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Title:Reading in the animal vernacular: the bestiary as lay genre in medieval England
Author(s):Wong, Jessica
Director of Research:Camargo, Martin
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Camargo, Martin
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Stoppino, Eleonora; Trilling, Renée; Wright, Charles
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Medieval studies
Medieval literature
English literature
Abstract:Many of the bestiaries that survive from medieval England were produced by monastic orders such as the Benedictines. However, there is evidence of a widespread understanding of the bestiary’s system of imagery and moralizations by the fourteenth century, which exclusively monastic use does not explain. The animal imagery that appears in vernacular media requires a nuanced understanding from the audience in order to have any meaning beyond superficial figural representation; in other words, the laity had acquired a “literacy” of the bestiary’s animal exempla by the fourteenth century. In this dissertation, I examine the use of the bestiary by lay audiences in the Middle Ages, and how and why the English bestiary shifted from a Latin genre to a vernacular one. I argue that preaching was the primary medium by which the bestiary reached the English consciousness. In Chapter One I lay the groundwork for defining the bestiary genre and identifying its major textual components, and show how it was distinct from similar contemporary genres. I also trace the history of its scholarship, and how our understanding of the genre has also changed over time. Then, in Chapter Two, I examine the extent of lay use of the bestiary tradition, as evidenced by the appearance of its imagery in lay genres, despite the decline in manuscript production during the same time. I propose that the bestiary’s imagery had become so commonplace and familiar to the population at large, that its animal symbolism resembled a kind of vernacular in its legibility. In fact, the spread of the bestiary throughout the larger population eventually affected the content of later manuscript copies; an example of this visual vernacular can be seen in the development of the siren and its visual representations throughout the course of the bestiary’s production. In Chapter Three, I trace the spread of the bestiary content to the point of its initial contact with the laity, preaching. The genre’s shift from a more common treatise on virtues and vices to a resource for popular preaching, especially after the Fourth Lateran Council and the pastoral care movement, demonstrates its repurposing for broader populations; mendicant excerpt collections included bestiary chapters bound together with other preaching aids, and later sermons that were delivered to lay audiences continued to make use of the bestiary’s animal exempla. We see evidence of a “missing link” between manuscript and laity in the bestiary in British Library, Harley MS 3244. The manuscript marks a transition point between the bestiary’s original cloistered use and its later use in sermons directed to lay audiences. Finally, in Chapter Four, I explore the continued use of the bestiary tradition in later vernacular literature, even after the production of bestiary manuscripts had essentially ceased. The bestiary’s robust afterlife further indicates the widespread and lasting legibility of its system of animal imagery and moralizations by lay audiences. In addition to examples in romance and drama, I examine Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of the bestiary to create his character of the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales; Chaucer’s use represents a particularly rich concentration of bestiary imagery in vernacular literature, and relies on the reader’s association of animal features with morality to convey its meaning. Chaucer’s characterization of the Pardoner as well as the structure of his Prologue and Tale demonstrate the incorporation of the bestiary into a Mischgattung, or mixed genre: Chaucer combines the generic components of the bestiary, sermon, and exemplum to create something wholly new.
Issue Date:2017-12-06
Rights Information:Copyright 2017 Jessica Wong
Date Available in IDEALS:2018-03-13
Date Deposited:2017-12

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