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"Blyndes bestes" : aspects of Chaucer's animal world Rowland, Beryl


The medieval animal world was vast and included mythical creatures as well as birds, reptiles and other beasts. This dissertation confines itself mainly to mammals. It explores the numerous references to them in Chaucer's works and finds these to be consonant with his general treatment of the brute creation for literary purposes. By Chaucer's day, the traditional attitude towards animals was well defined. The fables, the Bible, hermeneutical writings, natural histories, encyclopedias and art all stressed the apparently human characteristics of animals and rarely demonstrated scientific interest in the assessment of them. In an age when the visible world existed to instruct "man in spiritual matters, the characteristics were stereotyped and used merely to throw light on human or divine nature. Chaucer, whether he draws from popular lore, expository writings or animal stories, whether he is translating or using knowledge seemingly derived from observation, appears to think primarily of the conventional ideas associated with animals and to find animals interesting mainly because they can illustrate humanity. Many of his analogies are meaningful solely because of the conventional attributes of animals which are either stated or implied. In his most successful figures he is able to make folklore, symbolism and realistic detail combine to vivify the complexities of human character and action. Despite the assumptions of a number of critics that Chaucer shows a personal liking for animals, the evidence examined reveals that his references, at best conventionally colorless, are generally depreciatory and that animals frequently serve to illustrate distasteful aspects of humanity. He selects pejorative proverbial expressions and reinforces them with equally unfavorable observations of his own. In the case of the mammals considered in detail in this dissertation, the hare, the dog, the horse, the wolf, the sheep and the lamb, only the lamb receives an unequivocally favorable presentation and this presentation is necessitated by traditional Christian symbolism. To some extent Chaucer1s attitude may be regarded as stemming from Boethius who regarded animals as exemplifying the baser passions of Man. But an analysis of the nature of Chaucer's references, both figurative and non-figurative, indicates that an additional reason must be found to account for what often appears to be a compulsive selection of unpleasant images. It is suggested that Chaucer's recoil is the result of an inner tension. He tries to repress the attraction which he feels for the uninhibited vitality of the animal world because he knows that, according to the teachings of his Church, the uncontrolled expression of the natural passions is to be condemned, and that the animal serves as a warning, illustrating what Man becomes when, to his eternal damnation, he permits the body to triumph over the soul.

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