Flooding of Memories

Years ago, one of my poetry professors told us to take an opening line from a published poem and to then write our own poem to go with it. I chose the first line of Seamus Heaney’s “Two Lorries” (first published, I believe, in his collection The Spirit Level: Poems):

It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.

Today, this line has come back to me several times throughout the day. I’d share with you the poem that I wrote, but I have no idea where it is. Whereas Heaney’s poem offered a glimpse into the everyday life of civilians in Northern Ireland, I recall that I was inspired by a summer hiking in North Carolina and Tennessee–the same summer in which I discovered efts hiding beneath rocks and branches. It seemed as if the rain would never stop, and I forgot, for a time, what dry socks felt like.

So you may have already guessed that it’s been raining a lot here in Colorado.

Walking along the sidewalks of my campus, I found I had to navigate carefully, for stretched across the pavement were hundreds of earthworms. Several trees on campus are in the process of dropping needles and twigs that are about the same length and width as the worms, and while I am indifferent to stepping on these, I wanted to avoid stepping on a worm. They may have minuscule brains, but they do have nervous systems and are capable of feeling pain. (Yes, I try to avoid stepping on other critters–ants, beetles, spiders, etc. I still feel terribly guilty about the massasauga rattlesnake that I ran over with my bicycle as a teenager. It blended in so well to the gravelly road that I did not see it until I was already halfway over it.)

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.

–Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits (1881)

I’ve always thought that earthworms came to the surface during rainstorms seeking refuge from their flooded tunnels, so I was surprised to learn that they “are unable to drown like a human would, and they can even survive several days fully submerged in water” (“Why Do Earthworms Surface After Rain?”). Rather, scientists suggest that earthworms take advantage of the moist conditions to migrate–they can travel above soil faster and do not have to fear the heat of the sun. Another possibility (both are discussed in the article linked above) is that the vibrations of the rain resemble the vibrations made by predators, and that earthworms surface to avoid becoming a mole’s dinner.

_Der Naturen Bloeme_, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 136r, ca. 1350. Two worms rising out of the soil.

I’m intrigued by the idea of worm migration, particularly since water has often played a major role in human migrations. I often have my students look at Matthew Paris’s 1250 Map of Britain, and one of the things that they tend to notice right away is the proliferation of towns along the rivers (not to mention the worm-like appearances of the rivers).

The fear of drowning, though, does not appear as often as one might expect in medieval literature. Custance, for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, is placed in “a ship al steerelees” (439); however, she is provided with ample provisions (a good thing since she floats in that boat for years). She briefly expresses her fear of drowning, equating the submersion of her body under the waves with the consumption of her body and soul by the devil, when she cries out to the Lord to protect her:

Me fro the feend and fro his clawes kepe,
That day that I shal drenchen in the depe. (454-55)

The waves are briefly “wilde” (468), suggesting that she experiences storms, but the text does not linger on the fear produced by the threatening waves.

Another medieval text, King Horn, features the dangers of the seas, for when the titular hero’s father is killed by Saracens, Horn is spared (due to his great beauty)–only to be placed, along with his twelve companions, in a boat. The Saracens tell him:

Tharvore thu most to stere,
Thu and thine ifere;
To schupe schulle ye funde,
And sinke to the grunde. (105-08)

The appearance of the protagonist in a rudderless boat is a common device in medieval romance (and we can trace it back further to the classical story of Danaë and Perseus), but my encounter with the worms braving the sidewalks in the rain has piqued my interest in these scenes and the expression of emotion. For example, in King Horn, the children are very frightened:

The se that schup so fasste drof
The children dradde therof. (123-24)

But as with Chaucer’s Custance, the narrator does not linger on the experience. Why might that be?

Manuscript images dealing with Noah’s flood depict the drowned in great detail. Take a look at this fourteenth-century depiction:

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Look at how calm the dead are:

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The awkward position of the hands and the open mouth of the man at the bottom suggests that he is in some distress, but the woman floating above him seems to have a serene look on her face (although I wonder about the curled toes and the uncomfortable angle of her left hand . . . ). The gentle undulations of the waves only add to the calm atmosphere of the water, especially when contrasted against the busy and angular background behind the ship as well as the patterning on the ship itself.

Another depiction of the drowned appears in the Bible pictures by William de Brailes:

These dead are much greater in number (not to mention orderly–there are clear layers of humans, birds, and domestic livestock), but they still look peaceful, almost as if they are slumbering:

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.29.25 PMSome of the bodies at the top almost resemble merpeople due to the lines of the waves. Speaking of which, these waves are more dangerous, threatening to break out of the image’s frame and almost evoking arms seeking the living to draw beneath the waves. (Perhaps this is why no Ark appears in the image?)

