Horses Ex Machina

A few weeks ago, I walked into my Arthurian Legends class prepared to talk about Arthur’s interactions with petitioners at court–male and female. My students had just read Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth” (in Le Morte Darthur) which offers plenty of material to analyze on this topic. My students, however, wanted to talk about two other things: dwarfs and horses.

For those unfamiliar with Malory’s story, let me give a brief summary: a “Fair Unknown” comes to Arthur’s court, takes on a dangerous quest (after spending a year working in the kitchens and being mocked by Sir Kay), and proves himself by his deeds rather than his name (he is later revealed to be the youngest brother of Sir Gawain). Along the way, he is accompanied by a dwarf who serves as his squire. At one point, the dwarf is kidnapped by those seeking to learn of Gareth’s true identity.

The discussion that followed in our classroom was great–lots of thoughtful commentary on human/animal relationships, object/possessor relationships, and of course, plenty of references to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (Tyrion Lannister was a favorite point of reference). Several students were quite dismayed at the high fatality rates for horses in Morte Darthur, and the seemingly-endless supply thereof; one student quipped, quite aptly, I think, “Horses ex machina!

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Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 46r

I’ve been exploring for quite some time now human/non-human relationships in medieval literature, thanks in part to Karl Steel’s How to Make a Human (2011), Joyce Salisbury’s The Beast Within (1994/2010), and most recently, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters (2012). These works, among others, have helped me greatly in thinking about relationships in the medieval Robin Hood ballads as well as within Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth.”

Within the context of my Arthurian Legends course, though, students were concerned about how  a questing knight would often ride a horse to death and casually leap onto another. Arthur does this early in his reign while hunting:

As soone as he was in the forest / the kynge sawe a grete hert afore hym / this herte wille I chace said kynge Arthur / And so he spored the hors / and rode after longe / And so by fyne force ofte he was lyke to haue smyten the herte / where as the kynge had chaced the herte soo long that his hors had loste hys brethe and fylle doune dede / Thenne a yoman fette the kynge another hors / So the kyng sawe the herte enbusshed and his hors dede / he sette hym doune by a fontayne and there he fell in grete thoughtes . . . (Book 1, Capitulum xix–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Horses are also frequently killed (or severely maimed) during battles, tournaments, and single combat. In that day’s assigned reading, for example, Sir Launcelot encounters Sir Tarquine:

And thēne they put theyr speres in the restys / & cam to gyders with her horses as fast as they myght renne / And eyther smote other in myddes of theyre sheldes that bothe theyre horse backes braste vnder them . . . (Book 6, Capitulum viij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

I didn’t have the heart at that point to tell them about what will happen to Sir Launcelot’s poor horse during the later Mellyagraunce episode (think porcupine, but with arrows).

Several students were frustrated with the knights’ attitudes towards horses–that the knights seemed to see their mounts as objects rather than companions that existed merely for their own benefit, that the knight/horse relationship was in no way reciprocal.

I wish I had come across the “Got Medieval” blog’s entry  “On Horses, Getting Back On Them” prior to the discussion in my Arthurian Legends course. Apparently, there exists several marginal images depicting horses reluctant to allow their armed knights to mount them. Horses are pretty intelligent creatures, after all.

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Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 96v

My response to my students was to draw upon Jeffrey Jerome Cohen‘s discussion of horses in his “Chevalerie” chapter in Medieval Identity Machines (2003), specifically his use of Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage to make the claim that the knight cannot exist without the horse–that the two are fused together in order to create the identity of the knight as a knight. I also told them about an incident during Malory’s “Book of Sir Tristram” (which we had to omit due to lack of time) where Palomides, in a fit of jealousy, deliberately kills Launcelot’s horse. Launcelot, in response, is ready to kill Palomides. Gawain, too, shows great loyalty to his horse Gringolet.

But now, looking back, I wish we had prolonged the discussion. How often will a knight, in the heat of battle, pause to rehorse another knight–sometimes even one whose identity is unknown but whose deeds mark him as worthy? What does this action mean? Does it reinforce the idea that a horse is a piece of property, or is it an acknowledgement of the horse’s importance to the identity of a knight? Is the knight doing the rehorsing thinking of the times he too has lost a horse, a companion, a friend, a comrade-in-arms?

In Book Ten of Morte (still in the adventures of Tristam), King Mark orders Sir Tristram to challenge Sir Lamorak de Galys during a tournament. I find Tristram’s response very interesting:

Syre said sir Tristram ye byd me doo a thynge that is ageynst knyghthode / And wel I can deme that I shal gyue hym a falle / For hit is no maystry / for my hors and I ben fresshe bothe / and so is not his hors and he . . . (Book 10, Capitulum xxxiij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Tristram does not want to fight Sir Lamorak because unlike the latter, he has spent most of the day on the sidelines as an observer. What really interests me, though, is his inclusion of the horses–both his and that of Lamorak–in his consideration. Of course, a weak or injured horse can be a liability, but so too can a weak or injured knight in that he can make errors in judgement that can lead to the horse’s injury or death. But might this be an acknowledgement that horses are more than vehicles for knightly prowess?

