When people ask me what I write about, the short answer I usually give is “witches, witchy stuff.” Many times this is a sufficiently juicy response to satisfy someone that my work is interesting—witchiness and the occult are, as I’ve learned, “in”—but if they want to know more, the conversation will quickly travel to the place/time that most excites my fevered poet’s brain. The historical period of the European witch craze coincides, in addition to the advent of capitalism and the rise of European colonialism, with the development of what we now call “science.” Each one of these troubled threads has profound implications for our current set of ecological (and other) conundrums; much of my poetry could be described as a nervous habit of pulling and prodding at these historical strings in an attempt to untangle the present.
For a variety of reasons—and whether or not we believe that the Burning Times, as this period is known to many of today’s witches, constituted an assault on (certain marginalized forms of) actual magic and its practitioners—we often associate the transition from the medieval to the modern with a process of “disenchantment.” I don’t think this is quite right. In place of a linear ascension out of the world of “superstition” and/or magic, I read lateral moves into what we might call “differently enchanted” worlds; the modern experience of “disenchantment,” then, can be understood as a kind of spell in itself. The fabulous conviction of the alchemical tome, for example, metamorphoses into the authoritative aura of the scientific text—historically a formidable kind of magic power (the current persistence of climate denialism notwithstanding). I am drawn to the ways that early modern texts capture something of the transition between such different kinds of voices; caught in time between this and that, chimerical creatures shimmer into being.
My classmates and I found ourselves in pursuit of such beasts in the small, concealed hunting grounds of Special Collections at Peter J. Shields Library. Having been shepherded through a series of gates (themselves bounded within the layered enclosures of University property and a graduate course on “Renaissance Oecologies”), we sat—very quietly and very still—until, compelled and given permission, we opened an ultimate, leather-bound door. My quarry, dear reader? The Hare. Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts & Serpents offers us a twinned core sample ofthe proto-scientist’s voice and his subjects in its chimerical treatment of zoology. Topsell’s entry on the Hare spans ten pages and ranges from physiological, psychological, and magical characteristics of the beast to mythical (or is it historical?) references, hunting tactics, pharmacological uses (more magic here) and beyond—all in a subdued, scholarly tone that conjures a spirit of expertise. (Curious readers are encouraged to make their own dive down the, as it were, Hare-hole, here.)
Along with this pseudo/proto-scientific specter, Topsell’s Hare briefly summons into view an additional premodern phenomenon that feels especially relevant to ecocritical and dis/ enchantment inquiries alike. I have alluded already to Enclosure, which readers will associate with another semi-fantastical animal—the carnivorous sheep that haunt the h/edges of the outermost narrative layer of More’s Utopia. The dispropriation of the commons obstructed peasants’ access not only to economic resources but also to certain alternative/non-sanctioned sources of the numinous; as access to land shrank, so too did the parameters of the relational field. Places where human folk might experience the greatest diversity of more-than-human encounters—and a witch might seek out many magical ingredients—over time became differently enchanted to appear as sources of exchange value and capital.
From there to here: we live again in Burning Times. Now is the moment to turn inside out inherited epistemological enclosures—to turn loose the wild worlds of our cultivation. Harvesting textual resources from an uncanny ancestor of the scientific reference and taking the shape of a “Park or inclosed Warren,” my poem works to draw back the curtain on the illusion of materialist, capitalist “reality” besetting today’s world and reveal a history of different enchantments and a world more malleable than meets the eye. In addition to window, this calligram is also spell: its image of apparent order is seeded with a feral impulse toward casting new and divergent enchantments—which it hopes, dear reader, will blossom in thee.
We are proud to announce the second meeting of the Oecologies reading group, to be held on November 21st at 2:30 pm PST. Our reading for this meeting will be the introduction to Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies.
We welcome any and all scholars to this meeting, and we particularly welcome the participation of graduate students from any institution.
Please RSVP to mo.pareles -[at]- ubc.ca or scott_russell -[at]- sfu.ca for the reading and technical directions. If you require audiovisual access accommodations, please let us know when you RSVP.
“Earth,” the first part of multi-year collaboration “Earth, Sea, Sky,” took place at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities in September. The project’s principal investigators are Dr. Tom White (University of Oxford), Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth (University of California, Davis), Dr. Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia), and Dr. Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield).
For “Earth,” we invited our participants to dwell on one or more of the following areas:
• Excavating earth (mines, resources, fossil fuels and other energy sources, appropriation)
We had thought long and hard about the format of the event. The schedule—available in full here—reflected our aim to provide as much time and space as possible for discussion and informal networking. Paper sessions consisted of two papers of roughly 30 minutes, followed by a five minute interval for those in the audience to speak to the people around them about something in the papers that sparked a question or provoked a response. This was followed by a traditional Q&A. The meeting also featured two workshop sessions: a careers roundtable on day one and then three concurrent work-in-progress sessions on day two.
