hunting dogs cannot follow its trail, because its smell is more difficult to detect.] 25

The hunting-master and chief forester tactfully demur. Although he is correct about mating season, gestation, and swimming, Bartholomaeus is otherwise ignorant about deer, beginning with the varieties of deer (the roe deer, red deer, and fallow deer that are found in England). 26 Deer do not inhale serpents. Nor do they eat dittany (dictamnus) or dragonwort (dracunculus vulgaris), because these plants do not grow in medieval England. In their experience, deer hear perfectly well regardless of the position of their heads — perhaps the lord has not noticed that when deer feed with their heads down, they look up at the slightest sound. The lifespan of deer is ten to twenty years, not a hundred. 27 As for attracting deer with pan-pipes, one does not lure deer with sounds, they say: one frightens them with sounds. The sure way to hunt deer, says the hunting-master, is by a deer drive, in which the deer, confused and frightened by the noise of horns, hounds, shouting, and drums, are driven to stations known as trysts, where they are pulled down by dogs after being harassed and shot at by bowmen along the way. 28 Risking lèse-majesté, the huntingmaster advises the young lord to procure a copy of the hunting treatise by William Twiti, royal huntsman of Edward II, written in about 1325. 29 Abashed rather than angered, because he craves deer meat and the status of having a flourishing deer park, the lord gives the hunting-master and forester free rein, his deer park thrives, and the lord resolves never again to ask the chaplain a practical question.


De rerum proprietatibus, 1047. Bartholomaeus would have known Aristotle’s Historia animalium or De animalibus in the translation from Arabic by Michael Scot (1175–ca. 1232). 26 Young, Royal Forest, 4. 27 See the information about roe, red, and fallow deer at the website of the British Deer Society:; note that Sika, Muntjac, and Chinese water deer are modern imports. 28 For a survey of hunting techniques and scholarship about them, see William Perry Marvin, Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006), 1–4. 29 Marvin, Hunting Law and Ritual, 1–4, adds a major hunting treatise (ca. 1410) by Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, which translated Gaston Phebus’s Livre de chasse (ca. 1387–1389) and adapted it to England. For more information about Le Livre de chasse, see Rebekah PrattSturges’s contribution to this volume.

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Nature as Exemplum Thus far I have argued that because Bartholomaeus’s environmental representation was aimed at promoting reading in Scripture and natural philosophy, and because it focused on the Mediterranean and Middle East, DPR was not intended for practical application. One did not plant a garden, manage a forest, or hunt wild animals by it. However, DPR did have an application that emerges when we consider that it was equipped with about 10,300 marginal glosses that translated the things of nature allegorically into moral and theological lessons. The occurrence of these in the earliest manuscripts suggests that they were either composed by Bartholomeus or authorized by him. 30 DPR’s glosses complete its purpose as a guide to comprehending what its Prohemium calls the “natures and properties of things that are scattered throughout the books of the saints and philosophers, things which under symbols and figures of the properties of natural and artificial things are hidden and concealed by the Holy Spirit” (see note 11). It is the glosses more than any other aspect of DPR that render nature as an exemplary environment. DPR’s glosses begin in 4.5 and end abruptly in 14.3. They resume in Book 17 in most manuscripts (Book 16 in a few), from which they continue sporadically through Book 19. 31 The natural topics supplied with glosses are thus birds and insects (12), fish (13), land-formations (14), gems (16), plants (17), and animals (18). The glosses’ themes are theological, moral, and ecclesiastical. A few examples should suffice to illustrate their logic. In Book 14, where Bartholomaeus observes that mountains are sources of noble metals, he is not directing miners where to dig; rather, in his marginal gloss he advises that metals buried within the earth should remind us of “the virtues and merits of the saints” (14.2). 32 In Book 17, where — following his source, Circa instans, a Salernitan medical text — he describes cultivated and wild cardamom, Bartholomaeus alleges the cultivated variety to be superior because it is more aromatic. However, according to his gloss, the cultivated variety reminds us that “a prelate’s conduct of life should be better than that of his

30 See Meyer, Die Enzyklopädie, 205–8 and 281–96, esp. 206; and Heinz Meyer, “Bartholomäus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum. Selbstverständnis und Rezeption,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 117 (1988): 237–74. 31 See Van den Abeele, “Introduction Générale,” in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. I, Libri I–IV, 11; and Meyer, Die Enzyklopädie, 215. 32 Text: “Item montes sunt metallorum nobilium contentivi.” Gloss: “Nota de virtutibus sanctorum et meritis” [Text: Furthermore, mountains are replete with noble metals. Gloss: Note about the virtues and merits of the saints]. Citation is to my edition of Book 14 forthcoming in the Brepols series cited in notes 11 and 14, which uses the same five base manuscripts. Because early printed editions of DPR do not include the marginal glosses, it is necessary to consult this edition or manuscripts with glosses.


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subordinates” (17.33.6–9). 33 On the topic of onions (17.42.1–4) — where, as is so often the case in DPR, Isidore’s entry from Etymologiae introduces the chapter — Bartholomaeus’s gloss infers that because it has only a head, an onion represents “formless faith.” 34 Woodlands, discussed above, yield familiar allegories about the world as a regio dissimilitudinis [region of unlikeness], a sinful wilderness whose unlikeness to God the soul must reject in the pilgrimage of this life: “Nota quod mundus est desertus a gratia et laude Dei”; “Nota de insidiis et malitia mundanorum”; “Nota de periculis mundanorum” [Note that the world is a wasteland separated from the glory and praise of God; Note about the deceits and evils of the worldly; Note about the dangers of the worldly]. 35 As a final example, in 12.27, Bartholomaeus’s entry on the owl (Lat. nicticorax) moralizes the owl’s nocturnal activity on the basis of a scriptural passage quoted in the text: Nota: qui male agit odit lucem

Tertio, ut dicit idem [i.e., Isidore], est avis lucifuga et solem uidere non potest. Significat illos quorum sunt in tenebris opera lucem veritatis fugencia. Io. III: Omnis qui male agit, odit lucem et non uenit ad lucem ut non arguantur opera eius. Eph. V: Que enim in occulto fiunt ab ipsis turpe est enim dicere.

[Note: He who does evil hates the light

Third, as the same one says, it is a light-fleeing bird and cannot see the sun. It signifies those whose works in the shadows are attempts at fleeing the light of truth. John 3 (v. 20): Everyone who does evil hates the light, and he does not come into the light so that he is not rebuked for his works.

33 Text: “Primum est melius, quia magis est aromaticum.” Gloss: “Nota quod melior debet esse vita prelatorum quam subditorum” [Text: The first (kind) is better because it is more aromatic. Gloss: Note that a prelate’s conduct of life should be better than that of his subordinates]. Cited from Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII, ed. Ventura, 67. 34 Text: “Cepa vel cepe est herba, cuius vis tota est in radice et in semine. Et ideo sic cepe vocatur, ut dicit Isidorus, quia non habet nisi caput.” Gloss: “Nota de fide informi” [Text: The onion is an herb whose entire power is in its root and seed. And for this reason it is called onion (cepe), as Isidore says, because it has only a head (caput). Gloss: Note about formless faith]. Cited from Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII, ed. Ventura, 74. 35 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII, ed. Ventura, 206. On the trope of human life as a pilgrimage in a regio dissimilitudinis, see Gerhart B. Ladner, “Homo viator: Mediaeval Ideas on Alienation and Order,” Speculum 42.2 (1967): 233–59; and F. Châtillon, “Regio dissimilitudinis,” in Mélanges E. Podechard: Études de sciences religieuses offertes pour son émériat au Doyen Honoraire de la Faculté de théologie de Lyon (Lyon: Facultés Catholiques, 1945), 85–102.

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Ephesians 5 (v.12): It is shameful even to speak of what they (i.e., sinners) do in secret.] 36

Thus, despite the physical properties and material uses of metallic ores, cardamom, onions, forests, and owls, their ultimate value is what they represent spiritually for human beings. In allegorically transforming the material of DPR into spiritual lessons, Bartholomaeus does not privilege one source over another — even Isidore — whether Christian or pagan, classical or medieval. Source material as diverse in cultural origin, epistemology, and purpose as the Bible, Isidore’s etymologies, the medical teachings of the Salernitan school, and the natural philosophy of Aristotle are all subjected to the same interpretive method, translated into moral and spiritual exempla whose reference is human beings instead of the natural world, which, re-imagined by the verbal mediation of Bartholomaeus’s allegories, is now forced into a spiritually instrumental role. Nor were Bartholomaeus’s glosses limited to manuscripts of DPR: along with moralizations in the text itself, such as in the example of the owl above, they migrated from DPR into reference books called libri exemplorum, which detached DPR’s allegories of nature and presented them as stand-alone images for preachers to use in sermons. 37 In fourteenth-century England these allegories were used, for example, in sermons by Thomas Brinton and John Waldeby. 38 Exempla taken from the margins and text of DPR gained currency in secular contexts among writers such as Chaucer, Usk, and Lydgate; and because so much natural “lore” from it has been found in the works of Shakespeare, DPR has been labeled “Shakespeare’s encyclopedia.” 39 Sometimes secular texts cite DPR as a source. For instance, the early fifteenth-century Mum and the Sothsegger cites DPR

36 This passage is from Heinz Meyer, “Zum Verhältnis von Enzyklopädik und Allegorese im Mittelalter,” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 24 (1990): 290–313, at 310. 37 See Baudouin Van den Abeele, “Simbolismo sui margini. Le moralizzazioni del De proprietatibus rerum di Bartolomeo Anglico,” in Simbolismo animale e letteratura, ed. Dora Faraci, Memoria Bibliografica 42 (Rome: Vecchiarelli, 2003), 159–83; and Jacques Berlioz and MarieAnne Polo de Beaulieu, “Les recueils d’exempla et la diffusion de l’encyclopédisme médiévale,” in L’enciclopedismo medievale, ed. Michelangelo Picone, Memoria del tempo 1 (Ravenna: Longo, 1994), 179–212. 38 These and many other instances are in A. S. G. Edwards, “Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum and Medieval English Literature,” Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 222 (1985): 121–28, here 122. 39 Edwards, “Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ DPR,” 126–27. On DPR as “Shakespeare’s encyclopedia” and problems with that label, see Michael W. Twomey, “Inventing the Encyclopedia,” in Schooling and Society: The Ordering and Reordering of Knowledge in the Western Middle Ages, ed. Alasdair A. MacDonald and Michael W. Twomey, Groningen Studies in Cultural Change 6 (Leuven, Paris, Dudley MA: Peeters, 2004), 73–92, here 84–91.


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as the source of its idealized depiction of the society of bees. 40 Instructions for a pageant in York honoring Henry VII’s visit in 1486 specified the use of red and white roses according to their signification in DPR: a rioall rich rede rose convaide by viace, unto the which rose shall appeyre another rich white rose unto whome so being togedre all other floures shall lowte and evidently yeve suffrantie, shewing the rose to be the principall of all floures, as witnesh Barthilomew.” [A kingly, rich, red rose conveyed by mechanical device, to which shall present itself another rich, white rose, unto whom thus being together, all other flowers shall bow and plainly acknowledge (their) sovereignty, showing the rose to be the ruler of all flowers, as witnesses Bartholomaeus.] 41

As DPR itself has it: “Flos rose inter flores obtinet principatum, et ideo solet principalis pars hominis, scilicet caput, rosarum floribus coronari, ut dicit Plinius, et hoc ratione decoris, odoris, suavitatis et virtutis” [Among flowers, the rose has sovereignty, and therefore, the head, the sovereign part of man, is customarily crowned with rose flowers, as Pliny says, and by reason of its beauty, fragrance, softness, and worth]. 42 Perfectly in keeping with the iconography of religious painting, Bartholomaeus’s glosses of the words rosa and virtus in this passage allegorize roses and their worth in Marian terms: “Nota de beata Virgine” and “Nota de virtute Virginis.” Although the York pageant orders make no reference to the Marian imagery of 40

Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger, ed. James M. Dean, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), lines 1028 and 1054; also available at the website of the University of Rochester, Robbins Library Digital Projects, URL:– sothsegger-mum-and-the-sothsegger. 41 Quoted from York Civic Records by Edwards, “Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ DPR,” 127. The mechanical device specified here is discussed briefly as an example of a medieval automaton by Mary Flowers Braswell, “The Magic of Machinery: A Context for Chaucer’s ‘Franklin’s Tale,’” Mosaic 18.2 (1985): 101–10, here 104. Rebecca A. Davis calls the anthropomorphizing tendencies of DPR and other encyclopedias of nature that are exemplified in this example an “exemplarist tradition,” by which nature serves analogically as a source both of instruction and of criticism regarding human behavior; see Rebecca A. Davis, “‘Save man allone’: Human Exceptionality in Piers Plowman and the Exemplarist Tradition,” in Medieval Latin and Middle English Literature: Essays in Honour of Jill Mann, ed. Christopher Cannon and Maura Nolan (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2011), 41–64; and Rebecca A. Davis, Piers Plowman and the Books of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 133–56. My case in this essay agrees with Davis’s in that we both apply the terms “exemplarist” and “exemplary” to texts deriving moralizations and allegories from nature; otherwise, our arguments do not overlap. 42 DPR 17.136, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, vol. VI: Liber XVII, ed. Ventura, 195. Ventura’s note to the Pliny citation (Naturalis historia 21.14) points out that Pliny’s claim is in fact that roses are seldom used in crowns.

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DPR’s glosses, they reflect completely the exemplary, anthropocentric significance of roses claimed in the text of DPR. With or without the glosses, the allegorical and moral aims claimed in its Prohemium were thus apparent to DPR’s readers.

The Exemplary Environment’s Environmental Neglect DPR’s geographical emphasis on the Mediterranean and Middle East and its representation of nature as a collection of spiritual tropes raise troubling questions about the attitude DPR conveys towards the real environment in which its readers lived. DPR’s exemplary environment inhabits only the folios of books. It is not an environment that its readers farmed, hunted, or mined. Bartholomaeus’s encyclopedia is not about the lands of its physical origin; it is about the lands of its textual origin, the lands described in Isidore’s Etymologiae and by Isidore’s classical sources — geographers, ethnographers, and natural philosophers such as Orosius, Solinus, Aristotle, and Pliny — from which Isidore was himself once removed chronologically and geographically and whom Bartholomaeus recycled. There are thus a number of implications to be considered in closing. First, we should not assume that the presence of Aristotelian and Plinian natural philosophy in DPR has a purely scientific motive. Bartholomaeus was uncommitted to empirical observation. Even in reporting about his native England, Bartholomaeus relied solely on textual sources. He added a chapter “De Anglia” (15.14) as if to set his birthplace apart with its own entry, but in it, Bartholomaeus carried over Isidore’s entry on Britannia (DPR 15.28, Etym. 14.6.2), supplementing it from Pliny’s Naturalis historia (4.16.102). Nature is virtually absent in this chapter. A trace of historical interest emerges momentarily in an unnamed Brut chronicle’s summary of the legendary history of Britain’s settlement: arriving in Albion, the Trojan Brutus defeats a race of giants, whereupon the island is eponymously renamed Britain; later, the island is conquered by Saxons, and the island is again renamed, this time eponymously as Anglia “ab Engela regina clarissimi ducis Saxonum filia” [from Queen Engela, the daughter of the illustrious leader of the Saxons] (15.14). 43 However, from here, almost the entire remainder of the chapter is drawn from Isidore, Bede, Pliny, and Orosius, ending with a cross-reference to DPR’s later entry on Britain. In this chapter, there is nothing about England’s natural environment beyond a vague mention that “Many and great are the rivers in it, and hot springs; a large supply of metals, in addition. Jet and pearls are plentiful there. The soil is excellent and suitable for diverse crops” (see above at n. 22).


This is the account found in the opening chapter of The Brut, or Chronicles of England, Part One, ed. Friedrich Brie, EETS OS 131 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner, 1906).


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Second, we must rethink the implications of regarding nature metaphorically as a book written by the hand of God. 44 As it happens, that trope is used neither by Bartholomaeus nor by Isidore. For Bartholomaeus, the encyclopedia of nature is a digest of many books that enables readers with few books access to the world of learning. 45 If it were applied to DPR and its marginal glosses, the image of the world as God’s book would seem to describe nature as a text to be learned from and understood in a spiritual sense, rather than as a body of physical phenomena with whom human beings share a mutually contingent existence as God’s creations. The exemplary environment of Bartholomaeus’s DPR encouraged reading nature as a place of mental habitation accessible through the book lying open before the reader, and whose purpose was to teach moral and spiritual lessons that did not include the morality of human stewardship of nature. If nature is a book, then it is sacred not for what it is but for what it means. DPR exemplifies one of Neil Evernden’s arguments in The Social Creation of Nature, that terms such as “nature” and “environment” do not refer to the natural world simply as objective fact; they embody an underlying model for a cosmic and social order that demonstrates “the norms we wish to discover,” such that nature is “pressed into the service of social reality.” 46 This point applies to reading nature in DPR, a text that was produced, copied, and studied by communities of clerical scholars who taught in monastic and cathedral schools and in the universities of medieval Europe and whose educational curricula were heavily weighted with canonical authorities such as the ones cited, and thus reinforced, by Bartholomaeus. By presenting nature as a semiological system referring to human religious, social, and moral life outside of nature, Bartholomaeus’s encyclopedia neither implies nor expresses any ethical or theological position toward nature apart from its symbolic significance to faithful Christians. It ignores whatever significance or purpose nature has in and of itself. If in Genesis 1 the earth was made sacred in the act of Creation, blessed and proclaimed good by God, in contrast, by converting 44

On this trope, see Davis, Piers Plowman, 134, and sources cited in her note 4; Hans Blumenberg, Die Lesbarkeit der Welt (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1981); and the essays in The Book of Nature in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Arjo Vanderjagt and Klaas van Berkel, Groningen Studies in Cultural Change 16 (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), especially Lodi Nauta, “A Weak Chapter in the Book of Nature: Hans Blumenberg on Medieval Thought,” 135–50. 45 Echoing his Prohemium (above, around note 11), in his Epilogue, Bartholomaeus writes that his purpose is to provide a complete reference tool for scriptural study so that “simplices et parvuli, qui propter librorum infinitatem singularum rerum proprietates de quibus tractat scriptura investigare non possunt, in promptu invenire valeant saltem superficialiter quod intendunt” [the simple and the young, who on account of the infinite number of books cannot look into the properties of each single thing about which Scripture deals, can readily find their meaning herein — at least, superficially]; De rerum proprietatibus, 1261. 46 Neil Evernden, The Social Creation of Nature (Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 16.

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the earth into a system of environmental tropes, DPR implicitly threatens Creation with physical neglect. By privileging the Mediterranean and Middle East, DPR exacerbates this problem with regard to the northern lands in which its compiler lived. Robert Macfarlane makes a parallel point in Landmarks, which pays homage to vanishing landscape vocabulary while warning of the consequences of its disappearance: It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. 47

Applied to DPR, this means that privileging texts over nature downgrades nature; and privileging the late-classical and biblical environment of pagan Rome and the biblical Middle East renders the environment of medieval Britain unworthy of attention. Equally to the point, Macfarlane argues specifically that allegorizing nature jeopardizes its particularity. We do this in the modern world by imagining nature as a source of material goods; Bartholomaeus did it in the thirteenth century by imagining nature as a vehicle for spiritual goods. In neither case is nature valued for itself, even though our physical existence depends on the flourishing of nature. Macfarlane states glumly, “Allegory as a mode has settled inside us, and thrived: fungibility has replaced particularity.” 48 We can therefore cautiously propose that DPR foreshadows Western alienation from nature by privileging an environment that was temporally and spatially remote from Bartholomaeus’s northern European home and by converting that environment into a textual system of anthropocentric tropes. We cannot condemn him for treating nature as a source of spiritual allegories. Writing at a time when human populations were small and nature was vast and overwhelming, he could not have foreseen a time when human beings would threaten the biosphere. However, we can observe that, although he was a member of the religious order named for St. Francis of Assisi, Bartholomaeus shows none of the empathy for nature that Francis shows in “Canticle of the Sun,” for which Lynn White proposed Francis as patron saint of ecologists. 49 Bartholomaeus could not have written Laudato Si’, whose title 47

Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2016), 24. Macfarlane, Landmarks, 25. 49 White, “Historical Roots,” 1206–7. I wish to thank Alice M. Colby-Hall, Thomas D. Hill, the Ithaca College Medieval Renaissance Colloquium, and Tom Willard for suggestions on earlier versions of this essay, which epitomizes a book in progress about the representation of nature in medieval encyclopedias. 48


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quotes the opening words of Francis’s hymn. DPR is a sign on the road we have taken to our current environmental crises.

Field Notes on the inferno: Snakes (and Cords) Lori J. Ultsch Qui sarai tu poco tempo silvano; e sarai meco sanza fine cive di quella Roma onde Cristo è romano. [Here for a time you shall be a woodsman and then forever a citizen with me of that Rome where Christ Himself is Roman.’] (Purg. 32.100–102) 1

In canto 16 of Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim and Virgil pause before they descend into the Malebolge, the eighth circle of Hell, where unrepentant perpetrators of fraud meet God’s justice. The two travelers stand above a deafening waterfall that pours darkly into the abyss. At this transitional moment in the journey, 2 a curious episode involving a cord tied around the pilgrim’s waist occurs. Following Virgil’s command, Dante takes off the cord, coils it up, and hands it to his leader. Virgil pivots, winds up, and casts the cord into the abyss. The poet pointedly calls attention to


For all citations of the original Italian and English translation of the first two canticles of the Commedia, see Dante, The Inferno and Purgatorio, ed. and trans. Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Random House, 2000). All subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text. 2 We remember previous, transitional moments in the canticle and their intriguing solutions: on the shore of the Acheron an earthquake that causes the pilgrim to faint and a thunderclap that subsequently awakens him in Limbo; the barred entrance at the Wall of Dis and the arrival of a heaven-sent figure, a fusion between Mercury and the archangel Michael, to quell all resistance; and — let us not forget — the transitional moment with which the poem itself begins between sleep and consciousness when the pilgrim awakens to find himself on the edge of an utterly new, despairing world. Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 89–100.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120896


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the moment by embedding an indirect invitation to the reader to peer into the abyss with the pilgrim, guided by Virgil’s gaze: “E’ pur convien che novità risponda,” dicea fra me medesmo, “al novo cenno che ’l maestro con l’occhio sì seconda.” [“Surely,” I said to myself, “something new and strange will answer this strange signal the master follows with his eye.”] (Inf. 16.115–117)

The cord has disappeared in the unfathomable darkness. The pilgrim, whose interest by now is just as piqued as ours as we too have lost sight of the object, well imagines that the cord is a strange signal; Virgil’s act of tossing it into the darkness can only call up something equally astounding. 3 Dante introduces this intriguing episode by explaining how the pilgrim had the cord readily available to give it to Virgil as instructed: Io avea una corda intorno cinta, e con essa pensai alcuna volta prender la lonza a la pelle dipinta. [I had a cord around my waist with which I once had meant to take the leopard with the painted pelt.] (Inf. 16.106–108). 4

Despite the pilgrim’s statement that he previously planned to capture the leopard with this same cord, we remember that surprise encounter between man and beast quite differently. The lost and frightened pilgrim of Inf. 1 evinces no inclination 3

When I presented a shorter version of this article at a recent conference, one of my fellow presenters remarked that he emphasizes the strangeness of this episode for his students by pointing out that when one has a cord (or a rope) and needs to get somewhere, either up or down, one certainly does not throw it away! Indeed, the very strangeness of the episode calls for interpretation. 4 For a review of scholarship on the leopard, as well as an extensive bibliography on the three beasts in general, see Anthony K. Cassell, “Beasts, The Three,” The Dante Encyclopedia, ed. Richard H. Lansing, Stephen Botterill, et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 2000): 85–89. Cassell notes that his interpretation there — that the leopard, lion, and she-wolf represent, respectively, fraud, violence, and incontinence — has enjoyed the most support among Dante scholars in Great Britain and North America. The Enciclopedia dantesca, vols. 2 and 3 (Rome: Treccani, 1970) also offers a review of the interpretations and extensive bibliographies until 1969 on the three beasts; see “lonza,” “leone,” and “lupa” (vol. 3), as well as “fiera” (vol. 2).

Field Notes on the Inferno


whatsoever of approaching that terrifying creature, never mind lassoing it! There the poet instead emphasized how the beast impeded the despairing pilgrim’s progress up the hill, barred his way, and drove him back down the hill multiple times until the lion and the she-wolf came to definitively force him back down “là dove ‘l sol tace” [to where the sun is silent] (Inf. 1.60), a synesthesia-spell broken by the fortunate arrival just three verses later of Virgil. In effect, the cord of Inf. 16, despite the pilgrim’s assertion that he indeed has had it with him since the start of the journey, was not utilized in any attempt to capture the leopard, nor was its existence ever acknowledged previously in the poem. The lack of any reference to the cord during events as they unfolded in Inf. 1 is puzzling. On a practical level, the cord that materializes only in Inf. 16 will allow the travelers to progress further into the abyss and to confront those grave sins associated with fraud, a far more condemnable category of sin than incontinence and violence since fraud entails the willful corruption and misuse of the intellect. That the cord seems to appear from nowhere, however, at a transitional moment in the journey on the edge of the precipice of fraud cannot but attract attention. 5 Consciously invented by Dante in Inf. 16, the cord is a narrative expedient or — as I think it perhaps more fitting to characterize the cord, given the circle the travelers are about to enter — a fraudulent poetic necessity. It is indeed a strange metatextual signal, a marker of “conscious dissembling.” 6 When the poet alerts us that his verses contain a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” [truth that bears the face of falsehood] (Inf. 16.126), he cultivates a tension between falsehood and truth in service of a mindful redirection of his art as an expression of lofty, spiritual purpose. 7 5 In his note on verses 106–108, Hollander points out that the cord is retrospectively added to canto 1; he also notes another addition to the representation of that scene, a full moon in Inf. 20.127–129. 6 I take this term from Christopher Bennett Becker’s interesting study, “Dante’s Motley Cord: Art and Apocalypse in Inferno XVI,” MLN 106.1 (1991): 179–83, which expands upon Nardi’s contribution that Dante found his inspiration for the cord in Aristotle’s multi-colored girdle of Venus (Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 7, chap. 6). Becker then cites Aquinas’s comment that the girdle is “an artifact designed by its maker to ‘steal the wits of the wise’” (181). Becker argues that the girdle cum cord of Inf. 16 functions metatextually as a mirror-image of Geryon and of secular poetry itself. The deceptive allure of secular poetry exchanges what is truth for what is fraud. Becker thus adduces in the cord Dante’s apology of the “fleshly text” (183) of secular poetry. While I agree that the metatextuality of the episode marks a decisive rhetorical shift in the Inferno and that the cord itself is indeed a deliberately created fiction, what the poet is rejecting in this highly self-conscious moment must be explored within the context of the significant encounters that occur precisely before the introduction of the cord in the narrative, i.e., the pilgrim’s exchanges with Brunetto Latini (Inf. 15) and the three Florentine Guelphs (Inf. 16). 7 My analysis of the cord will focus on its metatextual implications in Inf. 16 and explore its relationship to snake imagery in Inf. 24–25. The vast amount scholarship that explores the allegorical significance of the cord and its relationship to the leopard of Inf. 1 is reviewed by Pazzaglia, “corda” in the Enciclopedia Dantesca (2:207–8). Pazzaglia notes that one of the complications


lori j. ultsch

In this study of the metatextual import of the cord, I propose to examine the covert, shared elements between this episode and the representation of the thieves in cantos 24 and 25 of the Inferno, where the damned souls metamorphose between human and serpent forms. The literal leap into the eighth circle is more than a geographical translocation between circles and more than just leaving something behind; in terms of the journey and any notion of progress, it must be a movement forward and downward in some way. I propose that the poet invents the fraudulent cord to articulate two positions that are embedded in snake imagery: the first is an ethical distinction between two uses of rhetoric, and the second is the legitimization of the testimony of the Christian poet-prophet. First, I note that there is a likeness in form between the sign, the coiled, snakelike cord, and the monstrous creature it summons: Geryon. Swimming an ominous breaststroke through the malignant air, Geryon fulfills the poet’s promise of something utterly new. Virgil overtly instructs the pilgrim that the hybrid monster he sees should be interpreted as a sign of fraud and its all-pervasive ability to corrupt, a “sozza imagine di frode” [foul effigy of fraud] (Inf. 17.9) “che tutto ‘l mondo appuzza” [whose stench afflicts the world] (Inf. 17.3). The rhetorical tension as the travelers await the arrival of this figure of fraud 8 is ratcheted up by an address to the reader: involved in interpreting the allegory is that the cord must also be considered in a context where it was decidedly not used. With Buti’s early suggestion that the cord is the knotted cord of the Franciscan garment, the cord emerges as a symbol of the vow of chastity to ostensibly expose the hypocrisy or fraud of the lost pilgrim, who is spiritually undeserving of the cord and must divest himself of it. This interpretation was subsequently challenged by others who noted that secular affiliation with the order as a tertiary would instead have required that Dante wear a leather belt rather than the Franciscan capestro. In general, as Pazzaglia notes, early commentators interpret the cord as a sinful moral state that must be discarded. Modern interpretations, instead, read the cord as a praiseworthy symbol of continence, legal justice, the law, or a combination of continence and justice. Significant examples of this line of interpretation are Nardi’s reading of the casting off the cord as an apotropaic act against fraud and Pasquazi’s reading of the cord as Roman law and justice, rendered powerless by human corruption. 8 Here the text explicitly establishes the moral equivalency between Geryon and the eighth circle of the Malebolge, where the sins of fraud are punished. Elsewhere, Dante’s representations of demonic guardians of specific circles often suggest some sort of relationship between each circle and the sin punished therein: for example, the ravenous gullets of Cerberus in the circle of the gluttons or the angry boatman Phlegyas who patrols the Styx to prevent any wrathful souls from escaping. A review of the scholarship and useful bibliography on these and other guardians can be found in the Enciclopedia dantesca (1970). More recently, Paolo Cherchi (“Geryon,” The Dante Encyclopedia, 435–37) suggests that this descent or “downward flight” into the Malebolge on Geryon’s back marks one of the most difficult moments in pilgrim’s journey. Despite the knowledge that Dante’s flight is undertaken in complete obedience to God’s will, the cautionary tales of Phaeton and Icarus, coupled with the intratextual comparison one can later intuit with Ulysses’s “mad flight” (Inf. 26.125), establish the roots of the pilgrim’s intense fear.

Field Notes on the Inferno


Sempre a quel ver c’ha facia di menzogna de’ l’uom chiuder le labbra fin ch’el puote, però che sanza colpa fa vergogna; ma qui tacer nol posso; e per le note di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro, s’elle non sien di lunga grazia vòte, ch’i’ vidi per quell’aere grosso e scuro venir notando una figura in suso, maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro . . . [To a truth that bears the face of falsehood A man should seal his lips if he is able, for it might shame him, through no fault of his, but here I can’t be silent. And by the strains of this Comedy — so may they soon succeed in finding favor — I swear to you, reader, that I saw come swimming up through that dense and murky air a shape to cause amazement in the stoutest heart . . .] (Inf. 16.124–132)

Fraud, like Geryon, works on its victims by initially presenting a reassuring appearance. The poet constructs an infernal sign that slowly and progressively reveals its poisonous nature only when the creature can be seen full-length: a human face, seemingly benevolent and righteous, a spotted leopard-like pelt, the body of a serpent, a scorpion’s tail. Geryon is one-in-three, a monstrous hybrid. Virginia Jewiss speaks of the “visual ethics” inscribed onto the body of Geryon and points out how in this figure the unstable monstrous body merges with the topography of Hell. 9 It bears noting that Geryon is described in the numerically significant central canto of the Inferno and after the first time (of only two) that Dante refers to the title of his work in the canticle. 10 Geryon as the symbol of fraud is the appropriate vehicle 9

She cites the ontological instability of the monster who defies the poet’s attempts to assign it one identity (beaver? boat? eel? falcon? arrow?) and notes the oscillation in these identities between animal and mechanical, the disturbing ontology that results when an entity appears to be both; see Virginia Jewiss, “Monstrous Movements and Metaphors in Dante’s Divine Comedy,” in Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination, ed. Keala Jewell (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), 179–90, here 184. Similarly, Fernando Salsano, “Gerione,” Enciclopedia dantesca, 3:124–26, notes that Virgil’s presentation of the creature emphasizes how it is a physical and metaphysical figura of Hell itself. Paolo Cherchi (“Geryon,” The Dante Encylopedia, 436) points out that Geryon’s triple nature exceeds the dual nature of previous guardians such as the centaurs and that Geryon shares the function of a means of transportation with the giants of the ninth circle. 10 The second reference occurs after the pilgrim and Virgil leave the bolgia of the soothsayers and enter that of the barrators (Inf. 21.2).


lori j. ultsch

for the geographical translocation into this category of sin, yet his appearance in the poem at this particular juncture also enables the poet to make pivotal statements about his poetic journey. The same verb torcere [to turn] characterizes both the beast’s manner of locomotion and the travelers’ necessary change of direction to approach him. 11 To explore the cord of canto 17 as a turning point between what was before and what comes after, the episodes immediately prior to the entrance into the Malebolge are significant. In canto 16, with the distant roar of water in the background, the pilgrim speaks with three Florentine Guelphs whom he recalls as good men from the generation immediately preceding his; 12 they were those men who put true concerns for the city over those of party, as Dante no doubt believed he himself had done. Florence, however, has devolved into “nostra terra prava” [our degenerate city] (Inf. 16.9) by the time of the pilgrim’s voyage in 1300, 13 and the poet chooses to make the pilgrim remain anonymous, identifying him solely by stating “Di vostra terra sono” [I am of your city] (Inf. 16.58), i.e., a citizen of the city that once operated according to the ethical principles of community and common good. Immediately prior to this conversation that distances Dante from the political sins of the Florentines (or the city as sinner), Brunetto Latini celebrates Dante’s future immortality by contrasting the poet’s everlasting fame with the equally enduring political infamy of those from that degenerate city. These conversations lay the foundation for the expression in the poem of a divorce between poetry and politics that promises recognition for the high merit of Dante’s poetry. Florence is a city whose political fall is ensured by its sinful citizens who are motivated by “orgoglio e dismisura” [excess and arrogance] (Inf. 16.74). Brunetto’s words underscore the need for Dante to distance himself from the corrupt polis in act and in word to achieve his full poetic potential: “tra li lazzi sorbi/ si disconvien fruttare al dolce fico” [among

11 See Inf. 17.26 and 17.28 for the two inflections of the verb. It also bears noting that the final image of Geryon, after the travelers disembark in the Malebolge, compares the suddenness of the monster’s departure to that of an arrow released from a corda (bowstring; Inf. 17.136). While Paolo Cherchi rightly notes that Inf. 17 opens and concludes with a reference to Geryon’s tail (“Geryon,” The Dante Encylopedia, 436) to emphasize how the creature dominates the canto, I note that a covert, semantic pairing may also be at play here between the monster and the fraudulent cord used to summon him. The canto makes numerous references to Geryon’s coda (tail) (Inf. 17.1, 17.9, 17.25, 17.84, and 17.103), a word that lacks only one letter of co[r]da. In addition, the first and last verses of the canto contain the words coda and corda, respectively. 12 In a previous conversation with Ciacco about the bitter political future of Florence, the pilgrim in fact inquired after the fates of two of these three figures, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Jacopo Rusticucci, and differentiated them from other Florentines as worthy men “ch’a ben far puoser li ‘ngegni” [whose minds were bent on doing good] (Inf. 6.81). Nowhere else in the Inferno, apart from Limbo, do we see souls characterized as so virtuous. 13 Exiled in 1302, Dante began writing the Comedy in 1306 (ca.) and by then had abandoned any hope of returning to Florence.

Field Notes on the Inferno


the bitter sorbs / it is not fit the sweet fig come to fruit] (Inf. 15.65–66). The pilgrim echoes this fruit metaphor in the following canto as he explains to the three Florentine Guelphs: “Lascio lo fele e vo per dolci pomi/ promessi a me per lo verace duca; / ma ‘nfino al centro pria convien ch’i’ tomi” [I leave bitterness behind for the sweet fruits / promised by my truthful leader / But first I must go down into the very core] (Inf. 16.61–63). The poet represents himself through the words of Brunetto as a citizen of only the divine city that Beatrice will promise the pilgrim in the earthly paradise (Purg. 32.100–102). He is a citizen untainted by the spiritually blind practices of the greedy, envious, and proud city of Florence. At the close of the conversation between the pilgrim and the Florentines, the three Guelphs celebrate the pilgrim-prophet as one who speaks truth and will escape literally and ethically from the darkness of Hell and Florentine political woes “a riveder le belle stelle” [to see again the beauty of the stars] (Inf. 16.83). These conversations and their lessons reverberate in the pilgrim’s mind as the mysterious cord of Inf. 16.106 materializes. Fraud and the exercise of politics are one of a pair in these central cantos. That the poet in the Inferno seeks to exorcise himself of fruitless or sinful rhetorical tendencies is dramatized in the intense political debate he had undertaken in error, with Farinata in canto 10. 14 In that episode, despite Virgil’s admonition that the pilgrim choose his words with care, he readily takes the bait and engages in a political tit-for-tat with the Ghibelline captain. The prophecy of his exile at the end of that canto leaves him justly “smarrito” [lost] (Inf. 10.125). The intratextual echo not only recalls the pilgrim’s moral confusion in the dark wood of canto 1 but also indicates a failure to be guided by a loftier purpose whereby words should not be called into service to perform political divisiveness. 15 However, Inf. 15–17 demonstrate significant progress in finding a more appropriate rhetorical path. As the cord is tossed into the abyss, what is truly jettisoned here is rhetoric used in the exercise of the politics of a now-degenerate city, that bad habit that taints a soul: a use of rhetoric now perceived as fraudulent in nature, a linguistic symptom of one who is smarrito and must turn [torcere] down another path. The poet’s investment with rhetoric and its uses began with the pilgrim’s very first conversation with a sinner and her damning indictment of a text, did it not? That the poet’s recognition of a more meaningful rhetorical path materializes in the form of a snakelike cord, itself a symbol of fraudulent rhetoric directed toward worldly and blind purpose, and that this cord should summon Geryon, yet another symbol of 14 Inf. 10 also attempts to expiate the guilt Dante felt over inadvertently causing the death of his friend and fellow White Guelph Guido Cavalcanti, whom he, as one of the priors of Florence in 1300, had exiled from the city to put an end to ongoing hostilities between leaders of the Black and White Guelph factions. Another dramatization of corrupt uses of rhetoric can also be found in the poem’s representation of Ulysses, the false counselor whose eloquence leads men to their death. 15 Virgil cautions Dante, “Le parole tue sien conte” [Choose your words with care] (Inf. 10.39).


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fraud and the very vehicle of entrance into the fraudulent world of the eighth circle, is a masterful demonstration of poetic coherence. 16 Well into the poet’s journey through the circle of fraud, cantos 24 and 25 describe the seventh bolgia that teems with the souls of the thieves. The pilgrim and Virgil view a “terribile stipa / di serpenti” [dreadful swarm of serpents] (Inf. 24.82–83), a hissing mass of souls in human form, snakes, six-legged lizards, and half-human, half-reptilian beings. An awestruck pilgrim and his guide witness the violent metamorphoses before them whereby the law of the contrapasso eternally morphs the thieves’ souls into snakes, into ash, and into a grotesque blend of man and reptile. The pilgrim and his guide watch the horrific transmogrifications in silence, while Dante’s descriptive virtuosity occupies center stage. Here no rhetorically gifted sinner like Francesca da Rimini or Pier delle Vigne commands our attention; the words and the verses on these pages belong solely to the poet and announce his artistry. The thieves themselves, in their various processes of losing human form, spit, hiss, shout; the few words that they do speak are disjointed. One thief, Vanni Fucci, identifies himself as an animal (Inf. 24.126) and — should we need further confirmation of his beastlike, inhuman perversion of speech — will at the beginning of Inf. 25 direct an obscene gesture at God himself. In effect, Fucci’s bestial language must be silenced by the poet’s voice. The thief ’s vindictive reference in the concluding verses of Inf. 24 to political events that will directly impact Dante’s life (“E detto l’ho perché doler ti debbia!” [I have told you this so you may grieve!] (Inf. 24.151), coupled with his blasphemous communication to God, result in a providential “robbing” that denies him the ability to sinfully appropriate and distort language. The serpents become Dante’s friends “perch’una li s’avvolse allora al collo, / come dicesse ‘Non vo’ che più diche’” [for one of them coiled itself around his neck / as if to say, ‘Now you shall speak no more’] (Inf. 25.5–6). The eloquence that is denied the thieves is instead foregrounded in the poet’s verses. Amid the bestial utterances and gestures of the damned souls, the poet directs the reader to admire his skill in representing transformations that seem unbelievable if not altogether impossible. Both the reader and the pilgrim witness transformations that have never been seen before, or at least have not been made “seeable” in the way the Christian poet represents them: “Se tu se’ or, lettore, a creder lento / ciò ch’io dirò, non sarà maraviglia, ché io che ‘l vidi, a pena il mi consento” [If, reader, you are slow to credit / what I’m about to tell you, it’s no wonder 16 While the invention of the snakelike cord speaks to the poet’s genius, the pilgrim evinces a no less admirable ability to adapt to circumstances. He virtuously appropriates some of the sinners’ “tricks of the trade” to achieve his aims in the final circles of Hell, where the fraudulent and the traitorous are punished. In Ptolomea the pilgrim will offer what seems a certain promise of relief to the traitorous soul of Fra’ Alberigo and then with righteous satisfaction will proclaim, “cortesia fu lui esser villano” [to be rude to him was courtesy] (Inf. 33.150). By the end of the journey, the pilgrim has fully absorbed the implicit instruction of Bocca degli Abati’s taunt in Antenora that “mal sai lusingar per questa lama” [you ill know how to flatter at this depth] (Inf. 32.96)

Field Notes on the Inferno


/ I saw it, and I myself can scarce believe it] (Inf. 25.46–48). With an all-knowing wink to the starring role of the serpent in the primal theft that took place in the Garden of Eden, the poet in these cantos pilfers intertextually from Lucan’s Pharsalia and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. 17 Dante also more subtly references Virgil’s Aeneid when the latter rebukes the pilgrim for his weariness after climbing and scrambling over various obstacles in the Malebolge with a self-quoting admonition, 18 according to which living without striving to cultivate fame is to leave “only such a mark upon the world / as smoke does air upon water” [cotal vestigio in terra di sé lascia, / qual fummo in aere e in acqua la schiuma] (Inf. 24.50–51). Virgil reminds Dante, lest he and the readers need this reminding yet again, that only “strength of mind” [animo] (Inf. 24.53) will allow the pilgrim to achieve his goal of immortality. 19 The poet’s intentions regarding immortality necessarily transcend Virgil’s and Brunetto’s literary — and therefore limited and temporal — definitions of fame. Dante’s quest for immortality is twofold: textually and spiritually, his salvation rests in the conviction that what his poetry expresses is unassailable truth. Accordingly, the intertextuality at play in the descriptions of the three contrapassi for the thieves has high stakes. Hawkins sees these virtuoso cantos as the dramatization of “the demonic possibilities open to poetry,” a tendency that “derails” poetry in the Inferno and is corrected/converted only in the last canticle of the poem. 20 The poet in these cantos undeniably engages in an infernal competition of words and silencing of all rhetorical precedents. Yet, in these highly Ovidian cantos, the poet is looking to do more than engage in imitation. 21 His ekphrastic competition seeks not just to outdo nature (and other poets) but also to represent 17 Later in this essay I will discuss in detail the metatextual function of Dante’s appropriation of Lucan’s inventory of snakes in the Libyan desert (Inf. 24.82–90 and Inf. 25.94–96) as well as the poet’s brief dismissal of the Ovidian transformations of Cadmus and Arethusa (Inf. 25.97–102). 18 Hollander’s commentary on these verses notes that, beginning with Gregorio Di Siena, citation of Aeneid V.740 (“tenuis fugit ceu fumus in aurus”) established the comparison with the Virgilian episode. After the Trojan games celebrated in honor of Anchises, the father appears to Aeneas in a vision and instructs his son to leave Sicily and to travel to the underworld to learn from him the great fortune that awaits Aeneas’s descendants. The vision of Anchises that disappears “like thin smoke into the air” [The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 151, here v. 964] is appropriated in Inf. 24 to remind the tired pilgrim that he will leave no mark upon the world if he succumbs to weariness during the journey. 19 Similarly, in Convivio 1.2.15, Dante quotes Book IV of the Aeneid where Virgil emphasizes the link between movement and fame. 20 Peter S. Hawkins, “Virtuosity and Virtue: Poetic Self-Reflection in the ‘Commedia,’” Dante Studies 98 (1980): 1–18, here 2. 21 An analysis of Dante’s multiple goals in describing the transformations of the thieves and which emphasizes the cantos’ tension between artistic ambition and spiritual submission can be found in Caron Ann Cioffi, “The Anxieties of Ovidian Influence: Theft in Inferno XXIV and XXV,” Dante Studies 112 (1994): 77–100.