Although I’ve loved horses my entire life, I’ve had few up-close encounters with them–as a teenager, my neighbors would allow me to stroke their horses’ noses, and during a semester abroad in college, I took an Equestrian Studies course in England. I’ve always seen intelligence and compassion in the eyes of every horse I’ve met, but I do not know horses as well as I would like.

Cats and dogs, on the other hand . . . I can’t remember a time when I did not have either as a companion, and the majority of my life, I’ve had both. When I first moved to Colorado, our cats remained in Kansas with my spouse for the first month or so, and let me tell you, never has a house felt less like a home.

More recently, following my spinal surgery, my cats were a near constant presence. They snuggled with me to comfort me during the endless pain-filled nights preceding the surgery, and they kept me company afterwards.

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In this picture, the boys are getting ready to duke it out for the heating pad that I had just vacated.

Just now, as I write this, another one of my cats just settled down next to me. Although she’s a little grumpy that my lap is currently occupied by my computer, her body is positioned alongside my thigh and she is purring. I’m sitting on a couch, and there is plenty of room–but right now, she finds comfort in being this close to me. And I have to say that the feeling is mutual.

My cats are a vital part of my family. They are not possessions. Each has such a unique personality and we relate to one another in very different ways.

Growing up, my family always had German Shepherds. One in particular still holds a special place in my heart–Ivory. She was a pure-bred white shepherd, and she accompanied my father and me the first summer that we spent hiking the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. She was . . . not stupid . . . but sometimes I wondered what was going on in her head. She was the sort to chase anything. A huge black snake, a stag with an impressive rack, a fully-grown black bear. Thank goodness none of these creatures ever bothered to look behind them.

One of my most vivid memories of Ivory took place just north of Damascus, a small city just inside the border of Virginia. The shelter we stayed in that night was in the middle of a forest, and yet, just behind the shelter was a beautiful, small meadow. If you’ve ever seen a fox leaping up into the air and diving down into the snow as it hunts, or if you’ve seen a deer bounding away across a field, then you can imagine how my Ivory pounced. I loved watching her, and she and I spent a good part of that evening chasing each other through that meadow, now lit by the setting sun.

Another memory of Ivory remains. As I noted in an earlier blog post, I liked to . . . well, I liked to take my time while hiking. I liked to look for salamanders under logs. I liked to pause when the forest yielded a panoramic vista of the valleys below. I liked to look at the trees and the plants and the birds, and well, you get the idea. My father, on the other hand, was all business when it came to hiking. Get up and get going. Resting was for after you set up camp at the end of the day. So Ivory got into the habit of traveling between us. Somewhere in Tennessee, the trail crossed a gravel road. For once, I wasn’t very far behind my father, so when I came to the road, I saw my father just beyond, with Ivory in the middle of the road, waiting for me to catch up.

Just then, a pickup truck filled with young men came roaring down the road.

To my horror, Ivory just stood there, unsure of which one of us to run to.

When the driver of the truck saw Ivory in the middle of the road, he sped up.

Thankfully, Ivory ran to me just in time. My dad, furious, screamed at the departing truck, throwing rocks at them. The people in the truck kept going, and we, terribly shaken, left the road for the safety of the forest. Although I did not let any physical distance build up between us, my dad spoke very little to me the rest of the day.

Losing Ivory would have been the same as losing a friend, a sibling, a parent.

Medieval theologians for the most part did not question whether or not non-human animals had souls; for many, the possession of a soul was unique to humans. There were a few who did not accept this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that an animal’s soul dissolved upon the moment of death while Adelard of Bath noted that because animals “have sensation and the judgement to desire or avoid things” (Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets 2), they must possess souls.

I know where I stand on the question. There’s no doubt in my mind that they do.

Of course, we must be careful lest we impose our modern perceptions on the medieval period, but this is where Susan Crane’s excellent book Animal Encounters has helped my thinking–specifically her first chapter which discusses the Irish poem “Pangur Bán” in order to break down the distinction between human and non-human. In fact, here’s the image from the cover of her book:

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From the Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

I love this image. When I first saw it, I thought the horses were hugging (and thankfully, I’m not the only person to have thought this–in fact, the Medieval manuscripts blog at the British Library has composed an entry to clarify the issue here). The horses are, like the two knights alongside them, engaged in combat. If horses were indeed dumb beasts, mere vehicles to their knights, wouldn’t they, when their riders alight, stand passively by (or, overwhelmed by the noise of battle, run away)? Horses have a long history of being trained for battle–of learning to strike out at enemies with their hooves–but it’s my understanding that they do so only as a result of specific instructions given to them by their riders.

Why, then, do these two horses fight? Might it be, as the Medieval manuscripts blog suggests, drawing upon entries in medieval bestiaries, out of a sense of loyalty to their knights? The parallelism in the positions of the horses relative to the knights is striking; the feet of the knight/horse on the left is just slightly raised in comparison to the knight/horse on the right, and the arm/head and front leg of the knight/horse on the left falls between the viewer and the body of the knight/horse on the right. If the horse fights, out of loyalty (as opposed to a result of its training), this suggests to me more of a partnership.