Each of the four paper sessions skilfully traversed period and disciplinary boundaries. These sessions took us from eleventh-century sermons of Wulfstan, to the remarkable seventeenth-century depictions of stone by Jacopo Ligozzi, to satirical French comics from the early 1970s. Among many other locations, they also took us from the cramped stage of the Rose theatre in early modern London, to the ruined masterpiece of hydrological engineering that was the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, to Turkish tulip markets, and on to Silicon Valley via seventeenth-century visions of the marbled and adamantine New Jerusalem. This is only a small window on a wide array of approaches and primary materials; our presenters’ paper titles as well as a working bibliography of sources central to their work are gathered at the end of this post.
Each session also sought to examine how, in the words of our original call for papers, the ‘premodern archive resonates with contemporary concerns around environmental degradation and global warming.’ Further, most of the papers considered how where we reside and write informs and inflects our work in the environmental humanities. Lyle Massey, for example, began her discussion of premodern depictions of St Jerome, including Giovanni Bellini’s St Jerome in the Desert (c. 1450), with an account of desertification in California in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Similarly, Hillary Eklund closed her account of water management and mismanagement in colonial Mexico by turning briefly to her current home city of New Orleans, itself precariously located amid an increasingly “unfast” landscape.
The two workshop sessions provided the opportunity for all of our participants to discuss their work and share some of their experiences. On day one was the careers roundtable, led by Tiffany Jo Werth, Vin Nardizzi and Todd Borlik, with valuable additional contributions by Kellie Robertson and Mike Bintley. We discussed a number of pre-circulated readings on the rise of the “environmental humanities” as a field and career trajectory. These materials included an essay by Christopher Schaberg written specially for the occasion, and which can be read here. We also discussed practical issues regarding job applications, article writing, and book proposals. Threaded through the session were important reflections from scholars at varying stages of their academic career on the challenges and rewards of working across disciplinary and period boundaries. Also central to the conversation was a frank discussion of the importance of optimism and the inevitably of pessimism in our thinking both about the planetary future, and the future of the humanities and our place in it.
An informal reception concluded the first day and included a reading and performance by Leonie Mhari of To Where it May Concern. The piece—made with Elinor Scarth, who regrettably could not join us—literally unpacks visual and material fragments of a Scottish landscape, collected in Armadale, Skye and Armadale, West Lothian, from a weathered suitcase. The suitcase was used to transport these fragments to Armidale, New South Wales on 13 February 2019, where new fragments were added. In its repeated packing and unpacking in different locations, To Where it May Concern examines how colonization, capitalism and global warming impinge on the remembering and documenting of landscapes.
The workshop sessions on the second day of the symposium were led by the presenters from our paper sessions:
• Liam Lewis & Vin Nardizzi: “Earth’s Coverings: Animals and Plants, On and Off the Page”
• Mo Pareles & Todd Borlik: “Migration, Survival, Ecologies”
• Lyle Massey & Tiffany Jo Werth: “Land/Landscape”
Detailed descriptions of each of the sessions are available here. These sessions were also intended to provide an opportunity for practice-based researchers to discuss their work. In “Land/Landscape,” Lydia Halcrow discussed some of her recent artworks based around the shifting landscape of the Taw Estuary in Devon. In the careers workshop, Olusegun Titus had described some of his ethnomusicological research in the Niger Delta, where the fossil fuel industry continues to decimate the environment and the lives of those who live and work in its wake. Here, he returned to some of the historical analogues for that research, as well as treating those present to a short performance of the traditional Nigerian song “Lori Oke ati Petele” (The Mountain and the Valley).
The second day of our gathering coincided with the worldwide Schools Strike for Climate. In the extended lunch break after the workshop sessions, many of us headed to nearby Broad Street, where the Oxford rally was taking place. The handmade signs on display and the chants reverberating among the crowd were a salutary reminder (if one was needed) of the urgency of the environmental crisis; yet the rally was also a reminder that the evident energy for new, better stories about the past and future might be one of the most important renewable resources we have.
In the closing roundtable, Kellie Robertson, Marjorie Rubright and Catherine Walsh offered short reflections on the previous days’ discussions and the place of the environmental humanities in the future of the academy more broadly. The history of colonialism and its deleterious environmental impacts loomed large in many papers and were again an important topic of discussion here; further, we returned, via reference to the work of Kyle Whyte, to Hillary Eklund’s earlier comments on how Indigenous knowledge often presents more “ample” understandings of specific environments. As in the careers workshop the previous day, the possibility of optimism for our planetary and academic futures was also a recurring, or perhaps rather overarching, topic of discussion.