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I’m sure I could find many more medieval images of those drowned in the Biblical story of the Flood (and for those interested in the topic, the incomparable Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has written a blog post on another manuscript depiction of Noah’s flood at http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2013/05/intercatastrophe-overwhelmed-outside.html), but I won’t.

I wonder, though, if there’s something to the seeming gap between the living expressing their fear while at sea and those who have come to their watery grave. I recall hearing John Block Friedman speak a few years ago on werewolves and their transformation–he was interested in the lack of detail as to the actual transformation–manuscript images only depicted the before and the after–and I wonder if there’s something similar going on here. That is, I imagine drowning to be a terrible and frightening way to die (and so I’m glad to hear that worms cannot drown during rain storms). Perhaps, given the importance of maritime trade in England, drowning was a very real threat, but the agony of either drowning or watching another person drown was just too much for medieval authors and artists to imagine.

The allure of traveling by sea, despite its dangers, was too great for those living in the medieval period–the ability to rely on currents of wind and water rather than one’s own power, to see any enemies from afar rather than wondering if they lay in wait in the underbrush surrounding medieval roads. So too are earthworms driven above ground to migrate from one patch of soil to another. I don’t know if they are aware of the inherent dangers–from the tread of indifferent soles to animals in search of a quick meal. No doubt they can feel the vibrations as we approach them. Nonetheless, they–and we–are driven to chance these perilous paths.


Sudden Noise, White Noise

As I was leaving campus the other day, I was nearly run over.

Not by a car, though, but rather by a pair of squirrels. As winter approaches, the many squirrels on campus are intensifying their efforts to collect enough food to get them through the winter months, and as a result, they are increasingly territorial. These two squirrels could care less that I was in their path, or that I towered over them; rather, their focus was completely on establishing the boundaries of their territories from their own kind, and as the victor ran the other out of its foraging area, it stood on the fence, chattering angrily lest the loser dare return.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve nearly been run over by an animal. As a child, I was walking along the shores of Red Rock Reservoir, a large beaver nearly barreled into me on its way into the water. En route to do some fishing in northwest Wyoming a few years later, I was so intent on the narrow path leading along the water’s edge that I somehow missed the noise of a young bull moose as it charged out of the woods. And of course, I can’t forget my sweet yet dense white German shepherd, Ivory, who often accompanied me while hiking on the east coast . . . and who was overly fond of chasing any living thing. There was the five-foot-long black snake that she flushed out a few feet ahead of me. A few weeks later, it was a large stag. Fortunately I was nowhere near her when she decided to chase a black bear later that summer.

But I digress. I couldn’t help but think, as I watched the quarreling squirrels, of this clip from Disney’s 1963 film The Sword in the Stone when Arthur (the Wart) is transformed into a squirrel by Merlin for the day’s lesson:

Although the encounter was grave for these two squirrels–after all, fighting could result in injuries that, if not fatal, could become infected or could incapacitate them so that they were no longer able to collect food in a timely fashion–I couldn’t help but chuckle as I watched them scamper around me, up a tree, back down to the ground, and around the fence posts in a flurry of reddish tails. Their movements strike me as playful, even though I know that they are not so, and I have often longed to be able to reach out and stroke their tantalizingly soft-looking tails.

Perhaps some of you have seen this story of the Belarussian soldier-turned-cab driver who, upon rescuing a baby squirrel, has gained a friend for life. And each time  I teach the medieval Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, several of my students and I are envious of Medb because of the pet squirrel perched upon her shoulder.

We don’t often get squirrels in our backyard, but last summer, there was one overly adventurous one that enjoying taunting one of our cats. Our calico, Cleokatra, was not amused.

Later that same summer, while hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park, my daughter was terrorized by this fellow, a close relative of squirrels:

This cheeky little guy was so accustomed to tourists with food that it scampered onto my daughter’s shoe despite her shrieking. This wasn’t our first encounter with avaricious chipmunks at the park–when my daughter was less than a year old, another chipmunk attempted to pick my husband’s pocket at Bear Lake!

Neither chipmunks nor squirrels play a major role in the medieval texts with which I typically work, so out of curiosity, I did a little searching. How did the medieval world view the squirrel?

(By the way, January 21st is National Squirrel Appreciation Day. Who knew?)

