Topics in Medieval Studies: Premodern Animals (c.500-c.1500)
From St. Cuthbert, whose freezing feet were warmed by otters, to St. Guinefort, a miracle-performing greyhound in 13th-century France, to Melusine, the half-fish, half-woman ancestress of the house of Luxembourg (now the Starbucks logo), medieval narratives are deeply inventive in their portrayal of human-animal interactions. This course introduces students to critical animals studies via medieval literature and culture. We will read a range of genres, from philosophical commentaries on Aristotle and theological commentaries on Noah’s ark to werewolf poems, beast fables, political satires, saints’ lives, chivalric romances, bestiaries, natural encyclopaedias, dietary treatises and travel narratives.
Among the many topics we will explore are the following: animals in premodern law; comfort and companion animals; vegetarianism across religious cultures; animal symbolism and human virtue; taxonomies of species in relation to race, gender, and class; literary animals and political subversion; menageries and collecting across medieval Europe, the Near East, and Asia; medieval notions of hybridity, compositeness, trans-species identity, and interspecies relationships; art and the global traffic in animals (e.g., ivory, parchment); European encounters with New World animals; and the legacy of medieval animals in contemporary philosophy and media.
No prior knowledge of medieval literature is required. Students from all disciplines are welcome.