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Guillaume de Palerne in the lens of animal studies

Introduction : Animal Studiesand Guillaume de Palerne

Sarah Kay et Peggy McCracken
p. 323-330

Résumés

Cette Introduction vise à situer le roman de Guillaume de Palerne dans le contexte des « études animales ».

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  • 1  D. J. Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005, p. 3.
  • 2  J. Derrida, L’animal que donc je suis, Paris, Galilée, 2006, p. 18: “Souvent je me demande, moi, p (...)

1The inter-continental academic currents that keep medieval studies on the move have for some years been coursing in a direction known as animal studies. Like related and still ongoing movements such as post-colonial studies, this one shuttles between European high theory and more practical, even mundane and domestic questions. In animal studies, people read Derrida, Agamben, and Deleuze while also inquiring what we eat or wear, how we interact with animals in our homes or work, and what we think we are doing as we do so. “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?”, asks D. Haraway, her simple question effectively straddling the gulf between pet-ownership and metaphysics.1 “Who am I to feel embarrassed when my cat sees me naked?”, asks Derrida, her presence in his bathroom precipitating reflection on how humans have throughout history sacrificed other animals to the myth of their own exclusivity.2

2As with post-colonial studies, animal studies have been embraced by scholars of literature while also exciting enthusiasm across the humanities-social science divide – a divide that these days is being increasingly narrowed. The natural sciences are also an important presence in a field of study whose roots include animal activism and direct action against the treatment of experimental animals in laboratories. Haraway, for example, weaves delightedly between zoology or animal ecology and continental philosophy;3 and a successful book series offers detailed interdisciplinary studies of “the historical significance and impact on humans of a wide range of animals”, drawing on science, literature, religion, myth, and daily life.4

  • 5  C. Wolfe, “Moving Forward, Kicking Back”, Postmedieval. A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, 2, (...)
  • 6  It is important to mention the pioneering thesis of Jean Bichon, L’animal dans la littérature fran (...)
  • 7  Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 124, 2009. The cluster “Theories and M (...)
  • 8  “Animal Symposium” cluster, New Medieval Literatures, 12, 2010, p. 117-145.
  • 9  Postmedieval. A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, 2, 1, 2011, “The Animal Turn”, ed. K. Steel (...)
  • 10  Major recent or forthcoming monographs are S. Crane, Animal Encounters in Medieval Britain, Philad (...)

3All this activity has been underway for several decades, at least for the modern period and in the Anglophone world, where animal studies can be traced back to the animal rights movement of the 1980s. In recent years, however, its trajectory has become less political and more philosophical, in line with other manifestations of posthumanism.5 In France, the CNRS group animalittérature was founded in contemporary French studies only in 2007; and medieval participation in animal studies has an even shorter history.6 Landmarks thus far are the clusters of essays that appeared in 2009 in PMLA,7in 2010 in New Medieval Literatures,8 and in 2011 in Postmedieval.9 So far the majority of significant contributors are in Middle English studies rather than in medieval French.10

  • 11  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le roman de la rose, ed. A. Strubel, Paris, Librairie Généra (...)

4Such belatedness is not untypical of medieval studies, but in this case the new turn has produced widespread and enthusiastic involvement, perhaps because the broadly cultural approach of animal studies is so congenial to medievalists. While our opportunities for experimental zoology are circumscribed at best, medievalists have tended not to demarcate literature, in the sense of imaginative writing, from other kinds of texts and so we are already primed to work between disciplines. It comes as no shock to us to read in harness with one another romances, encyclopedias, bas de page,natural philosophy, hunting manuals, heraldry treatises, histories of menageries, costume, or farming, and the many other sources that can help us know about animal life in the Middle Ages: about how humans thought of animals and, equally, how animals may have thought of us. The figure of Nature in Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Roman de la rose has already anticipated this latter question. Commenting on the claim that humans alone within the animal kingdom have the power of speech, she speculates that if the beasts were only able to talk and so achieve self-knowledge they would band together and destroy humanity for having exploited them so ruthlessly: “Tuit vorroient homme estrangler”.11

  • 12  B. Holsinger, op. cit., p. 618-619, citing among others E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and (...)
  • 13  See for example S.-G. Heller, Fashion in Medieval France, Cambridge, Brewer, 2007, p. 6-7.
  • 14  On the animal dimension of parchment, see Holsinger, op. cit., p. 619-21 and S. Kay, “Legible Skin (...)

