Animal Soundscapes in Anglo-Norman Texts


Welcome to the Medieval Herald Dr Lewis! Can you please begin by providing an overview of your book Animal Soundscapes in Anglo-Norman Texts?

Thank you, it is a privilege to be in this issue of the Herald! In this book I wanted to take readers of medieval bestiaries and fables off the beaten path and on quite a different journey to the one they might expect. The book looks at the different ways that medieval texts represent animals making noise, singing, or conversing using human language. It does so by presenting the ‘soundscapes’ of four key texts written in Anglo-Norman England—the bestiary by Philippe de Thaon, Walter of Bibbesworth’s multilingual treatise on how to run an estate, a version of the Life of Francis of Assisi, and Marie de France’s Fables—all texts that are rewriting or adapting earlier Latin and English traditions. By carefully examining how these texts depict animal sounds, I show that animal soundscapes are about much more than presenting animals as anthropomorphised puppets for human morals. Instead, these texts develop ways to tie animal sound into processes for memorising the natural world, learning different languages, exploring the meaning of life, and highlighting a different perspective on the environment. Throughout the book readers will also discover how animal sound works in medieval lais, the Tristan legend, and even the Middle English song, ‘Sumer is icumen in’.

This is a really fascinating topic, why/how did you decide to pursue it? Has it been something that’s always interested you?

I have always been a singer and musician, and I have always been interested in animals even if I am a little allergic to them! I grew up learning the piano and at the age of eighteen I bought myself a little lap harp to try my hand at folk tunes. As I developed a taste for medieval literature, I realised that medieval cultures did not necessarily distinguish between literature and music as we tend to today. When I first started reading medieval literature, I remember being fascinated by what medieval texts sounded like. And I can remember reading around this topic and realising that the sounds of different languages is one of the most mysterious and elusive aspects of medieval texts. As I started doing research, I discovered that medieval writers associated different animals and birds with symbolic meanings related to sound, like the nightingale whose song represents unfulfilled love, or the cuckoo whose melodic call we hear so often in classical music. Then there were sirens who were thought to be the cause of the beginnings of music; how fascinating that such important creatures would lure sailors to their deaths through their sweet songs! Reading these stories of creatures producing music and sound was a constant inspiration to my own craft as a musician as well as a writer.

What was something you found in your research that really interested you or that really stood out?

Any book about animals is a pleasure to write in many respects. It was such a joy to learn about some of the most fascinating mythological creatures medieval bestiaries have to offer, like screaming mandrakes. Likewise, I really fell in love with the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology who gave a sermon to the birds and taught sheep to bleat like liturgical alarm clocks. On a different note, I think that one of the most interesting methodological discoveries uncovered in this book is how texts capitalize on the limited range of words we have for describing animal sounds. This applies to medieval literature but is also much broader in scope. Some medieval texts list animal sounds through verb lists—the dog barks, the cow moos, the horse whinnies, etc. But in medieval French, as in modern French, the word ‘cri’ is used to describe the ways animals (and humans) cry, shout, scream, call, or make a din. I found it interesting to think through the implications of this for the ways we conceptualize how language works, especially in texts like treatises or fables that were used to teach children languages like French and Latin in Anglo-Norman England.

You look at animal’s relationship to sound and language in French texts from medieval England, is this topic relevant in more modern texts as well? Is there something that makes French texts more relevant in this manner? How did you choose the texts used in this study?

This is a great question, and one I spent a long time thinking about. It is true that animals appear all over the place in medieval texts and visual cultures, and it would be fascinating to see how these themes are played out in literature across the globe. I certainly found myself thinking a lot about my research as my four-year-old godson, whose mum is Polish, learnt the names and noises of animals in two different languages. Since no one has produced this kind of study on sound before in English, I needed to choose a corpus that would really show why this is an important topic. I chose Anglo-Norman England because it is a social and cultural milieu which is already multilingual after the Norman conquest, so the academic conversation about language, culture and identity in this context is already well established. My work pushes at the edges of these conversations to get us to think in more complex ways about the sounds of multilingual England as well as about the relation between humanity and animality. So, while animal sounds appear in literatures from cultures across the globe, this project was only really feasible in this specific context in which French happens to be the dominant literary language. Looking at the techniques used in French texts also helps to give readers of English a more complex understanding of how English works, too, especially when some words, like ‘chant’, ‘noise’, or ‘cuccu’, are shared in both languages.

I knew from the offset that I wanted to talk about bestiaries and fables, but these texts represent animal sound in such different ways, the former through generic sound descriptors like the ‘cri’, and the latter through humanized ‘speaking’ animals. I knew I needed to find texts that represented animal sounds in other ways. I struck lucky with Bibbesworth’s multilingual treatise in French and English, which lists animal noises in French and glosses most of them in English above the same words they translate. Likewise, my analysis of the Life of Francis of Assisi offers a different approach to interpreting animal sound in perhaps the most influential saint’s life of the Middle Ages. This narrative shows the importance of animal soundscapes for how medieval people thought about ecology and the environment.

What do you have planned next? Will you continue with similar research?

I am proud of this book’s contribution to Sound Studies and Animal Studies as academic disciplines, and I hope that it will reshape the way we discuss animals in medieval contexts. My next project thinks a little more broadly about ecology and translation in depictions of Apocalypse and environmental restoration in literature from medieval Britain and France. But my thinking about sound and music remains fundamental to how I read and experience medieval texts. I will surely continue writing about the connections between music and animality in medieval cultures for years to come!

And finally, what has your experience been of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online and in-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days?

One effect of the world locking down was to get people thinking more deeply about animals and climate change, and reflecting more intimately on their own square mile. I was revising and finishing Animal Soundscapes in Anglo-Norman Texts during the pandemic, and I was glad that the materials in the book made me notice my own animal companions more as international travel stopped and conferences were postponed. The past couple of years have certainly made me think about when we need to be in the room together and when not. I think these are useful questions that will change the way collaborative research happens in the future, hopefully opening up research to wider audiences, and adding more potential for multilingual projects.

Animal Soundscapes in Anglo-Norman Texts


£70.00 / $120.00, 9781843846222, January 2022
Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages



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LIAM LEWIS is Lecturer in French at the University of Liverpool, and has taught at the University of Oxford and L’Université de Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle. He has a PhD from the University of Warwick.

Cover image: Illumination from the Fables by Marie de France in Recueil d’anciennes poésies françaises, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. Ms-3142, f. 260r.  Reproduced by permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.