What does it mean to be an animal? To be a human? And what does reading have to do with anything?

Animal studies and the environmental humanities are ideas that are increasingly familiar to 21st-century readers; viewed here through the lens of some of the finest and most intriguing literary works from the premodern Romance world, with important interactions with other literatures around the whole world and influences on them, and spanning a range of forms: from short poems to encyclopaedias, from fables to bestiaries, from saints’ miracles to dramatic multimedia satires.

What, where, and when is this “Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern” of the course title? We’ll be in places where the linguistic relatives of today’s Catalan, French, Italian, Occitan, Portuguese, and Spanish are used; our two set texts are from the 12th and the 16th centuries CE, but we’ll be talking about manuscript and multimedia cultures from the 6th century onwards … and before and after, from an “in the middle” in the sense of not being in the beginning nor in End Times … and elsewhere: potentially adventuring anywhere in a Global Middle Ages, depending on where students’ interests take us.

We will start small: listening to a frog in a 12th-century Troubadour poem in Old Occitan by Marcabru, “Bel m’es quan li rana chanta.” We will revisit this frog at the end of the course, to see how our readings have changed along the way, and how we have changed through them.

Our two set / required texts in the main body of the course are originally in 12th- and 16th- century French:

  • The Lais of Marie de France, ed. and trans. Glyn S. Burgess (Penguin Classics, any edition)
  • Montaigne, The Complete Essays, ed. and trans. M. A. Screech (Penguin Classics, any edition)

Through them, we will meet animals in associated works from France, Italy, and Spain (and other areas where Romance vernaculars are spoken, in a multilingual world; our 12th-c. set text, for example, is from England). There will be reading about animals, of animals, and physically on animals (through online digitised manuscripts and books in the library); shape-shifting; animals reading (and speaking, interacting, and otherwise showing evidence of sentience and thinking); and reading humans as animals (via Montaigne). Along the way, readings and student work may converse with—for example—wolves, dogs, foxes, bears, birds, bees, donkeys, horses, deer, cats, squirrels, rabbits, snails, unicorns, hedgehogs, lions, chickens, sheep, fish, whales, otters, beavers (and of course frogs).

All texts will be worked on in English translation, though students will have the option, if they wish, of using versions in the original (or a modernized variant) in their final projects and in their public humanities knowledge contributions—the next posts that you will see here below—in “Humanimals Reading: A Local Bestiary.

Cannonball Shark





A sailors greatest fear, the greatest swashbuckling shark, this creature is rarely seen until it is too late and even the act of parley will be denied.

A red and grey creature with the pirate lord tattooed on its rear fin, adorned with only one eye and a peg fin which it uses to make sharp turns the cannonball is a terror of the seas and should you come across it, abandon ship immediately and hope for the best. It raids and pillages small ships however it has also been known to sink the likes of some extremely large vessels when the seas get rough. Fast with extremely large fins and a mean demeanour, it prefers to drown sailors or duel under the mighty waves as it cannot bite (Some say due to scurvy it had lost most if not all of its teeth). Rum and gold are its only motives with its greatest treasure being marked on a map etched into the inside of its black eyepatch. It is said that the treasure that the cannonball shark possesses is the Queen Anne’s Revenge filled with gold, gems, bottles of the most exquisite rums and the Royal King’s Crown. When it was a young lad, it is said that its father was killed by two British sailors who sank him into the deep depths of Davys Jone’s locker. It is said that the cannonball shark is still searching for the sailor that killed his father however rumour has it that the sailor has retired to the country side to escape his greatest fear.  This terrifying beast has been the topic of many a sea shanty often detailing its adventures with its first mate engaging in battle with the Royal Navy and making away with the riches of the sea. Last spotted near the town of Havana, this shark has not been seen in over 2 years. Some say that the cannonball shark is still looking for the the disappearing mermaid said to be able to grant any creature a set of sea legs. Once acquired however, its fated first destination is to the country side to finish what the two British sailors started.


From the Latin word orcus meaning the underworld and death.


The orcus is a strange creature that lurks in the shadows, by bedsides, and outdoors on cold nights. With the feet of a bird and twisted limbs abound, it stealthily moves, the garb of a raven slewn over the unappealing form it beholds. A look into the eyes of the orcus instantaneously bring the soul of a human out of the body and into the underworld, for with this single look the orcus can judge the timeliness of human death. It appears wherever the stench of death lingers in the air, and is only able to be seen by those on death’s door. Although haunting in appearance, it is neither bad nor good. It is simply a bringer, the only beast that can truly judge whether or not a human is fit to die.


