About medievalkarl

Brooklyn College medievalist. Long time blogger in the stable of bloggers at In the Middle (www.inthemedievalmiddle.com). @karlsteel If you're curious how a brand-new blog has so much content, so quickly, I started "Medieval Karl" blog in June 2014 to compile my writing from around the web (goodreads, tumblr, wikispaces, blogger) in a venue that belonged to me.

Towards a Medieval Posthumanism

Those of you who know me know my 2017 to the present has been suboptimal, and not just for political reasons. Nonetheless, I got a book contract and, just now, finished the last bit of writing the book wanted, the Introduction. I’m surprised! And, I guess: proud. As a monument to getting things done, here it is, the Introduction to Medieval Nonhumanisms: Sympathy, Edibility, and Vulnerability (under contract, University of Minnesota Press):

Halfway through Marie de France’s twelfth-century “Bisclavret,” its eponymous werewolf hero is on the run. Trapped in his lupine form by his frightened wife, he survives in the forest by stealing food, until the king’s dogs and hunters find him and make him their sport. Just as he is about to be torn to pieces, he runs towards the king and begs his mercy (“vers lui curut querre merci”; 146) by taking hold of his stirrup and kissing his leg and foot (“il l’aveit pris par sun estrié, / la jambe li baise e le pié”; 147-48).[1] In his terror (“grant poür”; 149), the king scarcely knows what to do. He orders his men and their pack to stand down and to “look at this marvel” (“iceste merveille esguardez”; 152). Look, commands the king, at “how this beast humbles itself” (“cum ceste beste s’umilie”; 153), at how “it has human intelligence” (154;”ele a sen d’ume”; 154): after all, “taking hold of” rather than grabbing, “kissing” rather than licking—these gestures could belong to none but a human animal. When the king finally concludes that “this beast has understanding and intelligence” (“ceste beste a entente e sen”; 157), Bisclavret joins the king’s retinue and becomes his intimate companion, for when he at last returns to his human form, he does so alone, on the king’s own bed.

Marie and her contemporaries inaugurated an interest in sympathetic, intelligent werewolves that lasted well past the end of the Middle Ages.[2] Werewolves ask a priest to administer last rites;[3] another wages a guerrilla campaign against his treacherous wife to regain his stolen heritage;[4] another allies with two noble youths to secure justice from a wicked stepmother.[5] Each of these other werewolf stories insists on the human core of their animals: peeling back the fur, in one case, reveals the face of a sickly old woman;[6] an ineptly recited curse transforms a man into a wolf, but leaves his intelligence intact;[7] or the story simply asserts that “even though he was a wolf / he retained the reason and memory [sens et memoire] of a man.”[8]  Another story, about a man turned into a bear, and clearly based on “Bisclavret,” stresses that its unfortunate knight “had far more intelligence than if he’d been a real bear.”[9] Narrative tics like these attest to a desire to ensure that humans stay human, and animals animal, so that any apparent category play is nothing more than a bit of toying. In these other stories, however mysterious a concept reason might be, only humans possess it, and we should never forget that. Not so for “Bisclavret”: the king slides from identifying Bisclavret as a marvel, as a beast, as a beast with human intelligence, and then, finally, as a beast with intelligence, whatever that could be. And there he rests. Bisclavret can take a human form, or a lupine one, but whatever his form, he has intelligence too.

