Resident Aliens: The Literary Ecology of Medieval Mice

Resident Aliens: The Literary Ecology of Medieval Mice

By Lisa Kiser

Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media, edited by Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson (Ohio State University Press, 2015)

Mouse in British Library MS Royal 12 C XIX f. 37

Introduction: Mice appear in many medieval texts, but, as when seeking them out in our houses, we must often expose their hiding places to bring them to light. Not surprisingly, in the Middle Ages mice had very bad reputations as invaders of human space, as pilferers and contaminators of people’s food, and as instigators of fear quite disproportionate to their tiny size. Indeed, medieval culture’s intense disapproval of mice was shared by the mightiest theologians and the poorest peasant alike members of all stations feeing strongly enough about this animal to leave behind traces of their disdain.

This essay will analyze some specific works in medieval literature, mainly fables, that employ mice in major roles, demonstrating that the depiction of the behavior of mice in the se fables tells us about medieval folk beliefs concerning animal-human relationships, natural and unnatural habitats, environmental niches, and the presence of a food chain that included both animals and humans within it. Over and above containing many widely understood social attitudes, then, fabular literature can also serve as an unsuspected source of knowledge about medieval environmental thought.

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