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 (, 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: 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?


Copses and Cathedrals

I work on a beautiful campus. You don’t believe me? Take a look:

P07-17-15_11-11Lots of trees and green open spaces. The buildings . . . well, they’re buildings. To be honest, I don’t really pay much attention to a building unless it has medieval connections. So much for American architecture.

I’ve enjoyed walking around campus this summer, taking much needed breaks from my window-less office to get some sun and fresh air. I tend to follow the same route each time, and I enjoy noticing things that I’ve missed on previous passes. This is my favorite part of my walk:

P07-17-15_10-47It’s not particularly beautiful, but what I love about it is the smell. See that pine tree along the path? It’s one of many, and they’re up on a hill, which means that each time I walk by, the breeze fills my nostrils with the scent of pine. And each time, I’m reminded of hiking in Vermont years ago.

When I graduated from college, my parents’ gift to me was a summer-long hiking trip with my father. We chose to do the Long Trail, which runs the vertical length of the state of Vermont, beginning near Williamstown, Massachusetts, and ending at the Canadian border, for a total of 273 miles.

I had spent previous summers hiking in Wyoming, Tennessee, Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, and a variety of other areas within the continental US, but this would be my longest continuous hike. I still vividly remember that first day. We had parked near the trailhead–the shelter where we would stay that night was just a few miles in–and once we set up camp, my dad hiked back down to move the car to a more permanent spot. That left me in the forest for a few hours. What do I remember from that first day? Lots of noises. Strange rustlings, eerie creakings. I knew it was just chipmunks and squirrels foraging and the wind blowing through the trees, but it was still spooky, and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into that summer.

But the uneasiness quickly passed, and the summer progressed. And I’m glad that I persisted. The view from Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s highest peak at 4,393 feet–yeah, I know, it’s just a baby compared to the Colorado 14ers) was spectacular, and once we had finished the trail, we stopped at Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire, and from its summit, we could see the entire line of peaks we had just spent the summer climbing (and the blueberries along the trail were ripe and plentiful–yum!).

Not my picture (from, but this is definitely similar to what I remember seeing at the summit of Mount Mansfield!

My favorite parts of the trail that summer, though, were not the spectacular vistas (of which there were many), but rather the deep forests through which we walked. I don’t have any pictures of these places, but they are etched in my memory. Thick, rugged trees holding up dense canopies, and underfoot, layers upon layers of pine needles and velvety moss. Thin rays of light illuminate the surroundings just enough that you have no real sense of what time it is. And the air. So still, yet so . . . pungent. Full of life. And the intoxicating smell of pine. Not the oppressive, menacing forest of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mirkwood. Far from it. But rather, a step back in time, as cliched as that may be. A timeless place.

A religious place.

I love cathedrals. Whenever I manage to travel to Europe, I have two objectives: visit a castle and visit a cathedral (or other old church). I love the history, and I love the stillness. The vertical lines of the architecture. This summer, I visited Fountains Abbey, founded in 1132 by Cistercian monks:

P07-03-15_06-22The abbey was abandoned in 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, but the ruins and the surrounding landscape were stunning. Had I not been pressed for time, I would have lay beneath those monumental beams for hours. Yet these masterpieces of human artifice, which seek to reach to the heavens themselves, are nothing compared to those ancient forests just below the treeline in Vermont (I’ve stumbled across a few places in Colorado that reminded me of Vermont, but just a few–the mountains here are called the Rockies with good reason!).

I think some of my preference for copses over cathedrals stems from my childhood. I have a distant memory of a church service held in the woods–whether it is real or due to a painting by my grandfather, I’m not sure. Summers were spent in the mountains whenever possible, and like my father before me, my idea of getting away from it all is to go to the mountains.

As a result, I find myself drawn to descriptions of forests in medieval literature. Two that immediately come to mind are the following:

The Awntyrs Off Arthur (late 14th – early 15th century)

Then durken the dere in the dymme skuwes,
That for drede of the deth droupes the do.
And by the stremys so strange that swftly swoghes
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. (53-58)

Whenever I teach this poem, I’m always struck by the sound in these lines. The hard stops of /d/ that evoke the deer as they are driven into the depths of the forest (King Arthur and his hunting party in pursuit), interrupted by the fricatives /s/ that accompany the stream of water that suddenly splashes across the page.

Or this excerpt from the fifteenth-century ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk”:

In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song,

To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow hem in the leves grene,
Under the grene wode tre. (1-8)

This is a much more peaceful moment, one where the forest is bursting with fertility and bird song. When Robin and his men appear, they are not threatening or disruptive; they are as much at home in the forest as are the deer that they illegally hunt.

