Sabbatical honesty, then – in the two weeks since the last post, I’ve given back revisions to articles for the Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History (“Animals and Violence: Medieval Humanism, ‘Medieval Brutality,’ and the Carnivorous Vegetarianism of Margery Kempe”), The Open Access Canterbury Tales (animals and the Friar’s Tale), and a revised talk for a chapter in The Body Unbound, a classics &c anthology (“Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations“). I’m hoping to get back to the Book soon, as soon I get past doing my review of a book I’ll tell you about after I write my review.
What follows is a draft of a talk I’m giving in Madison, for the UW Madison Graduate Association of Medieval Studies on Friday, April 14. I’m sure to tweak this again in a few weeks, but just to get it out of my hair, and potentially into yours, here it is.
I’ve tried to do a little of everything in this, so my theory heads can gnaw on something, as can the ones who mainly want a bunch of neat medieval stories, as can the ones who want some hardcore medieval stuff to fight back against [and, to be honest, my competence in medieval grammar is minimal. At least for now]. 5,000 words is a lot to read! For you, and for me, but it’s a good 40-45 minutes, and: well! One hopes for the best.
My talk today originates in the fact that, for medieval writers, “muteness” might mean the absence of sound, but it just as well might mean a senseless sound. By the early modern period, in both English and French, this latter meaning of “mute” was already on its way out: in modern French, one can be as mute as a carp, a statue, the tomb, or stones, but not, to my knowledge, “muet comme une vache.” In 1567, in English, “mute as a fish” worked as a comparison, not because of piscatorial noisiness, but because of piscatorial silence. And in 1596, we could have read that in the winter, “beast grow mute reposing on the mountaines.” Roughly 200 years earlier, however, that sentence might not have made much sense, because back then, beasts didn’t grow mute; they were mute, not because they were noiseless, but precisely because they were only noisy.
For in Old French, however much a beast might bark, it tended to be “mue.” Likewise with infants, which are, in general, not notorious for their silence. The entry on vox, voice, in the late eleventh-century Vocabulista of Papias heads its list of the sounds of 53 distinct animals–bees, lions, pigs, peacocks, and so on–with “voces mutorum animalium,” the voices of mute animals. People could be mute too. The word mutum appears 469 times in the 221 volumes of 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 muteness with both nonhumans and humans with impairments across medieval scholarly Christian writing, again, not because of their shared silence, but because both were presumed to have nothing to say. Quiet things things could also be mute, though this may be less because of their silence than because of their inertness. Habakkuk 2:18, for example, mocks those who believe that the “simulacra muta” they themselves made possess divine power: the distinction here is between, on the one hand, God’s potency, or that of the sculptors themselves, and, on the other, the presumptive helplessness of the idols. The medieval condition of muteness thus traverses human impairment, animal inability, and material stolidity. It slides from incapacity into irrationality into inanimacy; from a life whose reason could not be heard, to one whose noise had nothing to communicate except its irrationality, to one that has no life, no voice, and no agency.
My talk will draw on the resources of critical animal studies, speculative realism, ecocriticism, and disability studies to explore three possible responses to this particularly medieval sense of the word: the first, which we might call the “liberal” approach, assumes that muteness is probably a misidentification, the fault of a listener who should practice more sympathy and patience; the second, a “posthumanist” approach, insists on our own ineradicable muteness–whatever sense might be made, communication will always be mute in some way; and the third, a disability and eco-studies approach, involves recognizing that no communication can ever be perfect, but that we have to make do anyway. You’ll notice that this structure is basically dialectical. To help you track our route through all this, the first case—the liberal one—concerns Aquinas; the second—the posthumanist one, concerns Augustine; and the third, the disabilities studies one, and probably the most complicated, will be a story of Saint Cuthbert and his negotiations with a pair of thieving ravens.
