Murder Most Fowl


Spring is upon us, the surest sign of which is the sudden appearance of Mallard ducklings at our neighborhood pond. This summer, there are two groups of ducklings–an older set of eight, and a younger set of nine. My dog and I love stopping mid-walk to watch them paddle calmly across the water’s surface in search of food (although my dog just cannot understand why they do not want to play with her). Their parents patiently herd them, guiding them away from other ducks and birds (and nosy dogs).

dog with ducklings

Last night, however, was different. My daughter had joined us for our evening walk, and was gleefully throwing seed into the water for the ducklings to eat. Suddenly, though, across the small holding pond (adjacent to the larger pond and where the duck families prefer to graze), there arose a commotion. The mother of the younger group of ducklings was under attack.

My dog wasn’t loose. Nor were there any other dogs in the vicinity. No water snakes or snapping turtles had crept up unawares upon the hen.

No, she was being attacked by her own kind–other Mallards. Four drakes, to be specific.

It was quite horrific. She tried escaping through the tall grass surrounding the holding pond, desperate to not allow too much distance between her and the ducklings while not placing them in harm’s way. The drakes followed her. She tried settling in the middle of the pond, but the drakes surrounded her. At one point, she disappeared for what seemed like an eternity as the drakes pushed her completely under the water.

Finally, she abandoned her ducklings, flying away as quickly as she could, with one drake still in pursuit.

Kiddo was in tears. I was in shock. (The dog just wanted to chase something, anything.)

My first thought was that the drakes were part of a family unit, and that they were protecting the territory for the other set of ducklings. However, I come to this park frequently, and I’ve often seen the younger set of ducklings in the smaller pond while the older set explores the much larger pond.

Nor were the mother and father of the older ducklings participating in the attack in any way.

And once the exhausted and drake-pecked mother flew away, the three remaining drakes just chilled at the pond. They did not go after the ducklings (who were huddled along the rushes at the pond’s edge).

When I got home, I did a little research.


No, they weren’t fighting over territory.

They were fighting for mating rights. But rather than fight one another, they were attacking the female, endangering her life–and indirectly, the lives of her ducklings.

Some websites had an interesting way of downplaying the violence of what I had witnessed. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) noted that “groups of males with no obvious duties often mate forcibly with females that appear to be unattached. This anti-social phase is short-lived and ends once moulting is underway” (

Ahem. “mate forcibly” is not quite the same as “nearly drown the female in an attempt to mate”.

Many websites omitted any references to the mating ritual, noting only that the males move away from the females once they have successfully mated.

Just a brief warning, though–I learned a LOT about duck sex, so if that makes you a bit squeamish, you should probably stop reading at this point.

evolution of beautyMore enlightening was Susannah Cahalan’s New York Post article, “The Horrible Thing You Never Knew about Ducks”. Turns out an entire chapter in a recent book, The Evolution of Beauty, has been devoted to what my daughter and I witnessed last night.

Prum opens his chapter on duck sex (never thought I’d be reading up on this particular topic!) with an interesting literary allusion, writing that “The drama of duck sex brings to mind the ancient Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus took sexual possession of the lovely young Leda after assuming the physical form of a swan . . . . Although often referred to as ‘the Rape of Leda,’ it has usually been depicted with a note of sexual ambiguity, there being an element of mutual desire mixed in with the suddenness of the act” (Prum 150). Needless to say, I was up in arms after reading this. It’s a variation on the whole “I know what she really wants but she can’t say it” phenomenon with which we still struggle.

After briefly summarizing the ornithologists’ preferences of using “forced copulation” instead of “rape” when talking about non-human animals (Prum 157), though, Prum offers this observation:

Screen Shot 2018-05-25 at 11.14.13 AM(Prum 157)

His conclusion focuses not on the individual female, or even the female gender of the species, but more broadly the species as a whole, noting that “sexual violence is a selfish male evolutionary strategy that is at odds with the evolutionary interests of its female victims and possibly with the evolutionary interests of the entire species” (159). Well, we’re making some progress (I think?).

