Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I eat the air, promise-crammed.

I think I shall have to start reading mediaeval bestiaries.

Here is a beautiful little metaphor that I somehow managed to miss when I did my post on the sins of the voice:

Þe deuel sheweþ hym in þis world in many wise [ways] and liknesse[s] and takeþ hym liknesse [takes on shapes] for to deceyue and bigile wiþ men. And right so doþ þe liyere [liar], and þerfore he fareþ as a butre-flye, þat lyueþ bi [ie, on] þe aier and haþ no þing in hire guttes [her belly] but wynd, and at euery colour þat sche seþ [sees] sche chaungeþ hire owne.[1]

Leaving aside for this post the symbolic application of this to the liar - though the combination of adaptibility and frailty it implies for someone who has to live only on "wynd" fascinates me - I love what this tells us about the mediaeval understanding of a butterfly.

Firstly, she's feminine. This can't be an accident of grammatical gender - it's deliberate on the part of the translator, certainly, given the change from the masculine pronoun for the sinner to the feminine for the butterfly he resembles. And unless the original Middle French had a different noun for butterfly, Lorens would have used the masculine "papillon", so if he also referred to the butterfly as "elle" the usage would have been even more striking. But whether the femininity is the idea of the English translator, of Lorens, of the bestiary he may have consulted or simply a widely spread notion of the insect's nature, it is unflatteringly appropriate. Women were commonly perceived as less stable, less reliable, and of course most had very little physical power and thus had to rely on words. Even their bodies were considered to be less stable than a man's - ever heard of a condition called "wandering womb"? And most women, particularly in the upper classes, did have to change her colours to suit her new situation, because on marrying - often quite young - they woudl be sent forth into a different community, sometimes far from home, even in a different country, and be expected to settle into it and manage whatever wifely duties were appropriate to her situation.

Does this make her a liar? Politic, maybe...

Secondly - and thirdly, since these lump together nicely - butterflies a) eat air and b) change their colour to camouflage. Obviously, neither of these are scientifically accurate, but Lorens isn't really trying to provide an accurate picture of a butterfly here. The butterfly one might see over the hedgerows - which he can't have seen change its colours, because individual butterflies don't - is not the creature under discussion. This butterfly is the allegorical butterfly of the bestiaries, interesting primarily for the reflection it casts on the human spirit under consideration.

But of course, this distinction is too sharp, and implies that people held two separate ideas of "butterfly" in their head. I don't think this is true - I think it's more a case of an ability to subordinate the observable to the symbolic, to not mind or consider significant any differences one might notice in the real butterfly to the allegorical. Even without the aid of allegory, we can today largely consider the koala a soft and cuddly creature who exists mostly for cuddling tourists, and if we do hear those very loud screams and grunts they make in the night, just roll over and mutter "bloody koalas!" before going back to sleep, the socially prevalent image intact.

I have wandered off topic, I think. The connection I meant to make is with this:

King Claudius: How fares* our cousin Hamlet?
Hamlet: Excellent, i'faith, of the chameleon's dish. I eat the air, promise-crammed.** [2]

Hamlet's puns usually require some glossing - certainly he confuses Claudius here - and so I shall add the footnotes the Norton edition provides here:

* How does; Hamlet's response puns on "fare" as food and drink.
** The chameleon was supposed to live on air. Hamlet puns on 'heir', referring to Claudius' insubstantial promise of the succession.

So the chameleon also eats the air. And, of course, the chameleon actually does change colour (though not to camouflage). The allegorical significances of the two animals could have quite an overlap, then; though butterflies, being light and airy and winged, are a more intuitive metaphor for changeability. Might the idea of the butterfly's changing colours be derived from confusion with the chameleon? It could have risen independently, of course - many species of butterfly can be distinguished by little but colour, and most will instinctively seek out resting places against which they will camouflage[3]. My instinct would be to suspect that the ideas may have risen independently, but became strengthened and solidified by occasional association.

Sadly, two quotes aren't enough to unravel a cultural history of allegorical significance for either animal. Clearly research is in order!


[1] The book of vices and virtues: a fourteenth century English translation of the Somme le roi of Lorens d'Orleans, ed. W. Nelson Francis, Early English Text Society OS 217 (London: Oxford UP, 1942), 60.
[2] Hamlet, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et. al. (London: Norton, 1997), 3.2.84-86.
[3] Even in species where colour varies significantly between individuals - each individual knows where to land to hide itself. And without a mirror!

1 comment:

Lady Despenser's Scribery said...

Medieval allegory in the form of animals is an interesting subject, especially when you look at it in comparison to, say, Native American ideas of animal archetypes. Often, the Native American ones are more positive - the animals are relatives and helpers (or at worst, tricksters). Whereas in Medieval and also in alot of western European folklore, many animals have a devilish or megative connotation.

One example is the wolf (my favourite animal!). In European and medieval thought it comes over as an animal of the devil - evil, rapacious and cunning. In the many NA cultures, the wolf is often seen as a brother and a teacher of mankind.