In the Anglo-Norman Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology preaches to the birds. He tells them to praise and give honour to the Creator, who has given them wings to fly in the pure air, and who looks after them and gives them food. The birds listen attentively and with ‘entendement’, or understanding (from the French verb entendre, ‘to hear’). On the level of interaction between human and animal (or bird), this immensely popular medieval narrative seems to demonstrate a shared understanding between species, and a shared praise for God. Indeed, this has been the most common interpretation of Francis’ treatment of the natural world and the environment through which he moves to preach.
Animal Soundscapes in Anglo-Norman Texts charts a new way of reading texts such as this one. If we focus on the sounds presented in the narrative, we start to notice that Francis is not merely sharing a form of communal praise with the animals; he is also asserting a form of human control over them based on who is allowed to speak and when. In other episodes he silences the ‘noise’ of the swallows to sing his own praise to God, and he teaches Lady Jacoba of Rome’s lamb to wake her up by bleating in the morning. As a consequence of these examples, a student in a nearby town addresses a noisy swallow who is disturbing his study, and he successfully silences the bird before setting her to fly free. A focus on sound relations and understanding demonstrates that Francis silences or harnesses animal sounds in ways that are fundamental to his legacy as a preacher of God’s message.
Francis’ handling of animal soundscapes is important because it shows that medieval writers were more attentive to sound in medieval texts than the dominant strain of medieval intellectual thought may have suggested. In the Middle Ages, a hierarchy of sensory experience expressed in some patristic and intellectual writings reinforced sight as the most superior of the senses. However, for many medieval writers, sound was just as important as sight.
I wrote this book to show the importance of sound and soundscapes for medieval conceptions of communication, relation and identification between humans and animals. I show how the ‘soundscape’, a term popularised by musicologist R Murray Schafer, is not just a way of demonstrating a text’s attention to recording sound but is also a tool that can be used to describe the presentation and effects of sound. Taking my cue from Sound Studies, but adapting this terminology, I demonstrate how thinking in terms of the sound milieu, the sound zone, and sound perspectives alongside soundscapes helps us to navigate complex interactions between humans and creatures in medieval texts. The terminology I employ throughout the book thus speaks to different disciplines—Sound Studies, Animal Studies, Anthropology, the Environmental Humanities—and offers readers the chance to think more reflectively, and more critically, about how sound produces meaning.
Anglo-Norman England acts as a social and cultural case-study for this study of textual sound because it is a milieu which is already multilingual after the Norman conquest. This book invites us to think in complex ways about the sounds of multilingual England as well as about the relation between humanity and animality. Placing my discussion of the Life of Saint Francis alongside other texts—the bestiary by Philippe de Thaon, Walter of Bibbesworth’s treatise on how to run an estate, Marie de France’s Fables, the Middle English song ‘Sumer is icumen in’—this book shows why Anglo-Norman texts are melting pots for thinking about sound in multilingual settings. 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. In a context in which the nature of interaction between real and legendary animal encounters was changing, learning animal sounds, imitating them, or reflecting on their allegorical significance provided readers of these texts with the opportunity to bring animals into the very heart of their intellectual lives.
This guest post was written by Liam Lewis, a Lecturer in French at the University of Liverpool who has taught at the University of Oxford and L’Université de Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle. He has a PhD from the University of Warwick.