Prum notes that female Mallards can be seriously harmed–even killed–by the males as they attempt to copulate with her (158). Females have developed some defense mechanisms to resist. Patricia Brennan at Yale University has done quite a bit of work on duck sex as well, noting that

“The male duck’s penis is spiral-shaped: like a corkscrew, it twists in a counter-clockwise direction so that sperm will target the oviduct on the female’s left-hand side. In almost all birds only the left ovary is functional, but in a 2007 study, Brennan and colleagues noticed that in ducks the female’s vagina twists in the opposite direction. . . . while the males are evolving long and flexible penises to help them force copulations, the females are using their complex vaginal anatomy to take back control over which sperm fertilises their eggs. When a female wants to mate with her chosen partner, she can make the process easier by relaxing the muscles around the vagina entrance.” (

I can’t help but imagine a type of Vagina dentata–the trope of the vagina lined with teeth, armed against the unsuspecting penis.

But another medieval text came to mind–that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. This fourteenth-century dream vision centers on the selection of mates at an annual gathering of birds–held on Valentine’s Day, naturally–over which Nature herself presides. The focus is on the dialogue of three tercels (eagles) as they each in turn address a formel egle (“female eagle”) with the goal of persuading her to choose them as her beloved. It’s a lovely poem, and it’s fun to see the courtly speeches of medieval knights placed into the beaks of birds, but at the same time, the poem offers some interesting perspectives on gender. I won’t rehash those here. Rather, my interest is on the ducks in this poem.

As the dreaming narrator arrives at the place where the Parliament is to take place, they make note of how the birds have been spatially arranged:

That is to sey, the foules of ravyne
Were hyest set; and than the foules smale,
That eten as hem nature wolde enclyne,
As worm or thing of whiche I telle no tale;
And water-foul sat loweste in the dale;
But foul that liveth by seed sat on the grene,
And that so fele, that wonder was to sene. (323-29)

The birds of prey are highest, as they are meat eaters; below them are those birds that eat lesser animals, such as worms. Birds that forage on seeds are next. Waterfowl are the lowest on the avian hierarchy (this arrangement reflects the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being).

The narrator then elaborates on the types of birds, offering brief description for each species. For example, the goshawk is “the tyraunt with his fethres donne / And greye” (334-35). Some birds have very positive associations assigned to them, while others are negative. Some are just neutral.

The male duck has an interesting entry: “The drake, stroyer of his owne kinde” (360).

I’ve never really noticed this line until today.

Now, this poem emphasizes choice. When the parliament is about to begin, Nature establishes the rules:

by order shul ye chese,
After your kinde, everich as yow lyketh,
And, as your hap is, shul ye winne or lese (400-402)

What I find interesting about these lines is that those making choices are in no way guaranteed that they will receive their choices. Some will win, but some will lose. Some will be accepted and thus mate successfully, while others will be rebuffed. This is Nature’s way. Yet the ending of the poem itself undermines this idea somewhat, because when the female eagle is ultimately called upon to make her choice among the three male eagles, she delays. The implication is that she wants to refuse all of them, but she feels that she cannot do so. Of course, the eagles all are anthropomorphized in their speech, and so it’s a reflection of socially constructed gender roles among humans. Nonetheless, it is dangerous for her to do so in this world.

Perhaps some of you will have seen this meme that has recently been circulating around social media:


Why does Chaucer name the drake the destroyer of his own kind? I’ve looked through some of the bestiaries, and they offer no insight–they simply repeat Isidore’s suggestion that the etymology of their name is due to their habit of perpetually swimming.

But what if Chaucer, like my daughter and myself, was out for a walk–through the countryside or even through the streets of London–and came across a similar situation? With such a practiced eye for observing the nuances of human behavior, what would Chaucer have noticed?

Ducks are, I am learning, quite unusual birds. As many biologists have noted, most birds do not have penises–Prum reports that 97% of all bird species lack this particular organ (160). Instead, most birds–including some species of ducks–rub their swollen cloacas against that of their mate, and sperm is transferred from the male to the female, et cetera.

Female mallards fight back, argues Prum, because they are attempting to control who fathers their offspring–what traits will be passed along to the next generation and thus ensure or compromise that next generation’s survival and viability (158-59). A similar argument has been made for the figure of Dame Ragnell in the anonymous poem The Wedding of Dame Ragnell and Sir Gawain, in fact.

So why is the drake the destroyer of his own kind? Given what has been happening as a result of toxic masculinity in America and throughout the world on a nearly-daily basis, do we really have to even ask any more?

drakesThis morning, my dog and I headed back to the pond. The four drakes had the holding pond all to themselves.

