Animal reading: teaching and learning about animal thinking

This essay is based on a talk given in January 2020 at the Modern Language Association Convention in Seattle, whose Presidential Theme was “Being Human.” That talk started with a land acknowledgement, in thanks to our hosts for their hospitality:

We acknowledge that we stand on the unceded ancestral lands and the traditional home of the Duwamish people. We honor and thank all Coast Salish tribes and nations on whose land we occupy. We take this opportunity to thank the original caretakers of this land who are still here.

There in the traditional home of the Duwamish people, we were in a storied place, a place of storytelling, including stories of animal thinking and of what others outside think about as human/nonhuman relations. I’d like us to keep that context in mind; this essay is about the story of a course, taught further north in the same Salish Sea area, on Musqueam territory. It all started with the call for papers for this session:

Occitan Language, Literature & Culture Forum: “Animal Thinking”

This panel invites you to listen to the thought of animals in both textual and graphical representations in the works and manuscripts of Occitan and associated cultures. Resonances of Kalila wa Dimna—central for endless philosophers, including al-Ghâzâlî and Averroes—would encourage contributions from scholars of Arabic, the Mediterranean, the Global Middle Ages, manuscript studies and book history, comics and graphic narratives, philosophy, and/or ecocriticism and environmental humanities.

Submissions might consider, for example: animals thinking; thinking animals; thinking about animals; thinking like animals and as animals; anthropomorphism and its discontents; the animal, the animate, anima; listening, learning, understanding, comprehension, and entendemen.

In response to which, this is what I said I’d do:

In an undergraduate Romance Studies literature course (fall 2019) entitled “Animal Reading,” we will be learning about animals in and around some texts, from the 12th to the 16th centuries, in the Romance vernaculars. The course starts and finishes with a Marcabru poem, “Bel m’es quan la rana chanta.” Along the way we will meet other readings about animals, and of animals, and animals reading (and speaking, and interacting, and otherwise showing evidence of sentience and thinking); including humans as animals (via Montaigne), and Kalila and Dimna. For most of the students, this will be a first encounter with both Occitan poetry and animal studies. This paper will explore our collective experimental readings.


When designing the course, I thought of the syllabus as its frame, its set texts as its warp, and supplementary readings as its weft. I expected the warp to become an invisible background that held things together but I had of course forgotten, as we always do, that courses are complicated fabrics: whatever their process, at their end they look simultaneously warp-faced and weft-faced.

Adding in student independent projects changed this from a single tapestry into a larger patchwork in which “my” course was just one part of a larger whole; this is unpredictable until the end, when we see all the student projects together in one physical space and so we can have some sense of the whole fabric. Our weaving also had embroidery—the animals popping up, in and out, and running through it; some of them unexpectedly—and knitted knots—recurring questions that pulled together threads in the warp, the weave, and the needlework—and dangling loose ends.

If our course is a textile that we made together collectively, that textile isn’t a heavy cumbersome immobile tapestry that was then hung up and exhibited once it was done, or rolled up and stored in an attic. It’s cloth, wearable art that each of us continues to use every day: perhaps without thinking about it; perhaps occasionally appreciating its necessity as a protective comfort against the elements that assail us naked apes; perhaps to be cut up, unwoven, and used as material for future weavings; perhaps as a fragment, a dangling thread that irritates and snags but that persists in eluding location and excision.

Like any course, this one also changed shape as it turned into a class: that is, the translation from theoretical hypothesis to practice, from the static object that is a printed syllabus to a collective of people in live interaction. One of our knots was, as you might expect, shape-shifting itself.

Part of this essay is about the shape-shifting of couse design and teaching, and a teaching that is also my own learning: from the readings—which change on every rereading—and from the students.

It is also about one of these shape-shiftings: the frog at the start and end of our collective cloth, in the course’s decorative outer border. 

Romance Studies 221B was an introduction to the medieval and early modern Romance-speaking literary world, with only two set texts, canonical Great Books of literature in French. I’ve taught RMST 221 four times now, with a new topic and design each time. There’s usually at least one text that stays from one incarnation to the next, at least one fresh text, and at least one text that I’ve never taught before:

  • “ADVENTURES” (Spring 2010: Chrétien de Troyes, Marco Polo Travels, Boccaccio Decameron, Rabelais Pantagruel & Gargantua, Cervantes Don Quixote)
  • “MISCHIEF” (Fall 2010: Marie de France Lais, Tristan & Iseult, Juan de Ruiz Libro de Buen Amor, Decameron, Pantagruel & Gargantua)
  • “INTRIGUE” (Spring 2012: Marie’s Lais, Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun Le Roman de la Rose, Castiglione Courtier, Machiavelli Prince, Fernando de Rojas La Celestina, Marguerite de Navarre Heptameron, Lazarillo de Tormes)
  • “ANIMAL READING” @ UBC Blogs (Fall 2019: Marie’s Lais, Montaigne’s Essais)

As with Medieval Studies courses that I’ve designed and taught here at UBC, looking back over ten years some patterns emerge, an evolving design behind course design.

I started out what I was taught at a similar stage (albeit in the original languages back then), important representative works, with more or less even distribution across languages (the then languages of the department: French, Italian, and Spanish). Being new to my department and university, I modelled my courses on existing ones such as the previous version of RMST 221.

Pretty conservative choices. Some excerpts; mostly whole texts. With midterm assignments and final exams, but with student work that was progressively moving away from The Undergraduate Academic Essay™️. I was starting to think about forms of written work that were related to their subject-matter and period, that were relevant and appropriate to a culture; while thinking about “relevance” and “appropriateness” (rethought further more recently, in their political context).