But I’ve rambled on for long enough. Let me close with this final image, from one of the Reynard the Fox manuscripts; here Tybalt the “Prince of Cats” taunts Reynard as he rides off on a horse.

Go give your furry friend some love, will ya?

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Roman de Renart; Paris, BnF, Fr. MS 12584, fol. 63r

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Denali, or What’s in a Name?

http://www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm

At 20,320 feet, Denali is North America’s tallest peak (http://www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm)

I’m intrigued by the ways that the news media are referring to President Obama’s decision surrounding Mount McKinley / Denali in Alaska. Of course, much of the coverage focuses on the “controversy” of the president’s actions–not surprising given the election season–but what caught my attention is the way that the media consistently describe President Obama’s actions as “renaming.”

For example, according to CNN:

His first step while he’s there: officially renaming the country’s tallest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali . . .

The New York Times ran the headline “3,000 Miles From Denali, Ohio Fumes Over Renaming of Mount McKinley.” ABC News and NBC News use the same verb as well–it is an act of “renaming.”

OED

The Oxford English Dictionary to the Rescue!

Why a “renaming”? The OED definition given above offers some flexibility–the name need not be a completely new one after all–but why not use a variation of  “restoration” instead? “Denali” is not a new name for the mountain, after all, but rather one rich in cultural history–and the NYT does pair “renaming” alongside “restoring” at one point in its article. In fact, “Denali” means “high one” in the Athabascan language (spoken by Alaska’s indigenous people), according to NBC News–an apt name for the highest peak in North America–and the surrounding area has been known as Denali National Park since 1980. The mountain was officially named Mount McKinley sixteen years after President McKinley’s death (the first application of the name came much earlier when “a gold prospector named it for McKinley in 1896, while McKinley campaigned for the presidency,” NBC News).

And as for commemorating President McKinley–according to NBC News,

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell pointed out that “President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.”

(I feel compelled to point out that I live in a city named for an East Coast newspaper editor who never set foot in it.)

How does naming a mountain after someone who has never been there honor that person? Doesn’t imposing a name onto a mountain dishonor all of the names previously given to it? Why privilege the more recent history over the older?

To my mind, naming a mountain is much like naming a person. Each one has a unique personality and composition. To name a mountain for an American president, then, particularly one who has no real association with it, strikes me as a violent act because the action effectively erases the cultural history–and the essence of the mountain–in order to rewrite the landscape in a colonial sense.

One of my classes will be reading an excerpt from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae [The History of the Kings of Britain], and this text reveals intriguing relationships between humanity and the landscape that I can’t help but connect to President Obama’s renaming of Mount McKinley.

In the first book of Geoffrey’s text, the land we now know as Britain has a cultural history prior to Brutus and his followers (legendary descendants of Aeneas):

In those days, the island was named Albion, and was uninhabited except by a few giants.

As Brutus and his men colonize the island, they engage in acts of renaming, and Geoffrey is explicit as to their motives:

Brutus called the island Britain, after his own name, and he called his comrades Britons. In devising these names, he hoped to be remembered forever . . . . But Corineus called the portion of the realm that fell by lot to him Corinea after himself.

The only recorded way in which the earlier inhabitants are inscribed on the landscape is through mockery and violence:

Gogmagog, falling against the sharp rocks below, was dashed into a thousand pieces. The tide was red with his blood. That place derived its name from the giant’s fall and is still called Gogmagog’s Leap up to the present day.

Gogmagog is one of the few remaining giants in Britain at this time, and he is killed by Corineus, one of Brutus’s followers, in a wrestling match that while fatal to the giant serves as pure entertainment to Brutus’s men. The word choice–“Leap”–is striking because it suggests willfulness on the part of Gogmagog whereas the truth is that Gogmagog did not choose to “leap” any more than he chose to be fragmented across the jagged rocks below the cliff from which he was thrown. Through this renaming in particular, Brutus and his men rewrite the “history” of Britain in a way that exculpates them from any wrongdoing.

Now, McKinley’s association with Denali is certainly not one grounded in bloody violence–but it is violent in another sense. As a result of the official renaming of the mountain in 1917, the cultural history and the relationship embodied by the name between the indigenous peoples and the mountain was washed away. No longer did Denali–the “high one”–tower over the local peoples, perhaps reminding them of their place in the world while inspiring them to reach for the heights through cooperation with nature (although we still talk about “conquering” a mountain by climbing it–so perhaps “cooperation” is not necessarily the right word here). Rather, Mount McKinley shifted attention far away, to a man–an American politician–who now imposed his presence over the inhabitants–a daily reminder that they were under the jurisdiction of a distant government that felt the need to erase their culture. McKinley didn’t know the mountain. He didn’t know its features (and I’m not trying to place the blame on McKinley–after all, he wasn’t responsible for his name being attached to the mountain), and he had never walked its paths. Why, then, is “Mount McKinley” a better name, according to some politicians, than “Denali”?

I’ve never been to Denali National Park, but I have been to Baxter State Park in Maine, home to Mount Katahdin (5,270 feet). Its name means “The Greatest Mountain” in the language of the Penobscot Indians. Why has this mountain not been exposed to the same type of linguistic violence that Denali has?