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super-nature, that is, God’s transformations of nature in the afterlife. 22 In cantos 24 and 25, Dante exposes classical precedents as fictions in service of his need to locate truth and authority solely in the poetic meditation that is his Christian, medieval text. The associated cord-snake imagery of Inf. 17, 24, and 25 therefore becomes the vehicle for advancing a rhetorical agenda that wants to distance itself both from the politics of a degenerate city and from any representations that are fraudulent in nature. In this context, Dante’s classical sources can be both mined and discarded as inherently inferior representations of non-truths. Multiple references in the cantos of the thieves to seeming, appearing, changing, and being speak to an emphasis on distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Inf. 24 itself opens with an elaborate simile that recounts an apparent deception perpetrated by Nature herself: in the early morning, a spring frost, “l’imagine di sua sorella bianca” [the very image of her snowy sister] (Inf. 24.5), tricks the peasant into thinking that the earth is still too frozen for him to find a grazing pasture for his sheep. When the frost melts, the once-disgruntled peasant sees that “’l mondo aver cangiata facia / in poco d’ora” [the world has changed its face / in that brief time] (Inf. 24.15–16) and that he, with his mood now likewise changed and hopeful, can begin his day. 23 This first simile that compares the peasant’s disappointment to the travelers’ unexpected discovery of the broken bridge — a bridge that one of the Malebranche had deceived them into thinking would be intact — also establishes in the initial verses of the canto a tension between natural changes effected by the seasons and the supernatural metamorphoses that the poet is about to describe. The seventh bolgia is a hard climb 24 that positions the poet to give voice to the rhetorical and intertextual prowess needed to expose classical precedents as fictions. Dante accomplishes this first by referencing them and then by silencing them in service of a rhetorical mission that links classical precedents with deception and, as a corollary, locates truth in the Christian poet’s representation of a de-natured, monstrous environment,


See Joan M. Ferrante, “Good Thieves and Bad Thieves: A Reading of Inferno XXIV,” Dante Studies 104 (1986): 83–98. As Ferrante notes regarding Dante’s evident goal of surpassing classical descriptions of transformations, Dante succeeds by representing an eternal dynamism, which, I would add, is itself doubly fraudulent because it operates by no productive principle. By presenting the continual shift between a deceptive, reassuring appearance and true hidden, sinister intent, “Dante reveals the reality of fraud, and in this sense goes beyond the metamorphoses of his sources, which, once accomplished, remain fixed in the new condition” (84). 23 The simile compares the reactions of the peasant to the anxious pilgrim who sees Virgil temporarily stymied by the broken bridge leading into the bolgia. Virgil lifts the pilgrim to a safe place where they can begin climbing, and the obstacle that apparently barred their way is now revealed as surmountable. 24 See Inf. 24.31–64, where the poet details the labor involved in gaining access to this bolgia, both physically and poetically.

Field Notes on the Inferno


an environment that is the just landscape of any degenerate city that prioritizes destructive politics over the collective good of its community. 25 The poet’s first target is Lucan’s Pharsalia. The choice is motivated, of course, by the snakes that Cato will encounter in the Libyan desert. Refusing to submit to the rule of Caesar, Cato rallies his weary men as they disembark in Africa: Meet this your weighty task, your high emprise with hearts resolved to conquer. For we march On sterile wastes, burnt regions of the world; Scarce are the wells, and Titan from the height burns pitiless, unclouded; and the slime of poisonous serpents fouls the dusty earth. Yet shall men venture for the love of laws And country perishing, upon the sands Of trackless Libya. 26

Dante references in immediate succession five of the fourteen snakes described at length in the Pharsalia, but the reference to them is morphologically erased by the verb form 27 that introduces it: “Più non si vanti Libia con sua rena” [Let Libya with her sands no longer boast] (Inf. 24.85) the frightening variety and number of snakes found there, for there were not as many as the pilgrim attests to (and the poet describes) in the seventh bolgia of the thieves. 28 The cantos of the thieves function rhetorically through negation or the reductive belittling of meiosis: the poet invokes classical precedents to expose their fatal flaw in service of affirming the sole, authoritative truth that his text represents and transcribes. Despite his assertion to the contrary, however, Dante is no humble scribe of God; a poetics of the marvelous takes center stage as the poet describes the awe-inspiring metamorphoses that the thieves undergo — three of them, not just one: resurrection, mutation, and transmutation. Within the architecture of these descriptions, the poet also constructs three comparisons to the natural world for each unnatural transformation. Dante co-opts Ovidian imagery as he parodically describes the sensual embrace between reptile and human soul that results in the generation of a hermaphroditic, reptilian hybrid: “due e nessun l’imagine perversa/


Dante’s apostrophe to Florence derisively attributes further acclaim to the city so well represented in Hell: “Tra li ladron trovai cinque cotali/ tuoi cittadini” [Among the thieves, I found five citizens of yours] (Inf. 26.4–5). 26 Lucan, Pharsalia 9 (The Internet Classics Archive, 27 The use of the negative hortatory subjunctive first calls to mind and then dismisses Lucan’s lengthy inventory. 28 See Lucan, Pharsalia 9.816–861, for the inventory of snakes and the poet’s recounting of the myth that attributes their presence and multitude to the dripping of Medusa’s blood on the landscape.


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parea” [the unnatural figure seemed both two / and none] (Inf. 25.77–78). 29 His powers of observation yield the arresting simile whereby the moment of blending is compared to a flame advancing across a page as it creates a brownish color that consumes the white but has not yet become blackened ash. The poet’s descriptive pièce de résistance, however, is introduced by another version of that occlusive formula used previously, now making quick dispatch with two words “Taccia Lucano” [Let Lucan now fall silent] (Inf. 25.94), of a gruesomely vivid description of almost fifty verses in length in the Pharsalia of the fates suffered by Sabellus and Nasidius. After Sabellus is bitten by snakes, his horrified comrades watch as he is spontaneously disemboweled, his liquefied insides seeping into the hot sand. Nasidius’s fate is no less terrifying: his tumescent limbs can no longer contain the swelling induced by a prester’s poison and instead explode from his trunk, leaving a still-burgeoning mass of flesh that his comrades dare not approach in order to bury it. The descriptive power of Lucan’s verses cannot be denied, but Dante is determined to pass over them in silence. In a similar fashion, the poet dismisses Ovid’s tales of Arethusa and Cadmus, “Taccia di Cadmo e d’Aretusa Ovidio” [Let Ovid not speak of Cadmus or Arethusa] (Inf. 25.97), who respectively became a fountain and a serpent. 30 Those are lesser marvels that reveal no marvelous truth in comparison with the final metamorphosis the poet will recount in canto 25. Against all Aristotelian principles regarding the natural world and the conservation of matter, in the final transmutation it is not just the form of something that changes but matter itself: the man becomes a snake, and the snake becomes a man. Dante claims his mimesis of the supernatural to be not only novel but also a truthful record of what he witnessed. The poet posits that classical precedents recount fictions that should yield to the truth as embodied in his poem: “Così vid’ io la settima zavorra / mutare e trasmutare; e qui mi scusi / la novità se fior la penna abborra” [Thus I saw the seventh rabble change / and change again, and let the newness of it / be my excuse if my pen has gone astray] (Inf. 25.142–144). While we note the requisite expression of humility in these verses, what is more significant is the poet’s claim that he has transcribed — albeit in human, ergo imperfect, manner — the perfect poetry and the perfect truth of God’s justice. 29

See the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus in Metamorphoses, bk. 4, where Ovid describes the river nymph’s assault on the handsome boy. As the nymph attempts to wrestle the unwilling boy into submission, Ovid’s simile compares their entwined limbs to a mortal battle between an eagle and its unfortunate prey (a snake, of course). The process of creating the hermaphroditic hybrid, the “unnatural figure” of Inf. 25, mirrors the Ovidian transformation whereby “Both bodies in a single body mix, / a single body with a double sex.” Similarly, Dante’s reference to two sets of features blending, each lost in a single face finds its parallel in Ovid’s verses where “Last in one face are both their faces joined” (The Internet Classics Archive, http:// 30 Ovid, Metamorphoses bks. 4 and 5 (The Internet Classics Archive

Corruption and Redemption: An Ecotheological Reading of Ála flekks saga Tiffany Nicole White

Introduction Wilderness plays an important role in religious literature. In Christian literature, the wilderness appears in texts as early as the fourth century as a corrective liminal space. It becomes a popular setting in saints’ lives thanks to Eastern texts such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum Aegyptiorum), in which ascetics go into the desert to fight demons while striving to become closer to God. 1 At the same time, wilderness is used in Christian literature to further mythologize separation from God. 2 This dual imagery of unification and separation was inherited in the West, 3 where the forest replaced the desert as not only a dangerous place 1

One need only to recall the biblical stories of the forty-year exodus of the Israelites and the temptation of Christ in order to understand what these ascetics were imitating. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers made its way to the West most notably via Cassian’s Latin collection based on the Greek Sayings, his Collationes patrum in scetica eremo (Conferences of the Desert Fathers), which in turn heavily influenced the monastic rule of Benedict. 2 Laura Feldt uses the term “wilderness mythology” to describe this dual function; see Laura Feldt, “Wilderness in Mythology and Religion,” in Religion and Society: Wilderness in Mythology and Religion: Approaching Religious Spatialities, Cosmologies, and Ideas of Wild Nature, ed. Laura Feldt, Religion and Society 55 (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), 1–24, here 2. 3 The vita of St. Martin features several scenes in which he cuts down sacred trees and groves and destroys pre-Christian temples in the countryside. Martin’s vita is considered a Western version of the Eastern vita of St. Anthony, in which Anthony tames animals and demons in the desert. Both texts were the principle models for later hagiography, especially Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, which features many forest scenes. Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 101–118.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120897


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that needed to be tamed but also a space where ascetics might cut themselves off from society in order to seek God — where a group of monks could go to build a monastery or a lone hermit could escape. Late medieval romance, a genre highly influenced by hagiography and Christian exempla, 4 similarly used the forest as a locale in which great adventure and often struggle took place. 5 Ála Flekks saga, a fifteenth-century indigenous Icelandic romance, is a stunning example in which the already popular images of the forest and its inhabitants are reshaped into a space with a unique function: it both separates Áli from civilization and allows him to work slowly towards reintegrating himself into the court as king. 6 The saga’s protagonist Áli is portrayed in a different light than the hero or knight in traditional medieval romances. Áli is human, yet othered in several ways: physically, he bears a large birthmark on his cheek, hence his nickname “Flekkr” [spot]; spiritually he is not baptized and thus not fully privy to Christian culture and society; socially he has been rejected by his family because of his father’s omen. With these impediments, he is a liminal character who functions in both nature and culture yet does not fully belong in either. The court (culture) is the seat of the king and his household, whereas the forest (nature) is inhabited by trolls, giants, wild men, and wolves. Áli’s liminality is made more obvious by his ability to cast spells (álög): 7 not only is he cursed but he also curses back, revealing to the reader that some evil lies within him. Spatially, Áli is constantly pulled back and forth between the forest and the court. The theme of the tested knight, common in medieval romance, usually portrays a hero who must complete a series of tests in and out of the forest in order to prove his loyalty or honor. The focus of Ála Flekks saga, however, is not at all on Áli’s proving his loyalty or honor to someone else; it is instead more on his overcoming evil within himself. Rather than being the victor, he is the victim. Rather than the knight saving the damsel in distress, Áli is saved by a woman each time. Rather than being the epitome of good fighting against evil, Áli participates in evil acts. I argue that his otherness is a representation of the


For the suggestion that we call medieval religious romances “secular hagiography” because of their “strong affinity with saints’ lives,” see Andrea Hopkins, The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 12. 5 For two regional studies on the forest in medieval romance, see Corinne J. Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden (Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 1993); and Albrecht Classen, The Forest in Medieval German Literature: Ecocritical Readings from a Historical Perspective (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015). 6 The themes of social integration, segregation, and reintegration in Ála Flekks saga are further explored in Hendrik Lambertus, Von monströsen Helden und heldhaften Monstern: zur Darstellung und Funktion des Fremden in den originalen Riddarasögur, Beiträge zur Nordischen Philogie 52 (Tübingen: Franke, 2013), 129–53. 7 “Álag” (singular) can also mean “tribulation” or “burden”; see An Icelandic-English Dictionary, ed. Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfusson (1962; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 42.

Corruption and Redemption


medieval Christian view of human nature, while the setting, both natural and manmade, works to further the dichotomy of corruption and redemption.

Background and Methodology This nontraditional portrayal warrants a reading beyond that of standard medieval courtly romance. The importance of the forest setting in the narrative and the resulting dichotomy between nature and culture sets an optimal context for reading the saga through the lens of ecotheology, especially because nature is paradoxically depicted as otherworldly. 8 The definition of ecotheology has been fluid in its short lifetime, as Melissa Brotton has noted: Ecotheology is the study of how questions concerning our current understandings of ecology converge with theological inquiry to address the relationships between God, humans, and nonhumans. Ecotheology’s scope, methodology, and language are in continual flux and growth: it takes for its discourse the terminology of sacred texts and adds to it the language of environmental studies. 9

The field developed in response to a short article written by Lynn White, in which he claimed that the roots of our ecological crises lay in the medieval Church’s view of nature. 10 Traditionally, ecotheology focuses on the view of nature in theological texts; what I am proposing here goes beyond those traditional boundaries, not only to examine theological views of nature in non-theological texts but also to presuppose a “vernacular theology” in medieval romance with which we can engage ecocritically. Through this lens, my evaluation will illuminate an example of medieval vernacular literature that reflects theological beliefs of the time, especially those advanced by Augustine of Hippo. 11


Elvey argues that the depiction of nature as otherworldly contributes to the devaluation of nature, underlining the negative portrayal of the space in the saga; see Anne Elvey, “Beyond Culture? Nature/Culture Dualism and the Christian Otherworldly,” Ethics and the Environment 11.2 (2006): 63–84. 9 Melissa J. Brotton, “‘Heaven and Nature Sing’: Introduction to Ecotheology in the Humanities,” in Ecotheology in the Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding the Divine and Nature, ed. Melissa J. Brotton (New York: Lexington Books, 2016), xv–xxvii, here xv. 10 Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203–7. 11 Augustine and his works were well known in medieval Iceland. Augustinian houses were founded in Iceland as early as the twelfth century. Augustine’s vita was translated into Old Icelandic twice, first in the thirteenth century, then in the sixteenth. In the Old Norse biblical texts collected in Stjórn, Augustine is often referred to as a source, sometimes with the words “Ágústínus segir” [Augustine says].


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I intend to read the trials that Áli must go through in order to become king as the allegory of a clearly defined cycle of creation–fall–salvation, which I will treat under two themes: corruption and redemption. By evaluating the series of curses individually and chronologically, I will show that, instead of the traditional figure of the chivalric knight/hero, the flawed figure of Áli, thrown back and forth between the court and the forest, depicts the human struggle with original sin and the path towards redemption. The saga is preserved in some thirty-seven manuscripts, only two of which are medieval. 12 Although it has enjoyed little modern scholarly attention, Ála Flekks saga was very popular in Iceland in the late medieval and early modern period and remained popular until the nineteenth century, as evidenced by the many extant hand-written copies, the most recent from 1870. The saga has received little scholarly attention, not least because of its eccentric storyline. Åke Lagerholm, in the introduction to his 1927 critical edition, dismissed the saga as an artistic failure, stating that “in general one can say that the compiler is by no means lacking in material, but his work is more characterized by an accumulation of motifs that he was unable to put together artistically.” 13 Similarly, Finnur Jónsson calls the saga “quite insignificant” in his 1924 study of Old Norse and Icelandic literature. 14 These evaluations are typical for their time. Until very recently, scholars thought such Icelandic romances to be of little value, as the stories were influenced by the French romance tradition rather than indigenous storytelling traditions. Recent scholarship turns this nationalistic idea on its head by showing that indigenously composed sagas of all genres demonstrate an awareness of both Continental and Nordic literature. 15 The categorization of Ála Flekks saga has escaped scholarly consensus, beginning with Åke Lagerholm’s 1927 edition, in which the saga was categorized as part of the lygisögur [lying-sagas]. More recently, various genres such as Van Nahl’s “originale Riddarasögur” [indigenous romance], Glauser’s “Märchensagas” 12

The oldest manuscript, AM 589 e 4to, is held in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík and dated to the last half of the fifteenth century. 13 Åke Lagerholm, “Einleitung,” in Drei Lygisogur, ed. Åke Lagerholm (Halle: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1927), ix–lxxxii, here lvi. Unless otherwise noted, translations are mine. 14 Finnur Jónsson, Den oldnorske og oldislandske litteraturs historie (Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gads Forlag, 1924), 110. 15 Two recent volumes illuminate the interconnectedness between Icelandic literature, medieval Christian texts, and biblical themes: Haki Antonsson, Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature, Studies in Old Norse Literature 3 (Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer, 2018); and Siân E. Grønlie, The Saint and the Saga Hero: Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017). Similarly, Kalinke’s recent volume emphasizes that indigenous Icelandic romances were an artful mixture of native and foreign material; see Marianne Kalinke, Stories Set Forth with Fair Words: The Evolution of Medieval Romance in Iceland (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017).


Corruption and Redemption

[fairytale sagas], and Barnes’s “independent riddarasögur” [independent Icelandic romance] have been suggested, 16 while Driscoll keeps the saga under Lagerholm’s lygisögur classification, using the English term “late prose fiction.” 17 Kalinke hesitates to place the saga in any genre and instead states that it is a “borderline case that could fit into either the riddarasögur [romance] or the fornaldarsögur [heroic saga] category.” 18 The saga has escaped categorization for several reasons. There is no indication of a time period in which the story takes place, nor are there any explicit religious elements. The story could as easily take place in the pre-Christian period as in the Christian one. Then too, although Áli is clearly the main character, he lacks (initially, at least) heroic elements and is not explicitly called a knight. These anomalies make it difficult to categorize the saga into any of the aforementioned genres. 19 Overall, we see that there is something unique and individual about this story in comparison to others in the indigenous Icelandic corpus.

Part One: Corruption The story of the fall of man and the ensuing corruption of the earth is a topic that long occupied the minds of medieval theologians. Augustine of Hippo’s discussion of original sin became an engrained part of Christian doctrine by the High Middle Ages, including in Iceland. 20 For Augustine, Adam’s first sin was that of pride, which caused him to rebel against God. Adam took the forbidden fruit with hopes of gaining all-encompassing knowledge equal to God’s. The sin of pride resulted in the improper consummation of his and Eve’s relationship because of a desire of the flesh that did not exist before — what is termed concupiscence. Concupiscentia only became a theological term with Augustine; he used the word to refer 16

See Astrid van Nahl, Originale Riddarasögur als Teil altnordischer Sagaliterature. (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, 1981); Jürg Glauser, Isländische Märchensagas: Studien zur Prosaliteratur im spätmittelalterlichen Island (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1983); and Geraldine Barnes, “Romance in Iceland,” in Old Icelandic Literature and Society, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 266–86, here 277. 17 Matthew Driscoll, “Late Prose Fiction (lygisögur),” in A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 190–204. 18 Marianne Kalinke, “Norse Romance (Riddarasögur),” in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide, ed. John Lindow and Carol J. Clover, Islandica 45 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 316–63, here 326. 19 For simplicity, I will refer to the saga throughout as an “indigenous romance.” 20 Well-known medieval thinkers such as Gregory the Great, Peter Lombard, Isidore of Seville, and the Venerable Bede, all of whose works were disseminated directly or indirectly in medieval Iceland, held Augustinian positions on the doctrine of original sin. See Mathijs Lamberigts, “Original Sin,” in The Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine, ed. Karla Pollman and Willemien Otten, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3:1472–78, For the online edition, see


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specifically to a desire that was disordered — that is, not directed towards God. 21 Beatrice points out Augustine’s belief that Adam’s sin of pride caused a “state of confusion and moral insurrection [that] every person experiences within himself. This state involves the painful conflict between flesh and spirit, the condition of helplessness and despair, and the absolute incapacity to set oneself on the path to the good.” 22 Because this original sin is inherited by all humans through the act of copulation, no one is born free of sin. Augustine’s ideas on inherited sin necessitated infant baptism to purify the child of this inheritance. He believed that if a child died without baptism, it would be condemned, 23 an interpretation that was made doctrine at the Council at Carthage in 418. That medieval Icelandic clerics were occupied with the Augustinian idea of the transmission of original sin from very early on can be seen in several Old Norse-Icelandic texts, including one of the oldest preserved texts from ca. 1200, the translation of an encyclopedic work on theological issues written in dialogue form between a disciple and his teacher: Discipulus: Hui es sua fra þeim sagt efster svnþ. at þau sǫ sic necqueþ sem þau séé þat eigi fvrr. Magister: Efster synþ gerþesc fyse munoþliues ílicomom þeira. oc scomþosc þau þeira liþa sinna mest. es til synþar fys-tosc. þuiat þau visso þegar at alt cyn þeira mønde liggia under þeire enne somo svnþ 24 [Disciple: Why is it said of them (Adam and Eve) that after the fall they saw each other naked as if they had not noticed it before? Master: After the fall the desire for a lustful life developed in their bodies. They were most ashamed of those limbs which desired to sin, because they knew right away that all of their kin would be subjected to the same sin.]

Similarly, Konungs skuggsjá [The King’s Mirror] reflects the knowledge that Adam’s pride was an intrinsic element of the Fall. This particular excerpt is from a mock trial in which Adam is examined by Truth, Justice, Peace, and Mercy:

21 Ian A. McFarland. In Adam’s Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 66. 22 Pier Franco Beatrice, The Transmission of Sin: Augustine and the Pre-Augustinian Sources, trans. Adam Kamesar, AAR Religions in Translation (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 41. 23 Beatrice, The Transmission of Sin, 77–91. 24 The Old Norse Elucidarius, ed. and trans. Evelyn Firchow (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1992), 24–25; 1.80–81.

Corruption and Redemption


En þæssi var soc mæst til af yckarri hænndi at æplin varo foghr oc girniligh oc sœt at bærghia. en þit girntuz mioc at væra froðari en yccr var lovat. oc dryghþu þit iþæsso stulð er þit hugðuz lœyniligha taka. En agiarnlect ran þar sæm þit tokut firi lœyfi. En mætnaðar samlect dramb þar sæm þit villdut Guði lik væra ífroðleic yckrum um þat fram sæm yccr var lovat. 25 [For this was the chief motive in your case, that the apples were fair and pleasant and sweet to taste, and that you desired greatly to be wiser than was promised you. You committed a theft in planning to take them secretly, covetous robbery in taking them without permission, and an act of insolent pride in wishing to become like unto God in wisdom beyond what was promised to you.] 26

Like the corruption of humankind after the Fall, the corruption of nature was also a matter of discussion for medieval theologians. Rupert of Deutz, a twelfth-century scholastic theologian from the Rhineland, sees the forest as a result of original sin. Rupert allegorizes that humans are much like trees after the Fall, growing from the contaminated earth that is their mother’s body. Just as Adam and Eve were cursed to live with corruptible bodies, so too nature suffered from the Fall. In comparison to the flawless fruit-bearing trees of paradise, non-fruit-bearing trees, for Rupert, were a result of Adam’s sin, as in the creation story in Genesis: Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation:  seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so.  The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 27

Trees that do not bear fruit are thus examples of the corruption of nature because they are contrary to the trees described in the creation story. 28 The English word “forest,” according to the OED, originates from the Latin foris, meaning “outside” and denoting the boundaries and outskirts of the cultivated clearance where civilization resides. The Old Norse term for forest, skógr, is thought to be related to the word skuggi, “a shadowy place,” indicating the literal tendency of tall trees to cast shadows, while also denoting the darkness of the space in contrast


Konungs Skuggsjá. Speculum Regale. Udgivet efter Håndskrifterne af det kongelige nordiske oldskriftselskab, ed. Finnur Jónsson (Copenhagen: H. H. Thieles Bogtrykkeri, 1920), 192. 26 Laurence Marcellus Larson, trans., The King’s Mirror (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1917), 255–56. 27 Genesis 1:10–11; New International Version. 28 This topic is treated throughout Books 1–3 of Rupert’s De sancta Trintate et operibus eius.


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to inhabited, cleared regions. 29 It is especially interesting to note Iceland’s deforestation long before the late Middle Ages, highlighting the forest’s mythical, allegorical, and exotic status for fifteenth-century Icelandic readers, most of whom had not experienced the forest firsthand. 30 The beginning of the saga brings us directly into the forest, from which Áli will find his way into the world.

Curse one Áli is cursed to die before he is born. As the King of England is leaving for a long voyage, his queen reveals that she is with child. King Rikarðr commands that, if the child is a boy, it should be killed. He leaves, the queen gives birth to a boy, and she commands two slaves to take the baby into the forest and leave him to die. The slaves leave the infant under a tree but tell the queen that they killed him. King Rikarðr’s declaration that the queen should raise the child if she is a girl, but kill the child if he is a boy, is reminiscent of the story of the birth of Moses in Exodus. Áli’s father, the king of England, tells his queen: Ef þú fæðir sveinbarn, þá skal þat út bera, ok hverr er eigi vill þat gera, skal lífit láta. . . . Ek sé, ef þat heldi lífi, at hann muni gera eiga æfi bæði harða ok langa. En ef þú átt mey, þá skal hana upp fæða. 31 [If you have a boy, you must put him out to die. Whoever disobeys me in this shall die. . . . I know that if he lives, he will have a hard and long life. But if you have a girl, she must be raised. 32]

His declaration is strikingly similar to that of the king of Egypt, who commands Hebrew midwives to kill all male babies but let the females live (Exodus 1:15–16). 29 An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 555. Also see Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, ed. Jan de Vries, 2nd edn. (Leiden: Brill, 1962), s.vv. skuggi and skógr; 506 and 497. 30 The early deforestation of Iceland in the settlement period (ca.  832–1000) has been thoroughly treated in Nikola Trbojević, “The Impact of Settlement on Woodland Resources in Viking Age Iceland” (Ph.D. diss., University of Iceland, 2016). Trbojević’s findings are summarized thus: “The country-wide reduction of forest cover, which was significant but not catastrophic, was the result of a deliberate strategy by the settlers to establish and sustain their animal husbandry economy. The animal husbandry required considerable extent of pastures — therefore, at many locations in the absence of appropriate natural treeless pasturelands, the clearance of woodlands by cutting was an obvious choice and the most efficient way of their use since the floor of the original birch forests could provide sufficient amount of utilizable biomass. Woodland clearance was therefore carried out for practical reasons and it was intentional” (199). 31 “Ála Flekks saga,” in Drei Lygisogur, ed. Åke Lagerholm (Halle: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1927), 84–120, here 85. 32 Six Old Icelandic Sagas, trans. W. Bryant Bachman and Guðmundur Erlingsson (Lanham, MD, and London: University Press of America, 1993), 43.

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Both stories lead to the boy being exposed by servants, saved by someone nearby, and eventually brought into court. The comparison between Áli and the baby Moses gives the reader expectations. Áli, like Moses, is predestined for greatness. Although he begins his life in unfortunate circumstances, he will eventually become a leader, although not without first overcoming struggles. Directly after his birth, we are told that he is born bæði mikill ok vænn, translated as “both large and fair,” 33 although vænn can also mean “likely to succeed.” 34 We are also told that he is born with a spot on his cheek, a flekkr. The Old Icelandic flekkr is translated by multiple scholars as ‘birthmark’ 35 but the importance of the flekkr — not only in the title of the saga but also in the name of the protagonist — indicates that it must mean more than just a spot on Áli’s cheek. There has only been one suggestion in scholarship to explain Áli’s enigmatic spot. The “birthmark” gets a brief mention in Leach’s comparative study of the English romance “Havelock the Dane,” where he claims, “The king-mark on Havelok’s shoulder may be found again in the ‘fleck’ borne by Áli in Icelandic romance.” 36 That Áli’s birthmark is a representation of his noble birth, like the red stars worn on one’s shirt in medieval France and Germany, is one of the theories that Lagerholm and later scholars continue to suggest. 37 Lagerholm also suggests that in other cases where flekkr is used as a surname, the person had some sort of physical handicap, comparing the Old Danish flekkja meaning, “grin” or “mocking laugh.” 38 The spot on Áli’s cheek seems to have little effect on his potential or on how others perceive him. Even if Áli’s birthmark was a factor contributing to his exposure or simply a physical manifestation of his father’s omen, according to medieval Icelandic law, he should have been baptized before he was exposed. 39 In line with the already mentioned Christian doctrine on infant baptism, medieval Icelandic laws state that all children should be


Six Old Icelandic Sagas, 44. An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 719. 35 Six Old Icelandic Sagas, 44. Künzler gives the translation “mole or birthmark” in her article, “Mother Remembers Best: Remembering and Forgetting in Ála Flekks saga,” in Skandinavische Schriftlandschaften, ed. Klaus Müller-Wille, Kate Heslop, Anna Richter, and Lukas Rösli (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto, 2017), 184–88, here 186. 36 Henry Goddard Leach, Angevin Britain and Scandinavia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921), 327. 37 For example, Glauser; see note 15. 38 “Ála Flekks saga,” ed. Lagerholm, 87. 39 It is possible that the saga’s composer had the pre-Christian practice of child exposure in mind. In this case, we must still interpret the saga through the eyes of a medieval Christian reader. From this perspective, humans in the pre-Christian world would have had to endure suffering in order to become their best selves, as they were naïve of the path through Christ. 34


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baptized as soon as possible, even if they are physically deformed; Norwegian laws, however, leave room for the possibility of exposure afterwards. 40 After the slaves leave the infant in the forest, he is saved from death by a nearby farmer, Gunni, who hears his cry. Gunni takes the baby to show his wife, and they decide to raise him as their own, giving him a name before retiring to bed. The next morning, however, they both forget the name they gave him, indicating that it must not have held much symbolic meaning. Later that day, on a whim, his foster mother calls him Áli Flekkr, and the name sticks, clearly highlighting the presence of the spot on his cheek, but also suggesting a deeper metaphorical meaning. The ritual of naming is, of course, usually a part of the ritual of baptism. 41 The haphazard approach to naming Áli emphasizes that the situation strays from the norm. The name that stays with the boy underlines his negative qualities, both outwardly and inwardly. True, the word flekkr is used elsewhere in Old Icelandic literature to indicate a physical spot, but it is also used in several medieval Christian Icelandic texts to mean a metaphorical blemish or stain, such as that Jesus died so that humans could be án flekk ok rucku [without sin/blemish and wrinkle] 42 and that Mary was saved af syndarinnar flek [from the stain of sin]. 43 The name Áli Flekkr could thus be read as having a multifaceted meaning, potentially translatable as “Blemished Áli,” referring to him as a carrier of original sin and thus one who is destined to struggle. After Áli grows up with his foster parents in their forest hut, the farmer Gunni and his wife take the young adult to a feast at court, his first step into a space outside of nature. The king and queen recognize him as their own and decide to take him back into court to raise him as a prince. In his new royal position, Áli is quickly confronted with his own pride, the very vice that caused Adam and Eve to rebel against their maker and one that Augustine discusses at length in his writings on


Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid, ed. Vilhjálmur Finsen (Copenhagen: Brødrene Berlings Bogtrykkeri, 1852), 3; Margaret Cormack, “Better off Dead: Approaches to Medieval Miracles,” in Sanctity in the North: Saints, Lives, and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia, ed. Thomas DuBois (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 334–52, here 341. Also see Sean B. Lawing, “The Place of Evil: Infant Abandonment in Old Norse Society,” Scandinavian Studies 85.2 (2013): 133–50. 41 See Jane Bliss, Naming and Namelessness in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008), 31–34. 42 “Pétrs saga postula,” in Postola sögur: Legendariske Fortællinger om Apostlernes Liv, deres Kamp for Kristendommens Udbredelse, samt deres Martyrdød, ed. C. R. Unger (Christiania: B.M. Bentzen, 1874), 90. 43 “Maríu saga,” in Mariu saga: Legender om Jomfru Maria og hendes Jertegn, Det norske Oldskriftselskabs Samlinger, ed. C. R. Unger (Christiania: Brögger & Christie, 1871), 1139.


Corruption and Redemption

original sin. 44 Just as pride led to the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, so too does Áli’s pride lead to his exile from court.

Curse Two When Áli encounters a slave in his father’s court, she curses him for never greeting her with nice words. For his prideful behavior, the kitchen maid, who is a half-troll named Blátönn [Blue tooth], curses him, saying he must go into the forest and take her sister, the troll Nótt [Night], as his wife. Blátönn says to Áli: Þú, Áli, hefir mik aldri kvatt með góðum orðum, ok skal ek nú launa þér þat: þú skalt þegar í stað verða at fara á skóg, ok eigi fyrr létta, en þú kemr til Nóttar, systur minnar; henni sendi ek þik til bónda. 45 [You, Áli, have never greeted me with kind words, and I shall now pay you back for that: you shall immediately go into the forest (i.e., become an outlaw), and never be released until you come to my sister Nótt. I send you to her as a husband.]

The verbal phrase that Blátǫnn uses, að fara á skóg [to go into the forest], is reminiscent of the language used in outlawry. A term often used is skóggangr [forest-going], indicating that the outlaw is banished to the outskirts of society. Áli is, of course, actually going into the forest, but it is because his sinful pride does not allow him to function properly in society, necessitating his expulsion to its outer limits. His expulsion from the court into the forest can be compared to Adam’s expulsion from paradise, a topic that is discussed in Konungs skuggsjá, in which Adam is called an outlaw: Þa var um þat rœtt æf hann ætti syni hvart þeir skylldu giallda hans loghbrota. eða skylldu þeir niota þæira giafa oc oðala er Adamr var ut lægr fra rækinn. og guð hafðe hanum gefit firi andværðu. Rettvisi svaraðe. hvorso mægho synir hans þeir er getnir værða í utlægð niota þæra giava er hann var utlaghr fra rækinn. 46 [Then it was discussed whether, in case he had sons, they should suffer for his sin, or be allowed to enjoy the gifts and the riches that God had given him at the beginning, but from which he had been ousted like an outlaw. Justice

44 Pride is treated extensively throughout both De civitate Dei [On the city of God] and De Genesi ad litteram [On the literal interpretation of Genesis]. 45 “Ála Flekks saga,” ed. Lagerholm, 89. 46 Konungs skuggsjá, 193.


tiffany nicole white said: “How can his sons, who will be begotten in exile, enjoy those gifts that he forfeited as an outlaw because of transgression?”] 47

Elizabeth Walgenbach has recently demonstrated that outlawry in medieval Iceland was connected to excommunication, thus referring to outlawry as “secular excommunication.” 48 Indeed, the story of Áli is evidence of just that: Áli is cursed to go on a quest into the forest and outside the boundaries of lawful society, making him an outlaw. At the same time, both as an outlawed figure and one who is not baptized, he is denied the rights to any sacraments and is thus, both symbolically and by definition, an excommunicate. Áli’s inherently sinful nature is made clear by his exchange with Blátǫnn. Not only does she curse him but also he curses her back: “Þat mæli ek um, at þú farir til eldahúss, ok verðir at einni hellu, ok kyndi þrælar eld á þér. En ef ek komumz frá Nótt trǫllkonu, þá skaltu klofna í sundr, ok láta svá lífit,” 49 [Then I curse you to go back to the kitchen and become a stone slab where slaves will burn their fires, and if I escape from this troll Nott, you shall then crack in two and die]. 50 Áli’s ability to curse, or to perform magic, demonstrates his state of liminality. This cursing is performed so often that it becomes the main thread of the saga, its prevalence unmatched in any other saga or modern tale, as noted by Lagerholm. “These curses [álög], however, correspond to those in other lying sagas [lygisögur] and to modern Icelandic folktales, but as far as I know they do not appear anywhere so often as they do in this saga, in which the plot is about them and the consequences that they have for the hero and his enemies.” 51 This unique cycle of curses plays an important role in the allegorical depiction of the human struggle on earth after the Fall. Áli is predestined to reside in the court and become king; however, he does not yet fully have the ability to do so because a part of him is corrupt, a part that allows him to participate in actions such as cursing Blátǫnn to turn her into a stone. He thus cannot fully function in courtly society, yet as a future king he also does not entirely fit into the wooded locale to which he has been exiled. Still, the longer he stays in the forest, the more he breaks down, slowly becoming more in accord with his surroundings. After Áli overcomes the troll Nótt in her cave, he wanders through the forest for eighteen days and starts to resemble a wild man, his clothes tattered and his mind seemingly not intact. 52 As he wanders deeper and deeper into the forest, he loses both his way and himself. When he suddenly comes upon a castle, which belongs to a maiden king, Þornbjǫrg of Tartaria, he takes on a new 47

The King’s Mirror, 256–57. Elizabeth Walgenbach, “Outlawry as Secular Excommunication in Medieval Iceland, 1150–1350” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2016). 49 “Ála Flekks saga,” ed. Lagerholm, 89. 50 Six Old Icelandic Sagas, 45. 51 Lagerholm, “Einleitung,” lv. 52 This could be compared to the medieval figure of the wildman or wodewose. 48


Corruption and Redemption

identity and name, Stutthéðinn [Shortskin], perhaps indicating his ability to change skins or identities. 53 After a fortunate turn of events, Áli reveals his true identity and marries the maiden king. His corrupted, exiled state, however, does not allow him to take part properly in the marriage. 54

Curse Three Just as he gets into his elaborately decorated marital bed, wearing nothing but his underwear, Áli is approached by a half-troll named Glauðarauga [Glowing eye], who is the brother of both of his foes, the half-troll Blátǫnn and the troll Nótt. He howls at Áli saying: Gott hyggr þú nú til, Áli, at sofa hjá meykonungi; en nú skal ek launa þér þat á þik, at þú verðir at vargi ok farir á skóg ok drepir bæði men ok fé, ok á þat fé grimmastr, er meykonungr á, ok at því mest leggjaz. 55 [You may be looking forward to sleeping with the maiden king, Ali, but now I’m going to reward you for the trouble you caused my sister Blue-tooth: You shall now become a wolf and live in the forest, slaying both men and livestock, especially the livestock of the maiden king.] 56

Given Áli’s continued inner conflict, he then curses the slave back, promising Glauðarauga that he will hang from the gallows in the forest as soon as Áli escapes his wolf form. By shedding his clothing, and thus metaphorically his disguise as Stuttéðinn, Áli is caught in a vulnerable position, as his true self and nature come to the forefront. In his naked, vulnerable state, his sinful self is revealed, by the very vice through which Adam’s sin has been transmitted: lustful desire or concupiscence. Augustine writes that, while pride caused the fall of man, concupiscence was the result of it. Adam and Eve were able to procreate without lust before they sinned. Augustine goes as far as describing that the stimulation of the genitals in preparation for copulation was once controlled by will in the same way as lifting one’s arm or moving an eyeball; after the Fall, however, concupiscence became uncontrollable 53

Peggy McCracken discusses the medieval literary use of skin to indicate taking off or putting on different identities; see Peggy McCracken, In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017). 54 The very fact that Áli can just marry Þornbjǫrg simply by volunteering to lead her army shows a deviation from the traditional maiden king figure, who usually has to be won over or tamed; see Marianne E. Kalinke, Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1990). 55 “Ála Flekks saga,” ed. Lagerholm, 99. 56 Six Old Icelandic Sagas, 50.