I was very keen on commentary—and still am—as one of the most prevalent kinds of writing with a long history. It’s also a fine exercise in close reading: in observation and questioning, in thinking and analysis; exercising creative and critical muscles and finding, through using them together, that these muscles work do indeed work together and how they do so. Remember when you first tried out a new dance-style or a new sport? That odd clumsiness as you discovered new muscles and made parts of yourself move together that hadn’t done so before? And, eventually, that marvellous moment when it/you all work smoothly? Like that. Commentary is, if I might make so bold, the single most important kind of individual independent work in an arts / humanities education: intellectually, imaginatively, innovatively. And don’t get me started on how useful it is as a universally-applicable transferrable skill.

Commentary also has a flat-footed practical use: it’s a form of writing that is harder to plagiarise, and more cheat-proof than formulaic essays. Would that the essay were to move to anti-formulaic alternatives, maybe even return to its free unfettered Montaignian self! Now, that would be such a fine student assignment; like all such parody, burlesque, pastiche, and homage it would be fiendish, that difficulty compounded by its essential characteristics of individuality, originality, and authenticity. (See also: Make Essays Montaignian Again and its second part.) While I had started with The Undergraduate Academic Essay™️ as the final piece of work in these courses, and while the final exam had been the traditional commentary-and-essay form: thanks to student questions and conversations about that final paper, I was starting to think, slowly, about other kinds of final projects and about the purpose of student independent work. “Why essays?” “what’s the point of an essay?” and “what is an essay, anyway?” always happens whenever you’re also teaching, as I often was, Montaigne in French literature classes. “What’s so ‘academic’ about ‘the’ ‘academic essay’ and why do we value and teach it?” turned to “should we?” and  “what else could we be doing instead?” all the while considering “what is the point of a student assignment?” In other words, to use some terms that have become more fashionable of late: “what is a ‘course objective’ and what is a ‘course outcome’?” (More on which here; continuing thinking-work in progress.)

In a middle period of Medieval Studies and Romance Studies course design, I experimented with teaching the Roman de la Rose in several ways and directions; in Spring 2012, while teaching it in the RMST 221 course above, I also taught it quite differently in MDVL 302, European Literature of the 14th to the 16th Centuries: “CRITICISM.” (The other set texts for that course were the Roman de Renart, The City of Ladies, The Praise of Folly, and—also in that RMST course at the same time—Celestina.)

We were doing interesting readings and having interesting discussions and so on, but it was all getting very big and heavy. This isn’t a nostalgic comment on how much better we all were before the internet and mobile ‘phones made us inattentive, lazy, illiterate, and stupid. And certainly not a pejorative snark at The Youth Of Today. Our students, contrary to all too much stereotyping by older people, read and are curious and are up for considerable intellectual challenges. They have, in my experience, always read and seen and lived things beyond my ken. The Roman de la Rose is a text most often set for graduate students and deemed too hard for undergraduates; when I first set it for undergraduates here, I thought “why not? I’m sure they’ll read it at least as well as some of my peers did back in 2000-01 when reading it in a +/- compulsory graduate seminar” and lo, I was right to have faith in our students. What was getting too big and heavy was the sheer quantity of readings that I would, in an ideal world, have wanted to do. I have limits, and hit them if teaching three courses, of which at least one is a big experimental hairy course like these Romance Studies ones, with designing work continuing while I’m teaching it, and 3-5 hours’ preparation per class hour. 60-80 hour weeks are not compatible with sleeping, eating, and staying healthy. Students have limits too, the same human limits and humanimal needs. They’re usually taking five courses, four if they’re lucky (😡 it👏should👏 be 👏three👏). Most are also working at least part-time, or volunteering or doing all the 101 things that you’re supposed to do to tot up those precious CV points so as to improve your chances of having a job after you finish your degree. Many are working full time or very nearly, so as to have a roof over their heads and at least one meal a day and, the ever-larger elephant in the room whenever we talk about (public!) university education, to pay their ever-increasing tuition fees.

I’d already been using texts available for free online, when possible. Many works that I want to teach are not; or not in English translation, or not in one that I would consider satisfactory and suitable: quality, cost, availability. Kalila and Dimna is, alas, an example. Its absence as a set text was the one major change with respect to my original paper abstract and course plan of a year ago. (Sure, I could do my own translations: but I’m not going to do them in my spare time, out of the goodness of my heart, at the end of a ten-hour day or in between loads of laundry at the weekend or cutting back on sleep to get in three hours’ intensive work before dawn … and then doing a ten-hour day. I would do them if given teaching releases and paid leave to work full time on them. Work is work, and ought as such to be paid. But I digress.) A significant part of course design is redesigning the reading-list, when checking up on available editions and working out what would be reasonable, or at least not insulting unreasonable, to ask students to buy. There’s always the quandary, and the more so in a course that covers vasty swathes of ground—space, time, literary genres, relationship to a larger surrounding world—of what to include and what to leave out; how to be representative, even sketchily or impressionistically so; how to give a taste of what else is there, of what to read next, be that in a course or freely; how to do so without resorting to decontextualised mutilated excerpts. One Medieval Studies course, for example, covered the 5th to 14th centuries (and a bit more, fore and aft) and had a

WHO’S WHO IN THIS WEIRD AND WONDERFUL WORLD: a running list (alphabetical by author, approximately) of works, people, and places referred to in passing in class. And some more who may be tangential. Links go to Wikipedia. It’s intended for quick reference: some names will return, some will be added along the way, and by the end of term this will constitute a kind of Medieval virtual reference-shelf and a Medievalist mini-Wikipedia.”