A straightforwardly humanist response to a human being called mute would be to argue that this classification is just a mistake, at least if the word “mute” is understood as meaning “senseless.” An animal rights perspective might argue that it’s only our human arrogance that thinks that the barking dog has nothing to say. And speculative realists might come to the defense even of stones. For my part, I’m more interested in vulnerability, helplessness, and community than agency and ability: I’m not going to try distinguish so-called “mute” people from animals or objects, at least not within the boundaries of this talk. Rather, I’m going to work with and within these classifications to explore ways to think about mutual aid. My talk will therefore not seek to invest people or animals or objects with agency–that’s my Aquinas example; nor will I deny agency to these groups–that’s my Augustine example; ultimately, my interest will be in how we can make do given the miscues and inadequacies of all communication and all community. Exploring this, what I’m calling a “misfit ecology,” will be where my talk ends up, when I finally get to the Cuthbert and ravens anecdote.
So that’s my opening. I’m beginning the talk proper with this, from the great early medieval encyclopedist Isidore of Seville, who wrote this on the topic of vox, that is, voice:
every voice is either articulated or confused [that is, vox articulata or vox confusa]. The voice of humans is articulated; that of living things [or even “animals,” to use word in its modern sense] is confused. Articulated is what can be written, and confused what cannot be written.
For the sake of any medievalists in the room, I’m not sure this passage is actually by Isidore. Though it’s in the edition of the Etymologies in the Patrilogia Latina, it’s missing from what is now its standard English translation. There’s a good reason for that: a spot check of manuscripts only rarely turned up the passage, but I did find it in a ninth-century one, pictured here, as well as one from the thirteenth century, also pictured, a florilegium that gives Isidore credit that may be rightly owed to Thomas of Cantimpré, or perhaps even the Ars Grammanica of Diomedes. This is all a long way of saying that I’m warily attributing the passage to “Isidore,” air quotes understood.
The definition of vox in “Isidore” is both unusually compact and unusually uncertain, thereby furnishing, probably inadvertently, a slim possibility for mute voices to be converted into sense. It’s not like this with other grammarians: the definition of vox in Donatus is neat and brief, while Priscian‘s is elaborate but thorough: he observes, for example, that some animal sounds could be divided into syllables and therefore written–think of birdsong–and that some human noises, like moaning, cannot, though these unwritable sounds still could be articulata insofar as they carry meaning. Debates were inevitable, misunderstanding unlikely. “Isidore,” however, provides a typical distinction–vox is either articulata or confusa–and then provides what may be two ways to distinguish the one from the other: one concerns kinds of speakers, and the other, possibilities for reception. That is, the second sentence identifies the fault of vox confusa with speakers and closes the door on any possibility of them making sense. For if a vox confusa is simply the voice of nonhumans, and if nonhumans are presumed to lack rational souls, as they were in mainstream medieval thinking, this fault cannot be corrected except by a miracle. But if the fault of vox confusa is a problem of writability, the problem may not be with the speaker, but with the recipient of the message, who may be able to convert a vox confusa to a vox articulata with better anticipation, training, effort, and care. This latter solution is what I’m calling the liberal approach to muteness.
It’s liberal because the problem can be solved with local sympathy and local effort without much much in the surrounding social structure needing to change. Consider this: the late antique Justinian code barred people who were permanently “mutus et surdus”–mute and deaf–from drawing up contracts, effectively treating them as if they had no more capacity for judgment than young children, the insane, and even the chronically ill. In 1771, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England would repeat this assessment. On the other hand, Henry de Bracton’s thirteenth-century compendium of English laws solved this problem by allowing entirely deaf people to validate contracts by means of “signs and a nod.” In this case, no radical solution is required. All that’s needed is a more generously organized legal system, so that vox articulata might be found even in silence, to welcome in at least those humans involved in publicly recognized transactions of property.
Let me illustrate this liberal approach further, with my first extended example, a story about Aquinas’s childhood.