Karl Steel has written a stellar post on the history of squirrels as pets, from medieval to modern, as well as the etymology of the word squirrel (http://medievalkarl.com/tag/squirrels/), so I won’t duplicate his comments here. I will, however, reproduce this awesome image from the Ormesby Psalter, which depicts a woman holding a pet squirrel.

Ormesby Psalter (Bodleian Library MS. Douce 366), f131r

Ormesby Psalter (Bodleian Library MS. Douce 366), f131r

You can see many, many more images of squirrels in medieval manuscripts here: http://www.larsdatter.com/squirrels.htm. Even though squirrels aren’t common pets in United States now, there’s plenty of evidence that they were frequently kept as such during the Middle Ages!

But I’m still intrigued by my response to the squirrels that nearly collided with me. Because I was on campus, a carefully cultivated and maintained environment, my moment of fright was brief, quickly turning to amusement. There have been plenty of times when chipmunks and squirrels have startled me, but these have taken place in the mountains. Because I would jump so frequently at chipmunks or squirrels rustling in the underbrush (after nearly stepping on a copperhead my first time hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I was rather paranoid about the smallest of noises near my feet), my older brother took advantage, walking behind me so that he could chuck stones off to my side when I least expected it.

Several of the medieval romances with which I work take place in the forest, often during hunting scenes, and I’m now curious about the lack of attention to those little noises made by squirrels and other small animals. Many of these hunts are described as taking place on horseback and with large numbers of servants (Bertilak’s hunting party in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight immediately comes to mind), so perhaps the sheer noise produced by the passage of multiple feet would drown out the noise made by little critters.

But often the hunting required long periods of waiting. For example, in The Awntyrs Off Arthur, Arthur and his men dismount to take up positions to wait for the deer:

Under the bowes thei bode, thes burnes so bolde,
To byker at thes baraynes in bonkes so bare. (40-41)

Once the deer appear, chaos predictably reigns:

Thai werray the wilde and worchen hem wo.
The huntes thei halowe, in hurstes and huwes,
And till thaire riste raches relyes on the ro. (56-58)

Meanwhile, Guinevere and Gawain rest apart from the hunt:

By a lorer ho was light, undur a lefesale
Of box and of berber bigged ful bene. (70-71)

Neither of these moments–the hunters laying in wait or Guinevere and Gawain’s repose in the forest bower–make any mention of the crackling of leaves or the swishing of small bushy tails of scampering squirrels. Why might this be? Of course, the narrator is creating a bit of an idyllic scene in the case of the latter in order to provide a sharper contrast with the sudden storm and darkening of the sky that will quickly signal the approach of the frightful ghost. But at the same time, given the attention of the narrator to the landscape details elsewhere in the poem (including some lovely onomatopoetic moments such as the description of driving snow in the line “the sneterand snawe snartly hem snelles” [82]), why not linger on the details here? Might the rustling provide some tension as the men wait in the shadows?

Not all hunts required large parties. For example, in another romance, The Avowyng of Arthur, Arthur separates himself from his companions in order to chase a fierce boar; however, he is accompanied by his hounds. The pursuit of the boar is quite noisy between the baying of the hounds and the clashing of boar tusks against metal sword. Once the battle is won, though, and the beast has been appropriately butchered, Arthur must return to his retinue at Carlisle. Rather than detail his journey–where mention of the movements of small animals might be offered–however, the narrator jumps away from Arthur to discuss another major character. This text centers on the vows made by Arthur, Kay, Gawain, and Bishop Baldwin (Arthur’s vow was to kill the boar), so it makes sense to end his episode once his vow is fulfilled.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 7.40.02 PMNor did all hunts require noisy hounds. According to the fifteenth-century Master of Game, by Edward of Norwich, the second Duke of York, hounds are nearly synonymous with hunting (“in England [harts] are not slain except with hounds or with shot or with strength of running hounds” [30]), but this does not mean all hounds barked. For example, Marcelle Thiébaux in The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974) notes that scenting hounds, or “limers,” led their masters silently to their quarry (28), and William Perry Marvin in Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006) writes that even poachers used “lurchers,” dogs who have been trained against barking (74).

