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Birkbeck Medieval Seminar: Animality and Medieval Concepts of Place

Venue: Online

Animality and Medieval Concepts of Place

Primary Organizer: Michael Warren (HRF, Birkbeck ETCW)

The 2022 Birkbeck Medieval Seminar explores the animality of medieval places. Nonhuman creatures appear in, and in connection with, various different places and ideas of place in medieval culture. Most literally they occur in many place-names, suggesting that birds and animals played a significant part in how medieval communities understood their relationships with place. What was the importance of these creatures to our perceptions of literal and conceptualized places in the Middle Ages? This interdisciplinary seminar aims to explore connections between nonhuman beings and place as a step towards a more nuanced and developed appreciation of medieval people’s physical and cognitive attachments to place. While ecocritical and ecocultual interests have begun to contribute to these discussions, it is usually the land itself or more permanent natural features, such as trees, that have been the topics of interest; the ways in which nonhuman creatures specially might have shaped ideas about, and identifications with, place have not yet featured all that prominently. ‘Animality and Medieval Concepts of Place’ will address the rich and complex animal presences entangled in the narratives and practices of medieval place-making and place-concepts.
This is an online event and shall be hosted on Microsoft Teams. Please note that booking is essential, we shall send the joining link to all those who book in the days before the seminar.

Co-Organizers: Kate Franklin (Birkbeck HCA), Mike Bintley (Birkbeck ETCW)


Schedule of Speakers and Abstracts: 

12:00  Introductory Remarks: Michael Warren (Birkbeck ETCW) 


12:15   Dr John BakerUniversity of Nottingham School of English

Animals and Early Medieval Meeting-Places

In the medieval period, governance was organised through local districts (hundreds or wapentakes), which held regular meetings in the open air. Many districts were named after their meeting-places, and certain types of place-name can also help us identify sites of public assembly. A number of these names make reference to animals of various kinds; others are in close proximity to place-names indicative of the corralling or sheltering of animals. This paper sets out some of the evidence and explores this apparent correlation between venues where humans were periodically gathered and places where animals were herded.


1:15   Dr Naomi Sykes, University of Exeter Department of Archaeology

 Animals and Landscape in Norman England

Animals are, and always have been, central to the creation, use and perception of landscape. For scholars of medieval Britain, the Norman Conquest has become a convenient historical event to explain away the transformations in biodiversity and landscape that occurred in medieval England. Natural history books regularly suggest that the Normans were responsible for the introduction of new animal species (e.g., rabbits, fallow deer, peafowl, and pheasants), landscape features, and attitudes to the natural world. In truth, though, our understanding of 1066’s impact on people, animals and landscape is based largely on received wisdom. In this paper, I will present new data from extensive studies of archaeological animal bones that have incorporated traditional zooarchaeological techniques alongside biomolecular analyses (e.g., DNA, isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating). With these results, we will revisit the following questions: Did the Norman’s introduce a new elite hunting culture? New exotic animals? New ideas of landscape?  How did everyday people, on a day-to-day basis interact with animals and landscape before and after the Conquest?

2:15-2:30  Break 

2:30   Dr Harriet Jean Evans Tang, Durham University Department of Archaeology

Herd and Home in the Place-Making of Medieval Iceland

The settlement of Iceland was a co-settlement between humans and the domestic animals brought with them to the island, and later medieval texts seemed keen to reinforce the role of animals in the establishment of their multispecies communities. This multidisciplinary talk will consider first the role of animal stories in the settlement of Iceland, often in place-naming episodes, before examining the formation of places beyond place-naming, focussing on the everyday and seasonal animal-human interactions that shaped medieval understandings of places, both at home and in the wider landscape. It will ask whether we can access medieval animal concepts of place (or at least human perceptions of them), in material and literary entanglements of animals and their landscapes and explore the role of animal bodies in medieval concepts of place-making.

The talk will draw both on material from the speaker’s new book: Animal-Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland – From Farm-Settlement to Sagas, and new data from the COHABITing with Vikings project, an ongoing Leverhulme-funded project that brings together methods and analyses from bioarchaeology and textual studies of Old Norse laws and literature

3:30   Dr Tim WingardUniversity of York Department of History 

Beyond Aristotle: Local Narratives of Animality in the Late Middle Ages

The conventional historiographical narrative holds that a handful of texts dominated late medieval European conceptions of animality: chiefly among them were Aristotle’s Histora animalium, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, and the Physiologus. These works, though themselves the products of a specific time and place (the Mediterranean world in the classical and late antique periods), nevertheless acquired a universal intellectual authority that transcended temporal and geographic borders. Consequently, historians have tended to portray medieval representations of the natural world as being at once abstracted and unmoored from the local environments in which their authors and readers lived.

 This paper aims to challenge the homogeneity of such models by exploring how medieval authors engaged with local and contemporaneous forms of animal knowledge. Drawing on sources such as encyclopedias, chronicles, and didactic literature, it pulls together evidence for narratives of animality–folklore, legends, popular wisdom – which existed independently of the canonical works of classical and medieval natural history. In doing so, this paper demonstrates not only the diversity of late medieval ways of knowing animals, but also argues that medieval societies’ relationships with nature could be shaped as much by intimate relationships with place and locality as by textual authority.

4:30-5:00 Discussion

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