a taxonomy of creatures in the second-family bestiary

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  • A Taxonomy of Creatures in the Second-Family Bestiary

    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.

    --Second-Family Bestiary MS Additional 11283

    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

    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.

  • Why taxonomy?

    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.

    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.

    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

  • 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.

    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

    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 se