It creeps through the shadows like a lost soul,

A rustle of cold wind before it is gone.

The orcus has only one reigning goal;

To judge every human as they pass on.

Eyes gleam and glisten most terrifying,

Body like a strangely moving carcass,

Orcus should be the only one spying

On the things humans do in the darkness.

Judging is what it has been made to do,

So in its eyes no wrong will it deny.

If you are not careful, it will judge you

Badly and you will go down when you die.

Forever moving, rustling and seeing,

It brings death, and thusly it is freeing.


Inspired by this excerpt from Montaigne’s essay “Of Judging of the Death of Another”:

“When we judge of another’s assurance in death, which, without doubt, is the most remarkable action of human life, we are to take heed of one thing, which is that men very hardly believe themselves to have arrived to that period. Few men come to die in the opinion that it is their latest hour; and there is nothing wherein the flattery of hope more deludes us; It never ceases to whisper in our ears, “Others have been much sicker without dying; your condition is not so desperate as ‘tis thought; and, at the worst, God has done other miracles.”



From the Greek word olísthima meaning to slither.


The listhim are dangerous, for they lurk amongst humanity disguised as the average human. They dress in decorated garb meant to reflect the upper class so none will dare mess with them while they watch the antics of humans up close, at dinner parties they slip into and balls they see themselves to. Beware their hands which are often gloved, and the shoes they wear, for those conceal claws sharp enough to slice the throat of any human. In the glow of the moon, the eyes of listhim flash with a snakelike glow, and it has been said that their tongues resemble the tongues of snakes, too. They, believing themselves to be perfect, lurk around and find the humans they believe to be unworthy of the upper class lifestyle. Those they fail to approve are promptly killed, and their wealth goes into the stash every listhim keeps for their own to purchase fancy clothes and other such things so they can baby themselves with things it does not need.


He wants you to think his life has been grand

From the way he adorns his every inch,

One day he might even rule this whole land;

Just don’t look him in the eyes lest you flinch.

At least, in the morning he looks normal

Akin to a human with lots of clout.

His bodily actions are quite formal,

Until the moon rises and he slinks out.

Like a snake, he will slither behind your back,

Monstrous and deranged, he’ll take you away.

The wretched listhim awaits a fat snack

And gold to steal and then use in the day.

Some things are not what they seem to be first,

Steer clear from nobles who seem to be cursed.


Inspired by this excerpt from Montaigne’s essay “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes”:

“Had we been born with a necessity upon us of wearing petticoats and breeches, there is no doubt but nature would have fortified those parts she intended should be exposed to the fury of the seasons with a thicker skin, as she has done the finger-ends and the soles of the feet.”



From the Greek word anthropofágos meaning cannibal.


The anthra, while abundant in number, prefer to live alone, and they do not wear clothes because they are governed by the laws of nature over that of humanity. They travel by themselves through forests and plains, burrow in dusty caves to sleep during the day, and scavenge at night. With a tail of thorns and frightening yellow eyes that betray grief, the dog-like face of the anthra is one that appears to be constantly in pain. The body of every anthra is littered in bite marks from itself and other anthra alike it. Once an anthra dies, other anthra scent the rotting corpse and eat it. While terrifying to look at, humans have no reason to fear anthra. The anthra are too busy hating themselves to pay attention to the follies of humans. Perhaps the flowers adorning the hair of many of the anthra speak to them being misunderstood creatures…


Flowers crown the mane of the anthra sweet,

Scented to hide the tang of reeking blood

That follows from other anthra it eats,

Red crusted on bodies, pain like a flood.

Singular travels through forests at night

Each limb moved with the drudgery of shame,

Bad dreams which cause every anthra to bite

Itself, so it can remain in deep pain.

Yellow eyes gleam in the light of the moon

Bites litter the flesh, pain no longer felt.

It prays to some god it will escape soon

From pain it has always to itself dealt.

Howling cries of these cannibals are heard

Moments before they cease speaking a word.


Inspired by this excerpt from Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals”:

“I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.”



From the Latin word flere meaning weeping.


The flerea is the only creature of its kind. With the body of a dog and the ears of a bat, always unwillingly ready to listen for the cries of humankind, it stays in one place and cries eternally. Upon the hunched back it has lay the weight of every invisible burden of mankind, and on its head is a thin wreath of thorns. The flerea clawed out its eyes long ago because it could not stand crying constantly as it does from holding the grief of humanity upon and within itself, but even without eyes, tears still flow steadily from the empty, bloodied holes in its face and will until the end of time. It has soft skin which is unhardened to bearing itself to grief and sorrow, and the grief it carries oppresses the soul of the flerea to a disgusting degree.