The first biography of Thomas Aquinas had the job of turning this Christian Aristotelian and theological systematizer into a saint. Thus Willliam of Tocco has a nurse fail to convince the infant Aquinas to let go of up a wadded-up cartulary that, as it turns out, “contained nothing else but the Ave Maria, the greeting to the glorious Virgin.” Thus the face of the young Aquinas shone 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 “ignorant about his future in doctrina mugitum,” his mooing in “teaching” or “doctrine.” Only when his teacher, Albert the Great himself, witnesses this unpromising student trounce his fellows repeatedly, does he proclaim “we called this one a mute ox, but he will give such a mooing of teaching that it will resound throughout the world!” Bernard Gui, the famous inquisitor, would repeat the story in his own life of Aquinas, and so it persists into our present day.
Unsuspected excellence is a hagiographical commonplace. The quality of heroes tends to be 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. Sanctity also demands this quality of concealed genius, not just because the saint has to be persecuted, but also because true sanctity, like true genius, requires the cloak of sprezzatura.
Thus Aquinas must be a bouem mutum. I am avoiding translating the adjective as “dumb,” not least of all because this English word combines silence and stupidity in a way that the Latin doesn’t, necessarily. As a mute ox, he 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 lowing of genius.
In this case, what distinguishes William of Tocco’s story from other accounts of muteness is that we, his readers, already know that there’s a there there. No one would read this life of Aquinas without already knowing Aquinas as a thinker. We know that his thoughts will spring 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, a distinction of paramount importance to what’s known as the social construct model of disability. For in the gap between what Aquinas’s classmates think they know and what we as fans already know, we have a hint at what the word mute might be muting. Maybe he’s really mute during that time — that is, maybe he has an impairment — but all that is needed to counteract the social disablement of that impairment is sympathy and patience, and with that, the muteness will stop being misunderstood as vox confusa.
Now for my second story, that of things, the posthuman one. This muteness goes almost without saying. A simulacra muta can do nothing but wait for someone to give it a little tap, or to shape it a little differently. And then it just keeps waiting.
But perhaps we ought not to divide ourselves so neatly from the statue. Here I’m going to consider what wouldn’t seem to be very promising territory for sketching a posthuman account of muteness, that is, Augustine’s troubled response to Psalms 144:10. Confronted with the verse “Let all thy works, O lord, praise thee: and let thy saints bless thee,” Augustine insisted that no one should “think that the mute stone or mute animal has reason to comprehend God with.” Everything, he argues, has its own place in the scale of being, although most were created on the wrong side of the tracks.
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, as with “Isidore,” we should note the presence of two distinct schemes. One establishes a set of discrete, hierarchically arranged types: at the top, God, then angels, humans, beasts, and finally, tumbled into one group, plants and stones. Some of you might be reminded of Heidegger on da-sein, weltarm, and weltlos. This particular scheme splits beings that have understanding, and therefore a voice of their own, from beings that do not: one the one side, God, angels, and humans, and on the other, “mutus lapis aut mutum animal,” the mute stone or mute living thing, neither of which has “reason to comprehend God with”; any who believe that, he says, have wandered very far from the truth, “hoc qui putaverunt, multum a veritate aberraverunt.”
Yet, barring God, it turns out that everything is at least a little bit mute. For running through this scale is another one, not divided into voice and voicelessness, but rather running from one thing to the next, in a gradual hierarchy that is “never broken,” nusquam interrupta. At the bottom is “a kind of voice,” a vox quaedam, “of the dumb earth,” representing how everything, the whole beauty of this world, in “one voice,” una voces, responds non me ego feci, sed Deus, “I myself did not make myself, but God,” for nothing has anything in itself, unless it comes from the Creator.
We must understand then that everything but God can have only a vocem quaedam. Every voice speaks of its fundamental secondariness, because even those things that seem to have their own voice – that is, us – have voices that ultimately stem from God’s divine voice. One way that the concept of God is serviceable, then, is to help disabuse us of the certainty that our capacities are fully of our own making. We are more like rocks, more like the animals, than like God. Compared to him, we can have only a certain voice.
