The origins and development of ‘Representing Beasts’

The original hardback edition of Representing Beasts was published in summer 2015, in fact just in time for Leeds IMC where both subject and sleekly stunning cover made it one of the hits of the week. I’m delighted to be able to look back and say that it was a taste of the (much-deserved) success that was to follow and which now culminates in a paperback edition that has already tapped into a new market and got off to a flying start. Here Michal Bintley and Thomas Williams look back at the book’s origins and development.

When we sat down together to reflect on Representing Beasts, it was an opportunity to think not only about the book (which was first published in 2015), but also the conference that gave us the idea for it (in 2011), and some of the avenues that the book leads into now, four years later.

When we started putting Beasts together, we were conscious that it would be impossible in a book-length edited collection to offer a synthesis of all the scholarship relevant to the study of human/animal interaction and representation.

Beasts isn’t, for that reason, anything like a comprehensive study of the way these relationships were understood. Rather, if offers a series of focused interventions and reflections by scholars who in many cases were endeavouring to work across disciplinary boundaries to show how non-humans are represented in various forms across the period, and across the North Sea zone (and beyond).

Detail of a miniature of a bonnacon repelling pursuit, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 16r

On the whole readers and reviewers liked this; it’s a book which offers a series of exploratory studies, encouraging new methodological approaches and considered speculation in our study of how humans engage with and represent non-humans. So, while the ground is familiar in some areas, there’s also plenty to be found here about the agency of objects and landscapes, beasts in dreams, insects, and the place of creatures more of the mind than of the earth.

Part of this involved problematising taxonomic approaches in one way or another, exploring the shared worlds of humans and non-humans, discussing the various qualities we have in common with other animals, and considering how early medieval people handled these crossovers intellectually.

Della Hooke and John Baker both show the imprint of non-human creatures great and small on the shared landscape; Lásló Sándor Chardonnens showed how they permeated the dreamscapes of the early middle ages; Marijane Osborne and Eric Lacey discuss shared attributes of humans and corvids; Sue Brunning and Vicky Symons both look at the agency of serpents, dragons, and the objects with which they became entwined; and Noël Adams and Richard North both thought about longer-term processes involved in the cultural transmission of ideas about human/animal interactions.

Detail of a miniature of hunters pursuing a bonnacon with a very long lance and strategic shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

Our own papers stand out for their focus on ways in which humans are, or become, bestial; both of us also work on landscapes and elements of landscape – Tom on warfare, and Mike on landscape, environment, and settlements – so our approach to thinking about  ‘beasts’ was to consider how early medieval people defined themselves in relation to non-humans and their habitats, and how entire categories of place could stand for a world beyond the boundaries of ‘normal’ social action: ‘beast-scapes’, to use Tom’s phrase.

Editing a book is always an educational experience, and Beasts certainly had a strong contribution to make to the way that we’ve taken our individual work forward since it was published.

For Mike, with an eye on landscapes and settlements, working on Beasts helped him to think about the multitude of different factors, conscious and unconscious, that came to bear on how medieval people thought about the places they inhabited and avoided, how they defined their communities and those towards whom they were hostile, how pervasive and long-lasting some of these mythologies could be, and how easily ‘things’ develop a life of their own once they’re out of our hands.

The ideas that underpin Tom’s contribution remain fundamental to his understanding of the early medieval conflict landscape and the identities that were projected or assumed in war. And, though his work has taken him in a number of other directions since the publication of Beasts, the way of thinking that it inspired has had profound consequences for his overall approach to early medieval studies: his recent writing on the Vikings can be characterised by an urge to criticise traditional taxonomies wherever they are to be found. Beasts is a volume that takes multiple perspectives at how people in the early Middle Ages positioned themselves in relation to the other inhabitants of their world. As such, it is fundamentally a book about what it has meant to be a human in other times and places and, conversely, what it meant to not be one. It may, we hope, provoke some further reflection about how, and where, we continue to draw those lines.

This guest post is written by the editors of Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia: Michael Bintley and Thomas Williams. Michael Bintley is Lecturer in Early Medieval Literature and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London. Thomas Williams is a former curator of Early Medieval Coins at the British Museum.

Contributors of Representing Beasts include Noël Adams, John Baker, Michael D. J. Bintley, Sue Brunning, László Sándor Chardonnens, Della Hooke, Eric Lacey, Richard North, Marijane Osborn, Victoria Symons, Thomas J. Williams

Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia
Edited by Michael D.J. Bintley and Thomas J.T. Williams

Paperback / 9781783273690 / £14.99 or $19.46
Hardback / 9781783270088 / £45 or $74.25

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