This time, not least in the interests of the students’ and my humanity and our limits as living creatures, I wanted to try to read less but more deeply. For a change, the set texts ones were ones that I’d taught many times before. (This was not the original plan from around this time last year, which changed shape between then and September, and then over the course of the course.) So: just two writers from around the historical start and end of a historical period, its boundary-markers. Not as Great Books By Great Authors; not as Venerable Ancients to be Duly And Dutifully Worshipped; not as grand gateposts guarding Western Civilisation™️, protecting its precious treasures, granting access to a privileged few, scaring away others, closing it off to them; but as gateways into more, into a larger world. Reading the pair together, each week placed alongside other readings to offer some context; a contrapunctal way to include works, and a broader idea of literature and reading from a surrounding world; a premodern Romance cultural ecosystem, if you will.

Amongst these other readings we had to include Old Occitan poetry, of course. Too often, students only meet it in the actual flesh to get their teeth into it in advanced undergraduate courses or graduate seminars, even if words like “Troubadour” and “courtly” might be familiar. This is one of the first times that I’ve taught Occitan material; I usually avoid it as it’s too close to me. Being what I tend to be doing my own reading and research work on, being difficult complicated delicate works that I care about: I worry that I’d not do them justice, that I’d run way over time in classes and lack any self-control on digressions, and that I’d get unacceptably “unprofessionally” upset if anyone said anything about them that wasn’t sufficiently sensitive, subtle, and sophisticated. That I’d close down discussions and ruin class atmosphere and wreck the class.

But, I thought: I care about the Roman de la Rose and about getting it right, including all its wrongness and multiplicities, simultaneous feminism and anti-feminism, dizzyingly fizzy warped satire. I’ve now managed to survive several classes where I “let students loose” on it, I “allowed” them “free rein.” The first time, I was very controlling, but I preceded that by telling students that this was hard because of what I felt for the text. (That might have scared and freaked them out a bit, which might have silenced them somewhat.) I became less controlling. And that was really good for me, for learning to trust students, for thinking about what we were doing as the collective work of knowledge-centred learning and learning-centred learning: and not just in passive theory, of the sort that we write on Statements of Teaching Philosophy and the formulaic and oft-vacuous like, but in truth and in lived practice. So why not do this with Occitan poetry too?

Now, Occitan poetry has many excellent birds; I refer you to the work of, for example, Michel Zink, Eliza Zingesser, and Sarah Kay here present. We met some of these Occitan poetic birds (warning: massive PDF in Dropbox) at the course’s midpoint, its structural centre, weeks 5-8 circling around Marie de France’s Laüstic: mostly nightingales—cutting out a digression on larks via Michel Zink writing on Bernart de Ventadorn’s razo and his “Can vei la lauzeta mover,” inter alia in his essay in Poetry, Knowledge and Community in Late Medieval France (ed. Rebecca Dixon, Sarah Kay, Finn Sinclair; Gallica, 2008)—and hawks as a way to bring in Frederick II and plurilingual Sicily. 

We started and ended, however, with Marcabru’s frog:

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This poem is more usually discussed as political, ethical, and religious satire. But what happens if you read it not just as being about anthopomorphic frogs and zoomorphic humans, but read it from the point of view of a frog? What happens if you try to read a human world as a frog? Is that possible? What are and what should be the limits to human imagination? Sympathy can too easily fall into the arrogant hubris of empathy, an arrogating colonialism. So, for example, I didn’t and wouldn’t retell Musqueam stories about frogs: it is not my place, I’m a migrant settler, it’s better instead to refer students to more appropriate and authoritative sources and amplify their voices. 

Looking more closely at a frog singing in a poem was part of introducing students to a doubly weird course: about a new alien universe, and about a different way of doing academic work with literature, with the expectation that at least one of these two will be unknowns. It’s a knowing unknowing. Knowing that encountering the unknown will be about listening, and learning, and accepting that this will be strange and uncomfortable and unsettling, and that that is good. Stepping out of your comfort zone (as much for me, doing something experimental and knowing that it could fail and would certainly have ups and downs and changes). Acknowledging and embracing the unsettling, starting by throwing students in the deep end with an ancient foreign-language unsettled poem: one that has no single meaning and no fixed conclusion. It varies across manuscript witnesses, though it’s less disordered—or rather, various—than many other Old Occitan poetic kin, in its contexts of a codex as a whole, each one a textual environment in its own right. Keep that word “unsettling” in mind; it has been haunting me, thanks especially to Tarren Andrews and Blake Gutt in their 2020 MLA Convention presentations.

We read the poem bilingually (I’m not completely heartless), picking at some individual words, seeing patterns and echoes, looking for resonances with English cognates. Reaching out for the familiar, for relationships, for kinship. Highlighting the slippery and “what the hell is going on here” zones, getting into closer reading, anchoring ourselves on the lily-pads of individual words. Here’s what that looked like: using “Bel m’es qan li rana chanta” to splash, hop, and swim around towards Marie de France … with some frog-song at the beginning and end …

