A Taxonomy of Creatures in the Second-Family Bestiary

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<ul><li><p>A Taxonomy of Creatures in the Second-Family Bestiary</p><p>There is an animal that in Latin is called the goat (caper), because it seeks (captet)harsh places; some call them caprea, from 'noisy' (crepita). These are the wildcaprea that the Greeks call dorcas, because they have very sharp vision. They livein the high mountains, and they know from far off that people are approaching,whether they be hunters or travelers. Thus the Lord Jesus Christ loves the highmountains, that is, the prophets and apostles, as it is said in the Song of Songs,Behold, my kinsman, like a goat, cometh leaping upon the mountains, skippingover the hills.</p><p>--Second-Family Bestiary MS Additional 11283</p><p>The Goat, a noisy wild beast that resembles Jesus in its acute sight and its descent frommountains to valleys, introduces the interpretive challenges that the second-familybestiaries offer their readers and listeners.1 The bestiaries' sources are disparate, and itcan seem that no governing principle was shaping the natural lore they drew fromClassical scholarship on the one hand, and on the other, the mystical and didacticreadings of nature they adapted from Physiologus and Ambrose's Hexameron. A furthersecond-family source, Isidore's Etymologies, inspired their organization of entries onmore than a hundred animals into larger groups and subgroups such as beasts, birds, fish,and serpents. About fifty second-family manuscripts survive; their influence stretchesfrom monastic milieus to sermons for laypeople, educational settings, and aristocraticcourts.2</p><p>What are these works aiming to accomplish? Scholars have tended to pose thisquestion in dichotomous terms, assuming that the preoccupation with animalcharacteristics and the preoccupation with figurative meaning are competing interests inthe bestiaries. I quote from two strong versions on each side: Craig Baker concludes that'The physical reality of animals has no interest in itself [for the bestiaries]: animals areonly of value insofar as they are signs for other things. The interpretation of animalsyields a superior truth, because it explains the will of God'.3 In contrast, zoologistsWilma George and Brunsdon Yapp call the bestiaries 'textbooks' of natural history, 'not,as they are generally held to be, merely compendia of old wives' tales and religioussymbolism, amusing or boring according to your taste, but documents that are importantfor any serious history of medieval science.'4 These scholars' conflicting visionsprivilege some of the bestiaries' sources over others-either the moralizing sources or theclassical scientific writings are seen as predominant. I'd like to explore instead thepossibility that the second-family bestiaries' physical, moral, and spiritual contents allcontribute to a single discourse on animals. The bestiaries' project, I propose, is centrallyand thoughtfully taxonomic. These works are often said to be 'compilations' of materialfrom diverse sources, but as medievalists know, 'compilation' in this period can involveextensive reorganizing, rejecting, and revising of source materials.5 My premise tonight isthat what appears in a bestiary manuscript does not appear only because it can be foundin a source, but because it contributes something relevant to the compiler's view of theanimal realm. The bestiaries work out a world view by working out a classification of theworld's creatures.</p></li><li><p>Why taxonomy?</p><p>A first objection to my thesis might be that it is anachronistic to use the concept of'taxonomy' to think about a medieval work. But pondering the organization of thecreatures predates its modem isolation from moral thought and its modem elaboration asan academic specialty. Aristotle, a source for the bestiaries through late classicalintermediaries, classified the animals he described, and the biblical Genesis sketches aclassification as well. It was not taxonomic thought but the field of academic taxonomythat emerged around the time of Linnaeus.6 Taxonomy offers an attractive way into thesecond-family bestiaries' project, redirecting attention away from the dichotomy betweeneach animal and its moralization, and toward the complex interrelations of all God'screatures.