5Where questions of ontology are concerned, the Middle Ages also constitute an exceptionally, even hallucinatingly, rich source for studying the instability of human and other animal identities. Christian bestiaries, Breton lais and classical tales abound in human-animal hybrids. The animals put on trial by other animals in the Roman de Renart mimic the animals which actually were put on trial in medieval courts.12 Noblemen and women reserved the exclusive right to dress in animals’ furs13 and knights wore coats of arms identifying themselves, as often as not, with animals, while clerks and scribes had the bizarre privilege of reading and writing books on animals’ skins.14 The third estate had, among other tasks, that of looking after animals for the rest of society, for which they were treated as if they were themselves bestes mues.

  • 15  D. Delcourt, L’Éthique du changement dans le roman français du XIIe siècle, Geneva, Droz, 1990; C. (...)
  • 16  L. Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh. Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism, New Haven, CT, Yale Uni (...)
  • 17  As has been the case in interpreting the Lais of Marie de France since at least J. E. Ferrante’s c (...)
  • 18  S. Kay, “Lover as Parrot”, New Medieval Literatures, 2010, 137-145; S. Stanbury, “Posthumanist the (...)

6Metamorphosis from one species to another is an especially tantalizing topic. On the one hand, medieval philosophy is obdurate in denying that substances can change, except miraculously as is the case of the Eucharist.15 On the other, tales of interspecies transformation are ubiquitous in the Middle Ages. Do they challenge the official ontology of the changelessness of species?16 Are they more akin to dreams?17 Or do they fall into the capacious category of the figurative, the bad conscience which haunts animal studies everywhere because of its seeming indifference to animals in themselves except as means of expression for purely human concerns?18

  • 19  Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, p. 94.
  • 20  On the prose Guillaume de Palerne, see Harry F. Williams, “Les versions en prose de Guillaume de P (...)
  • 21  A. Corbellari, “Onirisme et bestialité: Le roman de Guillaume de Palerne”, Neophilologus, 86, 2002 (...)
  • 22  A. Micha, ed., Guillaume de Palerne, roman du XIIIe siècle, Geneva, Droz, 1990. The romance was pu (...)

7However the question is approached, literary scholars interested in animal studies have shown heightened attention to texts featuring metamorphosis, in particular to what C. W. Bynum has identified as the “werewolf renaissance of the twelfth century”19 manifested in a group of werewolf tales which includes the lais Bisclavret and Mélion, and the anonymous Latin Arthur and Gorlagon. It is in this context that the romance of Guillaume de Palerne, recently re-edited, has gained new scholarly attention. The romance was worked into prose in the sixteenth-century and first edited in 1876, but then largely forgotten, until interest in it was revived in no small part by scholars working in critical animal studies.20 Just as, from the 1990s, the hitherto little studied Roman de Silence attracted important criticism inspired by feminist and gender studies, so too this Old French verse romance has now come center stage. As one critic observes, “Guillaume de Palerne pose sur le rapport de l’homme à l’animal des questions aussi profondes et passionnantes que Le Roman de Silence sur le rapport des sexes.”21 Questions about relationships between the human and the animal certainly do seem to be posed in particularly urgent ways by this romance about a werewolf who comes to the aid of the two young lovers, Guillaume and Melior, who disguise themselves as animals to flee the court of Melior’s father, the Emperor of Rome. In Guillaume de Palerne, animal-human transformations are motivated by practical and political concerns, and the experience of becoming animal, particularly for the disguised lovers, is recounted in unusual detail.22

  • 23  Ch. Dunn, The Foundling and the Werewolf: A Literary-Historical Study of Guillaume de Palerne, Tor (...)
  • 24  Bynum, Metamorposis and Identity, p. 108-9.
  • 25  Sconduto, Metamorphoses, p. 126.
  • 26  R. P. Schiff, “Cross-Channel Becomings-Animal: Primal Courtliness in Guillaume de Palerne and Will (...)

