Habitability: Buridan on Dark-Skinned People


BnF français 25344, 128v, Gautier de Metz, Image du Monde

Today, my “Problems in Posthumanism” graduate seminar worked on Alexander and Dindimus, Montaigne on Cannibals, Petrarch on the Canary Islands (well, we at least read it), and chiefly Sylvia Wynter’s groundbreaking, monumental “1492: A New World View.” Given Wynter’s arguments about the cognitive disruption occasioned to the “Scholastic order of knowledge” by the full-scale European encounter of a globe fully inhabited by humans, I prepped by rereading Valerie Flint’s 1984 Viator article on the (uninhabitable) antipodes and the premodern community of monsters and men, encompassed within a homogeneous humanity; and by glancing at Aquinas on Aristotle’s Meteorology, where our Dumb Ox follows Augustine, Bede, and other luminaries by likewise asserting that most of the earth is unpeopled, eg,

Just as these places are uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat, so the regions under the constellation of the Bear [which is the part of the heaven always visible to us] are uninhabitable on account of the cold caused by the sun being far away. Hence that part of the earth in which we live is between the two circles, i.e., between the one that passes through the summer tropic and the one which bounds that part of the heaven always visible to us.

So far so good. But to complicate Wynter, I also reviewed the Book of John Mandeville, whose hundreds of manuscripts affirm a fully inhabited globe; consulted Higgins’ Mandeville to glance at the 1330 Directorium ad faciendum passagium transmarinum (translated soon thereafter into French by Jean de Vignay), in which a widely traveled Dominican asserts the general habitability of the world; and, at last, I skimmed the problem of the habitability of the Earth in Jean Buridan’s fourteenth-century Quaestiones super libris de caelo et mundo, which presents a wide range of options on this problem, even in the very Parisian center of the “Scholastic order of knowledge.”

I did this not to disprove Wynter (and indeed, in the course of prepping the class, I found ‘disproofs’ of Wynter that stumbled, badly, because of their ignorance of the Middle Ages). As my students observed, Wynter is enormously generative, and though she does make errors in (medieval) facts, so do Agamben and Foucault and other notables in “traveling theory”: few declare Agamben and Foucault useless because of this. One suspects that the withering corrections of Wynter are motivated by something other than scrupulous rigor.

Rather, I was doing my duty as a medievalist and to the Middle Ages: I presented a heterogeneous premodern, a Europe not dominated by a singular scholastic “Feudal” order of knowledge, but one that nonetheless would be profoundly altered by the European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.

And while reading Buridan, I found this:

And now we speak about the middle zone that is between the tropics within the equator. Immediately it appears that this is uninhabited because of too great heat, since coming up on the tropic of Cancer they [=travelers?] find so much heat that there the men are burned and black beyond the common measure of men, looking like those of India and Ethiopia. Therefore, it seems that beyond this heat that no man could live there. And this is confirmed, since if it was inhabited beyond this zone, some of us would have come to them, or they would have come to us; because none has been heard [to do so], as some say.

Et modo dicemus de zona media quae est inter tropicos sub aequinoctiali. Statim enim prima facie apparet quod illa propter nimium calorem sit inhabitabilis, quia procedentes usque ad tropicum Cancri inveniunt tantum calorem, quod ibi homines ultra communem modum hominum aduruntur et fiunt nigri, sicut apparet de Indis et Aethiopibus; ideo videtur quod ultra esset tanta caliditas quod non possent ibi homines habitare. Et hoc confirmatur, quia si essett ultra habitatio, aliqui nostrum venissent ad eos, vel illi venissent ad nos; quod non est auditum, ut aliqui dicunt. (quoted from Ernest A. Moody, “John Buridan on the Habitability of the Earth“) (also available here, p 156).

My Latin’s a bit rusty, so do correct me if I went astray. As as counterexample, Buridan next cites Avicenna, who believes that the equatorial zone is not only inhabited, but even graced by mild weather (and a very noble city!), since there the sun passes directly overhead, remaining so only for a short time, while elsewhere, the angle of the sun means it beats down on us for longer. Maybe so!

I’m particularly struck by Buridan’s “proof” on the basis of skin color. While this is a scholastic “proof,” and therefore offered more as a thought experiment than a certain description of reality, it still says something about what dark-skinned people are made to represent for Buridan. Even as a man from the “frozen North” (which is to say, Béthune, roughly between Arras and Dunkirk), he likely would have encountered dark-skinned people in his life, and certainly in art. However, Buridan’s proof at least implicitly asserted that such dark-skinned people were evidence that there could be no darker people. The darker the person, the more certain that the torrid zones were uninhabitable. Darkness tended towards impossibility, nonexistence, a life that could not be.

He notably has nothing similar to say about whiteness “beyond the common measure of man” as disproving the habitability of the far North. More directly to my point, and perhaps to Wynter’s, darkness is at once evidence of the limits of habitability and an intimation of uninhabitability: it was a visible sign of the limits of life, and therefore a kind of geographical memento mori. Or vacuum. Wynter argues that in the modern era the medieval habitable/uninhabitable mapping would be remapped onto the color line:

the color line had come to inscribe a premise parallel, if in different terms, to that which had been encoded in the feudal Christian order, by the line of caste that had been mapped onto the physical universe as well as onto the geography of the earth….[viz.] the white (unmixed people of Indo-European descent) and the black (peoples of wholly or of partly African descent) opposition, with the latter hereditary variation or phenotype coming to reoccupy the earlier signifying place of the earlier torrid and Western Hemisphere, within the logic of the contemporary globalized and purely secular variant of the Judaeo-Christian culture of the West. (39)

In other words, in the modern era, Black people come to signify, for the dominant White-identified genre of Man, the form of human life that is excluded from the human. They are a materialization of non-identity, of non-existence, of Human non-being. And perhaps we have here, in Buridan, a hint of the same, of what would metastasize into the full, horrendous form it took in the fifteenth century and onwards.

Origin Story

Every literature academic has an origin story, the book or poem that captured them & ruined them for other study. Mine’s ‘The Hollow Men.’ I found the poem in the arts volume of an encyclopedia set, age 16. I read:

‘headpiece filled with straw alas’

and thought: somehow you know me. I’ve been down on ‘relatability’, that common student criterion of aesthetic value, because it naturalizes identification. But relatability can also make us feel less alone and so more at home. It can be a discovery, not a reaffirmation.

But can you imagine some teacher recommending that poem to me? ‘You seem prematurely bitter and brittle and misanthropic: you’ll love this. Weirdo.’

Deviant Bodies and Animalized Humans

Nearly two years ago, I announced:

For several years I’ve wanted to write an essay on the way that ‘mute beasts’ communicate through gesture in a host of medieval texts (famous examples include the ravens in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the lion in Yvain), with some consideration of the way that some monks complained that the use of monastic sign language reduced them to animality. So, a chapter on disability and animals, in terms of muteness, interspecies communication, sign language, and signs, maybe with a strong gesture towards the use of CS Peirce in HOW FORESTS THINK, would be a lot of fun to write.

And now it’s basically done. I’ve submitted it to the medieval disability anthology, and then revised it a bit and submitted it again, and then revised it a lot more, because I’m sharing it at the University of Pennsylvania Medieval-Renaissance seminar this September 7. For the interested, here’s the first part opening of my paper, my first real attempt to do disability studies.