Much to my relief, the mother had been reunited with her nine ducklings, and they were now swimming in the adjacent larger pond.

Two of the older ducklings, however, from the set of eight, were following this family, peeping nervously. Each time they came within a foot of the hen and her brood, she chased them away.

orphansWhen we later passed by the same spot, the family had moved on, but the two older ducklings were still huddled together. Neither their siblings nor their mother was in sight.

My hope is that they merely became separated and will find their mother once more.

But perhaps the drakes found a new target.



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:

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 10.57.14 AM

“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:

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 12.55.20 PM

“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

Meditations on Massacres and Memory

I started this post several weeks ago while grading annotated bibliographies. The Paris shootings of November 2015 had just occurred, and I was having major difficulty focusing on the task at hand. Everywhere I looked, I saw images of Paris, of Beirut. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with images of the Eiffel Tower and quotations urging awareness, conversation, and an end to what seems to many of us senseless and horrific acts.

And I couldn’t help but think: we’ve been here before.

My Honors students at that time were reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015), and I found myself overwhelmed with the connections between this text and the events of recent memory.

When I first picked up this book over the summer, I was intrigued by the placement of a chalice on the cover. Expecting an appearance of the Holy Grail from Arthurian legend, I searched eagerly through the pages. Like much of modern Arthurian fiction, this book offers no grail. There is no cup, stone, or platter which heals all wounds, restores sanity, and restores life to a diseased and dead land. Just as in real life, there is no quick fix, no easy answer.

Interestingly, the Kindle edition features a tree rather than a chalice on its cover:

I wonder how much control Ishiguro had over the cover images. This second one speaks to me of roots sent deep into the earth, absorbing nutrients released from decaying matter. Thus, the past influences the future as nutrients are continually released to the environment only to be taken up by new growth. We can see this as a sacrifice of the older generations to nurture the future, but that doesn’t really seem to be a theme in Ishiguro’s text. Rather, what I’ve taken away from it all is the near impossibility of the younger generations–whether they be flora or fauna–to move away from the influences of the older.

Sometimes, though, those roots may be difficult to see. Consider this passage from the opening of Ishiguro’s novel:

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorlands. (3)

Our first day discussing The Buried Giant was focused on the setting, and I was struck by these opening lines, particularly the use of the word “uncultivated.” This is a land without memory–or at least, it first seems to be–and much of the narrative is driven to explore the implications of forgetting. But as the characters progress, they encounter the roots of their past–although often only as fragments rather than as a unified narrative:

“Here are the skulls of men, I won’t deny it. There an arm, there a leg, but just bones now. An old burial ground. And so it may be. I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. And I don’t talk, sir, only of those who received Christian burial. Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter. Horace and I, we’ve grown weary of it. Weary and we no longer young” (171).

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ishiguro had in mind the fields of Flanders, where waves of poppies obscured the horrific slaughters of World War I.

But as the characters within Ishiguro’s novel attempt to recapture their lost past and their distant heritage, Ishiguro’s prose reveals how difficult that can be. Notice the heavy use of the subjunctive mood (“would”) by the character Gawain in this passage:

“Master Axl, what was done in these Saxon towns today my uncle would have commanded only with a heavy heart, knowing of no other way for peace to prevail. Think, sir. Those small Saxon boys you lament would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers fallen today. The small girls soon bearing more in their wombs, and this circle of slaughter would never be broken. Look how deep runs the lust for vengeance!” (213)

Gawain is expressing his opinion–not facts. There is no guarantee that “Those small Saxon boys . . . would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers,” and Ishiguro expresses this through the young Saxon boy who travels with the main protagonists, an old Briton couple. This boy, devoid of the memory of the slaughter between the Saxons and the Britons, is not aflame with an inherited desire to revenge his predecessors–at least, not until another character–a Saxon warrior whom the young boy comes to admire greatly–begins to instill such ideas in him. But even then, when the young boy is compelled by his Saxon mentor to promise to hate all Britons, the boy pauses. . . . surely he is not meant to hate the kindly Briton couple with whom he has traveled?

