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UNM’s Institute for Medieval Studies to host lecture series on Middle Ages

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The University of New Mexico’s Institute for Medieval Studies will host its 32nd Spring Lecture Series, “Medieval Animals,” April 24–27, popular with Los Alamos and other area residents, all of whom are welcome to attend.
“Medieval Animals” will explore how humans and animals interacted on the historical level at key points during the Middle Ages. The topics will include how medieval authors – much like their modern counterparts, including George Orwell and Jorge Luis Borges – used animal characters to critique human behavior and underline human foibles.
The lectures will also cover how legends grew up around animals both real and mythical in order to offer men and women moral examples that accorded with the medieval worldview, and how the extraordinarily rich representation of animals in medieval art played both a didactic and a decorative role in the culture of the Middle Ages.
An underlying theme of the series will be to compare and contrast the treatment of animals within medieval Western and Islamic cultures.
The opening lecture will investigate the fate of the elephant sent as a diplomatic gift from the Muslim caliph in Baghdad to the Frankish emperor in the West in the early ninth century, while other presentations will analyze how Islamic and Christian authors deployed animal characters in their writings.
Two presentations focused on medieval art will include spectacular slides and will demonstrate how artists sought to puzzle and delight while conveying an underlying lesson. The rich content and strong visual component of the lectures will appeal to a broad audience.
The event includes six lectures and a concert. The lectures will be in Room 101 of Woodward Hall on the main UNM campus. The concert will be in Keller Hall within the UNM Center for the Arts. The lecture series is supported by a grant from the New Mexico Humanities Council and is free and open to the public.
The series begins with an opening lecture at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, April 24, and continues with 5:15 and 7:15 p.m. sessions on the following three days. The five visiting speakers at the event are internationally prominent experts from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Pace University, Vanderbilt University, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The concert, scheduled for 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, will feature UNM’s Early Music Ensemble directed by Colleen Sheinberg, founder-member and co-director of Música Antigua de Albuquerque.
The lectures
April 24, 7:15 p.m.
Paul Cobb, “Charlemagne’s Elephant”
About the year 800, the Islamic Caliph Harun al-Rashid, whose court at Baghdad was the most sophisticated of its time, sent an elephant to Charlemagne, the recently crowned leader of a newly revived Roman Empire in the West. Like the giant pandas of a more modern era, the elephant functioned as a diplomatic gift that would help to bring together two culturally distinct superpowers. The elephant, Abul-Abbas, is one of the few medieval animals to have left a mark in the historical record: although Islamic sources make no mention of it, its fate is recorded in Western annals.
Cobb, an internationally distinguished expert on relations between the medieval Islamic and Christian worlds, will movingly trace the elephant’s journey from Baghdad to Charlemagne’s capital city of Aachen, then will discuss Charlemagne’s ownership of the elephant and its possible use in his military campaigns, analyzing both the historical record and the more embellished accounts circulated by later authors fascinated by this first known appearance of a pachyderm in the medieval West.
April 25, 5:15 p.m.
Jan Ziolkowski, “Animals and Sex in the Middle Ages”
In this lecture, Ziolkowski, Professor of Medieval Latin at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, will take a tongue-in-cheek look at some curious legends that developed around animals during the medieval period: for example, that bees reproduced without coition and that weasels conceived through the ear. These legends, he will show, were often intended to reinforce elements of the Christian creed: thus the bee’s experience was seen as analogous to the Virgin Birth, while a widespread belief that beavers castrated themselves was associated with the voluntary celibacy of the clergy. The lecture will also discuss medieval stories about animal brides and their implications for the social history of the aristocracy, and will include an analysis of the meaning of the legend of Melusine, the half-human, half-serpentine female said to have been the progenitor of several medieval dynasties.
Tuesday, April 25, 7:15 p.m.