Saxon Mirror, Mscr.Dresd.M.32 6r

For several medieval writers, differences in mental capability are partly an effect of particular kinds of bodies or environments.[1] For example, an eighth-century medical treatise by Qusta ibn Luqa (in Latin, Costa ben Luca), translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and listed as a Parisian university text in the thirteenth, holds that women, those too close to the sun, like “Ethiopians,” and also those too far from it all have souls that are “imperfectiores et debiliores” [more imperfect and weaker] than those of people whose internal heat and cold are in “perfectione aequalitatis” [perfect equilibrium].[2] Shape and size could matter as well as internal or external ecologies: Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals held that since birds, fish, quadrupeds, and children were all “dwarflike,” their intelligence was inferior to that of upright humans. Michael Scot’s early thirteenth-century translation follows its ninth-century Christian Arabic source by omitting this specific comparison, but repeats logic, drawn from elsewhere in Aristotle’s treatise, that holds that “animalia sunt minoris intellectus quam homo” [animals are less intelligent than man], because they have more flesh in the front part of their bodies than humans do.[3] The thirteenth-century natural history of Thomas of Cantimpré begins its chapter on “The Monstrous Humans of the East” by proposing that although satyrs and onocentaurs lacked rational souls, they nonetheless could exhibit behaviors that seemed rational to the degree that that their bodies resembled those of humans.[4] And the discussion of the human worldly superiority in Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon observes that well-proportioned limbs signify (“denotatur”) a good mind, and then adds that “inde sentatiavit Plato quod qualis animalis effigiem gestat homo, talis animalis sequitur mores et affectus,” rendered by one translator as “wherefore Plato 3afe sentence that man folowethe the maneres and affectes of that beste, of whome he hath similitude.”[5]

The possession of speech was a key concern. A thought experiment, repeated through the Middle Ages from Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) to William of Saint Thierry (twelfth) to Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth), held that if humans had no hands, they would be quadrupeds, and therefore be forced to grasp food with their mouths, and as a result would lose the flexibility of lips and tongue that allowed for the production of rational speech.[6] A handless body, being unable to express its rationality, would be functionally irrational. Like an animal or stone, it would be mute. This word, mutum (to choose a declension at random), appears 469 times in the Patrilogia Latine, and accompanies the word “animal” 43 times: not more often than it accompanies surdum [deaf; 160 times], but often enough to attest to a widespread association of nonhumans and muteness across scholarly cultures. This association is not because animals were thought silent, but because what sound they made was understood as mere noise. Habakkuk 2:18 is just one of several scriptural mockeries of those who believe that the “simulacra muta” [mute idols] they themselves created possess divine power.[7] Augustine’s commentary on Psalms 144:10 applies the same adjective to stones and nonhumans alike when it insists that no one should “think that the mute stone or mute animal [mutus lapis aut mutum animal] has reason wherewith to comprehend God.”[8] The condition of muteness thus traversed those of human impairment, animal inability, and material inertness. It slid from irrationality into inanimacy, from a life whose noise could not be understood to one that has no life, no voice, and no agency.

Law reinforced this division. The Justinian code ruled that humans who were permanently “mutus et surdus” (mute and deaf) could not legally draw up contracts, as they had no more capacity for judgment than young children, the insane, and even the chronically ill.[9] This legal voicelessness could also be applied to humans who bodies were marked as deviant. The thirteenth-century Saxon Mirror (which survives in more than 400 manuscripts) begins its discussion of inheritance law by likening kinship to a human body, so that, for example, “the children of legitimate brothers are located at the level where the arm connects to the shoulders,” with more distant relations located further out on this imagined body; it concludes this discussion by decreeing that property cannot “devolve upon the feebleminded, dwarfs, and cripples.” With one stroke, it cuts such people off from the legal, genealogical body and subjects them to legal conditions elsewhere applied to people unable to express their rationality in socially normative ways.[10] To be sure, Henry de Bracton’s thirteenth-century compendium of English laws nuanced the Justinian code by allowing the entirely deaf to validate contracts by means of “signs and a nod.”[11] But even this modification still preserved the fundamental notion, namely, that certain impairments reduced people to a functional status of stones or nonhuman animals, without legally recognizable agency of their own.

In effect, since the Latin word “animal” could simply mean a “living” or “ensouled” thing,[12] common medieval references to “irrational animals” could functionally encompass several groups: nonhuman animals, humans with mental or intellectual impairment, and, less often, humans with deviant bodies. The phrase “mute animal” could similarly encompass both nonhumans and some humans. Although no widespread medieval law collapsed the distinction between these groups, rhetorical comparisons between nonhumans and impaired humans were frequent. They appear in work by, for example, Augustine (“they differ little from the beasts of the field”), Henry of Ghent (without “intellect…they remain only an animal”), Aquinas (“so long as man has not the use of reason, he differs not from an irrational animal”), and Henry de Bracton, who declares that the insane “are not far removed from brute beasts which lack reason.”[13] Proverbs did similar work: in Middle English, one could be “deaf as an adder,” “mad as a goose” and blind “as a bear,” “as Bayard,” a common horse’s name, or “as a beetle,” a word that denoted either an insect or a hammer.[14] This logic at least implicitly asserted that nonhuman animals were impaired by their own natural capacities, while impaired humans were not quite human.

A humanist disability rights perspective would at least hesitate before these comparisons, because they disable impaired humans by reducing them to a condition of being animals or even objects.[15] It might argue that deviations from the normative human body should be understood only as deviations within the range of human possibility, not as animal degradation. Without denying the fact that humans can suffer deprivations to which humans are uniquely vulnerable (for example, an awareness of legal exclusion), and therefore without declaring, for example, that “humans and animals are really the same,” my work in critical animal studies and posthumanism encourages me to linger with these comparisons instead of simply decrying them. Of course I am not the first to argue in this way. Sunuara Taylor begins an essay about her own impairment, animal metaphors, and animal rights by listing animal insults used against her impairment and those of others; but she admits that when she walks, she really does “resemble a monkey,” in particular, a chimpanzee. These comparisons need not “be negative.”[16] Rather, Taylor argues that they offer an opportunity to rethink embodiment, dependence, and autonomy so that nonhumans might be included in what might be called a vegan community of impairment. With this work, we can recognize that the paired accusations of impairment against nonhumans and certain humans alike call not for a reassertion of precritical humanism and its hierarchies of significant vulnerability, but rather for a reevaluation of the social and ethical functions of impairment, disability, and agency. Mel Y. Chen’s Animancies carries out this work thoroughly. In case studies ranging from lead paint and burst oil wells, to furniture, to the insidious feline genius of Fu Manchu, to semi-domesticated chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals, Chen tracks how certain groups and forms of life—particularly impaired people, racialized immigrants, and the sexually heterodox—are culturally invested with varying degrees of liveliness, agency, responsibility, and animalization. Chen prefers not to shift excluded people up the “animancy hierarchies” of “Western ontologies,”[17] however politically advantageous this reaffirmation would seem to be such groups. Rather, as with other feminist reevalations of materialism, agency, vulnerability, and autonomy, Chen prefers to “reside in this…negative zone”[18] to jostle aside the centrality of claims to agency and animancy in arguments for rights, justice, and care.[19]

Taylor and Chen’s work happily stymy one possible, straightforward argument about animalized metaphors of disability and the social animalization of impaired humans. This would be the assertion that nonhumans, being variously suited to each of their particular environments, are not in fact impaired, and that any supposedly natural animal impairment should be understood instead as representing multiple sensory and bodily norms, rendered “abnormal” and disabled only as an effect of environments and cultures built for other norms. Such a reading would effectively “deanimalize” animals by both freeing them of their negative cultural associations; it would invest them with the agency that uncritical humanism assumes them to lack; and it would simultaneously perform an analogous function for impaired people. Against these critical mistakes, I can also offer Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “misfit” model of disability, which, by emphasizing material conditions fitted for certain bodies and capacities, deemphasizes the supposed personal bodily inadequacies of the disabled subject, so that “vulnerability is in the fit, not in the body.” Garland-Thomson argues that “fitting” requires a “generic body” in a “generic world,”[20] while I would push this point perhaps past the point of utility by arguing that any no fit can ever be perfect, because there is no perfectly generic world and certainly no perfectly adequate fit. The ineradicable vulnerability and ongoing unbalanced homeostasis of any entity means that no body, even those that belong to the community of “uniform, standard, majority bodies,”[21] can ever be perfectly fitted to its environment.

The remainder of this chapter will concentrate on an encounter that foregrounds and preserves such misfit moments. This is the meeting of Saint Cuthbert and the penitent ravens, which I offer as an experiment in the utility of considering disability studies, critical animal studies, and ecocriticism together, for both historical cultural studies and perhaps even more present-minded cultural studies. The encounter is notable for the gestural communication used by these “mute” beasts to effect a community; for the fact that the birds are not made to talk, although birds, particularly corvids, were a paradigmatic talking animal; and finally for where it takes place (the island of Farne, rendered hospitable to both saint and birds by continuous effort). This encounter does not affirm any bodily or environmental norms. It instead emphasizes the work communication and community require in an environment perilously inhabited by vulnerable bodies that can never be quite at home in it.

[1] Like all cultural studies that unsettle categories that “go without saying,” terminology is a central issue in disability studies. For useful recent surveys of terminological debates from a medievalist perspective, see Joshua R. Eyler, “Introduction: Breaking Boundaries, Building Bridges,” Joshua R. Eyler, ed., Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 1–11, and Richard Godden and Jonathan Hsy, “Analytical Survey: Encountering Disability in the Middle Ages,” New Medieval Literatures 15 (2013): 313–39. My chapter uses the social model of disability, in which “impairment” indicates the subjective experience or condition of discomfort, incapacity, illness, and so on, while disablement/disability occurs because of physical or social expectations and architectures that reduce or deny cultural participation to people with impairments (stairs rather than ramps are the classic example). This division between impairment and disability is analogous to the sex/gender division and vulnerable to the same critiques.