Both mountains were “discovered” fairly early in the United State’s history, but Katahdin gained prominence through the writings of Henry David Thoreau in the mid-19th century. Perhaps one reason for the longevity of “Katahdin” over “Denali” is due to Thoreau’s establishment of Katahdin in the American narrative. But in reading more about Denali, I learned that whereas Katahdin was climbed by a non-indigenous person in 1804, Denali resisted attempts until 1913. Of course, there is a slight difference of almost 15,000 vertical feet between the two, so that helps to account for why Denali was not fully climbed until over a century later.

But perhaps this also helps to account for the name change. Denali was a mountain that resisted colonialization, for many tried to climb this mountain and failed. Denali the mountain did not fit within the American concept of Manifest Destiny–but Mount McKinley brought the mountain firmly back into the purview of American politics. No longer was it a mountain that could not be scaled by the European settlers and their descendants; rather, Mount McKinley was one of the world’s largest political ad.

There’s another side to all of this, too. One of President Obama’s motives in restoring the name “Denali” to this mountain was ecological. CNN reports that

[Obama’s] first step while he’s there: officially renaming the country’s tallest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali, an historic nod to the region’s native population, which the White House says is under threat from the already-present threat of climate change.

By restoring Denali’s name, President Obama is shifting the conversation away from the political history of McKinley to a much broader scope: the cultural pasts of indigenous peoples and the future of the environment of Alaska. Isn’t this an important conversation to have?

My family spent a few weeks in Baxter Park after my father and I had hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail in either Virginia or New York (the summers run together in my mind). We couldn’t go into the park proper because we had two of our dogs with us (no pets allowed), so we found a small campground just outside the park’s boundaries. I didn’t go up the summit–my sister and I stayed back at the campsite with the dogs while my parents and brothers climbed Katahdin on a dayhike. My mom had borrowed my hiking boots for the day, and as she neared the summit, the boots gave out completely. I’ve heard it’s a challenging hike, but I cannot claim to “know” Katahdin in the fullest sense.

But during those weeks we spent at the base of the mountain, I was able to engage with the surrounding environment in meaningful ways. We waded out into the river to a large rock that thrust itself against the current to allow us to spend entire afternoons fishing. In the evenings, we would watch moose and otters splash in the water. We would occasionally rent canoes and paddle upstream to explore the tributaries. We discovered leeches and bears and deer and so much more. It was a great summer, one which has helped to shape my view of the world into one where I recognize that I do not stand apart from the natural world; rather, I am a part of it, and it has a much larger history than what we might find in the high school history books.

Welcome back, Denali.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My

Facebook informs me that yesterday was World Lion Day, so I think it’s appropriate to jot down a few thoughts on Cecil the lion, among other things.

Cecil the lion and park icon. Photo: African Bush Camps

Over the last few years, a lot of my scholarly research has led me to hunting manuals such as Edward, Duke of York’s The Master of Game and bestiaries such as the Aberdeen Bestiary. I’m fascinated by their implications for medieval literature, for these incredibly detailed (and often beautifully illustrated) texts reveal much about medieval attitudes towards animals and their relationships with the natural world and with humans (as well as what it meant to be human).

Bodleian Alexander manuscript (MS Bodl. 264)

A hunting scene from the Bodleian Alexander manuscript (MS Bodl. 264)

I still fondly remember reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the first time as an undergraduate and absolutely loving the symbolism of the three hunts described in that fourteenth-century text and their relationship to a similar hunt occurring in Sir Gawain’s bedchamber. In my Middle English surveys now, I love working through these scenes, line by line, with my students, talking about what the details reveal about medieval hunting practices (and how they continue to inform our understanding of the bedroom “hunts”).

Another favorite was Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt, I Know where is an Hind”, particularly once I was able to compare it to its Petrarchan source. I loved the metaphor of the romantic chase reimagined as a hunt.

Of course, there is a certain irony in my love of hunting scenes in medieval literature.

I don’t hunt.

I never have, and I never will. I’ve never had any kind of desire to do so.

There’s a scene in the 1995 film Powder in which the main character (a naive yet profoundly wise figure) goes on a hunting trip, and he is horrified when one of his companions shoots a deer. He has special powers which allow him to extend the suffering of the deer to its killer. I’ve only seen it once, but this particular scene has stayed with me over the years.

I’m not necessarily against hunting. Animal populations lacking predators can spiral out of control, decimating their habitats and causing great suffering as the animals compete for rapidly decreasing resources. I get that.

But I hate what happened to Cecil the lion. This was recreational hunting–done for the thrill of the chase and the adrenaline of killing.

I can’t help but think of a moment in Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game”:

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general. “So I said, `What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, `It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”‘

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”

“But you can’t mean–” gasped Rainsford.

“And why not?”

“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”

“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”

“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”

The irony of this story (sorry, spoilers) is that the hunter (Rainsford) becomes the hunted as General Zaroff grows tired of the ease of pursuing lesser creatures. The distinction in this story between humans and animals hinges on one point: humans, unlike other animals, can reason.

