The borders I decided to write about today are in fact not the borders between different human cultures, as we have discussed so far in our blog posts, but the borders between species and their expression in the Book of Kells. It has already been observed that the animals in the initial and interlinear décor in the manuscript have a meaningful relation to the text. The images are understood as visual exegesis of the textual material. The birds for example have been observed to frequently appear in a christological context and I would suggest that similarly the quadrupeds in large number appear in a negative context, as the wicked antagonist.1 This visual exegesis is indeed very revealing about the many meanings that can be found in the Book of Kells, however, I can not help but wonder if there is more to these creatures. Maybe it might be promising to consider these animals not solely as the symbolic expression of the textual meaning, not 'just' as visual exegesis, but also as manifestations of the cultural body of the respective animal species, as expression of the cultural relationship between humans and animals.
Such relationships are more evident in textual sources. T. A. Shippley notes that there is 'sense of fear and danger' present in The Fortunes of Men, a poem from the10th century Exeter Book, telling of the many tragic ways a man's life can take. Among these it also mentions that some men 'the wolf, the grey heath-prowler, will eat.'2 Thereby joining death-by-animal in with starvation, blindness, hanging and accidents and thus presenting being killed by an animal as a very unfortunate, yet very real, way of ending a life. Such events are further reflected in a reference in Maxims I (C): 'A unhappy man who has no friends takes wolves as his companions, most treacherous beasts. Very often his companion tears him. One should fear the grey beast, give a dead man a grave. But the wolf laments its hunger, will by no means circle the grave with a dirge, certainly will not weep for the death and for men being violently killed; it always wants more.'3 Whether this passage is to be understood, like some others of the Maxims proverbial or not, it without question gives evidence to the negative associations with wild animals that prevailed within Anglo-Saxon culture.
In the lives of saints animals are, quite to the contrary, often helpful encounters for the holy figures and 'willingly override or renounce their naturally bestial inclinations.' Whether St Cuthbert's otter or St Anthony's lions, the animal's role in these stories is to assist not to attack. However positive the light may thus be in which the animals appear in these stories, they do so because they recognise the protagonist as a saint.4 The helpful animal is a miracle, a wonder only possible because of the holiness of the character, but not part of the normal behaviour of the creature. In reverse this implies that the normal relationship with animals is usually not perceived as pleasant, their bestial nature resonates in their domination through the saints.
As Isabel Henderson has shown there are connections to Pictish culture present within the Book of Kells, thus their attitude towards nature might have been shared to a certain extent by the Anglo-Saxons, making a short consultation of the Pictish material worthwhile.5 Henderson noted that the visual evidence suggests 'an enduring Pictish cultural preoccupation with the complex nature of animal force, man's respect for it, and fear of it.'6 The surviving depictions of monstrous beasts attacking humans in Pictish sculpture might refer to a very real threat that must exist within every hunter society: the hunter becoming the hunted. Imagining a hunt gone wrong by the stalker being surprised by a carnivore himself does not prove difficult, yet it emphasises the ambiguous relationship of such a culture to animals and nature, being both sustained and endangered by them. A similar anxious aspect might have prevailed in Insular culture due to the myth of the creation of the world, according to which humans should 'rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals'.7 In this context Jeffrey Cohen has stressed the anthropocentrical meaning of animals and their roots in the idea of human dominance.8 Yet, it were these subordinate creatures that also posed a threat to every human being entering their territory. So it is neither a surprise that it were these areas that were, according to Asa Mittman, perceived as 'dark and foreboding places, well-suited for their monstrous inhabitants' nor that there is a 'unfamiliar hostility towards the natural world' found in Anglo-Saxon literature.9 The choice for the quadruped in the Book of Kells as a symbol for the wicked and the blind might therefore not only be based on the textual basis and on literal tradition, but an expression of the Insular discomfort of being appointed superior and consumer of the animal world, while being at the same time its victim, the consumed. Similarly might the bird in this context also go beyond the mere tradition of its symbolism and betray the general relation of humans to these animals?
I believe these creatures to be expressions of the anxieties of the object’s contemporaries , their fears and their complex relationship to the world around them. These marginal creatures therefore not only show concepts and ideas that existed in the monastic Insular world, but reveal a glimpse of the contemporary perception of the world in general.
1 See Pulliam, Heather, Word and Image in the Book of Kells (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006), 126-130.
2 Shippey, T.A., Poems of Wisdome and Learning in Old English (Cambridge: Brewer, 1976), 11-12, 58-59.
3 Ibid. 12-19.
4 Salter, David, Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature (Woodbridge: Brewer, 2001), 19.
5 Henderson, Isabel, 'Pictish Art and the Book of Kells', in Ireland in Early Medieval Europe, ed. Dorothy Whitelock, Rosamond McKitterick, David Dumville (Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), 91-94.
6 Henderson, Isabel, Pictish Monster: Symbol, Text and Image (Cambridge: Dep. of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Univ. of Cambridge, 1997), 51-52.
8 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, 'Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages' in Engaging with Nature, Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt, Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press,2008), P. 42. See Steel, Karl, How to make a human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2011), P. 29-44 for a study of the concept of human dominance over animals.
9 Mittman, Asa S., Maps and Monsers in Medieval England (New York: Routledge, 2006), 122, 135.