[2] Carl Sigmund Barach, ed., Excerpta e libro Afredi Anglici De motu cordis item Costa-ben-Lucae De differentia animae et spiritus liber translatus a Johanne Hispalensi (Innsbruck: Wagner’schen University Press, 1878), 138-39. Barach’s edition, which has the nonsensical “solari” living far from the sun, requires supplementing with other copies of the work; Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer 10, 245r, for example, reads “ut sclavi et mauri” [like Slavs and Moors], which respectively stand for those “longe distare a sole uel uicinare” [a long ways or close to the sun].

[3] Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, trans. James J. Lennox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 686b23-9; the Greek is “νανῶδες.” Michael Scot, De animalibus: Michael Scot’s Arabic-Latin translation. Part Two, Books XI-XIV: Parts of Animals, ed. Aafke M. I. van Oppenraaij (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 187–88. Michael Scot’s source may be drawing on discussions of body mass in Aristotle Parts of Animals 689a25.

[4] Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de Natura Rerum: Editio Princeps Secundum Codices Manuscriptos, ed. Helmut Boese (Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1973), 97.

[5] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby, 9 vols. (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol 2, 180-81, anonymous English translation from British Library, Harley 2261. Trevisa himself says nothing about nonhuman animals, but instead says only “þerfore Plato 3af his doom, and seide suche ordenaunce, disposicioun, and schap as a man haþ in his kyndeliche membres and lymes, suche kyndeliche maneres þey foloweþ in dedes.” For several medieval assertions of the independence of body and mind, see chapter four in Irina Metzler, Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).

[6] For sources, and a longer discussion, see my How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 47–50.

[7] Scriptural translations are the Latin vulgate and, for the English, the Douay Rheims.

[8] Enarrationes in Psalmos, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrilogiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, 217 vols. (Paris, 1844) (hereafter PL), 37:1877. For a book-length discussion of the animancy of stones, see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[9] Paul Krueger, ed., Justinian’s Institutes, trans. Peter Birks and Grant McLoed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), II.12.13. Also see Alan Watson, trans., The Digest of Justinian (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011),, 166.

[10] Eike von Repgow, The Saxon Mirror: A ‘Sachsenspiegel’ of the Fourteenth Century, trans. Maria Dobozy (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 69-70. For more on legal history, see Christian Laes, “Silent Witnesses: Deaf-Mutes in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” Classical World 104.4 (2011): 451–73; Irina Metzler, “Reflections on Disability in Medieval Legal Texts:  Exclusion – Protection – Compensation,” in Disability and Medieval Law: History, Literature, Society, ed. Cory James Rushton (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 19–53; and Wendy J. Turner, Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013).

[11] Henry de Bracton, On the Laws and Customs of England, ed. George E Woodbine, trans. Samuel E Thorne, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), Vol. II.286. For evidence of the persistence of this law, see Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, in Four Books, 12th ed., vol. 4 (London: A. Strahan and W. Woodfall, 1793), Vol. I, 304, “A man is not an idiot, if he hath any glimmering of reason, so that he can tell his parents, his age, or the like common matters. But a man who is born deaf, dumb, and blind, is looked upon by the law as in the same state with an idiot; he being supposed incapable of any understanding, as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with ideas.”

[12] For an example of the word’s range of meanings, see Alan of Lille, Distinctiones dictionum theologicalium, PL 210:701A–B.

[13] I draw all these examples from Metzler, Fools and Idiots, 108, 114, 120, and 154.

[14] Middle English Dictionary online (hereafter MED; accessed 8 August 2016), s.v. “bitil” and “betel.”

[15] For an admirable example of this kind of work, see Licia Carlson, The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 160-61.

[16] Sunaura Taylor, “Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights,” Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 192 and 196 [191–222]; see also Sue Walsh, “The Recuperated Materiality of Disability and Animal Studies,” in Rethinking Disability Theory and Practice: Challenging Essentialism, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 20–36.

[17] Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). The first phrase (sometimes under the form “animate hierarchies”) appears 33 times in Chen’s book; although the latter phrase is from page 127, references to “Western” thought abound in her book. Medieval studies help challenge sedimented, homogenized notions of what constitutes “Western” thought.

[18] Ibid., 17; for one sample of feminist approaches to these issues, see Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53.

[19] For further work in this line, see Eunjung Kim, who, in writing about the artist Marina Abramović, asks “in what way can an embodiment of immobility and speechlessness challenge ableism, which is firmly grounded on the criterion to control one’s body to determine whether one qualifies as human?”; “Unbecoming Human: An Ethics of Objects,” GLQ 21.2-3(2015): 230.

[20] “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 600 and 594.

[21] “Misfits,” 595. For homeostasis and systems theory, see the first several chapters of Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Margery Kempe’s Vegetarianism I


British Library, Add MS 61823 78v: “Cap. 66,” and, in a red box, “fleyshe”

Thinking about animals and violence and the middle ages tends to follow one of two routes. The first holds that medieval people were more “brutal” — the animal metaphor is telling — because they lacked the “humane” delicacy of modern civilization. The other route holds that medieval people were not more animal than us but rather just more “closely connected” to them, because big, working beasts were so much a part of their daily lives, because animals were driven “on the hoof” into the very heart of cities to be butchered, and because virtually no book could be produced without killing animals for their skin. If reducing cruelty to animals requires getting closer to what “really” happens to them when we have them butchered, then animals may well require that we “get medieval” for them.

That may strike you as self-evidently silly as it does me, but in a purely quantitative sense, animals did have it far better in the Middle Ages than they do now. On occasion there were mass killings, to provision military expeditions, or, for example, to make up the parchment for the eighth-century Codex Amiatinus and its two matching volumes. But the 1500 calves this extraordinary project required hardly register in comparison to the figures of annual cattle slaughter in the United States (in this century, generally well above 32,000,000 individuals per year). In the twelfth century, Walter Map furnished what looks like a more typical portrait of premodern animal intimacy: each evening, a rich man entered his barn “and approached each oxen in turn, shook up their fodder, running his hand along the backbone of each, approvingly and fondly, instructing each by name to eat” (515-16). They worked for him; they would end their lives of labor by being slaughtered and eaten; but at least he knew them individually, and, inasmuch as he could, he treated them with kindness; and, as the story concludes, should a deer hide itself from hunters among his herd, the rich man, even in darkness, would immediately identify it, eject it, and have it put to death.

What follows restores to the Middle Ages some of the cultural complexity often denied it by a modern self-satisfaction that makes the middle ages little more than either a barbaric anticipation of modernity or its less decadent origin, or both, simultaneously. My subject is the fifteenth-century bourgeoise, contemplative, preacher, mother, troublemaker, and pilgrim, the author, through her amanuenses, of the first English-language autobiography, the extraordinary Margery Kempe. To use terms not often used to describe her: Kempe was a vegetarian who wept sorely at the sight of animal suffering. This makes her sound as if she would be a troublesome crank, or worse, for omnivores, and a founding hero for modern vegetarianisms. But most modern vegetarianisms want to end animal suffering: not Kempe. Hers was a carnivorous vegetarianism, whose practice was founded on a sublated preservation of desire for the suffering and death of animals (I am distinguishing my approach sharply from several excellent published articles on food and Kempe, by Cristina Mazzoni, Melissa Raine, and animals and Kempe, by Lisa Kiser; see also this seminar paper by Elizabeth Knight, whose development is certainly worth watching). This at least was perfectly in line with contemporary Christian piety. What distinguished her was less her diet than her gender, age, and life experience as a mother, all of which generated a particularity potent sanctity, established through identification with a suffering, pleasurable flesh that was at once animal, female, and divine.

Around the year 1409, Christ granted Margery Kempe his first long visionary visitation, in which he commands her to “forsake that which you love best in this world, and that is eating of flesh. And instead of that flesh, you shall eat my flesh and my blood, which is the true body of Christ in the sacrament of the altar” [forsake that thou lovyst best in this world, and that is etyng of flesch. And instede of that flesch thow schalt etyn my flesch and my blod, that is the very body of Crist in the sacrament of the awter” (Chapter 5, line 379 ff)]. Despite the exertions of pilgrimage, and despite bullying from her fellow travelers, she keep the vow for years, begrudgingly having some meat when he confessor insists, but for no more than “a lytyl whyle” (Chapter 26, line 1404). It is not until Christ himself intervenes, years later, that she fully “resort[s] ageyn to flesch mete,” and that only because he wants her to build up her strength for another pilgrimage. Obedient on both occasions to her divine lord, she – in Sarah Salih’s words – gets “to have her fast and eat it” too.

