Medieval Roadkill, or Where Karl’s Been

60124757_929adb1b73_mI hope some of you have noticed that I’ve been away for a few days (okay: a week or more). We’re all busy, I know. Alas! Here’s a bit of what I’ve been working on. My (nearly finished!) penultimate dissertation chapter is about carrion, hunting, and, in a kind of appendix, Yvain. Appropriately enough, the excerpt below is from somewhere in the middle. By this point, I’ve gone through the carrion rules of the penitentials (carrion, commonly called morticinum or suffocatum = the meat of animals wounded or killed by nonhuman animals, and it shouldn’t be eaten, except, as I discuss later, by bestiales homines or lepers) and followed Mary Douglas and Rob Meens in rejecting explanations of carrion laws that appeal to hygiene or Leviticus/Deuteronomy. Unsurprisingly, I understand the laws as another manifestation of the human subjugation of animals.

Three ninth-century works—two penitentials and one letter—openly express what had been only latent in earlier carrion laws. Both the St. Hubert and Merseburg B penitentials forbid the consumption of any fish found dead in a river, “since it was not hunted by men.” The letter, an anonymous cleric’s response to a King, possibly Louis the German, King of the Eastern Franks, develops this point at far greater length; to the best of my knowledge, it is the most detailed discussion of suffocatum in the Middle Ages. The letter first restates Jerome’s gloss on Ezekiel 44:31, likely through the conduit of a penitential: “We call an animal ‘suffocated’ that was throttled or mangled by a wolf or a bear or by another beast (aliqua bestia). We say that this sort of flesh is to be abstained from and is not for use for eating or for any other consumption.” At this stage, the letter’s definition seems to criminalize meat obtained with the assistance of falcons or dogs, animals that surely could be classified as “aliqua bestia.” The letter’s recipient is a nobleman and hence almost indubitably a devotee of hunting. As such, he could only have been deeply dissatisfied had the letter ended with this point, which is, as I have shown, the point to which most penitentials confine themselves. But this letter is addressed to a noble, not to a general Christian audience; nor is it obliged to imitate the unornamented brevity of Penitential prose. Because the cleric has room to elaborate, and also because he must, he exempts most hunting from Christian strictures: or rather, he brings hunting within Christian regulation.

But as for that which was captured by a dog, we do not count this meat among suffocated things, since man is the hunter, accompanied by a dog, whose acute sense of smell and quick agility man uses to capture animals, and so this capturing of an animal is not to be assigned to the dog but to man. For when we ourselves write, we assign the writing, not to the pen that writes the letters, but to the hand (scripturam ipsam non calamo, quo litterae caraxantur, sed scriptoris manui deputamus). It should likewise be thought about snares or other suchlike traps, which human ingenuity and skillful industry has invented. And so one may universally deduce: whatever is captured by human effort, art, or skill should not be numbered among suffocated animals, nor does anyone commit offense who consumes this food with thanksgiving.

Terrestrial animals drowned in the alien element of water are likewise fit for eating, so long as they were chased into the water by hunting dogs. Fish suffocated by being removed from water are also licit. Contradicting other penitentials, the letter similarly reasons to allow the consumption of birds captured by tamed raptors, nets, or birdlime. In every case, the letter exempts animals from the category of suffocatum so long as humans wanted them dead. In an echo of 1 Timothy 4:4 or, indeed, Augustine, the letter also directs humans to avoid sin by eating with thanksgiving. The second half of the letter explains why Christians should follow dietary laws even though they have left behind Judaism, but, as is apparent, the letter turns to this explanation only after it has provided a definition of suffocatum that has everything to do with the proper control of violence and nothing to do with hygiene or, for that matter, any specifically Judaic law.

The letter distinguishes the carcasses of animals killed by wolves and bears from those killed or injured by domesticated carnivores. The letter also condemns the flesh of animals killed or injured by “aliqua bestia,” but it does not explain what these beasts might be. They could well be dogs, but the letter refuses to imagine, or rather refuses to remark upon, the possibility that domestic carnivores might also hunt independently, like wolves or bears. Because the dog, like a pen, possesses no agency, the letter can preserve the supremacy of human agency: although humans and dogs work together in the violence of the hunt, the human remains the master, no more a companion with his dog than he is with any less organic technology. The letter has discursive precedent for its disavowal, for a longstanding textual tradition combines vigorous praise for canine facility in hunting with just as vigorous a denial of canine independence. Both Ambrose and Rabanus Maurus allude to the Dog of Antioch, an animal renowned for refusing to leave the corpse of its master and its alacrity in identifying–and sometimes assaulting–the murderer. However, Ambrose and Rabanus each hedge their admiration of dogs, Rabanus by declaring that “it is the nature [of dogs] not to be able to be without humans,” and Ambrose, more strongly, by declaring “that dogs are devoid of reason is beyond all doubt.” The very justness of Rabanus and Ambrose’s denials of canine independence make their denials less effective than that of the carrion letter. While dogs, as Rabanus argues, at least might be thought not to be able to live well without humans, and while much evidence could readily be assembled to support Ambrose’s claim of canine irrationality, dogs are very much unlike pens, for dogs, unlike pens, can act on their own. A pen would never write a charter by itself, while a dog certainly might hunt on its own if it had the opportunity or lacked the training to encourage it to leave independent violence exclusively to its masters. It is the very ineptness of the comparison that makes it so potent. Humans can distinguish between independent and dependent violence by whatever means they chose, for power itself is its own justification. The human need not look outside itself to judge what is right for it. If humans cannot consume carrion, they, at least, have the power to condemn it, and this power, especially at its most arbitrary, is ultimately what matters most.

Ambrose. Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel. Translated by John J. Savage. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1961, VI.4.23-24.
Dümmler, Ernst, ed. Epistolae Karolini Aevi III, Monumenta Germaniae Historica Epistolae 5. Berlin: Weidmann, 1899, 633-36.
Kottje, Raymund et al., ed. Paenitentialia franciae, italiae et hispaniae saeculi VIII-XI, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 156-156A. Turnholt: Brepols, 1994, Vol I, 165 and 174.
Rabanus, De universo, PL 111: 223D-224A