King Arthur's Coconuts: Towards an Understanding of Animals and the Medieval Mind (Panel)

Cultural Studies and Media Studies / Interdisciplinary Humanities

Margaret Villari (Temple University)

Lauriane Guihard (University of Pennsylvania)

Pressing on established medieval stereotypes with caricatures of less-than-gallant knights and flatulent-wielding enemies, the emblematic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail inspires viewers to consider a number of ontological questions. A particularly telling element of the film has ‘clip-clopped’ half a century into the future to remind us of the still half-imagined nature of animals: King Arthur’s coconuts. Throughout the film Arthur’s squire scurries behind a galloping Arthur smacking coconuts together to mimic the sound of a horse. Juxtaposed with Arthur’s speculation about swallows, these coconuts expose a paradoxical human desire to know animals as animals and a human instinct to only understand them for their anthropocentric value, and arguably not know (or see) them at all.

The Middle Ages have been understood as a time marked by the dominant narrative that humans are superior to animals, especially because, as Susan Crane argues, of Christian doctrines that positioned animals as made for human use. Recent scholarship has focused on challenging this narrative. For example, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen explains that medieval households often included pampered pets that would “live under the same roof,” while other animals (some of the same species) were easily exploited, raising questions about the uneven distribution of the value of life similar to those that we grapple with today.

Whether using or challenging the theoretical framework of Critical Animal Studies, a session analyzing medieval literature has the potential to open compelling discussions that respond to the epistemological queries that have been around for centuries, yet still frustrate the modern mind: What does it mean to be alive? To be an animal? To be human? What is the difference between the two? Why do humans exist (so closely) alongside countless other beings whose phenomenological lives remain, at best, a mystery shrouded in anxious anthropocentric beliefs?

In his book How to Make a Human, medievalist Karl Steel calls for a radical rethinking of human and animal categories. In an attempt to respond to Steel’s call to action, this session radically rethinks what it means to know a human from/and/as an animal, and to explore the way the collective medieval mind both shapes and challenges the way humans understand animals today. It seeks to untangle some of the confusing elements of the relationship between animals, epistemology, and reality by analyzing medieval texts featuring animals.