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.