My other class last semester was getting ready to begin Beowulf, and the story of the fight at Finnsburh immediately came to my mind. There is a moment when the leaders of the Danes and Frisians pledge peace to one another:

Ðá híe getruwedon on twá healfa
fæste frioðuwaére (1095-96)

But the peace is fragile, and the conflict between the two groups runs too deeply to be ignored:

þonne him Húnláfing, hildeléoman
billa sélest on bearm dyde (1143-44)

Towards the end of the winter, well after the death of the Danish leader Hnaef (whose sister had married Finn, the leader of the Frisians, a warrior places a prized sword in the lap of Hengest, Hnaef’s successor. This is a call to remember the death of Hnaef–not to celebrate his life, but rather to avenge his death. Finn and his retainers are slaughtered and the Danes return home (with Finn’s Danish bride). Despite the importance of the oral contract in Anglo-Saxon society, the memory of the deaths of their leaders is too strong and wins out.

And there are so many more examples that I can name–from Norse saga, where so many youths are killed (or hunted) so as to avoid future vengeance (Volsunga Saga, Hrolf Kraki). Closer to home is the thirteenth-century Suite du Merlin, where we see how one’s understanding of the past continues to influence the future, particularly in the case of Sir Gawain shortly after his knighting. Much earlier in the narrative, his father, King Lot of Orkney, has been killed by King Pellinore; now, as King Arthur prepares to welcome Pellinore into the company of the Round Table, Gawain reacts strongly (please allow me to quote at length from one of my articles on Gawain):

. . . after Gawain is knighted, “dirent auchun de Gavain pour chou que biel et apiert le veoient: ‘Cil vengera encore son pere, se il vit longuement, de chelui qui l’ochist’” (210) ‘some said of Gawain, because they saw him fine and capable, “He will yet avenge his father on the one who killed him, if he lives long enough”’ (Asher 120). Provided that Gawain survives into adulthood, there is complete certainty—as signaled by the use of the future tense—that he will behave in a way already predicted by social expectations. Also, inserted between Gawain’s recognition of Pellinor and his expression of grief is the comment that “on li ramentevoit chou qu’il avoit son pere ochis” (212) ‘someone reminded him that [Pellinor] had killed Gawain’s father’ (Asher 122). We quickly see this belief of social responsibility internalized by Gawain when he tells his brother that “‘se il plaisoit a Dieu que je venisse au dessus, je ne lairoie pour tout l’or de cest siecle que je ne li trenchaisse le chief aussi comme il fist a mon pere, si comme on me dist’” (213) ‘“If it pleases God that I come out on top, I won’t for all the gold in this world fail to cut off [Pellinore’s] head as he did to my father, as they tell me”’ (Asher 122).

Gawain, as a result of the society in which he has been raised, has no choice but to avenge his father.

So how did I get here from thinking about the Paris massacre? Let me try to pull my thoughts together.

In the days–weeks, even–following the Paris massacre, I saw a variety of responses, ranging from horror and calls for prayer, but also an increased emphasis on the “Other” and their differences from “us” (whoever the “us” may be) and a desire to isolate and even destroy that “Other.” Yes, the shooters belonged to ISIL–but they belong to a subset of Islam. As many over the last few weeks have attempted to make clear (although often to closed ears), not all Muslims are terrorists (and having lived several years in Kansas, I appreciated seeing friends comment, and in an attempt to help support this truth regarding ISIL and Islam, that people such as Fred Phelps do not represent all Christians)–yet despite these efforts, a Muslim woman who stood in silent protest at a recent Trump rally was quickly escorted from the premises.

A lot of my scholarship deals with the construction of identity, and one thing that I have learned over the years is that there is no one clear path, no formula for how to make a person, whether they be a knight, a damsel, a priest, et cetera. Each character–even in medieval romances–is subtly singular. Yet in the news surrounding me today, the individual faces are being blurred. One adherent of Islam is being made to represent all of Islam, followed quickly by a desire to condemn, exclude, and even eradicate all of its members.

I’d like to offer a variation on George Santayana’s well-known quotation from his 1905 The Life of Reason:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, the characters spend much of the narrative unable to remember the past, with the result that they often do fall into repetitive behaviors. Along the way, they grasp at fragments of memory–enough to ensure that once the mist which has robbed them of their memories has dissipated, they will, at least in Sir Gawain’s view, re-enter an endless cycle of slaughter. It’s not so much, though, that they remember the past–rather, they remember–or in the case of the young Saxon boy–are taught to remember–only part of the past–the strongest memories, the most painful losses, the searing rage–which then directs their behavior.