On Saturday morning, those of us still in town visited Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, a special exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The exhibition draws on a wide range of materials (photos, children’s artworks, objects) to trace the history of the “Lande” camp in Calais. There, on a contaminated landfill site, around 10,000 displaced people eventually gathered, most hoping to make their way across the Channel to the United Kingdom. The camp was demolished in 2016, becoming another chapter in a long cycle of settlement and demolition in the Pas-de-Calais over the last twenty years. By examining what it calls the “environmental hostility” of modern borders and bordering practices, Lande demonstrates that the “slow violence” described by Rob Nixon not only displaces people from their homes but is also inflicted on them where they seek refuge.
For the next part of the project, we turn our gaze out to Sea in 2020—further details to follow soon. In the meantime, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the generous support of the TORCH International Partnerships Scheme, the John Fell Fund, and St Edmund Hall. Special thanks to Lidia Domingues, Anbara Khalidi and Sue McCarthy for their help in bringing us all together for “Earth”, and to Christopher Schaberg for taking the time to compose a new essay for the event.
– Dr. Tom White, University of Oxford
1. Lyle Massey –“Ascetic Ecologies: Deserts, Saints and Caves in the Renaissance”
2. Mo Pareles –“Nauseated Land: A Theory of Translation”
1. Hillary Eklund – “Unwatering Earth: The Control of Nature in Colonial Mexico”
2. Vin Nardizzi – “Flora’s Atelier”
1. Bronwen Wilson – “Lithic Images, Jacopo Ligozzi, and the Descrizione del Sacro Monte della Vernia (1612)” [paper read by Tom White]
2. Liam Lewis – “Doing Prophecy with Earth Elements”
Delimiting / Leaving Earth
1. Todd Borlik –“ How many people can stand on the earth? Malthusian Reckoning in Christopher Marlowe”
2. Tiffany Jo Werth – “Leaving Earth for yond Marble Heaven.”
Buell, Lawrence. “Anthropocene Panic: Contemporary Ecocriticism and the Issue of Human Numbers,” Frame 29.2 (2016): 1-15.
Douglas, M. Leviticus as Literature. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001).
Erickson, Peter, and Kim F. Hall. “‘A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67.1 (2016): 1-13.
Latour, Bruno. “Will Non-humans Be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 459-475.
Lewis, Simon and Mark Maslin. The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene. (London: Pelican, 2018).
Masten, Jeffrey. Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
Povinelli, Elizabeth. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke University Press, 2016.
Singh, Julietta. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).
Steel, Karl. “Woofing and Weeping With Animals in the Last Days,” postmedieval 1.1/2 (2010): 187-193.
Strawn, B. A. “On Vomiting: Leviticus, Jonah, Ea(a)rth.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74 (2012): 445-64.
Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. (New York: Timothy Duggan Books, 2019).
Whyte, Kyle. “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” English Language Notes 55, no. 1–2 (Fall 2017): 153-62.
It’s a pleasure to reflect on the fifth year for the Oecologies network. Since our first annual review in 2014-2015, the network has extended its geographical remit down the Pacific North American Coast, grown and codified its mission and governance, and continued to add new members and activities to its roster. Following last summer’s restructuring of its governance, we’ve been able to foster new partnerships, collaborations, and showcase members’ contributions in exciting ways. Read on!
As in years past, Oe convened and co-sponsored public lectures as well as serving as the umbrella organization for numerous panels and talks at major premodern field conferences and symposia.
Our speaker series this year featured four public lectures: two in Vancouver, British Columbia and two at UC Davis, California.
In the fall, UC Davis kicked off our series and hosted Dr. Vin Nardizzi, who gave a talk titled “Tulips and Turbans in Renaissance Art and Natural History.” If you are keen to hear more about this provocative pairing, you might enjoy checking out the recap of the talk by Samantha Snively, a recent Ph.D. from UC Davis.
Dr. Nardizzi’s visit also included a field trip for graduate students and faculty to UC Davis’ special collections to see a copy of John Gerard’s 1636 The herball, or General historie of plantes.
Oe began 2019 by hosting Dr. Courtney Barajas at the University of British Columbia where she gave a lecture on “Oecotheology: Natural Wisdom in Old English Poetry.” Her talk explored what she terms a “surge of ‘green thinking’” in early medieval England and offered readings of Old English wisdom poems.
The following month, in February, Dr. Jessica Rosenberg gave a talk at UC Davis entitled ‘Harvesting Books and Uprooting Poems: Circulation and Vulnerability in Elizabethan Botanical Cultures.” Her talk drew from the book she is completing during her year as a fellow at the Huntington Library (2018-19). As the title suggests, her work combines history of the book, history of reading, formalism, and natural history in innovative ways.
