The Biennial Chaucer Lecture: For the Birds
By Susan Crane
Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Vol.29 (2007)
Introduction: My title’s dismissive cliche, “that’s for the birds,” reflects the low status that creatures other than human have held in literary and wider cultural studies. At the same time, my title claims a contribution on this low-status question, which I think gets set aside because it’s so complex, rather than so unimportant. Animals (conventional shorthand for animals other than human) have myriad, sometimes contradictory uses in medieval as in modern culture. A swan can be a dish at dinner, or an ancestor represented in a crest and seal, or a sign of good luck for sailors. In The Squire’s Tale, Chaucer draws on the genre of romance as a way into thinking about the cultural place of falcons. He presents the peregrine falcon of this tale as richly symbolic, but also as a living bird, raising the issue of species difference and the question of how to respond to this difference—what Chaucer would call difference of “kynde.”
For such a project, the genre of romance has several facilitating strengths. The genre’s appreciation for exotic encounters, its worldly rather than theological commitments, and its easy suspension of ordinary realities allow for presenting contact with animals in positive terms. Bevis of Hamtoun and Guy of Warwick, both cited in Sir Thopas, provide typical examples of such contact. Bevis’s horse Arundel is not only his partner in battle but an independent actor on Bevis’s behalf. At one point Arundel is nearly hanged for murdering one of Bevis’s enemies, but Bevis prefers exile with his horse to life in England without him. Bevis names his principal manor after his horse, and he, horse, and wife die on the same day. Guy of Warwick makes an alliance with a lion he rescues from a dragon. The lion follows Guy everywhere, fasts when Guy is ill, and drags himself to Guy’s side to die of an enemy’s wounds: “His hondes he gan to licky: þat was his loue, sikerly.” Guy’s sorrow nearly splits his heart, and he very soon splits the killer “Fram þe heued doun to þe fot.” In these romances, a powerful animal’s devotion reflects well on the hero, and the hero’s responding devotion also reflects well on him, even when it puts his life and his patrimony at risk.