  • Kermit, “It’s not easy being green”: a gateway into one of the major cultural forms going on in the background in the medieval and early modern Romance world (and other times and places): song and poetry.
    • sometimes sung—the Romance languages have words like “chantar, chanter, cantare”—sometimes spoken—“chanted”—and sometimes with musical accompaniment or punctuation; “lyric song” from accompaniment with a lyre / other stringed instrument (which you can also use as a percussion instrument)
    • sometimes more than one voice
    • sometimes alternating or mixing speech, song, instrumental music, solo / duet / more voice, solo / chorus
    • sometimes mostly performed and transmitted live, and in oral culture; sometimes written; sometimes both; sometimes moving from one to another or mixing them up. As with many stories (like some of the fables and lays we’ll see, and like many of Montaigne’s anecdotes) this might be knowledge that goes underground, disappears, is treated as “low” culture or non-culture; but survives as children’s stories, folk tales, old wives’ tales (17th-c. French Charles Perrault and his “Mother Goose Tales”), popular culture.
    • often centred on an “I” who is singing, and often about feelings and things that are hard to describe, to put into words, but where you want to communicate them: to help yourself therapeutically, to share a burden with others, to express something exciting and spread it (especially joy, you would hope…)
    • often to complain or lament: what’s happening in your own life, about other people, about the world around you
    • this Kermit song is one of the best introductions to poetry and song, and—as we’ll see more of on Thursday—to one way of thinking about what Marie de France and Michel de Montaigne are doing with their books. (These are books that are doing many things, and may be read in many ways.)

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  • Marcabru, “Bel m’es qan li rana chanta” (stanza I), Old Occitan, c. 1145 (before Marie):
    • A spring opening: a commonplace in lyric poetry. More light, warmth, new growth, fresh shoots, baby animals. Flowers, fragrance, birds returning from winter migration and singing. The season for love. Green. Fresh but delicate colours: fragile hope.
    • A comic twist: it is frogs who sing sweetly. Not the nightingale—famous for singing sweetly—who is being harsh, shrill, and croaky.
    • Self-expression and emotion, “translated” into images of nature and talking—ranting, later in the poem—about all that is wrong with the world, using a mixture of more-or-less contemporary references in the immediate world (politics, other people who are poets) and allegory (personifications like Proeza: prowess, probity, assorted kinds of goodness)
    • That frog at the beginning won’t return, or at least not obviously; but this beginning sets you up to be thinking about singing from different points of view—frogsong can be beautiful, birdsong can be ugly—and opening up an ironic critical distance, to look at everything around you more critically. That’s also still part of a simpler joke here, situational comedy. (All the best jokes are simple ones. Especially puns.)

[Next: reading the original aloud, asking “what are we looking at here,” and introducing the first of several sketches of historical background that punctuated the course.]

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Marcabru (II-): Back to our poem, and what happens next when the frog in the first line apparently disappears.

  • we meet assorted humans, mostly bad, and associations with greed, lying, noisiness
  • Proeza, allegorical personifications and allegory, moral and political satire: prowess, probity, worth, value, all things positive
  • where are the frogs? are they the bad noisy people? are they a group lurking in the distance? are they watching us? are we them?
  • cultural baggage and intertextual connections—this text is connected to and echoes other texts—to bring in frog associations (it’s a complex sophisticated poem doing several things simultaneously and subtly, this here is just part of its readings):
    • story 1, of the hare(s) and the frog(s): ex. Aesop 91, Marie Fable 22, Paris Isopet II (Bibliothèque nationale de France MS français 15213, f. 1r—54r (“Isopets/ Ysopets” are collections of fables drawing on Aesop’s ones, Marie de France’s fables are also often called “Ysopet” in their manuscripts ), Jean de La Fontaine (France, 17th c. CE) Fables book II no. 24
    • —> I’ll give you references like these along the way, and will refer to works that are not set readings, but it’s just for reference; this course is in English, and at a 200-level, so there is no expectation that you’ll also learn a bunch of other languages and how to read old manuscripts and so on! One reason why we have no traditional final exam: much of the learning in this course will be adventuring and reading, NOT studying and memorising for repeating information in tests and exams.
    • rain, spring, growth, lament
    • but after the rain it’ll all be sunnier
    • mixed messages / morals / lessons of resignation to surviving by diving underwater and hiding in mud; console yourself because there’s always someone else smaller and more scared than you (Aesop) / there’s nowhere where you can live without fear, troubles, and unhappiness (Marie) / don’t despair, whatever happens, try to forget the bad times and live as well as you can (Isopet) / however scared and cowardly you might be, scare someone smaller than you and feel bigger and braver (La Fontaine). This is a very old story—possibly one of the oldest, adding in supporting evidence from archaeology, anthropology, folklore studies—and in some versions (ex. Caucasus mountains) the hares shift between being hares and being humans, and live in caves, possibly a distant Ice Age antiquity. There’s a lot of “possibly” here, we’re well away from words on pages in books and definite dates.
    • our poem is also a satirical sirventes which is, in one of its origins, a servant-song
    • servants, frogs, and other everyday people: the smallest and weakest, the lowest of the low, the marginal and the marginalised
    • but all are mixed up together in a collection—be it songbook or fables—that includes and portrays everything and everyone; rich and poor, high and low, all forms of life: see yourself there and learn about others

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  • TO RECAP: frog associations so far:
    • small, scared, easily scared; possibly foolish
    • humble, avoiding others, trying not to be noticed, so as to survive; possibly wise
    • living together sociably but all talking at once and making a discordant noise; another example is Aristophanes’ “frogswan” croaky chorus in The Frogs (Greek, 405 BCE)
  • when frogs try to be more than frogs: the folly of delusions of grandeur:
    • story 2, of the frog who wanted to be an ox and explodes (ex. the Lyon Isopet; Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale Palais des Arts MS 57, La Fontaine book I no. 3) and the Perry index
    • story 3, of the frog who tried to trick a mouse so as to eat her but they’re both eaten by a kite (Aesop 245, Marie Fable 3, Isopet I (6 manuscripts), La Fontaine book IV no. 11)
    • welcome to frogs being foolish and greedy, and to cartoon violence in popular culture