For the final talk of the year, in April, Dr. Siân Echard (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Matthew Hussey (Simon Fraser University) jointly presented “Ecologies of the Medieval Book” at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Hussey presented first, considering the materiality of several early-medieval manuscripts and textual objects through both their local and global ecologies. Dr. Echard followed with a discussion of the more immediate “environments” of several well-known 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts—the groves of doodles, splotches, and other marginalia that surround and inform their written texts.
In addition to hosting this Speaker Series, Oecologies members organized and participated in several regional conferences. One new feature that we’re proud to institute was the creation of conference pathways for Oecologies members to help them organize their conference schedules and not miss out on relevant eco-friendly sessions. You can view a sample of these pathways posted via our social media sites on Twitter and on Facebook.
Oecologies had a presence at the following conferences:
the Modern Language Association Chicago, IL (January)
the Shakespeare Association of America Washington, DC (April)
the Renaissance Society of America Toronto, ON (April)
the International Congress on Medieval Studies Kalamazoo, MI (May)
the 2019 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences Vancouver, BC (June)
the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Davis, CA (June)
Partnerships and Collaborations
In addition to these regional and international conferences, members of the executive council worked in partnership to give talks at libraries and symposia across North America. A few highlights include:
We were also excited to break out of the academic mold with an artistic theatrical collaboration spearheaded by one of Oecologies co-founding members, Dr. Patricia Badir. To learn more about this exciting collaboration, see our inaugural blog post on the Galatea Project in Vancouver:
Oecologies is especially proud to welcome into print the first publication emerging from the network. Growing from the conference jointly hosted at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in 2015, Premodern Ecologies in the Modern Literary Imagination features essays by members and collaborators (Robert Rouse, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Patricia Badir, Louise Noble, Sarah Crover, Frances E. Dolan, Louisa Mackenzie, Sharon O’Dair, David Coley, Sandra Young, Scott MacKenzie, David Matthews, and J. Allan Mitchell) with an afterword by the prominent ecocritic Ursula K. Heise. You can read more about it at the University of Toronto homepage.
Below is a preview of what critics are saying:
Stay tuned for details of a MLA launch celebration in Seattle (2020)!
The first symposia, “Earth” will kick off the series this September, and we’re excited to be supported in part by TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Look for a blog posting in October that will reflect on the conversations that we hope will stretch across three countries in as many years.
We’re also thrilled to announce that Sharon O’Dair (Emerita) has accepted the nomination to be the next incoming Director, joining the Directorial team with Vin Nardizzi and David Coley. While Tiffany Jo Werth is happy to stand back and watch new energy empeople Oecologies, she looks forward to remaining engaged through partnerships such as “Earth, Sea, Sky.”
Perhaps the most visible testament to our evolving network is the revamped Oe website that underwent a major digital image update in the fall of 2018. We’re grateful to our fall Research Assistant, Sawyer Kemp, for all their design inspiration and digital know-how that made it possible. We’re also grateful to the newly christened cohort of graduate student liaisons—Alex Cosh (UBC), Karol Pasciano (UBC), and Breanne Weber (UC Davis)—who have helped with the maintenance of our social media sites and whose enthusiasm launched the new Oe blog monthly posts.
We’d also like to extend a big thanks for the efforts of the membership subcommittee, Louisa MacKenzie and Sharon O’Dair, for their outreach which has resulted in a more diverse and growing membership. J. Allan Mitchell was instrumental in making Oecologies a force at ASLE and the three linked sessions there created a wonderful premodern mini-conference, about which you can read more in this recap written by graduate student participants.
It is syllabus season. About to start a staycation, I find myself fretting (and blogging) because I have not yet determined the order of readings for the two new courses that the English Department at the University of British Columbia will launch this year as part of its revamped curriculum. ENGL 244 is called “Environment and Literature” and is designed for second-year (or sophomore) students. ENGL 393 is a special topics class in “Ecocriticism” addressed to third- and fourth-year (junior and senior) students. It is exciting – finally– to have dedicated courses in these fields. Colleagues and I no longer have to repurpose old course shells to suit new disciplinary expertise and to meet student demand. I know that delivering new courses (content, assignments, and my unfamiliarity teaching some of the content) will prove terrifying, electrifying, and exhausting, by turn. In addition to such typical affects, I am also dreading being depressed by some of the materials in this course, especially those that concern the present and futures of climate emergency. My goal for the year will be to make this affective mix legible in the classroom and so (hopefully) also pedagogically generative. I begin to teach ENGL 244 in a month’s time. It is about “Unreal Environments in the Renaissance.” I will blog again about what did and didn’t work in the course. I will share my outline and course assignments on the Oecologies webpage (once they’re completed!).
