The Animality of Work and Craft in Early Medieval English Literature

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Does the ability to craft make us human? Some modern philosophers have seen humanity in its role of homo faber as distinct from and superior to other animals. They contend that human workers manufacture with a creativity that animals do not possess. However, other scholars have argued that animals can be understood as both workers and crafters. Recent scientific studies have even shown that animals can use tools to manipulate their environments in sophisticated ways. This article brings such findings and debates into conversation with the earliest English literature. It examines when, where and how animal weorc (painful, passive suffering) shades into animal cræft (purposeful, active making) in Old English and Anglo-Latin texts. A wide range of sources, from Ælfric’s Colloquy to the riddles of the Exeter Book, represent animals as workers who labour for, with and alongside humans. But do these animals ever display technical skill? While some early medieval writers viewed craft as a quality that makes us human, there are also multiple examples of literary animals who can craft as well as work, create as well as labour. Ultimately, I argue that we should situate representations of early medieval weorc and cræft within a continuum that includes both human and nonhuman actors, from the drudgery of the ploughman and the ox to the artistry of the goldsmith and the phoenix.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLeeds Medieval Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2022


  • Old English Literature
  • Anglo-Latin Literature
  • Craft
  • Labour
  • Animal Studies


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