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and a necessary element of the process. After the Garden of Eden, even the most pious married couple could not get anywhere without lust. Procreation is good, but the act of copulation needed for procreation is, according to Augustine, inherently sinful. 57 A common symbol of concupiscence in the Middle Ages was the wolf. 58 Áli as wolf represents not only his insatiable desire for his bride but also the barbarism and uncontrollable destruction that is tied to both sin and a wolf ’s natural behavior. The wordplay in Old Icelandic is fitting: Vargr means both “wolf ” and “outlaw” — both of which are only able to live and function outside of society and in the forest. 59 Áli’s second condemnation of outlawry and his resulting metamorphosis underline the deterioration of the body as he moves further and further from God, represented spatially by his wandering deeper and deeper into the forest, slowly becoming one with his surroundings. David Hunter outlines Augustine’s ideas about the effects of sin on the body: [According to City of God and On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis], all human evil and suffering came to be seen as a fracturing of the original unity and harmony of creation, a gaping fissure between body and soul, caused by the pride of the soul. Augustine argued that the loss of union with God’s spirit led directly to a disintegration of body and soul evident in human sickness, sex, and death. 60

Áli’s destiny to kill members of society and domesticated animals of both his wife’s and father’s kingdoms show the perceived threat that original sin and its manifestations hold for medieval society, including the importance of maintaining civilized behavior. That Áli is specifically said to have killed not only cattle but also horses shows his anti-chivalric character, targeting an animal that is not for food but, rather, for companionship and a necessary element of knighthood.


This idea is summarized in Stjórn, which attributes it to Augustine. For the connection to Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, see Stjórn: Tekst etter håndskriftene, ed. Reidar Astås (Oslo: Riksarkivet, 2009), 52. 58 A thorough treatment of the wolf and the shapeshifting werewolf can be found in Dennis Kratz, “Fictus Lupus: The Werewolf in Christian Thought,” Folia: Studies in the Christian Perpetuation of the Classics 30 (1976): 57–80. 59 The medieval Icelandic law code Grágás discusses the definition of vargr: “the outlaw, who has forfeited his rights to human existence and is driven into the skógar or viður [forest or wood], is called a vargur [wolf].” Translated in Guðrún Nordal, “Animal Imagery in Íslendinga saga: The Wolf and the Fall of Sturla Sighvatsson,” in Samtíðarsögur: The Contemporary Sagas. The Ninth International Saga Conference Preprints, ed. Sverrir Tómasson (Akureyri: Verlag nicht ermittelbar, 1994), 247–58, here 252. 60 David G. Hunter, “Augustine on the Body,” in A Companion to Augustine, ed. Mark Vessey and Shelley Reid (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), 353–64, here 357.


Corruption and Redemption

Áli escapes the curse when his foster mother recognizes the wolf by his eyes, and she pleads to the king to spare the wolf. The next morning, Áli wakes up naked next to a wolf ’s skin, which his foster mother immediately burns. The countercurse is fulfilled when Glauðarauga is then hung on gallows in the forest.

Part Two: Redemption A doctrine developed in the Middle Ages that, by going through a set of trials, people could redeem themselves from their wrongdoings. When and where these trials should have taken place was varied amongst Christian thinkers until the image of a “third place” developed, which was later called purgatory. 61 The image of an earthly purgatory was often deployed in medieval literature; the Old Norse-Icelandic term for it was hreinsanarelldr [cleansing fire]. The Old Norse-Icelandic Elucidarius contains this short discussion: Discipulus: hvat er hreinsanar elldr. Magister: Svmum meingerder þær er þeir taka af illvm monnvm j heime. En svmvm meinlæte þav er þeir mæda likam sinn j fostvm og j vokvm eda j odrv erfide. Svmvm er hreinsvnar elldr manna miser. en svmvm fiar skade. svmvm sotter. en svmvm voladi. og svmvm sarligvr davdi. En epter davda er hreinsvnar pisl bitvr elldr eda micit frost. eda avnnvr pisl nockvr. [Disciple: What is purgatory? Master: To some the wrongs which they endure from evil men in the world, but to some the castigations with which they plague their body by fasting, vigils, and other hardships. To some purgatory is the loss of men and to some the loss of property, to some disease or misery, and to some painful death. And after death the torment of purgatory is hot fire or severe frost or some other torture.] 62

One popular example of such an earthly trial was leprosy, which as a deadly sickness was seen as a punishment for sin. Often called “the disease of the soul,” it


A detailed description of the background of purgatory can be found in Jacques Le Goff ’s The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). While the post-medieval image of purgatory was a place between heaven and hell that one could only go to after death, the earlier idea of purgatory was rather fuzzy, evidenced by the quotation from Elucidarius. 62 The Old Norse Elucidarius, 78–79.


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was thought of as an outer reflection of inner corruption. 63 Lepers held a unique position in medieval society. While considered unclean, they were also considered blessed, for trials through sickness and journey toward health were a call to holiness, a gift from God, a “holy disease.” 64 The contraction of leprosy thus gave sufferers a chance to atone for sins, a chance for redemption. 65

Curse Four One night as Áli is lying at home in bed, he has horrible dreams. He wakes up out of breath, and his retinue asks what is the matter. He explains that the troll Nótt met him in his dream and beat him with an iron whip, 66 which left him with sores that would not heal until Nótt’s brother Jǫtunoxi uses a special ointment to heal him. His followers send for the king, who brings every known doctor in England to heal Áli, but to no avail. He lies with his sores for twelve months, until they begin to decay and smell. 67 Áli reveals to his father that he is married to Queen Þornbjǫrg of Tartaria and asks his father to send for her. She comes to England with five of her ships. As soon as she arrives, she goes to Áli and kisses him. 68 After overwintering, the queen sails with Áli through all of the north seeking a cure, to no avail. They then sail to Africa, stay there for two years, and still find no healer. Áli’s sores are now so bad that his body stinks and no one will help him except the queen. After another two years, they sail to India, where they overwinter. There they learn where Nótt’s brother Jǫtunoxi can be found, but it is in the land of giants, which lies at the ends of the earth where no humans reside. They sail off from India to the end of the world and find Jǫtunoxi’s home. After disguising themselves, they meet the giant and request that he heal Áli with his ointment. After several negotiations, 63 Saul Nathaniel Brody, The Disease of the Soul: Leprosy in Medieval Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), 147. 64 Timothy S. Miller and Rachel Smith-Savage, “Medieval Leprosy Reconsidered,” International Social Science Review 81.1/2 (2006): 16–28, here 19, 23. 65 See Elma Brenner, “Recent Perspectives on Leprosy in Medieval Western Europe,” History Compass 8.5 (2010): 388–406, here 393. 66 The noun used here, járnsvipa, is only attested elsewhere in hagiography, often in scenes in which saints are beaten or martyred. 67 This could be compared to the instance in the Middle High German romance Der Arme Heinrich, in which God strikes Heinrich with leprosy because of his pride. He is only healed after he realizes what behaviors he needs to correct. 68 Peyroux evaluates a motif in hagiography she calls “The Leper’s Kiss,” which depicts a holy woman (usually a virgin) kissing a leper as a sign that she will embrace him despite his condition. Þornbjǫrg fills this very role; see Catherine Peyroux. “The Leper’s Kiss,” in Monks and Nuns, Saints and Outcasts: Religion in Medieval Society, ed. Sharon Farmer and Barbara H. Rosenwein (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 172–88.


Corruption and Redemption

Jǫtunoxi agrees. Once healed, Áli burns down the giants’ feasting hall before he and Þornbjǫrg depart to their ship.

Curse Five Jǫtunoxi hears of this and curses Áli, who will have no rest until he finds Nótt’s half-troll daughter Hlaðgerðr in the forest. Jǫtunoxi then dies at the hands of his slaves. Áli goes searching for Hlaðgerðr, Nótt’s daughter. He searches for five years on his journey through Sweden the Great. 69 One day, as he is going through the forest called Myrkviðr [dark forest], he encounters a troll, whom he cuts in two. This signals the first heroic act that Áli performs in the saga, marking his increasing strength and ability to overcome his inner turmoil. Áli then comes out of the forest to a tiny village and knocks on the door of a hut. A tall bearded man guides him to Hlaðgerðr, whom the king of Sweden the Great wants to burn as an accused witch. Áli finds the half troll and asks the king to spare her. She is spared, and the king becomes very fond of her. Shortly thereafter, the king asks Hlaðgerðr to marry him, which she does. Áli’s ability not only to overcome his personal trials but then to use his strength to help others shows that his transformation is now complete. In his new form, he is now able to be the king, husband, and father he is destined to be. This is elucidated when he marries Þornbjǫrg a second time. When Þornbjǫrg married Áli the first time, he was unable to fully participate in his marriage because of his corrupted state. Now that he has survived the many trials that were set before him, he can live happily ever after.

Conclusion The Saga of Blemished Áli should be read as an allegorization of the Augustinian belief of the corruption of the earth and the potential redemption of the human race. What is striking throughout the saga is the negative depiction of the natural world, used to represent corruption. 70 The wilderness, including the forest and mythical far-off places such as the world’s end, creates a setting that brings a character’s true, untamed, and often unsightly nature to the fore. Events take place in the wild that would never happen in civilized society. Animals represent the beastly nature within humans, the difficulty of taming desire after the Fall, and 69

Sweden the Great was a medieval term used to describe the northern parts of Eastern Europe. 70 The study of the portrayal of the natural world in Old Icelandic literature is lacking. A fruitful ecocritical evaluation is needed in order to further discuss whether this negative betrayal is common or not in time and space.


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the destructive behavior that resides outside of civilization. Physical impediments are visual representations of the corrupt state that humans are born into and must overcome in order to obtain salvation. These negative features are pitted against the court: the man-made structure of medieval society that frowns upon the uncontrolled, wild behavior of those residing beyond its boundaries and thus outside of the laws of Church and court. The gloomy depiction of the natural world serves to highlight the access that every human, although born into sin, has to salvation, through a journey like Áli’s. This elaborate set of trials that Áli must go through should be seen as an earthly purgatory, a hreinsanareldr [cleansing fire]. 71 In order to overcome his inherent nature, Áli must overcome not only the demons in the forest but also the sin within himself. Only then can he become who he was destined to be. His corrupt human nature, which I have argued is representative of an Augustinian view of original sin, is depicted through Áli’s lack of baptism and exposure to the elements, followed by his struggles with the two vices Augustine associates with original sin — pride and concupiscence — and his ability to perform the same magical acts of cursing as trolls do. The forest and other domains of wilderness outside the court are therefore mandatory spaces through which Áli must pass in order to rid himself of these impediments. As a space representative of sin itself, the forest is where corruption comes to the fore and is fully realized, allowing Áli to undergo a slow transformation, until he has achieved the necessary purification to fully participate in society as a godly king and husband. By staying true to both the Church’s beliefs and the literary frame of the romance genre, the compiler of Ála Flekks saga creates a masterpiece that reflects both the belief and the literary trends of the time in which it was written.


In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist mentions both the baptism of water and fire. Many theologians posit that a baptism of fire means baptism through trials.

Visualizing the Medieval Park: Real Spaces and Imagined Places in le livre De chasse Rebekah L. Pratt-Sturges

Eighty-seven gilded half-page miniatures bring the medieval hunting park to life on the pages of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit français 616, an early fifteenth-century copy of the popular hunting manual Le livre de chasse composed in 1389 by Gaston Fébus, Count of Foix and Viscount of Béarn (1331–1391 c.e.). 1 The hunting space visualized within the manuscript presents an ideal medieval park, reflecting the aristocratic manipulation of such spaces in real life. The illuminations of Le livre de chasse replicate and reinforce the intentional design of the landscape and the social performance of the hunt as they guide the viewer through the pursuit of prey. The medieval chase existed in reality through action within the park but also in the imagination of the aristocracy evidenced through the sumptuous decoration within the manuscript, thus creating a dialogue between the real and the ideal through the practice of the hunt and its representation on the pages. This essay explores the composition, content, and style of the landscapes depicted within the miniatures and argues that their abstract design embodies the manipulation of the natural world in real hunting parks and intentionally articulates medieval 1

Paris, France, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit français 616 (hereafter, BnF 616), 218 folios (Paris, ca. 1407). The manuscript contains two works by Gaston Fébus — Le livre de chasse (fols. 11–121) and the Oraisions (fols. 122–138) — as well as a later copy of Déduits de la chasse by Gace de la Buigne (ca. end of the fifteenth century, fols. 139–214). I encourage readers to explore the exceptional digital reproduction of BnF 616 on the Gallica website at https://gallica. as they read this essay. I would to like recognize the labor of the archivists and digitization staff of Gallica, which made this manuscript available to the public, as well as the generosity of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in placing the high-quality images within the public domain. Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 119–138.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120898


rebekah l. pratt-sturges

notions of real and imagined spaces. Application of the spatial frameworks put forth by art historians Margaret Goehring and Jean Givens in combination with theorist Henri Lefebvre illuminates the social construction of space in life and on the page and explains why the miniatures do not simply serve an informative function but instead transform the artificiality of the medieval park into a perceived natural state where humans reign supreme. This essay begins with an examination of Le livre de chasse as a meaning-making object that codified the medieval hunt as an act of social performance for the nobility and did so as part of a long-standing tradition of hunting manuals in aristocratic libraries. The manuscript is more than an educational manual; its extensive ornamentation reflects the significance of the noble hunt as an event essential to the construction of noble identity and one that merited reproduction as a work of art to be displayed prominently to peers. The next two sections explore the practices of the noble chase within the manufactured medieval park as presented in the illuminations. The ceremonial aspects of the hunt, combined with the impracticality of methods of pursuit, required ritualized activities such as group participation in a prescribed order of actions. The following section analyzes the abstraction evident in the illuminations through the lens of Givens’s realistic, naturalistic, and descriptive modes of visual representation combined with the medieval perception of the fluid dimensionality of space in relation to objects. The essay concludes with examination of the production of place within the physical medieval park and the social performances within the space as mirrored in and re-enacted by the miniatures of Le livre de chasse.

Illuminating Power and Prestige With eighty-seven gilded and gold-painted miniatures among 111 folios of Le livre de chasse, BnF 616 is one of the most ornate hunting manuals of the Middle Ages to survive today. The elaborate visual program reminds modern viewers that medieval audiences experienced illuminated manuscripts not only as readers but also as beholders of the most luxurious objects of the period — brilliant with vivid paint and gold, embodying the materiality of a work of art. The patrons of sumptuous secular books conveyed their status by demonstrating both their wealth through the expense of the works and their knowledge of and participation in the noble cultural practices articulated within their pages. The contents of the commissioned codices served as instructions for and as models of the social performance of the noble class. As expensive and lavish objects, books such as BnF 616 produced what art historian

Visualizing the Medieval Park


Michael Camille eloquently described as an “aura of power and authority, stimulating an awe and, for an owner, delectation and fervid attention.” 2 Today, forty-six copies of Gaston’s manual survive in private and public collections around the world. 3 BnF 616 and another early fifteenth-century manuscript — New York, Morgan Library and Museum, MS 1044 (hereafter Morgan 1044) — are the most famous of the extant copies of Le livre de chasse. Together with BnF MS fr. 619 (hereafter BnF 619) and St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum, MS OPp N.º 2 (hereafter Hermitage OPp N.º 2), these codices form the primary manuscript family that all other copies likely imitated. 4 As a fundamental part of aristocratic culture, the collecting of books transcended the pursuit of knowledge and conferred status on their owner by reinforcing both the reality of life for medieval elites and their imagined idealized worlds, which continuously sought “to legitimize the existing order of relations of domination and subordination” — worlds particularly evident in a book devoted to the ritualized performance of the noble pursuit of nonhuman animals. 5 Brigitte Buettner identifies the art patronage of the French elite as the implementation of a “cultural policy” that led to extensive private libraries filled with a variety of manuscripts given as gifts, commissioned, and purchased on the book market, evidence that accounts for Gaston’s dedication of his manual to the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold (1342–1404). 6 Gaston presented the duke with a copy of the original manuscript; however, neither Gaston’s original manuscript nor the gift itself survives. 7 Current scholarship 2

Michael Camille, “Glossing the Flesh: Scopophilia and the Margins of the Book,” in The Margins of the Text, ed. D. C. Greetham, Editorial Theory and Literary Criticism series (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 245–68, here 258. 3 Marcel Thomas and François Avril, The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus: Manuscrit français 616, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale (London: Harvey Miller, 1998), 76–78. The authors provide the most comprehensive inventory to the date of publication (1998). The numbers vary slightly among scholars because some works are in private collections and others are believed to have been lost prior to adequate cataloging. 4 Marcel Thomas and François Avril, “Introduction to the Hunting Book,” The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus: Manuscrit Français 616, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ed. Wilhelm Schlag, trans. Sarah Kane, Manuscripts in Miniature 3 (London: Harvey Miller, 1998), 3–16, here 6. 5 Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 1–24, here 20. See also Lena Liepe, “On the Epistemology of Images,” in History and Images: Towards a New Iconology, ed. Axel Bolvig and Phillip Lindley (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003), 415–30, here 424. 6 Brigitte Buettner, “Profane Illuminations, Secular Illusions: Manuscripts in Late Medieval Courtly Society,” The Art Bulletin 74.1 (1992): 75–90, here 75. 7 Thomas and Avril, The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus, 5–6. Gaston’s original copy is no longer extant. Today, scholars debate which of the remaining manuscripts may be the codex gifted to Philip; however, general consensus assumes BnF 616 was a direct copy of Philip’s book. Claudine Pailhès refers to the possibility that the gift to Philip was lost in Madrid in 1809; see Claudine Pailhès, Gaston Fébus: le prince et le diable (Paris: Perrin, 2007), 196. Gunnar Tilander


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argues for BnF 616, commissioned by the duke’s son John the Fearless (1371–1419) around 1405, to be considered a likely direct copy of the gift to Philip. 8

Medieval Hunting Manuals and Le livre de chasse Gaston’s Le livre de chasse presents one of the most comprehensive sources for medieval hunting methods (excluding falconry) and is part of a centuries-old tradition of hunting manuals as a literary genre in the Middle Ages, beginning in the eleventh century with the production of Latin treatises. 9 Medieval cynegetic works (related to hunting with dogs) reached their height during the thirteenth through fifteenth

and Carl Nordenfalk both present possible manuscript families for the major extant and lost codices; see Carl Nordenfalk “Hatred, Hunting, and Love: Three Themes Relative to Some Manuscripts of Jean sans Peur,” in Studies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Painting in Honor of Millard Meiss, ed. Irving Lavin and John Plummer (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 324–41; and Gaston III Phébus, Livre de chasse: Éd. avec introduction, glossaire et reproduction des 87 miniatures du manuscrit 616 de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris par Gunnar Tilander, ed. and trans. Gunnar Tilander, Cynegetica 18 (Stockholm: Almqvist och Wiksell, 1971). 8 Camille Couderc, “Introduction,” in Livre de la chasse par Gaston Phébus comte de Foix. Reproduction réduite des 87 miniatures du manuscrit français 616 de la Bibliothèque nationale, ed. Camille Couderc (Paris: Berthauld Frères, 1910). Noteworthy parallels in composition, style, and content of the illuminations of several of the court copies of Le livre de chasse, such as BnF 616 and Morgan 1044 (Paris, ca. 1407), and with the images of the two other elaborate copies, BnF 619 (Paris, ca. 1440) and Hermitage OPp N.º 2 (Paris, ca. 1400), allow scholars to study these manuscripts, in particular BnF 616, which possesses a more complete provenance, in lieu of the elusive originals. A comparison of the visual program of another closely connected manuscript, BnF Manuscrit français 12399 (Paris, ca. 1379; hereafter BnF 12399), a copy of Henri de Ferrières’s Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio, with BnF 616 shows significant similarities in the foliage patterns surrounding the miniatures as well as in the alternating red and blue borders outlined with gold, abstract background, and content of the illuminations despite the production of this codex nearly thirty years earlier. As the manuscript dates to ten years prior to Gaston’s composition of his hunting manual, the shared aspects of the illuminations and design with all four copies of Le livre de chasse indicate the original commissioned by the count and the gift to Philip were likely to have been modeled, at least in part, after BnF 12399. 9 An Smets and Baudouin van den Abeele, “Medieval Hunting,” in A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age, ed. Brigitte Resl (London: Berg, 2012), 59–80, here 66. Smets and Abeele note that treatises from antiquity exist but were not a significant influence on manuals during the Middle Ages. The earliest medieval works date to the eleventh and twelfth centuries and focus on falconry and hawking, subjects that dominated the genre throughout the Middle Ages. For more on hunting with birds during the medieval period, see Robin S. Oggins, The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); and John Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988). Also see Michael W. Twomey’s contribution to this volume.

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centuries, beginning with the hawking treatises of the 1200s. 10 Only one manual from the twelfth century addresses the method of vénerie [hunting], the Latin De arte bersandi, by the German knight Guicennas, but several accounts exist in literature. These include the influential Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg and the anonymous poem Chace dou cerf. 11 The production of original manuals rather than transcriptions from earlier Latin treatises into vernacular languages began in the fourteenth century. The most notable hunting works included the poem Le Roman des Déduis [The Pleasures of Hunting] by Gace de la Buigne (ca. 1359) and Henri de Ferrières’s approach to hunting through his imaginary conversations between Queen Reason and King Method on the natures of man and animals as well as their debate on vénerie versus falconry in Le livre du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio (ca. 1370). 12 The third major hunting composition of the century was Le livre de chasse, which quickly became popular with the nobility across Europe. In the early fifteenth century, Edward, Duke of York (1373–1415), translated the first thirty chapters as The Master of Game, indicative of the widespread dissemination of Le livre de chasse. 13 While few 10 Smets and Abeele, “Medieval Hunting,” 66. Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen composed the most comprehensive falconry manual of the Middle Ages, De arte venandi cum avibus, and Albertus Magnus wrote De falconibus in the early thirteenth century. The latter was added to De animalibus, his encyclopedic approach to the animal kingdom (1260–1270). See also Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, The Art of Falconry, Being the De Arte Venandi cum Aribus, trans. and ed. Casey A. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1943); and Albertus Magnus, On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, trans. and annotated Kenneth F. Kitchell, Jr., and Irven Michael Resnick, 2 vols. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). 11 Smeets and Abeele, “Medieval Hunting,” 67. For more on thirteenth-century hunting texts, see Baudouin van den Abeele and An Smets, Texte et image dans les manuscrits de chasse médiévaux (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2013), 342; and Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan, ed. and trans. A. T. Hatto (London: Penguin Books, 1967). For a translation of and commentary on Chace dou cerf, see Françoise Fery-Hue and Gunnar Tilander, “Chace dou cerf,” Dictionnaire des lettres françaises: le Moyen Âge, ed. Geneviève Hasenohr and Michel Zink (Paris: Fayard, 1992). Pailhès, Gaston Fébus: le prince et le diable, 191. Henri de Ferrières was a Norman lord. Gace de la Buigne served as chaplain and falconer to Jean the Good (1319–1364). 12 See also Henri de Ferrières, Le livres du Roy Modus et de la Royne Ratio, trans. and comm. Gunnar Tilander, vol. 1 (Paris: Société des anciens textes français, 1932); and Armand Strubel and Chantal de Saulnier, La poétique de la chasse au Moyen Âge. Les livres de chasse du XIVe siècle (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1994), 264. 13 Thomas and Avril, The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus, 5. See also Edward, Duke of York, The Master of Game, ed. W. A. and F. Baillie-Grohman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Despite the challenges inherent in determining the survival rates for medieval manuscripts, Uwe Neddermeyer developed a system to establish numbers for all manuscripts produced based on extant codices, with an estimated five to seven percent surviving to the present. One might thus extrapolate that as many as 500 iterations of Le livre de chasse may have been


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records account for composition of Le livre de chasse, the prologue reveals when Gaston began the manual: “This book was begun on the first day of May, the year of grace of the Incarnation of our Lord, which numbered one thousand three hundred and eighty and seven.” 14 Composed in French rather than Gaston’s native Occitan and the Gascon dialect of Béarnese, the manual was completed in 1389. Le livre de chasse focuses on vénerie [venery], the method of hunting with hounds, being treated in four main sections before the epilogue: “On Gentle and Wild Beasts,” “On the Nature and Care of Dogs,” “On Instructions for Hunting with Dogs,” and “On Hunting with Traps, Snares, and Crossbow.” 15 Throughout Le livre de chasse, Gaston describes in depth the aristocratic pursuit of animals, articulating how hunters “should identify, pursue, capture, and kill animals during the chase à force [on horseback], via “bow and stable” methods as well as through the use of traps, snares, and pits. 16 The manual also includes instructions for the ritual of breaking apart the stag and boar (prescribed cutting open, skinning, and dismemberment) and explains how the integral companions of the hunt à force, the hounds, should be cared for and trained. 17 Of the many methods of pursuing wild animals — including traps, snares, and pits, as well as with a variety of weapons — the aristocracy preferred the hunt à force, as it allowed for the pursuit of a larger animal, such as the stag, on horseback with produced, especially if including the copies of The Master of Game; see Uwe Neddermeyer, Von der Handschrift zum gedruckten Buch: Schriftlichkeit und Leseinteresse im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit; quantitative und qualitative Aspekte (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998), 47–62. 14 Gaston Phébus, Le livre de la chasse: texte intégral trad. en français modern, trans. André Bossuat and Robert Bossuat, intro. and comm. by Marcel Thomas (Paris: Lebaud, 1986), 38. My translation from the modern French. 15 Hannele Klemettilä, Animals and Hunters in the Late Middle Ages: Evidence from the BnF MS Fr. 616 of the Livre de Chasse by Gaston Fébus (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015), 11. See also Pailhès, Gaston Fébus: le prince et le diable, 182. For a concise summary of medieval hunting, see Smets and Abeele, “Medieval Hunting,” 59–80. 16 John Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 50. The pursuit of prey à force contains an element of surprise since the chase covered large distances and the animal, especially stags, may choose an unexpected path. In contrast, bow and stable hunting refers to the hunt with a predetermined location for the kill and the driving of the animal via relays to a specific area. In some accounts, archers await the prey while in others, assistants shouted and made noise to push the animal forward on the desired path. 17 Le livre de la chasse, trans. Bossuat and Bossuat, 108. Scholars of medieval hunting adopt the English terms “unmaking,” “undoing,” or “breaking” for the entire ceremony (skinning and dismemberment); however, there is not an equivalent French term for the ritual. Both Gaston and modern translators André Bossuat and Robert Bossuat use the French terms écorcher [to skin] and dépecer [to cut apart] to describe the ceremony. See also Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, 41, Klemettilä, Animals and Hunters in the Late Middle Ages, 51; and Richard Almond, Medieval Hunting (Stroud: Sutton, 2003), 78.


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hounds across an expanse of land. Such pursuit of unpredictable animals like the stag, the boar, and the bear required the combat skills of expert horsemanship and swordsmanship, characteristics that separated the elite from other classes in medieval society. The typical hunting party included the lord of the hunt, frequently the owner of the medieval park in which the hunt occurred, and fellow aristocrats, along with other members of various ranks. The events followed a particular order and design with each participant performing specific duties during the hunt. 18 The formalization of the hunt as well as its impractical approach to securing game marked it as a ritualized performance that constructed aristocratic identity. Group participation unified the nobility through a social spectacle that excluded other classes of society. The continuity of following the order of the hunt meant that each participant would have experiences and outcomes similar to those of participants in the past, in other places at the same time, and in the future. All of this transpired within a designated physical location, that of the medieval park.

Hunting Parks The supreme hunting space was an infinite wilderness with limitless animals to chase, maim, and kill. 19 Aristocrats desired the largest possible parks, as these enabled nobles to hunt à force across significant distances, a challenge for even the most experienced riders. The parks could extend for hundreds of acres in order to create different terrains for a variety of species within the enclosure, another ideal aspect of the landscape represented in the illuminations of Le livre de chasse. 20 In the section “On Gentle and Wild Beasts,” Gaston devotes the first thirty-seven folios to the animals pursued. He catalogs, categorizes, and describes them in both text and image. He positions them within a clearly defined order outside of their natural state, as determined by their value as prey rather than their natural role in the landscape — thus outside of nature in the manufactured space of Le livre de chasse. In his commentary he placed the stag at the top of his hierarchy as the noblest of prey and carnivores such as otters, cats, and wolves at the bottom, thus subsequently reviled. As the premier animal of the hunt, the stag and thus multiple breeds of deer (Fig. 1), appear repeatedly in Le livre de chasse, amid the variety of the customary habitats in medieval hunting parks. Deer required a forest with woods of varying size, density, and age as well as one with open areas interspersed throughout, 18 Susan Crane, Animal Encounters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 103. See also Almond, Medieval Hunting, for a comprehensive examination of medieval hunting in England. 19 Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, 2. 20 S. A. Mileson, “The Sociology of Park Construction,” in The Medieval Park: New Perspectives, ed. Robert Liddiard (Macclesfield: Windgather Press, 2007, distributed London: Central Books), 45.


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Figure 1. Stag, Le livre de chasse, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit français 616, fol. 16r, circa ca. 1407. Permission kindly granted by Gallica.

illustrated on several illuminations. The emphasis on woodland reflected the growing importance of the topography within the preferred aesthetics of medieval hunting in an ideal forest well supplied for pursuit. 21 Deer lived within managed spaces, which encompassed diverse landscape elements such as broken woodland comprised of coppice stools and pollards (fol. 63r), clear spires and high wood of the deep forest (fol. 64r), and the valleys and low hills of higher, drier areas for fallow deer (fol. 20r). 22 Pastures amidst cornfields can been seen in the illumination 21 Robert Liddiard, “Introduction,” in The Medieval Park: New Perspectives, ed. Robert Liddiard (Macclesfield: Windgather Press, 2007, distributed by London: Central Books), 1–11, here 1. Liddiard notes that while the parks were known as “deer parks” in popular history and early scholarship, it is incorrect to assume that only deer resided within the enclosures. 22 Aleksander Pluskowski, “Who Ruled the Forests? An Inter-Disciplinary Approach towards Medieval Hunting Landscapes,” in Fauna and Flora in the Middle Ages: Studies of the Medieval Environment and Its Impact on the Human Mind, ed. Sieglinde Hartmann (Frankfurt am Main and New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 291–323, here 301–5. See also John Cummins, “Veneurs

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of folio 62v, in which a huntsman follows a lymer [scent-hound] in pursuit of the fumées [droppings] of the stag. 23 As an enclosed habitat, the intentional design of medieval parks included the planting of trees, hedgerows, and other vegetation as well as creation of pastures. 24 The illumination of folio 66r portrays a vineyard or orchard with shredded beech and oak trees along the right side of the composition, revealing the human intervention in tree planting and cultivation within hunting spaces to attract multiple species, such as boars, bears, foxes, and hares. 25 Folios 37r and 101v depict streams stocked with fish and mountain crayfish to sustain otters, and folio 67r shows a human-made fountain under a small barrel vault. Park owners frequently altered the landscape with additional water elements, such as artificially created streams, ponds, and marshes. 26 While deer were the main focus of the parks, some animal habitats significantly altered existing landscapes. Rabbits required warrens, which could vary in size and shape and might contain new additions to older tunnels. 27 Folio 26v depicts a warren amidst rolling hills. Rabbits with varying shades of fur move in and out of several tunnels, their heads and tails protruding out of dark holes in the center of the composition. Though improbable in reality, Gaston’s illuminated park also included reindeer within an alpine landscape on folio 19v (Fig. 2), which may have resembled the mountainous spaces of his own lands in the Pyrenees. The four stylized ridges allude to the overhangs under which reindeer rested in their native Scandinavia. On the following page, the count recalls a visit made to the region in 1357–1358. 28 Once Gaston presented the large array of animals within his hunting grounds — such as several species of deer (red, fallow, roe), ibex, hares, bears, wolves, badgers, and wild cats — in the section “On the Nature and Care of Dogs” (fols. 37r– 54v), he prepared the viewer to hunt in his carefully designed landscape by discussing the hounds necessary for hunting à force. After humans and horses, Gaston emphasizes the importance of dogs in the chase. The illumination of folio 37v depicts the most common canine breeds — such as alaunts, greyhounds, mastiffs, s’en vont en Paradis: Medieval Hunting and the ‘Natural’ Landscape,” in Inventing Medieval Landscapes: Senses of Place in Western Europe, ed. Michael Wolf and John Howe (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002), 33–56. 23 Pluskowski, “Who Ruled the Forests?” 301. 24 Aleksander Pluskowski, “The Social Construction of Medieval Park Ecosystems: An Interdisciplinary Perspective,” in The Medieval Park: New Perspectives, ed. Robert Liddiard (Macclesfield: Windgather Press; London: Central Books, 2007), 63–78, here 65. 25 Pluskowski, “Who Ruled the Forests?” 302. 26 Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, 35. 27 Pluskowski, “The Social Construction of Medieval Park Ecosystems,” 66. 28 Pierre Tucoo-Chala, Gaston Fébus, prince des Pyrénées, 1331–1391 (Pau: J. & D. éditions; Bordeaux: Deucalion, 1991), 30.


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Figure 2. Reindeer, Le livre de chasse, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit français 616, folio 19v, circa ca. 1407. Permission kindly granted by Gallica.

running hounds, and spaniels — and describes their natures and roles in the hunt. 29 The following illuminations depict aspects of caring for the hounds and portray each breed and its behaviors. There is also one miniature of their kennel (fol. 52v), and illustrations of the training of young men to be huntsmen.


Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, 12–31. My identification of the hounds follows John Cummins’s descriptions.


Visualizing the Medieval Park

The Medieval Hunt With the quarry of the hunt identified and the hounds and the apprentices prepared, Gaston lures the viewer deep into his realm as the chase draws near. The hunt comprises several stages or steps: the quest, the gathering, the finding, the chase, the baying, the unmaking, and the curée [ritualized rewarding of the hounds]. 30 During the quest, huntsmen search for evidence of the stag — such as its scent, hoof prints, and droppings — and listen for its belling in the following eleven miniatures. Once a huntsman has discovered the path of the stag, he sounds his hunting horn to mark the end of the quest. Early on the morning of the hunt, the group has come together to break their fast in the forest during the gathering. One illumination shows Gaston contemplating which stag to pursue as the head huntsman reports to him and the other nobles of the hunting party (67r). The next stage of the hunt, the finding, encompasses the stationing of relays to move the stag and enable a better chase for the riders. During this step, scent hounds on loose leashes trace the movement of the animal. Once it is discovered, the huntsmen sound their oliphants to alert the group and mark the beginning of the chase across the park. When cornered or too tired to flee, the stag turns to face his pursuers. This moment, known as the baying, is among the most dangerous of the hunt. Hounds then surround the animal, while the hunting party gathers to await the arrival of the lord if he is not already at the site. After his arrival, the lord plunges a sword between the shoulder blades of the animal. As this is quite dangerous, another huntsman may first disable the stag by severing the tendons of one or both hind legs. When a stag bays in water, an arrow or a bolt from a crossbow delivers the fatal blow. After the stag’s final breath, the hunters blow their horns simultaneously to mark the end of its life. Assistants, under the direction of the lord of the hunt, conduct the ritual dismemberment the animal. Assistants begin the dismemberment by slicing open the stag along the length of the anterior side of the body. A miniature presents the second part of the ceremony, the fleaning [flaying of the skin] of the animal, beginning with the skin around the joints (70r). Assistants skin the animal in the center of the composition while Gaston supervises, much larger and in a deep red and gold embroidered tunic. Once the fleaning is complete, the corpse is lain on its detached hide, fully flayed, and then brittled [cut up into pieces]. 31 Gaston describes delectability of the internal organs, which, once removed, the master huntsman presents to important noble participants. 32 The final stage is the curée, during which the huntsmen reward the hounds for their efforts. Bread sopped with blood is sometimes combined with 30

Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, 33. The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus: Manuscrit français 616, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, ed. Schlag, 48. For an in-depth exploration of unmaking as a ritual, see Rebekah Pratt, “From Animal to Meat: Illuminating the Ritual of Unmaking,” eHumanista 25 (2013): 17–30. 32 Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, 41–43. 31


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the paunch and small intestines, along with leaner meat from the neck and shoulders, and placed on the skin of the stag before it is given to the hounds. Gaston clearly preferred the hunt à force, as he devoted significant space in the manual to the practice; however, he continued to take the book’s viewer across the many landscapes of his medieval park in pursuit of many other species in the next group of (73r–101v). He follows the hounds across different landscapes in deer (roebuck, buck) but also reindeer, wild boars, bears, wolves, foxes, and wildcats. In addition to the species pursued on horseback, he accounts for those chased on foot, such as otters, hares, rabbits, and badgers. Gaston completes Le livre de chasse with the hunt par la maistrise [by mastery], using ruses, subterfuge, traps, and hunting bows.

Visualizing the Medieval Park While some scholars argue that Gaston preferred à force hunting and eschewed the methods par la maîstrise, his inclusion of all techniques in Le livre de chasse underlines the integral role of parks in the construction of aristocratic status and identity. Although his colorfully illuminated manuscript is a luxury item, its encyclopedic scope is meant both to instruct the count himself and to identify him as an expert hunter and the owner of hunting grounds that are both representative and ideal. As the author and designer of Le livre de chasse, Gaston uses the social landscape of his imagined medieval park to demonstrate his status as an expert huntsman and also to convey his wealth, power, and mastery of the wild. 33 This is perhaps most clearly articulated in the first illumination of the manual, which shows Gaston enthroned — the first of the “animals” represented and at the top of hierarchy, the super-predator of the forest (13r). As noted by Richard C. Hoffman, “nature matters because it means something else,” serving as a sign “[to] mark human identity, and/or to play off against humanness.” 34 Within the medieval mind, parks were a form of social capital as “pleasure landscapes” that were expensive to create and maintain and also redirected land from more economically fruitful endeavors. 35 The larger the park, with more diverse flora and fauna, the greater the prestige an owner gained. 36 A sovereign gave the right to empark, thus associating the medieval hunting space with noble authority. For Gaston, the inclusion of a park in his estates at Béarn demonstrated 33 Ian D. Rotherham, “The Ecology and Economics of Medieval Deer Parks, Archaeology and Ecology,” Landscape Archaeology and Ecology 6 (2007): 86–102, here 83–84. 34 Richard C. Hoffmann, An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 97. 35 Martin Hansson, Aristocratic Landscape: The Spatial Ideology of the Medieval Aristocracy (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2006), 133. 36 Robert Liddiard, Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500 (Oxford and Macclesfield,: Windgather Press, 2005), 106.


Visualizing the Medieval Park

his claim as a divinely appointed sovereign. Remains of at least one of the count’s enclosures survive at Châteaux Moncade, his capital in the region. 37 Aristocrats often built large-scale parks, such as those necessary for the hunt à force, next to their castles and visible from the residence. 38 Gloriettes or platforms overlooked the park, providing a window into the carefully ordered artificial wilderness, much like the enclosing frames of the illuminations of Le livre de chasse. 39

Real and Imagined Spaces The medieval park of the manual visualizes this physical control of the landscape and the “ideological conception” of the space as the manifestation of aristocratic authority and power over the natural world through overall composition, content, and visual style. 40 Half-page landscape scenes with stylized backgrounds and within frames of red, blue, and gold decorate all eighty-seven miniatures of BnF 616. Many of the illuminations contain abstract gold backgrounds, such as the incised, interlacing diamond patterns of folios 50r (Fig. 3) and 94r. A stylized leafy pattern illuminates the sky in the background of the miniature on Fig. 4, and folios 52v, 53v, and 54r depict intricate floral designs. Other images within the manual contain monochromatic backgrounds of sapphire and ruby with foliage or repeating patterns of diamonds, studs, and squares on folios 57v, 86r, and 106v. Additional scenes include backgrounds with alternating patterns of gold, red, and blue, such as the checked design of folio 116r (Fig. 5). 41 At first glance, the backgrounds of the illuminations of Le livre de chasse may seem rudimentary in their style and perspective in contrast to the more “realistic” depictions of the animals. Historically, it was assumed that the medieval landscape functioned as either wholly symbolic or completely ornamental in design and purpose as a result of Renaissance writings which privileged particular aesthetic criteria for representing nature as evidence of actual observation. 42 Burgeoning interest 37

Klemettilä, Animals and Hunters in the Late Middle Ages, 61. Hansson, Aristocratic Landscape, 133; and Oliver H. Creighton, Designs upon the Land: Elite Landscapes of the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, Suffolk, and Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2009), 65. 39 Creighton, Designs upon the Land, 149. 40 Liddiard, “Introduction,” 6. 41 The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus: Manuscrit français 616, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ed. Schlag, 8, 12. 42 Margaret Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament: The Function of Landscape in Medieval Manuscript Illumination (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), 4. This is evident in the most recent examinations of Le livre de chasse by scholars outside of art history. William Schlag notes that the absence of realistic space demonstrates “a deliberate and conscious decision on the part of the artists, aware that they were illustrating a technical and factual treatise.” See The Hunting Book 38


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Figure 3. Spaniels, Le livre de chasse, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit français 616, folio 50r, circa ca. 1407. Permission kindly granted by Gallica.

in empiricism certainly impacted the naturalism found in the images, but the illuminations must be considered within their cultural context as an important aspect of a commissioned luxury object and a work of art for an aristocratic audience, not merely an illustrated text whose value lies more in words than the images within.

of Gaston Phébus: Manuscrit français 616, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ed. Schlag, 13. Jacqueline Stuhmiller criticizes the two-dimensionality of the images in several paragraphs of her essay, stating, “The artist does not attempt to create any illusion of depth or distance” and the “illustrations of animals [are]attractively and variously posted against decorative backgrounds.” See Jacqueline Stuhmiller, “Hunting as Salvation in Gaston Phébus’s Livre de la chasse (1387–1389),” in Rural Space in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: The Spatial Turn in Premodern Studies, ed. Albrecht Classen and Christopher R. Clason (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 505–28, here 515–16. Hannele Klemettilä emphasizes that the miniatures are indicative of an encyclopedic text with a “pragmatic” purpose for identification of the animals as part of a “new appreciation for wildlife.” See Klemettilä, Animals and Hunters in the Late Middle Ages, 12. As the only art historian to critically examine the illuminations, I disagree.

Visualizing the Medieval Park


Figure 4. Boar pitfall, Le livre de chasse, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit français 616, folio 107v, circa ca. 1407. Permission kindly granted by Gallica.