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Marcabru: the middle of the poem

  • (on structural middles in this kind of poetry: they’re important for construction and for meaning; stanzas IX—X are tornadas = short final stanzas outside the main structure of the poem, sometimes added later on, sometimes by other poets continuing a poem)
  • stanzas IV—V and “rama/derama,” a variation on the middle of each of the 8-line stanzas where line 5 is rhymed around “ama” (love): a balance between creation and destruction
    • “rama” (IV) echoing “rana”: a living tree-branch in a stanza (IV) that’s also got a dismembered bird in it (perhaps our grouchy poet is being made even more grouchy with all the cheerful springtime singing and wishes the birds would shut up, especially early in the morning?)
    • ”derama” (V): tearing someone apart, into pieces
  • the very middle, between IV and V: a precious moment of hope
    • food and looking forward to dessert …
    • … but froggy intertextual warning bells about frogs and trees, and frogs and eating
  • here’s a taste of what’s happening, with patterns and sounds and associations and some more balancings of  life/death, creation/destruction …

[Next: live close-reading of the poem, where as ever however many times you’ve read it, and however much you’ve read about it, and however many readings by other people you’ve read … you still see new things in it, and you still wonder anew at old things that you remember wondering at before and that you know that you and others have wondered at many times before.]

  • Intertextuality and context: dismembered tree-parts and snakes
    • story 4, of frogs wanting a king; frogs traditionally noisy and without government, wanting to better themselves by having a king, they pray for one and their prayers are answered: the first king sent down is a log / tree-trunk, the second is a snake. Who then eats them all. (Aesop 66, Marie Fable 18, Isopet I, La Fontaine book III no. 4). Marie change: not a god or God but Destiny. La Fontaine: his frogs start out as a democracy and his second king is a stork.
    • story 5, from the Pancatantra (very old, Sanskrit, 200+ versions in 50+ languages, coming into the Romance world via 6th c. Pehlevi Persian, Syriac, and especially Arabic): a different socio-political tradition where frogs, like any other non-solitary animals, have a king. The frog-king makes a foolish alliance with a snake, ending with the destruction of his people or risking that end of his world, eaten by a snake … who is greedy and always hungry: immoral? amoral? just being a snake?


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Back to the start: moral of today’s lesson: frogs can be wise, and one can try to be like a wise frog.


This poem gave us the opportunity to think about frogs, what frog associations would be around the mid 12th century, what a frog’s world would look like, and what ours would look like from a froggish point of view. Instead of providing students with a background chronology before approaching a text and at the start of a course, the start rethought that kind of historical contextualisation and anchoring, its nature and purpose and point of view. 

I do (still) provide historical background, or rather, backgrounds plural; though rarely in the same way in any two classes.

Ten years ago, I admit, I did the traditional thing of separating out background as preamble, before anyone was allowed to go near let alone touch the text.

Here’s a “middle period” example from a 2016 Medieval Studies course, in which background was approached and integrated as culture; following up on questions raised in a student presentation, discussing history/~ies and historiography at the course’s midpoint.

And here’s an example from this 2019 course and that Marcabru class, introducing and situating Old Occitan poetry to newcomers, in a lower-level undergraduate class, in under ten minutes, with the preamble and proviso—it was explicit, there’s every andragogical reason to be open and honest with students as fellow adult intelligent peers—that it’s rough and sketchy:

Context and background: What are we looking at here?