As part of its recent relaunch, Oecologies has also focused its energies on thinking about pedagogy. At our upcoming symposium on “Earth” at the University of Oxford we will convene a workshop on the Environmental Humanities job market. A recap of that event will appear in our October blog. We have also asked Oecologies members to share with us information about the courses they’re offering. The range of these courses is inspiring. I include here course names and thumb-nail descriptions. Our hope is that some more detailed information about these undergraduate and graduate courses will be housed on our website. In the meantime, if you have questions, feel free to drop the instructor of record an email.
What does it mean to be an animal? To be a human? And what does reading have to do with anything?
Animal studies and the environmental humanities are ideas that are increasingly familiar to 21st-century readers; viewed here through the lens of some of the finest and most intriguing literary works from the premodern Romance world, with important interactions with other literatures around the whole world and influences on them, and spanning a range of forms: from short poems to encyclopaedias, from fables to bestiaries, from saints’ miracles to dramatic multimedia satires.
What, where, and when is this “Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern” of the course title? We’ll be in places where the linguistic relatives of today’s Catalan, French, Italian, Occitan, Portuguese, and Spanish are used; our two set texts are from the 12th and the 16th centuries CE, but we’ll be talking about manuscript and multimedia cultures from the 6th century onwards … and before and after, from an “in the middle” in the sense of not being in the beginning nor in End Times … and elsewhere: potentially adventuring anywhere in a Global Middle Ages, depending on where students’ interests take us.
We will start small: listening to a frog in a 12th-century Troubadour poem in Old Occitan by Marcabru, “Bel m’es quan la rana chanta.” We will revisit this frog at the end of the course, to see how our readings have changed along the way, and how we have changed through them.
Our two set / required texts in the main body of the course are originally in 12th- and 16th-century French; through them, we will meet animals in associated works from France, Italy, and Spain (and other areas where Romance vernaculars are spoken, in a multilingual world; our 12th-c. set text, for example, is from England). There will be reading about animals, of animals, and physically on animals (through online digitised manuscripts and books in the library); shape-shifting; animals reading (and speaking, interacting, and otherwise showing evidence of sentience and thinking); and reading humans as animals (via Montaigne). Along the way, readings and student presentations may converse with—for example—wolves, dogs, foxes, bears, birds, bees, donkeys, horses, deer, cats, squirrels, rabbits, snails, unicorns, hedgehogs, lions, chickens, sheep, fish, whales, otters, beavers (and of course frogs).
All texts will be worked on in English translation, though students will have the option, if they wish, of using versions in the original (or a modernized variant) in their final projects.
Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth (UC-Davis): “Allegory, the Unthinkable, and the More-than-Human in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596) and Amoretti”
Modern readers might think of Edmund Spenser as the author of one of England’s longest poems writ, as Ben Jonson quipped, in “no language.” An unfinished work, it praises Queen Elizabeth I, memorialized as Gloriana, Belphoebe, Cynthia, or the “Faerie Queene.” Yet while the poem seemingly shadows this human monarch, she barely appears and its world teems with what cultural geographer Sarah Whatmore terms more-than-human life: a “clownishe” and elfin knight, a mournful tree, an unfriendly dragon, false avatars, a crafty shape-shifting hermit, a resourceful dwarf, an iron man, gender-bending heroines, giants and a blatant beast, within an interwoven plot that tells of two rivers in love, a sea deity who sulks, graces and angels who disappear, self-guided lances, a headstrong horse and a happy human-cum-hog. This course explores the limits of literary modes such as allegory, the poetics of lyric, and the long form of the early modern romance alongside questions that stretch the meaning of “human.” Together, we will analyze Spenser’s “worlding” that anticipates many recent posthumanist theories (ecofeminism, the Chthulucene, game theory, geontologies, and other unthinkables).
To survey fundamentals of genre, dramaturgy, and theatre studies criticism, this course explores the ways in which performance constitutes an environmental act. Organized into three units is a schedule of plays and other readings from a range of periods and perspectives. Some of these plays take place in nature, some are explicitly about ecology, and in some the environment becomes a political agent. To consider the spatial and material aspects of theatre, the class will attend a professional production in Portland (Macbeth), on campus (Orlando), and then students will have the opportunity to seek out and review a performance of their choosing. By developing a series of three interlocking essays that culminate in a final portfolio, students will have the opportunity to analyze a particular dramatic oeuvre and employ a specific theoretical lens as a means to interrogate the relationship between dramatic form and our environment.
Sin. This is an ugly and historically powerful word. Ideas of sin and salvation shaped the medieval Western European worldview. The hierarchy of the seven deadly sins – those sins which would endanger one’s soul – was therefore a commonly recurring theme in medieval literature, philosophy, and theology. However, everyone knows that sin is not simply deadly; it can also be fun. The very significance and intensity of the seven deadly sins meant that they had the attraction of the taboo.