But what is his intelligence but the expression of needs difficult to distinguish from those possessed by any living thing, human or otherwise? He knows how to perform noble gestures, but he first uses these gestures to keep himself alive: and submission, as Peggy McCracken observes, is just as well a canine habit.[10] In the tale’s conclusion, when he attacks his estranged wife’s lover, and, soon thereafter, tears the nose from his wife’s face, he acts indeterminately as either a spurned, abusive husband, inflicting a recognized punishment for adultery, or as a savage beast.[11] However the king might choose to judge his actions, Bisclavret does what he does not necessarily because of reason, which is to say, not necessarily because of concerns that are abstract, objective, and concerned with generalizable laws. Free choice of the will hardly seems to be the engine of the defense of one’s life, or the enraged rectification of injustice: his actions feel reflexive. It is not, however, that Bisclavret is really an animal, but that what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen memorably terms the “undifferentiated concurrency”[12] of Marie’s story makes it impossible to distill any pure human intelligence, or a purely animal irrationality, from the actions of “ceste beste” identified as having “entente e sen.”[13] What ultimately matters to “Bisclavret” is an interspecies homosocial aristocratic loyalty, at the expense of one unfortunately married woman;[14] what matters is not that Bisclavret has intelligence, but that rather his actions receive royal legitimization. By the tale’s end, human difference comes to register only as a slight and fading ripple in its narrative current. Any contemporary theologian would be scandalized.

Such scandals are the subject of this book, which aims to explore what is left out of most discussions of medieval treatments of the distinction between humans and animals. From the standpoint of professional, scholarly texts running through the entirety of the Middle Ages, the difference between having human intelligence and a beast having intelligence is that between a pleonasm and an impossibility: for Augustine, for Aquinas, for a host of other thinkers, to be human at all is to be a mortal body conjoined with an immortal, rational soul, and to be a beast is to be precisely that form of life barred from reason and delivered over to everlasting, meaningless death.[15] Nothing could be more important than the difference between rational humanity and irrational animality, for without reason, there could be no free will, and without free will, there could be no moral culpability: lose human difference, and the whole edifice of divine justice collapses. Christ would have sacrificed himself for nothing. Yet these old means of making division are hardly only a relic of medieval theology. When Vincianne Despret describes a governing model of modern ethology as one in which the nonhuman animal is a “biological machine at the whim of uncontrollable laws…whose motivations can be mapped like a quasi-autonomous plumbing system,”[16] she could just as well be describing the insistence in medieval professional thinking on the impossibility of any nonhuman animal ever making a real choice. The thirteenth-century political theorist Marsilius of Padua affirms, without any fear of contradiction, that “man alone among the animals is said to have ownership or control of his acts.” [17] And when Marx writes that “man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or anything else you like,”[18] this reads like nothing so much as a slight revision to Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth-century assertion that humans surpass “brute beasts” by “his reason or mind or intelligence or whatever we wish to call it.”[19]

This is what most medieval textuality says, at least within the bounds of systematic thought, but outside systematic thought, a vast array of other material teemed. Medieval Nonhumanisms aims to give nonsystematic animal thinking the attention it deserves. “Bisclavret,” for one, merits the attention, as in the middle as in the modern ages, it has an audience: the Middle Ages gives us two manuscript copies, one complete, of Marie’s own text, twice as many as, for example, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; “Bisclavret” was itself adapted into the far more misogynist Biclarel, and also translated in the thirteenth-century Norwegian Strengleikar,[20] surviving in one manuscript, and then independently into Tiódéls saga in Iceland, preserved in an astonishing 24 manuscripts, the earliest dating to 1600: here, the wife, a murderer, is far crueler than Marie’s original, and the hero successively transforms into a wolf, a bear, and then, finally, a polar bear.[21] And in our present day, few undergraduate surveys of pre-Romantic European literature would be complete without at least one of Marie’s tales. Yet the story’s sympathetic, beastly intelligence renders it virtually unusable if it is meant to represent the most common features of “medieval literature”: undergraduates, and not only undergraduates, might come away from it mistakenly certain that medieval thought was generally disanthropocentric and otherwise free-roving when it came to human and animal difference. Given the master codes of medieval humanity, produced as they were in university settings, inculcated in religious doctrine, themselves at times defended by sword and fire and inquisition, to what degree can we claim that “Bisclavret” is a medieval work?

