Abstracts: Symposium 2023

Thomas Ballhausen, Salzburg, and Christa Tuczay, Vienna: On the Non-Human Nature of Sirens: Discourses of the Monstrous in Literary Orders of Nature

Taking the motif of the sirens as its point of departure, this paper will explore the interrelation of literary representations of nature and the nature of the literary discourse on the basis of the special case of the monstrous. From the representations and attributions to the sirens we can not only trace the repeated unfolding of a mythical, primal scene of communication but can also examine the question of the embedding of the monstrous in a discourse about the orders of nature, which is not least influenced by literature. First, we elaborate a concept of monstrosity which, from ancient and pre-modern sources to the present, finds itself in tension with a wide variety of orders of nature; second, we argue that the siren motif is an archetype in literary history that is embedded in a concept of monstrosity; and finally, we examine the inclusion of the siren motif in a little-known early text by the Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, who combines pre-modern and modern principles to reflect on notions of normality, seduction, and the transgression and dissolution of boundaries.

Jane Beal, Dept. of English, University of La Verne, CA: The Natural World: Inspiration and Transformation in the Medieval English Dream Vision, Pearl, and its Illustrations from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x

 The anonymous Pearl-poet was inspired by the natural world when he wrote his late-medieval dream vision poem, Pearl, in Middle English. The dream vision is structured with attention to three ascending landscapes: a garden, where the Dreamer falls asleep; the marvelous East on the borders of the Earthly Paradise, where the Dreamer finds himself walking in his dream and later talking across a stream with the Pearl-Maiden; and the New Jerusalem, which the Dreamer beholds in a vision-within-his-dream. The natural landscape of the garden contains specific references to gillyflower, ginger, and gromwell as well as peonies. The bejeweled landscape of the dream encompasses trees blue boles and silver leaves, gravel made up entirely of pearls, and a streambed with banks of beryl, among other wonders. In the Dreamer’s culminating vision, the New Jerusalem shines just as in Revelation with streets of clear gold, gates of gigantic pearl, and twelve different kinds of precious and semi-precious stones. In the midst of the heavenly city, the Dreamer beholds the Lamb of God. 

In each setting, the poet draws inspiration from the natural world to describe not only the richness of the landscape but to convey deeper levels of meaning. In the garden, the inspiration of growing plants is most evident, for gromwell, ginger, gillyflower and peony are specifically named. Each had practical medicinal purposes as well as spiritual significance in the sign system accepted in the poet’s time. Once the Dreamer enters his dream, the natural world begins to be transformed by the poet’s imagination. The focus shifts from garden plants to marvelous trees and singing birds and precious gems in the streambed. Across the stream, the Dreamer sees a cliff of crystal, before which stands the Maiden, adorned with pearls in her crown, her dress, and upon her breast. The Maiden herself is called both “pearl” and “rose.” Finally, the Dreamer witnesses a vision of the natural world fully transformed in the supernatural glory of the New Jerusalem and Jesus, depicted as pure white Lamb with a wide, wet wound in his side, gushing red blood, but with a countenance filled with joy. In the poem, he is called “Jewel.” 

My analysis of key literary passages in Pearl will trace how the poet’s inspiration from the natural world leads to transformation in the poem – not only of landscape, but of the Dreamer himself – with careful consideration of the four illustrations that accompany the poem in its unique manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, which show how the first sketch-artist and manuscript painter depicted key moments in the poem for future readers.


Chiara Benati, Università di Genova: The Environmental Causes of the Plague and their Terminology in the German Pestbücher of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries

In his essay on the treatment of the plague (Liber pestilentialis de venenis epidimie. Das bůch der vergift der pestilentz das da genant ist der gemein sterbent der Trüsen Blatren, Straßburg: Grüninger 1500), the Strasburgian surgeon Hieronymus Brunschwig lists a series of possible causes for the outbreak of the plague, some of which clearly remind us of present-day environmental discourse on pollution and climatic change: the poisoning of the soil, the air, and the water determined by the negative influence of the stars, and the appearance of unusual climatic conditions, as well as sudden and significant weather changes. These concepts are not Brunschwig’s own but derive from a long tradition of German texts dealing with the plague, its causes, and treatment (Pestbücher) and can be traced back to the work of Konrad of Megenberg (1305-1374), one of the more forward-thinking authors in this field.

