de monstro possunt fieri monstruosae quaestiones, or, an apology for an omission

“Le monstre sert d’outil conceptuel, au même titre que d’autres cas limites comme l’embryon ou le cadavre, pour penser la personne humaine et les rapports complexes entre âme et corps, forme et matière.”

[The monster serves a conceptual purpose, in the same capacity as other limit cases, like the embryo or the cadaver, for thinking about the human person and the complex links between soul and body, form and matter.]

I’ve spent the last month, not blogging, obviously, but rather hitting a tight deadline to produce 6k words about skin. Depending on reviewers, publishing schedules, and our developing environmental eschaton, you’ll see what I did sometime in…2014. Maybe sooner. Unless I paraphrase some of my ideas here first. For now, let’s just say that I had a lot of fun conceptualizing skin through object-oriented philosophy rather than psychoanalysis (those prices!). In essence, I was looking in instead of (inside my skin) looking out.

But today I’m here to confess something. I’m proud to have an essay in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous on “Centaurs, Satyrs, and Cynocephali: Medieval Scholarly Teratology and the Question of the Human.” I’m also ashamed, though, because I somehow missed an important essay, Maaike van der Lugt‘s “L’humanité des monstres et leur accès aux sacrements dans la pensée médiévale” [The humanity of monsters and their access to the sacraments in medieval thought], available for download here. I’m ashamed, because it’s a great article, but also because I’m a big fan of her work on barnacles and because her book on WORMS (hello!) somehow didn’t get cited in my worms paper. That will be corrected.

So, apologies, Professor van der Lugt, if you happen to be reading this. I hereby swear to follow your career with interest.

In the meantime, if your French is pas si bon (and–the Parisians know–mine is barely enough to get by), I’ll summarize some of my favorite bits from it, starting with the last line, a kind of punchline from Hugh of Pisa: “de monstro possunt fieri monstruosae quaestiones” (23 n91; concerning monsters, monstrous questions can arise).

The article concerns itself primarily with the baptism of conjoined twins and the ordination of intersexed people, mapping the differences and overlaps between canon and civil law (the former concerned with the sacraments, the latter with inheritance and paternity). It occasionally touches on disability, pygmies (included mummified pseudo-pygmies, traded by merchants), and the heterogeneous offspring of bestiality. Needless to say, discussions of monsters inevitably mean discussions of the so-called norm: questions of gender determination, for example, are universally applicable in a society–like theirs, like ours–that divides so much labor according to gender roles.

So. The article opens with two accounts of conjoined twins, one near Florence in 1317, the other in 15th-century Paris, the first denied baptism as a bad omen, the other baptized (as Agnes and Jeanne) shortly before they died; their body would be displayed for three days to the people of Paris (see here, item 508). Fascinating! Here follow some of my favorite bits:

  • the observation, via Aristotle, that all children not resembling their parents are already some kind of monster, insofar as the sperm didn’t manage to reproduce the image of the father;
  • Peter Abelard’s proposal that satyrs come from the union of servents and nonhuman animals, which means that they’re human, since one human parent suffices for a creature to be human, regardless of its appearance;
  • An anonymous mid-13th-century commentary on the human body, added to the Summa of Alexander of Hales, arguing that blemmyae, lacking heads, could be considered human only if some other part of their body has an organ that serves as a brain; preferring not to grant humanity to cynocephali; and identifying the internal organs rather than external appearance as the key element for determining humanity. The important organs are the brain, heart, liver, and testes. If these are human, so’s the creature. On the other hand, says our writer, since monstrosity is punishment for sin, then monsters are ipso facto human, since animals of course can’t be sinners;
  • Later in the 13th century, a Franciscan Quodlibet argues that, yes, pygmies are human, since they have human proportions; by similar reasoning, a child born with legs coming out of its sides isn’t one. The Franciscan also observes, on the topic of the spawn of bestiality, that human sperm is not powerful enough to convert other sperm into being human: see also mules [semen hominis non est tante virtutis quod possit convertere aliud semen ad suam speciem sicut asinus non convertit semen eque, sed facit tertiam partem (10 n40)];
  • Albert the Great, a dubious source tells us, stopped the execution of herdsman thought to have fathered a peculiar calf; au contraire, said (pseudo) Albert: the stars had aligned oddly! But in Holland in 1464, Willem Boudewinszn, a lover of cows and the father of one–or so he admitted under torture–was executed and burned, along with the cow he (confessed he) loved (11 n46);
  • Nicholas Oresme in 1370, countering the argument that humanity can be determined on the basis of form, argues that children born blind, deaf, and “nulla ratione utentes minus quam canis” (having less reason than a dog) should be baptized, though they seem far more monstrous to him than, say, a blemmye (12-13, n50). (van der Lugt also directs us at Aquinas);
  • On the question of baptizing conjoined twins: obviously, they should be baptized, but how many times? Quodlibets at the end of 13th and beginning of 14th century often considered the problem. Two heads might be sufficient cause for two baptisms, but several medieval theologians, following Aristotle, gave priority to the heart, not the head. Of course, there’s no easy way to determine whether an infant has two hearts, so we encounter recommendations that the second baptism be conditional (and, on this point, I said: HELLO Erkenwald! My favorite Middle English conditional baptism). Pierre de la Palus suggests that if a spot on the monstrous body can be found in which a wound or a stab transmits pain only to one head, but not both, then two baptisms will be required;
  • The quotlibets continued to worry at the problem of married conjoined twins: what if the twins have only one vagina between them? Then consummation for one would be fornication for the other, while the husband of one would be committing adultery and incest at the same time as he carried out his proper marital duties on the other. But nature makes nothing in vain, and, possibly, says Eustache de Grandcour’s quodlibet, they may have one vagina, but two uteruses [et possibile erat quod habuerint diversas matrices];
  • And then, finally, we have the problem of intersexed people. The church authorized their marriage, but only if they adopted either a feminine or masculine role, and stuck with it. Those without a preference were to remain chaste. Choosing which gender dominated was a knotty problem: some thinkers emphasized genitals, others secondary sexual characteristics (a beard, for example), and others comportment and behavior. Baptism wasn’t a problem here, although in cases of doubt, the priest should give the child a masculine name, which could easily be made feminine if necessary (Robert would become Roberta, Gerald would become Daphne, etc.). Those intersexed people thought to have a dominant masculinity could even be ordained as priests.

There’s much, much more, particularly in the footnotes. If your French is up to it, and you’re into monsters, gender, and the human as a question (and if you’re reading this blog, I suspect you are), then this is an article you’ll love. Highly recommended.