The Noble Lyfe and Natures of Man? Constructing the boundary between man and beast in an early modern bestiary.

by senseshaper

First published in Antwerp around 1521, Lawrence Andrewe’s English translation of the Dutch Der Dieren Palleys of the previous year presents a bold title that indicates that its text will reify the separation of man from beast and declare the nobility of human existence in a world of animals. Through the English title, the bestiary holds out the promise of explaining man’s dominion over the world of animals, placing the beasts it will go on to describe and depict within its pages in subjection to man. Noel Hudson argues in that Jan Van Doesborgh’s Der Dieren Palleys and Lawrence Andrewe’s The Noble Lyfe are both early print adaptations of the medieval bestiary the Hortus Sanitatis but with a key difference. Van Doesborgh added an elaborate title page and replaced “the simple introduction in Hortus Sanitatis, devoid of adornment, [with] a dozen pages of profusely illustrated prologue introducing the generation of mankind, stages of human life, anatomy, phreneology, dreams, etc. Finally he appended his own colophon with six more cuts, prudently omitting the magnificent Latin indexes, medical and general, as possible clues to identification” (Andrewe xii). The Noble Lyfe and Der Dieren Palleys remain tied to the medieval traditions of the bestiary both in form and content, but including a section on humans presents something new. Hudson claims that such alterations were done in order to republish an already old text and make it appear wholly original, but, with these additions, both editions focus their discussion of animals through the lens of man. The English title makes the focus all the more apparent since the topic of the text is supposedly the “noble lyfe and natures of man” rather than upon the properties and nature of animals.

The Title Page of van Doesborgh’s Der Dieren Palleys (ca. 1520)

Alternatively to the English title, the Dutch title, “The Palace of Animals” emphasizes that animals are its central subject matter. Despite the variant titles, van Doesborgh’s title page includes an element absent from the English translation. Van Doesborgh’s edition visually constructs man’s domination of animals by including three human figures which top and survey the title page. The three authorities, Pliny, Albertus Magnus, and Dioscorides, line and look down upon the menagerie of real and fantastical creatures below. The three figures, removed from the title page of the English edition, frame the view of animals through human authority, exemplifying the powers of human reason over the animal. While the English title verbally frames the discussion of animals through the lens of man, the Dutch edition visually constructs human domination through the gaze of human authority.

The Title Page of Lawrence Andrewe’s The Noble Lyfe & Natures of Man (ca. 1521)

With the Noble Lyfe, however, the title contrasts with the image, since, without the framing of the three authorities, the only human figure to appear on the title page is the male figure lying just above the framed title. The man, lying down, and seemingly ill or on the verge of death, is trampled by a harpy. While plenty of human faces are represented on the frontispiece, the sole human figure is literally trampled by a fantastical creature without the supervising figures of Pliny, Albert, and Dioscorides. By removing those authorities, the English edition also troubles the vertical hierarchy developed on van Doesborgh’s edition. At the very bottom of the image lie the beasts of the water, and higher, the beasts of the earth, and higher still the creatures of the air. By including the three figures at the top, Van Doesborgh’s edition places human reason and human authority over the realm of the entire microcosm. Without these figures, the English edition represents man and his reason not at the highest point, but rather as something lost in its midst.

Andrewe begins the body of The Noble Lyfe saying, “first of all I wyll speke of man because he is moste worthiest to be spoken of/ for he is created & made like unto the similitude of almighty god/ and than of all things that is created of almighty god to the behove of makynde whereby he shold be sustained & preserved” (Andrewe 3). Andrewe constructs the whole to show the supremacy of man over beasts, framing his bestiary in a way that exposes the magnificence of the human body and the ability of man to know the beasts of the world. It takes part in the tradition of medieval bestiaries that not only to categorize beasts according to their “proper names” but also in allows readers to “see” those animals through illumination or later in woodcuts.

The first section of The Noble Lyfe links its project to the divine history in its narration of man’s creation, for God “made [Adam] lorde of all earthly things/ and gave hym grace thrugh his glorious godhead & shaped in him suche wyt & sapience that there was never erthly man that had the conninge that he had/ And that dyd Adam geve unto every thynge that is under heven his perfeyte name” (Andrewe 3). Adam is described as the “comlyest/ fairest and best made… of al the members of his body,” and had “so gret abundance of graces/ that no man is to hym comparable/ fore he was illumined with all the seven sciences” (Andrewe 4). With those “graces,” “sapience,” and “conninge,” Adam had a special relationship to the world and an equally special access to language and knowledge since “he had also knowlege of all maner of erbis/ their properties and vertues of trees/ of metalles/ of stones/ byrdes/ bestys/ fysshes/ serpentis/ & of all other thinges on erthe/ and of the fadere of heven commaunded alle theese forna/ med to be of the worlde brought before hym to thente that he sholde knowe them and geve them their names whiche they kepe & ever shall whylest ye worlde endureth” (Andrewe 4). The power of naming and the power of knowledge justified man’s dominion of the world and Prelapsarian naming and knowledge were one and the same. God brings the animals before Adam’s eyes, and he simultaneously “know[s]” them and “geves them their names,” but it is not just an arbitrary signifier Adam assigns to animal signifieds, but he gives them their “perfeyte name.” Adam calls a new order into existence through his original naming act, but his act is authorized by the fact that his names are not arbitrary stamps on reality but perfectly recreate and reflect it.