Additionally, the illuminations should be understood through consideration of medieval perceptions of both real and imagined spaces. 43 Throughout the art of the Middle Ages, abstraction gives form to the materially inconceivable sacred as well as the invisible presences of the soul and God. 43

The essays of the 2015 anthology Re-Inventing Traditions: On the Transmission of Artistic Patterns in Late Medieval Manuscript Illumination counter the perception of the patterns of medieval illuminations as “generic” or “merely ornamental” but sees them, rather, as a way of conveying ideas from within culture as well as reflective of the internal qualities determined by the artist’s own intent, interpretation, and experience. See also Joris C. Heyder, “Re-Inventing Traditions? Preliminary Thoughts on the Transmission of Artistic Patterns in Late Medieval Manuscript Illumination,” in Re-Inventing Traditions: On the Transmission of Artistic Patterns in Late Medieval Manuscript Illumination, ed. Joris Corin Heyder and Christine Seidel (Bern: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2015), 15–30, here 29–30.


rebekah l. pratt-sturges

Figure 5. Shooting the boar, Le livre de chasse, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrit français 616, folio 116r, circa ca. 1407. Permission kindly granted by Gallica.

Medieval people believed in the theory of correspondences, “which held that all things material could be systematically analogized to a spiritual counterpart,” thus “revealing divine will.” 44 Through this, the stylization of human form came to articulate the holy and became an important artistic convention. Ornament “became a ‘visible manifestation of significant intent’” and the means to visualize the unseen in material form. 45 As a social construction, the perfect medieval park exists only in the imagination, but the manuscript makes it physical. The ideal superior hunting space transforms from the “shapeless, invisible space” of the mind into “a visible and specific place” through the illuminations. 46 In addition to this symbolic 44 45 46

Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament, 56. Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament, 56. Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament, 28.

Visualizing the Medieval Park


understanding of the style of the images, the absence of realistic representations of space in the rendering of forms also illustrates ideas of how space itself worked in the medieval world as a place of “overlapping spaces, both real and imaginary, that were heterogeneous,” with changeable boundaries. 47 Margaret Goehring argues that medieval people understood space and objects as “distinct, individual” things, with space “defined as a container for any object” and thus not perceived as infinite. Instead, an object’s volume was “determined by the contiguity of its boundaries” within the borders of the space by which it was confined. 48 As a result, objects within a space were not static in their dimensionality. The representation of forms as stylized or from unnatural perspectives developed out of these ideas and combined with existing artistic practice and patron intent. Within this framework and following the method of understanding medieval visual representation advocated by Jean Givens, the illuminations of Le livre de chasse present several modes of viewing: a “realistic” mode (the portrayal of a real object), a “naturalistic” mode (may or may not be a real object but can reveal the “inherent irregularity, asymmetry and organic movement of living things”), and the “descriptive” mode, which communicates information about the world but does not need to be realistic in representation. Most late medieval artists employed these modes interchangeably or together within illuminations, as well as within the visual program of an entire manuscript, as a way of communicating information to a medieval audience. Within this framework, both style and composition possess symbolic importance. 49 Within Le livre de chasse, the viewer encounters all three methods of representation in varying combinations. The illuminator of the miniature on folio 19v (Fig. 2) employs all three modes in the depiction of reindeer. The artist renders the reallife objects of the foliage and reindeer naturalistically and descriptively. Reindeer of different ages and genders interact with one another and with the landscape in the composition. The animals pose in different positions, articulating the volume of the body as it shifts and moves in life. At top left, a large bull (male reindeer) turns one way while his head looks towards the center of the composition, where a calf (baby reindeer) and cow (female reindeer) gaze at each other in profile. Though identifiably “real” creatures that take up space, their representation follows the naturalistic mode instead of being fully realistic. It is unlikely the illuminators knew what reindeer looked like, and so the animals appear as red deer affixed with exceptionally large antlers and slightly hairier coats. In reality, reindeer more closely resemble a bull/deer hybrid with much thicker tines. The miniature differentiates one animal 47

Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament, 27. Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament, 15. 49 Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament, 26. See also Jean A. Givens, Observation and Image-Making in Gothic Art (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 101–4. 48


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from the deer with a feature unique to reindeer: the brow shovel with the smaller forward-pointing tines visible in the rack of the reindeer at bottom left. The trees follow the naturalistic mode in their shape and in the gradation of their leaves, but not in size or relationship in space. Viewers will understand what they see, as these representations are descriptive with enough visual information to make the subject clear. The stylized and gilded leafy patterns against the cobalt background are not naturalistic; however, their location along the horizon line establishes the sky’s place in a landscape that “is an abstract construction within the mind of the viewer.” The representation of the landscape in this way is intentional. It is not “just” an aesthetic, pictorial vision of nature but is also a visualization of “the perception and construction of environment,” a conversation between the human and nature. 50

The Production of Place The original of this medieval park existed in physical space, but its representation becomes a place through its artificiality as a site of social practice, constructed out of nature but not natural. As a social landscape, the illustrated park inhabits both real and mental spaces through the artist’s design and control, forming an ideal environment, simultaneously real and imagined. The manuscript and the park existed in a system of spaces that conveyed both the aristocratic self and collective identities. Such space can be understood as possessing “an abstract, conceptual essence relating to, but independent from, mere geographical dimension” — a combination of the constructed place of culture and the physical world around us. 51 For the medieval park, the point of origin is the physical forest. Nature gains meaning through the appropriation of the forest to create an unnatural, artificial space. The human element changes the landscape by creating pollards, pruning trees, manufacturing streams, incorporating particular plants, and restricting or expanding the life cycles of the creatures within the forest. This conscious modification causes nature to lose its authenticity. The medieval park assumes nature to be “merely the raw material” that furthers the goals of its designer. Within medieval Christianity, man was divinely required to tame and cultivate God’s creatures and land. 52 The aristocratic manipulation of the landscape asserted man’s dominion over earth, the right of the nobility to express its superiority in bending nature to its will. The artificial creation of the park made it an idealized space, with man adapting and improving nature. It was nature at its best, maximized for aristocratic use, and conveying status to peers and other classes of medieval society.


Goehring, Space, Place and Ornament, 27. Megan Cassidy-Welch, “Space and Place in Medieval Contexts,” Parergon 27.2 (December 2010): 1–2. 52 Liddiard, Castles in Context, 117. 51

Visualizing the Medieval Park


The medieval park forged a social, representational space that became a place of meaning through “action, by movement and use” as the site of social performance through the noble hunt. 53 As a place, it is the site of practiced or lived-in social space, which determined its design, layout, and physical characteristics. 54 The symbolic use of the objects within the physical landscape overlays its origin as nature. It still appears to be like nature, though idealized in design. The actions within the space, the hunt à force in particular, further differentiate it from other landscapes. The ritual acts within the medieval park mark it as a site of inclusion for the nobility. The “articulation and manipulation” of space further differentiates between noble and ignoble by excluding particular individuals and groups through physical boundaries and from participation in the activities within. 55 Large entry gates helped readers visualize the moment of transcending borders from one space to another, including that of a particular lord. 56 The transition demonstrated the lord’s domination over his fellow man through wealth, class, and power, and also over nature through the establishment of physical borders that excluded the world outside. Only members of a similar class or of serviceable use (such as lower ranked servants, pages, dog handlers, and hunt assistants) could enter it, and their actions within were pre-determined. The ritual activities of the hunt also marked the park as the site of the display of particularly noble values. As a formalized activity by designated members of society, supervised by experts such as Gaston, and following ideologically oriented rules in the pursuit of a prize, the hunt is a form of ceremony within a particular space and specific time with witnesses to show its efficacy. 57 The hunt à force restricts participation to the nobility through the killing of animals in ways similar to mounted warfare, as seen in the killing of the boars (fol. 95r). The danger of taking down the animal in such a way tests the equestrian skill of the rider as well as his courage to face the charging animal’s ferocity and sharp tusks. The distinction in roles, such as the noble as slayer of boars and stags, illustrates social difference. Witnesses in the form of peers confirm the hunter as noble, while an audience of members of the lower class establish distinction in rank. Each member of the hunt must comply with his assigned role and tasks so as not to violate the rules of the hunt. The medieval park thus becomes the place of the expression and expansion of the power and status of its aristocratic participants through the hunt à force over man and beast. 58 The manuscript illuminations reproduce the symbols and meaning associated with the performance within the park and thus influence the production of the space in lived reality by re-affirming their validity. 53 54 55 56 57 58

Cassidy-Welch, “Space and Place in Medieval Contexts,” 2. Cassidy-Welch, “Space and Place in Medieval Contexts,” 2. Cassidy-Welch, “Space and Place in Medieval Contexts,” 3. Mileson, “The Sociology of Park Construction,” 13. Crane, Animal Encounters, 66. Crane, Animal Encounters, 71.


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The medieval park exists as “a construction of the imagination placed onto wood and water and rock,” an idealization of the natural world via manipulation that becomes representative space through the actions within. 59 The manuscript furthers this projection into the conceptual space of the ideal by reinforcing its social meaning and becoming a cultural medium that “naturalizes [the] cultural and social construction” of the medieval park and thus “represent[s] an artificial world as if it were simply given and inevitable.” 60 The invention of the ultimate park emerges in the illuminations and signifies the social importance of the place. The manuscript exists as a simulacrum of the park, representing the origin of the park in its scenes of nature, but it also is an idealized representation of an artificial scene created through the altering of nature. The framed illuminations themselves present a picture of the supreme hunting landscape through abstraction and composition, windows into the manicured manipulation of nature that determine the social expectations of the medieval park: what should be done there, by and to whom, and for what reasons. 61 The stylized painted landscapes of Livre de chasse represent an ideal notion of nature, much as did the parks that served as models, rather than a natural conception. The viewer, like Gaston, becomes the predator with dominion over all. 62


Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1995), 61. W. J. T. Mitchell, “Introduction,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 2. 61 Mitchell, “Introduction,” 5. 62 Mitchell, “Introduction,” 16. 60

Part III The Early Modern World

Nature as Book and Stage in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Chronicle of Nicaragua Sarah H. Beckjord

What mortal mind can comprehend such a diversity of languages, habits, and customs among the peoples of the Indies? Such a variety of animals, some domesticated and others savage and fierce? Such an unnarratable multiplicity of trees, some copious with fruit, and others sterile; some cultivated by natives and others produced by nature alone. . . . How many plants and herbs that are useful and beneficial to man? How many innumerable others unknown to him? . . . How many mountains more admirable and frightful than Etna, Vulcano, and Stromboli — all of which are under the rule of your monarchy? 1

In the prologue to his Historia general y natural de las Indias, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478–1557) alludes to the enormity of his project and the interpretive difficulties it presents. Nature in the New World is “unnarratable,” in part because its species and phenomena are “innumerable” and as yet unknown to European readers. The novelty of the subject matter creates opportunities and challenges 1

“¿Cuál ingenio mortal sabrá comprender tanta diversidad de lenguas, de hábitos, de costumbres en los hombres destas Indias? ¿Tanta variedad de animales, así domésticos como salvajes y fieros? ¿Tanta multitud innarrable de árboles, copiosos de diversos géneros de frutas, y otros estériles, así de aquellos que los indios cultivan, como de los que la natura de su propio oficio produce.  .  .? ¿Cuántas plantas y hiervas útiles y provechosas al hombre? ¿Cuántas otras innumerables que a él no son conocidas? . . . ¿Cuántos montes más admirables y espantosos que Etna o Mongibel, y Vulcano, y Estrongol; y los unos y los otros debajo de vuestra monarquía?” Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Historia general y natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Océano, ed. Juan Pérez de Tudela Bueso, 5 vols. (Madrid: Atlas, 1992), 1:8. All quotations are from this edition, hereafter cited by volume and page. Translations are my own. Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 141–157.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120899


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for Oviedo, who stakes his lofty claim to authority on eyewitness experience, not formal training. The pledge to witness or “see with corporal eyes what is visible in God’s marvelous composition” 2 is related to the topos of nature as a book or manifest creation of the divine will akin to the Bible in its authority. “There is nothing erroneous or poorly composed in nature,” he writes, “because the Master and Creator could make no mistake, nor anything inconvenient nor useless.” 3 Though nature itself is flawless, not so the eye of the observer. The image of the natural world as a composition or book insinuates the need for a skillful interpreter capable of perceiving the meaning of the providential design. Oviedo cites Pliny’s Historia naturalis as the model for his history, yet notes that he lacks the sort authoritative written sources available to the Roman historian. His work is based instead on experience gained from “thousands of hardships and dangers in the service of God and King.” 4 Although he imitates the structure of the Historia naturalis, organizing much of his material according to the taxonomies and categories characteristic of an encyclopedia, 5 Oviedo also covers a field untouched by Pliny — that of human history. His catalogue of natural phenomena is interspersed with the history of the Spanish conquest of the West Indies, and these two topics converge in Book 42, in which the landscape becomes a backdrop for broader historiographic concerns. Here the description of Nicaragua’s marvelous topography becomes a setting in which the author portrays himself at work and offers a spectacle of his hard-earned methods that the reader can witness without getting his or her feet wet. 6 Book 42 addresses a variety of subjects related to the geography, inhabitants, and natural history of Nicaragua. Within this mixture (“ensalada”) of topics, Oviedo’s description of the region’s lakes, mountains, and volcanoes is a particularly rich and little-studied site for examining the author’s portrait of himself, first as a researcher performing his work onsite in the late 1520s and later as an armchair historian who compiled and evaluated accounts by others. The chapters on the landscape and natural resources in this book were written over a period of nearly two decades and provide insights into the ways in which the cronista [chronicler] sought to obtain knowledge in this conflictive period of colonial expansion as well as the verbal and visual methods he adopted to persuade readers of the validity of his account. Composed at a time when the author’s past actions and writings were under attack, this section of the Historia natural y general emphasizes Oviedo’s authorial performance and also his “staging” of the accounts of others. 2

Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 1:8. Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 2:188. 4 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 1:11. 5 For an analysis of Oviedo’s complex imitation of Pliny, and prior scholarship on the subject, see Jeremy Paden, “The Iguana and the Barrel of Mud: Memory, Natural History, and Hermeneutics in Oviedo’s Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias,” Colonial Latin American Review 16.2 (2007): 203–26. 6 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 1:11. 3

Nature as Book and Stage


Oviedo’s substantial contributions to New World history are well known and have been much studied since Antonello Gerbi’s landmark examination of the sources, methodology, and legacy of the Historia general y natural. 7 Recent scholars have deepened our understanding of particular aspects of Oviedo’s complex visual and rhetorical strategies, his historiographical insights, and his use of emerging empiricist methods. 8 One aspect yet to be fully explored is Oviedo’s representation of different forms of spectacle and authorial performance in his account. By authorial performance, I mean the cronista’s staging of himself in the text in two ways: as eyewitness observer and participant in the act of researching natural phenomena; and as an author who performs his role of summarizing, revising, and interpreting the accounts of others at the time of his writing. 9 In the sections on Nicaragua, which the author claimed represented some of his best work, 10 he displays the writing of history as a dynamic process. Like any historian, Oviedo represents past events and also interprets their significance for a later public. By dramatizing his textual persona in action, the author brings not just the landscape but also his signature historiographical method to life. By the time the cronista undertook his chronicle of Nicaragua, he was already a published author who had years as a colonial official under his belt. 11 He first traveled to the New World in 1514 with a royal appointment of escribano general [notary public] and several other official salaried commissions, including that of 7 Antonello Gerbi, Nature in the New World: From Christopher Columbus to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, trans. Jeremy Moyle (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 255–305; first published as La natura delle Indie Nove: Da Christoforo Colombo a Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1975). 8 On Oviedo’s mixing of subjective and objective discourse, see Jesús Carrillo, in “From Mt. Ventoux to Mt. Masaya: The Rise and Fall of Subjectivity in Early Modern Travel Narrative,” in Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel, ed. Jas Elner and Joan-Pau Rubiés (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), 57–73; on his visual and rhetorical techniques, see Kathleen A. Myers, Fernández de Oviedo’s Chronicle of America: A New History for a New World, with translations by Nina M. Scott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), esp. 41–62 and 63–81; and on the author’s uses of narrative perspective in history and its methodological corollaries, see Sarah H. Beckjord, Territories of History: Humanism, Rhetoric, and the Historical Imagination (College Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007), 43–85. 9 I am indebted here to the discussion of authorial performance in Almut Suerbaum, in collaboration with Manuele Gragnolati, “Medieval Culture ‘betwixt and between’: An Introduction,” in Aspects of the Performative in Medieval Culture, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati and Almut Suerbaum, Trends in Medieval Philology 18 (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 1–12. For a discussion of Oviedo’s self-positioning as “actor and autobiographer” in his history of the conquest of Tierra Firme, see Myers, Fernández de Oviedo’s Chronicle, 41–62. 10 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:336. 11 On Oviedo’s biography, see Juan Pérez de Tudela Bueso, “Vida y escritos de Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo,” in Historia general y natural de las Indias, by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, ed. id., Biblioteca de Autores Españoles 117 (Madrid: Atlas, 1992), 1:vii–clxxv.


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veedor [official overseer] of mines. He participated in Pedro Arias de Ávila’s conquest of the Darien (today Panama and part of Colombia), an incursion notorious for its ruthless violence toward native peoples. Oviedo returned in 1515 to Spain, where he would spend the next five years lobbying at court, first against Pedrarias Dávila (as Arias de Ávila was known) and later against Bartolomé de las Casas’s bid to peacefully colonize Cumaná (now Venezuela). The cronista would subsequently include a scathing account of las Casas’s endeavor in his history, and the intellectual rivalry between these two outlived them both. 12 Back in the Indies in 1520–1523, Oviedo traded in pearls and acted as teniente de gobernador [lieutenant governor] of the Darién. An attempt on his life, directed, he suspected, by Pedrarias, prompted him to leave his post and return to Spain, where he would seek new opportunities in colonial administration and publish the Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias (Toledo, 1526). This short compendium of New World natural history, which would be translated into Italian and English and circulate broadly in Europe, earned him the position of cronista [official chronicler] in 1532. 13 Soon afterwards, Oviedo published the first part of the Historia general y natural in 1535 (a second edition came out in 1547). The last two parts of the history, including the material on Nicaragua, and an expanded version of the first part were likely completed in 1549. A self-financed edition of the complete work was interrupted by his death in 1557, and the full five volumes of his history would not be printed until Amador de los Ríos’s edition in the nineteenth century. 14 In 1527 we find Oviedo in Nicaragua, fresh from the success of his Sumario but not yet in possession of the coveted post as chronicler that would grant him a steady, if modest, salary and the right to examine reports and documents concerning Spanish colonial expeditions. Nowhere in Book 42 do we find the picture reconstructed by Enrique Otte of the author’s other occupations during his two years in the region, where he served as the secretary to the unpopular governor Diego López de Salcedo — a position that would lead to new and damaging conflicts with his powerful nemesis, Pedrarias Dávila. Nor does the cronista mention his financial success in gold mining, the indigenous slave trade, and dealing in Christian religious objects, 12 Benjamin Keen, “Approaches to Bartolomé de las Casas, 1535–1995,” in id., Essays in the Intellectual History of Colonial Latin America (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 1–56. 13 On the awarding and characteristics of this commission, see Rómulo Carbia, La crónica oficial de las indias occidentales: Estudio histórico y crítico acerca de la historiografía mayor de Hispanoamérica en los siglos XVI a XVIII, Biblioteca Humanidades (La Plata: AR: Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación de la Universidad de la Plata, 1934), 76–77. 14 For early editions and manuscripts, see Daymond Turner, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés: An Annotated Bibliography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 7–13, and “The Aborted First Printing of the Second Part of Oviedo’s General and Natural History of the Indies,” Huntington Library Quarterly 46.2 (1983): 105–25, to which Jesús Carrillo, “The Historia general y natural de las Indias by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo,” Huntington Library Quarterly 65.3/4 (2002): 321–44, adds precision and detail.

Nature as Book and Stage


all of which substantially increased his fortune. 15 Within the space of his text, Fernández de Oviedo fashions himself not as a conqueror or exploiter of natives but as a sort of “freelance” ethnographer, historian, and naturalist ostensibly detached from political and business activities. As is frequently the case, Oviedo justifies his research as a response to a document or report that he finds inaccurate or questionable. 16 Here the offending text was a letter from then-governor Pedrarias to Emperor Charles V describing the geography of Nicaragua, recently conquered in 1522. According to Oviedo, Pedrarias’s letter, which circulated widely at court in Toledo among ambassadors and foreigners, trumpeted an exaggerated view of the resources of the region. Oviedo claims to have heard the news while listening to a sermon in which Pedrarias’s improbable tales were repeated from the pulpit, all “wrapped up in the sacred Gospel.” He relayed his concerns to the Royal Council of the Indies “because I knew the man who invented these lies (“novelas”) very well, and the little credit his words merited.” 17 Ultimately, the author decided to make the journey himself — he tells us he did so out of a sense of duty to set the record straight for the emperor. In emphasizing the need to correct Pedrarias’s claims, 18 Oviedo in 1527 likely aimed to undermine his old adversary, to bolster his case for the royal appointment as historian, and, perhaps, to slow the onrush of colonizers desperate for opportunities in the New World. In his rebuttal of the letter, he emphasizes moral character, credibility, and training as prerequisites for the reliable chronicler and highlights the need for accurate mapping and descriptions of the emperor’s holdings in order to control, and foster good government in, the newly acquired lands. He charges, for example, that Pedrarias’s measurements of the region’s settlements and bodies of water are riddled with basic errors in math. 19 This “intertextual antagonism,” to borrow Ann Rigney’s term, 20 creates an opening for Oviedo to display his talents, 15

Enrique Otte, “Documentos inéditos sobre la estancia de Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo en Nicaragua, 1527–1529,” Revista de Indias 18.73/74 (1958): 627–52, here 632–33. 16 Carillo, “From Mt. Ventoux,” 66. On Oviedo’s distrust of secondary sources in natural history, see Alexandre Coello de la Rosa, “Representing the New World’s Nature: Wonder and Exoticism in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés,” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 28.1 (Spring 2002): 73–92, here 78. On Oviedo’s practice of refuting historical accounts, see Beckjord, Territories of History, 51. 17 “Yo .  .  . conoscía muy bien al inventor de aquellas novelas, e sabía el crédito que sus palabras merecían”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:391. For discussion of Oviedo’s use of the topos of lies as fiction, see Beckjord, Territories of History, 47–57. 18 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:387 and 4:391. 19 “[L]as medidas primeras de Pedrarias e otros claro está que son falsas, porque pues no sabían la longitud, ¿cómo arbitraron la circunferencia?” [The early measurements by Pedrarias and others are clearly false, because if they didn’t know the longitude, how could they calculate the circumference?]; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:387. 20 Ann Rigney, The Rhetoric of Historical Representation: Three Narrative Histories of the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 47.


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and the landscape becomes an arena for the author’s performance of the difficult job of seeking and testing truth on the ground: We see him trekking through rough terrain, showing the connections between seemingly disparate phenomena, measuring where possible, and finding innovative ways to estimate where it is not. The pretext of the letter from Pedrarias (who would die in 1531) is soon forgotten as the author paints himself as fully engrossed in the act of revealing the unknown or misrepresented marvels of the region. Where Pedrarias’s men had counted two separate lakes bordering the cities of Managua and Granada, for example, the cronista cites indigenous sources stating that it was a single body of water, called Coabolca, with an outlet to the ocean. He portrays himself as visiting sites and comparing notes with others so as to capture the changing contours of the landscape across seasons and over time. He bolsters the single lake hypothesis with striking examples from the animal world, noting that large marine species migrate from the sea to the lake when the water is high, and includes an illustration to clarify his point. 21 The enormous fish and sharks that live in these waters are extraordinary in their own right: one of them, a sawfish (“pexe vijuelo”), can grow to be more than twelve feet in length and “has a snout extending from the upper jaw that has a ferocious sword full of sharp teeth that are spaced along both sides.” 22 The habits of the intrepid and warrior-like sawfish confirm his opinion that the freshwater lakes are connected to each other and to the sea during part of the year. 23 Oviedo observes that in dry season, receding water levels expose sand bars and land bridges that transform the lake’s shores and islands. His drawing shows a land bridge that separates two parts of the Coabolca, trapping all manner of fish in the muddy puddles and shallows (Fig. 1). The author’s roundabout portrayal of himself in the act of documenting changes in the landscape according to season underscores the need to accumulate

21 Fernández de Oviedo’s original illustrations of the Nicaragua material are included in his autograph manuscript, “Tercera parte de la Historia Natural y General de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Océano,” Madrid, Real Biblioteca, II/3042 (hereafter, Real Biblioteca II/3024), 60v–65r. On the manuscript and print history of these and other illustrations by the cronista, see Daymond Turner, “Forgotten Treasure from the Indies: The Illustrations and Drawings of Fernández de Oviedo,” The Huntington Library Quarterly 48.1 (Winter 1985): 1–46; and Myers, Fernández de Oviedo’s Chronicle, 63–81 and 253–57. 22 “Hay pescados muy grandes en ella que son de la mar, e de ella entran en la laguna, así como tiburones, e lagartos muchos, e cocatrices. E lo que tengo en más e, es que el año de mill e quinientos e veinte nueve yo hallé en la costa desta laguna, en la playa, en la provincia de Nicaragua, un pescado muerto que la mesma agua debiera haber echado fuera, el cual nunca hombre vido ni es muerto sino en la mar, e llamanlo e pexe viguela, que es el que trae por hocico alto, en el extremo de la mandíbula superior, aquella ferocísima espada llena de colmillos muy agudos, en ambos filos, puestos a trechos”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:387. 23 “Confirma mi opinión e me ha hecho estar firme en que es toda una agua e comunicable con la mar”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:387.

Nature as Book and Stage


Figure 1. The Coabolca Lake, with view of land bridge that traps acquatic species in the dry season. Real Biblioteca II/3042, fol. 56v. Copyright © Patrimonio Nacional.

diverse sorts of observations over time and indicates the relevance of seemingly disparate data for comprehending constantly changing geographical features. Turning his gaze from the lowland lakes and puddles to the volcanic heights of the region, Oviedo approaches “these fearsome and fiery mountains, which . . . exceed Etna and Vulcano and others that are very famous in the world.” 24 The hot springs and fumaroles on the Mamea (Momotombo) volcano near León remind him of the Puzol (Pozzuoli) crater he had visited while in the Spanish court in Naples. He includes a sketch of this “inferno” and conjures it up for the reader through sounds and sensations that evoke the fire god of Roman mythology and also more modest culinary connections. From some of the openings in the rocks one can hear a “terrifying harmony” that sounds like innumerable blacksmiths at work 25 (Fig. 2). In a town on the mountain he finds a spring so hot that locals use it to cook everything from fish to bread; an egg, Oviedo claims, can be boiled there in less than half the time it takes to recite the Ave Maria. 26 He gathers samples of 24

Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:390. On the author’s imitation of fellow mountain climbers Petrarch and Pliny, see Carrillo, “From Mt. Ventoux.” 25 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia genera y natural, 4:392. 26 “Entre las otras fuentes calientes hay una cerca de un pueblo que se dice Totoa, tan caliente, que cuescen los indios allí la carne y el pescado y el pan que comen, en ella, y en muy espacio,


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Figure 2. Volcano or inferno of Mamea, with hot springs and fumaroles. Real Biblioteca II/3042, fol. 60v. Copyright © Patrimonio Nacional.

various minerals, including sulphuric rock, noting its value in making gunpowder. In order to explore a hot freshwater lake near Lenderi (Nindiri), he scrambles down precipices “slick as steel,” registering his terror at the sheer drop (and later, his embarrassment to see native women stride effortlessly with heavy water vessels up the rock face that put the fear of death in him). At the bottom, Oviedo declares himself puzzled by the properties of the water (almost undrinkable when hot at the source, but “one of the best waters in the world” when cooled). 27 The rhetoric of autopsy or eyewitness observation typical of Oviedo’s history 28 is augmented in these sections by his embodied engagement and eclectic improvisation in his selfportrait as author.

que no se tarda en cocer tanto como se tardará en decir dos veces el credo; e los huevos, antes que se diga la mitad del Ave María, se cuescen”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:392. 27 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:389. 28 Anthony Pagden, European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 54–68.

Nature as Book and Stage


Figure 3. Oviedo’s route to the Masaya Volcano. Real Biblioteca II/3042, fol. 62-63. Copyright © Patrimonio Nacional.

Oviedo reserves his greatest admiration for the active Masaya volcano, painting himself hard at work to capture this awesome “spectacle.” 29 The journey up is so difficult that, he suspects, those who claim to have climbed it are either lying or have only viewed it from a distance, a hunch that would seem to be confirmed even before he starts, when local Spanish settlers who had promised to accompany him do not actually show up for the journey. The author sets off on horseback with his native guide, the cacique [indigenous chief] don Francisco from the Lenderi region, who before his baptism was called Nacatime, and several servants, mapping the route they took in his drawing of the mountain (Fig. 3). When the horses can go no further, the author forges ahead with Nacatime on foot, wearing a pair of alpargatas [espadrilles], because “no shoes are good enough for that terrain,” 30 which is all the more hazardous since it is home to “tigers and lions and other diverse and noxious animals.” 31 Up at the rim of the crater, he attempts to survey distances (estimating, for example, the width of a volcanic crater in relation to the distance of a gun shot) and throws stones inside to try to calculate the distance from the rim to the molten 29

Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:401. “Ningún zapato es bueno ni bastante para tal terreno”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general, 4:395. 31 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:394. 30


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Figure 4. Diagram of the Masaya Crater, seen from the rim. Nacional. Real Biblioteca II/3042, fol. 65r. Copyright © Patrimonio Nacional.

center (they inevitably arc back toward the rock wall and out of sight). He calculates from sight that the inner plateau could hold more than 100 men on horseback playing juego de cañas before a crowd of 1,000 spectators. 32 By alluding to a spectacle popular among nobles in both Spain and its colonies, the author conveys the large size of the inner plateau, which reminds him of a plaza mayor [main square] where this sort of performance would take place. Oviedo includes a “diagram” of the crater as seen from above that illustrates the relative measurements and proportions of the inner plateau (“plaza”) and lava pit at the time of his visit (Fig. 4). 33 In addition to his own observations, the cronista includes perspectives gleaned from interviews with local informants. For example, he tests reports he has heard from local Spanish settlers to the effect that the brightness emanating from the volcano makes it possible to read at night near the crater (after opening his book of hours in the dark, he judges this to be false). He queries Nacatime, who describes 32

Oviedo refers here to a mock-tournament tradition in which men in formation on horses would throw cañas [canes or imitation spears] and defend themselves with shields. 33 On Oviedo’s description of Masaya, see Jesús Carrillo Castillo, Naturaleza e imperio: la representación del mundo natural en la Historia general y natural de Fernando González de Oviedo (Madrid: Fundación Carolina, 2004): 232–36; and Carrillo, “From Mt. Ventoux,” 65.

Nature as Book and Stage


the changes in the caldera over his lifetime and the locations of paths once used by natives to descend onto the inner plateau (but since rendered impassable by rockslides). The cacique also translates the mountain’s toponyms “Masaya” (“mountain that burns” in the Chorotega language) and “Popogatepe” (“mountain that boils” in the Nicaraguan language) 34 and recounts indigenous customs associated with the site. He shows the cronista evidence of offerings left near the rim and describes a female religious figure who was said to inhabit the caldera before the arrival of the Christians. The cacique described this prophetess “as the devil should be,” according to Oviedo: old and wrinkled, with sharp teeth, and sunken eyes. 35 Fernández de Oviedo peers over the edge, yet sees no visible sign of this “devil,” only a multitude of circling parrots. If Nacatime is telling the truth, the author muses, “the communication between the Indians and the devil cannot be denied.” 36 The cacique appears in Oviedo’s account as a successful convert to Christianity whose descriptions seem to confirm the author’s own association of indigenous beliefs and sacred spaces with the demonic. Yet even on this point, on which he had expressed greater certainty in the Sumario and the first part of his history, the chronicler appears to reserve judgment. Oviedo further validates his description of Masaya by situating it within a broadly historical and imperial context. Although in the first part of the Historia general he had emphasized the insufficiency of ancient authorities and of non-eyewitness observers to account for New World phenomena, he invokes Pliny’s account of the volcanoes of Greece here as a valuable context for understanding Masaya. He also recalls his own participation in explorations of sites such as Vulcano and Pozzuoli while in the service of the Royal Court of Naples. Oviedo’s connections to prestigious courtly and scientific circles in Italy bolster his claim to be an authority on the natural world in the emperor’s colonies on both sides of the Atlantic. 37 He refers as well to oral reports by others about recent volcano explorations at Mount Etna (Mongibel) in Sicily and Guajocinco (Huejotzingo) in New Spain. Finally, he quotes Olaus Magnus 38 on the subject of volcanoes in Iceland and Scotland in order 34

Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:393. “Bien vieja era e arrugada, . . . e los dientes luengos e agudos, como perro, e la color más escura e negra que los indios, e los ojos hundidos y encendidos; en fin, él la pintaba en sus palabras como debe ser el diablo”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:397. 36 “Si este decía verdad, no se puede negar su comunicación de los indios y del diablo”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:397. 37 Gerbi, Nature in the New World, 165–73; Carrillo, “From Mt. Ventoux,” 71. On Oviedo’s account of Masays in the context of other sixteenth-century descriptions of volcanoes in Italy and his effort to draw parallels between colonies in Central America and Sicily, see Sean Cocco, Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 37–40. 38 On Oviedo’s delight at receiving a copy of Olaus Magnus’s Carta marina (Venice, 1539) from his friend Giovanni Battista Ramusio, see Gerbi, Nature in the New World, 168–69. 35


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to highlight similar phenomena around the globe, “so that we should not think of it [Masaya] as something new or to be feared.” 39 A number of scholars have suggested that Oviedo’s emphasis on measurement and visual illustration in this section foreshadows scientific approaches taken in later colonial expeditions as well as more modern methods of observation. 40 One might add that the range of strategies and sources the cronista brings to bear on his subject in Book 42 aligns with the practices that Brian Ogilvie has termed a “new science of describing” that emerged in sixteenth-century Europe. Critical to the development of this new discipline was the fostering of communities of naturalists dedicated to the study of natural phenomena who cultivated shared “habits,” including examination of relevant ancient sources and contemporary eyewitness accounts, as well as observation of phenomena over time and in different seasons. These new naturalists also collected samples, used ever more detailed illustrations, and corresponded about their findings with colleagues. 41 Oviedo’s visual and verbal illustrations of the Masaya volcano — for which he drew on his own experience, a transatlantic community of expertise, and ancient authorities — suggest that he was at the forefront of this “new” discipline. The cronista’s collaborations with elite geographers and cosmographers in Italy were vastly expanded by his access to New World networks of colonial and native informants. The testimony of one Spanish colonial, Fray Blas del Castillo, figures prominently in the cronista’s rendering of Masaya. This friar, who explored the inside of the crater in 1538, wrote a lengthy relación [official report] that Oviedo reviewed and incorporated into his text. His summary of Fray Blas’s account takes up five chapters of Book 42 and shows another form of staging in his work. The cronista affirms he will summarize “what [the friar] saw through his eyes, as he understood it,” while also pledging to include “what I believe to be his motivation and what I subsequently learned on the subject so the reader may be informed of these events.” 42 One of the stated characteristics of Fernández de Oviedo’s historical method is that he juxtaposes multiple testimonies of events he has not witnessed in order to approximate a truthful account, without, he claims, betraying his own


Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:393. Gerbi, Nature in the New World, 161–73; Carrillo, “From Mt. Ventoux,” 59–65. On the connections between Oviedo’s oeuvre and an emerging empiricism evident in official colonial reports, see Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 104–13. 41 Brian W. Ogilvie, “A Science of Describing,” The New Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 139–208. 42 “Lo que a él le fué mostrado por sus ojos, segund lo que entendió” . . . “lo que siento de su motivo e lo que después he entendido de esta materia, porque el lector quede más informado de la historia”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:398. 40

Nature as Book and Stage


limited knowledge or natural perspective on things that are beyond his experience. 43 Although he did not witness the friar’s descent into the Masaya “inferno,” his experience and expertise on the subject permits him to adopt a privileged point of view. Oviedo transposes Blas’s relación as a textual spectacle in which the drama of knowledge and self-delusion in the New World is played out for the reader to see. He represents the friar’s daring expedition so as to make visible the sort of misperceptions that, he argues, endanger good government in the New World. At the same time, he showcases his own authority and skill in debunking them. Oviedo expresses both ridicule of and admiration for the friar’s explorations, using direct and indirect speech of third parties to reveal the latter’s increasing delusion. From the first time he looked over the rim in 1537, Blas appears to have been smitten with the glowing pit below. Oviedo quotes him as saying that “even if there is nothing profitable in the crater, to learn more about it would help foster conversion among natives, and he who could find out the truth and secret of it would provide a great service to the emperor.” 44 Though the friar starts out from a position of doubt as to the molten matter and frames his plan as an effort to reprove superstitions related to a sacred indigenous site, Oviedo portrays him as quickly succumbing to insatiable instincts. The friar’s hunch that the volcano might hold precious metals is encouraged by ambitious and ill-informed associates. One of them urges Blas to keep his plans secret from colonial authorities so as not to have to share the loot: “Be quiet, Father, perhaps God does not want it to be discovered by captains or rich persons, but by the poor and humble.” A Flemish Franciscan in Granada urges him to enter the crater, declaring that the pit is surely filled with molten gold or silver — “the greatest riches in the world.” 45 Fray Blas soon forms a partnership with a few Spanish settlers, who provide funds and enslaved laborers in exchange for a stake in the profits (as mastermind, the friar is exempted from putting up funds). The secretive preparations take more than a year, during which the friar measured the site and designed a ingenious system to access it. Despite all evidence to the contrary, and even after he has been barred from further explorations, Blas remains convinced that he has found a vast mine of boiling precious metal, indeed, a “paradise” of riches. 46 Oviedo recounts Blas’s activities in detail. First, the friar set up a lift to carry him between the rim and the crater floor. Using a winch he had made himself, to avoid detection, and a pulley, he directed the enslaved natives to lower a thick tree trunk down to the plateau. A plate-sized wheel, reinforced with an iron ring and 43 Pagden, European Encounters, 68; Coello de la Rosa, “Representing the New World’s Nature,” 78; Beckjord, Territories of History, 47–57. 44 “Aunque no fuese cosa de provecho lo que allí está, sería muy bien inquirirlo para la conversión de los indios, e sería hacer mucho servicio al Emperador nuestro señor, el que esta verdad y secreto supiese”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:399. 45 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:399. 46 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:410.


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welded to a large handle, was rigged with a belt or harness to secure the explorer. This base could be lifted and lowered by the pulley system and guided away from the jagged crater wall by another rope anchored at the tree trunk below. Although Oviedo sneers that the friar must have been a sailor before joining the priesthood in the New World, 47 his meticulous description of the gear and the system for entering the crater indicates a grudging admiration for Blas’s inventions. The cronista also applauds Blas’s depictions of the crater from inside: “the disposition and view from below is very different from what can be seen above, where I saw it, and this friar has told that very well.” 48 Yet some of Blas’s descriptions show signs of misapprehensions. The friar describes the caldera or pozo as “a colored lake that makes a sound as great as the sea beating down on the rocks with great fury. The lake or liquor is lit without a flame, like the metal of a bell that has been melted . . . or like liquid gold or silver.” 49 The heat and smell of sulphur are overwhelming, and at night steam rises up into a ring in the sky that shines as brightly as the “crown of a Pope.” 50 In Oviedo’s rendition, the friar accurately perceives the physical phenomena before him but is blinded by fantasies of wealth (and papal crowns) that prevent him from accurately interpreting the evidence he sees. On the first attempt, the friar descended into the crater alone, with his stole crossed over his chest, his habit tucked under the harness, and an iron helmet under his hat to protect himself from falling rocks. After planting his cross on the crater floor, he spent several hours looking for samples of ore before finally scrambling back up to the lift and getting hauled up by the crew of indigenous slaves. On the second descent, during Holy Week, he and three companions met at the rim and took with them a formal statement of their claim to the caldera in the name of His Majesty and of themselves. Although they had planned to keep their expedition secret, they were surprised by a group of prominent landowners (vecinos) who had been alerted to the project. The newcomers admired Blas’s elaborate equipment, noting that the enterprise looked more appropriate “for a prince than for such


“No dejo de creer que este fraile fué marinero algún tiempo, e que seyendo hombre de la mar, pasó a las Indias . . .”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:406. 48 “de necesidad, aquel hoyo e sima ha de tener otra disposición e vista, allá abajo, muy diferente de la que de arriba puede ver e considerar los que desde donde yo lo vi . . . y aquesto cúentalo bien este padre”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:413. For a recent appreciation of Fray Blas’s findings, see José Viramonte and Jaime Incer-Barquero, “Masaya, the ‘Mouth of Hell,’ Nicaragua: Volcanological Interpretations of the Myths, Legends, and Anecdotes,” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 176.3 (2008): 419–26. 49 “Una laguna colorada, con tan grand ruido como la mar, cuando mucha furia bate en las peñas, y encendida esta laguna o licor sin llama, como el metal de una campana cuando está derretido, . . . o como el oro o plata derretido”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:402. 50 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:403.

Nature as Book and Stage


men.” 51 They insisted on getting in on the deal, not as witnesses but as partners, and the friar and his company grudgingly agreed to their demands. After donning helmets and descending one by one, the explorers spend the night on the floor of the active crater — amidst falling rocks, shooting lava, foul gases and smoke, and with a nearly complete lack of water or provisions. The “experimenters,” as Oviedo calls them, wrangle with a mortar and a specially designed hollow iron sphere as they attempt to gather samples of molten lava. But the chains they have brought to lower the sphere are too short to reach the magma, the surface of which is hard to break, and the contraption keeps getting stuck. Since the few rocks they are able to collect show no sign of precious metal, Fray Blas hides them from the spectators above so as not to jeopardize future explorations. Meanwhile, news of Blas’s endeavor reaches the Governor of Nicaragua, Rodrigo de Contreras, who quickly ascertains that the friar lacks permission to explore. Contreras joins an ever-growing group of spectators around the rim to watch the friar’s final descent, this time with a larger company, as some of the notables have insisted on sending their own men down. They collect more rock samples before the Governor orders them to return. A new drama develops on the crater floor as those who were not in on the original venture call out to stake claims on parts of the crater on behalf of their lords. Fray Blas, increasingly unhinged and fearing the loss of his newly conquered inferno, cries out: “You shall be my witnesses that I do not claim this vein or the other, but that I claim this entire crater of metal that boils there below, in the name of the King, our lord, and of myself and my companions,” at which, Oviedo writes, “all those present laughed.” 52 Tensions escalate, and the men throw pots at each other, shouting frantically to claim possession of the imagined treasures. Blas manages to cool the tempers so that all can be hauled back up to the top, where the governor forces them to turn over the latest rock samples. When the latter test negative for precious metals, Contreras prohibits all future explorations of Masaya. Fernández de Oviedo — who ten years earlier had concluded that Masaya, like the other volcanoes in the region, was a good source of sulphur 53 — completes his account of Blas’s expedition by quoting the collective judgment of wise clerics (including Las Casas) that Fray Blas was “less a man of letters than a greedy person” 54 who never intended to serve God or the king but, rather, schemed to 51

“aquella era empresa de un príncipe más que de hombres semejantes”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general, 4:408. 52 “‘Sedme testigos que yo no tomo esta veta ni estotra, sino que tomo esa caldera de metal que allá abajo hierve, en nombre del Rey, nuestro señor, e del mío e de mis compañeros’; de lo cual se rieron todos”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:412. 53 “Hay por allí mucha piedra asufre e muy buena, e aun tiénese por la mejor que se ha visto, segund la loan artilleros, para hacer pólvora, e otros para diversos efectos”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:392. 54 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:411.


