Author Britton Brooks shares how his study came about from a head filled with questions, to a publication he hopes will provide a window into a different way of perceiving the non-human world.
Restoring Creation began with a head burdened by questions, the stones of Oxford being worn a fraction more by my steps, and viridescent tree-light gathering in dense pools of refreshing coolness. I was struggling to bring together in some kind of assemblage that which I love: words, history, and the wonder of the non-human world. To unite the pursuit of the medieval scholar with a heart that finds its home when wandering beneath the leaves of oak, ash, koa, and palm, or diving beneath the waves to hear the chatter of fish and be freed from the tyranny of gravity. As I continued my pursuit it became clearer and clearer, with every word read, every manuscript consulted, that the medieval world shrugged off my categories, my assumptions, and revealed itself to contain a wealth of self-reflection on just such matters, written by those whose daily breaths were taken in intimate concert with the lowing of cows, the tilling of soil, and the bite of northern seas. A much deeper connection than me, scrolling through articles on my laptop beneath the sheltering beams of the library. At its heart Restoring Creation stemmed from this confrontation with the medieval world which, like many confrontations, led me to a single question, which engendered many others: how did the early English peoples relate to trees, water, animals, and wind? How did they consider the aqueous world of fish or the igneous homes of moss? How did their distinct historical, cultural, and linguistic context, informed by their philosophy and theology, entangle with their lived experience?
In my research I came across several prevailing scholarly ideas that appeared in need of revision, the two most striking and influential being the following: first, that the natural world was primarily a signifier, primarily metaphor, employed in early medieval literature only for its use as a vessel for divine truth; second, that the non-human world was primarily antagonistic towards humanity, a wildness that must be mastered, conquered, for it to be used properly. It was the world outside the hall, bereft of the illuminating artifice of human hand. Yet what I found was a theologically and philosophically informed connection to the physical world that was neither purely metaphor, nor overtly antagonistic. I read how, in the Old English poem Genesis A, the stars were left as a comfort for fallen humanity. While of course ultimately reflecting upon God their maker, in a world where, apart from the blaze of torch in large towns or the soft luminescence of candle in scriptoria, the heavens would flood the night with their variegated light; a world where the colors of Jupiter and Mars could be distinguished with the naked eye, and the paths of the wandering stars, the planets, could be tracked with ease through the black. This was a comfort, given by God to humanity, thrust out from the eternal Garden to a realm where entropy dissolved limb and bone.
I read how saints Cuthbert and Guthlac interacted with the wind and rain, seals and birds with concern, and most interestingly, with joy. While animal miracle stories involving the two saints primarily reflect the ordering of the universe by God, his ability alone to bind the wild waters to not flood the land, the attention paid to the non-human world, and our relationship to it, is striking. For example, in a single manuscript of the Latin anonymous Vita Sancti Cuthberti, several pregnant seals do not dare to give birth until Cuthbert blesses them, an almost uncanny moment of mingling between the human and animal. Or in the Old English poem Guthlac A, after Guthlac has successfully banished the demons from a portion of the landscape, the saint is described as finding ‘his joy in wild beasts after he forsook the world’ (‘genom him to wildeorum wynne siþþan he þas woruld forhogde’). Guthlac has not tamed the animals, but instead has been brought back into right relationship with them; their wild animality remains.
What I found, in this brief and focused glimpse into the early English and their relationship with the non-human world, as portrayed in hagiography, was a much more nuanced, multifaceted, but ultimately consistent vision. In this focus a life lived in pursuit of God was not one that discarded the non-human, whether tree or bird, but one where the saint’s path led to a restoration of our original relationship, where even the sea, being subject to God, might aid them. It was a world where Psalmody and the monastic life both represented and enacted the divine order of the cosmos, so much so that the act of constructing a hermitage on a tiny bit of rock amidst the swirling sea could rattle heaven. The non-human was dangerous, beautiful, distracting, compelling, full of wisdom to those who attended to it properly, but ultimately did not answer to human concerns, was not capricious, but instead its own entity, subject to God alone and through Him, to saints like Cuthbert and Guthlac. My hope is that this study will provide a window into a different way of perceiving and relating to the non-human world, and also to provide a deeper understanding of the ways early medieval people reflected on and interacted with it.
This guest post is written by Britton Elliott Brooks, Project Assistant Professor at the University of Tokyo, Centre for Global Communication Strategies.