Wednesday, November 4: Dr. Emily Steiner, Professor of English at Penn, was our special guest facilitator. She introduced the an excerpt from William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a 7000-line alliterative poem produced around the time of the Canterbury Tales and very popular in its day. This 14th century work was a devotional text which asks not only “How can I be saved?” but also “How can I take society along with me?”
The section we read describes a “Dreamer” as he marvels over creation and how the natural world seems to work so well. Not only is nature exquisitely beautiful, but the animals seem to have amazing self-control and skills that man does not have — a type of natural instinct he calls Reason. Then the Dreamer gets upset with Reason — why is man not bestowed with the same gifts as the animals? Why do humans have to suffer imperfection? The personified Reason rebukes him, pointing out that no one has suffered more than God. Reason urges the Dreamer rather to examine his own life. It’s as if he’s been asking the wrong question. Instead of “Why am I not perfect?” humans should ask “How can I make myself better?”
The reading showed us, through a somewhat metaphysical experience (a conversation with Reason), how the medievals greatly esteemed nature and sought to learn from it. For further evidence of this, Dr. Steiner brought an excerpt of Alain de Lille’s The Complaint of Nature from the 1150s. In it, de Lille describes a tapestry of birds (including bats!) describing dozens of species in an allegorical manner. For instance “The crow predicted things to come in the excitement of vain chatter. The dubiously colored magpie kept up a sleepless attention to argument. The jackdaw treasured trifles of its commendable thieving, showing the signs of inborn avarice.”
Some illustrations from a natural history textbook of the Middle Ages, On the Properties of Things, further demonstrate the passion that people of the era had for studying creatures of the natural world — especially birds.
Join us this coming Wednesday, November 18, for the last session of Coffee with the Classics for the semester.