In this course, students will read a range of medieval and Renaissance texts that take a variety of approaches to the seven deadly sins: intellectual, literary, theological, dirty, funny, fearful, and artistic, to name a few. We will find out what lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride looked like 500-1000 years ago – and discuss what they look like today.
As Cary Wolfe observed in 2003, regarding animals as moral nonentities is the epistemological requirement for reducing human others to animal status. Much medieval cultural production seems to rebuke humanist narcissism: in premodern literature we see hybrid human-animal saints, birdsong drowning out human speech, and wild predators as moral actors. But other literature—for instance, Middle English devotional poetry in which the child Jesus gleefully turns Jews into pigs—demonstrates that medieval authors were also well-versed in species denigration as a racial, religious, and sexual cudgel.
This graduate medieval studies seminar examines the boundary between humans and beasts, interrogating how racial, sexual, and other forms of difference overlap with human-animal difference in medieval literature and culture. We will also consider when and how questions of sovereignty and subordination, linguistic difference, disability, childhood, and queerness become affiliated with the bestial, and how both violence and eroticism use the beast as figure and alibi. Also of concern to us will be the relationship between animal studies and medieval studies, and the place of medieval animal studies vis-à-vis ecocriticism, critical race theory and decolonial studies, and other potentially overlapping disciplines.
Primary texts may include Old English riddles, the alliterative Middle English Siege of Jerusalem, the Early South English Legendary, Marie de France’s Bisclavret, Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland, Marco Polo’s Description of the World, hunting manuals, and homoerotic love poetry. Theoretical texts will include work by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mel Y. Chen, Bénédicte Boisseron, Karl Steel, Peggy McCracken, Kari Weil, and Tavia Nyong’o.
In a way, establishing Oe as a pedagogical resource is not an entirely new initiative. Our website, for example, features a list of scholarly books and collections that we update yearly. Please share it with your students and use it in your own research. We are in the midst of an update, so if you notice a volume or special issue that should be listed there (and isn’t yet), then please let us know. We’ll make sure that it is.
Oecologies is pleased to launch its new Calls for Papers section on our Scholarly Resources page. This section includes a focused list of calls for papers that may be of interest to our membership. If you have inquiries about the CFPs listed there or are interested in promoting an Oe-relevant conference session, please email Oecologies.
The 2019 Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference was hosted last week (June 26-30) on one of the home campuses of Oecologies: the University of California, Davis. As #11 in the list of the Princeton Review’s “Top 50 Green Colleges,” UC Davis was the perfect location to host the over 1200 ecologically-minded conference attendees, who were able to enjoy the outdoors and experience the best that Davis has to offer, including mild sunny weather, a variety of food trucks, a bat walk, and two hikes in Stebbins Canyon. The campus—with its public commitment to sustainability—is a prime location to consider the epistemological and ontological implications of environmental relations and their representations in literature and media. As participants wandered through the arboretum, across the river, and among beds of jasmine to attend each panel, plenary, and field trip, we found ourselves noting how particularly situated within the environment we are, and considering the role that the academy can and should play in reckoning with that.
The UC Davis Arboretum. Photo Credit: Breanne Weber
The UC Davis Arboretum. Photo Credit: Breanne Weber
The three Oecologies-sponsored panels took place on the final day of ASLE, which gave us several days to attend a variety of panels and gain a sense of the scholarly atmosphere. Premodern narratives about the natural world were never far from our minds, however, in part because many panels explored the environmental and epistemological boundaries posed in (or by) the past. The CFP for the Oecologies panel on “Premodern Horizons” indicated an interest in “whether and how premodern pasts open new ecological horizons for the future,” a concern that surfaced, even if briefly, in the Q&A after a panel on “Nineteenth-Century Posthumanisms” as panelists discussed decentering the human in nineteenth-century poetry and whether the radical shift in subjectivity this entails can be traced back to a premodern moment.
Over the next several days of the conference, this tension between premodern past and present often materialized when the conversation turned to rhetoric: the rhetoric we are currently using to discuss environmental issues, where it has been inherited from, and whether it is successful in allowing us to have cross-disciplinary interactions. Certainly, this was a topic central to “Premodern Horizons,” as panelists reflected on atmospheric phenomena and the new forms of perception that emerge when human vision encounters its limit. During the panel’s Q&A, an audience member notably asked the group to consider which particular genres and rhetorical modes are produced in response to climate crisis. A week after the conference has concluded, we are still thinking about how premodern concerns permeated many of the ASLE discussions, particularly those that grappled with how to navigate environmental and epistemological boundaries.
So where does this leave us as premodern scholars working within the environmental humanities? Looking out at the attendees of the Oecologies panels, most, if not all, were scholars of premodern literature. Though unsurprising, it is disheartening to know that our panels were too “far afield” to pull in the post-industrial crowd. Simply put, how are we, as rule-breaking medievalists and early modernists, supposed to share pre-industrial environmental thought with scholars working in later historical periods?