In the Prelapsarian state, linguistics are conferred a level of certainty that would be further lost though the dual corrupting forces of the fall and the tower of Babel despite The Noble Lyfe’s assurance that the names Adam gave them would be “kep[t] & ever shall whylest ye worlde endureth.” Prelapsarian Adam had no need of a bestiary like The Noble Lyfe because he saw, knew and named all in an instant. The Genesis myth constructs a fantasy of a language that directly corresponds to reality, where there is no gap between sign and signified and between perception and knowledge. Adam’s sublunary dominion had no limits, for “Adam [was] made lorde and governour of the worlde/ and all thingines therin pertayning sholde to him be obedient” (Andrewe 4). By removing the authorities at the top of the frontispiece, Andrewe’s Noble Lyfe leaves humans in a fallen world where animals no longer maintain their subservient position, but, instead, overwhelm (a literally and figuratively) fallen man.

The fall was blamed for the loss of certainty man could have in the world, and created a rift between seeing and knowing. In contrast to Adam’s ability to see, name, and know in an instant, fallen humanity lost the same level of certain perception and intellectual access to the world. The fall drove a wedge between language and objects; between signifier and signified. Instead of perceiving the things in themselves, mankind had to learn about the world at a greater remove, but that distance also carved out a space for fiction and the imagination in both their good and bad valences. In its additions, The Noble Lyfe details how the fall unleashed death and sickness upon the world and how the fall made man susceptible to the humors and prone to humoral imbalances. Man suffered death because eventually the moisture of the body would be dried out, and the drying of the body produced aging which could disturb perception. Despite these radical changes to the body’s constitution and its loss of certitude that would allow Adam to see, name, and know simultaneously, The Noble Lyfe assures its readers that mankind still maintained dominion over the world because of the construction of his body. In his section on “the perfyte knowlege of the x. wittes,” Andrewe claims,

MAnkynde is shapen & ordeyned to enheryt ye celestiall kyngdome / & to be a ruler of all erthly thinges / & that none ertly thinge sholde rule him as bestis / serpentis / wormes / monsters / or suche lyke / for they bere their hed is downe towardes the grounde / & desyre nothinge but erthly thinges / as mete / drinke and slepe. And mankynde bereth his hede vpright towardes the heuens kyngdome to thentente that he shold optayn the ryches & gyftes of grace that God hathe ordayned in him / whiche be his naturall wittes. (Andrewe 12).

While Andrewe doesn’t link the senses to the fall directly, he implicitly suggests that the workings of the brain were linked to the radical reconstitution of the bodily interior, and to its new role in a world of knowledge unsecured from an epistemological foundation by directly experiencing things. While man’s upright head suggested its structural superiority over animals, fallen humanity looked down towards the beasts and the world to understand and know them. To discover the “hidden vertues” of the beasts they encountered, mankind required both internal and external senses. Postlapsarian perception and cognition were troubled by the fact that language and knowledge became unmoored from immediately revealed truth, and by focusing on the materiality of beasts, one had to look down towards the world.

The vertical hierarchy establishing man’s privileged position over the animals finds visual confirmation in van Doesborgh’s Der Dieren Palleys in the form of the authorities supervising the frontispiece, which are conspicuously absent from the English edition’s title page. Man is, in the English edition, represented at a moment of weakness, and is placed far from the superior position lauded in the title and in the text of the Noble Lyfe. Just as the upright head of humans declares their structural superiority over animals, the authorizing figures hovering over the title page declare man’s superiority over them. Without such framing figures, the English edition is left with the man whose superiority is questioned; he is limited to the earth and the supposed structural advantage of having an upright head becomes leveled to the earth. While looking towards the viewer, the man remains fixed between the elements of air and water.

Internally, man fares only slightly better. The sections on anatomy show man opened up to the readers view to display the internal parts, including portions on the internal organs and the structure of the brain. In addition to the sections on human anatomy where the human body is violated, many of the human figures in the bestiary portion of the text are vulnerable to the attacks of the animals depicted. Ripped apart by beasts, plagued with flies, attacked by snakes, the human body even outside the sections on anatomy show a vulnerable human body at the mercy of animals whose subjection to man was upset during the fall. Despite the supposed “nobility of man,” the bestiary portions show man as subject to the animal world.

One of the most unusual woodcuts in the collection is supposed to show an intestinal worm, the “Lombricus.” The worm, that “bredeth in ye bowelsis of man” (55) remains hidden from view, and the woodcut provided instead shows a defecating man. The woodcut displays the double vulnerability of man both in its body being the breeding ground for worms, and in its depiction of man excreting.

The “noble” human body is depicted in a decidedly less noble act, lowing man to the level of the beasts it elsewhere represents and depicts. While the title and the opening discussions of man’s superiority attempts to reify the separation of man from animal, woodcuts like that of the Lombricus and the altered title page challenge the separation of man from animals. Man is left as a vulnerable animal in a world of beasts, and, in the English edition especially, one is left wondering where this supposed superiority derives and whether man is really just another beast among beasts. Lacking the authorities on the title page in the English edition that assure man’s dominion over animals as in the Dutch edition, despite having a title which reinforces the separation of human and animal, the early English printed bestiary troubles the hierarchy it attempts to reinforce.

Despite the fact that the English edition closes with a list and several images of the authorities which confirm the truth of what has previously been said about animals, those authorities no longer have a prominent position at the apex of the vertical hierarchy of Der Dieren Palley’s. Those figures, which assure the “nobility” of man and man’s reason, remain hidden until the text’s closing moves. The English edition’s title page does not confirm the domination of man’s reason over its subject matter, leaving man as either a beast among beasts or as a species whose nobility is both literally and figuratively plagued and trampled by fantastical creatures even as its title and its description of man proclaims his domination. Despite fallen man’s presumption of superiority and domination, certain knowledge of and dominion over the animal world, the title page suggests, has been lost since the fall.