We can, if our aim is at describing possibilities, rather than providing only a clear map of the intellectual thruways of any given era. By way of comparison, I offer up two moments from Enlightenment French thought, the former repeatedly upheld as a key moment in the transition to modern humanism, and the other, almost entirely forgotten. The first comes from Nicholas Fontaine’s early eighteenth-century Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Port-Royal. Hundreds of scholars have cited one passage from this book, from what seems to have become the standard translation, dating back to its appearance in Tom Regan’s 1982 All That Dwell Herein, a foundational animal rights text, who in turn seems to have plucked it from Loren C. Eiseley’s 1960 The Firmament of Time.[22] Nicholas Fontaine recalls that Antoine Arnaud, le grand, held to Descartes’s opinions on the question of animals. When he relaxed among his friends, Arnaud often asserted that animals were nothing other than automata, little wind-up machines, and that consequently it was nothing to beat a dog, or to nail it to a board and cut it open to examine its circulation, because its cries were little more than the creaking of a displaced spring. And with that horror, scholars frighten us into recognizing that our modern regime of factory farming, animal experimentation, and indifferent instrumentalization of nonhuman life is an era that broke with something better. Things had once been less bad for animals, and for humans too, and they might be so again, so long as we confess to the guilt bequeathed to us by modernity.

But to my knowledge literally no modern animal rights writer cites the following story, also from Fontaine’s Mémoires, and like the other also about Antoine Arnaud, le grand:

But can I forget the pleasant conversation when this good lord closed the mouth of Monsieur Arnaud, as sophisticated as he was? They were speaking of Descartes’ philosophy, who was then the subject of everyone’s conversation. Monsieur Arnaud, a true renaissance man, had joined with Descartes’ system on the question of animals, holding that they were nothing more than clocks, and that when they cried out, it was nothing more than clockwork making noise. Monseiur de Liancourt [Duke Roger du Plessis] said to him, “Down there [in the kitchen] I have two dogs who daily alternate turning a spit. One of the dogs constrained to do this hid himself when they where going to put him to it, and he had recourse to his comrade [another dog] to turn the spit in his place. The comrade cried out and signaled with its tail that he should be followed. He turned up the other in the attic and reprimanded him fiercely. Are these clocks?” he said, which Monsieur Arnaud found so pleasant than he could do nothing else but laugh at it.

Mais puis-je oublier le plaisant entretien, où ce bon Seigneur ferma la bouche à M. Arnaud, tout savant qu’il étoit? On parloit de la philosophie de M. Descartes, qui étoit alors l’entre[c]ien de toutes les compagnies. M. Arnaud qui avoit un esprit universal & qui étoit entré dans le sistême de Descartes sur les bêtes, soutenoit que ce n’étoient que des horloges, et que quand elles crioient ce n’étoit qu’une roue d’horloge qui faisoit du bruit. M. de Liancourt lui dit: “J’ai là bas deux chiens qui tournent la broche chacun leur jour. L’un s’en trouvant embarasse se cacha lorsqu’on l’alloit prendre, et on eut recours à son camarade pour tourner au lieu de lui. Le camarade cria, et fit signe de sa queue qu’on le suivît. Il alla dénicher l’autre dans le grenier et le houspilla. Sont-ce là des horloges?” dit-il, à M. Arnaud qui trouva cela si plaisant, qu’il ne put faire autre chose que d’en rire.[23]

The ironies are almost too obvious to describe: though the Duke kept his dogs as literal machines, he knew them to have a sense of justice; though Arnaud beat and crucified his dogs, though he used them to study life itself—or to liberate “life,” whatever that is, from the body—he considered them, at best, mechanical puzzles to be solved. Even here, under Descartes, human confidence could go awry, with only a tickled, nervous, or uncertain laughter where we might expect to find cold reason. The mistake would be to take Arnaud’s laughter or the Duke’s proof as a vestige of an earlier zootopic dispensation, or even to take it as anticipating the so-called modern rise of house pets, the proliferation of eulogies for animals and animal biographies, and so on. Antoine Arnaud and Roger du Plessis lived in the same, heterogeneous era, representing competing discourses; the former belonged to the faction that gave us modern science, and the latter, to what we might hopefully call a science-to-come. A discourse powerful and influential enough to represent an era and those that followed should not be mistaken for the only story an era can offer us.