</p><p>The most familiar meaning of taxonomy is the classification of living things'according to their kinds' (as Linnaeus writessee handout), sorting out their differencesand similarities.7 But inherent in classification must be some theory of how to classify, sothat G.G. Simpson's introductory manual defines taxonomy as 'the theoretical study ofclassification, including its bases, principles, procedures, and rules.'8 Overt or implicittheorization is inherent to taxonomy because nature offers no single, unchallengedground on which to classify its inconceivable complexity. Thus every taxonomy of natureis embedded in human history: the available data, paradigms, beliefs, and strategiescondition the possibilities for classification.9 When Linnaeus put humans in an order of'primates' that included apes and monkeys, he was moving against the contemporaryscholastic conviction that humans were profoundly different from all other animals. Today his classifying of humans with apes is less disturbing than it was in 1758, and histerm 'primates' ('first') seems comically apologetic for having done so. Bringing thisexample up to the present, information derived from DNA analysis is challenging theexclusion of chimpanzees from the genus Homo. Although chimpanzees are currentlyclassified as primates of the genus Pan, their DNA shows more recent divergence fromhumans, at 5 to 6 million years, than divergences admitted in other genera. DerekWildman, Morris Goodman, and their associates argue that the principle of 'most recentcommon ancestor' should determine the boundaries of each genus, now that DNAanalysis can reveal this information.11 Opponents of enlarging genus Homo argue thatother criteria including brain size and locomotion should be weighed against the DNAevidence, such that chimpanzees should remain in genus Pan.12 Without disagreeing onthe available data, these scientists disagree on which data count, or count most, inclassifying chimpanzees. Genus Pan and genus Homo do not exist in nature, but inobservation and analysis of nature.</p><p>Whereas taxonomies of the enlightenment began to restrict their scope to physicaltraits alone, the bestiaries and all pre-modem writing on nature embraced an array ofclassifications by habitat, physical appearance, usefulness, size, and good and evilnatures: Aristotle, attentive as he was to physical traits, called the lion 'noble and braveand high-bred', the fox 'mischievous and wicked', and snakes 'mean and scheming'.13 Ahelpful analogy for pre-modem taxonomies may be Jorge Luis Borges' short essay on the'Analytical Language of John Wilkins.' Among several systems that attempt to accountfor all that exists, Borges invents 'a certain Chinese encyclopedia' where 'it is written</p></li><li><p>that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c)those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs,(h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad,(j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (1) others, (m)those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.The encyclopedia's 'Chinese' origin signals that strange as it is, it is not unsystematic orbenighted. Indeed Borges' point about the encyclopedia and his other inventedtaxonomies is that 'there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary.... Wemust conjecture the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonymies of God'ssecret dictionary.'15 Within his imagined Chinese culture, a category for 'those that havejust broken a flower vase' must somehow make sense. Similarly, there is a rationale inthe second-family bestiaries for classifying whales among the fishes and bats among thebirds, but it is not a rationale that survives in taxonomies today.</p><p>Borges' encyclopedia helps introduce the bestiaries in another way as well: likethe bestiaries, it embraces modes of classification that are inequivalent with one another.The bestiaries treat real and mythical creatures together (Elephant next to Griffin and Apenext to Bonnacon) just as Borges' suckling pig appears next to mermaids. Is neithercreature fabulous, or is the following category, 'fabulous ones', somehow closed to thefabulous mermaids? Some categories in Borges' encyclopedia contain a single species,others more than one, and others appear to overlap. The bestiaries encompass an entry onSerpents as well as others on Viper and Asp. The Crocodile appears twice, with bothbeasts and fishes, reflecting its wild ferocity as well as its aquatic habitat. Othercategories in Borges' encyclopedia are based on animals' relations to humans: 'trained','stray', and 'owned by the Emperor.' John Hollander writes of the 'Chineseencyclopedia' what today's readers might say of the bestiary: 'each accruing categoryseems to mock the very mode of the preceding ones.'16</p><p>In his encyclopedia's incommensurate classifications, Borges represents theocculted strangeness of an alien taxonomy, but also the universal problem of what shouldcount in classification. As taxonomies aspire to provide an authoritative account of agiven animal, they are pressed toward inclusiveness, but the more kinds of informationthey encompass, the less neatly systematic they become. In searching out 'the words, thedefinitions, the etymologies, the synonymies of God's secret dictionary', the second-family bestiaries assemble more and less compatible sources of information. The problemof inclusiveness versus parsimony still challenges taxonomy, as illustrated by the debateover reclassifying chimpanzees, but in general the scientific taxonomists of recentcenturies draw selectively and consistently on physical data, aiming to establish internallycoherent classifications. The bestiaries take the opposite approach. Their capaciousnessrespects all aspects of God's creative act, from the physical through the behavioral to thetranscendently spiritual.