The inception of ecocriticism, the very foundation of ASLE, was always meant to shine a light on the environment and harmful environmental thought. The founders of ASLE believed that the humanities were the key to making real environmental change because it could look back and find the stories that bind everything together. So, one of the obvious challenges of applying ecocritical thought to premodern literature is that the connections to the present environmental crisis are not always obvious. How can a medieval drawing of the world shape how we talk about and find solutions to the 21st century environmental crisis? What could Edmund Spenser possibly say about the environment that would have real and lasting effects on our present-day environmental catastrophe? We ask these questions of ourselves as well as others working in our field. It is not enough to simply point out premodern conceptions of the environment; the history is only part of the story.
As we walk, bike, and drive through the Davis campus, we are actively reminded that we live and study in an area of California that provides food as far north as Canada and as far east as China. The almond we eat while working in a library in Scotland was most likely grown ten miles from our campus. Working in this area of California can be illuminating to our work in the premodern. As we read agricultural manuals from the sixteenth century and puzzle over their pictures, we are reminded that industrialization began much earlier than the late nineteenth century. As we explain environmental catastrophe through the narratives of pre-industrial thinkers, we are further reminded that nothing really has changed, and it is foolish to believe that it has. Shakespeare lived in a time very much like our own where deforestation was widespread and pollution choked the Thames. When we look at the premodern narratives that continue to influence, although indirectly, people today, we are attempting to better understand how the past can give insight to our present. We are reminded as we read poems on atoms that premodern societies understood the organic nature of our bodies and that we will necessarily return to dust. Their anxieties are our anxieties, and when we work to understand their conceptions of the ecological world, we are working to better understand the foundation of environmental crisis. The saying still goes that there is no need to make every mistake ourselves—someone has probably already made them. We keep this in mind as we read, and we hopefully can use what we’ve read to better illuminate our own ecological reality.
Oecologies is proud to announce the launching of its new blog series. This series is dedicated to reviewing recent events and projects, as well as promoting and celebrating the work of our members and collaborators. Please stay tuned for future posts!
Karol Pasciano, University of British Columbia
“The sun doth beat upon the plain fields; wherefore let us sit down, Galatea, under this fair oak, by whose broad leaves being defended from the warm beams we may enjoy the fresh air, which softly breathes from the Humber floods” (Lyly I.i.1-5).
Thus opens Galatea, a comedy written by John Lyly and performed by the Children of St. Paul’s before Queen Elizabeth I “at Green-wiche, on Newyeeres day at Night” in 1588. Revolving around the threat of an imminent environmental crisis, the drama negotiates the ecological boundaries that bridge Lincolnshire’s green woodlands and the Humber estuary. In its opening act, the play details a narrative of supernatural deluge. Enraged by the destruction of his temple by Danes, the god Neptune is said to have once “caused the seas to break their bounds […] and to swell far above their reach,” prompting one to “see ships sail where sheep fed, anchors cast where ploughs go, fishermen throw their nets where husbandman sow their corn, and fishes throw their scales where fowls do breed their quills” (I.i.30-1; 33-6). In exchange for the receding of the tides, the deity demands that, every five years, the most beautiful virgin in the village be bound to the “fair oak” tree and offered as a peace token to the sea monster, Agar. It is in order to escape such a dreadful fate that two maidens, Galatea and Phillida, are disguised as boys and ordered to hide in the forest by their respective fathers. The pair’s eventual meeting gives rise to an amusing comedy of errors and a queer romance that ultimately culminates in a (potential) trans* metamorphosis.
A treat for early modern scholars working with ecocriticism, conversions, and queer ecologies, the play has precipitated a wave – but thankfully no destructive floods! – in recent scholarship about its blue and green environs, thematic intersections with climate change, and human/nonhuman alliances. It was precisely from the desire to explore such aspects in Lyly’s work that Dr. Patricia Badir (UBC), a founding collaborator of Oecologies, initiated the Galatea Projectalongside Dr. Paul Budra (SFU) and Katrina Dunn (University of Manitoba). Badir notes that the project’s initial investigation was dedicated to examining the intertextual parallels and ecological conversions involved in Lyly’s uptake of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly of the stories of “Iphis and Ianthe” and “Acis and Galatea” (both of which served as direct source materials for Galatea). The investigation’s main objectives included probing the different significations behind Lyly’s transformation of Ovidian landscapes into Lincolnshire’s countryside, as well as discerning how the play’s eros is profoundly linked to its oikos – that is, Lincolnshire’s environmental precarity and vulnerability. For Badir, thinking about European premodern environments from “here” and “now” likewise involved recognizing resonances between Lyly’s setting and Vancouver’s own waterscapes. Linking Lincolnshire’s tides to the Pacific Northwest’s coastal flows, the project has been continually engaged in “rais[ing] questions relevant to Vancouverites (likewise living at the edge of a forest along the banks of an estuary) while also opening itself to critical paradigms that help us understand the ways in which particular kinds of environments and behaviors become ‘naturalized’ over time.”
