To discourage the others: Gerald’s humanity goes awry

K150063Here’s a post in the classic mode of 2007 brand Karl: a reading of an animals text, in this case, of a modern classic, namely, Gerald of Wales’s shifting reactions to animal-human hybrids and bestiality in a block of stories in his History and Topography of Ireland (also see Eileen in 2007, on this episode and gender).

To the story of a “semibos vir,” a creature partly ox and partly human, sheltered by the Marcher lord Maurice fitzGerald and killed by Irish natives, Gerald responds with what our Jeffrey calls an “uncharacteristic undercurrent of melancholy, ambivalence, and regret.” Gerald does not judge the nature of this, the section’s first hybrid: he lists its bovine face and extremities and its speechlessness; he condemns its death; but he is reluctant to categorize it (“an extraordinary man was seen—-if indeed it be right to call him a man”; O’Meara trans.). Notably, in the History‘s second recension, as if responding to critics, Gerald extends his consideration of the ox/man: he admits the peculiarity of classifying the death of the “semibos vir” as a homicide (“sed et hujus animalis interemptor nunquid homicida dicetur?”) and finally suggests that the strange excursus might be excused as simply representing nature having its revenge rather than as offering a topic for disputation (““Sed excersus hujiusmodi sunt excusandi: potiusque timenda est naturae vindicta, quam disputatione discutienda.”). Gerald thus, very briefly, suspends debate over the nature and privileges of the human; he would rather the ox/man be thought about some other way.

But almost as soon as he relaxes his judgment, he tries to remember himself. He classifies his next hybrid, yet another ox/man, as having “plus hominis quam pecoris” (more of the man than of livestock), and then a cow/stag as being more like livestock than wild animals. In both these cases, he brings them closer to himself—one is nearly human, one nearly domestic—as if refusing to let either one wander too far from his supervision. He concludes with two cases of bestiality, both committed by women, one with a goat, the other with a lion.

Though bestiality produced the hybrids of his previous stories, Gerald strains to refuse himself his own curiosity for it. He had praised the goat, perhaps aesthetically, perhaps erotically, as being “remarkable…for the length of its coat and height of its horns” (O’Meara trans.), yet humans drawn by this beauty to “yield to the pull of dreamier horizons and unforeclosed possibilities” (again, Jeffrey, from “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages”) must, as Gerald reports, be consigned to death for submitting themselves to the creatures they should, as humans, master.

Gerald nonetheless does not quite know what to do with the final incident. He first blames the lion. The section heading, in both the first (p. 146-147: warning, pdf) and second recensions of the History, is “de leone mulierem adamante ” (a lion who loved a woman), and he explains that the lion “bestiali amore” (made beastly love) to a “fatuam” (a foolish woman), and, as a result, was locked up; when it escaped from its cage, only the woman could calm it. Gerald then blames the woman, because, “muliebribus ipsum demulcens illecebris” (caressing it with womanly enticements), “omnem statim furorem in amorem convertebat” (she at once changed all its rage into love). Faced with such a horror, he exclaims, “O utramque bestiam turpi morte dignissimam” (Each one a beast, most worthy of a shameful death!). Having allocated responsibility to both human and animal, he then recalls that even the ancients committed bestiality. He quotes Leviticus 20:16, “The woman that shall lie under any beast, shall be killed together with the same,” and glosses the verse to explain that the beast is killed “non propter culpam, a qua bestialitas excusat” (not because of its guilt, from which it is excused because of its bestialness). By denying the lion reason, by making it only an object of the woman’s lust, by subjecting the lion to death, not execution, by delivering it to the human as mere life, as an instrument broken by misuse, by, in short, hiding himself within doctrinal Christianity, Gerald tries to reactive the temporarily inert system of the human.

But even here he goes awry: he further justifies condemning the lion to death “propter memoriae refricationem, quae ad mentem facinus revocare solet” (in order to irritate the memory again, by recalling to the mind the crime). Fair enough: pour décourager les autres, I suppose. But which others? And whose mind is being irritated (again)? And how to translate that “solet” gracefully? “It is for the habit of recalling the crime to the mind”? I’m honestly a bit lost on this point. Does he mean to frighten animals, or humans, horrified by the deaths of their animal inamoranti, or both?

And, having just told the story, has he not just himself recalled to mind the crime, but perhaps for a different purpose, one of wonder–despite himself–rather than a simple, humanist condemnation? After all, in the second recension, he (or someone) can’t help but add a little tag to tale’s end: “de Pasiphe quoque, taurum adamante, multorum opinione non fabula quidem sed res gesta fuit” (also, Pasiphaë, the bull lover, [whose story] many consider to be not fiction but rather history). Someone, his or her mind irritated, wants to add more, driven to dreamy contemplation of sin, I might say, by an overzealous confessor.

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