</p><p>Five traits to bestiary classification:</p><p>(1) It's capacious, not parsimonious</p><p>The bestiaries' creatures are ontologically complex: they are by turns physical andfigural, wonderful and instructive, enmeshed in narratives and good to eat. These diverse</p></li><li><p>measures are challenging to conceive in one articulated system of classification. If thebestiary's taxonomy could be pictured, its representation would require at least threedimensions, not the two dimensions needed for the neatly branching diagrams of lateranimal taxonomies. The bestiary's system might be visualized as several intersectingplanes, whose surfaces bear single schemes of distinction (by habitats, or by enmities)and whose nodes of intersection with other planes would represent a single species in allits distinctiveness. No doubt each plane would curve and twist in order to accomplish itsmany intersections, or fold on itself like a Moebius strip or the staircases in an Escherdrawing.17 Imagining such an interwoven set of interrelations has precedent in theBiblical Genesis.</p><p>On the fifth day, according to the Vulgate, 'God created the great whales, andevery living and moving creature which the waters brought forth, according to theirkinds, and every winged fowl according to its kind'. On the sixth, 'God made the beastsof the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and every thing that creepeth on the earthafter its kind'.18 In these subdivisions of the creatures, habitat (land, sea, or air) andlocomotion (flying versus creeping) both define groups of creatures, as does somedifference between the land's 'bestias', 'iumenta', and 'reptilia'. On what ground arebeasts, cattle, and creeping things distinct from one another? If beasts are wild and cattletame, creeping things are an obscure third term. If beasts are carnivores and cattleherbivores, creeping creatures share something with each, since some creepers arecarnivorous and others herbivorous. Or are creepers small, the other two large? Hoveringtogether in the realm of possibility, these criteria make the beasts, cattle, and creepersstrongly intuitive groupings. But no single principle clearly guides distinction-making.19</p><p>In the bestiaries, size, habitat, wildness or tameness, and locomotion are majordescriptive criteria. Others are also in play, notably the moral connections to which I'llturn soon, and a projection of social distinctions onto nature: the eagle is 'royal', thebasilisk is 'king of serpents', the bat is 'low-born'. The bestiaries also look to Genesis asthey organize animals into groups. They echo but invert the fifth and sixth days,beginning not with sea creatures but with 'beasts'; then comes a group corresponding tothe 'cattle' of Genesis; next comes a group of birds including bats and beescorresponding to the 'flying things' (yolatilia) of the fifth day in Genesis, then a group ofserpents and other creeping things such as salamander and newt, and next a group offishes including cetaceans and amphibians ('every living and moving creature which thewaters brought forth'). In most of the manuscripts, the bestiaries' basis in Genesisextends to brief evocations of days preceding and following the fifth and sixth: after thelast of the fishes come one entry on kinds of trees and two on the anatomy and ages of'man.' A final entry on fire-stones warns that 'the love of women, whose sin began at thebeginning, that is with Adam, rages to the present time'. These final chapters accept that'homo est animal', with a place in the bestiary's description of all God's creatures.20</p><p>(2) how do humans figure in the bestiaries' classifications?</p><p>Inflecting every account of 'natures' in the bestiary is the conviction that animalsare for human use. The bestiary cuts humankind so decisively from other animals that'other' becomes implicit in the term 'animals'even though 'homo est animal' withentries of his own. The subjugation of other animals defines humankind in Genesis 1:</p></li><li><p>verse 26: 'and [God] said: Let us make man to our image and likeness, and let him havedominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the wholeearth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth'. Exegesis of this verseproposes that 'let him have dominion' explains just how man is made in God's 'imageand likeness'. Augustine writes that 'God gave to man when He created him a power overthe lower animals which he did not lose when he sinned.... He is able to dominate thesecreatures by the power of reason and not just by physical force.'21</p><p>In the bestiaries, a first consequence of dominion is that it measures animals interms of their material usefulness. Different relations to humans subdivide the iumenta ofthe Vulgate Genesis into animals that carry burdens, animals that are eaten, and animalsthat are not under...</p></li></ul>