Far more familiar writing on animals furnishes similar complexity. In Genesis’ first creation account, God creates various creatures according to their kind and particular domains, and then forms humankind, uniquely, in his own image and grants them dominion over other animals, twice, in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28. In Genesis’ second creation story, beginning at 2:4, God creates Adam to tend to the plants he first created, and then tries to cure his loneliness by providing him with living things “like unto himself” (2:18), “all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air” (2:19). Though Adam knows his new companions well enough to name them, God’s experiment still fails: Adam, malcontent, wants something even more familiar. Exegetes wondered how animals had proved unsuitable, and what else could have gone wrong, as Adam, when he first regards Eve, declares: “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man” (2:23). The point of exegetical contention was the “this now”: some imagined that God might have provided a previous, unsatisfactory Eve, while the eleventh-century scholar Rashi outraged his successors by explaining that “this now” meant that “Adam mated with (she-ba’ adam) every [species of] domesticated animal (behemah) and wild animal (ḥayah) but his appetite was not assuaged (lo’ nitkarerah da’ato) by them.”[24] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has observed how some medieval writers saw in animals “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory.”[25] Adam’s bestiality might be seen as just such a exploration of “spacious corporeality,” a possibility for an anti-narcissistic relation to the other that does not seek satisfaction in “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” For whatever else Genesis’s second creation story is, it must be recognized as a creation account whose fundamental assumptions of human and animal relations and distinctions differ radically from that of the first, just as these two accounts differ in turn from the chaoskampf of the Bible’s third creation story, in Psalms 73/74:12-17. One story concerns separation and dominion, another thriving and cohabitation and loneliness, and the third a great oceanic conflict. Animals come first, or Adam does, or perhaps “the dragons in the waters” do. Despite the organizing efforts of the Bible’s ancient editors, no story has clear priority, and none is the clear endpoint.

The complicated relationship of “Bisclavret” to medieval professional doctrine, or Roger du Plessis to Descartes, or Genesis 2 to Genesis 1 should not be understood as temporal, as if one pure episteme gave way to other. The point is not that “Bisclavret” is ahead of its era, or that, at least on the question of nonhuman life, medieval people were Descartes avant la lettre. Nor, as delightful as it may be to claim Descartes as premodern, and therefore medieval (!), none of us, including medievalists, should make strong claims of temporal transformation until we have thoroughly mapped the heterogeneity of a given moment or even individual. Bisclavret was of its time, and so too were Marie’s university contemporaries. These differing perspectives could therefore better be understood not as temporal but as territorial divisions, describing how people draw borders around themselves and every other thing. Some are concerned with human/animal differences, and others with other differences. They represent a set of various simultaneously existing territories, some of which we might call intellectual superpowers—many medieval university texts survive in literally hundreds of manuscripts—but for all that, the rest of their balkanized world existed at the same time.[26]

Finally, the Middle Ages is a particularly apt era for investigating posthumanism, because moderns often tend to assume that the Middle Ages is particularly “brutal”: Katrin Bennhold is one of several New York Times writers who has deployed the common phrase “medieval brutality,” in her case, in a study of the similar paths to radicalization for both neo-Nazis and Islamic radicals, the latter of whom practice a supposed “medieval brutality.”[27] Web searches for cruel practices particular to specific eras, for example, “colonial brutality” and “capitalist brutality” can return more hits than “medieval brutality,” but comparable phrases for other eras—”early modern,” “renaissance,” or “classical” “brutality”—turn up little or nothing: especially since World War II, moderns have tended to flatter themselves by characterizing the Middle Ages as filthier, crueler, and more ‘ferocious’ (from the Latin ferox, wild animal, as “brutal” comes from the Latin brutus, “beast”). In the self-regard of modernity, the medieval is not just more violent than the present; in its “savagery” (from saeva, “raging”), it is more animal: closer to beasts, more intimate with them, and unthinkingly prone to what is presumed to be “animalistic” behavior. Assumptions like these hold that the past is cruel, the present civilized; the past superstitious, the present rational; and by extension, the past animal, bound unthinkingly to now outmoded traditions and stupid, pointless violence, while the present is human, able to master its instincts, refuse supposedly biologically hardwired hierarchies, and open itself to create a future of its own design.

