Organ Swapping in Medieval Iceland: quot lectores, tot sententiae, I hope
As a lingering flu drags me through the weekend, I offer you a brief story, which involves some ongoing themes of ITM: animals; disability; and the technological and organic supplementarity of the posthuman body. Please turn in your hymnals to the 97th Chapter of the fourteenth-century Thómas Saga Erkibyskups, which belongs, as you might have guessed, to an Icelandic Life of Thomas Becket. Here you will find a tale of Thomas’ peculiar solicitude for a hawk that had accidentally put out its eye during a hunt. The falconer decides to seek help at Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury, but on his way there, he meets a flock (“flokkar”) of noblemen, one of whom mocks him for his quest:
the mighty man breaketh out fiercely, saying that it is a most unchristian work to call in the aid of a holy man in such a matter, ‘or deemest thou,’ said he, ‘that the archbishop carest, whether the carrion-bird hath two eyes or one?'”
(the translation is Eiríkr Magnússon’s, not mine)
This matter we may bring to an end without prolixity by relating that in a wondrous manner God the Lord so ruled it, that the man and the bird underwent such a change, according to the command of our Lord, that the man had a bird’s eye, but the bird got back a man’s eye. This miracle became far-famed and manifoldly for this reason, that whosoever inquired into the form and nature of either eye, could judge truly, that by creation it was natural to one, what the other had. Now ever afterwards the lord was much more keen-sighted than before, though he was somewhat odd-looking; but with this it went that he needed so little sleep for the eye which the bird had had, that he deemed it a right troublesome matter, as it would be awake through nearly all the night. The hawk’s case was the contrary; he being as sleepy as a man is wont to be, so that he might scarcely be roused to his feet or to flight to do his work. This miracle endeth with the words that the Lord is made glorious through archbishop Thomas and all his beloved ones.
I discovered this miracle through Briony Aitchison’s stupendously researched “Holy Cow!: The Miraculous Cures of Animals in Late Medieval England,” European Review of History 16.6 (2009): 875-92, about which more later (briefly, though: if you thought animal resurrection stories occured only in Christianity’s Celtic periphery, then clearly you’re not a devotee of Henry VI). Apart from the Aitchison’s analytic catalog, my chevauchée through my college’s electronic databases has turned up little: e.g., a glancing reference to the miracle in Robin S. Oggins’ Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (p. 104), and a more sustained discussion of the saga itself in Haki Antonsson, “Two Twelfth-Century Martyrs: St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Magnús of Orkney,” in Gareth Williams and Paul Bibire, eds., Sagas, Saints and Settlements. Leiden: Brill, 2004, 52-64. Clearly there’s more to be done!
So many ways in! The miracle’s most obviously about the social capital of falconry, although this straightforward reading runs aground on the conflict between the falconer’s working piety and the properly anthropocentric piety of idle rich whose class the falconer serves. We require a more nuanced analysis attendant to the bonds between huntsmen and their animals, which may make up communities independent of the needs, desires, and values of their mutual masters.