“The Manciple’s Tale” and Self-Knowledge

I guess I can’t break the chain now so “hello my beautiful “Lords and Ladies, learned and lewed, and all those who reject or object to those stated binaries!” I hope you enjoyed this weeks readings as much as I did. The theme for this week is a continuation of self-knowledge, so I will focus on how “The Manciple’s Tale” deals with what we conceive makes us human.

The moral of “The Manciple’s Tale” is to hold your tongue and not to act rashly. These lessons are imparted to the reader through the interactions between Phebus, his pet crow, and his wife. There are two themes that caught my attention while reading: speech and the nature of being. What does it mean for Phebus to give the crow speech? In his article, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages” Jeffrey Cohen reminds us that God allowed Adam to name the animals around him in order to exercise his dominion over them. It is his power of speech that allows Adam to elevate himself and have control over the natural world (Cohen 42). So what does it mean when Phebus gives his crow the power of speech? Speech elevates the crows status, making him what Cohen calls a “proximate strange[r]” (41), where we derive what it means to be human through a body who is similar but vastly different from our own.

What does it mean for an animal body to perform a human trait? If human tongues are “walled..with teeth and lips” (MT 323) to help us keep to our moral obligation of holding our tongue, how can a crow be expected to exercise the same restraint when he is not afforded those same bodily apparati? Phebus alters the nature of the crow by giving him speech, forcing him to live in a mixed-species role where he is expected to hold the same moral values. The crow’s downfall is foreshadowed by the return to nature that is presented through the description of the bird, cat, and wolf. Each of the animals depicted in the tale abscond from their domestic, human attachments, such as fine dining and silk pillows (175-176) in favour of their inherent wildness. The reader expects that the crow will find a way to lose his human privilege of speech and return to the animal he is supposed to be.

But what about Phebus? The crow shows restraint, loyalty, and reason– all arguably human traits before his punishment. But Phebus’ actions embody the opposite; he is rash, reactionary, and violent– truly animalistic qualities that lead him to commit murder. For me, the big takeaway from this tale is not just the importance of keeping mum and seeking evidence before making decisions, but rather the question: what nature does Phebus return too? What nature do humans return to when we lose what we consider makes us human?



Week 5 Blog Post

In honour of tradition: “Lords and Ladies, learned and lewed, and all those who reject or object to those stated binaries!”

“Stated binaries,” in fact, will be the focus of this blog post. This week’s readings, including the tough discussions circulating lately on the blog, has got me thinking about the nature of boundaries, subjectivity and anthropomorphism, and our notions of change and becoming, all of which seem to be predominant themes developing across our readings in this class.

I’m interested in the ways that alchemy simultaneously constructs and dismantles binaries. Alchemical experiments seem to rely on the dissolution of opposites in order to work towards a unity in the philosopher’s stone. The Canon’s Yeoman gleefully lists all the various, and sometimes absurd, ingredients he gathers and attempts to combines in order to achieve his purpose; the ingredients of “asshes, donge, pisse, and cley” (807) and “cley maad with hors or mannes heer” seem unrelated, yet combining them in a laboratory suggests that they have at least enough of a sameness in order to produce the philosopher’s stone (what, after all, would seem remarkable about humans alongside ashes and dung?). This idea of sameness—that no ingredient is too unlike the other—reflects the premise of the philosopher’s stone, which relies on the theory that base metals can be transformed into gold because all metals fundamentally share the same material. Although binaries normally suggest some kind of imposed hierarchy, alchemy seems to undermine these very hierarchies by suggesting that differences can be dissolved into a single, perfected unity. Indeed, the alchemist, who himself is the “God” of the laboratory, is both distinct from and yet dangerously entangled with the natural processes that he recreates in his experiments. If alchemy fails in its ultimate purpose of creating the philosopher’s stone or elixir, it does seem to achieve another kind of transmutation—that of the human self. For instance, the Yeoman’s face is deprived of natural colour, the Canon grows secretive and paranoid, and the Yeoman’s audience is captivated by the cryptic language of alchemical literature. The failure to produce the philosopher’s stone is enough to drive alchemists mad and to the state of poverty, and even the laboratory conditions within which alchemists work are extremely volatile and, as related by the Yeoman, often beyond the alchemist’s own control.

Ingold’s chapter seems to reflect the alchemist’s own intuition that the world is in flux and in a constant state of becoming. While anthropomorphism tends to assert these kinds of boundaries between the self and the natural world, these comparisons also suggest the reverse possibility that humans are just as changeable as stones and metals and, indeed, powerless to these transmutations. I’m not sure if medieval alchemy quite embodies the animistic worldview that Ingold outlines, but I think that it does helpfully open up a way to begin considering it. Perhaps the practices and literature surrounding alchemy has animism’s imaginative capacity to dissolve binaries and draw unlikely comparisons. It’s interesting, then, to consider that while alchemy offered the alluring fantasy of hierarchy, control, and insight into “Godis preuite” (“Verses Upon the Elixir” 93), it also enabled another kind of escapist fantasy of human transformation and participation in the “lives” of minerals and metals. This kind of fantasy, to my mind, seems to be a loss of control, if anything.

The following link has a helpful visual depiction of the transmutation of metals into the philosopher’s stone (not strictly the processes occurring in “Versus Upon the Elixir,” but similar). Notice how they are all visualized anthropomorphically: http://www.alchemywebsite.com/Emblems_MS_Cabala_Mineralis01.html

And, perhaps to think about the allure of alchemy and its obsessive desire to combine and create, I’ll leave you with a rather addicting game: https://littlealchemy.com/