  • This is a printed edition (Simon Gaunt, Ruth Harvey, & Linda Paterson, Marcabru: A Critical Edition: 2000), but like other poems from this culture the poem is in 13th-14th c. hand-written manuscripts. These are collections of Old Occitan poetry, often organised by poet and/or sometimes thematically, sometimes chronologically as far as that is known or imagined. Mostly no images but just words (readers are made to work, imagining); called “chansonniers / canzoniere”, songbooks.
  • It’s a poetry that’s often sung, or performed as spoken word art (like slam poetry), and may have musical accompaniment for part or all of a poem; how exactly that worked is often unknown. Some poems are known to have been sung to the tune of another poem (sometimes for comic effect), and some (about 10% of the corpus) have musical notation.
  • The language, Old Occitan, is related to modern French, Italian, and Spanish; it’s very closely related to modern Catalan. It’s a linguistic group rather than a single fixed language: the most famous dialect or language (depending on definitions) in the group is probably Provençal, and the whole group was called that for a long time. Modern forms of Occitan still exist, though endangered. In the period around about the 10th-15th c. CE, this language is used in what is nowadays the southern half of France—from Poitiers to Lyon and the Alps—and into north-west Italy, and into the Pyrenees and north-east Spain, and the Balearic Islands. It’s a “koine”—a collection of mutually-intercomprehensible linguistic forms—and along with Latin is a/the most important language for writing poetry during this period. There are about 2500 poems, inc. about 1000 about some combination of spring and love, about 500 satirical sirventes like this poem today, and about 500 debate-poems. There’s also writing in other genres—such as shorter and longer stories—and, like in other languages of this time, about other things: history, science, medicine, religion, law.
  • This language is one of the earliest documented recorded literary vernacular languages (that is, a spoken living language, vs. Latin) in this part of the world: back to the 9th century. The earliest Romance vernacular texts (8th—9th c.?) are multilingual poems from Spain (+ Arabic and/or Hebrew) in a Romance language that’s an older relative of this one; there’s another older relative in a multilingual poem (Latin and a proto-Romance) from near the Occitan/French language-line, similar date; and some of the earliest texts from northern France (8th-9th c.) are in a proto-French that’s related. Linguistic matters become clearer from the 11th century onwards, and there’s lots of writing—in distinct older forms of Occitan, Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish—by the 12th and 13th c. That is: forms of these languages that are clear ancestors of their current form, rather than being close relatives (ex. Romanian) or within the same big family (ex. Bulgarian, Swedish, Persian).
  • Associated terms: “Troubadour”— from “trobar,” to find; a rich word about “finding” in extended senses of composition, making sense of things, understanding, reasoning (“razo” and “raçon,” like in this poem, are connected)—and “Provençal”; one form of Occitan was, and is, used in Provence, in the south of France on the Mediterranean coast. Old Occitan refers to itself as “roman” (as opposed to “lati[n]”), “proensal” (with resonances of “Proeza” in our poem), “lemosi” (from the area around Limoges), and by the early 14th c. as the language of “oc” or “occitana”
  • Lots of cultural connections with local (multilingual) and neighbour languages—older forms of French, Italian, Spanish, classical Arabic, Hebrew—and, through trade and war and diplomatic relations and royal marriages and court networks, with northern Europe—so, with older forms of English, German, Polish, etc.—and with north and west Africa, Mali, Ethiopia, the Near and Middle East, Persia, India, China: around the Mediterranean Sea and along the Silk Road.
  • Manuscripts like this one are written after the time of first composition; the Occitan-speaking half of France is invaded and conquered by (northern) France in the early 13th c., bringing death and exile (Italy, Spain) and attempted cultural annihilation and ethnocide (Albigensian Crusade). Many manuscripts have been lost and destroyed, and some are incomplete.
  • An example of an incomplete manuscript for this poem WITH A CUTE PICTURE OF A FROG: chansonnier R, which has room for adding music.
  • The very rough historical background above gives some context for why, writing to preserve and continue a culture, both grumbling and springtime are important: resistance, resilience, hope, rebirth … a.k.a. “renaissance.” Renaissance appears in poetry in many places and times, not just any single “the” Renaissance for a specific country.

Here’s a map:

Here is chansonnier R and the cute frog:

Here are links to all four manuscripts for this poem (including me grumbling about one that took forever to download), freely available online: (And here’s more, links to all the 100+ Old Occitan manuscripts that have been digitised (plus some info about basically all of them), for information: )

Background. Approach. Point of view. Not a questing conquering hero seeing the lay of the land from a superior vantage point. Not intelligence reports for a state or business force as a preamble to invasion and occupation. We started out as frogs, small and situated low down but amphibious and with voices, looking out from a muddy pool and navigating a fast-flowing river; and thinking about frog history. A history of their world from a frog point of view and as part of a larger biosocial fabric, an alternative to narratives of great deeds by great individuals, of periodisation and paradigm shifts and progress, ever bigger and higher. 

I fell into reading like a small muddy frog because of the strangely comforting story of the hunted hares and the frogs, one of the three cautionary frog tales retold by Marie de France in her Fables. The Fables led in turn to Big Books Of Everything and circled back to history being neither a single one nor a linear one.

And so it went on: pairing Marie and Montaigne, weaving in other premodern Romance works (not just in the vernaculars, and not just written texts), and adding in topical animals each week. 

Frogs remained in the background as we read amphibiously, moving through land and air and water, maybe panbiously in some of the stranger moments.

Any course is governed by time: fixed term dates, class times, and number of classes. It has a beginning and ending and some kind of story happens in between. What happens in the middle might be in a different temporality, maybe even feel out of time, a space of imagination and experimentation and free play. One reason for choosing Marie’s Lais and Montaigne’s Essais was their narrative structures, needing rereading and reinforcing non-linearity: circling, spiralling, tangling. 

A second reason was to introduce a literature that’s not just determined by the modern curriculum and by modern literary history and criticism; not just prehistoric precursors in a genetic lineage leading in inexorable progression to that imperial grand climax of western civilisation, the 19th-century novel. So we met Big Books Of Everything that are collections woven together by a frame narrative while maintaining an episodic identity within it; each a world with further worlds within. They contained multitudes and marginalities. Some were bestiaries. Many were didactic works; if I were teaching this course again, I might just admit the obvious, call a spade and spade, and call it “Mirrors for Princes.” 

A third reason for choosing our two set texts was that they’re relevant and immediately useful and applicable—big ethical questions, lessons in leadership, and all that stuff that university non-academic executive administrative powers that be trumpet in strategic plans —and that they include multiple points of view and openings for discussion. It’s symbiotic: the stories’ morals depend on the context of their reading; making sense of them depends on seeing those other points of view. Starting by accepting that they are points of view and valuing them, even if the strangeness stays unsettling, even if that discomfort expresses itself in a complicated irony, and that then needs to be worked out in conversational continuation and analysis afterwards. Like, back in Marcabru’s poem, the paradoxical “li rana chanta” at the start echoed in the tornada’s postscript “avol valen” and “gonella camisa.”

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In the middle main part of the course, we fell into a weekly rhythm of discussion and commentary. Weekly discussions in class, written up and continued afterwards in online discussion, embedded sub-stories from students, adding extra parallels and retelling the path taken by digressions in live discussions. Montaigne’s art of digression was, I am happy to report, a big hit in applied active practice.  

