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.

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

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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?

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