medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Gaston Phoebus - Livre de la Chasse
Deer hunting season started this week-end in our fine state! And how do I know such a thing? Because the kids came home from school on Monday with reports from their buddies (in 4th and 2nd grade) of having killed a "first buck." "What's a buck?" said Iris, clearly curious that this kind of thing is even possible, but relieved to find out it's not mandatory. "Why do they call it 'game'? It's hardly a game for the animal" said Oliver, more shocked, more petulantly. How to explain it all? The deer stands in the trees (cowards!), the outfits (ack!), the insane firepower (around children!?!?). So yes, there's a lot I don't understand about modern hunting, but I know enough to feel the excitement in the air when the season "kicks off." We do have deer absolutely everywhere here (and the dog to the left pulling is pretty much Sawyer at a deer sighting which, this morning, we got from all sides - seven (7!) seen!); and some people do eat the meat (a local restaurant was shut down for three months when authorities were tipped off that the kitchen was being used to process deer). But despite all that, it still seems weird and crazy to me. Do deer stand hunters use dogs? Medieval hunting was, of course, a major part of the human-hound relationship (a phrase I grew to love in research this summer), and we see up above an aristocrat's huntsman being led by a very eager dog (on a leash?! wrapped around the man's left wrist, just like we do!) undoubtedly towards prey. Deer, boar, fox, if you are to believe Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were the most popular hunted. But back to the dog - it's fascinating to think of the connection between human and hound in hunting: the communication between the two, the distribution of knowledge between the two. Who's getting pleasure here? How do we ask questions of animal agency within a historical (as opposed to just activist) framework?
Saint Guinefort legend, 15th c.
Because Bill Clinton is coming to campus and speaking at 3 p.m. on Friday, all 2:50 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. classes have been canceled, and so I rearranged my syllabus to add on two more days to our investigations of "Nature" in the Gothic class (which meets at 1:40 p.m.). This means no discussion of Roland the Farter (sigh) and other ribald entertainments. But the students wanted to stay with the nature material, anyway, having been completely captivated by Jeffrey Cohen's "Stories of Stone" piece, and wanting to ask more questions of the agency of non-human entities. Enter: Karl Steel and "How to Make a Human" (the Exemplaria article - as a student has my copy of the book and I couldn't get it back in time to post it!). Cohen and Steel's wonderful works wound up framing the older, and differently methodologized (and motivated) book by Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound; Saint Guinefort, healer of children since the 13th century (1983). And with terrific results. There were questions about class perceptions of animals (Steel deals with, among other things, a clerical text that proves human superiority (and worthiness of a soul and immortality) through humans' ability to dominate animals; while Schmitt explores a healing site visited by peasant woman with sick children that had sprung up over the grave of a greyhound unjustly killed by its knightly owner who thought the dog had killed his child, when in fact the dog's mouth was bloody because it had killed a snake that was approaching the child in his cradle). There were questions about what modern distinctions we use to preserve the divide between human and animal (the medieval one is soul; the modern one? reason, yes, but increasingly humans without reason (coma, developmental disorders) are better protected than intelligent animals, so if not reason then...?). And there were questions about what kind of domination of animals follows from absolving animals of moral responsibility (nicely challenged by those famous animal trials in the Middle Ages that do hold animals (sometimes their owners) morally responsible for a crime). It all made for happy hunting of ideas. Ok, sometimes quite tormented hunting of ideas.
Blind Musician and His Dog
It also led to some hunting of images of animals in relationships with humans. This image really surprised me (although I don't think it should): there's a blind musician to the left with a dog who holds a begging bowl for its owner. A medieval seeing eye dog? I find "service animals" (like seeing eye dogs, or dogs that comfort traumatized witnesses during trials, or dogs that help autistic kids) incredibly sympathetic and good creatures. With a selflessness, in some ways, and a definite altruism - do they feel empathy for those they help? Do they feel good helping, the way we might? The questions have to be the point, since the answers are unattainable.
Mass of St. Gregory
And so to end with a canine conundrum, this one from a Book of Hours whose central image depics the Mass of St. Gregory (in which Christ as the Man of Sorrows, very bloody and very present appears), while the foreground tucks a praying nun into the right corner, and places a dog staring straight out at us on the steps leading to the central scene. It appears to be a pampered pet (is that a cultivated mustache?) and fluffy and well-fed. Is it there to create space? Speak to the social status of the manuscript's owner? Connect our lived space with the imagined space of Saint Gregory? Be cute? Make us wonder? Is he a distant cousin of the fly on the ledge of a Portrait of a Carthusian Monk by Petrus Christus, there to remind us of life's ephemeralities? Small and poised as he may be, he initiated a hunt for meaning that will hold me and the students until next we meet, post-Clinton.