21st-century Vancouver is as far from the 8th-12th centuries of Kalila and Dimna as they are in turn from the 3rd century BCE and before of the Pancatantra. Yet their animals are mutually intercomprehensible across time and space: frogs stay froggishly familiar. At the same time the discussions interspersed in both works remind us that their embedded sub-stories are much older and resolutely distant and strange, needing interpretation to make sense in each new translation and retelling. It’s good, educational, and reassuring to see medieval readers struggling with older alien reading, seeing reading happen in live action and seeing how it’s an interaction; not just humans reading animals, also animals telling stories with humans in them, and animals reading other animals.

Kalila and Dimna’s frog-story is told by a crow (a spy) to another crow (his king) in an episode of the crow/owl war. Its topic: Can you trust an enemy who pretends to look like a friend, or should you distrust them, even if you have a larger aim of peace and security? And in judging such an enemy, how do you consider your shared characteristics in evaluating their intentions? It’s a fascinating episode of animals thinking out loud about other animals thinking (and not just anthropomorphically), looking for signs of intelligent life such as the ability to reason. As political satire, it’s unsettlingly timely. 

The story goes: an old snake picks the wrong human to bite, whose father curses him, exiling and condemning him to eat only frogs given to him by the queen of the frogs (this seems to be king or queen depending on translation, but I haven’t read every one nor the original, so if you know more about this please tell us in the questions after!). The frog-queen allows the snake to eat a specific number of selected frog-subjects every day, in exchange for riding him. They coexist contentedly. It’s a very different story, and interpretative spin—going with the flow—from its darker frog and snake relative in the Pancatantra, and from other frog stories in the Aesopian group including Marie’s ones.

Working outwards from that frog: the crow-owl war is told within the story of the jackal Dimna’s trial for the murder of the ox Chanzaba, at the court of the lion king Bankala. Outside that we have the brothers Kalila and Dimna at court, as told by the sage Bidpai to his king Debchelim. This is in turn one of the Pancatantra branches retold by the physician-scholar Borzouyeh, brought from India to Iran, and translated into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa in the main version that we have now and that moved around western Afro-Eurasia through the historical period in which our course was situated. 

Kalila and Dimna ends with a doctor who brings from afar the greatest treasure, elixir of eternal life, that’s a collection of stories. There’s a possible healing note in Marcabru’s frog poem too. Around the middle, the end of line 32, is a problematic word; possibly artemisia, possibly in reference to its use in pregnancy and childbirth, for pain management (there’s other uses too but that’s another story); see the note in the Gaunt, Harvey, and Paterson critical edition.

A spring opening joke, “Bel m’es qan li rana chanta” is a poem of catastrophe, of destructions caused by the worst human traits, and of paradoxical creation. Life goes on, resistant, reinforced. “Rana” echoes, but distorted, in the “bram’a” of nightingale shrieking; refracted through the whole poem’s “-ama” c-rhyme. Our frog disappears before the end of the first cobla, reappears as a chorus of lousy humans, and becomes part of a third-person singular feminine pronoun that’s an alliance of animal, human, personnification, and “li francha causa.” 

We returned to Μarcabru’s frog in the last week of the course; as a prompt for three visitors thinking, reading, and talking. 

It wasn’t the very end: our last class had three further visitors read Montaigne’s “Des Cannibales,” students posted their public bestiary entries online, a week later we had an anti-exam, and then, finally, the submission of final projects. I don’t much like endings, so why not have as many as possible … And many students’ independent work in the course was the unending of continuations. 

Let’s circle back to the middle of that poem again:

“Arsemisa” rhymes with “pugn’ i es misa,” and if you squint at it and relax into loose translation and creative reading, it asounds like “ars i misa,” offering a vision of hope, “per q’ieu n’esper ni aten” the “reviu” new life that could happen when a collective—the first-person plural of “retengam per meravilha”—put work into creating something. Offspring. A work of art, doing creative things with words, making a man-made artifact. The fruit at the end of a course, all puns intended.

Remember, amid all these ramifying and perhaps over-extended metaphors, that “Bel m’es qan li rana chanta” is still and always remains a poem about a frog. It’s easy to forget that, to lose sight of the poem’s froggish nature; just as it is with humans, if you focus too much on their Aristotelian rational souls at the expense of the rest of them as a whole: losing touch with the animal and sensitive, and with the vegetative and nutritive, with all that grows outwards and sustains.

In the line “qar de pauc albr’ eis granz rama”: that “rama” is a branch for a frog to sing on, for sap to rise to that frog and into her song, for the Animal Reading students and their future new songs.

“Far d’avol valen” indeed: the lively sustainable new growth of postpremodern wild sprouts and shoots.

(The same manuscript as my favourite one for our Marcabru frog poem; the image links to an interpretation of this song, selected for no/low ads and a danceable tempo and vibe.)

What next?

Were I to teach this course again, I’d probably stay with the same “warp” of between one and three texts and my own “weft” of supplementary material. It would be fun to teach “Animal Readings” with, as central texts, the 9th/10th-century Occitan “Tomida femina” and Montaigne’s “Apologie de Raimond Sebond.” Or Trota of Salerno and Hildegard of Bingen and Francis of Assisi. Or “just” Marie de France.

Or we could question and rethink what it means to have central texts and set readings: have a manuscript instead, in its free openly-accessible digitised version. In this course, online manuscripts seemed to work well, and bestiaries especially. Many of the student final projects were expansions of their Local Public Bestiary contribution. We could have just read bestiaries; with some other Big Books Of Everything for variety, including Big Books Of Occitan Lyric Poetry like chansonnier R (BNF fr. 22543, in the image above). We could centre the course on just one such book, Matfre Ermengaud’s Breviari d’Amor, through which we read a constellation of others; as ever, with that view of required central set readings not as gatekeepers to close off knowledge (and, with a long heavy reading-list, to intimidate the “wrong” students and draw the “right” ones in) but as gateways opening it up.