It stood in the meadow sullen and sad,

As big bloody tears trickled down its face,

All matted and worn from years of the bad

Feelings of humans who’d filled with disgrace.

Kneading the damp ground with sharp, blackened claws,

The hunched up back of the flerea grew

Much more prominent, as time’s passage was

Causing human sins to fill it with rue.

Not a howl could emit from the dry

Throat of the flerea as it laid down

In distress, simply wishing it could die,

But it could not since humans were around.

Forever it shall build up grief and sin

And wish for a new life not to begin.


Inspired by this excerpt from Montaigne’s essay “Of Sorrow”:

“Neither is it in the height and greatest fury of the fit that we are in a condition to pour out our complaints or our amorous persuasions, the soul being at that time over-burdened, and labouring with profound thoughts; and the body dejected and languishing with desire; and thence it is that sometimes proceed those accidental impotencies that so unseasonably surprise the lover, and that frigidity which by the force of an immoderate ardour seizes him even in the very lap of fruition.”



From the Greek word μοῖρα meaning fates.


The moirai are ghost like creatures, only four in existence. They bring balance to the woods, taking into consideration the lives of humans and other animals living around. In charge of animals, plants, fire and natural disasters, they float in and out of sight like ghosts. No human has seen them for more than a second at a time, and when they appear, they all appear together, for the power of one moirai goes hand in hand with that of its sisters. Their faces are covered by half masks, which they switch around to try and fool each other with. The moirai are playful creatures, even though they often put negative, opposite things into forest areas where there needn’t be such. It is said that when they are seen, ambitious men are made envious, good men are made to be mean, and the sunniest days become storms because the moirai think it to be funny. They have seen too much life to care much for the simplistic good, so wrecking chaos has become a game to them which keeps them contented over centuries of observing a humanity they otherwise have little to do with. It annoys them that they cannot be seen for long, so they work through nature to make themselves known. 


They floated through the dewy forest brush,

Four spirits gaggling in a foreign tongue,

One drew a finger up to give a shush

As through the forest a human voice rung.

Moirai play games, none of which are too fun

Throwing rocks and stones and upsetting life

It is not long before they are all done,

Leaving in their wake a discord and strife.

Chaos is rung in by fate-seeing ghosts

Glowing ethereal, they love to play.

They have been on this earth longer than most

With no need to save their games for the day.

All throughout the night they swoop from the skies

To terrorize humans before souls rise.

Inspired by this excerpt from Montaigne’s essay “All Things Have Their Season”:

“…he applied himself to this study, not for the service of his death; but, as a man whose sleeps were never disturbed in the importance of such a deliberation, he also, without choice or change, continued his studies with the other accustomary actions of his life. The night that he was denied the praetorship he spent in play; that wherein he was to die he spent in reading. The loss either of life or of office was all one to him.”

Healing Hummingbird

The healing hummingbird is a creature with the ability to connect with afterlife, deliver their messages, and spread healing among humankind. This creature disguises themselves in plain sight, as they are often mistaken for the common hummingbird mammal. However, these birds have a unique gift to carry the energy and messages from spirits who have passed away. These spirits are often concerned for their living loved ones, and are striving to deliver an important message. The healing hummingbird may achieve this at first by simply being present in times of need: when a loved one is experiencing deep sadness, despair, confusion, and grief. It is only when a sad soul recognizes the birds intention that healing may begin. If the healer is mistaken as simply an average bird, the messages will not continue or progress. When recognized, messages initially come in the form of the bird’s presence and song (quite similar to hummingbirds, but with peculiar timing which is a hint to the loved one that there is a message for them). After this, the bird will reveal themselves in dreams rather often, and become increasingly present in daily life. The messages revealed in dreams are expressed directly from loved one who has passed on, clearly revealing what has been left unsaid, and what is important in order to heal those still living. The experience is hard to explain — a mix between a dream and a very intentional out of body event, giving the loved one what they require to move forward. 

Once the healer has successfully given the living loved one the healing it needs, one of two things can occur: the bird will no longer show themselves, and continue its purpose with other living loved ones, or transmit the healing ability to the loved one. If the later option occurs, the healer will land on the loved one’s shoulder, sing a harmony, and fly from the loved one, never returning. The loved one then becomes a healer for humanity, driven to help and restore happiness in others.