Weasels and otters (1): prologue


This midterm reading week, I’ve been conducting fieldwork to research some questions, and test some associated hypotheses, about weasels (and otters) in 12th and 13th century French literature. Following a trail of red clues brought me to a sign at the very end of the world.

This being a humanities research project, most of the work—quantified as time and energy, in terms of resources invested and expended—is thinking; three months thus far, but overlapping and occurring simultaneously with other thinking and other kinds of activities, as our methods and working practices are characterised by multi-tasking. This week has been a time of concentrated thought and close attention, not least as it is required when in a physical environment in which health and safety are paramount, for example in order to assess and manage the risk of falling into the Pacific Ocean.

This being a humanities project, most of the work—the aforementioned thinking aside / alongside—has been reading. This week’s reading included rereading Brunetto Latini’s Li livres dou Tresor. You can read more about this 13th-century Florentine and his work online: Wikipedia is a decent start, and for more, see Julia Bolton Holloway’s “Florin” website (whence the Old French text below, and links to some manuscripts, which is where my main reading work has been). I’m still in the stages of digestion—or, analysis and synthesis—of books I and II and their lessons on weasels in general, and for “my” specific weasels in particular. Book III, however, is of immediate universal relevance. It draws together previous threads of encyclopaedia, history, ethics, and knowledge in general; all of which had already been knitting together nicely into the “treasure” that is the true riches of wisdom. But that was not enough. Here is how book III opens:

Lions and tigers and bears, AND weasels and Aristotle, AND NOW Cicero, oh my! Now, as it happened, I was reading book III just after I had been indiscreetly but respectfully observing the seaside community whose territory is marked by that red sigil.

Seen from a different angle of approach, it becomes apparent that this collection of nest-homes is being overlooked from on high by a mysterious figure; actively watched over, indeed, by its lofty guardian.

What exactly, I wondered, was going on here? Brunetto Latini was able to help: for this is an exemplary harmonious and flourishing city-state free republic; Guelphs and Ghibellines co-existing Pacifically, a polis in concord if not fully-reconciled accord with a shared ethos of justice and of guarding against Empire.

Brunetto was also able to offer one explanation of what had happened next … or rather, what ought to have happened, but did not, resulting in an Ovidian fate of immortalisation through lignification for this sleeping giant ancient, watching and waiting to be re-awakened in their comune’s hour of doom and need.

UPDATED: English translations of the passages above (Paul Barrette and Spurgeon Baldwin, 1993)

COMING UP NEXT: (2) The weasel: a fable

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