An allied idea—be it for an “Animal Reading” course or for another in and around medieval Romance studies—would be to work on, in, and with UBC Library’s manuscript collection. (Several Arts courses at our university do this already.) A collective public humanities project: to make, shape, build, and share knowledge about a single manuscript. Or about a group of manuscripts or a manuscript topic: for example, visual and textual representations of animals and other life-forms. This would be a term-long collaborative project. It would be online, in actual and virtual exhibitions, in presentations and performances, description and edition and translation, a round-table and colloquium; with commentary and continuations, refashionings and retellings and remixes, the critical and the creative. The project would connect a manuscript with its manuscript kith and kin, and with digital humanities research projects and networks. We’d bring together the scholarly and the colloquial, the live and the virtual, the local and the global; one rich diverse inclusive community around one book. Something like these old dream-vision ideas for an innovative future ideal new kind of edition of the Occitan Romance of Flamenca.

We could reduce the “warp” and have a fluid flexible “weft” of readings on library course reserve, dividing students into groups for discussion-cum-anti-presentations on them. Now that our department is more fully Romance—now with more Portuguese and Catalan—we could divide up the course into language-weeks. I’d include Latin, as a living language. More Occitan! Occitan could be the centre: not planned as such for the 2019 “Animal Reading,” it snuck in as the course’s actual centre as soon as I started teaching about it and explaining what it was; see what happens when you keep a class live, when you put a lot of work into preparing flexible lectures (as contrasted with fixed scripted precisely timed ones) and when improvisation and interaction duly interfere. Even when teaching courses like this one in English and through English translations, I always include the source language when it affects meaning, and as tasters; and also as it is always a moment of wonder, for all of us, when students hear a language spoken for the first time, especially a very old and/or alien one, and in a setting where they have some sense of what’s happening; not landed from outer space, not completely dépaysé. I’d add more. More reading poetry aloud. More recordings of sung lyric. Perhaps we might sing ourselves too: given a broad / Barthes definition of “text” and “reading,” and books as whole objects, and visual arts and artefacts: why not bring in more music to a multimedia multimodal multilingual course?

A course like this could be made fully “Romance” by adding some introduction to each language: Latin, Occitan, French, Catalan, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish. We could add other contemporary non-Romance minority languages of this fiction that is a single unified “the Romance world”: Arabic, Armenian, Basque, Breton, Greek, Hebrew, Middle Dutch, Persian. We’ve already got more languages than we have weeks in a term; yet this list is not complete; worse, treats the likes of Occitan, French, and Italian as a single language; worst, treats languages as discrete entities without taking into consideration koine, hybridity, borrowings, plurilingualism: all the natural movement across and within languages, not just taking and colonising, exclusion and purification; but opening and inclusion, outreach and cosmopolitan welcome.

A multilingual-taster course runs all the risks of a survey that is too broad, with an over-ambitious reading-list: (content, instructor, students) stretched too thin, too fast, too shallow. One might build something around two Raimbaut de Vaqueyras poems: his multilingual “Eras quan vey verdeyar” and his “Kalenda Maia” dance classic (differently multi-, with its inspirations, allusions, associations, reverberations, and translations across multiple languages, cultures, times). This could be an “Animal Reading” course whose objective is to remind us humans of our vegetal and animal natures, the urge to stretch and move and dance and sing; with final projects of critical and creative remixing and translation. Maybe making new language(s)? Maybe doing so out loud and in public, incorporating performance (with costumes encouraged, they’re already a good idea for anxious or private students), going beyond the 2019 course’s Local Public Bestiary Public Knowledge Contribution? Maybe in association with UBC Language Sciences and Public Humanities?

I’d certainly keep the 2019 course’s anti-exam structure and something like this last iteration’s balance of self-, peer-, and instructor-evaluation; this liberates us from many constraints imposed on courses when they “have” to have a set of shared readings in common to all rather than a shared objective that is “learning, knowing more than when you started, having learned how to think differently, reading the world in new ways, thinking in a more advanced arts / humanities way, becoming a more fully human(animal) being.”

This course, or something like it, could be a student-directed seminar where I would have even less control—none at all, the design and syllabus and readings and kinds of assignment being up to the students—and would be even more in the position of a learner. In an ideal course, we are all there with a shared intention—“objective,” if you will or must—of learning, on which we work together in mutual aid and solidarity. No more teachers and learners; no active leaders and passive followers; all of us fellow knowledge-workers.

If courses have objectives, course design has a meta-objective: learning about learning and asking questions about it along the way. If my work is university teaching and if universities are living laboratories, meta-work includes thinking about and questioning what universities, courses, teaching, and education are; questioning them, and myself, constantly; imagining what experimental utopian education might be; and rethinking university education as part of something bigger, anarchist lifelong learning.

On which giddy note of universal harmony, midst visions of biodiverse sustainable symbiotic sustaining ecosystems, let’s keep thinking, not run away with ourselves and lose sight of the knotty messiness (a.k.a. beauty) of Occitan lyric, but stay with the trouble. Let’s keep matters complicated, multiple, polyphonic, allegorical, and sardonic: let’s end with Raimbaut de Vaqueyras, “Eras quan vey verdeyar,” via

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