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“steal” from the colonial resources. But he also praises the friar’s bravery: “The effort and daring of this our nation deserves praise, and it is true that . . . he who has looked on the hell of Masaya, such as myself, will think that this is one of the most daring feats that a mortal man could undertake. . . . Just to think of it causes great fear, and [Fray Blas’s] strange account has been esteemed by all those who have heard and read about it.” 55 The cronista quotes Fray Blas as protesting in his report that Oviedo had requested royal permission to emblazon the Masaya volcano on his coat of arms after a mere visit to the rim. Oviedo scoffs that this was false and that neither he, “nor any other Christian,” should adorn his heraldry with such an image. 56 The cronista retaliates by placing Blas’s Masaya escapade as a mise en abîme that stands for the perils and follies of the colonial enterprise. Where Las Casas had stressed the collective guilt of the Spanish nation in destroying an Eden-like New World, Oviedo emphasizes individual brushes with hell that add up to a broad and increasingly tragic pattern of greed, hypocrisy, and inability on the part of conquerors to distinguish between truth and falsehood in their rush to grab diminishing resources. The vivid volcano scene cements Blas’s place in memory and offers the reader a comically infernal vision to be considered and judged in the theater of his or her own mind. The scene both entertains and makes visible the effect of unchecked falsehoods, perhaps more easily discerned in natural rather than human history. In this way, Oviedo’s performative stagings in Book 42 complement his strategies of visual illustration that hint at the inability of language to fully convey natural phenomena as well as his insight that an accurate account requires both eyewitness experience and a multiplicity of informed perspectives. 57 The Nicaragua chronicles were one of Oviedo’s last chances at firsthand reporting before he abandoned his travels for the steady position in Santo Domingo as alcaide [governor of the fortress] and official chronicler. Although he likely composed a first draft of his text in 1529, he was still revising the third part of his history in 1548, amidst fierce controversies over Spanish rule in the Indies and 55

“No es poco de loar el esfuerzo e osadía desta nuestra nación; y es cierto que aunque estto está de muchos e muy largos tiempos experimentado. . . . quien ha mirado este infierno de Masaya, como yo, le parescerá que es una de las mayores osadías que un hombre mortal puede acometer. . . . Cosa es verdad de grand espanto pensarlo, e historia muy peregrina e muy estimada de cuantos han oído o escripto por verdaderos autores”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:408. 56 Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:398. 57 On Oviedo’s use of illustrations, see Daymond Turner, “Forgotten Treasure from the Indies: The Illustrations and Drawings of Fernández de Oviedo,” Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1985): 1–46; Myers, Fernández de Oviedo’s Chronicle, 63–81; and Jesús Carrillo Castillo, “The Eyes of the New Pliny: The Use of Images in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Historia general y natural de las Indias,” Studies in the History of Art 69, Symposium Papers XLVI: The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treatises and Botanical Paintings, 1400–1850 (2008): 108–25.

Nature as Book and Stage


his own legacy as colonial official and chronicler. The first part of his history was cited approvingly by Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and other apologists of the Spanish imperial enterprise — and vilified by its critics, such as las Casas, who was rumored to have lobbied against the publication of the second and third parts of the Historia general y natural. In Book 42, Fernández de Oviedo shows himself to have refined his investigative skills and somewhat moderated the prejudices against indigenous peoples evident in his earlier works. 58 His techniques suggest that he may have remedied some of his shortcomings in this regard. As with any historical account of persons and actions that existed outside the text, there is the possibility, suggested by Otte, that Oviedo’s version of events in Nicaragua is an act, a thinly veiled effort to whitewash his own controversial record as chronicler of and participant in New World conquest history. The complexity and variety of Oviedo’s techniques for representing the natural history of Nicaragua do not settle questions about his possible motivations. They only bring into sharp relief the author’s acute awareness of the difficulty of discerning and conveying an accurate historical account, which in his view would approximate the providential design. Yet he portrays the ability to judge human perceptions of nature and reliability in discourse as requiring extensive experience, training, and a community of collaborators. For Fernández de Oviedo, the multiple perspectives and forms of representation aim to sharpen both the image of New World phenomena and the reader’s ability to navigate misinformation on unfamiliar topics. In the Prologue to the third part of his history, he addresses the king: “May God enlighten Your Majesty in the manner in which you believe or doubt the things you hear, and may He let you be correct in all of them and . . . allow you to see His will as the one in whose place Your Majesty rules the land. . . .” 59 By enacting his methods for collecting data and gauging the accounts of others in Book 42, Oviedo models his techniques so that even those who lack experience might learn from and imitate them. The natural world functions both as a book to be interpreted and as a stage on which to bring to life the author’s tools of analysis. In this way, he endeavors to educate and entertain, and, perhaps most importantly, to preserve in memory the substance and validity of his methods for discerning the secrets of New World phenomena.

58 See Louise Bénat-Tachot, “Entrevue avec le cacique Agateite”: Un temps fort de l’etnographie dans la Historia general y natural de las Indias de Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo,” vol. 2 of Relations entre identités culturelles dans l’espace iberique et ibero-américain, ed. Augustin Redondo (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1997), 101–19; and Myers, Fernández de Oviedo’s Chronicle, 113–35. 59 “Dios alumbre a Vuestra Magestad en la manera que ha de tener para creer o dubdar las cosas que oyere e le deje acertar en todas e ver lo que más fuere su servicio de aquel en cuyo lugar Vuestra Magestad es en la tierra . . .”; see Fernández de Oviedo, Historia general y natural, 4:338.

Saul and Paul in the Wilderness: Two Religious Landscapes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder Catherine Schultz McFarland

Landscape settings and backgrounds appear in many works of the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Particularly in his later years, landscape sometimes seems to be his primary subject, often overwhelming the human actions that are the putative subjects of the paintings, drawings, or prints. On his journey to Italy as a young man, he did not use either the Roman ruins or the earlier Renaissance works as his inspiration or his models but instead sketched the Alps, concentrating on vast vistas and huge mountains that do not exist in the Lowlands. The drawings are extremely accurate, detailed, and masterly works that portray effectively and beautifully the awesome and overwhelming quality of Europe’s highest mountains. Yet these drawings are not exaggerations, nor do they attempt to terrify the viewer; instead they depict what is there in the natural world, be it frightening to the viewer or not. Bruegel used these alpine vistas in many of his paintings, from his early Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1558) 1 to his last work, Magpie on the Gallows (1568), giving many of these works landscape settings apropos for depicting human action as a theatrum orbis terrarum [“Theatre of the Earthly Orb”], as Ortelius called his great atlas. 2 Most of these landscapes are settings for communal activity, in which human beings, mostly peasants, work and play almost as part of a natural landscape. As Koerner says, “Bruegel’s Seasons series manifests the effects of changes occurring in the world — how life and the very air through which we 1 The date has been in question, as has the attribution. The painting is now thought to be a Bruegel transferred from panel to canvas and painted in 1558, not a copy. 2 Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Amsterdam: Gilles Coppens de Diest, 1570).

Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 159–175.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120900


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Figure 1: The Suicide of Saul (1562). Courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

peer reflect that total transformation.” 3 The natural world is used as a vehicle for the imparting of mood. However, in only two of his paintings did Bruegel depict the landscape as an exaggeration, so much so that the landscape itself becomes almost a protagonist, sending subtle and oblique warnings about the political and religious world in which he lived. In the crucible of Reformation conflict that was the Lowlands, imagery was scrutinized for hidden significance, both by the censors of the Inquisition and by the educated viewer who expected iconography pregnant with meaning. In these two landscapes, the exaggerations of the natural world play a vital part in depictions of two biblical events that had relevance, resonance, and even dangerous significance for Bruegel and his contemporaries. Although painted five years apart in the 1560s, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s vast God’s-eye view paintings, The Suicide of Saul (Fig. 1) and the Conversion of Saint Paul (Fig. 2), are remarkably similar in their aura of menace and immensity. Moreover, they are Bruegel’s only painted scenes of armies in the mountains. Both depict dramatic events almost hidden amidst thousands of soldiers, a veritable sea of humanity flowing through the rugged crags of what look like alpine settings. Although both works depict biblical stories that a contemporary viewer would have known, the real subject of both paintings seems to be the overwhelming of the putative protagonists by both the natural world and the masses of their fellow 3

Joseph Leo Koerner, Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 350.

Saul and Paul in the Wilderness


Figure 2: The Conversion of Paul (1567). Courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

human beings. The individual dramas of King Saul (Fig. 3, detail) and St. Paul (Fig. 4, detail) are almost invisible in the midst of the enormous panoramas. Is this the point? The immensity of the settings certainly dwarfs the subjects. In these paintings, the emotion seems to be evoked by the contrast between the landscape’s cosmic immensity and the protagonists’ tiny struggles rather than a reaction to the stories themselves. The insignificance of these tiny scenes of Saul and Paul seems to emphasize the relative greatness of God. The paintings are biblical, and thus we can assume that they were meant to be, at least prima facie, about piety or transgression in the context of Christianity. However, Bruegel accomplishes this end by drowning the monumental actions of the titular individuals in a much vaster image of God’s creation. A more universal message is implied. Moreover, the dates of the paintings (1562 and 1567, respectively) may suggest that they contain political significance as well, and thus that a study of the paintings’ semiotics would be fruitful. The year 1562, when Bruegel painted The Suicide of Saul, was when the real troubles began in the Lowlands, troubles that culminated in the horrible Eighty Years War (1568–1648). Philip II, ruler of Spain and the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries, was showing himself to be quite unlike his father Charles V, who as Holy Roman Emperor had ruled the Netherlands with a relatively gentle hand. That very year, Philip sent more Spanish advisors up north to his troublesome and partly Calvinist domain and had his ally, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, appointed


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Fig. 3: Detail of King Saul.

archbishop. Philip II, who did not even speak Flemish (Belgian Dutch), feared the Lowlands were slipping out of his control. After all, only a year earlier, the courtly and previously deferential Prince William of Orange had actually married a Protestant, Anna of Saxony. The nobles were beginning to protest under the draconian Spanish heresy laws, which could have potentially targeted even their new princess. (Ironically, Anna turned out to be quite an unsatisfactory wife. Tempestuous and unstable, she ended up incarcerated for her intemperate behavior.) With the Council of Trent convening that year, Spanish Catholicism was becoming more orthodox, while at the same time more Lowlanders were in sympathy with the Reformed Church (the Protestants). The stage was set for a monumental military conflict such as Bruegel in his prescient way imagined in The Suicide of Saul. 4 The choice of King Saul in this painting is significant. The story of Saul and his ultimate suicide had traditionally made him a symbol of pride punished. In Purgatorio 10, Dante places Saul next to Nimrod, the builder of the Tower of Babel — the primary symbol of pride, particularly the pride of monarchs. However, a close reading of the story of Saul in the Hebrew Bible depicts him not as a proud man but as someone inadequate in the royal role foisted upon him. Saul even hides when the tribes assemble to anoint him king. He does not want the responsibility 4 For a thorough study of the troubles in the Lowlands in the 1560s, see Peter Arnade, Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriots: The Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2008).

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Figure 4: Detail of Paul.

and seems to have been chosen only because of his physical prowess. To a modern reader, he seems a tragic figure, desperately seeking a witch’s help, tormented by an “evil spirit” (I Samuel 16:14), and seemingly abandoned by God, who finally, after much resentment on Saul’s part, has David anointed king without Saul’s knowledge. Poor Saul cannot even defeat the Philistines, despite his great stature. He finally commits suicide, in shame over his defeat and in despair over the death of his sons (I Samuel 31). Saul is not a man to emulate. In fact, he cannot even muster the courage to kill himself until his armor-bearer refuses to do the job for him. He then commits suicide, a mortal sin in the Catholic Church. In other words, this seems an odd subject for Bruegel to choose. The subject is more apt if one understands that, in the Christian exegesis, Saul does indeed commit the sin of pride in the sense that he disobeys God, in much the same way that both Eve and Lucifer are guilty of pride, the sin that caused their disobedience. Before the war against the Amaleks, as told in I Samuel 15, Saul has been ordered by God to kill every one of the enemies, every living thing, but Saul nevertheless spares some of the livestock and tries to hide his disobedience from God. It is because of this seemingly small transgression that he is punished. An angry God says, “For thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel” (I Samuel 15:26; KJV). The story tells us that God’s commandments must be obeyed even when they seem unreasonable. If God tells Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, Abraham must not question the command. Saul is, in this sense, a sinner, a too-proud monarch, in fact a weak, perhaps


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even illegitimate, king who will be replaced by King David, the forebear of Christ. In this painting, Bruegel makes palpable God’s anger against Saul. Why choose this story of the sinful king in 1562, the year of the first intimations of real military conflict and the year when Bruegel painted his three “monster” paintings: Dulle Griet, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, and probably The Triumph of Death? In fact, this painting actually fits well with the other works of that portentous year in that it is yet another depiction of a battle. This battle, however, is not a battle of demons, giants, rebel angels, or armies of skeletons but a real-life battle with thousands of contemporary soldiers bristling with the newest sixteenthcentury weapons. Granted, depictions of historical events in the Renaissance were usually anachronistic and portrayed older events with contemporary accoutrements, but this army is particularly timely, as the Netherlanders in 1562 were becoming acutely aware of the threat of the armies of Philip II. William of Orange, called “the Silent” as a result of his careful negotiation of the political and religious minefield in which he found himself, was losing his valiant struggle to wrest a compromise from the unyielding Spanish king and his religious enforcers in the Inquisition. Disagreements were rapidly becoming furious conflicts. Heretics, including censorship violators, were being arrested and often executed by Inquisitors who seemed to consider the Lowlands to be infested with rebels, both religious and political. Since we do not really know Bruegel’s religious or political sympathies, it is tempting somehow to fit William of Orange into the role of Saul in this painting, since any rebellious behavior was usually seen as a form of pride, even in the relatively sophisticated Low Countries. For example, at the contest of plays, poetry, and rhetoric, held by the Brussels rhetoricians’ chambers (“rederijkerskamers”) of this same year, 1562, the subject was “How is peace to be maintained?” And the answer emerged from the writings of the participants: obedience, unity, and subservience to God. 5 Nevertheless, William was not seen in 1562 as this kind of troublemaking rebel: The handsome, manly ruler was beloved by virtually all Lowlanders, Catholic and Reformed Church, and was considered neither illegitimate nor prideful. William is more likely to be identified with David, a dangerous thing for Bruegel to suggest, as it would place Philip II in the role of the ignominious Saul. In addition, this scenario would identify the Hebrew army with the Spanish, which at first also seems unlikely. However, the story of Saul is actually a criticism of a necessary but problematic monarch and perhaps of the Hebrews for anointing a sinful and ultimately illegitimate king. Philip was certainly the troublesome monarch in the world of the Lowlands in 1562, and he was certainly not beloved, as was William. In fact, a year earlier, rebellious Calvinists had marched through Tournai during the feast of Our Lady on September 14 singing psalms as a paean to King David, the symbol 5 Tine Luk Meganck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder — Fall of the Rebel Angels: Art, Knowledge and Politics on the Eve of the Dutch Revolt (Milan: Silvana Editoriale; Brussels: Royal Museums of Fine Arts, 2014), 137.

Saul and Paul in the Wilderness


for these Protestants of righteous rebellion against oppression. 6 Certainly, invoking the young warrior who killed Goliath would have been a protest against the harsh rule of Philip II, but it also would have implied an identification of William with King David, a connection of which Bruegel was certainly cognizant. Nevertheless, despite this subtle allusion to the rebellious psalm singers of 1561, it is difficult to identify any truly explicit references to contemporary events in this painting. In the cosmic scale of its battle, The Suicide of Saul recalls Albrecht Altdorfer’s Battle of Issus [Die Alexanderschlact, 1529], a German work from two generations earlier and a possible influence on Bruegel, through woodcuts by Hans Schaufelein or through Jorg Breu the Elder’s Battle of Pavia. However, the metaphorical meaning of this battle between Alexander the Great and Darius the Persian is made explicit by Altdorfer with the sun and crescent moon in the sky and the soldiers in Turkish costume. Altdorfer is comparing the ancient clash between East and West to the contemporary war between the Ottoman Turks and the Christian West, culminating in the victory of Charles V over Suleiman the Magnificent at the monumental turning point of the conflict, the Battle of Vienna in 1529. Bruegel’s Suicide of Saul makes no such specific analogy. Even if the subject of armed conflict is alluding to the Spanish troops, the viewer cannot clearly discern which army is meant to be Spanish and which Netherlandish. This is a small painting (roughly 13 x 21 inches), and the soldiers are not individualized. Instead they are depicted as part of a faceless flow of armored men, almost as inhuman as the skeleton army in Bruegel’s painting The Triumph of Death. We can discern in a few places that the army fighting Saul is partly dressed in Ottoman costume, so they must be the enemy, the Philistines. Even assuming an attempt at historical realism by dressing biblical characters in contemporary Eastern costume, Ottoman soldiers still denoted the enemy in 1562. Certainly the army of Saul would be the force for good, would it not? Nevertheless, King Saul is shown in a gruesome distorted way, his death a monstrous suicide that is hardly inspiring or heroic and is, in fact, a mortal sin, punishable by damnation. At the same time, Philistines cannot be the heroes in a battle with the Israelites, although they are the winners here. We the viewers are left with no heroes, no explicit contemporary allusions (which could have implicated Bruegel in heresy), just a gargantuan tidal wave of warriors pouring through the giant mountain passes with no individual faces among them, save Saul and his armor-bearer, their faces monstrously distorted and frozen in an agonizing scream; but at least they escaped a fate worse than death from the soldiers creeping toward them (a wry allusion to the lone soldier creeping toward the hunter in Bruegel’s benignly titled drawing of 1560, The Rabbit Hunt). Our painting, however, is an inescapably terrifying vision, like those of Bruegel’s other three paintings of 1562. It seems to leave us no redemption except for the vast landscape, God’s creation.


Arnade, Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriots, 70.


catherine schultz mcfarland

Moreover, God, as the creator of the mountains and trees, seems angry, and this is, in fact, the moral of the story, as we shall see. Let us now turn to The Conversion of Paul, painted in 1567, for a deeper understanding of these two anomalous Bruegels. One of the most vociferous arguments between the Catholics and the Reformers, as the Protestants called themselves, was the question of religious imagery — called graven images or sacred art, depending on one’s point of view. By 1566, the rage against the use of religious images and other ritual objects had reached such a fever pitch that crowds of Calvinists finally broke into churches and religious houses and smashed statues, pulled down paintings, and looted golden chalices and crucifixes — a time remembered as the beeldenstorm [statue fury]. Although the number of rioters was relatively small, the damage to Church property was extensive. Many churches were stripped down and “cleansed” of papist objects, particularly in Antwerp. After this iconoclastic “wonder year” of 1566, Philip II executed two popular noblemen and sent the Duke of Alva and a huge army to occupy the Netherlands and replace Margaret of Parma as regent. 7 The Conversion of Paul could easily allude to this invasion of the Low Countries, as the Spanish army began to pour over the Alps on its circuitous route to the Lowlands. Certainly a sixteenth-century Netherlander would have seen the figure dressed entirely in black in the Conversion of Paul as suggesting “Black Alva,” who here is watching Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of Christians, become Paul, the early Christian father most beloved by Protestants. There is even a dangerous irreverence in the way Bruegel presents us with the back of Alva, including the rump of his horse. This detail is emphasized by the pink cloak and the pattern of the leather strap on the foreground figure of the dog handler, pulling our eye to the crupper under the tail of the horse. The only other pink in the painting, the fluttering banner in the top right corner, also points to this figure in black, a subtle formal iteration of the focus on the unseemly backside of the animal, as round as a target and certainly more noticeable than the figure of Paul, the supposed subject. Why place Paul in a painting that skates dangerously close to heresy in its suggestion about Alva? The choice of Paul is significant for several reasons. First, the writings of Paul were the most important scripture for the Reformed Church. Second, before his conversion, Paul himself was a persecutor of Christians, on his way to Damascus to arrest supposed heretics when he had his epiphany, and so the viewer is reminded of the persecution that was a part of daily life in the Lowlands by 1567. Is this a subtle suggestion to the Duke of Alva that he might be on the wrong road? It is certainly possible. Finally, it was in the writings of Paul that Reformers found the rationale for the iconoclasm of the previous year. In fact, many

7 The Counts Egmont and Horne (Hoorn) were moderate Catholics and had been working toward some kind of compromise with the Spanish. Nevertheless, they were arrested and summarily executed without trial a few days after they dined with Granvelle. See Arnade, Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriots, 183–89.

Saul and Paul in the Wilderness


iconoclasts carried with them such writings, which were actually forbidden by the Spanish overlords. 8 Nevertheless, although here Paul is experiencing an epiphany in the mountains, a locale thought to be closer to God, and although Paul was rapidly becoming emblematic of the Calvinists in the Lowlands, Bruegel’s Paul, like his King Saul, is certainly no hero in this depiction. Not only is he so small and insignificant as to be almost invisible in the crowd; he also falls awkwardly from his horse, his posture ungainly and his face so unclear as to seem unformed. He is not in any manner marked as significant or holy, save for the faint rays of light coming through the trees. Bruegel would probably not have been in danger of alerting the censors to the Spanish Inquisition with this unsympathetic depiction of Paul, the hero of the Protestant heretics, despite the sly insult to Alva. In addition, like King Saul, Paul is completely overshadowed by the crowds on the path and the vastness of the mountains. Once again, it seems that it is not only the title character who is the subject of the painting but also the soldiers and the landscape. This ambivalence that Bruegel seems to show toward Paul is not so odd when one considers that Paul’s letters provided the rationale for iconoclasm. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul said that one should not sacrifice to idols, and in his letters to the Romans and to the Ephesians, he also warned against idolatry. 9 As an artist, Bruegel certainly would not have supported the destruction of works of art, no matter what his religious sympathies may have been, and neither would it have been prudent to express explicit sympathies with the Reformers. Any antipathy toward Paul would have been equivocal, and any potentially heretical sympathy would have to have remained hidden. Although Paul’s writings were used to support the iconoclasm of the Calvinist Reformers, the writings of their leader, John Calvin, expressed an ambivalence about the making of art and art’s relationship to the natural world. Calvin did not condemn religious art per se and in fact emphasized the importance of aesthetics when he wrote about the visual world in his most influential work, Institutio Christianae Religionis [The Institutes of the Christian Religion], 10 and in his Commentary on Romans. 11 In fact, the first two books of the Institutio concerned the way God reveals himself to man. God did so by means of Scripture, which of course was called the “first book” in medieval theology, and also by means of nature, traditionally referred to as “the second book.” Calvin placed them on equal terms, instead of assuming that Scripture supersedes nature. In Institutio, Calvin wrote: 8

For example, Paul’s warnings against idolatry in I Corinthians 10. See I Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:22, and Ephesians 5:5. 10 Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics 20–21 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960; London: SCM Press, 1961). 11 Jean Calvin, The Epistles of Paul The Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1973) 9


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“We must therefore admit in God’s individual works — but especially in them as a whole — that God’s powers are actually represented as in a painting. Thereby the whole of mankind is invited and attracted to recognition of him, and from this to true and complete happiness. 12 And in his Commentaries on Romans he wrote: “[M]an was created to be a spectator of the created world, and he was endowed with eyes for the purpose of his being led to God Himself, the Author of the world, by contemplating so magnificent an image.” 13 The Institutio and the Commentaries emphasized the importance of beholding and understanding nature. It gave permission to explore the physical world and to engage in imitatio as more than just imitating the purity of the lily or the strength of the oak tree; it allowed using the understanding of nature’s rules to create products adhering to them. Thus it permitted and even condoned both the visual arts and science. Only painting could imitate nature in visual terms, thus celebrating the beauty that God gave us and that Calvin acknowledged 14 when he asked rhetorically, Did the lord not distinguish colors, making some more lovely than others? Did he not endow gold and silver, ivory and marble, with a loveliness that renders them more precious than other metals or stones? Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their utility? 15

In fact, Calvin called sculpture and painting “gifts from God.” 16 Nevertheless, despite Calvin’s concession that aesthetics can exist in a pious world, his writings could also be used as support for the iconoclasts. Calvin railed against “fantasy,” and in a letter to Bullinger he wrote, “Since he is the only true God, it follows that the inventions of man are utterly insane and therefore deceptions and mockings of the devil to deceive mankind.” 17 By 1567, not only Reformers but also Catholics in the Lowlands were reading Calvin, the latter in the Erasmian spirit of reform as opposed to schism. 18 Thus both Calvin’s rationale for iconoclasm and also his embrace of aesthetics in his argument for the primacy of looking at and understanding the beauty of the natural 12

Calvin, Institutes, 1.5.10; 63. Calvin, The Epistles of Paul The Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, 1.19; 31. 14 See Boudewijn Bakker, Landscape and Religion: From van Eyck to Rembrandt, trans. Diane Webb (New York: Routledge, 2012), 178; and William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 135. Both books are packed with information. 15 Calvin, Institutes, 3.10.2; 721. 16 Calvin, Institutes, 1.11.12; 112. 17 Quoted in Bouwsma, John Calvin, 243, n. 114. 18 Bouwsma, John Calvin, 13, notes: “Between 1527 and 1534, at any rate, and in a more general sense all his life, Calvin inhabited the Erasmian world of thought and breathed its spiritual atmosphere; he remained in major ways always a Humanist of the late Renaissance.” 13

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Fig. 5: Temperance (1560). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

world were part of the religious discourse in the Lowlands. Celebrating and even imitating the beauty of nature was the kind of art that Calvin condoned. Nevertheless, these two landscapes with armies are not just celebrating the beauty of God’s creation. More than anything, they show us the power of the Creator reflected in these depictions of the natural world. There is a terrifying quality to the landscapes. Harmony was the ideal quality of beauty in the Renaissance, both in Italy and to a lesser extent in the North, but not here in these two paintings. We have here no measured serenity, no benign picture of flowering meadows, of a walled garden — the hortus conclusus of the Vulgate Canticle (4:12), a symbol of the Virgin Mary and the security of the Catholic Church — or even a picturesque panorama of alpine mountains and valleys such as Bruegel recreated for his “large landscape” series. No, these figures of Saul and Paul are dropped into a wilderness with fearful dangers, and not just from violent men at arms but from all of God’s creation. The mountains loom over the human beings until they seem crushed by the power of a God who seems not to care about the puny dramas of these pitiful protagonists. Harmony does not seem to be Bruegel’s primary concern. The beauty of the landscapes lies in its dissonant powers.


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Was Bruegel even aware of the ideal of harmony in painting? We have no writings by Bruegel, and few writings at all about art from the Lowlands until Ortelius in 1570 and later Carel Van Mander at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. However, we do have Bruegel’s own artworks. His ideas about the place of art in human culture can be seen, for example, in his Temperance engraving (1559–1560) from the Seven Virtues series (Fig. 5) in which he places Temperance in the center of all the humanist arts. She holds spectacles to show the importance of sight and wears a bridle to show discipline. All around her are ways of understanding the created world by means of measuring and calculating the structure of observed reality, particularly by perceiving the harmony in the created world (e.g., “the music of the spheres”), in order to engage with nature by using its rules. Reading the imagery clockwise from the top, astronomy, architecture, methods and weapons of war, rhetoric, reading and writing, arithmetic, painting, music, and drama are presented together as the humanist arts, here ruled by Temperance. The primacy of aesthetics is emphasized, if subtly, by the inscription, which reads (in Latin): “We must look to it that, in the devotion to sensual pleasures, we do not become wasteful and luxuriant, but also that we do not, because of miserly greed, live in filth and ignorance.” 19 Temperance is associated with a civilized, even refined, life, not just with avoidance of sin. We see here not the old trivium and quadrivium of medieval scholasticism but instead the new explorations extolled by Erasmus and more obliquely by Calvin. Bruegel places painting within these many types of learning and creating, but modestly, over to one side, ruled over by Temperance. And, in fact, all of his other landscapes, even those of storms such as Gloomy Day (Early Spring), do have a temperance, a harmony, of both the natural world and human beings’ place in it, that is missing from the terrible terrain of our two landscapes. All his many landscapes, from Landscape with the Fall of Icarus to the little Flight into Egypt (1563), present the natural world as a panorama of the harmonious beauty of creation. Even when Bruegel creates works depicting a transgression against harmony, such as in his Tower(s) of Babel and his Procession to Calvary, it is not the natural world that transgresses but humanity. In these last two works, for example, Bruegel starts with the Fibonacci spiral, a physical manifestation of harmony in the visual world, and pushes against it in both the compositions and the narratives of the paintings. 20 In contrast, the natural world in our two paintings does not exude temperance and harmony but instead seems angry and weirdly dangerous, as if nature herself 19 Nadine M. Orenstein, ed., Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 191–93. Although one contributor suggests that the inscription is most probably not Bruegel’s own invention, we do not actually need it to understand the engraving. 20 See Catherine S. McFarland, “Pieter Bruegel’s Towers of Babel: Spirals toward Destruction,” in Catastrophe and the Apocalyptic, ed. Robert Bjork, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019), 115–32, here 123–25.

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were at war. The two paintings are almost expressionistic, as we see in The Suicide of Saul with its frightful flow of soldiers like an infernal cataract and the branches of the trees bristling with spikes, so akin to the sharp points of the weapons that they seem on the right side of the scene to flow into each other with no discernable difference between the trees and the pikes. The trees seem to be at war, just as the armed soldiers seem part of a huge cosmic force, and they seem to flow together as part of the same force. A dead tree stands bare in the center foreground, spiky branches sticking out from all sides like arrows in St. Sebastian, echoing the figures of Saul and his armor-bearer skewered on the far right of the picture. Nature seems angry and dangerous. Even the fires on the horizon, meant to suggest distant destruction, seem to float in the air with no actual earth painted beneath them, giving the viewer the eerie feeling that the sky itself is burning. The new restoration of the painting, shown in progress in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna as part of a recent Bruegel exhibit (Fall 2018), depicts the distant fire as seeming to meld with the sky. There is a city in the distant lowlands, but there are no tilled fields, and the city is surrounded by walls, castles, and keeps. This is not a comfortable place but a place with huge inaccessible buildings that defend against intruders. Despite its small size, this painting pulls us into deep space and then pushes us away, back to the forest of spikes from which there seems no escape — certainly not for Saul, whom we notice with profound shock on first viewing, nor for the viewer. This painting elicits one emotion: fear. The Conversion of Paul elicits not so much fear as disquiet and anxiety. The painting exhibits an almost modern abstraction and exaggeration of nature’s forms, with its impossible vertical peaks piercing the clouds and continuing up with no end in sight, the peaks being almost abstract conic forms instead of Bruegel’s usual trueto-life Alps. These cones are echoed by the trees and also by the clouds, which are horizontal and equally furry variations on the abstracted mountains and trees. The landscape seems unreal. A procession of thousands of tiny soldiers winds around the gigantic rocky peaks as they climb up and up to the dark forests of the alpine wilderness. The calm and airy blue of the infinitely faraway valley vista on the left changes abruptly to a sinister claustrophobic mountain trail on the right, squeezing between rocks up into a dark mysterious realm. No other Bruegel landscape, save Saul, portrays the natural world in such a strangely sinister manner. The artist seems to be emphasizing formal exaggerations in a manner quite unlike his other landscapes, which all seem to revel in his masterful ability to imitate the natural world. In fact, Bruegel was apparently known and celebrated in part for this ability to imitate nature. Both Ortelius and Van Mander praise him for this very talent. In his Album Amicorum, Ortelius famously says: No one will deny that Pieter Bruegel the painter was the most accomplished of his age, no one unless jealous, envious, or ignorant of his art. . . . But in so far he was snatched away from us in the flower of his life, whether I attribute it to death, who perhaps considered him more advanced in age on account of his


catherine schultz mcfarland dexterous skill, or rather to nature, who feared she would be held in contempt because of his skillful and ingenious imitation, I cannot easily say.” 21

Yet these two paintings seem to diverge from the kind of careful depiction of mist, leaves, birds, seasonal light, and all the other carefully observed details of the natural world to which Ortelius alludes. Only the Alps “spit forth” remain of Bruegel’s depiction of nature. 22 These paintings are implausible, intemperate even, in their vision of landscape, not like Bruegel’s Boschian scenes, but perhaps a bit like a kind of landscape painting that would have been familiar to cultured Lowlanders and that was specific to his native land. Bruegel is here referring in some ways to the old Netherlandish and Germanic landscape tradition of the previous two generations, the weltlandschaften [world landscapes]. After all, our two paintings include impossible and almost impassable mountains, descendants of these fanciful landscapes of Flemish art in the first half of the sixteenth century. 23 Bruegel seems to be alluding to works such as those of Joachim Patinir, Herri met de Bles, and the “Master of the Half-Lengths,” with their strange exaggerated rock formations. Although the rocky tors that appear in Patinir’s St. Jerome(s) and other works clearly spring from his imagination, they do look very much like the famous rocks of Dinant, the giant geological anomalies near Patinir’s hometown that are among the few mountains in the Lowlands. These strangely huge vertical boulders were perfect emblems of wilderness, the idea of which was traditionally associated with the realm of the uncivilized, the unchristian, the devil. Certainly Bruegel’s mountains, particularly in the Conversion of Paul, have more of the alien quality of the Flemish rocks of Dinant than the sublimity of the alpine vistas sketched by the artist during his trip south years earlier. In our two paintings, the mountains evoke the terrifying power of God by pulling us into the old fear of the realm of the Wildman and wild spaces. In fact, wilderness was an important aspect of the Flemish weltlandschaft tradition of the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. Most of Patinir’s works, for example, are either saints in the wilderness, such as St. Jerome, or the holy family on the flight to Egypt, resting in a wild place rather than a village. Here Bruegel is referring back to the older weltlandschaft wilderness paintings to evoke the dangerous path taken by the armies. Note how the army with Paul is traveling from sunshine 21

Abraham Ortelius, “Album Amicorum,” begun 1570, Pembroke College MS.LC.2.113, fol. 14v. Trans. Catherine and Douglas McFarland. 22 Carel van Mander, Schilder-Boeck, says that Bruegel so internalized his sight of the Alps that upon returning he “had spit them forth again” into his paintings; see Carel van Mander, Dutch and Flemish Painters: Translation from the Schilderboeck, trans. Constant van de Wall (New York: McFarlane, Warde, McFarlane, 1936). 23 For detailed information on these artists, see Walter Gibson, “Mirror of the Earth”: The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Saul and Paul in the Wilderness


into storm, a common trope in the weltlandschaften and a reminder to the viewer of the terrible might of the Creator. In The Suicide of Saul, the subjects are trapped on a cliff, hemmed in by the crags; and in The Conversion of Paul, all the characters are headed into blackness, toward impossibly vertical peaks. The paintings are perfect manifestations of Simon Schama’s concluding sentence in a chapter from Landscape and Memory: “The sixteenth century humanist vision, from the heights, of an intelligible harmonized universe has been superseded, yet again, by the more histrionic view up from the dale where expendable man is trapped between the horrid crag and the rock of faith.” 24 Reformation tumult is made manifest. Granted, both The Suicide of Saul and The Conversion of Paul allude to the earlier fascination with and fear of the realm of the Wildman, one of the reactions to the exploration of the New World. Here it appears again as a manifestation of the anxieties accompanying the huge cultural changes of the 1560s: fear of the unknown new world of the Reformation and the late Northern Renaissance with its political and religious upheavals. Nevertheless, there is more here than an evocation of wilderness. In the earlier weltlandschaften, the danger of the wilderness was portrayed by fanciful imaginary places, particularly giant craggy rocks. Our two paintings also use this old fear of huge inaccessible mountains, unwelcoming to human habitation. They do this to lend an aura of traditional Flemish art to these disturbing subjects, thereby making them look less transgressive to the Inquisition; but beyond this, the evocation of the fear of the wilderness lends an aura of menace to the scenes, which is vital to their significance. Above and beyond the weltlandschaft wilderness, these two landscapes also contain exaggerations that are a result of style even more than choice of motif — exaggerations that purport to be imitations of nature but are really closer to the nightmarish scenes of the artist’s three “monster” paintings of 1562. They are, in fact, with their formal distortions, what one might call Mannerist. Of course Bruegel does evince some Mannerist tendencies in other works. He certainly uses the Flemish Mannerist trope of inversion, of hiding the main subject of the painting in the back of the composition, behind a larger obliquely emblematic subject. (Compare Lucas van Leyden’s Dance around the Golden Calf [ca. 1530] or Bruegel’s own The Fall of Icarus.) Is this not all he is doing here? Admittedly, Bruegel’s inversions are usually in a God’s- eye view painting, even a wimmelbild [teeming people picture], seeming to emphasize the folly of the world, as he does here, and neither to make clever sophisticated allegories nor to titillate the viewer as do many of the Flemish Mannerists. Nevertheless, here Bruegel’s deeper purpose in using inversion seems to be to hide the full significance of his painting from the censors, not by hiding the characters in the immensity of the landscape so much as by using this very immensity to make his point. In addition, it is not just the immensity of the wilderness veiling the subjects but the unexpected weirdness, the alien quality of the 24

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995), 433.


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natural world that heightens the danger, and thus perhaps the warning, by making Saul and Paul seem to be threatened by the landscape itself — by its wildness of course, but even more, by its “otherness.” The formal abstractions mentioned above, both the conic forms in Paul and the melding of the armies and the forest in Saul, are unlike any contemporary paintings and have a kind of Mannerism that would not overtly offend either the censors or the Reformers, at least not without careful viewing. The distortions alert the viewer without being clearly subversive. In Saul, for example, even the creatures in the far distance, certainly meant to be camels, have serpentine necks that evoke the sea monsters or dragons on the maps of terra incognita. The trees seem to rise up like the forest coming to Dunsinane in Macbeth. Meanwhile, in The Conversion of Paul, the impossible mountain path is leading the soldiers (and even Paul) up into an unnatural black space that seems beyond the bounds of earth. Despite the height of the mountains, I could not help but think of Dante’s “dark wood” that leads to hell, not of Moses on the mountaintop. None of these disquieting images is overtly heretical, but taken together, they are alarmingly strange, particularly in biblical narratives. The significance of these two anomalous Bruegels now becomes clear. Like Saul, Paul is overwhelmed by the vastness of the created cosmos. Both are knocked down when they value the things of this world more than the word of God. Thus Bruegel could argue to the Inquisition, if need be, that these are paintings warning against the sin of pride, 25 and they certainly are that, though in a more profound way than the censors might have imagined. While presenting to viewers familiar with Calvin, the humanist arts, and the old weltlandschaft tradition paintings that extol the significance of the visual arts through the celebration of the natural world, Bruegel also warns us by making the landscapes terrifyingly huge and dangerous instead of harmonious, expressionistic rather than temperate. The viewer is frightened by the almost hallucinogenic way that the natural world seems to be morphing into a hostile entity, into a kind of creature that does not serve humans but destroys them. Bruegel seems to be using the awesome and sublime qualities of these imaginary landscapes to create his strongest God’s- eye- view paintings. These paintings show the folly of all our human strife, here through his warning against pride — the pride of monarchs, preachers, armies, and even artists. He seems, as he often does, to be coming down on the side of no political or religious camp, even alluding to the current iconoclasm by painting the kind of art that actually depicts the glory of God, titanic landscapes, while depicting the religious figures as extremely flawed, even ugly. As he does in many of his works, Pieter Bruegel presents us with


Many of Bruegel’s paintings are warnings against pride — for example, the aforementioned Tower(s) of Babel and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Saul and Paul in the Wilderness


contradictions and, in his almost modern way, allows the viewer to decipher for him- or herself the message depicted. 26 A too-proud monarch is debased and destroyed in one of these awesome landscapes, and in the other a revered saint is shown at his lowest point, still unformed, indeed unrecognizable as the man who wrote the New Testament texts that were being held up by the iconoclastic demonstrators and the illegal hedge-preachers. Landscape overwhelms both figures and takes center stage — landscape that threatens the soldiers as much as it does the putative protagonists, landscape that suggests an angry vengeful God who will not take sides but will punish all who involve themselves in brutality. The violent power of the Reformation armies will be answered by the equally violent power of God. It is as if the Creator, in the guise of mountain landscapes, is poised to destroy the human warriors. In most of Bruegel’s landscapes, the natural world subtly manifests the human “theater,” as the peasants become part of the cycle of the seasons, and so too does nature seem to become an incarnation of human struggles and joys. Here, however, nature seems on the verge of personification, if not pathetic fallacy. The rage and hate of war have unleashed a monster. In The Suicide of Saul, even heaven seems to be burning. These strange and eerie landscapes containing contradictory readings of the two most important sources of Flemish Reformation theology, Paul and Calvin, allowed Bruegel to give these paintings the political and religious ambiguity that so many of his works seem to have — an ambiguity that allowed him to escape the censors but still protest the excesses of his world and to extol an Erasmian tolerance and Humanism amid the religious and political passions of Flanders in the 1560s.


See Catherine S. McFarland, “Subversive Imagery in Bruegel’s ‘The Dirty Bride’ and ‘Valentine and Orson,’” in Performance and Theatricality in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Mark Cruse, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 41 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 135–54, here 153–54. I assert that, in their subtle and sophisticated connotations, Bruegel’s last prints were a cry for rationality, moderation, and humanism.

