Oh, Deer! Reflections on Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse

This summer, I’ll be presenting a paper at the 23rd International Medieval Congress in the UK on the hunting scenes in A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. I won’t go into much detail in terms of my specific argument, but in preparation, I’ve been researching medieval deer and deer parks quite a lot recently. Part of my interest stems from visits to deer parks. Most recently, I visited the medieval deer park at Fountains Abbey where I was fortunate enough to come across a group of fallow and red deer (about ten total) resting in the shade of a large tree.


Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

The park attendant had warned me that I was very unlikely to see any deer as it was midsummer and midday, but I was determined, and so I left the main trail and wandered deeper into the meadow. There was the occasional sun-bleached branch laying tauntingly in the grass, causing my hopes to soar; might those be antlers? Time and again, they were just branches.

When I first saw the group in the picture above, I doubted I would be so lucky; where best to find fallen branches, after all, than beneath an ancient tree? But as I walked closer, the heads came into view. I stood there for several minutes, aching to get closer but not wanting to spook the creatures, berating myself for not getting a decent camera (the picture above was taken with my camera phone). The deer were clearly aware of my presence; there was a light breeze that no doubt brought my scent to them, and they watched me warily.

Eventually, they tired of my intrusion and rose to their feet. There was no urgency to their movements, but they walked purposefully away from me and out of sight.

"Hunting and Taking the Hart" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 68)

“Hunting and Taking the Hart” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 68)

My experience that day was quite different from what I typically encounter in medieval literature. In the midst of the medieval hunt, the deer’s movements are rapid and frantic. Often manuscript illustrations, such as the image above, depict the deer in flight with hunters in close pursuit. As the anonymous fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveals, the medieval hunt was often a noisy affair:

At þe fyrst quethe of þe quest quaked þe wylde;
Der drof in þe dale, doted for drede,
Hiȝed to þe hyȝe, bot heterly þay were
Restayed with þe stablye, þat stoutly ascryed. (Fitt 3, Stanza 47)

This is reinforced in the image above by the hunters blowing upon their horns and the hounds baying in excitement. Many scholars have explored this type of hunt in great detail; see, for example, Susan Crane’s brilliant book Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. And of course, there were plenty of poachers who relied upon stealth, so I don’t mean to imply that all hunts were vociferous affairs. But I’m interested in the general atmosphere of the deer park–not just the moments in which the hunts take place.

The 1407 edition of Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse (the entire manuscript is available online here) contains several images of deer, and not all of them capture the hunt. Consider this image, which appears early in the text:

"The Hart" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 7)

“The Hart” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 7)

The deer in this image are clearly at rest; a hind and her young lay comfortably on the grass while others graze nearby. This is a moment in which their defenses have been lowered. Those who bow their heads to the ground are for the moment unable to catch the scent of any intruder while those who reach to nibble foliage are physically less able to respond to any threat. True, there are others on guard in this image, but I love that the illustrator has captured so many poses in one small image. Here’s another similar depiction:

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“The Roe” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 14)

The roe deer was slightly smaller than the hart, but still, we see these deer engaged in similar occupations, with the addition of two males at the top engaged in combat (I can’t tell if they are play-fighting or if they are in earnest).

One thing that I appreciate about Gaston Phoebus’s manuscript is that it shows us a different side to humanity’s relationship with deer than that so frequently depicted in medieval romance (including, but certainly not limited to Malory’s Le Morte Arthur, Awntyrs off Arthure, The Avowyng of Arthur, and of course the Tristan romances!). Consider this next image:

"Listening for the Hart's Bell" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 56v)

“Listening for the Hart’s Bell” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 56v)

The presence of a human does not always necessitate fear and flight among herds of deer. Yes, the man appears to be hiding behind a tree, but there is no doubt that the deer are aware of his presence. While the man is surveying the herd to determine which specific deer he will encourage his lord to pursue, the deer do not view him as an immediate threat. Here’s the description of the image from the Morgan Library & Museum website:

During the month of September when the male hart was in rut, its belling, or roaring, would permit a trained hunter to locate and judge it by ear alone. In the upper left of the miniature are two great old harts belling, extending their necks, and showing their teeth in order to attract the females opposite them.