8Thus it is that although all the major characters pass as large quadrupeds for much of the action, critical attention to Guillaume de Palerne has focused primarily on the figure of the werewolf. Scholars have debated whether Guillaume de Palerne is derived from one of the lais, or whether all these texts, including Arthur and Gorlagon, derive from similar written or oral sources.23The figure of the werewolf provokes questions about identity – is the werewolf a man, an animal, or a hybrid? For Bynum, Guillaume de Palerne represents the wolf skin as a cover and insists that a human person is underneath. Like other werewolf stories, Guillaume de Palerne uses metamorphosis to explore the concept of change; the portrayal of the human as fully present in the wolf figures the unchanging nature of the embodied human soul.24 Other scholars situate the romance’s engagement with identity in the social and political sphere. According to L. Sconduto, the courtly self-sacrificing wolf challenges Guillaume de Palerne’s aristocratic audience to conform to the high standards of noble sacrifice set by the werewolf.25 In a more theoretically informed study that uses the Deleuzian notion of becoming animal, R. Schiff aligns the werewolf and the lovers disguised in animal skins to argue that Guillaume de Palerne, like its 14th-century English translation, William of Palerne, imagines becoming animal as a ritual passage that confirms the exceptional status of the aristocrat. However, the story also reveals the violence and, especially, the predation on other classes on which such power and identity depend. Schiff reads representations of peasants and workers alongside affirmations of aristocratic privilege in the story, and suggests that they reveal anxious reaction against a weakening of feudal class hierarchies caused by socio-economic mobility.26

  • 27  Dunn claims that the poet reveals a first-hand knowledge of Sicily, The Foundling and the Werwolf,(...)
  • 28  Ch. Dunn, The Foundling and the Werwolf, p. 45; L. Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postco (...)
  • 29  Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies, p. 52.

9Mobility certainly is a theme in the romance, most prominently in the disguised lovers’ flight from Rome to Sicily. Whether or not the descriptions of Sicily suggest that Guillaume de Palerne’s author had first-hand knowledge of the island, the location of the romance in the Norman kingdom may be important for understanding the characters.27 Lampert focuses on Sicily as a place of religious, cultural, and intellectual mixing, and looks for traces of a Norman-Sicilian hybrid culture, as in the figure of Queen Felise’s advisor Moysant, who may represent a learned Muslim, or, Lampert proposes, a converted Jew.28 Suppressed references to the non-Christian cultures at the Norman Sicilian court also re-emerge in the hybrid figures of the werewolf and the disguised lovers, and such transformations, in Lampert’s view, are metaphors for culture in what she calls the “contact zone”.29

  • 30  Corbellari, “Onirisme et bestialité”, p. 359-61.

10The animal-human hybrid characters in Guillaume de Palerne are eventually restored to full humanity. However, A. Corbellari has argued, when read alongside the unusual prominence of dreams in the romance and of animal symbolism in those dreams, the romance suggests the importance of animality, and even of the experience of animality, to the resolution of the drama of hidden identities and hidden desires.30 The romance’s curious representation of human-animal hybrids offers the opportunity to imagine what it is like to be an animal – both for the romance’s characters and its audience. Corbellari notes the “curiosité presque éthologique de la reine”, demonstrated in this character’s unexplained decision to put on a deer skin in which to meet the two disguised lovers who have turned up in her garden disguised as deer.

11If animals are “good to think with”, as Cl. Lévi-Strauss famously asserted, the three essays in this cluster show how Guillaume de Palerne’s experiments in thinking the animal alongside the human – or more specifically the human inside the animal – contribute to, and in some cases radically disturb, some fundamental ways of conceptualizing human concerns.

12In “’Quel beste ceste piax acuevre’: Idyll and the Animal in Guillaume de Palerne’s Family Romance”, B. Behrmann engages with one of the earliest critical treatments of Guillaume de Palerne, which associates it with the roman idyllique. Developing the theme of childhood, especially in relation to the paternal function as it is represented in a number of genres, Behrmann draws on Freud’s paper on the family romance to show how its outlines are transformed when the family is represented as semi-animal. At stake is the child’s experimentation not only with his identity but with identity as such as a human category, since humanity is recognized as precariously sharing the same terrain as non-human animals. In particular, Behrmann shows, the werewolf’s assumption of a fatherly relation to the young couple confounds the psychoanalytical distinction between Imaginary (shared with animals) and Symbolic (exclusively human).