In this paper, the most significant of these treatises from the fourteenth and the fifteenth century will be taken into consideration with respect to their description of the “environmental” causes of the plague and to the terminology used to indicate them, in order to outline the late medieval and early modern conception of the relationship between human health and environment, as well as its linguistic representation in the German language.

Marialuisa Caparrini – University of Ferrara (Italy): Natural environment in the Old English Orosius: Ohthere’s travel accounts in Norway

The Old English travel accounts generally known as Ohthere’s Voyages represent – together with Wulfstan’s travel report – the main historical document and the earliest written geographical description of Northern Europe which has come down to us as interpolation in the late-ninth century Old English translation of Paulus Orosius’s Historiarum adversum Paganos Libri Septem. Ohthere describes two sea journeys, one from his homeland (Halgoland) northward to the White Sea, and one southward first to the Norwegian port called Sciringes heal and then to the Danish trading settlement Hæþum. Ohthere’s description of the two voyages is enriched with nautical details and with both geographical and ethnographical information on the Norwegian territory, on the peoples he meets (e.g., the Finnas and the Beormas), and on their settlements and ways of living. The accounts have been long studied from both philological and historical points of view, especially from a geographical, nautical, political, and economic angle. Aim of this paper is to investigate Ohthere’s travels from a deeper natural perspective, that is, in their description of the natural environment and its relationship with people highlighting, on the one hand, the description of rural and agricultural landscapes, i.e., of a nature which can be seen as ‘subordinate’ to human and human activities, and, on the other, the description of wilderness and wastelands with temporary settlements, in order to ascertain whether some depictions can be considered and analyzed as long-term factors (such as, for example, the whale- and walrus-hunting) of present-day conditions and situations.

Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona: Allegory or Nature? New Approaches to the Bestiary Tradition and Books of Hour

It has been a standard practice in Medieval Studies to view the countless images of animals, plants, and landscapes in medieval bestiaries and books of hours primarily as allegorical depictions, certainly far removed from reality. To some extent, that would certainly be true, but we have gone too far in dismissing the artists' and their patrons' interest in the reality behind those images. This paper will attempt to develop fresh perspectives regarding the correlation between images and reality in these and other medieval manuscripts.


Nurit Golan, Tel-Aviv University: Humanity and Nature as perceived by Giulio Romano in his Sala dei Giganti, 1532-35; Palazzo Té, Mantua, Italy.

In his masterpiece of illusionism, Giulio Romano created a unique visual experience. The cubic room which seems to be a 360 degrees round one, engulfs the spectator with horrid depictions of giants being crushed by enormous rocks, a volcano erupting while palaces collapse. Jupiter from Olympus casts his fire bolts at the rebellious giants as described in Metamorphoses by Ovid. The spectator walks into the room and is immersed in this disastrous world that surrounds him.

In this paper, I’ll discuss the ideas regarding nature and society, art and nature, reality and illusion as depicted in this artifact and their philosophical background. I’ll also discuss the social role this room played in the Federico II Gonzaga palace’s entertainment.  

Alyssa Larson, Creighton University: Nature Lost: Milton, Mammon, and the End of Eden