That is, simply recognizing the cultural complexity of the Middle Ages—using, for example, the territorial model I propose above—helps combat the smug certainties of modernity. Furthermore, reliteralizing the metaphors, so that we recognize how medieval “brutality” animalizes an entire era (or supposedly “backwards” regions or peoples),[28] pays obvious dividends for animal studies and posthumanism by reopening the unexamined temporal, and hierarchical relationships of the animal to the human to the supposedly posthuman future. A simplistic conceptual sequence would hold that animals come first, then humans, and then posthumans. The final, posthuman element might be either a technological abandonment of both animality and humanity, in which brute matter, and even mortality and individuality, are sloughed off as the human uploads itself into a higher, technological existence. Alternately, the final, posthuman element can be a synthesis that finally recognizes the animal characteristics of even the traits humans claim as uniquely theirs: language, reason, even the soul, as the old certainties of humanism give way before the scientific onslaught of evolutionary genetics and disanthropocentric, nonprejudicial ethology. In either case, however, what is normally understood is the sequence, with true posthumanism requiring the intellectual freedom and atheism of the present. By contrast, recognizing the contradictions and complexity of the “normative humanity” of the Middle Ages prevents modern critics from mistakenly thinking that the category of the human had ever functioned perfectly.[29] Even the most mainstream medieval thinkers, in their attempts to separate humans from all other animals, recognized that claims to human reason rested on a shaky foundation. Outside these orthodox environs, medieval textually offered, in addition to Marie’s “Bisclavret,” works like the thirteenth-century old Norse Konungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror), which draws on Irish writing and storytelling to imagine the fate of men driven mad by battle: they flee into the woods, where they grow feathers, and “run along the trees almost as swiftly as monkeys or squirrels”;[30] or Thomas of Cantimpré’s thirteenth-century life of Christina Mirabilis (“the Astonishing”), from what is now Sint-Truiden in modern-day Belgium: after dying briefly, and then being restored to life, Christine now has the benefits of the resurrection body, but in the mutable, present world. At one point she collapses her limbs “together into a ball as if they were hot wax” so that “all that could be perceived of her was a round mass,” and then, once finished with her “spiritual inebriation,” she returned to her proper form, “like a hedgehog” unrolling itself.[31] These may be stories about humans, but they are hardly stories that rely on the typical, upright human posture, or on the supposed centrality of ratiocination to being truly human. To the degree that the category of the human jealousy guards its privileges, especially immaterial privileges like the claim to an immortal soul and the unique possession of language and free will, it has always been in crisis; and a not inconsiderable amount of medieval textuality, even amid such category crises, was more or less indifferent to the orthodox chore of defending an absolute human difference. Posthumanism need not await some coming technocultural shift; it simply requires more careful reading of the material we already have.

The chapters of Medieval Posthumanism follow a trajectory from minimal challenges to human particularity to a final wriggling free from the presumption that agency, free will, and rationality are the defining characteristics of the human experience. My first chapter, on pets, illustrate interspecies emotional bonds in their promise, danger, and pathology. It begins with how cats draw affectionate attention from even their most suspicious critics; next, it considers the widespread “canis” or “Guinefort” legend, in which a knight goes on pilgrimage or even kills himself because he has unjustly and killed his dog; and finally Chaucer’s Prioress, whose keeping of pets, even in recent criticism, has been derided as a symptom of her thwarted motherhood or as otherwise pathetic. Rather than normalizing her by, for example, historicizing monastic pet-keeping, I will explore the Prioress’s misdirected love of (certain) animals as both a node in her antisemitism and a queer refusal to go along with the human community.