They remember a version of the past–and as a result, with no call to examine it carefully, they are doomed to repeat it.

A caution, though–please don’t misinterpret my comments as critiquing France’s response (or the world’s responses) to the November 2015 killings. These were horrific, just as were the killings in Baghdad, Nigeria, or Beirut (all also in November 2015). My intent in my rambling thoughts is to express my fear of these seemingly perpetual cycles of violence, particularly when they expand, through ignorance (either willful or not), to encompass innocent bystanders. Rather than react immediately out of fear or anger, can we not question instead the history which has led us to these points in time? Why do we do the things we do? Is it out of sheer necessity? Or perhaps the roots which connect us to our heritages serve more as puppet strings.

Perhaps those who examine the past–from multiple angles–are the ones who can escape the cycle.

Just my two cents, however naïve they may be. After all, regardless of our genders, social positions, education levels, religious views, or skin colors, we all share one important feature–humanity.


Changing of the Seasons

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

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

Capitol Creek Aspens, Elk Mountains, Colorado. Photo © copyright by Jack Brauer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, there we go. Much more luck.

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

But enough linguistic nerding out.

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

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

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

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Perishing Polar Bears

Recently, I managed to watch a movie–all by myself!–at home on our main TV. That means I beat out my sports-loving husband and my cartoon-addicted child. This rarely happens.

As I scrolled through the “On Demand” options, I came across the 2014 film The Giver, based on the 1993 novel by Lois Lowry. I had heard about the book from several students over the years, so I settled in to watch it. Overall, I enjoyed it–especially the use (and absence) of color, but there was one moment in the film that really stuck with me. While explaining the past to the new Receiver of Memories, the Giver mentions that there once were other animals (and the film cuts to a scene of a rabbit in search of food). Unfortunately, the film did not go into much detail in terms of what led to the present absence of non-human animals (at one point, some characters present a blue elephant toy as a hippopotamus, commenting that it was extra fast because it had five legs!); however, the implication is clear–the rest of the animal kingdom died out as a result of human actions. In the meanwhile, the community enjoys fruit such as apples and walks through impeccably manicured lawns. In one transmitted memory, the receiver experiences being stung by a bee, and his reaction to the experience suggests that in addition to never having felt pain before, the receiver has also never seen a bee.

But is such a scenario possible? That is, I have no doubt that humanity is capable of decimating non-animal populations–especially at the rate we’re going–rather, could humanity survive if there were no other animal species on the planet? After all, we rely on so many creatures–directly and indirectly. Large predators help keep smaller species in check, which can help overgrazing on plants–the wolves in Yellowstone National Park are a great illustration of this. Birds and reptiles help to maintain insect populations, which in turn are vital to pollination and the aeration of soil, among other things. No bees, for example, should mean that the apples in The Giver should not exist (unless, of course, their technology has advanced to  allow them to cross-pollinate plants without the aid of insects). And of course, several species make up significant portions of the human diet.

Two days after I watched The Giver, this image by German photographer Kerstin Langenberger began making the rounds on social media today. I can’t get it out of my mind.

Langenberger wrote on her Facebook account that

I realized that the fat bears are nearly exclusively males which stay on the pack ice all year long. The females, on the other hand, which den on land to give birth to their young, are often slim. With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there’s not much food.

While I’ve never seen a polar bear in the wild, I’ve seen them at the Denver zoo (and of course through film and photographs), and one of my initial thoughts upon seeing Langenberger’s photo was disbelief–that emaciated creature surely could not be a polar bear. Are we moving towards the complete destruction of multiple species, or is there still time to halt–and hopefully reverse–these troubling declines?

Naturally, the experts are divided. A recent article (2015) in The Huffington Post quotes Ian Stirling, a polar bear researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, who cautions against leaping too quickly to the conclusion that the polar bear photographed by Langenberger is typical of all polar bears:

people should be careful about blaming climate change for the bear’s condition. He said the bear was more likely old, sick or hurt — not starving because of a lack of prey or ice.