“I on my horse, and love on me”: Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Philip Sidney’s asTroPhil anD sTella Jennifer Bess

As a student of Giovanni Pietro Pugliano (John Pietro Pugliano) of the Imperial Riding School in Vienna, Sir Philip Sidney was heir to the revival of the teachings of Xenophon, a Greek cavalry officer and author of The Art of Horsemanship. Sidney’s horsemanship is perhaps best known through his Defence of Poesy, in whose opening dialogue Pugliano’s self-admiration subtly warns readers against riding masters who boast of the importance of their art and, by extension, poets who boast of their own art’s importance. But the playful tone with which Sidney treats Pugliano and the art of riding, also known as the Haute École or High School, belies the seriousness with which the poet perfected his skills in Vienna and studied the subject through a growing body of contemporary literature, which included Thomas Blundeville’s A Newe Booke Containing the Art of Ryding, and Breakinge Greate Horses (ca. 1561), later expanded into The Fower Chiefyst Offices Belongyng to Horsemanshippe (1566). As Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey has detailed, Blundeville’s work was not so much a translation of Neapolitan nobleman Frederico Grisone’s Gli Ordini di Cavalcare (The Rules of Riding, 1550) as it was a “reworking” of the text intended as a “practical guide for teaching manège riding.” 1 As defined by Blundeville, High School riding, also called manège or manage, “is as much to say in English, as to 1

Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey, ed., “Introduction” to The Rules of Riding: An Edited Translation of the First Renaissance Treatise on Classical Horsemanship by Frederico Grisone, trans. Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey and Frederica Brunori Deigan, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 454 (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2014), 1–57, here 19. See also Sylvia Loch, Dressage: The Art of Classical Riding (London: Sportsman’s; North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square, 1990), 48; Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 177–196.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120901


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handle with skill,” that is, to school highly trained horses to perform and perfect lateral and aerial maneuvers fit for battle or, more realistically, for show. 2 Echoing contemporary equestrian manuals’ idealization of the horse and rider as “one onlie bodie,” Sidney’s New Arcadia dignifies the lessons learned from Pugliano with a comparison of an ideal rider to a centaur, being “one peece with the horse . . . and in effect so did he command him, as his owne limes, for though he had both spurres and wande, they seemed rather markes of soveraintie, then instruments of punishment.” 3 The lengthy passage detailing this harmonious ideal reveals some of the depth of Sidney’s reflections on horsemanship and the changes it was experiencing in his lifetime, as continental translations of Greek and Latin hippology contributed to a renaissance of veterinary knowledge, ancient folklore and mythology of the horse, as well as training manuals instructing courtiers on the art of shaping the natural instincts and strengths of the horse to better suit the needs of the battlefield or the tournament. 4 As illuminated by the scholarship of Elisabeth LeGuin and Karen Raber in their examinations of sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury equestrian treatises, metaphors of harmony, mutual respect and pleasure, and even friendship were becoming increasingly fundamental to the teaching of the noble art of horsemanship. 5 Given Sidney’s experience as a horseman, as well as the burgeoning equestrian literature of his day, understanding the inspiration he drew from High School riding brings into relief relationships between reason and passion, art and nature, as they evolve through Astrophil and Stella, Sidney’s 108 sonnets and eleven songs Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; London: Hamilton House, 1991), 83. 2 Thomas Blundeville, The Fower Chiefyst Offices Belongyng to Horsemanshippe (London: Wyllyam Seres, 1565–1566), 2.20.39v–40r. Numbers in citations from this text refer to book, chapter, and folio. See note 17 below on military and non-military uses for training. 3 Philip Sidney, The Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia, vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 178–79. 4 The Reign of the Horse: The Horse in Print, 1500–1715, Exhibit prepared by Elizabeth Niemyer (Washington, DC: Folger Library Publications, 1991), 10. 5 Elisabeth LeGuin, “Man and Horse in Harmony,” The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World, ed. Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker, Early Modern Cultural Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 175–96; Karen Raber, Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 91. See also Giovanni Battista Tomassini, The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art: A Survey of the Treatises on Horsemanship from the Renaissance and the Centuries Following, ed. Richard F. Williams (Franktown, VA: Xenophon Press, 2014), 86–87. For a complementary text focusing on transitions of the seventeenth century, see Monica Mattfeld, “Embodying ‘Bonne Homme à Cheval’: William Cavendish and the Politics of the Centaur,” in Authority, Authorship and Aristocratic Identity in SeventeenthCentury England: William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, and His Political, Social and Cultural Connections, ed. Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham, Rulers & Elites: Comparative Studies in Governance (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 281–99.

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


composed in the wake of Penelope Devereux’s marriage to Lord Robert Rich in 1851. Astrophil and Stella is the first English sonnet sequence, and in it Sidneyas-Astrophil immortalizes his unrequited love for Devereux-as-Stella. 6 Adapting Petrarch’s exploration of the stages of his Platonic love for Laura, Sidney falls victim to his earthly desire and fails to experience the transformative power of love modeled by Petrarch. 7 Sidney calls his sequence “an anatomy of my woes” (#58), and its tragic outcome is inarguable. As a result, literary critics tend to focus on the redemption of Sidney-as-lover by Sidney-as-poet or on Sidney-as-Astrophil’s emasculation through the sequence. C. S. Lewis and Joel Fineman, for instance, argue that as a courtly lover seeking virtue, especially masculine virtue, Sidney redeems himself by converting his posture of self-abasement into a rhetorical display of mastery. To paraphrase Fineman, showing becomes showing off. 8 In response to such readings that highlight the ways in which Sidney-the-poet rescues Sidneythe-lover from emasculation, Catherine Bates summarizes: “this critical narrative contrives to recuperate the courtly lover, to compensate his loss and restore him to full phallic grandeur.” By annulling his failure, she contests, “this formulation virtually writes out the psyche of submission. The dialectics of mastery transforms everything into a relentless tale of triumph” that depends on a “masochistic fantasy” of disavowal and self-destruction as the speaker of the poem allows himself to be dehumanized and debased. 9 While the following reading of Sidney’s equestrian metaphors, focusing on selected poems of Astrophil and Stella, does not exclude the masochistic and dehumanizing themes limned by Bates, it more clearly reflects and advances readings that highlight the redemptive power of poetry or, more broadly, human artistry in relation to nature, a dichotomy that in early modern philosophy signals “a real division of the universe, a division that in accord with accepted Elizabethan thinking appeared also in the state and in man himself.” 10 By addressing the relationship 6 Some authors qualify this statement relative to the number of sonnets in the collection of poems. See C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 327; Michael R. G. Spiller, The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1992), 198; and Margaret Simon, “Refraining Songs: The Dynamics of Form in Sidney’s ‘Astrophil and Stella,’” Studies in Philology 109.1 (2012): 86–102, here 87. 7 Katona Gábor, “The Lover’s Education: Psychic Development in Sidney’s ‘Astrophel and Stella,’” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 1.2 (1995): 3–17, here 3. 8 Joel Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 6. 9 Catherine Bates, “Astrophil and the Manic Wit of the Abject Male,” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 41.1 (2001): 1–24, here 3, 5, 18. 10 Edward William Taylor, Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 22. Despite the philosophical division between them, actual usages of both terms varied, as did the relationship between the two. “Nature” could signify the physical world, the divine Creation, or the features of humanity in need of guidance; alternatively, it


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between art and nature in Sidney’s equestrian imagery within the context of equestrian manuals of his day, this essay will add to contemporary understanding of the poet’s efforts to dignify the human experience of passion and defend its role in the pursuit of virtue. While Sidney’s equestrian tropes evoke violence and the “real division” or discord that Edward William Taylor describes between art and nature or between the two sides of human nature — reason and passion — the sonnet sequence also reflects the harmonious, synergistic relationship between passion and reason as confronted and brought to life in the relationship between horse and rider typical in equestrian manuals of Sidney’s day. Reading the sonnets through the newly evolving lens provided by High School riding does not negate a reading such as Bates’s, but it adds to it nuance by opening up the traditionally antagonist relationship between passion and reason to new possibilities characterized by cocreation, as opposed to antagonism. The following close reading of selected sonnets, especially those in the first, more hopeful, half of the sequence and most dependent upon an equestrian vehicle, demonstrates Sidney’s debt to horsemanship in his redefinition of the relationship between art and nature or the courtier and his horse, the latter providing a complex and timeless symbol of potentially unruly passion and instinct, of nobility, of courage and service, and of nature’s power to overwhelm and humble the rider or to add strength to man’s endeavors. 11 He demonstrates that passion is not a threat to reason or virtue but a pathway toward improving upon nature in all of its forms and, to quote the Defence, inspiring the type of “virtuous action” that “the poet’s nobleness” is expected to inspire in others

might signify the equivalent of human reason or its opposite, the realm of passion and instinct. In moralistic terms, art functions to perfect nature or restore it to its prelapsarian state, or, as in the word artificial, it bore connotations of corruption and evil. Moreover, at times nature and art functioned as opposites in Early Modern literature, while at other times they were characterized as complementary. Taylor cites proverbs such as “‘Art is Nature’s rival.’” Similar proverbs echo this rivalry/synergy in equestrian terms. In the quarto of King Lear, a serving man says, “tis needless to spur a willing horse”; see William Shakespeare, King Leir (1605), ed. Tiffany Stern, Globe Quartos (London: Routledge, 2003), 5.6.20. However, John Clarke opines, “The best Horse needs breaking. The aptest child needs teaching” (quoted in Taylor, Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature, 29); also see Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950), entries H632, H638. 11 From Thomas Nash in Thomas Newman’s first quarto edition of Astrophil and Stella to today, critics have suggested various structural interpretations of the sequence. See William A. Ringler, Jr., ed., “Introduction,” The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962); Leonora Leet Brodwin, “The Structure of Sidney’s ‘Astrophil and Stella,’” Modern Philology 67.1 (1969): 25–40; and Gábor, “The Lover’s Education,” 6. On the image of the horse as noble and bestial, see Pia F. Cuneo, “Beauty and the Beast: Art and Science in Early Modern European Equine Imagery,” Journal of Early Modern History 4.3/4 (2000): 269–321.

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


as he pursues the art most perfectly suited to “teach and delight.” 12 Virtue, Sidney’s equestrian metaphors suggest, results not from fearing, banishing, or punishing nature but from engaging it, balancing passion’s exercise with that of reason and thereby lifting and transforming it into an art as noble and masculine as any form of service to God or country. 13

The Art of Riding and Riding in the Arts Because the horse served utilitarian, military, and performative roles in early modern England, it carried a symbolic power just as important to national security and courtly identity as was its material value to the economy. 14 In particular, the Great Horse — signifying horses ridden by great men in war, in sport, or as part of public spectacles — embodied personal and national power, masculinity, and prestige. By today’s standards, the Great Horse was small, at fourteen hands (or 56 inches at the withers), its bloodlines combining native English with French, Italian, and Spanish breeds. Imports also included some Oriental stock through Morocco and, after 1580, Turkey. 15 The conformation of Sidney’s riding horse, draped in gold cloth for his funeral procession on February 16, 1587, suggests the influence of Neapolitan or Andalusian bloodlines with its small, well-proportioned head, muscular neck or topline, and relatively short back (Fig. 1). In other words, Sidney’s horse, ridden by his page, embodies the transition taking place in English horses and equestrian arts in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Although many types of horses were still in use, the breeding of war horses was changing, as the bulky stock able to sport heavy protective armor while battering the enemy made way to lighter, faster cavalry horses whose breeding necessitated continental bloodlines and whose training would be transformed by the blossoming literature on the art of riding. 16 Early 12 Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 220, 217. 13 For an exploration of the relationships among masculinity, status, and patriarchal or divine power, see Monica Mattfeld, Becoming Centaur: Eighteenth-Century Masculinity and English Horsemanship (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017). 14 King Henry VIII’s military campaigns had cost England so much of its stock in cavalry horses that Queen Elizabeth I’s proclamations discouraged her subjects from selling horses fit for military use abroad despite considerable demand. See The Reign of the Horse, 4; and Nicholas Russell, Like Engend’ring Like: Heredity and Animal Breeding in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 62. 15 The Reign of the Horse, 7; Russell, Like Engend’ring Like, 62–65; Anthony Dent, Horses in Shakespeare’s England (London: J. A. Allen, 1987), 81. Dent also discusses horsemanship as performance or art for art’s sake. 16 Gabrielle Ann MacDonald, “Horsemanship as a Courtly Art in Elizabethan England: Origins, Theory, and Practice” (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1982), 121–22; The Reign of the Horse, 28.


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Figure 1. Sidney’s riding horse. Engraving by Theodore de Bry, based on a drawing by Thomas Lant, in Sequitur Celebritas & Pompa Funeris (1588). By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC.

modern cavalry commanders brandishing pistols, revolvers, and swords required the same agility and responsiveness of their mounts as had the ancient Greeks engaged in hand-to-hand combat with javelins and spears and thus found practical advice and creative inspiration in the words of Xenophon. 17

17 Loch, Dressage, 37, 226. Historians disagree on the balance of art and utility in High School training, and the various services that horses performed complicates generalizations. See Charles Chenevix Trench, A History of Horsemanship (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970), 102–3; Hilda Nelson, “Antoine de Pluvinel, Classical Horseman and Humanist,” French

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


Although the advanced movements of High School riding applied to cavalry tactics in Sidney’s day as they had in Xenophon’s, by the sixteenth century many of the ancient Greek’s lessons were aimed at public displays, pageants, or art for its own sake. The ever more complex training required of horses performing airs above the ground, in particular, was the realm of art and noblemen more than of military utility. As LeGuin has noted, “early modern horsemen, no longer under an urgent mandate of military effectiveness, could begin to explore their work as an art — that is, in its capacity to articulate and elaborate, rather than actively defend the status quo.” 18 The horsemanship learned and evoked by Sidney was, therefore, not precisely that of Xenophon but of Grisone, whose Gli Ordini di Cavalcare saw at least eighteen Italian editions by 1600 and within a century of its publication appeared in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. 19 In English, Blundeville’s reworking was followed by works including John Astley’s The Art of Riding (1584) and Christopher Clifford’s The Schoole of Horsemanship (1585), which was dedicated to Sidney. Although the epitome of English books on High School riding did not arrive until William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle, published his Methode et Invention Nouvelle de Dresser les Chevaux from Antwerp in 1657, courtiers such as Sidney joined Blundeville in bringing the fruits of the Italian school to England and introducing the type of training and riding now called dressage, from the French dresser (‘to dress, to make straight or right’). 20 While the English preference for hunting and, later, racing combined with High School riding’s association with absolute monarchy to keep the art from evolving in England as it did on the Continent, gentler training techniques and accompanying philosophical foundations made their way into King Henry VIII’s court through riding master Robert Alexander, who had been trained at Grisone’s school in Naples, and into Queen Elizabeth I’s court through Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sidney’s mother’s brother. A favorite of the Queen, Leicester arranged for Claudio Corte and Prospero D’osmo to advise the Court on the utility of the manège in preparing horses for military use. 21 In the millennia between Xenophon and Grisone, Xenophon’s successors in the Mediterranean world suffered the assaults of Teutonic, Gallic, and Celtic armies, who brought with them their heavy war horses outfitted with severe curb bits and long-shanked spurs and trained by way of the riders’ brute strength. The lighter, Review 58.4 (1985): 514–23, here 515; and Tomassini, The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art, 38–43. 18 LeGuin, “Man and Horse in Harmony,” 176. 19 The Reign of the Horse, 14; Loch, Dressage, 32, 42–43. 20 “Dress,” Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971); The Reign of the Horse, 36; Loch, Dressage, 19, 80–84. Newcastle’s work was published in English in 1743. 21 Loch, Dressage, 43, 80–81; The Reign of the Horse, 8; Mattfeld, “Embodying ‘Bonne Homme à Cheval,’” 181.


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more agile, and responsive horses and the types of equitation that Xenophon used to train and manage them in battle were lost to all but the southernmost points of Europe, where bullbaiting and bullfighting continued to thrive. Necessitating agility and ordered by a code of conduct and accompanying pageantry, bullfighting maintained finesse in riding and preserved classical maneuvers and lighter horses. 22 Like today’s dressage rider, Xenophon insisted on a light hand, for it is both a cause and a consequence of a horse’s confidence in his rider and in himself — an indication that proud carriage results not from the strength of the rider pulling back or holding up the horse’s head and neck with the aid of a cruel bit but from athletic training that strengthens and supples the horse’s neck, back, and haunches. Xenophon’s portrait of this harmony is timeless: “And those who watch the horse when he is like that call him well-bred, a willing worker, worth riding, mettlesome, magnificent, and declare his appearance to be at once pleasing and fiery.” Today, riders use language including self-carriage, lightness, schwung, throughness, and impulsion to describe this harmony between the rider’s skill and encouragement and the horse’s strength, pride, and potential as an athlete. Finally, “if you teach the hose to go with a slack bridle, to hold his neck up and to arch it towards the head, you will cause the horse to do the very things in which he himself delights and takes the greatest pleasure.” Here Xenophon indicates that the ultimate aim of riding is to enhance the natural potential and strength of the horse and thereby bring pleasure to horse and rider and, in tournament, to a regal audience. 23 Although Grisone’s Gli Ordini di Cavalcare often departs from Xenophon’s teachings, especially in relation to the latter’s ideal of voluntary submission, it conveys the importance of the rider’s aids in balancing the horse and creating the appearance, if not the reality, of lightness, elegance, and agility. 24 The students in Grisone’s riding school used long-shanked bits typical to his day, and he advised his readers that if a horse drops to the ground in obstinacy, “you will hold him there against his will for a spell, cruelly punishing him yourself with great blows between the ears, on the head, and wherefore you can.” Should a horse refuse to move forward, he suggests assaulting it with a bundle of burning straw or with a fierce cat tied to a pole so that its claws are free and placing it “between the horse’s hind legs” and “between the testicles.” Alongside such advice, however, Grisone repeats that the human voice is the aptest tool of training and “will never confuse” or “humiliate” a horse. In addition, he insists that riders at his school display “softness and good contact to [the horse’s] mouth” and reward obedience generously. On 22 Loch, Dressage, 38–41. For a perspective highlighting artistry over practicality, see Trench, A History of Horsemanship, 101–4. 23 Xenophon, On the Art of Horsemanship, Scripta Minora, trans. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 295– 363, here 10.16–17, 10.3. See also Walter Zettl, “Schwung,” trans. Lynne Sprinsky, Dressage Today (October 2010): 48–53; and Raber, Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture, 86. 24 Loch, Dressage, 43.

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


the more general relationship between the art of riding and the nature of the horse, he suggests envisioning that the rider and horse “are one and the same body, feeling, and will.” He validates the partnership between nature and man in the pursuit of perfection by emphasizing that a horse’s talent and breeding require human artifice to reach their highest expression. Attempting to convey his ideal of gentle governance, he instructs his students that they must conform to the horse’s “motion, just as he responds to your every thought and command, so that . . . you are always attuned with him and that you govern him with the same harmony as in music.” 25 In light of such metaphors of oneness and harmony, the relationship between rider and horse delivered to early modern courtiers a means of reflecting on the relationship between man and nature, nature as an external phenomenon, as well as human nature, instinct, and passion. In his dedication of the work to Leicester and in his more violent passages, Blundeville evokes a traditionally masculine definition of riding, one dependent on strength and resulting in the appearance of ease, as opposed to genuine harmony. Suggesting that unruly passions are controlled and subdued by force, Blundeville advises striking the horse with the spur as a punishment and often attributes disobedience to “evill,” implying that the rider’s force is not only just but also good. 26 While his instructions may offend readers today, LeGuin has illuminated the ways in which early modern readers likely interpreted such information paternalistically, as a means of developing skill and virtue. 27 The “spurres and wande,” Sidney writes in the Arcadia, are tools of “soveraintie” rather than punishment.” 28 Similarly, Blundeville instructs his readers to utilize aids including bits, spurs, legs, the voice, and whips “according as the horses qualitie shall require, for some horse is so vyle of courage and so dull of understanding, as if you always use to helpe him with your spurres at the stop.” Where Blundeville acknowledges that a horse’s “natural goodness” originates in part from his own strength, “disposition, and aptness to be taught,” he stresses that a mount’s “ability to bear his heade steadily, to be ready of turn, and light of steppe .  .  . procedeth rather of art then of nature.” Forecasting Sidney’s description of Pugliano’s excessive pride in his profession, Blundeville asserts that only his book of riding can teach a trainer to correct vices and foster the “artificiall goodnes” or skill prerequisite to reviving the lost art of riding in service of the Elizabethan court. 29 Blundeville, in other words, communicates his confidence in a trainer’s ability to create, at a minimum, a spectacle of goodness, obedience, and reciprocity between the fiery strength and sometimes unruly passions of a colt and the needs of courtier, queen, and country.

25 26 27

34–35. 28 29

Grisone, The Rules of Riding, 347, 343, 101, 107, 109. Blundeville, The Fower Chiefyst Offices Belongyng to Horsemanshippe, 2.3.20v–21v. LeGuin, “Man and Horse in Harmony,” 181. See also Mattfeld, Becoming Centaur, Sidney, The Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia, 178–79. Blundeville, The Fower Chiefyst Offices Belongyng to Horsemanshippe, 1.4.14v.


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Alongside such images of domination for the sake of virtue, Blundeville and his successors in the 1580s also evoke the genuine oneness that Grisone describes in his ideal and that Sidney portrays in the Arcadia’s image of a centaur. Blundeville encourages his reader to “conceyve wyth youre selfe, that he [the horse] and you doe make as it were but one bodye . . . and one wyll.” 30 The next generation of High School treatises, including Astley’s and Clifford’s, advance ever-gentler techniques of training and articulate increasingly cooperative philosophies of training and riding, leading up to Newcastle’s proclamation, differing in some measure from the ideals of Grisone and Blundeville, that the purpose of “art is but to set nature in order, and nothing else.” Astley, for instance, accentuates the importance of the pleasure the horse takes in self-carriage, instructing his readers to ride “quietlie with a soft & gentle bit” so that the horse “will by this most easilie and willinglie doo and performe those things wherewith he him self is cheeflie delighted, and wherein he pleaseth himself most.” Painting a similar portrait of horses’ delight in their own proud posture, Clifford advises, “entreate them as friends, and not command them as slaves.” 31 In relation to Sidney’s equestrian metaphors, then, the philosophies fundamental to these works on horsemanship offer a nuanced contrast to violent imagery regarding the relationship between rider and horse and, by extension, man and nature, reason and passion, as metaphors gentle and violent alike seek to convey methods of schooling virtue and nobility. Of paramount influence was Plato’s metaphor of the soul as a charioteer, representing virtue or reason, driving two horses, one noble and tame, the other ignoble and dangerous. 32 Offering one example of the metaphor’s adaptation in early modern England, Geoffrey Whitney’s 1586 emblem of Temeritas or rashness depicts a charioteer outdone by two “horses fierce,” who “no taming understand” (Fig. 2). As detailed by the accompanying verse, he holds the reins in vain and is thrown about by the horses’ prancing and jerking. He “falls at lengthe to his deface” until reason can make him stand. 33 William Shakespeare employs similar metaphors of exact, even violent, training methods to lead both horse and rider to harmony and thereby fulfilling the proverb: “Art might helpe where Nature made a faile.” 34 30

Blundeville, The Fower Chiefyst Offices, 1.5.6v. William Cavendish, A General System of Horsemanship (1743; New York: Winchester Press, 1970), 68; Astley, The Art of Riding, 14; Clifford, The Schoole of Horsmanship, 14v. 32 Plato, Phaedrus, The Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 115–41, here 125. 33 Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leiden: Christopher Plantin, 1586). 34 Taylor, Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature, 29. In 1 Henry IV, Prince Harry is praised for vaulting “with such ease into his seat, / As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds, / To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus / And witch the world with noble horsemanship” (4.1.107–10). But Gardiner’s advice to the Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII provides a more violent example of schooling: “those that tame wild horses / Pace ‘em not in their hands to make ‘em gentle,/ But stop their mouths with stubborn bits and spur ‘em / Till they obey the manage” (5.3.21–24). Shakespeare’s 31

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


Figure 2. “Temerity,” in Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (1586). By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.


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Comparably, in The Schoole of Abuse (1579), Stephen Gosson attacks the arts, and the stage in particular, for appealing to the passions and the senses at the expense of reason and decorum. Limning a world turned upside-down, Gosson likens human passion to a colt who must be dominated brutally lest he become an instrument of the devil. If the colt, upon being bridled, “flinges about,” he instructs, “rain him hard, & you may rule him.” The trainer’s failure to do so risks the victory of passion, evil, and chaos over reason, virtue, and order and forecasts a near-apocalyptic future: “No time to til, not time to sow, not to plant, not to reape, the earth barren, the rivers stopt, the Seas stayed, the seasons changed, and the whole course of nature eouerthrow˜e [overthrown].” He attempts to prove, with the histories of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, that nations indulging in, or even distracted by, pleasures of the senses will be overcome. Gosson’s work, which inspired Sidney’s Defence, appealed to Elizabethan beliefs in the interrelationship among moral, social, economic, and political rightness. A reversal of reason’s sovereignty over nature was a perversion, a threat to the social order and to the individual and collective journey toward redemption. Equestrian metaphors thus assist Gosson in demonstrating the reason that Plato “banished [poets] from his commonwealth, as effeminate writers, unprofitable members, and utter enemies to virtue.” 35 While Sidney faces off with Gosson’s attack on poets and his accusation of their effeminate nature and the socially destructive consequences of their work, he is able to draw from the burgeoning equestrian treatises of his day, since each one stresses the responsibility of the rider to treat his horse as an intelligent partner in co-creating beauty and virtue. 36 A rider should avoid over-correction but should use the aids to “remedie a default, or to ease anie grief,” in Astley’s words, and thereby use “Art & Reason” to bring balance, harmony, and pleasure to man and horse alike. Similarly, for Sidney, “the beauty, faithfulness [and] courage” he associates with horses evolve in concert with a good rider, one who is virtuous, masculine, and passionate. 37 The passion shared by horse and rider for their art provides Sidney with the metaphorical power he needs to respond to Gosson’s attack and transform passion’s negative connotations. When Edward Berry parses the relationships among horsemanship, manhood, utility, action, and virtue in the Defence, his main point as related to nature or passion is that Sidney transforms “poetry’s greatest liability, its dangerous appeal to the senses and emotions, into its greatest strength. Instead of denying this appeal, Sidney tends to accentuate it metaphorically. Because of his

work is quoted from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking Press, 1969). 35 Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, bound with Thomas Lodge’s Reply, Protogenes Can Know Apelles, ed. Arthur Freeman, The English Stage: Attack and Defense, 1577–1730 (1579; New York: Garland, 1973), D2v, C2, A3. 36 LeGuin, “Man and Horse in Harmony,” 177. 37 Astley, The Art of Riding, 7–8; Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, 212.

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


“‘infected will,’ . . . man must be enticed into virtuous action” 38 Thus, in Astrophil and Stella as in the Defence, a dynamic, harmonious relationship between rider and horse symbolizes aristocratic manhood and the potential for man to improve upon nature — both human nature and the natural world. As a classical symbol of human passions, the horse serves not only, or even primarily, as an object to be dominated but also as a source of inspiration.

Astrophil and Stella: From Pleasure to Grace In Astrophil and Stella, Sidney draws on equestrian imagery and the art of riding to juxtapose aggressive, sometimes masochistic, metaphors with metaphors of transformation and grace. If Astrophil exposes his subjection to the shameful “reins of love” (#28) and its “hard bit” (#4) throughout the first half of the sonnet sequence, he balances such violence with a more didactic purpose he defines in the Defence as “that which teacheth and moveth to virtue.” 39 Although certainly sadomasochistic through one lens, the lens presented by Thomas P. Roche, Jr., Astrophil’s “fevered desires” also urge the reader to “take a proper view of the worth and wonder of humanity,” to eschew the self-indulgent side of Astrophil’s nature and emulate his attempts movement toward grace and virtue. Sidney’s equestrian metaphors supplement such interpretations of Sidney-the-poet’s salvation of Sidney-the-lover. Specifically, the interweaving of “masochism’s enclosed, claustrophobic, and selfreferential world” with the “delight” the horse and rider take in the art of riding in sonnet 49 bring into relief a portrait of beauty that includes more than balance, variation in pattern, or even harmony. 40 Sidney’s representation displays movement, co-creation, and suspense, thereby pushing or even exceeding boundaries such as those between human and animal, while reminding the reader that grace, whether aesthetic, political, or spiritual, is always on the brink of falling apart and descending into chaos or of ascending into triumph and genuine transcendence. While sonnets 41 and 49 depend upon equestrian conceits, preceding sonnets develop the exploration of nature and passion through occasional metaphors. Sonnet 4 contains the first overt equestrian reference of the sequence, and within the context of the first seven sonnets, sets the tone for the dialogue between violence and voluntary submission and between Astrophil’s “will and wit.” In the first

38 Edward Berry, “The Poet as Warrior in Sidney’s Defence of Poetry,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 29 (1989): 21–34, here 29–30. 39 Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, 234. 40 Thomas P. Roche, Jr., Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 225; Bates, “Astrophil and the Manic Wit of the Abject Male,” 18. Raber elaborates on contemporary associations between horses and women and related violence and eroticism in his Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture, 92–95.


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quatrain of sonnet 1, Astrophil has announced his intentions and his methods for winning Stella’s heart: Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show, That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain; Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know; Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain. . ..

Employing the rhetorical device known as anadiplosis, the repetition of the last word in a line or phrase to begin the next, Sidney outlines the progress he expects to create from pleasure to reading to knowledge to pity to grace. 41 Since both Stella and the reader will experience this journey from pleasure to grace, the sequence begins with a rhetorical flourish that foreshadows the poet’s duty to “delight” as outlined in the Defence. Moreover, the transformation of the word “pity” from an object (of “Knowledge”) to a subject (to “obtain”) in the fourth line enables Sidney to cast an ennobling light on his alter-ego, as Astrophil’s suffering, at this point in the sequence, holds the hope of being transformed by Stella’s love and proving Astrophil reasonable in his pursuit. Sonnet 7, the first multiple of the number representing the body or mutability in numerological interpretations, builds upon previous references to nature to launch the first of several sonnets dedicated in part or whole to Stella’s beauty. 42 Prefiguring Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets, Astrophil names Stella’s eyes nature’s “chief work.” Constructed around a series of questions, the sonnet begins: “When nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes / In colour black why wrapped she be so bright?” Would her beauty, unveiled, be too dazzling and thereby unable to “delight,” he asks, punning on “light” but also acknowledging, as in sonnet 1, that wonder and suspense are the states of mind most conducive to braving a journey toward grace. Although the sonnet contains no animal imagery, it does allude to the vulture destined to pluck out Prometheus’s liver for eternity and addresses the nature of desire. Moreover, its theme is one of exchange, dialectic, and movement in the mix of “shades and light” whereby Stella “even in black doth make all beauties flow.” Sonnet 21, the third in the bodily series as advanced by Tom W. N. Parker’s numerological reading, introduces Astrophil’s “coltish gyres” in conjunction with images and meter evoking lameness. Hostage to his will, Astrophil’s writings “like bad servants show / My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame.” Bates interprets the reference to Plato’s charioteer in the following line and its irregular meter as signs of Astrophil’s failures and his position of being “liminal and ambiguous, poised halfway between the human and the animal, the known 41 For definitions of rhetorical devices I am indebted to Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd edn. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). 42 Tom W. N. Parker, Proportional Form in the Sonnets of the Sidney Circle: Loving in Truth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 73.

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


and the unknown, the living and the dead.” 43 However, reading Astrophil’s “coltish gyres” in relation to the equestrian conceits of sonnets 41 and 49 suggests an alternative or supplemental analysis. While sonnet 21’s limping motifs convey some of Astrophil’s fears, its final quatrain refers to the labor of agriculture and “harvest,” evoking Georgic poetics in which mankind completes nature. The final reference to “learning’s spade” thus renews Astrophil’s agency in his journey toward grace. While alternative biographical readings are possible, sonnet 21 may be priming the reader for sonnet 41 in the dashing of his “Great expectation” between March and May, the month of the Triumph likely immortalized in it. 44 Although Lewis warns against reading Astrophil and Stella as a narrative or a life story, sonnet 41 is one in which autobiography and public affairs enter into the “lyrical meditation.” Sidney participated in many tournaments, and Katherine Duncan-Jones advances the probability that sonnet 41 refers to the May 15–16, 1581 Triumph soon after Devereux’s arrival at Court but before her marriage to Rich. 45 Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance, Guided so well, that I obtained the prize, Both by the judgment of the English eyes And of some sent from that sweet enemy, France; Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance; Town-folks my strength; a daintier judge applies His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise; Some lucky wits impute it but to chance; Others, because of both sides I do take My blood from them, who did excel in this, Think nature me a man of arms did make. How far they shoot awry! The true cause is, Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face Sent forth the beams, which made so fair my race.

The sonnet bears witness to Sidney’s talent and to his successful performance, cataloging all of his admirers: the English and French delegates, his adversaries, “townfolks,” the discerning judge, the other riders, and Stella. Yet Sidney-as-Astrophil also eschews taking credit for the sport and spectacle. In the first two lines, the rhetorical evasion of subjectivity is subtle: “I” acts as the understood subject to 43

Bates, “Astrophil and the Manic Wit of the Abject Male,” 15. Michael G. Brennan and Noel J. Kinnamon, A Sidney Chronology, 1554–1654 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 82–83. See also Duncan-Jones’s endnotes to “Astrophil and Stella” in Sir Philip Sidney. On the Georgic mode, see Anthony Low, The Georgic Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985). 45 Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 327; Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney, 205–9. 44


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“Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance / Guided so well,” but the insertion of the relative pronoun “that” between the action and the “I” mediates the speaker’s agency syntactically. By the second quatrain, others fill the subjective role, admiring Sidney, but he gives himself no action. The third quatrain, in which he alludes to his lineage, abundant with tilters including Leicester, offers up the possibility of internalizing credit to the degree that “Others . . . / Think nature me a man of arms did make,” but even here, the syntactic inversion emphasizes nature’s agency and Sidney’s status as an object. Moreover, the final couplet virtually erases his acknowledgement of his lineage and its associated prestige. The “true cause” of his skill, he concludes, is Stella’s gaze. While Daniel Traister, among other scholars, interprets sonnet 41 as a reversal of animal/human roles, it also bears connotations of hope and fertility. For Traister, At one moment, Astrophil is horseman, triumphant in the tilt, and mocks the varied “explanations” of his success offered by biased spectators. In the next moment, however, Astrophil is a horse, ridden by Love, whose reins are the beams set forth from Stella’s eyes. Not triumphal at all — although he thinks he is — Astrophil has degenerated from the heroic ideal his triumph at first seemed to suggest. Far from the ideal, he recalls instead Aristotle ridden by Phyllis. 46

Similarly, Duncan-Jones’s historical interpretation frames Sidney’s failure to win Devereux within the context of Queen Elizabeth’s complete power over the tilters, “babies on horseback,” and argues that the sonnet’s self-deprecating tone reflects the fact that the occasion left Sidney with no title, position, or spouse. 47 While the juxtaposition of sonnet 41 with the second tournament sonnet, in which Sidney is so distracted that “My foe came on, and beat the air from me” (#53), justifies the readings of sonnet 41 as a foreshadowing of the transformation of warrior to victim; reading sonnet 41 alongside sonnet 49 highlights alternative meanings. In sonnet 49, Astrophil becomes his horse, and, instead of culminating in a sense of defeat or humiliation, the sonnet ends in “delight” as the result of the inspiration Astrophil takes from the ideal Stella, as opposed to Stella herself. In such a context, sonnet 41 also evokes a more cerebral source of prowess and victory in the tilt than the previous readings have acknowledged and a more triumphal moment in time. Affirming such an interpretation of Sidney’s celebration of the fruits of his own labor and imagination, the word “race” puns on the event of tournament but also, in signifying lineage, refers to Sidney’s pedigree and to his hoped-for progeny. As in Shakespeare’s sonnets to the young man, the future depends on coupling, union, and co-creative processes that leave the readers in suspense as they await the outcome. 46 Daniel Traister, “‘To Portrait That Which in This World Is Best’: Stella in Perspective,” Studies in Philology 81.4 (1984): 419–37, here 436. 47 Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney, 211.

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


To Parker, sonnet 49 (seven times seven) serves as the bodily climacteric. He refers to it briefly as “contrived and bestial,” finding Astrophil’s comparison of himself to a horse belittling. 48 While the sonnet’s images include reins that “tie” and a bit that curbs “with fear,” the equation Astrophil makes between himself and a horse also enables an empowering epideictic reading by presenting Astrophil not — or not only — as a servant in a master/servant relationship but also as both a horse and its rider. In his dual identity, Astrophil is a student and a teacher: recalling the Defence, he is a poet-as-maker, as in the Greek poiein, one who is inspired, not oppressed, by his passions. By using the newly evolving ideal of the collaborative relationship between the rider and the horse as a model for the relationship between his own “will and wit,” his passion and reason, his nature and his art, Sidney subsumes the bestial aspects of the schooling process into a creative and therefore active heroic paradigm worthy of celebration and imitation. As stated in Defence, passion drives the artist to improve upon nature and, in turn, inspire others to virtuous actions. I on my horse, and love on me, doth try Our horsemanships, while by strange work I prove A horseman to my horse, a horse to love; And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descry. The reins wherewith my rider doth me tie Are humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move, Curbed in with fear, but with gilt boss above Of hope, which makes it seem fair to the eye. The wand is will; thou, fancy, saddle art, Girt fast by memory; and while I spur My horse, he spurs with sharp desire my heart; He sits me fast, however I do stir; And now hath made me to his hand so right That in the manage myself takes delight.

Where the Defence illuminates the role of the poet as student/teacher of nature and celebrates the “vigour of his own invention,” Astrophil’s dual identity as rider of his horse and the horse to his love identifies the power of invention as emanating from reason’s unpredictable relationship to passion and desire, not from its conquest of emotion. 49 The inseparability of Astrophil’s dual identity is conveyed in rhetorical devices that integrate the sonnet’s structure and theme. Devices of repetition, including ploce and polyptoton in the first three lines, alongside the plural “Our horsemanships,” forecast the amphibologia (ambiguity in structure) ending the first quatrain, 48 Parker, Proportional Form in the Sonnets of the Sidney Circle, 74. Alastair Fowler also provides a numerological reading of Astrophil and Stella, in Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 174–80. 49 Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, 216.


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where Astrophil laments: “And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descry.” 50 The phrase “poor beast,” serving as an address to the horse, as a modifier to its antecedent (“me”), or as both, collapses Astrophil’s two identities, thus placing him firmly in the roles of teacher/rider and student/horse and destabilizing the master-of-reason/servant-to-passion duality that Parker’s reading emphasizes. The notion of taming or mastering, present in the numerous references to tack and riding equipment such as reins, bit, boss (an adornment on the bit), whip, saddle, girth, and spur, echo Whitney’s emblem and Plato’s portrait of the soul as a charioteer. Yet, as the unifying devices and rhetorical ambiguity in Sidney’s first quatrain suggest, passion and desire — whether equestrian or human — serve not as antagonists to reason, doomed in Plato’s words to “[weigh] down the charioteer to the earth.” 51 Instead, “man’s wrongs” by the poem’s end will be made “right” through a process in which teacher and student, horse and rider, “delight” in the education resulting from their collaboration, a collaboration that sometimes ends in chaos but sometimes yields something greater than the sum of its parts. While the sonnet’s first quatrain is characterized largely by repetition, the “humbled thoughts” featured in the second open a list of attributes that unite the remainder of the poem: fear, hope, will, fancy, memory, and desire follow thoughts in a virtual catalog of sources of invention and masculine identity. Thus the emotive body of the beast is not a threat to reason or virtue, but an ingredient in education and a means of metamorphosis, as affirmed when Astrophil-as-horse “takes delight” in his schooling. His passions, like those of the horses described by Clifford, are not undone by force but are tutored, enriched, enhanced, and transformed. Love “sits me fast, however I do stir; / And now hath made me to his hand so right”; with parallel synergy, Astrophil-as-horse revels in his schooling, and Astrophil-asrider/Sidney-as-writer revels in his teaching. Echoing the same syntactic ambiguity used to conflate the identities of the “poor beast” in the first quatrain, the final line’s reference to “myself ” as horse, rider, or both collapses the dual roles of the speaker, who concludes the poem with a demand on the reader’s responsibility to think critically and engage in his own schooling. When Astrophil “takes delight” in his training, he is asserting the fruitfulness of the relationship between his roles, stressing that the rider’s aids, like the writer’s artifices, work only to “make the most graceful and brilliant appearance” of the horse according to the horse’s “own will,” in Xenophon’s words. 52 For Sidney, validating such a pathway to grace and virtue uplifts the role of the poet, making his contributions to society equal to those offered by a sovereign or a military commander — a man of action.


Both ploce (the repetition of a word interrupted by others so that its meaning increases in significance — horse and love) and polyptoton (the repetition of words with the same root — horse, horsemanships, horseman) are common in Sidney’s work. 51 Plato, Phaedrus, 125. 52 Xenophon, On the Art of Horsemanship, 11.6.