Here we have the tools to overturn the presumption and arrogance of the story of Aquinas’s muteness: for there, in my first example, the supposed problem was that Aquinas’s schoolmates thought he was mute; but we might say, to take the posthuman route, that the real problem was that his schoolmates were so smugly certain that they had the tools, even the authority, to divide the mute neatly from the voiced, and so smugly certain that they could put themselves on the speaking side. I am guided, as I am so often, by Derrida on Lacan, when he poses the question “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution.”
One trick is not to assume that being an object is necessarily bad. Let me elaborate on that point with a brief theoretical framing, which I also mean as a gesture of gratitude for the thinking that enables mine. First, Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies. 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, Animacies tracks how certain groups and forms of life—particularly people with impairments, racialized immigrants, and the sexually heterodox—are culturally invested, or disinvested, with varying degrees of liveliness, agency, responsibility, and animalization. Chen prefers not to shift excluded people up the “animacy hierarchies” of what they repeatedly terms as “Western ontologies,” however politically advantageous this promotion might be for such groups. Rather, as with other feminist reevalations of materialism, autonomy, and vulnerability, Chen prefer to “reside in this…negative zone” so that ethical and even narrative considerations need not orbit around questions of rationality and agency.
Animacies happily stymies attempts to rediscover amid disability, as if that were the only proper response. Such a liberal argument is bad because it preserves the centrality of a normative, achievable “ableness” that posthumanism, ecocriticism, and disability studies should be working to undo. Here I point you to 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. Garland-Thomson argues that “fitting” requires a “generic body” in a “generic world”: “vulnerability,” she writes, “is in the fit, not in the body.”
I push this point perhaps beyond its utility by arguing that 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 all entities means that no body, even those that belong to the community of “uniform, standard, majority bodies,” can ever be a perfect match for its environment. Taken this far, this is a posthuman approach in its focus on a fundamental inability and vulnerability and secondariness.
But we can go further: the goal should not be to bemoan or revel in the impossibility of a perfect fit, but rather to call for making do in a misfit ecology.
My test case for exploring these ideas, my final example, and the longest, will be the story of Cuthbert’s encounter with the penitential ravens. Cuthbert has moved to Farne, and his work and God’s help make this remote island somewhat hospitable. When he sees two ravens tearing thatch from the roof of his guest house to make a nest, he first tries to wave them away; when they continue, he rebukes them verbally. They flee, but not long afterwards, one raven returns, bows to Cuthbert, and then, once the saint has accepted its apology, both birds return to gift him with a lump of pig’s lard. To this day, ravens still live on the island. The story first appears in the late seventh century, not long after Cuthbert’s death, and would be retold often at least through the end of the Middle Ages.
I am interested in this hagiographic tale in large part because of what it is not. It is neither a story of linguistic normalization nor one of uncrossable inability. It is not a story of a normal body encountering and repairing a deviant one, not one in which impairment is only a cultural problem, not one where difference makes community impossible. This hagiographic tale is a story about significant, even ineradicable differences, where the chief concern is not determining who is rational, or who has an abstract right to merit our concern, but rather about making an alliance in a hostile, unwelcoming environment.
It’s particularly surprising that the story isn’t about repairing muteness, because in medieval textuality, if any animal was going to talk, it’d be a bird. Some medieval grammarians held that birdsong was inarticulata, but that it was also, unlike other meaningless sounds, literata, writable, which, as Eliza Zingesser observes, “makes birdsong the most proximate to referential human language, among all non-human vocal utterances.” No medieval hero that I know of gains the ability to understand the spoken language of pigs or even dogs; but in the Volsung Saga, Siegfried eavesdrops on an avian conversation, as does Chaucer in his Parliament of Fowles. In his House of Fame, and the Squire’s and Manciple’s Tales, and in a great many other medieval texts, birds complain and banter in human language. Birds are overwhelmingly represented among the talking animals in The Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature, while crows number among the talking birds in a short poem, “De Avibus loquacibus” by Eugenius II of Toledo, produced in Iberia in the same century as the first Cuthbert lives and possibly known in England.