In a later Q&A, Langenberger expanded on the context in which she took the photograph:

In the past four years I’ve seen about one extremely skinny bear a year, and every summer I see about 60-70 bears. So it is an unusual sight, yet normal. This was the most extreme sight, though, as it was so extremely powerful visually, with the bear being on a melting ice floe. Usually, the starving animals were on land. This one was close to land but on one of the last ice floes to be found.

Turns out that this particular bear had been wounded (Langenberger speculates that the bear was injured by a walrus), so Stirling’s reading of the photograph is correct–to an extent. The animal is wounded, but is the emaciation a result of the wound, or did the wound result because the bear, driven by great hunger, possibly engaged another large animal (which is what Langenberger suggests) in a conflict over food resources? Furthermore, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Geological Survey, “Future reduction of sea ice in the Arctic could result in a loss of 2/3 of the world’s polar bear population within 50 years” (source). And the science is clear, isn’t it, that the ice caps are disappearing at a rapid pace.


With all of our technology and scientific knowledge, can’t we do more to help the polar bear–and in the process, help the other animals in its habitat (and thus ourselves in the long run)? Will polar bears be relegated to survival only in zoos–or worse–in memory?

When I was a graduate student, I took a semester of Old Norse. One of the first texts that we translated was the early thirteenth-century Auðunar þáttr vestfirska, or “The story of Auðun of the Westfjords.” Briefly, the main character, Auðun, spends all of his money to purchase a polar bear from a Greenlandic hunter in order to present the animal as a gift to King Svein Ulfsson in Denmark.

While it might initially boggle the mind that a person could travel nearly three thousand miles with a polar bear in captivity during the Middle Ages, Auðun’s story is not as far-fetched as it might seem. William Ian Miller, in his translation of and commentary on Audun and the Polar Bear (Leiden: Brill, 2014), writes that

Other sources note on several occasions that polar bears were given as gifts by Icelanders to rulers in Europe. So when Isleif Gizurarson sailed to Europe in 1055 to be consecrated the first bishop of Iceland he brought with him a “white bear from Greenland and the animal was the greatest of treasures,” using the same word—görsemi—that Audun’s Story uses to describe its bear, and which Isleif gave to the emperor Henry III Conradsson. Gifts of polar bears are unusual enough to get noted, but nary a word about the logistics of transporting or provisioning them in any of the sources in which such a gift occurs. Bears, polar or otherwise, it should be noted, were not native to Iceland. When a white bear appeared, it was because it was shipped over from Greenland, or because it arrived on drift ice. . .  (17-18)

There is a moment in Auðunar þáttr when the bear, along with Auðun, is on the verge of starvation (Auðun has run out of money), but Auðun finds an investment partner of sorts and the bear is saved. But other than this brief incident, there is little commentary on the bear itself. The king is grateful for the gift (and another king is quite envious), but there’s no mention of the bear’s ferocity (or tameness), its size, its hunger, etc. The bear is simply an object used to gain the favor of a king.

I’d like to think that we’ve progressed a bit in our thinking to recognize that these creatures, along with our other neighbors on this crowded planet, are not here for our pleasure. Rather, we must work together, and in the case of humanity, for these creatures–particularly since we are the primary causes of their difficulties in finding suitable habitats and food resources.

How many of us fell in love with the polar bears featured in holiday advertisements for Coca-Cola? (You can find a brief summary of the evolution of the Coke bears in a 2014 New Yorker article here.) I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw them–but I still will pause whatever I’m doing and watch their onscreen antics.

I was happy to learn that as a result of the success of the polar bears, Coca-cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in the last few years to try and preserve the Arctic.  I just hope these efforts are not too little, too late.

The world of The Giver has no appeal to me. Despite the overhanded use of the apple imagery to suggest a Garden of Eden, the lack of diversity does not lead to harmonious living. I’m reminded of the closing lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer:

Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!

As I discussed with my Old English students earlier this week, these lines open and close with the same words–symploce is the rhetorical term for this pattern–with the result that emphasis is placed on the transient and ever changing centers.  Roughly translated, the first line is “Here is treasure lent (or transitory, etc.) here is friend lent,” and the subsequent line continues the list of things that just do not last. The poem as a whole emphasizes the mutability of the mortal world and it has a strong Christian bent to it (as does most extant Anglo-Saxon poetry), but these lines always stand out to me, particularly the final line–all the earth shall become idel, “idle.” The absence of movement, the absence of variety, the absence of life. The absence of polar bears.