But are non-human animals truly devoid of reason? (And if they are incapable of reasoning, are we still justified in killing them for sport?) What is the relationship–or rather, the difference–between humans and non-human animals? Why, when General Zaroff tracks Rainsford with the intent to kill him, is it considered murder, but not so when he hunts other creatures?

In the eighteenth century, David Hume asserted that “no truth appears to be more evident, than that beast are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men.” A century prior, René Descartes wrote that “[A]fter the error of those who deny God, there is none that leads weak minds further from the straight path of virtue than that of imagining that the souls of beasts are of the same nature as our own.”

If you’re looking for a definitive answer here as to whether or not non-human animals are capable of rational thought, you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t know, although my gut tells me they are.

I can, however, tell you about lions in medieval literature.

A lion playing the violin in the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

I love the story of Yvain, told first by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century. Here’s an excerpt from David Staines’s translation:

Absorbed in his thoughts, Sir Yvain was riding through a deep forest when he heard a loud cry of pain from the trees. He turned in the direction of the cry. When he reached a clearing, he saw a lion and a serpent, which was holding the lion by the tail and scorching his haunches with burning fire. Sir Yvain spent little time looking at this strange sight. When he considered which of the two he would help, he decided to go to aid the lion, because a serpent with its venom and treachery deserved nothing but harm. The serpent was venomous, and fire was darting from its mouth, so full of evil was the creature.

Intending first to kill the serpent, Sir Yvain drew his sword and advanced. He held his shield before his face as a protection against the flames gushing from the serpent’s throat, which was more gaping than a pot. If the lion attacked him later, there would be a fight; yet whatever happened after, he still wished to aid the lion. Pity urged him and pleaded that he help and support the noble and honorable beast.

Once Yvain rescues the lion, it becomes as docile and playful as a puppy, and soon Yvain gains the epithet “The Knight with the Lion” as the lion refuses to leave his side. Even when Yvain attempts to restrain the lion in order to take part in a challenge, the lion breaks its bonds and rushes to save Yvain (and just in the nick of time, too!).

The passage above reflects medieval thought about the serpent, which it associated with Satan, as well as the valorization of the lion. Most bestiaries list the lion first among all animals because according to the Aberdeen Bestiary, “the Greek word for lion is translated ‘king’ in Latin, because the lion is the king of all the beasts.”

In other medieval romances, lions occasionally appear in more conventional roles. In one (sorry, can’t recall the name of the romance at the moment), a captured lion gets loose in Arthur’s court while all of the seasoned knights are away (out hunting, if I remember correctly) and menaces Queen Guinevere. A young untried knight proves his mettle by defeating the lion. And of course, there’s the Middle English romance of Richard the Lion-Hearted, where the titular character earns his epithet by reaching into a lion’s throat to pull out the still-beating heart and then consuming it (with just a dash of salt).

Peterborough Psalter

Image from the Peterborough Psalter–either of Richard the Lion-Hearted or Sampson (can’t remember, sorry)

While lions once did inhabit parts of Europe, none would have existed in that region during the Middle Ages, although people who traveled widely through the known world would have brought back descriptions or even images of lions, and captured lions would have been presented as gifts to kings and other powerful leaders. Several lions are featured in heraldry; perhaps the most famous appear on the Plantagenet coat of arms.

Henry II of England’s coat of arms

In medieval romances, then, lions were viewed as powerful and noble creatures, dangerous to their enemies, but meek to their friends. To conquer a lion was to demonstrate great strength.

A lot of these ideas still persist in our society today, and films such as Disney’s Lion King help to perpetuate these concepts. So it’s not that surprising that someone would pay tens of thousands of dollars to have the opportunity to hunt a lion.

But what does this say about our society? What does it mean that a person would rather spend this kind of money to travel far from his home and pay others to lead him to the animal (or in this case, lead the lion out of the wildlife preserve to the hunter)? That he would then kill the animal and proudly display pictures alongside the head of the lion?

Multiple friends circulated a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions,” that responded to Cecil’s killing. I found it an interesting read that offered an important perspective. Goodwell Nzou grew up in Zimbabwe, and when he learned of Cecil’s death, “the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.” Nzou went on to share anecdotes of encounters with lions–usually deadly–leading up to his conclusion:

We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.

He has a point–several, actually. Lions are dangerous creatures.

Here in Colorado, we have mountain lions. Although I have yet to see one, I’ve read reports of them coming down into urban areas and making off with domestic animals–even entering houses through pet doors in search of food. We also have bears. I’ve seen several–one running across a highway in Estes Park early in the morning, and another high in a tree alongside the same highway at the other end of Estes Park. A few weeks after my daughter was born, we saw a mother bear and her two cubs walking along a path as we drove back from Bear Lake.

At no point did I feel endangered–largely because I was in a car each time, and at a safe distance. And I imagine bears would rather feast on berries than on me.

I’ve encountered bears while hiking along the Appalachian Trail as well, but again, always at a safe distance. We knew to place our food in bags high in trees each night. Most summers, we had two of our dogs hiking with us. One was a white German shepherd named Ivory. Sweet dog, but lacking in brains. She loved to chase anything and everything, including a bear. Good thing that black bear never bothered to look behind it. Another summer, we were amazed (and relieved) that Ivory did not catch the scent of the large black bear that wandered past the shelter on its way to some berry patches.