As birds have a peculiar capacity to erase the supposed vocal impairment of mere animality, a saintly encounter with a bird might well be one where the bird ceases, if just for a while, to be a “mute beast.” But the saint who communicates with birds through the medium of vocal speech has had the problem of communication solved without anyone having to make any effort at accommodation. In this regard, then, stories of birds miraculously speaking with saints follow the medical model of disability, in which the problem is personal to the impaired individual, and awaits only a personal cure. They’re too easy.
The other option is not to cure them at all but rather to just make them act like humans, where the operative word is like, an inauthentic imitation of truly rational behavior. This metaphoric separation keeps the birds distinct from humans, while preserving the centrality of the hierarchical difference between reason and irrationality, since, here, it is only because the birds are like humans, temporarily, that they deserve our attention. This is how it works in the flock of other penitential fowl stories in British hagiography, from the lives of Saints Columban, Illtud, Wereburga, and Guthlac, and, on the continent, Amelburga, all of whom have to extract apologies from birds, mostly geese. In all these stories, during their period of penitence, these birds are anything but birds: Jonas of Bobbio’s life of Saint Columban has its bird “forgetful of its wild nature”; Illtud’s geese “withdraw…of their own free will … like tame animals”–which is a strange comparison; the posture of the geese of Amalburga—“submissive wings” with “heads laid on the ground”—is only a “simulacro” of reasonable human behavior; a Latin life of Wereburga has its geese plead their case “as if with a human voice,” and act “as if they were captive livestock,” or, in Henry Bradshaw’s 1513 English version, “as yf they had reason naturall.” Other Latin accounts of Wereburga’s miracle frequently resort to words like quasi, while Felix describes Guthlac’s birds with veluti and velut, for example, “as if conscious of its ill-doing,” words that render the animal’s behavior only apparently more than instinctual.
Not so for the Cuthbert story. First, they never speak, at least not in any human voice, nor in any voice that could be comprehensible to humans. Instead, the Cuthbert ravens make their own noise: the anonymous life uses the verb “crocitare,” to croak, a word whose very rarity in medieval Latin marks a real effort to rightly represent the particularity of their voice, while in the Middle English, they “crob,” that is, they crow, where their own proper noun is also their verb, so that we can say that “crows crow.”
Nor are they ever said to be only imitating others. I agree with Susan Crane’s assessment of the story in her Animal Encounters, where she describes it as not just “a divine puppet show,” but rather an enactment of the birds’ “own ravenly, ravenous obedience.” For no medieval version of the tale ever compares them to rational beings. That’s not the concern. The first, anonymous life describes the ravens as follows:
settling above the furrow with outspread wings and drooping head [inclinato capite], [they] began to croak loudly, with humble cries asking his pardon and indulgence. And the servant of Christ recognizing their penitence gave them pardon and permission to return.
Bede’s adaptation preserves this element, writing that the bird communicates with “such signs as it could.” Aelfric has one bird return “very unhappy… asking for peace, that he on that land be permitted to live ever without harm and his mate with him.” And so on 700 years later, in the long Middle English version.