In her fifteenth-century England, Kempe’s decision to forgo meat for years on end would have been unusual for a secular woman, but was otherwise perfectly orthodox. Kempe could have gone much further and still remained within the church: the twelfth-century mystic Alpais of Cudot, for example, is said to have subsisted on nothing but Eucharistic hosts. Meat would not necessarily have been rare in the diet; late fourteenth-century harvest workers in eastern and southern England would have received nearly a pound of it daily during the laboring season (28). Baseline Christian dietary practice thus really did require some care: for Kempe’s Christianity would have required that she, like any other layperson, abstain from meat for nearly a third of the year, mostly during the fasting season of Lent. Monks tended to do still more, and Carthusian monks, whose practice Kempe’s most closely resembled, did the most of all, by requiring that their adherents keep to an entirely meatless diet.

Early medieval monastic rules tended to forbid all but the sick from eating quadrupeds and sometimes even birds; later monks developed loopholes by distinguishing forbidden carnes (fresh-cooked meat recently cut from the joint) from licit carnea (pre-cooked, pre-salted meat) (40), so much so that a monk like the twelfth-century Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds, earned high praise for eating neither (40). Carthusians would have none of this. After centuries of debate, even the chancellor of the University of Paris weighed in. Jean Gerson’s 1401 De non esu carnium Carthusienses admitted that while abstinence from meat was bad for the health, so too were mercantile voyages and nearly all other human endeavors, so there was nothing inherently wrong with Carthusians damaging their health for God, and therefore no reason for their critics to charge them, as they often did, with homicide (101-103). Carthusian attitudes towards meat-eating found themselves promulgated outside the cloister in works like the enormously popular Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a meditative guide that explains that Christ ate meat only once, at the Last Supper, where Christ’s typological role as the sacrificial, sacramental Paschal lamb made eating symbolically useful (51, 377). Carthusian approval for Kempe’s ascetic diet is suggested by the so-called “red pen annotator,” an early sixteenth-century monastic reader of the sole extant manuscript of Kempe’s Book. Willing at times to delete or even rewrite passages to suit his doctrinal preferences, he leaves the margin blank when Kempe first stops eating meat (9r), but when she takes it up again, he writes “fleysche” near the passage, and draws a box around it: it may be too much to suggest that he was disturbed by this change in Kempe’s religious practices, but he certainly found her new difference from his own vowed commitments remarkable.

In Kempe’s England, the common heresy was not one of not eating meat, but of eating it at the wrong times, and without due regard for its special importance. Peter of Bruys provides a spectacular twelfth-century continental example: he dined on meat that he had roasted in front of a church, on Good Friday, on a pyre of disarticulated crucifixes (PL 189:771C-D). According to records produced in the last decade of Kempe’s life, the heretics of Norwich – a town some 40 miles from Kempe’s own King’s Lynn, one which she visited frequently – broke with the church with far less fanfare, by saving leftover meat to eat on fast days (Margery Baxter, 46), or by declaring that anyone on whatever day “can eat fish or flesh indifferently, according to the desire of their appetite” (potest indifferenter edere pisses vel carnes secundum sui appetitus desiderium). This studied carelessness was punished with a temporary diet of bread and water, or, in one case, bread and ale, simultaneously depriving these heretics of meat and returning them to the cycle of penitential eating that was supposed to be common to all of the faith.

The heretics who had worried the church the most were the s0-called Cathars, who “shun all flesh…but not for the same reason as monks and others living spiritually abstain from it” (PL 195:14C), according to Eckbert of Shönau’s complaint in his 1163 sermon in praise of meat-eating. Eckbert explains that the Cathars believe that since some vast prince of shadows (“quemdam immanem principem tenebrarum”) created the material world, they should not eat meat, the most material of foods. Eckbert then sarcastically regrets that there had been no Cathar present to whisper his doctrine in Noah’s ear after the flood, when God first authorized this new diet of flesh. It is in memory of beliefs like these that one late medieval defender of the Carthusian vegetarianism explains “unlike certain heretics, [we] hold like other Christians that all God’s creatures are good,” which is to say, inherently good for food.

While medieval ethnographers were willing to imagine fully vegetarian, entirely peaceful ascetics, and to let them voice disdain for those who “made their bellies a tomb,” they deposited these ascetics safely in the far east, or the distant past of the classical “Golden Age,” before humans turned to meat, warfare, and commerce. Good Christians, even Carthusians, were supposed to want to kill and eat animals, and to recognize that God had given them animals for exactly this purpose. They were encouraged to refuse this pleasure, but they were supposed to refuse it as a pleasure, so that the Christian year, even for laypeople, may be understood as a elaborate management, and refinement, of the pleasurable satisfactions of denying oneself the pleasures of eating meat. This is how Kempe fasts: the orthodoxy of her abstinence is marked by what Christ says to her: leave off eating what “thou lovyst best.”

Since orthodoxy requires that she never give up this desire, her fasting must therefore be distinguished from her celibacy: the two asceticisms differ. Quite early in the book, after waking up to celestial song, she suddenly loses all sexual desire for her husband (Chapter 3); and she dolefully recollects, as she cares for him in his incontinent dotage, that she had once desired him (Chapter 76): but now, she thinks sex “abhominabyl,” a sin, a distraction, certainly fleshy, but only repulsive. Meat, on the other hand, she has given up without giving up desire for it. The preservation of this pleasure preserves the desire for this substance, flesh, that was the material sign of human supremacy over animals, the particularly feminine unruliness and pleasures of the body (in particular see), and the very substance of the incarnated Christ himself. It was all these that she presented, denied, identified with, and performed, troubling nearly all who came in contact with her with the noisy insistence of her fleshy and suffering piety.


(to be continued)

NO FILTER: Suffering, Finitude, and other supposed truths about animals


Sauprellen, anon c. 1720, detail; from the Jagdschloss Grunewald (see also)

It is not uncommonly said that habitats generated by internal combustion engines and electronics lack the crowds of animals common to what are often called “premodern,” “preindustrial,” or “developing” habitats. It is supposed that medieval people were therefore “more in touch with” animals than their modern counterparts. The standard argument continues in this way: because medieval people relied on animal labor, traveled on animals, and because they could not have misunderstood where meat came from, they did not need to compensate for their “unnatural” separation from animals by surrounding themselves, for example, with overbred, useless pets. Their relationship to animal life was truer than ours, where “ours” equals that group of people most likely to be reading this chapter.

The faults of the argument stem first from its implicit narrative of a fall and decadence, as if the real came first, followed by a long slide towards our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin and its attendant belief in the truth of first things can and has been traced from, for example, Plato and his Ideal Forms to present-day postapocalyptic literature (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the “underlying” – a favored spatial metaphor — reality of nature). The idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from and more authentic than cultural practice, that getting before “modern civilization” is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined unmediated contact.

In an animal rights context, the argument has been that industrialized production of meat somehow separates us from our “real” engagement with its real source in animal life and animal death. Supermarket culture is particularly to blame for shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery, of getting past the hypocrisies of industrialized carnivorousness, is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the [I recommend not clicking on the link] industrial, cannibalistic dismemberment of female clones in Cloud Atlas. This argument follows the standard logic of ideology critique, insofar as it claims that only by coming face-to-face with the “reality” of the modes of production can we finally surmount the cruelty of our polyannish relationship to work and consumption. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in a variety of contexts, such claims are overblown: there may be some value in revealing what goes on in industrial farming – the very reluctance of these operations to open their doors to scrutiny is evidence enough of that – but what may be far more difficult to change is the consumer’s certainty that, in the end, their needs are worth it all, regardless.

Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning lambastes the “Messianic approach to art-making,” which holds that being “ambushed” by with the “truth” is an essential or even desirable goal of art. Nelson argues that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art may not require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction. Revelations of cruelty may be little more than revelings in cruelty. They might produce nothing but sensations of disgust, alienation, self-loathing, and guilt, or the self-aggrandizement of feeling that one feels more intensely or just more honestly than others, or that one has been exiled from bourgeois comforts (or that one has discovered some new way to épate them for their supposed hypocrisy). Revelations of cruelty might lead to still worse, titillation and enjoyment and from there to the desire for more cruelty, not because cruelty treats others as things, but because it recognizes that others can suffer in ways that things cannot.