13The idea of a distinctively human symbolic order is challenged also by H. R. Miller in her “‘Hey, you look like a prince!’ Ideology and Mutual Subject Recognition in Guillaume de Palerne”. Althusser’s theory of Ideology accounts for humans as subjects within a social and political order by supposing that, while their symbolic inscription as subjects in fact goes back before their birth, it is ratified and given meaning by the process of mutual recognition in which the subject willingly identifies himself as the one who is hailed by others. Initially, Miller shows, the experiences of the young Guillaume confirm the mechanism of hailing, since his nobility is recognizable to other nobles like himself. His lack of known paternity, however, means that this recognition lacks symbolic anchorage and cannot be rewarded with marriage. The scenes where he is disguised as a bear or a deer provoke a new phase of mutual (mis)recognition between Guillaume and the werewolf, out of which the hero eventually produces a new symbolic inscription of himself as the Knight of the Wolf. Through his exploits in that role his membership of the Sicilian royal family is eventually recognized and he at last assumes the place that was always already his.

14The paradox whereby the prince must pass through animality in order to claim his sovereignty is the central concern of the third of these three essays, P. McCracken’s “Skin and Sovereignty in Guillaume de Palerne”. McCracken focuses our attention on the ambiguity of the protagonists’ bodies. When the young lovers are clothed in animal skins, their human hands stand out against the ground of the animal hide; when the werewolf tries to communicate with the Sicilian queen and his Spanish family, his attempts at meaningful gesture are at odds with his distinctively animal paws. In both cases, McCracken shows, it is not just humanity that is here read alongside the animal, but human rulership: both Alfonso the werewolf and Guillaume de Palerne in his animal disguises (and indeed the Sicilian queen in her doe skin) illustrate the conjoining of the two extremes of “the beast” and “the sovereign” that formed the theme of Derrida’s last seminar; they dramatize the way the symbolic, social order relies for its survival on what it excludes.

15These essays collectively belong in the field of animal studies because they show that animals matter in, count toward, and in some ways render unanswerable, such fundamental and far-reaching questions as individual, family, and social identity; recognition; inclusion; and law.

Notes

1  D. J. Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005, p. 3.

2  J. Derrida, L’animal que donc je suis, Paris, Galilée, 2006, p. 18: “Souvent je me demande, moi, pour voir, qui je suis – et qui je suis au moment où, surpris nu, en silence, par le regard d’un animal, par exemple, les yeux d’un chat, j’ai du mal, oui, du mal à surmonter une gêne”.

3  Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 19-35.

4  Taken from http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/series.html?id=1,the website of Reaktion Books, consulted on 3/19/2012.

5  C. Wolfe, “Moving Forward, Kicking Back”, Postmedieval. A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, 2, 2011, p. 1-12.

6  It is important to mention the pioneering thesis of Jean Bichon, L’animal dans la littérature française au XIIe et XIIIe siècles, Lille, Service de reproduction des thèses, Université de Lille III, 1976, and other significant publications such as L’animal exemplaire au Moyen Age (Ve – XVe siècle), éd. J. Berlioz and M. A. Polo de Beaulieuwith P. Collomb, Rennes, Presses Universitaires, 1999.

7  Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 124, 2009. The cluster “Theories and Methodologies. Medieval Studies in the Twenty-first Century” includes Bruce Holsinger, “Of Pigs and Parchment. Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal”, p. 616-623, and occurs alongside the important cluster “Theories and Methodologies. Animal Studies”, p. 472-563, in which most of the participants are modernists.

8  “Animal Symposium” cluster, New Medieval Literatures, 12, 2010, p. 117-145.

9  Postmedieval. A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, 2, 1, 2011, “The Animal Turn”, ed. K. Steel and P. McCracken. See also Stones, Worms, and Skin. Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. P. McCracken and E. J. Burns, Notre Dame, Notre Dame University Press, forthcoming, 1213.

10  Major recent or forthcoming monographs are S. Crane, Animal Encounters in Medieval Britain, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming, 2012; K. Steel, How to Make a Human. Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages, Columbus, Ohio State University of Press, 2011; P. W. Travis, Disseminal Chaucer. Rereading “the Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, Notre Dame, Notre Dame University Press, 2010.