Contextualizing the Equestrian Metaphors of Astrophil and Stella


Sonnet 49’s final line also refers to the mutually affirming process of manage or manège. Whereas Margareta De Grazia reads the line as Cupid’s taking “manage” or management of Astrophil’s emotions to the point that he loses his opportunity to redeem himself, Astrophil is also part of a shared transformation. 53 No longer solely a “poor beast,” Astrophil actualizes the Defence’s celebration of invention as he experiences the re-creative power of education, of improving on nature both for his own sake and for the sake of the reader’s edification. As in the Defence, where poetry combines the vividness of history and the loftiness of philosophy while “disdaining to be tied to any .  .  . subjection” to nature, sonnet 49 affirms that the alleged liabilities of men and their arts become their greatest assets, as virtue itself “would be wonderfully ravished with the love of [poetry’s] beauty.” 54 Astrophil, therefore, cannot and should not banish desire, as he will confess, although not solely for the reason that it “would’st have all” (#72). Where Sidney insists in his Defence that virtue is fostered when the mind is inflamed “with desire to be worthy,” in his prose and in his poetry he deepens the imperative to dignify passion on the grounds that it (or its object) will inspire men to virtue. 55 In sonnet 49, that virtue is illustrated in the synergy and mutual pursuit of perfection experienced by horse and rider, nature and art, so that the artistry born of Astrophil’s reflection on the conflicted or decentered self becomes the ultimate object of Sidney’s epideictic. 56 After Astrophil steals a kiss from Stella in the second song — the only genuine action taken in the sonnet sequence — no sonnets depend upon an equestrian conceit. Individual metaphors become increasingly violent as Astrophil is “Spurred in love’s spur, though galled and shortly reined / With care’s hard hand” (#98). Indiscriminately spurred forward and jerked backward by love, he feels his hopes fade. Still, in his “performance of woe,” Sidney-as-Astrophil has created suspense and drama, movement and transformation, as only a collaborative endeavor can do. 57 Astrophil-as-poet has celebrated a co-creative process that is redemptive, virtuous, and full of grace. When he claims that love “sits me fast, however I do stir,” he illustrates a fertility generated not through mastery but through a process of invention, co-creation, and nurturing that insists, along with the other thirteen sonnets of the sequence celebrating the writing process, that excitement and generativity be privileged over any bland and fruitless monism or tyranny in the realm of the arts and in 53

Margareta De Grazia, “Lost Potential in Grammar and Nature: Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 21.1 (1981): 21–35, here 31. 54 Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, 216, 231. 55 Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, 231. 56 Wendy Olmsted, The Imperfect Friend: Emotion and Rhetoric in Sidney, Milton, and Their Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 6. For permission to reprint material from Jennifer Bess, “Schooling to Virtue in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 49,” Explicator 67.3 (2009): 186–91, I am grateful to Taylor & Francis ( 57 Spiller, The Development of the Sonnet, 118. Spiller identifies thirteen sonnets on textual creation; see his The Development of the Sonnet, 111.


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the realm of human experience. His ideal aligns with that of Xenophon, who insists that the use of force was antithetical to the ultimate end goals of grace, beauty, and perfection: “For what a horse does under constraint .  .  . he does without understanding, and with no more grace than a dancer would show if he was whipped and goaded.” Artistry flows from what Astley calls a “special grace,” attributable to sensitive riders, gifted with “perfect judgment . . . that every horsse at first riding seemed to obey unto them even at their becke.” 58 Similarly, when Sidney opines that “The wand is will” in sonnet 49, he explores the power of synergy, the artistry by which horses “seemed to obey” each subtle beck and call of a talented rider and, by extension, by which human nature works in concert with the passions in pursuit of virtue. In his dual identity as horse and rider, Sidney celebrates the range of art and, in particular, poetry’s ability to convey some sense of the decentered self, of “I am not I” in sonnet 45 or, in the case of sonnet 49, the I that is more than I — the I that is made of rider and horse, master and servant, reason and passion, and the beauty that is born only of the relationship between the two.


Xenophon, On the Art of Horsemanship, 11.6; Astley, The Art of Riding, 11.

Shakespeare’s Savage Trees Grace Tiffany

A popular strain of ecocriticism holds that Shakespeare’s plays present woodlands as benevolent places. Focusing on the comedies, many “green” scholars read the Shakespearean woods as havens for distressed characters fleeing the corrupt and more dangerous cultural centers, the cities and courts. Outlying forests heal and hearten comic fugitives like As You Like It’s Rosalind and Orlando or the young lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ready them to transmit nature’s nurturing influence to the (as we would say) “developed” worlds to which they return. It is not a new idea, having been articulated in various ways since Northrop Frye drew attention to the importance of “Green Worlds” in Renaissance literature and drama in Anatomy of Criticism. 1 In the argument’s most recent mode, Shakespeare, by dramatizing the kindness of woodlands, implicitly laments the early modern English forest’s century-long shrinkage due to expanding suburbs, farms, and enclosures. But a careful look at Shakespeare’s “shadowy forests” 2 shows that they owe more to the threatening woods of European folk tales and medieval romance than to the pastoral “Green Worlds” of classical and Renaissance poetry. Shakespeare’s tree-lands are in fact fundamentally hostile to humans. Solace and healing can be created within them, but the woods are destructive until tempered and doctored by a reasoning imagination. Thus Rebecca Bushnell is right to challenge the view that nature in Shakespeare is “a utopian vision of ecological interdependence” and to suggest, instead, that what Jeanne Addison Roberts calls “The Shakespearean


Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 182–83. 2 King Lear 1.1.70. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Shakespeare’s plays and poems are to William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 197–208.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120902


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Wild” 3 is a “‘bursting’ world terrifying to humans because it cannot ultimately be tamed.” 4 Even so, Shakespeare is more hopeful than Bushnell or Roberts about the prospects of tree-taming. In Shakespeare, trees and the woods they comprise can be healthfully domesticated by men. It should not surprise us to learn that Shakespeare was neither an ecofeminist nor a Romantic but an early modern Englishman. Indeed, Shakespeare nowhere seems concerned about what Vin Nardizzi calls the “unprecedented shortage of wood and timber” in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England. 5 By the time Shakespeare appeared in London, slightly before, after, or during the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588, more than a century of deforestation had supplied the English navy with lumber and charcoal for gunpowder and contributed to an English “building boom” that included, of course, the construction of London theaters. 6 Quoting from a 1611 pamphlet presented by a member of the House of Commons to King James, Nardizzi shows that by the early seventeenth century there was some concern among the early modern English that the kingdom was running dangerously low on wood. But Nardizzi then proposes that Shakespeare’s plays presented such charming facsimiles of forests that playgoers readily accepted theatrical woods as a substitute for the vanishing real ones. He thus comes close to blaming Shakespeare for the fact that, despite King James’s approval of a wood-stocking plan, “no large-scale program for re-planting England was implemented until well after the Restoration.” 7 After all, who needs real forests when one can visit an imaginary Arden and a magical Athenian wood in the timber-framed Globe playhouse? The argument is difficult, and not only because the forests in plays were almost completely made not of wood but of words, as I will show below. In fact, the visionary Jacobean eco-parliamentarian’s enemy was not Shakespeare but a longstanding and thoroughly conventional distrust of the scary woods, and a corresponding English enthusiasm for the cultivation of the wild. If Shakespeare proved an enemy of forests, he did so not by providing a pleasant theatrical substitute for woodlands but by stoking the general preference for a tamed natural world. He does this first and foremost by dramatizing the perilous nature of the uncultivated forest. Anne Barton has proposed that Shakespeare’s boyhood was “haunted . . . by the ghost of the Forest of Arden,” the woods near Stratford whose acreage had 3

Jeanne Addison Roberts, The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, Gender (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994). 4 Rebecca Bushnell, “Shakespeare and Nature,” in Shakespeare in Our Time, ed. Dympna Callaghan and Suzanne Gossett (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 330. 5 Vin Nardizzi, “Shakespeare’s Globe and England’s Woods,” Shakespeare Studies 39 (2011): 54–63, here 54. 6 Alex Volchek, “The Historical Reality of Fantasy Forests: Arden, Sherwood, and Sambisca — As You Like It,” Marin Shakespeare Company (blog), http://www.marinshakespeare. org/2014/07/16/the-historical-reality-of-fantasy-forests-arden-sherwood-and-sambisa/. 7 Nardizzi, “Shakespeare’s Globe and England’s Woods,” 55.

Shakespeare’s Savage Trees


shrunk radically over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. 8 Her verb is well chosen. Shakespeare’s recreations of Arden and other woods in comedies and tragedies are the stuff of hauntings; of dreams bordering on nightmares. True, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the exiled Valentine conjures an ideal pastoral image of the forest, saying: This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods, I better brook than flourishing peopled towns: Here can I sit alone, unseen of any, And to the nightingale’s complaining notes Tune my distresses and record my woes. (5.4.2–6)

But his imaginary idyll is promptly challenged by a brutal scene that unfolds before him: the attempted rape of his beloved Silvia by Proteus, his friend and rival, whose savagery is unleashed in and by the wild. In this scene Silvia likens the rapacious Proteus to a “lion” (l. 33), and his “rude uncivil” pounce (l. 60) is only prevented by the courtly Valentine, who, like Robin Hood, now captains a band of wellorganized, wealth-sharing gentleman thieves who import the civil into the sylvan realm. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It also harbors dangers: a tree-hanging snake and a real lion, in fact a lioness, who successively threaten the fugitive Oliver and attack Oliver’s brother, Orlando (4.3). As for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Athenian wood, it is indeed peopled by deities who support human happiness: Oberon, King of the Fairies, uses his magic and his elvish minion Puck to restore order to the romantic anarchy that rages among the lovers lost in the wood, rechanneling the young males’ unruly passions into disciplined streams. Yet alongside Dream’s homely fairies, who are as comfortable in a house or an Athenian palace as they are in the wild, there lurks a savage wood full of stalking “lion, bear, or wolf, or bull” as well as a “meddling monkey” and a “busy ape” (2.1.180–181). Angry at his consort Titania, Oberon hopes magically to couple her, while she is asleep, with such a beast, and it is her good luck that the “monster” (3.2.6) she encounters is in fact a profoundly civilized Athenian, Bottom, who is marked not just by his folly but by his careful courtesy. “I cry your worships mercy,” he tells the elves. “I pray you commend me to Mistress Squash, your mother, and to Master Peascod, your father” (3.1.179, 186–187). The fairies’ kinship with things so domesticated and civilized is seen in the fact that, in this scene, the fairy Puck has not transformed Bottom to one of the wild beasts Oberon has described but, instead, has hybridized him into a “swain” with the head of a harmless farm animal, an ass (4.1.65). It may be evident from the examples of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream that a key danger risked in the shadowy forest is rape. The lurking beasts of the wood — the “meddling monkey” and “busy ape,” who 8

Anne Barton, Essays, Mainly Shakespearean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 353.


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would in fact never be found wild in a European forest — are like human males gone rogue, their passions given license by the “desert” nature of the wood. In forests, men risk transformation into beasts. They become, or may become, the wolves of fairytale or the outlaw aggressors of romances such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” with its knight turned virgin-violator in the greenwood. Yet in Shakespeare, the wild that summons forth male savagery is linked to the masterless female, she who “makes men mad,” to quote Othello (5.2.111). As the poet complains in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, “Savage” lust is a force visited on a man, a “bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad.” In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the woman Proteus chases into the woods is named “Silvia,” meaning not only “woods” but also, to the Greeks, silva, or chaos. 9 (Interestingly, the English word “wood,” related to “wode,” also meant “mad” in Shakespeare’s time.) Though Silvia is innocent, her very femaleness is, like the forest, a provocation to wildness, to the toppling of rational masculine restraint. Similarly, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the young Demetrius becomes “wode,” or mad, “within this wood” because of Hermia, whom he pursues, and though he now loathes Helena, who chases him, Helena’s very presence also tempts him to thoughts of rape. He warns Helena of the risk she runs as a virgin in such a “desert place,” and adds: “If thou follow me, do not believe / But I shall do thee mischief in the wood” (2.1.218, 236–237). And this is comedy! In Titus Andronicus, a tragedy, woodland rape is not prevented by civil bandits or homely fairies with magic love juice. There the “forlorn and lean” trees witness the rape of Lavinia by Queen Tamora’s sons, who are called “the tiger’s young ones” (2.3.94, 142). The ravaged and mutilated Lavinia, whose hands the brothers cut off, is later compared by her uncle to a tree “lopp’d and hew’d,” her body “bare / Of her two branches,” shorn of fingers that once “[t]remble[d] like aspen leaves” (2.4.17–18, 45). Lavinia is both victim and emblem of the wild woods that provoked the violence. Shakespeare’s most famous work about rape, the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, similarly likens the woman to a living plant that tempts its own rude plucking. The sleeping Lucrece is compared to a wild “daisy on the grass” (l. 395); when she wakes to see Tarquin looming over her, she “[p]leads in a wilderness where there are no laws” (l. 544). Her beauty has transformed her violator to a “grim lion” (l. 421) and a “wolf ” (l. 677), called to pounce by the natural if unwitting seductiveness of his prey. Tarquin’s surrender to beastliness is the “mutiny” of his “Will” against his reason (ll. 426, 495); it constitutes his rejection of the homosocial claims of “law” and “duty” (l. 497) that, as Lucrece reminds him, would bind him in civil behavior toward his host, Lucrece’s husband (ll. 575–576). Such a husband to a rapist is a “woodman” to a wolf. “He is no woodman that doth bend his bow / To strike a poor unseasonable doe” (ll. 580–581), Lucrece pleads. The woman/doe may 9


Anne Barton, The Shakespearean Forest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017),

Shakespeare’s Savage Trees


only be lawfully possessed by a licensed hunter, who would attack civilly, in season, rather than lawlessly, like a beast. These woodland metaphors should make us skeptical of claims that there is an alliance between Shakespeare and ecofeminists who “challenge the gendered essentializing of qualities that associate women with nature and men with civilization,” 10 and of the argument that Shakespearean woods have an “equalizing impact” on the humans who enter them. 11 Like Shakespearean forests, the women found in them, or made to represent them, embody a wild power of which they are largely unaware, a magic that, paradoxically, tempts their bestial assault and subjugation. Shakespeare’s descriptions of men suggest that violent sexuality is not original with them, since their ordinary state is reasoning. Lust is instead a force that afflicts them from without. The experience of lust as an assault on reason is articulated by Angelo in Measure for Measure. Strongly attracted to the religious novice Isabella, he wonders, “Is this her fault, or mine? / The tempter, or the tempted?” (2.2.162–163). It is not the woman’s fault, but it is the woman’s fault. Women, like Silvia and Lavinia, are victims of their own sexuality, but so are the men who want to rape them. As Tarquin tells Lucrece, “the fault is thine’” (l. 482). Lest we take Tarquin’s word for it, the narrator, in his description of the subsequent rape, agrees. Confronted with unguarded beauty, “Drunken Desire must vomit his receipt” (l. 703). As Janet Adelman has observed, Shakespearean women are “looming female presences that threaten to control one’s actions and one’s mind,” 12 even when they are not trying. What is healthiest for both men and women, therefore, is the masculine harnessing and domestication of female power, a move Shakespeare commonly associates with the cultivation of forests. 13 Farmland is better than wilderness, and gardens better than wildflowers. For nature to exert its lifegiving influence on the town or court, it must be accommodated to the town or court. Nature cultivated is

10 Karla Armbruster, “‘Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight’: A Call for Boundary Crossing in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism,” in Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy, ed. Greta Gaard and Patrick D. Murphy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 97. 11 Catherine Diamond, “Four Women in the Woods: An Ecofeminist Look at the Forest as Home,” Comparative Drama 5.1 (Spring 2017): 71–100. 12 Janet Adelman, “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), 105–34, here 102. See also Valerie Traub’s discussion of “masculine anxieties towards female power”: “Jewels, Statues, Corpses: Containment of Female Erotic Power in Shakespeare’s Plays,” in Shakespeare and Gender: A History, ed. Deborah E. Barker and Ivo Kamps (London and New York: Verso, 1995), 120–41, here 120. 13 Ariel Salleh claims that feminine attitudes in Shakespeare’s woodland comedies are “clearly .  .  . more wholesome” than masculine attitudes, but there is a distinction to be made between women’s minds and women’s bodies, the latter of which constitute some danger in these plays. See her “The Ecofeminist / Deep Ecology Debate,” Environmental Ethics 14.3 (1992): 195–216, here 209.


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nature improved, as Polixenes argues in The Winter’s Tale, describing the hybridization of flowers as the marital subjugation of a wild woman to a noble “scion.” When “we marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock” (4.4.92–93), we practice “an art which . . . shares / With great creating Nature,” he says (87–88). Properly, the feminine woodland submits to masculine control, and its threat is dispelled thereby. The exiled Duke Senior of As You Like It and his courtiers thrive in the wilderness, finding the woods “More free from peril than the envious court,” not because the woods are a pastoral haven but because their dangers are obvious and not cloaked in hypocrisy. “[T]he icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind” are “no flattery” (2.1.6–10). Still, the Forest of Arden holds savage dangers — not just the wind but also the snake and the lioness — and against these, Duke Senior’s armed forest court affords some protection. “I thought that all things had been savage here,” says Orlando, abashed and corrected, when he stumbles on the Duke’s camp and is politely offered food (2.7.107). Gentility also rules the wood outside Athens. Oberon and Titania are not raw forest energies personified but spirits who embody the fruitful union between nature and human arts and industry. In Rosalind Colie’s phrase, the play achieves “perfect commerce” between Athens and the world of the forest. 14 By the fairies’ influence, the yoked ox and the ploughman do their work, the nine men’s morris is danced on the green (2.1.98), dust is swept out of households (5.1.389–390), and, finally, marriage beds are blessed (5.1.415–417). A wedding hymn similar to the one Oberon speaks over the Athenian lovers is delivered in As You Like It by Hymen, “god of every town,” who emerges — somewhat surprisingly — from the Arden Forest at the play’s close (5.4.146). In ushering betrothed lovers from forest to town, Hymen — a male god who strangely shares a name with a female body part — becomes the consummate symbol of the lawful control of woman by man, and of outlaw lust by marriage. We see this movement from forest savagery to formal control of wild sexual energy even in the highly unpleasant ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. There the formal gesture of concession by which Valentine bestows Silvia on his friend Proteus — “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” (5.4.83) — dispels the threat of reckless woodland rape. Proteus’s possession of Silvia, now reframed in homosocial terms, gains dignity and civil license. Silvia herself is not consulted (though she is happily saved from the young men’s arrangement by the complaints of Proteus’s former fiancée, Julia). When lawful marriage is achieved, the tree metaphor is positively transformed. At times Shakespeare’s language represents the rightfully married pair as a fruitbearing tree, the husband and wife sharing this identity. Embracing his estranged wife Imogen at the close of Cymbeline, Postumus says, “Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die!” (5.5.263–264). The hybrid marriage fostered by the gardener or horticulturist in The Winter’s Tale involves both the groom and the bride 14

Rosalind Colie, Shakespeare’s Living Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), 243.

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in the metaphor of the grafted tree. Again, “we marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock, / And make conceive a bark of baser kind / By bud of nobler race” (4.4.92–95). In Jacobean England the word “scion” might mean “shoot or twig” 15 or signify the heir of a noble household. Both meanings are relevant here, since Polixenes not only is arguing with Perdita about horticulture but also is contemplating his own son and heir’s erotic involvement with the young woman who he thinks is a simple shepherdess. 16 Calling on either sense of the word “scion,” it is the “gentler” male organism who, by merging with the wild stock of the woman, creates a nobler entity. In Polixenes’s line as in Posthumus’s metaphor, the new tree is not a wild organism but an orchard or garden tree, planted, nurtured, and (presumably) pruned. Thus, through marriage, man endows both the woman and himself with a new identity, which is both natural and civil. In Shakespeare’s day it was conventional to represent a family as a tree with branches, as it is now. 17 Still, it is likely that the special Shakespearean image of spouses forming their own unique tree owes something to Shakespeare’s favorite poet, the writer whom Touchstone calls “honest Ovid” (As You Like It 3.3.8). Ovid recounts the myth of the old married pair Baucis and Philemon, who for their civil hospitality are transformed by Zeus into a double-trunked oak, as well as the story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, lovers changed into a single and forever united tree, “no longer two, nor such as to be called, one woman and one man. They seemed neither, and yet both” (Metamorphoses 4.371–379). 18 The androgyny displayed by disguised young women in Shakespearean comedy — such as Rosalind in As You Like It, Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Imogen in Cymbeline — helps prepare us for these Ovidian metaphors. In the end, all these heroines will be “grafted” into a more mature androgynous entity: a married tree-pair, whereby their gender is doubled in a different way, through matrimony. 19 As suggested above, trees, like humans, in the tragedy Titus Andronicus differ from comic trees and comic lovers in their resistance to such civil ordering and 15


“Scion,” in The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

16 It is, of course, ironic that Polixenes, who opposes his florally named son Florizel’s pairing with Perdita, looks favorably on such a union in the plant world. 17 A famous example is the drawing of the flowering tree showing the (alleged) lineage of James I of Scotland descending — or, rather, ascending upward — through eight kings deriving from the mythical Banquo. See “Banquo’s royal line and James I,” Broadside in the Sutherland Collection, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Facsimile reprinted in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1306. 18 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding, ed. John Frederick Nims (1567; New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1967). 19 Shakespeare’s debt to Ovid’s tree-androgynes is discussed in Grace Tiffany, Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters: Shakespeare, Jonson, and Comic Androgyny (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1995), chaps. 1 and 5.


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containment of erotic energies. This is also the case in King Lear. When the savage Goneril forsakes both her father and her husband, forswearing her allegiance to Lear and declaring (to the audience) that she will take Edmund for a lover, her husband Albany pictures her as a tree divesting itself of its own branches. “She that herself will sliver and disbranch / From her material sap, perforce must wither, / And come to deadly use” (4.2.34–36). In Titus Andronicus, law and culture fail to control the reckless passions aroused by females in the wood, a place where the tigerqueen Tamora urges her young on to rape and murder. However, a more famous forest in tragedy does submit to men’s control, in a way that begins to restore the political health of a nation and to reverse the malevolent influence of Shakespeare’s scariest females. Birnam Wood is made to march on and purge Dunsinane castle, Macbeth’s royal seat, after the wood is pruned by Macduff and the English and Scottish soldiers, who hold its branches before their faces as they advance. Mastering the trees, the soldiers subdue the ambitious madness into which Macbeth has been led largely by women: the Witches and his wife. In the Birnam Wood scenes, Shakespeare, like the historian Raphael Holinshed before him, reverses the proto-feminism of Christine de Pizan’s earlier account of a similar woody victory. In de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), Queen Fredegund of France, with her baby at her breast, leads an army of soldiers disguised by tree branches to surprise and conquer an enemy who at first mistakes them for a woods. 20 In place of a mother’s victory, Shakespeare offers an image of masculine triumph. Macbeth links the subjugation of the forest to the quelling of lawless ambition, of a powerlust triggered by the riddles of the Weird Sisters and the seductive urging of Lady Macbeth. 21 Thus the forest in Shakespearean tragedy and comedy is neither pastoral nor naturally benevolent. Like the female in her sexual allure and fecundity, the woods are a power to be tapped for human purposes, be they agricultural or architectural, marital or martial. 22 Woods are a wild entity whose value is realized in their domestication, in the imposition of arts upon them. Mustapha Fahmi has observed that 20

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, ed. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea Books, 1982), 66. For the editor’s dating of this book and its creation, see xxv. 21 See also the discussion of the masculine vanquishing of feminine power in Grace Tiffany, “Macbeth, Paternity, and the Anglicization of James I,” Studies in the Humanities 23.2 (December 1996): 148–62. 22 Woods, of course, are not the only symbol in Shakespeare of feminine wildness, as numerous critics have noticed. In The Shakespearean Wild and elsewhere, Jeanne Addison Roberts has discussed the many instances in which Shakespeare likens the marital relationship to a husbandman’s (or a husband’s) taming of animals, and in “Roman World, Egyptian Earth,” Mary Crane discusses how, in Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman attempts at earth-mastery are aligned with Caesar’s attempts to control Cleopatra. See Mary Crane, “Roman World and Egyptian Earth: Cognitive Difference and Empire” in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra,” Comparative Drama 43.1 (Spring 2009): 1–17.

Shakespeare’s Savage Trees


Shakespeare’s forest is indeed “less pastoral than Georgic,” less a natural haven than a natural resource. 23 Perhaps the most striking image of feminized nature submitting to the control of a reasoning male shaper is found in Shakespeare’s late romance, The Tempest. There the wizard Prospero recalls having freed the spirit Ariel from a pine tree, wherein Ariel was trapped by the witch Sycorax, a demonic female who deals in trees. Prospero, a learned ruler — and another exiled duke — splits the tree and releases Ariel, a musical spirit who will then enact theatrical roles both to entertain the island’s visitors and to subdue them to Prospero’s civil rule. Ariel not only “perform[s]” the tempest (1.2.194) that brings Prospero’s enemies to the island; he also appears as an avenging Fury to scare Prospero’s foes into repentance. “Bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou / Perform’d,” Prospero compliments him (3.3.83–84). Finally, Ariel appears as the agricultural goddess Ceres in Prospero’s wedding masque for his daughter. This last performance is an artistic device meant by Prospero to tame and subdue young Ferdinand’s dangerous passion for Miranda. As Ceres, Ariel joins with the goddesses Iris and Juno, played by other spirits, to celebrate the betrothed couple’s “contract” and remind them of their “vows . . . that no bed-right shall be paid / Till Hymen’s torch be lighted” (4.1.84, 96–97). Prospero has improved Ariel, first releasing him from the wild pine in which the sorceress first confined him, and then training him as an actor who speaks in praise of the human institution of marriage. Even the role Ariel is given to play suggests the accommodation of nature to human culture — in this case, agriculture. He does not play Iris, goddess of the rainbow, but Ceres, goddess of corn. The Tempest, a highly metatheatrical play, leads us back to Vin Nardizzi’s comments on the theatrical status of the Shakespearean woodland. While it is unlikely that Shakespeare’s imaginary trees and forests had much impact on early modern English deforestation policy, we can find in Shakespeare’s woods a register of English approval for the adaptation of the wild to human culture. The Elizabethans’ love of gardens, including pruned trees, is well documented by scholars like Adam Nicholson, who, in The Earls of Paradise, describes how the merging of country with court and town became a fashion led by great families such as the Sidneys in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. 24 In fact, the hybridization of nature with architecture, through the widespread creation of gardens containing trees, characterized all classes in Elizabethan England and affected even the designs of London playhouses. Charlotte Porter speaks of the garden on the grounds of the Rose playhouse — a garden for which the theater was named — and also of how trees and flowers from adjacent green spaces were brought onto stages to suggest


Mustapha Fahmi, “Shakespearean Georgic: An Ecological Reading of As You Like It.” Paper presented at the British Shakespeare Association meeting, Newcastle, UK, September 2005. 24 Adam Nicholson, Earls of Paradise: England and the Dream of Perfection (London: HarperCollins, 2008), passim.


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woodland settings. 25 Andrew Gurr avers that the curtained discovery spaces at the backs of stages like those in the Rose and the Globe were built large enough so that stage-hands could carry in substantial properties, such as boxed trees. 26 These might be used in scenes like those dramatizing the jokes played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night and on Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, wherein characters in gardens hide from other characters by secreting themselves behind or within foliage (“Get ye all three into the box-tree”; Twelfth Night 2.5.15). So, when possible, Shakespeare and other playwrights brought real greenery onto the stage to assist in theatrical illusions. The most famous example of the stage garden in Shakespeare is one in which a direct argument is made for the cultivation of wildness, and of the political dangers of the failure to lop, prune, and control it. In Richard II, the Queen, standing in the “shadow of [the] trees,” hears a Gardener call the war-torn realm of England a place whose “fruit-trees” are “all unprun’d,” even as he himself, a good citizen, trims the little on-stage trees that represent the palace garden (3.4.25, 45). The use of real trees on stage was not even new in Elizabeth’s time. Earlier in the century an elaborate dramatic performance at the court of her father, Henry VIII, had called for “12 hawthornes, 12 oaks, 12 hazels, 10 maples, 10 birches, 16 dozen fern roots and branches, 60 broome stalkes,” and “6 fir trees” — presumably saplings, yet enough of them to create the illusion of a true forest, from which armored knights were to ride on horseback. 27 Yet those kinds of spectacular and expensive effects were reserved for court entertainments and were never the stuff of the public theaters. There, the small portable trees — especially boxed ones — suggestive of tame gardens, while important to the representation of acculturated nature, would have been detrimental to the large-scale illusion of a frightening forest. Thus, for the imaginary creation of scary, looming woods, Shakespeare relied on two things: stout wooden stage-posts, and words. A stage-post might represent a single tree that, though part of an else-invisible forest, is also separate, due to its special function within the plot. These trees have symbolic as well as practical significance. Shakespeare’s particular trees are laden with biblical values. We generally find behind each either the fatal, snake-haunted Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or the Cross. The fatal tree of Eden figures in As You Like It, wherein Orlando sees his treacherous brother Oliver sleeping under an “old oak” around which is entwined a “green and gilded snake,” ready to bite (4.3.104, 108). 28 Since As You Like It is a comedy, the snake does not win. He slithers away at the sight of the virtuous Orlando, and Oliver lives, repents, and is forgiven. In the also-comic Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff goes to “Herne’s 25

Charlotte Endymion Porter, “How Shakespeare Made Trees Act,” The Shakespeare Association Bulletin 6.3 (July, 1931): 113–18, here 114. 26 Andrew Gurr, “The Bare Island,” Shakespeare Survey 47 (1994): 29–43, here 33. 27 Barton, The Shakespearean Forest, 22. 28 However, this scene is described rather than staged.

Shakespeare’s Savage Trees


Oak” to commit adultery with the merry wives, to embrace the devil of unlicensed sexuality under its sheltering branches. This also being a comedy, Falstaff ’s plan is thwarted, and the assembly of merry, singing local citizens who dance around him convert Windsor Forest to a park and the sylvan sin-tree to a community partytree. The single trees in tragedy, however, remain ominous and wild. The bitter, self-exiled hero of Timon of Athens finds at the roots of his stage tree a cache of gold, a “yellow slave” (4.3.34), and gives it to the warrior Alcibiades to fund the destruction of Athens. Like Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, on which Timon is partly based, this episode reminds us of Paul’s warning against the love of money, “the root of all evil,” 29 and also, of course, of the Genesis tree from which greedy Eve ate and brought death to mankind. The death-tree is found also in Titus Andronicus, when Aaron buries gold beneath an elder, a Judas tree. Later the play brings the spectacle of Aaron, like Judas, with a noose around his neck, about to be hanged from this same tree. As for the ultimate tamed tree, namely the Cross, in Shakespeare it is most often present as human spectacle given weight and meaning through accompanying language. These crosses partake of what J. R. R. Tolkien, describing Shakespeare’s theater, called “the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men” 30: the actor playing Richard II spreading his arms as he laments that the “Pilates” of Parliament have led him to his “sour cross” (Richard II 4.1.240–241); the “side-piercing sight” of King Lear “crowned with weeds and flowers” (King Lear 4.6.85, s.d. 81); and the suffering postures assumed by generations of stage Ariels as Prospero describes Ariel’s prior confinement within the cloven pine (1.2.277). Harry Berger reads Christian symbolism into that scene: “let Ariel, trapped in the tree of fallen human nature . . . be an emblem of Prospero’s . . . experience.” 31 The shadowy forest is different from these single trees. It is less tangible than Aaron’s elder, Timon’s gold-tree, and the characters with spread arms that we see physically before us on the stage, and also less distinct than those trees which, like Ariel’s pine and Oliver’s snake-tree, are retrospectively conjured for us through vivid imagery. The massed woods are a dark domain created almost wholly by the bewildered comments of characters wandering within them. “Fair love, you faint with wand’ring in the wood; / And to speak troth I have forgot our way,” says Lysander (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.2.35–36). “The forest walks are wide and spacious, / And many unfrequented plots are there, / Fitted by kind for rape and villainy,” the villainous Aaron gloats (Titus Andronicus 2.1.114–116). Such references to forests in the woodland plays essentially create these domains, as when 29

1 Timothy 6:10 in The Bible (London: Christopher Barker, 1599; repr. as The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1599 Edition. Ozark, MO: L. L. Brown, 2003). 30 J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), 71–72. 31 Harry Berger, Second World and Green World: Studies in Renaissance Fiction-Making (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 154.


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Rosalind announces, “Well, this is the forest of Arden,” and it is there (2.4.15). Shakespearean woodlands are invisible so that we can see them in our minds. They are appropriated, rendered, and finally domesticated by a poetry that makes them virtual and accessible only to playgoers’ imaginations. Yet, as Vin Nardizzi has noted, even Shakespeare’s invisible forests had as their backdrop real trees. For Shakespeare adapted genuine woodlands to the physical Globe theater, in its timbered frame as well as in the pillars that supported the balcony that extended over two-thirds of the playing area. Real English trees were harvested to form the stage-posts, which at times stood for Aaron’s elder and Herne’s oak and at other times for wood-framed buildings such as, say, the houses of Juliet Capulet, and Antipholus of Ephesus. The actor playing Berowne in Love’s Labor’s Lost would have climbed one of these posts to hide himself in a tree, there to overhear the love poems by which his friends hope to capture the wild hearts of the visiting Frenchwomen. And the stage-posts also became the Arden Forest trees to which lovesick Orlando affixed his mediocre poetry celebrating the beauties of fair Rosalind. Silly though the verses are, Orlando’s poem-covered trees do finally lead to his capture of Rosalind. Because he writes and posts them, he meets her in the woods, and by play’s end — to adapt Puck’s lines describing a similar conclusion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — “The man hath his mare” (3.2.463); or, as Beatrice says of Benedick, a woman’s “wild heart” is tamed to a man’s “loving hand” (Much Ado about Nothing 3.1.112). Perhaps there is no clearer image in Shakespeare of the adaptation of forest to culture than this: a male actor pinning practical love poems onto painted trees, stage-posts that once stood wild in an English wood, awaiting the touch of the carpenter.

How to Do Things with Birds: The Radical Politics of Nature’s Speech Acts in MacbeTh Seth Swanner

When her husband secretly absconds to support Scotland’s rightful heir, Lady Macduff interprets his flight as a breach of several analogically linked obligations. After criticizing Macduff ’s apparent lapse of political duty, she quickly pivots to his lapse in familial duty. She alleges that he lacks “the natural touch” of the “poor wren,” who defends her family even in the face of great danger. 1 Yet while the wren’s behavior bridges the proper channels of domestic and political obligation, identifying upright behavior in humans is less straightforward than merely finding Macduff dutifully in his “nest.” Indeed, Lady Macduff admits that one can determine if humans fulfill their natural obligations only by navigating a maze of potentially duplicitous intentionality, epitomized in the difference between an honestly sworn pledge and an oath taken in bad faith. Finally asserting that her husband is a “traitor,” she defines the term for her son: “one that swears and lies” (4.2.48). Just as the wren’s “natural touch” represents proper political allegiance and familial affection, Lady Macduff suggests here that the forswearing of oaths — wedding vows and political pledges alike — is the litmus test for unnatural treason. Lady Macduff ’s concatenation of natural, domestic, and political obligation is representative of a complex naturalization of political fealty that increased during the years after the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Throughout this period — encompassing Macbeth’s composition and early performance history — the articulation and 1 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 4.2.4–12. All subsequent references to Shakespeare’s works will be from this edition and cited parenthetically.

Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Perceptions of the Environment and Ecology, ed. Thomas Willard, ASMAR 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), pp. 209–227.


DOI 10.1484/M.ASMAR-EB.5.120903


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interpretation of subjects’ “natural” allegiance (as well as their “unnatural” betrayals) grew central to the statist consolidation of ideological control after the political rupture of the Plot. As I explore in this essay, the Oath of Allegiance, administered to Catholic recusants, represented a major post-Plot effort to identify “unnatural” political outliers and Catholic separatists who might, as Lady Macduff worries, swear to the Oath of Allegiance and lie. Despite Lady Macduff ’s profile of the wren’s “natural touch,” however, her husband’s alleged breaches reveal a network of contradictory obligations that trouble any utterance of “natural” fealty spoken forth in the various oaths that bind the thane. Macduff, to his credit, is no traitor — at least not in the normal sense of the word. His parental betrayal of his family is an unforeseen consequence of his loyalty to his political father, Duncan, as Macduff makes his way to England to secure the throne for the dead king’s heir. Macduff ’s unique situation forges an irreconcilable conflict between political allegiance and the biological allegiances of parenthood, analogized, for Lady Macduff, in the wren’s faithfulness to her offspring. 2 Despite Lady Macduff ’s conflation of political and natural allegiance — a conflation that King James’s own understanding of sovereign paternalism exploited — the twin obligations of political allegiance and biological family treacherously diverge. 3 No matter what he does, Macduff will be “one that swears and lies.” Throughout this essay, I interrogate discourses of natural allegiance surrounding the Oath of Allegiance and in Macbeth, finally revealing how difficult it is to get Nature to confess (and swear to) her allegiances. Nature’s jurisdictions are too expansive to condemn or impel only one of Macduff ’s incommensurate duties. And Natural Law, that fluid yet influential moral code, is too capaciously polyglot to be translated into the cramped utterance of a single Oath of Allegiance. In examining the contradictory spoken allegiances of humans, wrens, owls, crickets, wind, and trees, I argue that Macbeth complicates the notion of an objective, impartial world “out there” that represents a simple reality or truth. Instead, I argue that humans and nature are caught up in one another’s equivocations. I use the word equivocations advisedly. The play’s exploration of traitors’ duplicitous language is well known from the Porter’s reference to Henry Garnet’s doctrine 2 Given the intersections of parental and political duty, it is worth remembering that Banquo points out the martlet’s “procreant cradle” as an assurance that Macbeth’s castle is auspicious for King Duncan’s arrival (1.6.8). The female wren, against which Lady Macduff contrasts her husband, was thought to be especially “procreant.” For example, in Robert Chester’s poetic compilation Love’s Martyr (where Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle was first printed), Chester provides a catalog of birds, including the “little Wren that many yong ones brings” (117). With Banquo’s praise for the martlet in mind, the exceptional fertility of the wren makes the bird an apt creature for Lady Macduff ’s critique of her husband. See Robert Chester, Loves Martyr: or, Rosalin’s Complaint (London: Edward Blount, 1601). 3 See Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 85–89.

How to Do Things with Birds


of mental equivocation (2.3.5–8). 4 Indeed, Lady Macduff ’s condemnation of her swearing-and-forswearing husband partakes as deeply of this characterization of treason as it does in the assumption that nature, exemplified by the wren, champions a more simple-hearted, univocal demonstration of allegiance. In many ways, however, the cross-spoken politics of Macbeth’s natural world suggests that equivocation — so often associated with treason — is a fact of nature rather than a simple breach of Natural Law’s moral imperatives. In this play, treacherous equivocation may arise not from malicious intent but merely, as with Macduff, from the contradictory obligations of different natures and their spoken articulation. While ecocritics have characterized Macbeth’s natural world as one that is intricate, contentious, and even contradictory, they often allege that nature eventually resolves itself of its apparent duplicities. 5 This reinforces the notion that nature — as a place of solid facticity — is for uncovering and settling contradictions. By contrast, I argue that nature does not resolve its political duplicities but, in its vastness and complexity, is defined by them.

The Challenges of Reading, Writing, and Translating Natural Law One of the primary difficulties of reading Macbeth as an ecocritical text is the seemingly uncomplicated way that the natural world supports Duncan’s regime and bloodline, a political anthropocentrism that installs the rightful human sovereign as the conduit of Natural Law. 6 Duncan’s death causes a darkening of the countryside, 4 See also Rebecca Lemon, Treason by Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare’s England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 121–27. 5 See Gwilym Jones, Shakespeare’s Storms (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014), 86–104; Richard Kerridge, “An Ecocritic’s Macbeth,” in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Dan Brayton and Lynne Bruckner (Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 194–210; and Kristen Poole, Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 136–67. Kerridge attests that Macbeth’s nature resolves the day/night dualism that Macbeth erects by showing how the “rooky wood” of Birnam moves to support his rival Malcolm. Poole argues that the play’s representation of nature vacillates between two theological poles before Malcolm’s accession restores the “proper” theological model of Calvinism (160–61). According to Jones, Macbeth’s stormy equivocations may be rectified by properly distinguishing between the natural and the supernatural. 6 See Georgia Brown, “Defining Nature through Monstrosity in Othello and Macbeth,” in Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare, ed. Thomas Hallock, Ivo Kamps, and Karen L. Raber (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 55–76; and Steve Mentz, “‘Making the green one red’: Dynamic Ecologies in Macbeth, Edward Barlow’s Journal, and Robinson Crusoe,” The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13.3 (2013): 66–83. To various


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and the rightful heir Malcolm seems able to “bid the tree[s]” of Birnam Wood with his military leadership (4.1.111). I contend, however, that natural allegiances in Macbeth do not so closely match the state’s interest, either in Duncan’s Scotland or James’s England. What is more, these natural allegiances can pull in incompatible directions. While the ecological charisma of Duncan and his heirs seems to motivate a specific political activism in the natural world to “Unfix his earthbound root” for its rightful human sovereign (4.1.112), the play traces an intricate, often contradictory network of natural and political obligations. The space between rightful duty and treasonous discord erupts in the play’s fascination with the inconclusive translation of unwritten Natural Law into the supposedly legible duties of early modern civic life. Richard Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Polity (1593) is a hugely influential text that attempts a language-bound codification of Natural Law while simultaneously demonstrating how nature’s directives jar with their linguistic articulations. Decreed by God at the moment of Creation, Natural Law described the material parameters within which creatures and natural phenomena behaved. 7 As Laurie Shannon has noted, Hooker’s Natural Law differs from modern understandings of the laws of physics because it has room for “open-ended variability,” and, indeed, Hooker seems comfortable with Natural Law’s occasional fungibility, writing that “no man denieth but those things that nature worketh, are wrought either alwayes or for the most part after one and the same manner.” 8 Hooker does not fret over the ontological gulf between the hard determinism of “alwayes” and the pliability of “for the most part.” And, indeed, both show up a second time when Hooker discusses Rational Law, Natural Law’s subsidiary that governs the moral behavior of rational creatures: “[Humans] keep either or alwayes or for the most part one tenure. The generall and perpetuall voyce of men is as the sentence of God himselfe. For that which all men haue at all times learned, nature her selfe must needes haue taught; and God being the author of nature, her voyce is but his instrument.” 9 Here, the legislative (and linguistic) infallibility implied in the “sentence of God himselfe” contrasts with the hedging of “alwayes or for the most part,” a quavering degrees, each of these ecocritics struggles with the anthropocentric resonances of Duncan’s and Malcolm’s apparent mastery of the natural world. Georgia Brown’s impressive study of monstrosity and taxonomic doubt in Macbeth still attests that the human king guarantees the natural order by the end of the play. Steve Mentz, too, microscopically scrutinizes the line “Making the green one [ocean] red” through deep ecology, a modern movement that emphasizes natural dynamism rather than stasis. But in order to provide ecocritical value to the line, he must read around the line’s potentially anthropocentric context, which suggests that it is the blood of a human king that so sets the ocean to frothing. 7 Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (London, 1593), 1:52–53. 8 Laurie Shannon, “Nature’s Bias: Renaissance Homonormativity and Elizabethan Comic Likeness,” Modern Philology 98.2 (2000): 183–210, here 192; Hooker, Lawes, 1:53. 9 Hooker, Ecclesiasticall Politie, 1:63, emphasis mine.