In Paradise Lost, John Milton portrays the natural world as a Garden of Eden where humans work in harmony with nature and look after the land on which they live. Milton’s work came at a time when British colonialism was in full swing and Puritan and other settlements in North America were thriving, at the expense of nature and the native peoples there. Also at this time, Sir Francis Bacon argued for man regaining his rightful dominion over nature.[1] The colonialist and exploitative view of the natural world would appear to be contrary to Milton’s idyllic visions of innocent humanity fully integrated into the natural world. A demon like Mammon, who brutally excavates and exploits the earth, and whose greed for gold and precious gemstones is so intense that he always focuses his gaze downwards, would seem to confirm the poet's proto-Romantic reverence for the virginal wildernesses of the world. There is a tension, however, between these appearances of ecological enlightenment and the dominion of men above all other living things advocated by the angel Raphael. Milton’s natural world is also made into a figure of strange sensuality, one that evokes a potential to be either loved and looked after or to be raped and defiled. Bill Phillips suggests in his study “The Rape of Mother Earth in Seventeenth Century English Poetry” that Milton utilizes preexisting associations between femininity and nature in order to “justify both the domination of women and of the land by men, whether it be done by lovers, colonists, or theologians.”[2]  

In this paper, I intend to examine the ways in which Milton apparently condemns the misuse of nature and natural resources, while in reality advocating for their full appropriation. I am in agreement with Rodger Martin who views Milton’s Satan as a projection of English anxieties surrounding Spain’s exploration of the New World[3]. Read through this lens, Paradise Lost is critical of colonization and exploitation of natural resources to the extent that this abuse of nature is committed by a nation other than England. Milton's feminization of nature and explicit subordination of Eve to the authority of Adam, along with Raphael's assertion of the dominance of man over nature, strongly suggest that Milton's portrayals of an idyllic relationship between humans and nature is pretextual to an implicit justification of its wholesale exploitation and eradication. Mammon in that sense is not so much an embodiment of the evils of greed, as an othered projection of the desires of an author, and a culture, looking down on the world, and preparing to take it by storm, in the name of money, power and global empire.

[1] Balachandra Rajan, Elizabeth Sauer, and Diane Kelsey McColley, “Ecology and Empire,” in Milton and the Imperial Vision (Duquesne University Press, 1999), pp. 112-129, 118.

[2] Bill Phillips, “The Rape of Mother Earth in Seventeenth Century English Poetry: An Ecofeminist Interpretation.,” Atlantis 26, no. 1 (June 2004): pp. 49-60, 49.

[3] Martin, Rodger. “The Colonization of Paradise: Milton’s Pandemonium and Montezuma’s Tenochtitlan.” Comparative Literature Studies 35, no. 4 (1998): 321–55.

John Pizer, Louisiana State University: Imitation vs. Allegorization: Martin Opitz’s Influential Poetic Nature Postulate

In his article “The Meaning of Art and Nature in German Baroque,” Gabriel Gersh cites Martin Opitz’s highly influential statement in Buch von der Deutschen Poeterey (1624) that poetry is rooted in the imitation of nature, but not in the real existing nature in which we live. Rather, the poet must imitate the phenomena of the natural world as they could or should be. Gersh notes the idea of natural imitation is not new, but that Opitz’s prescription of idealized nature is novel. Gersh does not have a positive view of Opitz’s nature postulate, and many critics even up to the present-day regard it as helping to foster the sort of stale vraisemblance paradigm prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries in Boileau, Gottsched, and Charles Batteux. However, even Opitz’s critics concede his treatise on German poetry had an influence on subsequent movements such as Weimar Classicism and Romanticism, when the ideal of vraisemblance was overcome. My paper would argue that Opitz’s formula was also important in tacitly countering the opinion prevalent in the Baroque age that the poet must allegorize the natural world. Countering this view first enables the conceptualization of the natural sublime most famously explicated in the modern age by Burke and Kant. To be sure, Baroque allegory is designed to trigger the feelings of awe and/or fear they also associate with the sublime. However, these emotions are connected in Baroque allegory with divine manifestations in nature rather than in the phenomena of nature in themselves. In Burke, Kant and others, the feelings aroused by these phenomena are rooted in nature qua nature, not in natural forces allegorically represented as tokens of godly power. Opitz did engage in some allegorization, but my paper would show how he also evokes a more secular natural sublimity in his poetry and how his book on German poetry paved the way for the formulation of the truly natural sublime in the 18th century, when European society was moving toward such secularization and away from a popular and critical perspective which saw art and religion as inextricably intertwined.