Dominic Lacapra’s History and its Limits arrives at similar ends through its assault on conjunctions of the sublime, the transcendent, and sacralized violence, and on generalized, antihistorical obsessions with wretchedness, particularly as practiced in the work of Agamben, Bataille, and Žižek. When Lacapra turns his attention to one of Coetzee’s fictional creations, the animal rights activist and writer Elizabeth Costello, he joins Nelson in arguing against the notion that identification necessarily leads to empathy, and empathy necessarily to kindness. Coetzee’s Costello analogizes the death of animals to the Holocaust, accusing those who kill animals of being like the camp guards, whose fault, she insists, was that “the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims.” Lacapra observes that while this may be so, Costello’s argument that this cruelty can be blamed on a failure of identification can hardly account for sadomasochistic projection: no doubt, some killers and other villains can and do perceive their victims as like themselves, vulnerable and dependent, and therefore, for those very reasons, suitable targets of cruelty.

With all this in mind, we are now in a position to reconsider one of the most philosophically challenging, influential demands for an identification with nonhuman suffering. This is Derrida’s statement on the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As Derrida observes in his The Animal that therefore I am (L’animal que donc je suis), when Bentham proposes that the important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer, this “changes everything” [change tout]. To a large degree, Derrida is correct. Where philosophers have traditionally excluded or included nonhumans within the human community of rights on the basis of positive capacities – for example, the capacity to make tools, form family relations, exhibit a theory of mind, or various forms of “lack” in Lacan, Heidegger, and their epigones – Derrida focuses on a shared non-capacity, what he calls a “nonpower at the heart of power,” the ineluctable, general exposure of animals and humans alike to discomfort, injury, and death. If thinking about animals and humans begins not with abilities, language in particular, but with a shared vulnerability, certainties about agency and freedom all happily collapse.

Derrida’s recentering of the animal question on suffering still has two problems: the first is that it raises the possibility that animals may be killed ethically so long as their suffering is eliminated. This would be “humane killing,” which comes as such a surprise that an animal has no time to experience fear or pain: this is the goal of the slaughterhouse design championed by Temple Grandin, developed through her identification with nonhuman sensory worlds. The second issue is that identification with the “nonpower at the heart of power” need not necessarily result in less cruelty or more kindness. An awareness of suffering need not necessarily result in the desire to end it.

These objections are perhaps too practical. Derrida’s concern is less with animal welfare than with philosophy. He is led to his logical endpoint by his approach to language, in which having language, this supposed distinguishing capacity of humans, is itself not a capacity, but an entanglement in an always shifting, preexisting, limitless network. At the furthest end of this “nonpower” lies the figure of the animal, preserved in Derrida’s analytic, despite his attempts to do otherwise, as a homogeneous figuration of abyssal mystery.

More to the point for my analysis is that Derrida arrives at this problem by aiming at “the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life” [la façon la plus radicale de penser la finitude que nous partageons avec les animaux, la mortalité qui appartient à la finitude même de la vie]. The truth of things may be an aporia, and therefore necessarily, anti/foundationally unreachable, but what it is not is in the middle of things. One has to follow things through to their end to find this truth of absence. Toril Moi’s championing of ordinary language philosophy identifies many of the problems in this, not least of all the fact that “Derrida’s deconstructive concepts at once enact and deconstruct such ideality,” thus requiring that concepts meet the demands of a presumably philosophical purity so that deconstructive analysis has something to disprove.

The purity in its most intense form, as an absence, Derrida discovers in death, suffering, and inability, all of which lie on the other side, at the before (the radical, from the Latin radix, root) and at the after (the finitude, from the Latin finis, a close or conclusion). The “nonpower at the heart of power” locates truth, even if that truth is a void, in suffering, vulnerability, violence, death, across borders, and at least implicitly across temporal limits. Whatever its dedication to upsetting pretensions to unmediated experience, nostalgia for origin, and all other myths of purity, it also needs these myths in order to preserve the grounds for deconstructive analysis.

All this is not to demand that human and animal difference should be conceptualized around differences in ability. I welcome a focus on nonpower, among other things, even if, as Dominic Lacapra observes, this focus goes rather “too far in acknowledging human disempowerment” in relation to nonhumans. It is rather to question both the centrality of suffering in Derrida’s analysis and the accompanying centrality of finitude, and the presentation of all of all of this as authenticity: Herbert Marcuse’s “Ideology of Death” should make us suspicious about any elevation of “a brute biological fact..into an existential privilege” (for introducing me to this essay, thank you to Aranye Fradenburg’s superb Sacrifice Your Love).

Nor am I denying the actual practice of cruelty. Animals can and do suffer, generally not just like people, but nonetheless in their own ways. Recognizing this suffering is no small matter. Furthermore, to say that revelations of cruelty may not necessarily lead to an end to cruelty is not to say that such revelations are valueless: possible results may range from individual kindness to wholesale assaults on an otherwise indifferent or worse social order. Or they may lead to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic assaults on (certain forms) of animal slaughter: good for some animals, bad for some people. I am challenging notions that center right action on the discovery of suffering, especially when this discovery of suffering is elevated into being a central truth – as it can be, strangely enough, for thinkers as antithetical as Bataille and Derrida — and on those that insist that the route to that truth is through the discovery of cruelty where it was otherwise unsuspected or unfelt.

Medieval Muteness


Schöneberger Südgelände Nature Park, Berlin.

The first biography of Thomas Aquinas had the job of turning this Christian Aristotelian and theological systematizer into a saint. As ideas themselves, sadly, cannot be sanctified directly, the scholar must be furnished not with a scholastic, but with a personal halo. Thus Willliam of Tocco has a nurse fail to convince the infant Aquinas to give up a wadded-up cartulary that, as it turns out, “contained nothing else but the Ave Maria, the greeting to the glorious Virgin” [nichil aliud continentem nisi Ave Maria, salutationem Virginis gloriose]. Thus the face of the young Aquinas shines like the sun, illuminating all around him. And most famously, Aquinas so humbly shuts up his genius in silence that his fellow students call him a “bouem mutum,” a mute ox, as they are “ignorantes de eo futurum in doctrina mugitum” [ignorant about his future mooing in teaching/doctrine]. Only after witnessing a series of precocious intellectual feats does his teacher, Albert the Great himself, proclaim “we called this one a mute ox, but he will give such a mooing of teaching that it will resound throughout the world!” [Nos uocamus istum bouem mutum, sed ipse adhuc talem dabit in doctrina mugitum quod in toto mundo sonabit]. The story would be repeated in the second life of Aquinas, penned by the famous inquisitor Bernard Gui, and so on into G. K. Chesterton (who, in 1933, declared that his hero’s big, square head  – like those of Napoleon or Mussolini or a “head waiter” – elevated him above the common run of otherwise thin and noisy Italians). And medievalists should be grateful for the superbly named Dumb Ox Books, dedicated to publishing English translations of Aquinas’s Aristotle commentaries.

Unsuspected excellence is a hagiographical commonplace. Medievalists should know not to take the story of Aquinas’s schooldays any more seriously than that of his mother’s desperate efforts to keep her son from joining the Dominicans, a story whose chase, capture, and escape recall nothing so much as a romance (which is to say that the story can be taken seriously, as a romance). The quality of heroes is commonly misrecognized by their young playmates: as boys, Cyrus of Persia and Cú Chulainn alike startle and dismay their fellows with their innate sovereignty, while Moses, before he lays down the law, first complains of being tongue-tied. Narrative needs surprises, and it also wants us to feel that we’re in on the secret (I knew who Aquinas was before it was cool). Sanctity also demands this quality of concealed genius, not just because the saint has to be persecuted, but also because true genius, like true sanctity, requires the cloak of sprezzatura.

Thus Aquinas must be a bouem mutum. I am avoiding translating the adjective as “dumb,” both because the Latin “mutus” has a wider range of common associations than the English “dumb,” and because the English “dumb” (and the German dummin some historical uses), combines silence and stupidity in a way that the Latin does not. To be mutus in Latin is not necessarily to share the qualities of a stupid person, but rather to have the qualities of speechlessness or, crucially, incomprehensibility. This is how Aquinas could moo and still be mute: it is not that the muteness would give way to mooing, but that the mooing would finally be understood for what it really was, the voice of a genius. Misunderstood noise gives way to astonished understanding.

