Epilogue excerpt: surprised by Oxen

2880162528_870fdef0e6To mark the occasion of being on the verge of sending my book manuscript into the great unknown, and as a kind of prayer for a happy return, I’m offering this post on animals. The book began in a seminar on medieval animals and critical theory offered by Susan Crane in Fall 2003. I had passed my oral exam that Spring, and, burdened with an M. Phil., I spent the Summer desperate for a dissertation topic. I settled on something about the fifteenth-century uses of “chivalry.” Three months into the research, I was already sick of it, and I decided to audit some classes to clear my head. Hence my presence in Crane’s seminar.

There I hit upon a dissertation topic and title, “Eating and Not Eating Meat in the Middle Ages.” Huge, and perhaps never to be realized, but that beginning conditioned everything I’ve said and thought about animals since then. Other scholars started with questions of reason, or love; I started with violence. And it’s only gradually that I’ve been able to think through and with animals with an eye for anything else. Here’s a lightly bloggified piece from the book’s epilogue representing some of where future projects might take me.

Paulinus of Nola’s natalicii poems for Saint Felix frequently speak of animals, and almost just as frequently praise the sacrifice of animals at Felix’s shrine. Pigs fly, and then offer themselves to death; oxen hide in the woods to escape this pious slaughter, and then, divinely inspired, give themselves up. But the animal miracle of Paulinus’s sixth natalicium (written in 400), saves its animals for love rather than for sacrificial, alimentary use. It speaks of a peasant who made a living by renting out his two oxen, which were dearer to him than his own children: “Neque cura minor saturare juvencos, / Quam dulces natos educere; parcior immo / Natis, quam pecori caro ” (PL 61: 495D; he devoted no less care to giving his oxen their fill than to bringing up his sweet sons. In fact, he fed his children more sparingly than the dear cattle) (this and subsequent translations from here). But the oxen were stolen. After a long and fruitless search, the peasant returned home to grieve; finally he prayed, first to God, and then at the shrine of Felix, whom he scorned for allowing the theft. He waited at Felix’s shrine until he was driven off, then went home in the dark to lay inconsolably in the filth of the oxen’s empty stall, caressing their hoofprints. Felix, amused by the peasant’s violent language, returned the oxen, and when they pounded on the door, the peasant imagined the robbers had returned, until the oxen identified themselves by lowing. As soon as the peasant began to unbolt the door, “juncti simul irrupere juvenci, / Et reserantis adhuc molimina praevenerunt / Dimoto faciles cesserunt obice postes, / Oblatumque sibi mox ipso in limine regem ” (PL 61:499D-500A; the oxen burst in together, anticipating his attempt to open the door, for once the bolts were released the door easily gave way). The oxen and peasant embraced one another:

Dum complectentis domini juga cara benignum
Molliter obnixi blanda vice pectus adulant
Illum dilecti pecoris nec cornua laedunt,
Et collata quasi molles ad pectora frontes
Admovet, et manibus non aspera lingua videtur,
Quae lambens etiam silvestria pabula radit. (PL 61:500A-B)

they gently nuzzled their kindly lord and fawningly caressed his breast in turn. The horns of his beloved cattle did him no injury; he drew their heads as though they were soft to his proffered breast. To his hands the tongues which by licking could scrape their food even from trees did not feel rough.

To be sure, the oxen’s love of the peasant may attest to perfect animal servility, as the peasant will presumably loan them out again. But the peasant’s sacrifice of himself and his family to the well-being of the oxen, as well as his shock and vulnerability at their loss and return, perhaps overflow the confines of simple utility to erode the borders of both human and animal.

We can understand the import of what occurs here through Derrida’s lecture notes for the session that opened his course on “Hostipitalité,” or, as Gil Anidjar straightforwardly translates the word, “hostipitality.” As elsewhere in his oeuvre, Derrida forms a neologism that expresses his argument in miniature. “Hostipitality” incorporates the double meaning of the French “hôte,” which means both “guest” and “host.” As Derrida argues, a host who welcomes a guest in a limited sense—for a limited time, with a limited set of accommodations, and for a guest whose character, desires, and needs are already known in advance—has not been truly hospitable, because the host has measured the hospitality. A truly welcoming host must offer hospitality without limits, which requires that the host be overcome by an unexpected guest with unexpected wants. Thus the true host is unable to welcome, because to welcome means to decide when and how far to open the door. Nor can the true host know the character of the guest in advance, because this, too, reserves to the host the option of denying hospitality. By welcoming, the host risks being caught up entirely by the demands of the guest, even becoming hostage to the guest: hence the ethical and logical affinity of the opposing meanings of “hôte.” Hence too the presence of the Latin root “hostis,” meaning both “stranger” and “enemy”: the arrival of the guest “ruptures, bursts in or breaks in” upon the host, shattering the host’s sense of home, boundaries, and, ultimately, self, since the true host reserves nothing to itself. The oxen, too, burst in, “irrupere,” themselves determining when and how wide to open the door, stripping from the peasant, almost as soon as he makes the gesture, his capacity to welcome. Through a generosity that exceeds his ability to give, the peasant becomes hostage to his own guests. Furthermore, as Paulinus makes clear, the oxen are not entirely assimilated to the peasant’s bucolic domesticity: they caress the peasant, though they could also have injured him with their bulk, horns, and rough tongues. Faced with creatures of such strength, however, the peasant does not hold himself back, but gives himself over to them entirely, without guarding himself from any injury they might do him. Now a perfect host, hostage to his guests, and beyond all capacity to give, and thus beyond all capacity to be a host, the peasant abandons himself to vulnerability before the oxen. To return to the question from the Dialogue of St. Julien, “Ou porreit l’en cest homme querre?” (where could the man be found in here?). There is violence in this encounter, but it is neither the violence of human domination, nor the violence of animal’s claim of lawmaking violence for itself, like that of the boar of the Avowyng. This is the violence of the unexpected arrival that shatters all self-certainty, that evacuates the foundations where a human might stand or where a human might force an animal to stand before it.

(image from

(for other ways of reading this episode, see Willy Evenepoel, “Saint Paulin de Nole, Carm. 18, 211-468: Hagiographie et Humour,” in La narrativa Cristiana antica: codici narrativi, strutture formali, schemi retorici: XXIII incontro di studiosi dell’antichità Cristiana (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1995), 507-20, and Dennis E. Trout, “Christianizing the Nolan Countryside: Animal Sacrifice at the Tomb of St. Felix,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (1995): 281-298.)

Advertisements