Most recently, the project has been awarded a grant by UBC’s Community-University Engagement Support (CUES) Fund and has partnered with professional theatre company Bard on the Beach to bring Galatea to life on stage. In November 2018, academics, theatre professionals, and graduate students participated in a week-long workshop dedicated to analyzing the play’s multiple ecological and metamorphic transformations, as well as its polychronic and multitemporal depictions of N/nature. Bard on the Beach director Dean Paul Gibson observes how the play is “most full of possibilities,” especially with regards to how one might imagine and interpret Lincolnshire’s environs. When asked about how he would envision a full local production of Lyly’s work, Gibson states that “our natural setting would certainly lend to the story-telling of this play. Many [people] have a deep and mysterious connection with this land. Of course, the indigenous peoples of this land could teach us much about working with the elements and [their] powers.” The workshop concluded with a public staged reading performance, directed by Gibson, on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on November 10. Tickets were offered to the UBC, SFU, and Bard on the Beach communities on an RSVP basis, and, to everyone’s delight, the event was sold out within hours of its announcement online. The performance was very well received by the audience, and the Q&A period which followed it demonstrated how the local community was just as interested in the play’s enticing themes as its project members.
The success of the November performance inspired the project to coordinate another set of reading performances with Bard on the Beach actors at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which took place at UBC over the first week of June 2019. These subsequent performances were directed by Katrina Dunn and staged in the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Amphitheatre, an open-air area carved on a hill and encompassed by a verdant grassplot, stone banks, and a murky, vegetation-filled, artificial pond, whose natural vibrancy reverberated the play’s central localizing line, “You are now in Lincolnshire” (I.iv.14). Along with the green stage, the impromptu – and quite apropos – addition of bird chirps and bullfrog croaks to the performance soundscape reinforced the environment’s role in the narrative; like the characters declaiming Lyly’s poetic verses, it too had a “voice” in the story. Dunn comments that the new space has also made it possible to further explore different types of blocking arrangements in order to enhance the physicality of the actors’ gestures and movements. She likewise emphasizes her directing focus on “making the imaginary world of the play visible” for both actors and audience. For Dunn, “crafting this invisible world” effectively is imperative to the action of the play, which is set in motion precisely by environmental forces.
In addition to the staged performances, the project also marked its presence at Congress with a roundtable panel, hosted by the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies/Société canadienne d’études de la Renaissance and the Canadian Association for Theatre Research/L’Association canadienne de la recherche théâtrale. Featuring presentations by Badir, Budra, Dunn, and UBC students Jade Standing (PhD English), Lea Anderson (BA English Honours), and Jamie Harper (BA English Honours), the panel engaged a variety of captivating topics, such as Lyly’s euphuistic style, Lincolnshire’s “coastal squeeze” processes, Galatea and Phillida’s queer and trans* dynamics, pedagogical approaches to the play, and the challenges in staging its natural and supernatural elements.
As for future plans and events, Budra has announced that the next play to be taken up by the project is Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Similar to Galatea, this contemporary play also presents alluring green spaces and a tree as a central prop – elements that shall certainly promote further ecocritical discussions for the project. Kyd’s play will be investigated in a similar workshop setting with Bard on the Beach practitioners, which is expected to take place in the Fall of 2019.
Galatea: A Staged Reading
Directors: Dean Paul Gibson (BMO Theatre) / Katrina Dunn (Congress)
Dramaturge: Katrina Dunn
Stage Manager: Stephen Courtenay (BMO Theatre) / Lois Dawson (Congress)
Academic Advisors: Patricia Badir and Paul Budra
Special Thanks: Ryan Brown, UBC Community Engagement, Claire Sakaki, Rhea Shroff, Ava Forsyth, Heather Kennedy, Tiffany Werth, and Vin Nardizzi.
. All citations of the play text are from Leah Scragg’s edition (Manchester University Press, 2012).
. For more on this, see Badir’s chapter, “Coastal Squeeze: Environmental Metamorphosis and Lyly’s Lincolnshire,” in Ovidian Transversions: ‘Iphis and Ianthe’, 1300-1650, eds. Valerie Traub, Patricia Badir, and Peggy McCracken (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).
. “The Galatea Project: An Oecologies Roundtable,” June 3 2019, Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2019 (Sponsored by the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies/Société canadienne d’études de la Renaissance and Canadian Association for Theatre Research/L’Association canadienne de la recherche théâtrale).