Like the other stories of penitential fowl, this story could easily have “healed” the birds by temporarily giving them speech, or it could have framed this communication as only an inauthentic imitation of true, rational community. Instead, the story preserves enough difference for translation to be both necessary and possible. They remain mute, but they get around it, demonstrating, with some effort, how muteness can be so inadequate as a category. When the first raven bows his head, “inclinato capite” may well be drawn from the description of monastic prostration in the Benedictine rule. Through gesture, the ravens are accommodating the communicative needs of this human monk, taking on poses that work poorly for their own bodies–“such signs as they could”–taking on forms that belong to Cuthbert’s own professional community. In effect, the ravens are anthropomorphizing themselves. Nonetheless, Cuthbert has to work to recognize these signs: in the Middle English, “vndirstode hir dede.” They each have to accommodate the other. This is, therefore, not a story of healing, charity, or paternalism, or not only this; nor is it a story about muteness or the inevitable failures of communication or concepts; instead, it is a story of patience, mutual support, and negotiation, not far off the canine-human cooperation that Donna Haraway talks about in her When Species Meet.
And cooperation is necessary. No one can rest easy in this environment. Farne does not offer what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson called the “material anonymity” of stories that obscure the ways that bodies more or less adequately fit environments, because without continual work, Farne would be inhospitable to ravens and still more so to the saint and still more, we might say, to the pig. Though Farne is where the ravens belong—they had “been there a long time,” and when rebuked, they are banished, temporarily, from their “patriam,” their “homeland”—they still must make a nest by stealing thatch from Cuthbert’s second little house (his “domunculi”). For Cuthbert to live on Farne, he must first cleanse it of devils, carve a pit out of the earth to make himself a dwelling, find water, build a well, lay down a wooden bridge, and build a second little house, none of which he could have accomplished without divine assistance. The miracles stress God’s divine favor, while the very need to work stresses the fundamentally poor fit between Cuthbert and his environment, and therefore his fundamental vulnerability, which no vox articulata can overwrite. And when the ravens furnish him with a chunk of lard, they are doing what they can to help him thrive in an unaccommodating environment. The point here is not who can speak, nor how all can’t really speak, but rather about how we have to make do, imperfectly. A “misfit ecology” is what is needed.
I am interested in muteness rather than silence because of muteness’s possibility for noise. My hunch is that silence tends to invite mysticism. It is a gap between things, the pause. It is where prayer happens, the non-sound of waiting, or where language fails, or where its limitations need not be felt. In being an absence, it invites apophasis, that mode of theological thinking that describes something — God, most often — by what it isn’t, because God is beyond all encompassing within any category. Silence, then, is so honored because of a distrust of language, of identity, of category, all of which are thought, understandably so, to do violence the complicated qualities of things themselves. The recognition of silence, the willingness not to speak, the listening to an absence that could thrum into new understanding, all this emerges from respect and sensitivity. Or from an unwillingness to commit.
Farne is noisy. The crows are mute, insofar as their language can’t be written. What we know best about them is that they have to make a home, and so does Cuthbert, and that making that work will require better tools than opening a space for them just to be, or worrying about whether they really have agency, or indeed whether we have it. There’s value in these questions, of course, but my concern, at least for today’s talk, is in how we might act with and for each other, with the kinds of help we give and need, with our shared decisions, sometimes unfortunate–poor pig!–and how we’ll still have to get by.
Shakespeare has no mute beasts, for example, though he does have a few mute, that is, quiet birds: Pericles IV.1, “She sung, and made the night bird mute”; Sonnet 97, “And thou away, the very birds are mute; / Or if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer.” Seventeenth-century examples of “mute” with beast, beasts, animal, or animals in the EEBO TCP tend to come from works originally written in Latin, for example: in 1614, a translation of Seneca, “Thou hast likewise reaped great fruit of thy labours in his very education, except happily they, who carefully nourish yong whelpes and birds, and such like friuolous delights of the minde, conceiue some pleasure in the sought touch and wanton fawning of mute beasts”; in 1680, Hugo Grotius, The Truth of Christian Religion, “for since there is among some mute Animals a certain conjugal League or Covenant.” Note, however, that the 1678 English translation of Joannes Jonstonus’s Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts characterizes the Mole as a “mute beast” (90), presumably to differentiate it from noisy rather than speaking animals.