Mittwoch, 18. Februar 2015

PhD project by Stephanie Mühlenfeld: "Concepts of 'exotic' animals in German texts of the high and late Middle Ages"

A report by Imke Fleuren.

On February 12, Stephanie Mühlenfeld presented her PhD project and gave us some exiting insights into the current state of her research.

The main aim of her study is to analyse which features of the medieval worldview can be recognized with regard to the animal world. Is there a specific medieval perception of 'exotic' animals or can we even see universal concepts? Moreover, it will also be researched how the classification of 'exotic' animals can be integrated into the cosmology of the Middle Ages. Considering the large time-span, it is important to investigate if continuities or rather differences can be seen.

The main sources that Miss Mühlenfeld uses for her research are German texts (and one Latin text), dating from the 12th to the15th century A.D. The texts are roughly divided into three categories: The first one consists of the fictional, narrative texts of the 12th to the14th centuries, the second category discusses the pilgrim accounts of the 14th to the15th centuries, and the third category relates to the reports of the China and India travellers of the 14th to the15th centuries.

The theoretical foundation of the research is based on a theory of Udo Friedrich, who understands animals as komplexe Projektionsfläche for cultural attributions (Fn. 1).
This means that, for example, literary, medical and religious traditions, as well as images and interpretation patterns can all be blended together and incorporated into the representation of the animal. Moreover, Miss Mühlenfeld uses Foucault’s theories on cultural codes, scientific theories and episteme – as described in Les Mots et les choses – for a more general theoretical Basis (Fn. 2). The theories of literary scientists Jürgen Link (interdiscourse theory) and Michael Bogdal (historical discourse analysis) (Fn. 3), which are both based on the work of Foucault, are combined and as such used as a method of Analysis.

Another important aspect is the definition of the term 'concept'. According to German linguistics it can be defined in the following way: concepts are the building blocks of our knowledge; categorical knowledge is a general knowledge of the world, classes and objects; units that represent information on entire classes of objects are categories (categorical concepts); categorical concepts allow for a classification of impressions of the environments, and classification and identification of individual object as members of classes. Apart from these category concepts – or type-concepts in linguistics – token-concepts are also discussed. These token-concepts represent information about individual objects, situations or persons. Token- and type-representations are closely linked with the principles of identity and equivalence (Fn. 4).
An important method to describe concepts is the use of the prototype-theory (Fn. 5). Here, the conceptual information is grouped around a standard representation. These prototypes can be analysed by means of frame-semantics (Fn. 6).

Another aspect of the research deals with the definition of the term 'exotic'. The perception of this term can vary between cultures and geographical locations. Miss Mühlenfeld wishes to generate a proper definition by analysing the text-corpus. It can, for example, be seen, that certain adjectives occur in a context dealing with 'exotic' animals: e.g. gémleich, wunderleich and freislich. Another example can be seen in comparisons, when 'exotic' animals are compared with the more familiar indigenous animals: the giraffe has antlers like a deer and feet like a horse.

A concrete example of one of the animals that Miss Mühlenfeld is studying is the parrot. Today, if people are asked to name a prototypical parrot, probably 90 per cent would say ara and the remaining 10 per cent would say cockatoo or grey parrot. It is likely that nobody would say yellow-crowned amazon, lory or rose-ringed parakeet. A further important aspect for investigation can be found in the characteristics that are typical for parrots. One would probably mention its hooked beak, colourful feathers and ability to speak. Contrary to our modern negative view of the imitating (indeed "parroting") behaviour of the bird, most medieval texts demonstrate a more positive attitude towards the speaking abilities of the parrot. This positive attitude was fed by the idea that the parrot knew exactly what it was talking about.

When we look at the ancient sources, we witness that Plinius, for example, writes that the parrot originated from India and is green with a red collar. This is also the type of parrot that is seen in many of the iconographic images of this time. These descriptions and depictions clearly describe the rose-ringed parakeet. This type of parrot can also be recognised as the prototypical parrot of the Middle Ages. It is often seen in the iconography of this period, for example in bestiaries, as a charge animal, or as part of an illustration in religious texts.

The texts show us that the parrot is understood as animal that has great dexterous skills and is very eloquent. It is often shown on ships and used to emphasise the far-away location and setting of a narrative, as opposed to the native region. Moreover, the parrot appreciates pleasure and idleness, and its great value makes it a perfect item or gift to impress people. Lastly, the animal shows a great respect towards God and can be seen as an embodiment of Christ. This variety in concepts and meanings also demonstrates that the perception of a certain animal greatly depends on its context. This means, that an animal might be a symbol of Jesus Christ in one text and an element of the Islamic world in another one. The various discourses can also be connected with each other, forming a literary interdiscourse. Moreover, the parrot- texts also show that the ascription of certain characteristics might be heavily linked to one another. The parrot, for example, can be seen as messenger because of its eloquence and cleverness. In the same respect, this animal is considered valuable, because of its exotic origin.

[1] Friedrich, Udo: Menschentier und Tiermensch. Diskurse der Grenzziehung und Grenzüberschreitung im Mittelalter (Historische Semantik, Bd. 5). Göttingen 2008, p. 14.
[2] Foucault, Michel: Die Ordnung der Dinge: Eine Archäologie der Humanwissenschaften. [Aus den Franz. Von Ulrich Köppen]. Frankfurt am Main 1993. 
[3] Link, Jürgen: "Literaturanalyse als Interdiskursanalyse". In: Müller, Harro & Jürgen Fohrmann (Hg.): Diskurstheorien und Literaturwissenschaft. Frankfurt am Main 1988; Bogdal, Klaus-Michael: Historische Diskursanalyse der Literatur. Theorie, Arbeitsfelder, Analysen, Vermittlung. Wiesbaden 1999. 
[4] Schwarz, Monika: Einführung in die Kognitive Linguistik. Stuttgart 2008, p. 108; Schwarz, Monika & Jeanette Chur: Semantik. Ein Arbeitsbuch. Tübingen 2007, p. 24.
Schmid, Hans-Jörg: "Methodik der Prototypentheorie". In: Mangasser-Wahl, Martina (Hg.): Prototypentheorie in der Linguistik: Anwendungsbeispiele – Methodenreflexion – Perspektiven. Tübingen 2000, p. 33.
Schulz-Baluff, Simone: "Synergetisierung von Frame-Semantik und mediävistischer Literaturwissenschaft. Theoretische und methodische Überlegungen am Beispiel von Treue-Konzeptionen in mhd. Texten". In: PBB (Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur) 136, Heft 3 (2014), p. 385.

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