So what does it mean that these medieval romance authors place their heroes in the midst of these forests but do not take any note of the smaller creatures scurrying underfoot? Would it be beneath the notice of these aristocratic (or gentry) audiences? That is, does the erasure of the aural traces of smaller creatures reinforce the social hierarchy? Boars, hares, foxes, and deer had material value, but perhaps squirrels and other rodents did not (at least, not for a medieval audience)? I don’t think that’s entirely the case, particularly since the fur of squirrels–known as “vair”–was a luxury item for lining collars and other pieces of clothing. Or were such sounds merely “white noise” to a medieval audience? Might this mean that they had either learned to shut out such sounds as insignificant or that they were so at home in the forest that such noises became more of a second nature?

Your thoughts?

Changing of the Seasons

1443284810614Autumn is quickly approaching, and I can’t wait. Autumn means jeans and sweatshirts. Raking leaves, carving pumpkins, and baking. Lots and lots of baking. There are some downsides–the constant viewing of football in our house, for example–but still, a minor price to pay given that the extremes of winter and summer are not for me.

Having lived in Colorado for several years now, I must admit that autumn is not quite as lovely as it used to be when I lived in a Midwest state. Don’t get me wrong–Colorado has its autumnal moments. The aspens, for example, turn a lovely shade of gold (and hearing the elk bugle in Rocky Mountain National Park is fun!).

Capitol Creek Aspens, Elk Mountains, Colorado. Photo © copyright by Jack Brauer. http://www.mountainphotography.com/photo/capitol-creek-aspens/

There’s still the crispness in the air–a nice change from the heat of summer–but I miss the sharper colors of fall in Eastern Kansas. Despite the massive efforts to irrigate land here in Colorado, the climate remains semi-arid, like that of a steppe, so there is not quite the contrast between summer and fall. We go from shades of brown to more shades of brown. I miss the green.

At my previous university, I drove through a neighborhood where trees provided a natural canopy to the surrounding streets, and in the fall, the sheer diversity of color–and the gentle undulations of leaves drifting down, down, down–only to be caught up and twirled around by a passing breeze before they finally settled upon the ground–etched itself upon my mind. Here, the shift from summer to winter seems to take a note from Monty Python.

Now that I think about it, I can’t recall any moments in medieval British literature that describe the fall season. There’s plenty of emphasis on the other seasons. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, for example, details the harsh British winter, imagining a landscape fettered by ice: “hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð” (102). The trope of Spring is memorably presented by Geoffrey Chaucer in his fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . . (1-4)

It may be that I’m just not reading the right texts to find descriptions of fall (after all, I primarily work on Middle English romance), but a quick search of the University of Michigan’s Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse doesn’t turn up much. Chaucer discusses fall in his translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and Lydgate makes several mentions in his fifteenth-century Troy Book.  Fall is also mentioned in scientific treatises (such as A Medieval English Anatomy or Treatises of Fistula). The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t much help, either; its earliest documentation of “Fall” to refer to the season is in 1545, and 1374 for “Autumn.” Neither entry has been updated since the late 1800s, though.

Perhaps, though, I’m being too narrow in my search terms. Neither “Fall” (a good Anglo-Saxon word) nor “Autumn” (a Latin borrowing) turn up much, but what about “harvest”?

Ah, there we go. Much more luck.

The OED's entry for "harvest" (n.)I’m particularly intrigued by the etymology–specifically, the relation between the Latin and Germanic cognates–I love finding examples of Grimm’s Law at work! Briefly, when the Germanic languages diverged from the rest of the Proto-Indo-European languages, a systemic sound change occurred. Wherever a /k/ sound appears in a Latinate word, for example, the corresponding Germanic word has an /h/. Thus, the word cardiac, with its Latin root, is related to the Germanic word heart; Latinate canine = Germanic hound, et cetera.

But enough linguistic nerding out.

The Middle English hervest (n.) appears quite frequently in Middle English texts, but as I scan the list of quotations provided by the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, I don’t see anything in the way of romance.  Why is that?

Given that the preferred word choice of harvest draws attention to the physical act of gathering crops, does the lack of attention to the fall season merely reflect the interests of the upper-class audiences of the medieval romances? Of course, this ignores the complex social changes that occurred in England post-Bubonic plague as social mobility became possible and a new sub-genre of romance–the gentry romances–emerged. But would an aristocratic audience be aware of and invested in the harvest season? Surely they must–at the very least, some of their income would be dependent on the success or failure of the annual harvest. For those with more leisure time, given the aesthetic appeal of fall, might some authors be inspired to muse on the mutability manifested by the falling leaves? Or perhaps since romances typically detail knights on quests, autumn falls by the wayside because it is not an ideal season for quests or military pursuits?

I’ll close with one of my favorite fall poems, by e.e. cummings:

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