Not only animals are “mute,” and not only humans (as the word “mutus” unsurprisingly tends to travel with “surdus,” deaf). To be mutus is to share the qualities of an animal, or even of a stone (while I’ll simply mark, without further development, the word’s use as professional terminology in the grammatical manuals of Donatus, Priscian, and others). The condition of muteness slides from irrationality into inanimacy, from a life whose noise cannot be understood to one that has no life and no voice at all. It traverses the conditions of human impairment, animal inability, and material inertness. To be mute is not necessarily to be silent; in many instances, it is rather a condition of being silenced: not listened to, not taken seriously, ignored.

The muteness of things goes almost without saying. Habakkuk 2:18 mocks those who believe that the “simulacra muta” they themselves made possess divine power. (Though Habakkuk splits the silence of idols from the voice of the humans who made them, we postmodern sophisticates know that all distinctions between autonomous subjects and secondary objects are themselves fetish constructions and mere ontotheological baggage). 1 Corinthians 12:2 contrasts devotion to, again, “simulacra muta,” to an appropriate devotion to spiritual things. All an idol can do is sit there, inert, and wait for someone to give it a little tap. And then it keeps waiting.

But that muteness is just one of its varieties. Consider Augustine’s troubled response to Psalms 144:10. Faced with “Let all thy works, O lord, praise thee: and let thy saints bless thee,” he insisted that no one should “think that the mute stone or mute animal has reason wherewith to comprehend God.” Certainly not. Everything has its own place in the scale of being, and most things were created on the wrong side of the tracks. Yet, barring God, it turns out that everything is at least a little bit mute:

God has ordered everything, and made everything: to some He has given sense and understanding and immortality, as to the angels; to some He has given sense and understanding with mortality, as to man; to some He has given bodily sense, yet gave them not understanding, or immortality, as to cattle: to some He has given neither sense, nor understanding, nor immortality, as to herbs, trees, stones: yet even these cannot be wanting in their kind, and by certain degrees He has ordered His creation, from earth up to heaven, from visible to invisible, from mortal to immortal. This framework of creation, this most perfectly ordered beauty, ascending from lowest to highest, descending from highest to lowest, never broken, but tempered together of things unlike, all praises God.

Augustine’s goal is clear enough: to sort kinds of being hierarchically according to their capacities. But his scheme suffers from an inconsistency caused by the problem of conceptualizing the voice. One of Augustine’s scales establishes a set of discrete, hierarchically arranged types: at the top, God, then angels, humans, beasts, and finally, in one group, plants and stones. As I observed long agothis arrangement is not dissimilar, even not dissimilar enough, from Heidegger’s division between da-seinweltarm (world poor, like the lizard on the rock), and weltlos (worldless, like the rock itself). This Augustiggerian scheme splits beings between those that have understanding, and therefore a voice of their own, and those that do not. One the one side, God, angels, and humans, and on the other, “mutus lapis aut mutum animal” (PL 37:1877), the mute stone or mute living thing (a word perhaps even translatable as “animal” in the modern, colloquial sense of the word).

With this scale is another one, still hierarchical, but in this case not discrete. Augustine likely did not intend this other “never broken” [nusquam interrupta] hierarchy to function differently than the first; but a scale that neatly splits sense from mere being, understanding from mere sense, and immortality from mere mortality cannot work like the second, uninterrupted scale, which, below the level of the Divine Itself, sorts without splitting. Continuity means contiguity, which means a basic point from poststructuralism: contiguity means that qualities are shared, however faintly, across the whole scale before stopping, as all things do, at the Great Infinite of God. At the bottom is  “a kind of voice of the dumb earth” [vox quaedam est mutae terrae]; but that quality must run across the whole scale, because everything but God can only have a vocem quaedam. When Augustine demands that we admire the fecundity of creation, and its beauty, and that we ask of it how it got these qualities, not just the earth, but everything in “one voice” [una voces] would respond  “I myself did not make myself, but God” [non me ego feci, sed Deus], for nothing has anything in itself, unless it comes from that Creator [non potuit a se esse, nisi ab illo Creatore].

Again, barring God, everything has just enough voice to speak of its own fundamental secondariness. Even those things that seem to have a voice – us, that is – have a voice that is only the effect of God’s divine voice. We are therefore more like rocks that like God. Here is one quality of the voice, then: to have a voice is to have been granted a voice, that is, to be secondary. To have an inbuilt inability. To always carry a silence within the gift of the voice, because the voice you believe to be your own is not, finally, all yours. It is granted, at least in part, by the conditions that make it possible to be heard as a voice: as when, for example, Augustine calls on us to listen to all of Creation.

My second consideration on this point concentrates on the listener rather than the speaker. Augustine does not distinguish between mute stones, mute plants, and mute animals, but between things with understanding and those without. The same adjective applies either to a “mutus lapis aut mutum animal,” so that “muteness” distinguishes not between sound and silence, but between sense and senselessness. Things we think of as noisy could be, in medieval writing, “mute,” because – to belabor the point – muteness has less to do with silence than with incomprehensibility. Old French uses “mue beste” as a virtual pleonasm. The word “mutum” (to choose the accusative singular as my representative), which appears 469 times in the Patrilogia Latine, appears with the word “animal” 43 times. This is not more often than it appears with “surdus” (deaf) — 160 times! — but more than it does with any other word.

Of course, animals bark and hiss and low. They make noise. Sometimes, medieval writing distinguishes between silent and noisy animals, calling only the former mute: this is what Beroul’s Tristan does, when Iseult saves Husdent’s life by convincing Tristan to train him not to bark: for a dog that cannot keep quiet (1552; ne se tient mu) is of little value in the hunt. But in general, animals were still mute (or “dumb” in Middle English, def. 5), because the noise they made was assumed to be meaningless, or because it was indivisible into letters or even words.

This later characterization of animal muteness comes from the professional cant of grammarians. Isidore puts it like this: “every voice is either articulated or confused. Articulated is the voice of humans, confused is the voice of living things [or, again, simply “animals,” in the modern sense]. Articulated is what can be written, and confused what cannot be written” [Omnis vox, aut est articulata, aut confusa. Articulata est hominum, confusa animalium. Articulata est quae scribi potest, confusa quae scribi non potest, PL 82:89B].Notably, Isidore sets out the division in two ways, with two distinct responsibilities for the fault of unwritable sound. Either the vox confusa is inherent to the voice itself, which is itself a sonic materialization of the irrational limits of the spirit: this classification divides human from animal. Or the vox confusa, by dividing writable from unwritable, becomes a problem of technology, and, in a larger sense, inadequate anticipation, training, effort, and care on the part of the listener (for more, on accessibility and accommodation, compare this and this). The former formulation assumes that the speaker is at fault; the second suggests that the listener, or scribe, might be.

Animals are either mute because they are irrational, or because humans make the mistake of assuming they have nothing to say. Anyone who’s lingered in a birding guide (“‘prreet,’ ‘prrlhr’, ‘prrūt-ūt,’ and ‘preeh-e,'” is what mine says the skylark says), or anyone who’s listened to Messiaen’s piano works, knows that bird sounds can be written down. Certainly, modern ethnography has demonstrated that some nonhuman animal species really do have, if not languages – with all that implies about trading second-order ideas about, for example, philosophy or sports – then at least dialect, so that specific groups of animals have their own vocalizations distinct from those of their conspecifics. A training in dialect requires distinguishing between sounds; it requires the divisions and differences necessary to any concept of writing, which operates within the supposedly primary function of the voice, too (again, elementary poststructuralism). Writing is possible, necessary even, even among these supposedly mute things.

The same might be said of other mute, presumably inanimate things, like the earth. Within a certain crowd, with my own training and inclinations, this final proposal would probably pass without much comment. I’m going to at least feign reluctance (without forgetting my debt to Cohen, for example, via Oppermann).While it might be tempting for scholars of a certain theoretical instinct to use impaired people as a figure for the “silenced” “voice of the earth,” and so on, I cannot easily accept the advantage of reaffirming the mistaken medieval habit of using the same adjective, “mute,” to characterize both impaired humans and mortal and submortal nonhumans, like animals, plants, and stones. Now that my work is belatedly straying into matters of disability, I am eager to emphasize the obvious: that humans face particular dangers of being rendered mute, of not having their reason recognized, of being treated like objects. The problem of muted humans is obviously a problem of justice of a different order than what nonhumans routinely face (and yet see Sunaura Taylor and Sue Walsh).