The Marshes of My Mind

Emergent vegetation in Night-Heron Shallows - 2

I’ve been working on an article on Layamon’s Brut for a while, and I keep hitting figurative walls. Some of my difficulty is due, no doubt, to the numerous demands on my time—I’m teaching two online classes, I’m packing my house, and I have a young child. At some point, I need to start thinking about the upcoming semester. But having started this blog, I’ve come to an important realization: I really don’t like academic writing.

In my experience, academic writing requires a firm hand and lots of structure, and I can do it. I just would prefer not to. My mind is constantly meandering despite my best efforts, and I keep discovering interesting threads in a text that threaten to draw me off course.

Like this morning: I was suddenly struck by the use of marshes in Layamon’s Brut, particularly in the Arthurian section. There are two notable instances. First, when Arthur is fighting against the invading Saxons, he drives his enemies to a deep river and manages to deny them the ford. As the Saxons drown by the thousands, the narrator interrupts the battle scene with this lovely simile:

Summe heo gunnen wondrien swa doð þe wilde cron
i þan mor-uenne þenne his floc is awemmed
and him haldeð after hauekes swifte,
hundes in þan reode mid reouðe hine imeteð.
þenne nis him neouðer god, no þat lond no þat flod:
hauekes hine smiteð, hundes hine biteð.
þenne bið þe kinewurðe foȝel fæie on his siðe. (10061-67)

Here’s the translation by W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg:

Some went wandering as does the wild crane in the moorland fen when his flock is scattered and swift hawks pursue him, hounds ruthlessly attack him in the reeds. Neither the land nor the water is safe for him then: hawks strike him, hounds bite him. Then the royal bird is doomed in his tracks. (43-45)

Here, the fens are presented as a threatening place, one devoid of sanctuary of any sort and filled with predators. Consisting of neither land nor water, it is not a place to enter on one’s own.

Later in the Brut, Arthur hosts a feast and invites the nobles from the various countries he has conquered. Not surprisingly, a fight breaks out. Arthur’s response? Kill the instigators and mutilate their female kin. I’m going to ignore the second part of Arthur’s command here (my article addresses it to some extent) and focus just on the first part. Arthur is quite specific in how the instigators shall be put to death:

[D]oð wiððe an his sweore; and draȝeð hine to ane more,
and doð hine in an ley uen þer he scal liggen. (11394-95)

And Barron and Weinberg’s translation:

[P]ut a cord about his neck and drag him to a marsh, and thrust him into the bog where he shall lie. (111)

I’m intrigued by Arthur’s choice of wetlands as an instrument of death. What does it mean to be bound and thrown into a bog? Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” immediately comes to mind. Heaney addresses one of the “bog people” (bodies preserved in Danish marshes from 2-3 thousand years ago; you can learn more about them here), imagining a backstory for how she came to be entombed in that marsh (and the link above offers a new understanding of that particular bog body, one which contradicts much of what Heaney imagined).

Why a marsh? Why not death by fire or beheading? Why not death by dismemberment? These men have violated Arthur’s court, and their actions could be seen as treasonous, and dismemberment was the usual punishment for such crimes.

I imagine death by bog to be a slow process. Whereas decapitation offers a fast release, a marshy death might allow more time for reflection. Dismemberment and death by fire would be painful experiences (I’m guessing–absolutely no firsthand experience with any of this), which might prevent any kind of meditation while conscious.

Many people in Layamon’s Brut are drowned, especially women and children, but Arthur’s enemies as well, but perhaps the type of drowning that takes place in a marsh would be worse. The weight of the water-sodden mud pressing down upon one’s chest. The mouth open to scream, only to be silenced by an influx of sludge. And bodies that drown ultimately float back up, don’t they? Entombment in a marsh might have struck those living in the Middle Ages as a more permanent location. After all, the bog people were only discovered thousands of years later, often by people in search of other things (like peat, for example). Long before death, though, those doomed to die might endure a worse suffering–the mental anguish of isolation from human society, or the verbal assaults of demonic creatures believed to dwell in such spaces (Guthlac’s demons, for example, in Guthlac A).