While camping outside of Baxter Park in Maine (near the base of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail) one summer, we were awakened by a large bear foraging in the trash bin right next to our RV (the previous campers had thrown their leftovers in before departing, so the bear found itself quite the feast), and the next day, the park rangers had captured and tranquilized the bear. We were able to stand several feet from it, marveling at its girth.

Bears do kill humans. A friend recently posted an article about a Grizzly bear that is suspected of killing a Yellowstone hiker. A bear has been captured in the area, and if it is found to have human remains in its digestive tract, it will be “euthanized.” (Why not just say “killed”?)

But here’s the thing–the bear has cubs. Chances are that the bear was defending its territory and protecting its offspring. But that doesn’t matter in the larger economic picture:

Julena Campbell, a Yellowstone spokeswoman: “We have 3.5 million people coming to Yellowstone each year and risking those lives is not a chance we’re willing to take.”

And later:

Campbell said the bear would have a better chance of surviving if there had been witnesses when Crosby was attacked who could confirm that the animal was defending her cubs. Because the attack lacked witnesses, park officials are unwilling to risk another attack without knowing what provoked the first one, she said.

I admit that my experience with bears is nothing compared to that of Nzou. I grew up in a developed world at a distance from such dangerous beasts, and even when I ventured into their territories, I did so out of choice rather than economic necessity, armed with strategies to either avoid bears entirely or to prevent myself from becoming a target. And bears are typically shy creatures, more prone to run away than to turn and fight. Lions are clearly the greater threat, especially for a human population that must co-exist with them in the same habitat and which is a potential food source.

I’m still bothered by Cecil’s death, though, as well as one of Nzou’s final comments:

Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.

He’s right–we have destroyed so much natural habitat here in the US, and the public outcry over Cecil’s death seems to be excessive (Nzou calls it “an absurdist circus”), especially when we consider the number of lions killed annually without a whimper from the media–although I am glad to see that the media attention has resulted in money being donated to the maintenance and preservation of wildlife habitats such as where Cecil once dwelt.

But just because we have destroyed (or nearly destroyed) the ecology here, does that strip us of any responsibility elsewhere in the world?

To what extent are the lions reacting to human encroachment on their territories and the resultant scarcity of resources? The world is out of balance, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when nature bites back.

I’m not saying that Zimbabweans deserve to die by lions or that Yellowstone tourists should be dismissed as easy prey for bears–far from it. Rather, we need to find better ways to either co-exist with these dangerous creatures (all creatures, really) or to find ways to prevent our paths from crossing. It’s not just our world, and lions and bears play a vital role in the world ecology–even if we do not fully grasp the extent of it. We’re constantly learning more about non-human animals and their capacity for intelligence.

I admit that it is easy for me to sit inside my well-constructed house on the other side of the world and pontificate about these creatures and our need to just get along. But I hope that more conversations can take place. We hunt–but so do these creatures–for survival as well as for entertainment. I think that we can learn a lot about ourselves through the lions and bears. Perhaps we’ll find that we’re not really that different. And I can’t help but wonder, given that nearly every day brings more news of racial violence, if we really questioned why we hunt, we might find some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. In Richard the Lion-Hearted, for example, Richard justified slaughtering and devouring Saracens by claiming that they were not human (and weren’t similar arguments made in support of slavery?). We’re so desperate to separate ourselves from the “animals” that I wonder if we aren’t becoming just as–if not more–violent as they are purported to be. According to Karl Steel in How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages,

Humans attempt to form themselves as human by (mis)recognizing themselves as ‘not animal,’ and then by subjecting themselves to the impossible demands of living up to this ideal self, one distinctively rational, ensouled, responsible, linguistic, and so on. Faced with a constitutive and irreparable disparity between themselves and their human self-image, humans assert that animals lack what uniquely afflicts humans. To give this assertion strength, they treat animals ‘like animals’; as instruments available for labor or slaughter, violence which does not count as morally significant violence and which therefore qualitatively differs from the violence humans suffer. (5)

But it’s late and I’m tired, and a stack of student papers awaits me in the morning, so for now I will let sleeping lions lie.

British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 4r

But be aware that the lion sleeps with his eyes open. Perhaps we should as well.

Forest Management

We’re moving in less than a week, and I find myself wondering how on earth I’m going to get everything packed.

But at the same time, it’s nice to be able to go through everything and purge the household of a lot of things we no longer use. That stuffed cat massager that’s been hiding at the back of the hall closet? Goodwill. That metallic shoe rack? Goodwill. That beautiful yellow prom dress that my grandmother gave me when I was in college (come on–there’s no way I could pull off yellow with my complexion)? Goodwill. The husband’s made several trips already.