11  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le roman de la rose, ed. A. Strubel, Paris, Librairie Générale Française, 1992, l. 17820.

12  B. Holsinger, op. cit., p. 618-619, citing among others E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, London, Heineman, 1906, repr. London, Faber, 1987.

13  See for example S.-G. Heller, Fashion in Medieval France, Cambridge, Brewer, 2007, p. 6-7.

14  On the animal dimension of parchment, see Holsinger, op. cit., p. 619-21 and S. Kay, “Legible Skins: Animals and the Ethics of Medieval Reading”, Postmedieval. A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, 2, 2011, p. 13-32.

15  D. Delcourt, L’Éthique du changement dans le roman français du XIIe siècle, Geneva, Droz, 1990; C. W. Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, New York, Zone Books, 2001.

16  L. Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh. Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1985.

17  As has been the case in interpreting the Lais of Marie de France since at least J. E. Ferrante’s commentary on Yonec which is appended to her “The French Courtly Poet: Marie de France”, K. M. Wilson, Medieval Women Writers, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1984, p. 63-89, at p. 69-70.

18  S. Kay, “Lover as Parrot”, New Medieval Literatures, 2010, 137-145; S. Stanbury, “Posthumanist theory and the premodern animal sign”, Postmedieval. A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, 2, 1, 2011, p. 101-114.

19  Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, p. 94.

20  On the prose Guillaume de Palerne, see Harry F. Williams, “Les versions en prose de Guillaume de Palerne”, Romania 73, 1952, p. 63-77.

21  A. Corbellari, “Onirisme et bestialité: Le roman de Guillaume de Palerne”, Neophilologus, 86, 2002, p. 353-62, at p. 361, n. 15.

22  A. Micha, ed., Guillaume de Palerne, roman du XIIIe siècle, Geneva, Droz, 1990. The romance was published by H. Michelant in 1876, without a critical apparatus. The text has been dated to 1194-97; however, based on the dedication to Countess Yolande, daughter of Baudoin IV of Hainaut, who lived until 1223, Micha suggests that the romance could have been composed as late as the 1220s. See also A. Fourrier, “La “comtesse Yolent” de Guillaume de Palerne”, Études de langue et de littérature, offertes à Felix Lecoy, Paris, Champion, 1973, pp. 115-23. The romance has recently been translated into English, making it available to Anglophone scholars, L. Sconduto, trans., Guillaume de Palerne; An English Translation of the 12th Century French Verse Romance, Jefferson, N.C., McFarland, 2004.

23  Ch. Dunn, The Foundling and the Werewolf: A Literary-Historical Study of Guillaume de Palerne, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1960; P. Ménard “Les histoires de loup-garou au moyen âge”, Symposium in honorem prof. M. de Riquer, Barcelona, Universitat de Barcelona Quaderns Crema, 1984, p. 209-38; L. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf; A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance, Jefferson, N.C., McFarland, 2008. The romance has also been read as a (failed) example of the roman idyllique by Myrrha Lot-Borodine, Le roman idyllique au moyen âge, Paris, Auguste Picard, 1913, and by Marion Vuagnoux-Uhlig, Le couple en herbe. Galeran de Bretagne et L’Escoufle à la lumière du roman idyllique médiéval, Geneva, Droz, 2009. See discussion in B. Behrmann, “‘Quel beste ceste piax acuevre’. Idyll and the Animal in Guillaume de Palerne’s Family Romance”, in this volume.

24  Bynum, Metamorposis and Identity, p. 108-9.

25  Sconduto, Metamorphoses, p. 126.

26  R. P. Schiff, “Cross-Channel Becomings-Animal: Primal Courtliness in Guillaume de Palerne and William of Palerne, Exemplaria, 21, 4, 2009, p. 418-38.

27  Dunn claims that the poet reveals a first-hand knowledge of Sicily, The Foundling and the Werwolf, ch. 6; Micha is more skeptical, Guillaume de Palerne, p. 28-9.

28  Ch. Dunn, The Foundling and the Werwolf, p. 45; L. Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2010, p. 51-2.

29  Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies, p. 52.

30  Corbellari, “Onirisme et bestialité”, p. 359-61.

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Sarah Kay

New York University

Peggy McCracken

University of Michiga

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