Janetta Rebold Benton, “The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages”
Animals played a remarkable decorative and didactic role in every form of medieval art, from wall paintings and stained glass windows to sculpture, metalwork, and tapestries. Rebold Benton, distinguished professor of Art History at Pace University and a frequent and popular presenter at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, will discuss representations of animals in all types of medieval artistic media. She will consider, in particular, why artists had such a penchant for monsters and grotesques, especially those that combined the body parts of entirely unrelated animals, such as the ant and the lion. Such hybrids are found, for example, among the gargoyles carved on the exteriors of medieval cathedrals as well as on the capitals of interior sculpted columns. She will show that, while many of the fantastic fauna—such as satyrs, griffins, centaurs, dragons, and sirens – derived from classical Antiquity, they were invested with new significance in the medieval era. The context in which an animal appeared, she will argue, was key to the correct interpretation of its meaning.  
Wednesday, April 26, 5:15 p.m.
Paul Cobb, “Animals on Crusade”
Between 1095 and 1291, the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East clashed in a series of armed pilgrimages, military confrontations, and waves of settlement known as the Crusades. The Crusades have long been seen as a cross-cultural encounter between religions, ideologies, ethnic groups, even civilizations. As Cobb will show in this lecture, they were also an encounter between differing animal cultures. Large numbers of animals were deployed on both sides, and the transportation of animals from Western Europe to the Middle East was in itself a remarkable logistical accomplishment. The Crusades shaped how Westerners and Muslims thought about animals and how they used them; the treatment of animals similarly affected how the humans involved in all this thought about and related to one another. The presentation will draw upon research conducted by Professor Cobb for his acclaimed book, “The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades.”
Wednesday, April 26, 7:15 p.m.
Richard McGregor, “The Case of the Animals versus Humans: An Islamic Ethics from Medieval Iraq”
In the Middle Ages, just as in such modern works as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” authors created animal characters to highlight the shortcomings of human behavior in the interests of persuading men and women to reform. In this lecture, McGregor, head of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University and an expert on medieval Islam, will describe and discuss the tenth-century ethical text, “The Case of the Animals against Humans before the Kind of the Jinn.” This is the most famous work of the esoteric fraternity known as the Brethren of Purity, who were active in Basra and Baghdad at a time when Islam was undergoing vibrant intellectual ferment. Featuring animals who speak in court to offer stinging indictments of human failings, the treatise offers a moral allegory that combines satire with a thought-provoking thesis on animal welfare; it comes to a positive conclusion by outlining a platform for humans to improve their lot by adopting higher ethical standards.
Thursday, April 27, 5:15 p.m.
Concert by the UNM Early Music Ensemble directed by Colleen Sheinberg: “Birds and Beasties in Medieval Music”
UNM’s Early Music Ensemble will perform a combination of sacred and secular works from the Middle Ages that describe various types of fauna, from nightingales, hawks, and cuckoos to sheep, horses, dogs, and even a pet ferret. The program will draw upon such sources as the “Cantigas de Santa Maria, the Roman de Fauvel, the Carmina Burana, and the Codex Las Huelgas.” Composers will include the troubadours Thibaut de Champagne, Albertet de Sestaro, Arnaut Daniel, and Adam de la Hale, as well as the German “Minnesinger” Oswald von Wolkenstein. The concert will feature both vocal and instrumental selections performed with period instruments.
Thursday, April 27, 7:15 p.m.
Elizabeth Morrison, “Lions, Tigers, and Dragons—Oh My! Real and Imaginary Animals in the Middle Ages”
Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, will bring this year’s lecture series to a close with a spectacularly illustrated presentation that will focus exclusively on depictions of animals in medieval books – thereby complementing Rebold Benton’s lecture with its focus on other media. Morrison will show that while the representation of domestic animals was largely straightforward, medieval authors and artists had to depend on their own powers of invention when it came to describing and portraying exotic animals with which they were not familiar, such as panthers, crocodiles, and other species not native to the medieval West. Artists, like the authors whose texts they illustrated, tended to provide these exotic creatures with invented characteristics that would offer edifying moral examples to humans: thus the lion was said to display mercy to women, children, and men in trouble, while the pelican was believed to revive its dead chicks with its own blood. All the world’s creatures, Morrison will show, were seen as manifestations of an all-wise cosmic plan, their behaviors explained as reflections of the virtues and vices.