How to Do Things with Birds


qualifier that bridges the physical laws of the world with the moral imperatives that adjudicate human behavior. While it would be easy to read Hooker’s second “for the most part” as a condemnation of humans who had strayed from the ironclad dictates of Rational Law, the fact that it echoes the sometimes-flexible behaviors of natural phenomena saps Hooker’s equivocation here of any didacticism. The laws of nature, rational or otherwise, contain a “for the most part” elasticity that speaks to an untranslatable remainder, duly acknowledged by Hooker in his efforts to codify the “sentence of God” in the mouth of nature. This elasticity becomes a distinctive conceptual challenge when Hooker describes humans who attempt to render the unwritten laws of nature in their own language. Oath-taking, for instance, bears a contingent relationship to Natural Law that depends on what is spoken and when it is uttered. Hooker first suggests that oaths are binding only from the moment they are pronounced and thus lack the imperishably binding characteristics of Natural Law. And yet in his most explicit treatment of the subject, he notes that oaths “imposed either by each man vpon himselfe, or by a publique society .  .  . containeth sundry both naturall and positiue [merely human] lawes.” 10 Oaths thus represent an affirmation of laws that may span at least two of Hooker’s taxonomies, but determining which portions of an oath are “positiue” and which are ad hoc translations of the eternally binding Natural Law is never made satisfactorily clear in Hooker’s text. Moreover, when he explores examples of the “perpetuall voyce of men” that, despite his earlier treatment, do not echo the voice of nature, language again poses logistical difficulties. Hooker bemoans, for instance, the persistence of incest and polygamy in some cultures despite the inborn interdictions of Natural Law. According to Hooker, these lingering violations may be addressed by clarifying Natural Law in writing. He provocatively describes such laws as “mixt,” doubly binding by unwritten nature and human legislation. 11 He notes that such unnatural sins have “preuailed far and . . . haue gotten the vpper hand of right reason . . . so that no way is left to rectifie such foule disorder without prescribing by lawe the same thinges which reason necessarilie doth enforce but is not perceyued that so it doth.” 12 Hooker’s use of the term “prescribe” — from praescribere, literally “to write on the front” — announces the ambitious role that language plays as the representative envoy for the unwritten Natural Law. 13 At the same time, however, the language in “mixt” laws such as these marks the point of rupture where Natural Law and human reason have (at least at one time) become unmoored from one another; having to write down an unwritten law demonstrates where human and natural jurisdictions overlap but also where Natural Laws display their vulnerability to custom, imposture, and perception.

10 11 12 13

Hooker, Ecclesiasticall Politie, 1:87, italics in the original. Hooker, Ecclesiasticall Politie, 1:75; italics in the original. Hooker, Ecclesiasticall Politie, 1:75; italics in the original. OED, “prescribe.”


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Like Hooker’s Lawes, Macbeth advances ethical and political conceptions of Natural Law that cannot be rendered easily into politically legible language. This difficulty emerges from the fact that these edicts are linguistically “mixt,” indeed; nature seems full of avian, insectile, and arboreal voices that suggest contradictory political messages to their human hearers. In the regicide scene, for instance, nature’s spoken allegiance becomes a phonetic riddle as both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth strain to interpret the utterances of “night’s black agents” (3.2.54). While Macbeth steals away to Duncan’s chamber, Lady Macbeth frets over the various peeps and hollers of nocturnal creatures: Lady Macbeth: Macbeth: Lady Macbeth:

Macbeth: Lady Macbeth: Macbeth: Lady Macbeth: Macbeth: Lady Macbeth: Macbeth:

Hark, peace! — It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman Which gives the stern’st good-night. . . . Enter Macbeth above Who’s there? What ho? Exit Alack, I am afraid they have awaked, And ‘tis not done. . . . Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t. Enter Macbeth below My husband! I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise? I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did you not speak? When? Now. As I descended? Ay. . . . But wherefore could I not pronounce “Amen”? I had most need of blessing, and “Amen” Stuck in my throat . . . Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more, Macbeth does murder sleep.” (2.2.2–34)

Here the castle is a bustling nightscape full of competing voices. But this chorus does not include only the human agents on the stage; the owl and the cricket add their voices to the nocturnal cacophony, yet the content of these creaturely screeches is never clear. Lady Macbeth first interprets the owl’s cry in language (as a stern “good night”) and as a “fatal” avian approval of their crime, but later in the scene she seems to theorize not approval but protest from the owl; the bird’s voice is no longer an ominous, knowing “good-night” but a “scream,” thus muddling protest and approval even in the voice of a single owl. This uncertainty surrounding the “spoken” allegiance of Scotland’s avian inhabitants is reinforced by how difficult creaturely voices (including those of humans) are to discern in the first place. Her speech begins not with assured interpretation but with hushed surprise at an unidentified sound: “Hark, peace!” This shock — echoed repeatedly throughout these lines with “What ho,”

How to Do Things with Birds


“Alack,” and a final “Hark” — exposes the confusion of voices and potential allegiances as Lady Macbeth fearfully interprets the owl’s shriek as a human alarm raised against their treason. Unsettled by the uncanny resemblance between human and avian voices, Lady Macbeth’s interpretation falters, rendering it momentarily impossible to evaluate the allegiance of the speaker. The forensic puzzle of this nocturnal wordscape reaches a crisis when Macbeth hears a voice condemning him for “murder[ing] sleep.” This condemnation is, for Macbeth, uttered in discernible language. However, given the linguistic confusion that nocturnal animals posed for Lady Macbeth, it does not necessarily follow that it must have been human language; it could have also been the “cry” of the owl or the cricket. Indeed, the denouncement would be eerily appropriate for nocturnal creatures — themselves defined by their exemption from the normal human timeframe of “sleep” — to utter. Although Macbeth will later boast of his endorsement by “night’s black agents,” it is unclear whether the night’s actual voice in this scene approves of or informs against his crimes (3.2.54). We might expect the regicidal duo to have difficulty interpreting nature’s juridical pronouncements, but the Macbeths are not the only characters who struggle with competing explanations of nature’s dicta. In the scene immediately after Lady Macduff ’s ecopolitical profile of the wren, her husband offers another postulation of natural allegiance that is epitomized, again, by spoken assurances. This time they seem uttered by the weather itself as it announces God’s political sympathies. When attempting to convince Malcolm to return to Scotland in force, the thane describes Macbeth’s crimes both meteorologically and linguistically, saying: Let us . . . Hold fast the mortal sword, and like good men Bestride our downfall birthdom. Each new morn New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows Strike heaven on the face that it resounds As if it felt with Scotland and yelled out Like syllable of dolour. (4.3.2–8)

Macduff ’s opening plea to Malcolm fully collapses the distinction between God’s supernal imperatives and meteorological upheaval; here, “heaven” signals both God’s kingdom and the thundering Scottish skies. Macduff ascribes a kind of linguistic agency to the weather itself, seen here in the thunderous “syllable of dolour” that echoes the cries of the Scottish “birthdom,” a word that again indexes the political resonances of domesticity for Macduff. This rest of this scene, however, offers opposite and incommensurate verdicts about the air’s willingness to “speak” out against the agonies of Scottish subjects. When, for instance, Ross bears news of Scotland to Macduff and Malcolm, he also brings a sobering rebuttal to Macduff ’s conception of an activist meteorology:


seth swanner Alas, poor country, Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing, But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile; Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air Are made, not marked. (4.3.165–169)

For Macduff, the “syllable of dolour” groaning out of the Scottish sky casts the firmament as a meteorological sympathizer to Malcolm’s claim, but Ross’s testimony ascribes not political partisanship but, at best, a meteorological indifference and, at worst, complicity. The “shrieks that rend the air” do not, as before, reverberate throughout a politically sympathetic sky. Instead, the subjects’ howls of suffering are “made, not marked,” a callousness toward suffering that might describe the hardened and traumatized people but, equally, could describe the sky itself. When, too, Ross warns that news of the Macduff family’s slaughter are “words / That would be howl’d out in the desert air, / Where hearing should not latch them,” he suggests that the air is unable or unwilling to hear Scotland’s (and Macduff ’s) woes, much less to respond with its own heavenly syllables (4.3.194–196). Indeed, after Ross finally informs Macduff of his family’s demise, the thane’s defeated question — “Did heaven look on?” — could be understood both from a sense of providential hopelessness and from a perspective of meteorological puzzlement (“heaven” as the upper air), which contradicts his earlier confidence that the Scottish airspace resonates with interpretable syllables (4.3.225–226). Worse, perhaps, than Ross’s suggestion of the air’s linguistic impassiveness is the subtle, politically explosive hint that nature’s double-speak in this scene — poised between Macduff ’s hopeful indignation and Ross’s crushing defeatism — echoes a traitor’s equivocation. By saying that the Scottish landscape is “afraid to know itself,” Ross consolidates two of the previous scene’s descriptions of treason: Lady Macduff ’s assertion that “ fears do make us traitors” and Ross’s own response to her that “cruel are the times when we are traitors / And do not know ourselves” (4.2.4 and 18–19, emphasis mine). Far from the straightforward “syllable[s]” of the loyal, the Scottish land — first identified as a fecund “birthdom” but now no longer “our mother, but our grave” — smacks of treason. The intersection of categories here — the political obligations of birth and family, the linguistic articulation of Natural Law, and the struggle to define the limits of treason — became increasingly contentious for early moderns in the years following the Gunpowder Plot, especially as early modern thinkers attempted to justify that important verbal affirmation of supposedly natural fealty: the Oath of Allegiance.

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“Borne and Sworne”: Natal, Natural, and Articulated Allegiances after the Gunpowder Plot In the early months of 1606, James and his Parliament enacted the Popish Recusants Act and its new Oath of Allegiance in response to the papist insurgency that the Plot supposedly represented. To be administered to Catholic recusants, the Oath alleged not only that “our Soueraigne Lorde king Iames, is lawfull and rightful king of the realme” but also that the pope may not “discharge [James’s] subjects of their allegiance or obedience.” 14 Thus the articulation of allegiances grew crucially important but increasingly vexed, especially as these allegiances were depicted as “natural.” The groundwork for this naturalization was being laid in the first decade of the seventeenth century through underlying incoherencies in the political meaning of birth and nature, the intersections between the natal and the natural. We have already seen how the conflation of political and natural paternity scrambles fealty and treason for Macduff, and this indeterminacy extends to his child, whose birth is slandered by the Murderer, who ironically echoes the avian language of the scene when he cries, “What, you egg! / Young fry of treachery!” (4.2.83–84). Beyond Macbeth, controversies surrounding the junctures among Natural Law, civil allegiance, and birth came to a crisis in 1603 with James’s ostensible unification of England and Scotland. Jonathan Goldberg has shown that domesticity and, specifically, its procreative function was used by James to encourage the notion that the king was the civil father to both English and Scottish subjects. 15 Despite the promise of this paternal metaphor, however, the legal unification of the Britain was no straightforward process because, although England and Scottish subjects were children under the same regal father, they were born into two distinct systems of law. The burgeoning legal presence of Natural Law, especially regarding the allegiances enjoined by birth, culminated with the 1608 suit known as Calvin’s Case. Centering over the legal rights of those born before (antenati) and after (postnati) James’s English accession, Calvin’s Case ratified the relevance of Natural Law to the conditions of birth. According to Lord Chancellor Ellesmere’s opinion, “allegiance [for those born after 1603] was grounded upon the law of nature; and, therefore, it ought not be confined within the kingdom of England.” 16 Through the shared legal status of all natural-born British subjects as well as the transnational jurisdiction of “the law of nature,” in-born allegiance helped to suture the legal divides between England and Scotland after 1603. 14

3 & 4 Jac. I. Cap. IV, quoted from Select Statutes and Other Constitutional Documents Illustrative of the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I, ed. G. W. Prothero (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914), 259. 15 Goldberg, James I, 85–89. 16 Keechang Kim, “Calvin’s Case (1608) and the Law of Alien Status,” Journal of Legal History 17 (1996): 155–71, here 160.


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Despite the avowedly universal character of this inborn, natural allegiance, many English recusants faced an indissoluble conceptual tension between two oaths that attested contradictory allegiances to two “birthdom[s]”: first, the Oath of Allegiance that confirmed subjection to the laws of their native country; and, second, the baptismal oath of spiritual rebirth that granted them Christian membership. The Oath’s defenders attempted to resolve the tension by analogizing one oath to the other. However, as we will see, baptism also encoded troublesome disjunctures among spoken civil allegiance, “inborn” dictates of Natural Law, and the spiritual loyalties of Christendom. Macbeth emphasizes these disjunctures to the subversion of any spoken, coherent affirmation of nature’s political advocacy. The baptismal sacrament was conceptualized as an oath that promised Christian fidelity and the rejection of Satan’s worldly allurements. 17 However, infant baptism posed a logistical conundrum: if baptism was a speech-act that guaranteed admission into the Christian community, how was such an oath to be performed by infants, who could not speak? The solution was to implement godparents as the infant’s swearers-by-proxy or “sureties,” through whose “promise” the child may take the oath. 18 The godparents’ vow was, thus, taken for that of the pre-verbal baby. So, through a translation of unspoken expectation to verbal asseveration, the child was “borne againe” into the Christian family, and water was sprinkled over the infant as a symbol of that new birth. Infant baptism could thus participate in these natal discourses of civil and Natural Law, though the precise character of this participation was far from settled. According to English Church orthodoxy, baptism was the repudiation of sins inherited naturally from Adam and was, conversely, a supernatural re-birth into the kingdom of God. But while the Church of England’s official view of baptism erected a strict distinction between the natural and the spiritual, Will Coster has noted that early modern baptism could be the product of an unequal, inconsistent mingling of categories between biological and supernatural birth. 19 And, indeed, some fluidity between the role of natural parenthood and the ostensibly spiritual sacrament was built into the rite itself. While the words pronounced by the godparents were supernaturally accorded to the infant, the child’s eligibility for the rite was based upon the faith of the natural parents, which further muddled the baptismal relationship between nature and supernature. For instance, Arthur Dent’s A Pastime for Parents (1606, with numerous editions) is a popular Protestant catechism spoken between a “Father” and his “Child,” and, as such, it reviews English Church orthodoxy, including the belief that baptismal eligibility for infants is ensured “because they are the seed of the Church . . . [and] to bee born in the wombe of the 17

Church of England, The Boke of Common Praier (London: Robert Barker, 1603), “The ministration of Baptisme.” 18 Church of England, Boke of Common Praier, “Baptisme.” 19 Will Coster, Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 50–51.

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Church, is vnto infants in-stead of [articulations of] faith and repentence.” 20 The Child’s answer, redolent with the procreative metaphor of “seed” and “wombe,” blurs the boundary between nature and supernature, an effect reinforced by the catechistic form itself — a performance of mutual speech between father and child. The political possibilities of this theological paternalism emerge when the child recites, “In baptisme we . . . take the oath of allegiance to be true subjects to ye crown of heauen.” 21 Here, baptism is accorded a distinctly political dimension when the oaths undertaken at a child’s baptism earn the urgency of the new “oath of allegiance.” That Dent’s tract was published the same year as the implementation of the Oath and reprinted frequently throughout the Oath’s Jacobean controversies encouraged the political connection. James’s own Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance (1609) responds to Counter-Reformationist Robert Bellarmine’s argument that during Catholics’ “supernaturall birth in Baptisme wee . . . [take an] implied oath . . . to yeelde obedience to the [Pope]” merely by appropriating Bellarmine’s rhetoric. 22 James writes that the Oath of Allegiance is a “double Oath . . . borne and sworne” to the swearer’s “naturall Soueraigne.” 23 To deny this would cause English subjects to “forsweare their former two Oaths, first closely sworne, by their birth in the naturall Allegiance; and next, clearly confirmed by this Oath [of Allegiance], which doeth nothing but expresse the same.” 24 Here James appropriates Bellarmine’s baptismal logic of “borne and sworne” obedience by anchoring the terms of the new Oath in “naturall Allegiance.” The analogical continuity that James imagines between baptism and the Oath of Allegiance is aided by their functional similarities as oaths that “expresse” fealty, translated from previously unspoken, unwritten imperatives of duty, virtue, and “naturall Allegiance.” Perhaps most explicitly gathering together the conceptual linkages among the Oath, baptism, allegiance, and birth is Donne’s Pseudo-Martyr, which again deploys baptismal logic to justify the Oath: “The same office which our sureties [godparents] performe for vs at our Baptisme and Regeneration, the Lawe vndertakes at our Ciuill birth.” 25 Just as biological birth within a Christian household allows the godparent sponsors to affirm the infant’s spiritual allegiance, so does “Ciuill birth” within England allow the “Law” to speak for the subject’s political fealty. For Donne, the Oath of Allegiance is merely an ad hoc translation of directives that were already natural, inborn, and born-into. Thus, oaths such as 20

Arthur Dent, A Pastime for Parents: or A Recreation to Passe Away the Time (London: Thomas Man, 1606), G3v. 21 Dent, Pastime for Parents, G1r–G1v. 22 James I and VI, An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance (London: Robert Barker, 1609), T2v–T3r. 23 James I and VI, Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance, 35. 24 James I and VI, An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance, 34–35. 25 John Donne, Pseudo-Martyr (London: Walter Burre, 1610), 347–48; italics in the original.


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that of baptism or allegiance are “not [taken] as new obligations, but as voluntary and publique confessions, that all the former oathes sworne in Nature and Law, doe reach and extend to that case then in question.” 26 According to Donne, the Oath functions as a reliable translation of allegiance that, like the Christian allegiance expressed in baptism, binds the subject “in Nature and [human] Law”: two (apparently) congruous dominions.

Grafted into the Law: Birth, Baptism, and Nationalism in Macbeth’s Grafts Nature’s allegiances, their problematic articulation, and their baptismal resonances find equivocal expression in the aspect of Macbeth that, ironically, is most often cited as evidence that nature will (literally) stand up for the rightful human sovereign: its trees. This culminates in the siege of Dunsinane by what appears to be nothing less than the forest itself. Birnam Wood appears to support Malcolm when it comes “to high Dunsinane Hill” against Macbeth’s forces (4.1.108). Robert Pogue Harrison has argued that this scene celebrates Malcolm’s supremacy, which is grounded in the commensurate authorities of his birth and Natural Law: “We see in the image of Birnam Wood the law of genealogy — the family tree, as it were — vanquishing its sterile enemy. We see the law of kinship and kingship avenging itself. We see the law of the land in a strangely literalistic guise.” 27 However, when Malcolm conceals his numbers under the sawed boughs of Birnam Wood, we are treated not to a straightforward image of the “law of the land” but to a complicated one of grafting, which, as we will see, equivocates as an unstable symbol of the Oath of Allegiance’s baptismal characteristics. Grafting is a horticultural practice whereby a branch or twig, called a “scion,” is artificially bound to the trunk, called a “stock,” of another tree until the tissues of the scion and the stock have joined together. The stock’s root system nourishes the scion, which keeps its flower, fruit, and leaf characteristics as the plant grows. Grafting was most often used to improve the wild stocks in one’s land in order to produce sweeter, tenderer, or more numerous fruits from, say, the sourer (though more common) crab trees. Grafting’s expressly political context in the play is reinforced by the dynastic implications of the word “scion,” which indicates a noble heir. 28 Thus when Malcolm bears the hewn Birnam “bough” before him as he marches, it is an image of a scion holding a scion. In some ways, then, the assault against Macbeth is figured as an attempt to regraft Malcolm back into the root of lineal succession. 26

Donne, Pseudo-Martyr, 349; italics in the original. Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 104. 28 OED, “scion.” 27

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Far from an image of Natural Law electing its rightful king, however, Macbeth’s references to grafting are dangerously multivocal, in part because grafting itself depended variously on nature, artifice, and the junctures between the two. 29 Grafting could be a straightforward matter of natural compatibility; numerous species and varieties of (usually fruit) trees may be successfully grafted onto one another as long as the stock and the scion are naturally similar enough to be grafted “kind vpon kind,” as noted in Adam Islip’s translated collection of horticultural advice. 30 This natural commensurability between stock and scion did not, however, define the practical limits of what grafting could achieve. By potentially compromising the survivability of the graft, one could privilege artifice over nature by producing horticultural curiosities found nowhere in nature. Thus Richard Surflet’s popular 1600 translation of Charles Estienne’s Maison Rustique warns that ignoring the natural predilections of either stock or scion may produce “monstrous” hybrids, such that not only the stock but also the fruiting scion will be “estranged from his owne nature” as the product of pure artifice. 31 Just as the Oath of Allegiance recalled baptism’s unsettled juncture between nature and supernature, grafting’s already tenuous relationship to nature made it an important analogue for the baptismal oath. Paul’s letter to the Romans describes God’s extension of the Jewish covenant to the gentiles in terms of a graft between a domesticated and a wild olive tree. In order to correct the gentile’s withered, unfruitful olive, Christ acts as a savvy botanist whose sacrificial death has “graffed contrary to nature” the gentile scion to the healthy Jewish stock. 32 Paul’s language of the baptismal graft was written into the Thirty-Nine Articles of the English Church (finalized in 1571), which announced that the baptismal oath is: a signe of Regeneration or newe byrth, whereby as by an instrument, they that receaue baptisme rightly, are grafted into the Church: the promises of the forgeuenesse of sinne, & of our adoption to be the sonnes of God, by the holy ghost, are visibly signed and sealed. 33

29 See also Rebecca Bushnell, Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern Gardens (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), 148–60; Vin Nardizzi, “Grafted to Falstaff and Compounded with Catherine: Mingling Hal in the Second Tetralogy,” in Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze, ed. Stephen Guy-Bray and Vin Nardizzi (Farnham, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate; New York: Routledge, 2009), 149–69. 30 The Orchard and the Garden (London: Adam Islip, 1594), 9. 31 Charles Estienne, Maison Rustique, or The Countrey Farme, trans. Richard Surflet (London: Iohn Bill, 1600), 345. 32 Romans 11:24, KJV. 33 The Church of England, Articles, Whereupon It Was Agreed by the Archbishoppes and Bishoppes of Both Prouinces, and the Whole Cleargie (London: Richard Iugge and Iohn Cawood, 1571), 17.


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The baptismal graft here bridges the metaphors of birth and non-natural “adoption,” effected through the words of a godparent, the “instrument” that, in legal discourse, indicates a swearer’s proxy and spokesperson. 34 Grafting’s early modern theological resonances trouble the crucial meaning of nature’s allegiances in Macbeth. While the Oath’s defenders exploited baptism’s ambiguities in order to naturalize an essentially artificial compact, Macbeth’s grafts show how this conceptual instability cuts, politically, the other way. In other words, despite the Porter’s insistence to the contrary, grafting can, in Macbeth, “equivocate to heaven” (2.3.10). For instance, after Malcolm reveals his designs to assume his rightful place on the Scottish throne, he encourages his soldiers that Macbeth Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above Put on their instruments (4.3.239–241).

These “instruments” refer most explicitly to Malcolm’s forces as an agent of God’s will. But it is not merely the surrogacy of divine kingship that contextualizes Malcolm’s speech here; indeed, the baptismal function of the graft, “as by an instrument,” informs the specific instantiation of the scion’s divine political claim. The readying of heaven’s instruments is set against the fruits of Macbeth’s reign, which are “ripe for shaking.” Malcolm’s arboreal understanding of Macbeth is a tree that is producing sour, bitter, or, in the case of Paul’s baptismal metaphor, wild fruit, and it is this wildness that must be corrected by heaven’s grafting “instruments.” But while the scene seems to conclude with a gesture of arboreal cleansing, Malcolm’s “instruments” direct the reader to the scene’s earlier, more problematic reference to grafting. During his tactical self-disparagement, Malcolm describes his untested political virtue as a grafted scion that, in contrast to Macbeth’s “ripe” age, has yet to bear fruit. Malcolm warns Macduff that his budding youth betrays the virtuous promise of his lineage and conceals the rank fruit of tyranny: It is myself I mean, in whom I know All the particulars of vice so grafted That, when they shall be open’d, black Macbeth Will seem as pure as snow, and the poor state Esteem him as a lamb, being compared With my confineless harms. (4.3.51–56)

Here Malcolm’s self-slandering turns upon an image of destructive grafting that cheapens the productive value of a fruit tree. Malcolm argues that his “grafted” vices have overwritten the righteousness of his bloodline, and the young prince threatens that when his buds are “open’d” after his own grafting back onto the throne, they 34

OED, “instrument.”

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will eventually reveal a concealed viciousness. Malcolm’s promising buds appear to be naturally inherited from the beneficent Duncan, but when they bloom, Malcolm insists that they will reveal a reprobate artificiality. While the grafting that ends the scene recalls the spiritual cleansing of the baptismal covenant, grafting here represents a sullying of moral potential that is worrisome precisely because of its liminality. Furthermore, the prince’s reference to a “lamb” here evokes the intercessory role of Christ’s sacrifice that enables the rhetoric of baptismal grafting later in the scene, but the casting of that role — here, Macbeth — hints of a moral landscape that lacks any absolute, theological anchor and is, instead, merely comparative; Macbeth will seem a “lamb” when “compared” with Malcolm. This problematic graft culminates, importantly, in a broken oath. Although Malcolm will later “abjure” his negative account of himself by saying he “never was forsworn” (4.3.126), his own language testifies against him. By rejecting his self-slander with the term “abjure” — a word that, from the Latin, means “to forswear” — he paradoxically lies when he touts his honesty by claiming that he “never was forsworn.” 35 This scene demonstrates how vulnerable — because liminal — the language of grafting is to appropriation by agents on either side of the moral spectrum, including God, the devil, and the full range of political actors for each. Just as Malcolm’s heavenly “instruments” are answered by the “grafted” evils that Malcolm falsely claims for himself, the baptismal overtones of those “instruments” are mirrored by the devil’s agents, whom Banquo tellingly describes as “instruments of darkness” (1.3.122). Indeed, the witches’ presence on the stage would have indexed, for an early modern audience, specifically baptismal concepts. As Garry Wills has noted, “The devil’s compact [for witches] is a parody and cancelation of the rites of baptism.” 36 Both Wills and Ian McAdam argue that Macbeth becomes a male witch during the play, and, indeed, his plea to “conjure” the witches during the prophecy scene (derived from the Latin coniurare, meaning “to swear together”) marks him explicitly as an anti-baptismal catechumen (4.1.66). 37 Rather than merely renouncing his baptism, however, Macbeth hints that his swearing-forswearing has replaced one graft with another. Macbeth complains that upon my head [the witches] placed a fruitless crown, And put a barren sceptre in my grip (3.1.62–63).

35 OED, “abjure.” See Lemon, Treason by Words, 99–101. Demonstrating “the uncanny dependence of traitor and monarch,” Lemon also associates Malcolm’s linguistic duplicity in this scene with treasonous equivocation (85). 36 Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 60–61. 37 Wills, Witches and Jesuits, 60; Ian McAdam, Magic and Masculinity in Early Modern English Drama (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2009), 237.


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Macbeth’s barrenness shares the language of horticultural dysfunction; the crown is “fruitless,” and the scepter is “barren.” In a play that is politically invested in, as Banquo notes, “which grain [that is, seed] will grow and which will not,” the witches’ fallow tending to Macbeth’s arboreal reign recalls a misgraft, Vin Nardizzi’s term for an incompatible or botched grafting job (1.3.57). 38 The normally productive crown and scepter guarantees succession through the arboreal metaphor of a fruitful tree, yet Macbeth speculates here that he has accepted it from the witches’ dubious hands as a graft — normally performed to improve a “barren” plant — that refuses to flourish. The final scenes are as equivocal about what is grafted onto whom as they are rotten with the consequences of misgrafting. As the English and Scottish forces march toward Dunsinane, an embittered Macbeth bemoans that he “Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf ” (5.3.24). Macbeth’s beleaguered condition is here offered as a horticultural affliction, a logic to which Macbeth compulsively returns. When, for instance, a messenger arrives to inform him of the marching scions of Birnam Wood, the enraged king threatens him with a grafting that will fail to nourish its dying scion: If thou speak’st false Upon the next tree shall thou hang alive Till famine cling [wither] thee (5.5.36–38).

Here again, the threat of misgrafting coincides with the anxiety of “speak[ing] false.” Macbeth’s specific designation of this torture recalls the slow, withering death of an incompatible scion grafted onto the branch of a stock tree. According to Islip’s guidebook, radical hybridity in a graft “will . . . not last: for . . . it will hardlie nourish a strange kind of fruit.” 39 Macbeth’s threat against his messenger involves a “strange kind of fruit” indeed. The monstrous union imagined here between human and tree has a similar prognosis as that between naturally incompatible stocks and scions. Because it is previewed by repeated invocations of variously unnatural misgrafts (including one upon the prince himself), Malcolm’s attempt to graft himself back onto the throne at Birnam cannot unequivocally be a resumption of the natural order. Indeed, the nationalistic resonances of grafting complicate Malcolm’s use of English forces to secure his power. As Mary Floyd-Wilson has argued, the political tensions among the northern highland Macbeth, the more geographically central Malcolm, and the southern Englanders who come to his aid can be understood as a geohumoral drama whereby bodies’ climatic vulnerabilities represent political

38 39

Nardizzi, “Grafted,” 159–62. The Orchard and the Garden, 9.

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susceptibilities. 40 As we have seen, the likeness between the stock and scion is of utmost importance for the graft’s survival, and this likeness extends to the stock’s and scion’s native climates. This standard of climatic compatibility applies both across national boundaries and within the regions of a particular polity. Estienne advises against “translat[ing a scion] out of a hot Countrey into a cold,” and William Lawson’s horticultural manual (written specifically for “the north parts of England”) cautions that the viability of “grafts brought from South to vs in the North” can be dubious. 41 Malcolm’s trajectory as a south-Scotland scion, from the even more southern court of Edward the Confessor, to his assault against the northern highlander Macbeth depicts Malcolm as a geopolitical agent stretched across three disparate (and perhaps horticulturally incompatible) climates. Such cross-climate transplantation returns in the play’s final lines. After affirming that his duties will be “planted newly with the time,” Malcolm celebrates England’s role in uprooting Macbeth through a mingling of nationalized terminologies, promising to anglicize his thanes as “earls” (5.11.28–30). Malcolm’s terminological hybridization questions the naturalness (and thus the viability) of this English-Scottish union. The problems and opportunities of national hybridization in this play — organized around the complex rhetoric of grafting — are of import not only to Malcolm’s cross-climate consolidation of power but also for the “treble sceptre[d]” James, who represented a new national unity among England, Scotland, and (many English hoped) Ireland (4.1.136). 42 Malcolm’s successful ploy to overwrite Macbeth’s reign and regraft himself onto the throne has important ramifications for the royal line. The grafted resumption of Malcolm’s line may be understood in one of two ways, neither of which may be said to represent the natural order in any straightforward way. On the one hand, Malcolm might have grafted himself onto Macbeth’s diseased, infertile stock. We have already seen how Macbeth’s rhetoric toward the end of the play identifies his reign with arboreal sterility, so it would make good horticultural sense to improve this barren stock with a productive scion like Malcolm’s. Additionally, Macbeth’s decapitation literally transforms him into such a trunk (an early modern term for a beheaded body). 43 We know, however, that such grafts depend upon the similarities between the stock and the scion. What would it mean for Scotland if Malcolm’s graft were to fail? Perhaps worse, what would it mean if Malcolm and Macbeth were similar enough for the graft to succeed?

40 Mary Floyd-Wilson, “English Epicures and Scottish Witches,” Shakespeare Quarterly 57.2 (2006): 131–61. 41 Estienne, Maison, 348; William Lawson, A New Orchard and Garden (London: Roger Iackson, 1618), 36. 42 For more on grafting’s nationalist overtones, see Nardizzi, “Grafted.” Also see Grace Tiffany’s contribution in this volume. 43 OED, “trunk.”


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On the other hand, if Malcolm’s grafting reinserts himself back into Duncan’s (not Macbeth’s) stock, we must still contend with a number of textual remainders that complicate Malcolm’s horticultural re-suturing of himself back into his father’s line. First, and perhaps most obvious, the very fact that Macbeth is no stranger to Duncan’s bloodline — and is closer than Banquo’s line, which will eventually enjoy its own political graft as a branch that leads to James himself — suggests that familial nature is not the only determining factor here, as it is not the only factor in the quasi-natural rhetoric of baptism. 44 Indeed, baptism is of particular relevance to Malcolm’s graft if we understand him to be sutured back into Duncan’s stock. In Paul’s metaphor for baptismal redemption, the broken native branches are able, by believing in Christ, to be “graffed [back] into their own olive tree,” which is clearly pertinent to Malcolm. However, Paul’s letter makes it clear that, while the gentile scion is particularly precarious, no one should “boast,” because no branch is insulated from being broken off and replaced artificially, “contrary to nature,” by a graft. 45 What appears, then, in Macbeth’s competing and simultaneous logics of grafting is far from an unequivocal support for the naturalness of Malcolm’s regime by the end of the play; rather, what appears is a monstrous tree of graftings, regraftings, uprootings, and transplantations. It is a patchwork polity among Duncan, Malcolm, Macbeth, and, later, Banquo that has ambiguous consequences not only for the politics of birth and duty in the period but also for the viability of Scotland’s political futures. As anyone familiar with Holinshed’s Chronicles would know, it is not Malcolm’s lineal heir who inherits the throne after his death but, instead, another claimant: Donalbain. Acting almost precisely as Macbeth does, Donalbain kills yet another Duncan, Malcolm’s son, who, like his father, claims the prerogative of lineal succession. 46 As David Norbrook has noted, primogeniture had yet to solidify as the only means of succession in Malcolm’s Scotland. 47 The older system of tanistry, an electoral protocol that most often privileged brothers over sons, provided Donalbain with a legitimate claim. Macbeth, of course, is not an endorsement of tanistry; to have done so would have been particularly dangerous. The Stuarts had ruled in Scotland through primogeniture since the fourteenth century, and James found the idea of tanistry so noxious that he denied even its historical


The same climatological problems between stock and scion that would endanger Macbeth’s graft also apply to Banquo, who, as thane of the highland region of Lochaber, likewise represents a more northern district. See Raphaell Holinshed et al., The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, 3 vols. in 1 (London: George Bishop, 1577), 2:239. 45 Romans 11:18–24, KJV. 46 Holinshed, “Historie of Scotland,” 2:259. 47 David Norbrook, “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography,” in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven Zwicker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 78–116.


How to Do Things with Birds

legitimacy. 48 But the two clashing political models beyond the historical edge of Shakespeare’s play continue to complicate any straightforward picture of natural politics or of birthright in Scotland.

Conclusion Throughout this essay I have shown how nature’s allegiances were spoken forth in ways that could not unequivocally support state power. While some argued that the natural politics of birth propped up James’s paternal authority and the terms of the Oath of Allegiance, Macbeth demonstrates that one cannot be certain of nature’s allegiances or of the language deployed to describe them. The variously natural speech-acts of the play — the assembly of creaturely voices during the regicide, Macduff ’s forsworn marital vows, the thunder’s equivocal syllables, the (anti-)baptismal oaths, and the various grafts that analogize those competing baptisms — place the political harmony of the play’s end both within and outside of the regenerate order of nature that Malcolm supposedly restores. These waffling equivocations align nature not with the God-ordained sovereign but with Lady Macduff ’s swearing-yet-lying traitors, which, importantly, may also describe the sovereign himself. Thus, both humans and the natural world produce multiple, contesting articulations of allegiance, equivocations that are a far cry from the supposedly eternal truths of Natural Law. In order to restore Scotland, Malcolm must cut down some branches, and it is unclear which ones are able to be grafted back in. Less clear is the role that nature might play in that final regeneration, even if we take the world at its word.


Norbrook, “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography,” 92–93.

Notes on Contributors Sarah H. Beckjord is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at Boston College and author of Territories of History: Humanism, Rhetoric, and the Historical Imagination in the Early Spanish Chronicles of the Indies (2007). Her research focuses on historical and literary representations of colonial Spanish America, and she has published articles and book chapters on Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca, and other subjects. She is currently working on a book project on the role of spectacle in works of Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca. Jennifer Bess is Assistant Professor of Peace Studies at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. Her primary research interests include contemporary fiction by ethnic-American women and Native American Studies. She has published notes and essays on contemporary ethnic-American and Caribbean literature in the Explicator, Anglistica, South Asian Review, and College Literature — as well as essays on the federal boarding schools and other topics in Native American Studies — Wicazo Sa Review, American Indian Quarterly, Journal of the Southwest, Western Historical Quarterly, and Ethnohistory. As suggested by the essay in this volume, she has worked with horses since childhood. Michael Bintley is Lecturer in Early Medieval Literature and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London. His research focuses on the intersection between textual and material culture in early medieval Britain and Scandinavia. Mike is author of Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England (2015) and Settlements and Strongholds in Early Medieval England: Texts, Landscapes, and Material Culture (2020). With Richard North he edited and translated Andreas: An Edition (2016), and he has co-edited essay collections including Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World (2013) and Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia (2015). Albrecht Classen is University Distinguished Professor of German Studies at the University of Arizona. He has published more than 100 scholarly books, dealing with a wide range of topics including gender studies, multilingualism, urban and rural space, xenology, friendship, death, childhood, old age, hygiene, travel, mental health, etc. in the Middle Ages and early modern age. His recent books deal with the Forest in Medieval German Literature (2017), Water in Medieval Literature (2018), Toleration and Tolerance in Medieval Literature (2018), and Prostitution


Notes on Contributors

in Medieval and Early Modern Literature (2019). He is the editor of the journals Mediaevistik and Humanities Open Access (online). He has a new textbook on tolerance in the Middle Ages (2019), has completed a book on the myth of Charlemagne in medieval German and Dutch literature, and is currently writing a book on tracks and trails in medieval literature. Emma Knowles is Associate Lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, where she earned her BA. She teaches Old and Middle English literature, and her research is focused on Old English biblical poetry. In 2019 she received her PhD from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. Her dissertation, “‘And eall worulde gesceaft’: Re-Reading the Natural World in Old English Biblical Poetry,” was written under the supervision of Richard Dance. She has also published a chapter on “Women’s Worldmaking in the Subtext of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur” (2017). Catherine Schultz McFarland is retired as Professor of Art History at Flagler College. She did her undergraduate work at Smith College and her graduate work at Emory University. McFarland has also taught at the Atlanta College of Art and at Oglethorpe University. She focuses on semiotics, particularly the iconography of mythology, and has published on film and on sixteenth-century Flemish painting in previous volumes of Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. She is currently writing a book on Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Rebekah L. Pratt-Sturges is Lecturer in Public Humanities in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. She received her Ph.D. in the history and theory of art from Arizona State University in 2017. She is the author of “From Animal to Meat: Illuminating the Medieval Hunt,” in eHumanista (2013). She is currently preparing a book-length study of hunting in late medieval art. Todd Preston is Associate Professor of English and co-coordinator of the Medieval Studies program at Lycoming College. His publications on Old English literature include King Alfred’s Book of Laws (2012), “An Alternative Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 77” (2011), and “Fact and Fish Tales in Ælfric’s Colloquy” (2019). He is currently at work on a companion to Anglo-Saxon animals in Old English literature, exploring the connections between the literary depictions of animals and the ecological realities of early medieval England. Seth Swanner is Assistant Lecturer in the LeaRN Program and English at the University of Wyoming, where he specializes in Shakespeare, ecocriticism, and seventeenth-century politics. His publications include “The Beauty of Ho(me) liness: The Unhandsome Sacramentality of Almost-Shape Poems in George Herbert’s The Temple” (2018) and “The devil that rules i’th’air: Determinisms of Wind,

Notes on Contributors


Star, and State in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi,” English Literary History (forthcoming). His contribution to this volume is from a larger book project entitled Quartering the Wind: Early Modern Nature at the Political Fringe, which explores the linkages between seventeenth-century conceptions of nature and fringe political categories such as treason, tyranny, and anarchy. Grace Tiffany is Professor of English at Western Michigan University, specializing in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. She has authored many books and articles on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters: Shakespeare, Jonson, and Comic Androgyny (1995) and Love’s Pilgrimage: The Holy Journey in English Renaissance Literature (2006). She has also edited The Tempest (2011) and co-edited the MLA volume Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (2013). Michael W. Twomey is Charles A. Dana Professor of Humanities and Arts, Emeritus, at Ithaca College. He has published a research guide to Bartholomaeus Anglicus in Oxford Bibliographies (2017); edited De proprietatibus rerum, book 1, for the new Brepols text (2007); and contributed the section on medieval encyclopedias in the Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (2008). In Iceland’s Svartárkot Culture/ Nature Program (2018, 2015, 2014), he has lectured on ecocriticism. He has also published about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s forest ecology (Arthurian Literature, 2013). The present essay epitomizes a book in progress about environmental representation in medieval encyclopedias. Lori J. Ultsch is Associate Professor of Italian at Hofstra University. She has published essays on women writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pastoral drama and Petrarchan poetry, the Venetian ghetto and a tertiary community in Vicenza, as well as on modern female authors. Her critical introduction to and translation of Torquato Tasso’s Discourse on Feminine and Womanly Virtue situates the Discourse in the context of the Italian debate on the “woman question.” Dr. Ultsch is currently writing an essay on Camus’s subversive appropriation of Dante’s Ulysses as an index of existential and moral dislocation in La chute. Tiffany Nicole White is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Scandinavian at the University of California, Berkeley. She completed graduate studies in the History of Christianity at Yale Divinity School and Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, and in Viking and Medieval Studies at the University of Aberdeen. After completing the research published here, she was a Fulbright Fellow and Leifur Eiríksson Foundation Fellow at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík. Her research focuses on the ecocritical evaluation of Old Icelandic religious texts. She is the co-founder of the Norse Hagiography Network (


Notes on Contributors

Thomas Willard is Honors Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He has edited the alchemical works of Jean d’Espagne (1999) and has published articles and chapters on early modern anthologies of alchemy (2007, 2015) and on early modern writers including John Wilson (1993), Nicolas Barnaud (2001), Johann Valentin Andreae (2010, 2013, 2017), Paracelsus (2011, 2012, 2014), William Shakespeare (2012), Gerard Winstanley (2012), Thomas Vaughan (2014), and Henry Vaughan (2020). He is preparing a study of “Thomas Vaughan and the Rosicrucian Revival in England, 1648–1666.”