When we first moved here, it was in stages. I moved out first, with just the essentials (read: the cats) while my husband stayed with his job until he found a new one here in Colorado. Later, the rental house that we had lived in previously sold, so the husband lived in his mom’s basement for a few months until he moved out here with me permanently. That meant that the husband packed up everything in the rental house. And I mean everything, even if we no longer used it. I wasn’t there to supervise or help pack, so rather than wonder if we really needed something, he (and my parents, who helped him pack up the house) put it on the truck. I was pregnant and exhausted, so I didn’t go through all of the boxes. And I learned what “packing” meant to him. He would take a large box–say, three feet high by two feet wide and long–take one of his desk drawers, and dump it into the box. With a layer of about 4-5 inches of stuff, he would then tape the box shut. Needless to say, once we decided to move this time, I told him to leave all the packing to me, and he graciously accepted (he gets the bulk of the cleaning in return; a fair trade to my mind).

So today, as I was weeding through a pile of dresses, I found myself thinking back to the various weddings at which several were worn (a favorite was a spaghetti-strap black floor-length one–it had a long and wispy cape-thing in the back, perfect for the “I’m Batman” look). Many of these dresses only saw the light of day once, and they’re too fancy to teach in. So which box do they go in? Goodwill or new house? The husband wandered in and began looking through the donation pile. “How can you get rid of your sunflower dress?” he teased. “You’re denying your Kansas roots.” The sunflower dress went, but many more stayed. Even if I never wear them again, they still remind me of friends I no longer see, of the joy of sharing momentous occasions with loved ones. Of being younger and healthier and skinnier.

It’s hard to declutter.

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in both Biology and English, and one of my favorite science classes was Wildlife Ecology. Not only did we learn about best practices for forest management at the time. We also learned some of the history of forest management practices and how they evolved over time. It’s always fun to think about how the classes I took as an undergraduate still influence what I do today. My love of Celtic mythology came from a class in which we read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and a recent academic project deals with medieval forest management in the Robin Hood ballads.

Not only is it difficult to declutter a house–there’s a lot of junk in my mind (clearly).

But back to my point. Forest management has changed drastically over the years. During the Middle Ages, coppicing was a common treatment of trees to ensure faster and plentiful growth.

People still coppice trees today (I accidentally did this to a tree in my front yard before I learned what coppicing was) but not as frequently (there’s mixed feelings as to its sustainability and efficacy). Here’s what a forest that has been heavily coppiced looks like:

During the Middle Ages, the forests belonged to the king, and from the time of William the Conqueror and on, several laws–the “Forest Laws” were established to protect forested areas and its wild inhabitants. Not out of any sense of ecological sustainability or love of nature, mind you–rather, the kings of England loved to hunt, and they wanted to be sure to have plenty of game when the desire arose. This is the main offense of Robin Hood and other medieval outlaws–he hunted the king’s deer. In A Gest of Robyn Hode, the king arrives in Northern England, and he retires to one of his reserves to hunt:

All the compasse of Lancasshyre
He went both ferre and nere,
Tyll he came to Plomton Parke;
He faylyd many of his dere.

There our kynge was wont to se
Herdes many one,
He coud unneth fynde one dere,
That bare ony good horne. (1425-32)

Now, I have my own ideas as to why the king does not find any deer, but I’m not going to go into that here.

I’ve been to a few of these royal parks–one just this last summer–and I was very fortunate each time to not have the king’s luck. Years ago, I saw two stags fighting, and this last summer, at Fountains Abbey, I saw a herd of fallow and red deer:

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Notice that it’s not a heavily forested area in the sense that there are not a lot of trees. Rather, medieval “forests” often encompassed quite a range of landscapes (after all, the word “forest” is from the Latin forīs, “out of doors.” Wood, in addition to venison, was always a highly-sought after commodity during the Middle Ages. Thus, not only did the Forest Laws restrict locals from harvesting the deer; as Jean Birrell notes, “it was forbidden even to remove a branch from a tree” (“The Medieval English Forest” 78). Collecting downed wood was okay, but it was illegal to sell the wood. Of course, many people broke these laws (and the Crown was often okay with it because the fines that were developed to deal with vert and venison offenses brought in significant amounts of revenue). People still used forested areas for livestock such as pigs, horses, and cattle, and the landscape would benefit from the droppings left behind by the grazing animals. The collection of branches on the ground would help prevent clutter that could result in large wildfires.

Later periods saw carefully cultivated forest areas, where human senses of order were imposed on landscapes. Any undergrowth was considered “clutter” and removed, trees were shaped and spaced neatly in lines (sorry that I can’t remember the specifics, and my wildlife ecology book is packed away!). These highly artificial forest management trends were quite harmful in that they discouraged the biodiversity that a healthy landscape needed. Fallen trees and branches were removed, with the result that small creatures could not use them for homes, and any nutrients and minerals that had been locked inside of the wood could not then return to the soil through the process of decomposition.

Fortunately, our senses of forest management have evolved to the point where we understand that the “clutter” is necessary. We do controlled burns here and there, which help to decrease the intensity of naturally-occurring wildfires and which also benefit the local ecology by returning nutrients back to the soil.