Yet there still may be an advantage in the word “mute.” It has typically been applied from outside: someone hearing an animal’s  voice as only noise, someone thwapping a stone and hearing only that. But William of Tocco’s gives us the perspective of the bouem mutum. Here is a “mute” figure whose thoughts we know. No one would read this life of Aquinas without already knowing Aquinas as a thinker. As a mute ox, Aquinas is moving more slowly than his fellows; as William of Tocco tells us, he is ruminating. Given enough patience, given enough time of his own amid the expected metrics of his training and institution, his thoughts will burst forth, and astonish the world. In that gap between Aquinas’s supposed muteness and his thoughts, we have at least a figuration of the split between subjective impairment and objective disability. In the gap between what they think they know and what we know, we have a hint at what might be muted.

In that gap, the word “mute” becomes a call to imagine, to wait, to meet others on their own terms (see a related move here, from Dominic Pettman). Jonathan Hsy has approached this problem brilliantly from the side of the voice. He has observed that medieval wordlists of animal sounds sometimes included nonanimal noises too: crows croak, donkeys whinny, and fire crackles: muteness and the possibilities of translation, or at least classification, encompass noise in a variety of ways; ultimately, Hsy argues that these and other, related texts show how “Earthly creatures, human and nonhuman alike, can creatively adapt to and accommodate all kinds of sonic utterances and diverse vocalizations that register as alien to their ordinary lived experience.” Also essential is Robert Stanton’s engagement with Anglo-Saxon riddles alongside classical Skeptic philosophy, which discovers in them an exploration of animal vocal performance that recognizes in these animals the deliberation that performance requires. Projection, patience, meeting (more than) halfway, and a transformation of understanding: even medieval texts could do this. 

I have approached a similar problem from the side of muteness, a word that at once means silence, noise, and, as I have pushed it, misunderstanding. We need not think of “mute” anymore as it’s normally presented in medieval Latin. It does not have to paired with “surdus”; it does not necessarily need to be cured. In its not being the opposite of sound, in being on the side of what is experienced as noise, muteness can invite us to wait in the possibility it offers, and to rethink the difference between what we think we know and what we might come to know if we let ourselves suspect our own ignorance and its habits of muting.

Feral Founders, make way for Feral Foundlings

“The more strange it was to read in a previously-mentioned article by Huxley the following paraphrase of a well-known sentence of Rousseau: ‘The first man who substituted mutual peace for that of mutual war – whatever the motive which impelled them to take that step – created society’)….Society has not been created by man; it is anterior to man.” Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, 54 n1.

“What we usually call society in common speech is only a particular case of [a] general law. A being, whether social or not, is never absolute, indivisible; but essentially comparative and multiple, resulting from the action of a number of forces converging on one point.” Leon Metchnikoff, “Revolution and Evolution,” 415.

I. The Feral Founder

Dating to between the fourteenth and eighth centuries BCE, the Akkadian story of Sargon is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, written accounts of a child abandoned to the wilderness who grows up to become a great leader. Its narrative elements are famous for what they share with the story of Moses: the woven, waterproofed basket (Exodus 2:3), and the patriarch who orders the baby killed because he fears being supplanted (Exodus 1:9).

Evidence of a story of animals sheltering such an abandoned child appears first in Herodotus’s story of the childhood of Cyrus of Persia: his caregivers, two enslaved cowherds, are named Mitradates and Spako, whose name, Herodotus explains, comes from the Median name for dog, “Spax” (Persian Wars I.110). Later accounts indicate that this woman’s name simply rationalizes a nurturing animal that Herodotus or his sources understood as embarrassingly mythic: see, for example, Peter Comestor’s twelfth-century Historia Scholastica, “When the shepherd returned to [Cyrus], he found a dog offered him her teat, and defended him from wild beasts and birds” Pl 198: 1471a). Whether first nurtured by a dog or a woman “coincidentally” sharing a dog’s name, Cyrus grows up, becomes the natural, even bullying leader of his playmates, and eventually supplants the bad father figure and reclaims, and even expands, his birthright. In this, we have all the common features of the later abandoned child stories: the patriarch who fears being overcome or killed by his child, the child threatened with death, abandoned, and yet preserved, the nurturing animal, the foster parents (typically humble, with Moses as the outlier), and the emergence from enforced obscurity into a demagogic adolescence and heroic adulthood as savior, lawgiver, civic founder, and so on.

Cyrus’s career is most famous as a probable basis for a much better known story. The lost history of Fabius Pictor (second-century BCE), along with a crowd of other histories, passed along a story told by Dionysius of Helicarnassus and Livy (late first-century BCE), Pliny’s Natural History, Lucius Annaeus Florus’s Epitome of Roman Histories, Plutarch, and certainly a heap of coins, sculptures (also), vases, metalwork, epigraphy, and whatever else can’t be found with a straightforward search in the Loeb Classical Library. While the story isn’t quite ubiquitous – Cicero’s Republic refers only to a “silvestris beluae” (a wild forest beast), and Appian nor Diodorus of Sicily’s Roman histories say nothing at all about nurturing animals – the story of Romulus and Remus and the wolf that saved them is sufficiently widespread to be called Rome’s founding myth, and the paradigm of subsequent stories of culture heroes first succored by an animal. Here the wicked paternal figure is an uncle, Amulius; the mother herself, variously named Ilia, Rhea, or Rhea Silva, is a temple priestess like Sargon’s mother, and here tends to vanish quickly from the story; the boys’ father is himself is either Mars, an unnamed suitor, or even Amulius, disguised as a god. Rationalizations rush in here as well: Livy, among others, writes that some hold that the story’s lupa (female wolf) is really just slang for a prostitute or loose woman (“Sunt qui Larentiam vulgato corpore lupam inter pastores vocatam putent”).

It has taken nothing but dogged research to pack this story with others of wild founding fathers who draw their outsized potency from the teats of some convenient canid. These stories in turn join with a swath of rampaging männerbunder from Central Asia to Ireland, from the Dacians, Scythians, and Thracians, to the Anatolians to the Lombards to the Guelphs, groups renowned for young men who don the names of wolves or wolf masks or who are styled in narrative, war propaganda, or narrative, as cynocephali or werewolves.

The Langobards moreover, when they beheld the great forces of their enemies, did not dare engage them on account of the smallness of their army, and while they were deciding what they ought to do, necessity at length hit upon a plan. They pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs’ heads. They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe. (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards I.xi)

These stories, and often the scholarship too, imagine the canid as at once the figure of authority and its enemy, incarnations of wildness, power, cruelty, bravery, and even a kind of rough justice, mostly inimicable to women.

Agamben’s discussion of Marie de France’s werewolf lai, “Bisclavret,” is probably the most famous treatment of this theme outside medievalist circles. Medievalists themselves are surely also familiar, to cite a handful of many possible examples, of the eponymous hero of the Wolfdietrich Saga, the illegitimate child of a princess and a passing (and cross-dressed) nobleman: Wolfdietrich acquires his name because once he is cast out as an infant, a wolf scurries this baby away to her den to try to feed him to her pups, who are either too fussy or too friendly to eat him. Old Icelandic law and literature, like the Volsung Saga, famously uses the word vargr, “wolf,” to describe outlaws, resulting in frightening portmanteaux like morðvargr (murder wolf), and in modern Icelandic, the brennuvargur (burning wolf, that is, an arsonist). Ancient and medieval Ireland offers up the lupine characteristics of thieving young men who, until they came into their property, ravaged the countryside, like wolves (as in the anonymous lai of Melion). Here too we also find local versions of a myth dating at least to ancient Greece, of the hero who defeats, and then takes on the characteristics, of his supernatural enemy’s guardian dog: the classic example is the hero whose victory christens him with the name of the very animal he killed, Cú Chulainn, Culain’s Hound (see Kim McCone for more). A final example, William Chester Jordan writes about Count Robert of Artois – justly slain at the Battle of the Golden Spurs – and his pet wolf, which incarnated his “awesome nobility” (407), and which he festooned with bells (while laughing, Jordan imagines) to apprise neighboring peasants of its approach, so they could hurry their livestock off to safety.

The wild founder’s function as a figure of origin isolates him from mundane interconnection with both the people he rules and even from the cultures he establishes. He is not to be just married off, and while he might make laws, he is not himself governed by them. Functionally, he is kin to the giant children that spring parthenogenetically from Albina and her sisters, imperial children exiled because of they had refused to marry beneath themselves: their monstrous progeny are the fruit of a nobility that refuses to abase itself with any genealogical intermingling with its lessers. The wolf child is kin as well to the children of Melusine, the half-serpent and naturally legendary progenitrix of the great crusading dynasty of Lusignan. Her children are monsters, but also great successes – wealthy rulers, implacable conquerors, the rescuers of threatened women and otherwise helpless neighboring kings – while their merely pedestrian father, unwilling to live with such a wild creature, breaks his vow not to look into her background too carefully, thereby dooming her to become fully, irreparably dragon. True, reliable, potent nobility must come from the outside.

