Chapter 3 – Food For Worms, Part I

IMG_0141What follows is, as the title promises, the beginning of what is, by my current count, Chapter 3 of my Book2 [the next bit is here, and I’m sure to revise this to give it some room to breath]. I’ve revised material that’s appeared in print before, in postmedieval’s “Ecomaterialism” special issue, itself a development of several blog posts from 2012 [here and here for example], but in this pass, apart from overhauling the introductory paragraphs entirely, I get to go at things without the space limitations of a journal article, and, moreover, without of the cruft of engagement with ooo, very au courant in 2012, but not so much now. I’d like to think of this is an improvement.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through a gate, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17).[2] However many the roads to this gate, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise, or threat, of an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. The subject might think this abyss grand: abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few artistic bodies may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[5] or Alexis Shotwell’s, via Lisa Heldke, for an understanding of “the entangled features of our eating behaviors,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food, with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of the well-known morality play Everyman, about the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the general body of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of medieval death work is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. Certainly most of this material aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. This material can still be read profanely, however, some of it more easily than others. My chapter does not aim to be comprehensive.[8] My interest will be in a work like this version of a famous and widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders it as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.
Earth drew the other earth to the earth.
Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.
Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Admitting that this rendition is “crude,” Rudd then opens up the moral content of the poem’s dense imagery, in which earth is human, flesh, and spouse, but then returns us to the quatrain’s bare materiality: “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” For what we might call Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take this profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem shockingly lacks a soul—not being a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are—it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. My chapter, then, will treat each of these elements singly: flesh; then worms, particularly the natural, antipaternal science of spontaneous generation; and then finally how this alliance between worms and flesh challenges the somber “unsubstitutable singularity” of what is by now a classic strain in critical animal theory.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves,[12] and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[13] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[14]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[15] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[16] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. The bones once again have a place in the Merina community. Think here also of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[17] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[18] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[19] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;
trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;
leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[20]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But of course their material continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[21] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[22] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[23] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[24] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, as could but here I will offer just one more, the Disputation. The body of this poem, far from finding rest in the grave, instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to the body about their hosts of allied vermin:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.[25]

[The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon, The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake, The toad, the mole, and the scorpion, The viper, the snake, and the adder, The toad, the ant, and the crab, The spider, the maggots, and the newt, The water leech, and the others are not far behind.]

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.

[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64.

[6] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017,,

[hereafter DIMEV], 6292. This version might be contrasted with the far more neatly moral and anthropocentric DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 15–17, 21–22, 28–29.

[13] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[14] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[15] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[16] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[18] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[19] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[20] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[21] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les Vers Comme Heritiers: Aspects de La Poétique Du Testament Aux XIVe et XVe Siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[22] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[23] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[24] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[25] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13.