Here in Colorado, I’ve lost count of the number of encounters I’ve had with deer. When I first moved here, I spent an afternoon hiking up the aptly named Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not surprisingly, along the trail was a small group of mule deer–perhaps six or seven–casually grazing.We like to get up to the park early in the morning, have breakfast, and then hit the trails, and one morning, a young doe strolled by us as we munched away on sausage, biscuits, and eggs.


And it’s not a proper visit to the park if we’ve not seen at least one elk. Going up to the mountains is particularly fun in the fall when the rutting season takes place. Hearing the elk bugle is quite an experience, and we’ve had to wait patiently as large herds of elk crossed the road. One male with an impressive rack, stood firm in the middle of the road, glaring at us in our cars while the rest of the herd made its way across.

We were even fortunate enough to see two moose a few summers ago as they waded across the shallow Sprague Lake. Having reached a particularly fertile spot in the water, they stood patiently, munching away on vegetation as people gathered on the shores to snap pictures.

Moose August 2011

Each of these encounters shows how accustomed deer and their relatives can become when they are exposed to humans repeatedly and, perhaps more importantly, are exposed in an environment in which they are not preyed upon by humans. This is often the case, I am learning, in many of the medieval deer parks.

One of the texts that I’ve been reading is John Fletcher’s 2011 Gardens of Earthly Delight: The History of Deer Parks. Fletcher is the “UK’s most pre-eminent deer vet” (you can read more about him here), and his book is incredibly well-researched and compelling.


I’m only a few chapters in so far, but it’s been fascinating (and can I nerd out for a moment and comment on the rich irony of his last name?!?). For so long, humanity’s relationship with deer has centered on control. Stone-age evidence reveals artificial structures designed to help drive and capture deer, as well as the transportation of deer across waterways in order to establish deer populations in a wider variety of places–both are practices still continued today. Antlers helped in the evolution of humanity as well–I had not been aware of how important they were, both in shaping the flint tools that enabled humans to bring down larger prey and in enabling early humans to break open bones to reach the nutrient-rich marrow that propelled the development of our brains.

Fletcher also discusses the domestication of deer and how they can be trained to come to humans even for just a handful of grain. It is surprising, he notes, that deer have not been domesticated as cows and pigs have been, but Fletcher’s hypothesis is that this is due in part to the ritualistic significance of the deer hunt and the strategy and skill often needed in pursuit of the deer. Indeed, as Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, in his fifteenth-century hunting treatise The Master of Game, writes, “The hertes bene the liȝtest beestes and stronge and mervelously of grete connyng” (15). The deer is often described as a noble creature (and bestiaries often imbue deer with religious significance–see, for example, the Aberdeen Bestiary’s description of deer here). In Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, deer are not the only creatures featured–illustrations of hares, bears, wild goats, badgers and wild boars appear, among others–but only the deer require subterfuge.

The illustrations of the other hunted animals show no physical separation between the hunter and the hunted; for example, here’s the illustration of the hare hunt:

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“Shooting Hares with Bows” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 107)

In the medieval deer park, then, an artificial structure, the hunt becomes particularly complicated due to the context of human-deer relations. Depending on the frequency of the king’s attendance, deer may become very lax in an environment where they have few predators (beyond the occasional poacher). They may become accustomed to caretakers who hover on the periphery, maintaining a watchful eye on their “livestock,” if you will, noting the ages of the males, the richness of their droppings, et cetera. Perhaps it is in these precise settings that the noise of the medieval hunt–the baying of the hounds, the sounding of the horns, the jostling of the horses–becomes particularly necessary in order to jostle the deer out of their complacency and to add challenge to the hunt. Those deer parks where the deer are less accustomed to human presence–or perhaps are hunted more frequently–may be the sites where the elaborate blinds are needed.

Of course, there are other considerations–the number of deer being hunted, the social class(es) of the hunters, the size of the hunting party, the purpose of the hunt, the skills and/or preferences of the hunters, etc.–but to what extent is the medieval hunt impacted by the centuries of human-deer interactions?

As always, thanks for reading.

St Giles and his companion deer. Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial, traduction française par Jean de Vignay. vol. VI. Livres XXI-XXIV; Fol. 157v. 1370-1380.

St Giles and his companion deer. Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial, traduction française par Jean de Vignay. vol. VI. Livres XXI-XXIV; Fol. 157v. 1370-1380.


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!


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.


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:


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

Sudden Noise, White Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once the deer appear, chaos predictably reigns:

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

Meanwhile, Guinevere and Gawain rest apart from the hunt:

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

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.