For the law at its heart is a wolf; it does what it wants. The wild founder follows none of the petty rules binding petty people. The sovereign is therefore also the outlaw, the figure who neither needs the law’s rules (because he decides what the law is) nor its protections (same). Notably, Romulus – the victorious, city-founding twin – recruits his first citizens from outcasts, bandits, and escaped slaves, as clear a demonstration that the wild founder is an analog to the outlaw, the homo sacer, hounded by the law and the hound of the law. Revolutionaries and the ordinary dispossessed already know this as well as cynics claim to, while academics tend to get the idea at greater length from Derrida’s “Mystical Foundation of Authority” or from the Giorgio Agamben, who alternately despairs and hopes for some Messianic overcoming of the persistently, inevitably cruel relations between the sovereign and his subjects, between law and life.

II. Foundling

This story is what we get if we fall in wholly with the myth of the canid’s wild carnivorousness and all that follows. The tangle of fascinations includes the dog being only partly domesticated, the wolf being Europe’s most feared carnivore, bands of young men as packs of dogs, the Oedipal rivalry between father and son over desire (incarnated by the mother), where the field of battle is mastery of a paternal law that will never empty itself of its obscene core. A supposedly “disruptive” retelling of this story, with these actors, no matter how suspiciously it recasts the primal horde of Totem and Taboo/Moses and Monotheism, ends up reinforcing rather than undoing the centrality of sovereignty and the law and its violence. Telling this story is a good way to stir up a keen sense of justice, or to don a hairshirt of cynicism (whose etymology I trust you know). It’s a good way to assume a tone of anguished disapproval and “anxiety,” but not good for getting us something other than yet another “discovery” of the omnipresence of the beast of the law.

As you might imagine by now, this is not the way I want my story to go. Not anymore. We can first stress that Cyrus of Persia, like Romulus and Remus, like Wolfdietrich, like Ailbe, and so on, represent only one set of spurned children nursed by animals. Wolves are good to think with, but they’re not all there is. Other animals, more commonly exploited for their milk, come crowding in: goats suckle the abandoned Attis, Asclepius, and both Daphnis and Chloe; cows suckle Aeolus and Boeotus; a mare suckles Hyginus. We also have Telephus, nursed by a deer, Cybele, by leopards, Paris of Troy and Atalanta by bears; Semiramis, fed by birds; and finally, wonderfully, Hieron, in Justin’s Universal History, gets his help from bees. The list can be further expanded with examples from India, or from medieval Europe, like Tristan de Nanteuil, that bizarre romance so well studied by Peggy McCracken. Wolves might be common, but goats are commoner, and remembering them, and the bees too, transforms the story of the wild founder into a story of the wild foundling. The commonality is not the canid, with all its supposed wildness and danger, but rather the need to be fed, and its satisfaction.

In short, we can dissolve the arrogance and grandeur of the wild founder by doing more to remember them as happy babies. Almost always, they are taken care of. The servant commanded to kill the children never quite does it: sometimes it is rank incompetence –Romulus and Remus are saved from drowning because the swollen Tiber has flooded its banks, providing ample opportunity for the bank to catch their floating basked in its mud – but more often the killers fear repercussions from the children’s mother is she should come into power, or they are reminded of their own children, or they are struck by the child’s beauty, or its need:

And with that the cowherd uncovered [the child] and showed it. But when the woman saw how fine and fair the child was, she fell a-weeping and laid hold of the man’s knees and entreated him by no means to expose him. (Herodotus The Persian Wars I.112)

If we start the story here, not with the competition between father and son, and not with a boy’s alliance with the presumptive unruled beast that intimates the sovereign or männerbund, the story becomes one about care, sympathy, and weakness, but not about helplessness, except insofar as everything is helpless in itself, without some kind support: I have deliberately omitted the “of,” and kind should be heard in its Middle English register as meaning something like “suitable for a particular way of existence”: kind support for a rock is not kind support for a human, yet both need it.

The child is not helpless; it needs help, and it gets it, just as anything that is gets some manner of help, no matter how minimal. We aren’t without help.

If we start the story here, then, we can go somewhere other than thinking the problem of life as “time after time articulated and divided into bios and zoè, politically qualified life and bare life, public life and private life” (Agamben’s useful summary of his analytic, here taken from Adam Kotsko’s just-published translation of The Use of Bodies). I am not saying that we need not worry any more about the “zone of indistinction” where the sovereign outlaw lurks, or the messianic hope of the friar, whose form of life collapses that distinction cruel division of bios from zoe (Kotsko translation here too).

Rather, I think we can surprise ourselves more if we come at the problem from another angle. I am also stressing that I am simply not done with Derrida’s interest in the “nonpower at the heart of power” (The Animal that Therefore). To remind you, in response to Betham’s observation that the question is not whether animals can reason or talk, but whether they can suffer, Derrida writes:

‘‘Can they suffer?’’ amounts to asking “Can they not be able?’’ And what of this inability [impouvoir]? What of the vulnerability felt on the basis of this inability? What is this nonpower at the heart of power? What is its quality or modality? How should one take it into account? What right should be accorded it? To what extent does it concern us? Being able to suffer is no longer a power; it is a possibility without power, a possibility of the impossible. Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the possibility of this nonpower, the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability, and the vulnerability of this anguish. (28)

This formulation has its own problems of course, which I am handling in my oyster chapter. Its other problem is thinking primarily in terms of victimhood and compassion, which has its limited advantages, but which also tends to put violence at the center of our analysis, with all the assumed anguished gravity that follows. I’m putting the baby at the center instead, and with it, one hopes, the communities of care that come to cluster.

Not long ago, I was struck by the nose of a cow. Maybe a bull. Jusepe de Ribera’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1650) is yet another painting about just that, but poking its way past the adoration, barely visible, is a bovine snout. This animal also wants to adore this beautiful child. Our bovine may be drawn by the child’s awesome majesty – after all, this is the Creator Himself – but this is an adoration painting, not one of the transfiguration, Harrowing of Hell, or any of the more spectacular miracles (walking on water, and so on). The painting hints unnervingly enough at sacrifice (note the trussed sheep below the cradle) but gives itself over to a child, helpless, probably hungry, but also lovely. Here’s another child with animals, not to attest to the superhuman power drawn from the “wild,” but to attest to the primary need for care, which can draw even a cow in.

For a cluster of anarchist ecologists and geographers, such mutual aid, such society, is the natural law we should be thinking with, not the Malthusian “struggle of all against all.” It’s possible you already know the names Reclus, Metchnikoff, and Kropotkin (I knew only the last, from a high school flirtation with anarchism, abandoned too quickly). I found them in Kristen Ross’s Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2015), which I bought and started reading on March 18, the Commune’s 145th anniversary, because I’m in Paris, and it’s what one does. Ross’s book follows the intellectual work that led to the commune, and that followed it into exile and dispersal, surviving the tens of thousands of Parisian workers massacred by their fellow citizens, “the extraordinary attempt to eliminate, one by one and en bloc, one’s class enemy” (Ross), still only minimally recognized by Paris’s crowd of historical placards. The experience of the communal government, of cooperation, however short lived, and even if only second hand, produced a massive, and happy, transformation in a host of thinkers, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Karl Marx, Louise Michel, William Morris, and, of course, Metchnikoff and Kropotkin, whose words I quote above and – barring their misguided material about “savages” – recommend, along with Ross’s recent book.

The law of all against all explains the wild men, founders and lawbreakers, enjoying the unregulated pleasures from which they issue their regulations. And if this is all one wants to explain, it works. But this law hardly accounts for the babies found and rescued, denied the society of the patriarch, yet still finding succor in the supposed wilderness. This is not the Lacanian baby, dangling at the cusp of a law and identity it can never satisfy; it is not even the Butlerian baby, perhaps to-be-mourned-for, hailed as a member of the community by our anticipating its social vulnerability and future death; it is a baby found and helped, the baby whose entanglement in community attests to law of mutual aid that, understood well, has the power to revive the Commune of blessed memory.

Thanks for research help to ProQuest (!!) and these dissertations:

Lewis, Brian (NYU, 1976). The Legend of Sargon: A Study of the Akkadian Text and the Tale of the Hero who was Exposed at Birth.

Kershaw, P. K. (Cornell, 1997). The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Maennerbuende.