But in neither text does the forest take on any religious dimension. For that, we’d need to turn to another favorite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain must find the Green Knight, in the mysterious Green Chapel, within a year to meet the demands of a contest. Gawain must travel through treacherous landscapes:

Þay bo3en bi bonkkez þer bo3ez ar bare,
Þay clomben bi clyffez þer clengez þe colde.
Þe heuen watz vphalt, bot vgly þer-vnder;
Mist muged on þe mor, malt on þe mountez,
Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge.
Brokez byled and breke bi bonkkez aboute,
Schyre schaterande on schorez, þer þay doun schowued.
Wela wylle watz þe way þer þay bi wod schulden (2078-84)
Here’s Tolkien’s translation of these lines:
They go by banks and by braes where branches are bare,
they climb along cliffs where clingeth the cold;
the heavens are lifted high, but under them evilly
mist hangs moist on the moor, melts on the mountains;
every hill has a hat, a mist-mantle huge.
Brooks break and boil on braes all about,
bright bubbling on their banks where they bustle downwards.
Very wild through the wood is the way they must take . . .
Again, there’s a lot of emphasis on the sounds as well as the visual imagery. When Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, it is nothing like what he expected:
And þenne he wayted hym aboute, and wylde hit hym þo3t,
And se3e no syngne of resette bisydez nowhere,
Bot hy3e bonkkez and brent vpon boþe halue,
And ru3e knokled knarrez with knorned stonez;
Þe skwez of þe scowtes skayned hym þo3t.
Þenne he houed, and wythhylde his hors at þat tyde,
And ofte chaunged his cher þe chapel to seche:
He se3 non suche in no syde, and selly hym þo3t,
Saue, a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were;
A bal3 ber3 bi a bonke þe brymme bysyde,
Bi a for3 of a flode þat ferked þare;
Þe borne blubred þerinne as hit boyled hade. (2163-2174)

Tolkien’s translation:

And then he gazed all about; a grim place he thought it,
and saw no sign of shelter on any side at all,
only high hillsides sheer upon either hand,
and notched knuckled crags with gnarled boulders;
the very skies by the peaks were scraped, it appeared.
Then he halted and held in his horse for the time,
and changed oft his front the Chapel to find.
Such on no side he saw, as seemed to him strange,
save a mound as it might be near the marge of a green,
a worn barrow on a brae by the brink of a water,
beside falls in a flood that was flowing down;
the burn bubbled therein, as if boiling it were.

There’s a lot of scholarship on this grassy mound as the Green Chapel, so I won’t go into that, but consider this harsh landscape. Just as cathedrals sought to raise their walls to the heavens, so too do the hillsides here. This chapel even has its own baptismal font. But like the other two passages I’ve offered above, while there is much to take in aurally, from the onomatopoeia in Awntyrs to the explicit presence of birdsong in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” there’s no indication of smell. That sense which evokes distant memories for me of my time in Vermont is absent in these medieval accounts. Why?

I’ve been reading through Paul Freedman’s book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2009) this summer, and one of the many things that I’m taking away from it is the emphasis on smell. Freedman writes, “Medieval people were impressed by wonderful smells rather than the absence of any scent . . . . a panoply of unpleasant smells was no doubt unavoidable in everyday life . . . [such as] excrement, animals, sickness, sweat, dirt, the effects of such noxious enterprises as tanneries or smelters. It is precisely because of this inevitable familiarity with awful odors that people in premodern societies were entranced with beautiful smells” (81). As a result, spices were in great demand in part due to their aromas, and one of the markers of sainthood was a pleasant smell emanating from the corpse after death. If you travel to the city of York, you can partake in the Jorvik experience in which a Viking town is recreated–down to the very smell! Several Old English poems–The Panther, The Whale, The Phoenix–describe fantastical creatures with strong smells.

But why don’t the forests of Middle English literature smell? Why is there no commentary on the crispness of the air? The earthy aroma wafting up when the leaves are disturbed underfoot? Did medieval people ever experience the forest as a cathedral? Earlier religions–especially those practiced by Germanic and Celtic peoples–worshiped trees, but with the arrival of Christianity, many, if not all, of the sacred groves would have been destroyed. Perhaps, given the prevalence of incense used in medieval church services, they were so accustomed to associating the aroma of incense with a religious experience, and so they would have no call to link the forests with such. But since medieval people appreciated pleasant smells, was it just that the forest odor did not appeal to them? I know one thing for sure–I’m going to keep an eye out for any olfactory details in the next Middle English romance that I read.