In this course, we’ve often alluded to the relationship between Nature and humanity in the Middle Ages, questioned whether it is holy or pagan, or something else entirely. Cohen introduces the idea of “fantasy bodies”, using the analogy of Brian Jacques’ “Redwall” novels, to point out how medieval writers went beyond the boundaries of their oft-restricted identities in society. He also gives many examples, such as the hyena, the weasel, and the snake to display not just medieval bigotry, but also their worldview. According to Cohen, what are the factors that distinguish animal bodies with human characteristics vs humans in animal bodies? In what ways do we relate to this medieval mentality of using animal-as-allegory through contemporary writing?
Just as in Exodus, where the Hebrews are made to spend 40 years wandering in the desert before they reach the Promised Land, Saint Brendan and his monks are made to face the challenges of the ocean and unknown islands for seven years, during which they are continually reminded of God’s ultimate providence.
Since they return to the same islands (and a whale) to celebrate Holy Week and Christmas, it’s clear that the seven years is not meant to suggest that the island they seek is so far away it takes seven years to get there. What is it about the desert and the ocean both, that make these landscapes compelling and meaningful in journey stories like these? What does the depiction of the sea as a proving grounds say about the poet’s view of nature, and humanity’s relationship to it?
This lai addresses an aspect of love that we have not seen as strongly represented in Marie’s other works- the religious themes of the work play a large role in the plot. The ending in particular was an interesting resolution to the main conflict regarding romantic love. What does this say about how Marie viewed religious love versus romantic love? What does it say about the role of women in each?
What significance does the supernatural ability of the herb granted by the weasels have in the story of Eliduc? What does this say about how Marie de France feels about nature in general with regards to human life and death?
A main feature of both lais is the concept of a woman feeling trapped in her marriage and turning to infidelity as a solution. While both situations vary greatly, the unfaithful woman is ultimately punished in the end of the story. What does this treatment of infidelity say about the general attitude, or perhaps Marie’s attitude, towards women and their part in courtly love rituals?
Both stories show mythical beings that have the physical form of animals (nature) and yet embody very human characteristics. What significance does the hybridity of each creature (nature and human) hold and what does this imply about medieval attitudes about nature?
In Guigemar, it is a deer, part of nature, who curses him with the words “The pain an anguish she shall have – greater than ever woman has known – shall wound you too and be your own. Many shall marvel and be aghast – lovers present, and lovers past, lovers who will love by and by. Now go: leave me to die.” [116-122] However, this curse ultimately leads to Guigemar’s openness to finding love and his eventual happiness. How does Marie de France’s portrayal of nature as the activating force in Guigemar’s romantic journey align with more contemporary works regarding nature? How is it nature portrayed differently here?
The lovers in Guigemar certainly make choices and take action of one sort or another in the course of the story, but they also depend upon other agents to produce their love story. Without the ship, the stag, the shirt, the belt, their story would necessarily be quite different. Choose one of these nonhuman figures and investigate, then describe, its influence on the course of love that is clearly at the center of the narrative.
Later in the chapter Gerrard tackles the challenge ecocriticism sees in constructionism, a perspective prevalent in cultural analysis during the past quarter century. He notes that “The challenge for ecocritics is to keep one eye on the ways in which ‘nature’ is always in some ways culturally constructed, and the other on the fact that nature really exists” (10). In what ways can nature, typically considered the ‘opposite’ of culture, be “culturally constructed”? As ever, an example or two would be useful.
Gerrard claims that “As ecocritics seek to offer a truly transformative discourse, enabling us to analyse and criticise the world in which we live, attention is increasingly given to the broad range of cultural processes and products in which, and through which, the complex negotiations of nature and culture take place” (5). How might you explain what he refers to with “the broad range of cultural processes and products in which, and through which, the complex negotiations of nature and culture take place”? Offer an example or two to demonstrate your understanding of what he’s referring to here.