But are we really necessary to the process, or is this yet more evidence of our anthropocentric perspective, our need to master nature? I remember hiking through a section of the Appalachian Trail after Hurricane Hugo hit. Thanks to many crews–paid and volunteer–the trail had been cleared of major debris (someone wrote “Hugo was here” on one of the tree trunks along the trail), but even so, the damage was extensive. Massive trees had been uprooted, and trunks were splintered. But the only real reason why the crews were so hard at work was for the human element–so that hikers could get through. The forest would survive. It would regrow. Hurricanes–like the wildfires in Yellowstone–had hit that region before, and they would do so again. We weren’t needed.

Too bad my clutter is not so self-sufficient. So, back to packing and decluttering. As I manage the urban forest around me, I hope that I’m not adding to the waste but rather contributing to the cycle of exchange, at least in some small part.

Foggy Mornings

I woke up to a wall of white outside of my window this morning–dense fog as far as the eye could see (admittedly, not far). And as I walked to my building on campus, the aromas brought out by the moisture of the fog from the trees and shrubs along the sidewalk brought me back to foggy mornings in North Carolina. My father’s dream was to hike the Appalachian Trail (which he did), and so I spent several weeks during the summer hiking parts with him as a teenager. Although my dad had begun at the traditional southern terminus of Springer Mountain in Georgia, I met up with him at Sam’s Gap near Mars Hill, North Carolina, where we spent that first night together huddled with two dogs in a small tent on a ridge during a massive thunderstorm.

My trail name, by the way, was “Copperhead.” Not for the reddish tint of my hair, but rather for the copperhead snake that I nearly stepped on while doing a warm-up hike through a rhododendron forest with my family in South Carolina. I screamed, so my father yelled at me for freaking out and startling him. Then he saw the snake. He had been hiking for several weeks by that point and had yet to see anything other than the occasional garter snake. That day, I found a speckled kingsnake in addition to the copperhead, and the next summer, while hiking in New England, I found a timber rattler coiled up in a patch of sunshine my first morning on the trail.

Rhododendrons are lovely, but their fallen leaves provide the perfect camouflage for copperhead snakes. My heart still races any time I’m in a rhododendron forest–most recently in northern England, which has no poisonous snakes!

That’s my curse–if there’s a snake in the area, I will find it. This was the case in my Wildlife Ecology class in college; I was tearing through a forested area one early spring to get to a bird sanctuary–fearless because my professor had assured me that it was still too cold out for snakes–when I met a narrow reddish fellow, probably a kingsnake, moving lightly across the fallen leaves.

I love hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park because there are no poisonous snakes (due to the elevation). I want to check out Devil’s Backbone, but I’ve heard that rattlesnakes are often seen there. The first time I hiked in Colorado outside of RMNP, guess what? My hiking partner and I found a western rattlesnake–gorgeous and gigantic–along the path. We saw her in plenty of time–she was hanging out at the side of the trail, waiting her turn to cross and trying to blend into the dusty shrubbery, and once she realized we had stopped, she cautiously slid across the trail and on her way. We stood there for a few minutes, watching her move among the vegetation and over rocks. She was lovely, and I’m so glad that we saw her (especially since we saw her without startling her), but I was jittery the rest of the hike.

Yes, I have many, many more anecdotes about encounters with a variety of snakes. I even had a pet garter snake as a child (my poor mother is terrified of snakes, and this particular pet was an adept escape artist) in an attempt to overcome my fear of snakes. It didn’t work.

But that’s not what I started out to write about today. Welcome to my mind–it’s like a pinball machine in here.

Not only did I meet a lot of snakes while hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve never been a morning person, and so those early mornings in North Carolina and Tennessee were brutal, even with a belly full of warm oatmeal. It was cold, there were spider webs across the trail, and everything was damp. It had been a rainy spring, and as a result, the trails were overgrown with brambles, reaching out to embrace me with their dewy thorns. So I did not hurry much.

Instead, I explored. And my favorite thing to do? Flip over rocks on the trail to find these little fellows:

An eft, also known as a teenage newt

And they were everywhere that summer in North Carolina and Tennessee. My father used to get so angry with me–he’d get up, eat, pack up his gear, and hit the trail, focused only on getting to the next shelter for the evening–because he would realize that I was not just behind him. He’d stop and wait, and a few times, even backtracked to find me. And here I’d come, strolling along the trail without a care in the world, flipping over a rock here with my foot, bending down to move aside a fallen branch there, always looking for efts. Eventually we established a call-and-response system so that my father would be able to know that I was still behind him–however far–and he trusted that I would get to the next shelter eventually. And I did try to stop looking for efts . . . most of the time.

Now as an adult, I find myself in my father’s shoes. My daughter has the same inquisitive nature that I had as a young girl, and when we go to the mountains for the day, she loves climbing on rocks, picking up sticks, and taking it all in. And I find myself getting annoyed with her. “Come on, just a little bit further, kiddo,” I tell her. “Please, can we just walk for a while?” We clearly have two different agendas on these hikes. I want exercise to offset the time I spend sitting in my office, and she wants to enjoy life. I, like my father, can only see the destination, and she only knows to live in the now. And I need to recapture that. But how?

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.

http://www.greenmountainclub.org/page.php?id=2

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 http://www.juskuz.com/2012/09/25/hiking-mt-mansfield/), 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.