My personal experiences with marshes have been, on the whole, fairly positive (I hedge only because, you guessed it, I’ve come across a lot of snakes in these venues). My undergraduate university owned several hundred acres of wetlands, and we would often spend a few hours each week, weather permitting, exploring or managing them in my science courses. I still vividly recall watching what seemed like thousands of swallows swooping through the air to feast on insects. We found a young owl in one of the duck houses one time, its feathers incredibly soft. We waded through shallow ponds to catch minnows in our nets to  determine the diversity and quantity of the fish in the spring.

A few years back, I taught a course on J. R. R. Tolkien, and so when it came time to talk about the Dead Marshes, I was excited. We started out talking about World War I and the experience of trench warfare. I showed them photographs of the trenches, of the injuries, of the massive scarring upon the landscape and the eternal mud. It was easy for the students to find connections with Tolkien’s marshes, especially given the dreary depiction brought so vividly to life by Peter Jackson.

The Dead Marshes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, from

Then I asked my students to look at the marshes in a different way. We talked about the terminology used to describe these particular habitats, and we learned that there is a lot of diversity between words such as “bog” or “marsh.” “Wetlands” seems to the the umbrella term for what is in reality several different landscapes. Here are a few examples, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Slide12We talked about the ecological functions of wetlands. Here’s a handy chart that we looked at:

urlWetlands are such a vital part of our world. Some people view them as “wastelands”–that is, “waste” in the sense that they are not useful to humans, and therefore should be drained and turned into something more productive, such as arable land (and this is a long-held perspective, going back at least to the tenth-century Benedictine Reform in England, if not further). During my time as an undergraduate, my university’s wetlands were threatened by the city’s desire to build a highway right through the middle (yeah, it happened). Wetlands are easily dismissed, and they shouldn’t be.

We then turned back to Tolkien’s The Two Towers to re-examine Chapter II, “The Passage of the Marshes.” Tolkien did not settle on one term, but rather uses a variety: “bog,” “fens,” “mires,” “marshes.” Such a place is, I think, difficult to describe, and this is reflected in Tolkien’s language. What seems to be a uniform landscape (particularly in the cinematic depictions) is really quite diverse. Of course, there is little color (the “only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters”), and the sun fails to give any hint of warmth. There is an absence of birds (often a marker of ecological problems), but there is the movement of air, movement in the water. There is life.

So must we read the passage through the Dead Marshes as a funereal experience? The presence of dead grasses and rotting reeds might lead us to answer, “yes,” but it’s winter. Might the fact that the plants are “rotting” suggest that new life can be restored? That this remains a place of change? There is so much activity in these pages. The present participle of “rotting” reveals ongoing activity and change; the water becomes personified–it is “sullen”; and the weeds are “livid.” After all, the name “The Dead Marshes” is merely a mortal interpretation of natural landscape.

To return to Layamon and his marshes–in a sense, death by marsh may have been seen as a sort of obliteration in the literal sense–an erasure of one’s identity. Given that by mutilating the men’s female kin, Arthur intends to prevent future generations from being created (“‘swa ich wulle al for-don; þat cun þat he of com'” (11400)), so it may be that by condemning the men to a burial in the marshes–a place of constant change–he removes them from the pages of history, their tombs never to be found (at least, not until centuries later). Marshes were seen by some during the medieval period as places that either had never felt the touch of civilization or had overcome it to return to a purer state, so they seem an appropriate place for those who threatened Arthur’s rule to be swallowed up by them.

But at the same time, as threatening as these wetlands may have been to some during the medieval period, their presence in Layamon’s Brut shows that not all viewed marshes as places to avoid. For Arthur, these places were merely an extension of his power, his ability to dominate all that he looks upon. And from an ecological viewpoint, the use of the marshes as a repository for the dead would ultimately benefit the land–not only by removing obstacles from Arthur’s power (and thus potentially avoiding or shortening conflicts), but by capturing nutrients from decaying bodies and recycling them though uptake by plants and insects.

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.

Copses and Cathedrals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A religious place.

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

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

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

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

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

Then durken the dere in the dymme skuwes,
That for drede of the deth droupes the do.
And by the stremys so strange that swftly swoghes
Thai werray the wilde and worchen hem wo.
The huntes thei halowe, in hurstes and huwes,
And till thaire riste raches relyes on the ro. (53-58)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolkien’s translation:

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

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

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

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