Throughout all of the texts we have read this semester, there was a common theme of religion and nature. Using specific evidence from the text bring up how a certain character attempted to go against nature or religion. Did they ultimately end up failing or succeeding? Explain the situation in which they attempted this and analyze their ending.
For Part 1:
In class we read Steel’s essay “With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf-Child of Hesse” in relation to the “Disputation between the Body and the Worms”. With the main point of “human exceptionalism” and “subject vs object” in mind, consider how this essay can be applied instead to either the Franklin’s Tale, The Tain, or one of the Shepherd’s plays. Try to think beyond just the characters owning animals, though you can include this as part of your answer.
The relationship between humankind and nature is a complicated one. Comment one of the ways man and nature respond to the other. Do the readings we covered support a co-dependent relationship between man and nature? Does one reign over the other? Or are we all equal in the universe despite mankind’s attempts to rule over nature? Pick one or two of the readings from this semester as evidence to support your claims.
Several of the works we have studied contain divine or at least supernatural female figures like Medb, Morgan le Fay, Fortune, Natura, and Venus. Many of them, though not all, are depicted negatively or reflect derogatory views of women. Similarly, nature in medieval stories trends to be treacherous and fickle. How do these views interact; do views of women affect medieval views of nature, or vice versa? How does this manifest in the texts we have read?
In “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” the narrator’s isolation is augmented by their struggles with great attention to the natural world around them. Is nature in either work posed against the human figure? How is nature characterized in terms of the divine or supernatural?
In the final scenes of the Tain, we see the tensions culminate in a final battle, as is the case in most of the other epics we’ve discussed in class. Medb tells Fergus that they have been put to shame, to which Fergus responds, “we have followed the rump of a misguiding woman. It is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed.” (251). How does this characterize the women of the epic versus the men – and how does this characterize Medb versus Morrigan? Would the epic work as well without them present?
The Táin seems to meld the natural with the supernatural. The Morrigan’s powers, the two bulls, Cúchullain’s “lineage”, and many of his feats all mix these two elements.
Do you think this mixing delegitimizes nature, or affords it more “power”? What do you think the significance of this relationship is?
In much of Marie de France’s work, nature plays a central role to the story, whether it be in the fables with animals playing the primary roles, or whether it is her lais that often feature human-animal hybrids or magical plants, and often times, that nature is represented as mystical or somewhat supernatural. It is my intention to look at various scenes from her lais to understand the connection between her work and nature, and if that nature is ultimately supernatural or much more natural than we think. I argue that her lais can be read as a reflection of Medieval society’s usage of healing herbs, a product of a practical and rational society that is still deeply connected to nature, rather than a mystery work of the supernatural.
The two lais I will focus the majority of my time are “Eliduc” and “Chevrefoil.” For “Cheverfoil,” I will be analyzing the relationship of Tristan and Isolde as they are likened to the honeysuckle and hazel, usually seen as a symbol for their “unnatural” love for one another and the substitution of that comparison as a reason for their adultery, rather than a magical position as is normally in the story’s tradition. Ewa Slojka’s, “Nature and the Unnatural in Marie De France’s Chevrefoil,” provided the inspiration for investigating the possibilities of a natural, as opposed to supernatural, reading of the power of plant life in the lais. For Eliduc, I will be paying attention to the scene in which the weasels bring a red flower that is “magically” able to resurrect Guilliadon from her tragic death. I will be using Danielle Gurevitch’s chapter, “The Weasel, the Rose and Life after Death,” as the main springboard for this section of the essay, as this source discusses the possibility of Guilliadon’s “death” as being simply a psychological reaction to the loos of Eliduc and the rose as being simply an herbal remedy for this hysteria.
I will also put these two stories into the context of the day, using historical sources to translate an idea of how the Medieval Britain and France saw the art of healing and medicine men/women. For some, it was an act of science, for others of God, and still others and act of the supernatural. Even the different types of practitioners were thought of as more or less scientific. With the awareness that this was a scientific practice in a world pre-Scientific Revolution, we can then comprehend why the characters who either live in or were created from a Christian culture are able to coexist with these seemingly magical items, and that instead of actions based on superstition, we are seeing acts of a highly sophisticated and rational civilization.
Man Vs. Wild: Animal Transformation in Medieval Literature
Throughout much of my reading of medieval literature, there have been a couple of concepts that repeat themselves frequently. One such concept lies in the idea of human-animal transformations, a phenomenon that we see repeated in a great deal of literature. I want to examine a couple of facets of this. Particularly, I would like to focus on the fact that women were not “allowed” to transform into animals of any sort, while men are often featured as central characters with this quality. What exactly does this mean? Are men “allowed” to transform into animals because this is seen as a manifestation of their truer selves, while women are discouraged from exploring this more primal side? Or is it a method of protection, where women are seen as too fragile to withstand such a transformation? What do the animals that men often change into – typically wolves – mean about the men in question? Is it an expression of their truer, purer selves? I would also like to examine what this means in terms of how medieval people felt about the body and the soul. There are a lot of concepts in the research I have conducted regarding duality and fragmentation of the human soul. The idea that there was not just one soul, and that it was not attached to any particular body, adds another layer of interest – do women only have one soul, and one body, while men have more than one? Animal transformation lends itself well to these ideas, particularly on the male-female contrast. Some of the works that I plan to use include select essays from Carolyn Bynum Walker, (a prominent scholar of medieval literature), from her book, Fragmentation and Redemption, which seeks to answer questions regarding animal transformation and the male-female dynamic at play. Primary sources I will be utilizing include Marie de France’s Yonec and Bisclavret, and several selections from Gerald of Wales’ History and Topography.