In an approach indebted to feminist care ethics, my second chapter demonstrates that stories of isolated and feral children are less about a foundational extrajudicial masculine power than they are about the need for community, of whatever sort. First I consider the famous language deprivation experiment, considering examples from Herodotus through to early modern retellings of a similar experiment supposedly conducted at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. The chapter next considers stories of “feral founders” like Romulus and Remus to argue that they should be understood not as stories of sovereignty, but as stories of “feral foundlings,” for in all of them, the abandoned human children thrive only because they are cared for. I finally consider the fourteenth-century wolf child of Hesse, whose story belongs to the point when old stories of heroic feral founders began to become modernity’s familiar stories of wretched feral children. As I observe, the brief discussion of him in the Chronicle of Peter of Erfurt hints that he may have joined his pack in eating human flesh. Though the story presents an alternate model of being human, and a surprising degree of sympathy for the melancholic adult the boy becomes, it nonetheless does not flinch from picturing what might be required to become a companion of wolves.

My third chapter, “Food for Worms” recuperates medieval death art for ecocritical thinking. Although this particularly medieval material has been understood primarily as driven by moral, ascetic, and antifeminist concerns, its interest in the material edibility of the human body might also be read ecologically. I focus at length on the Middle English “Disputation between the Body and Worms,” a poetic dream conversation between a woman’s corpse and a pack of moralizing, hungry vermin. I engage with the poem in four ways: a study of the weird modes of sexualized identification between dreamer and putrefying flesh; a consideration of the challenge worms pose to the “unsubstitutible singularity” at the heart of main streams of critical animal theory; a rehabilitation of spontaneous generation to challenge metaphors of life and vitality; and finally, a consideration of the poem’s call for “friendship” between corpse and worms, and how we ought to respond to the call to embrace the edibility of what we believe to be our own bodies.

“Food for Birds,” my fourth chapter, begins by focusing on the classical and medieval interest of inhumation cultures in the “sky burial”– the ritual exposure of human corpses to be eaten by birds—as practiced by Iranian Zoroastrians and, later, by Tibetan Buddhists. Writers from Herodotus on took a variety of stances, but many simply took an interest, without condemnation. Later medieval material ultimately stems from reports from Franciscan missionaries in Central Asia, and the transmission of this material into the enormously widespread Book of John Mandeville. The practical, unhorrified attention to differing cultural practices anticipates contemporary attempts to concoct ecologically sound burial practices, while the medieval material, ultimately concerned with the culture of birds, challenges the tendency in modern writing to represent “sky burial” as a return to “natural balance.” Extending the previous chapter’s interest in the edibility of humans, this chapter ultimately concerns human edibility as a negotiation or accommodation with a host of interested parties, irreducible to any facile split between culture and nature.

My final chapter considers the oyster, which, from Plato at least through the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment encyclopedia, incarnated animal life at its most helpless. Philippe de Thaon and Robert Grosseteste thought of oysters are basically rocks, generated spontaneously (rather than through deliberate mating) by the action of the sun upon the waters. The fourteenth-century encyclopedist John Trevisa is more typical of the tradition in calling oysters the “lowest in animal kind, surpassing but little the highest form of life of trees and plants,” unable to move, and with no sense but touch. Ficino’s fifteenth-century commentaries on Plato called the life of the oyster one of “pure pleasure” and the form of life that was “closest to death,” while Diderot and d’Alembert thought that a human stripped of everything but life would effectively be an oyster. Thinking with oysters counters the emphasis on “agency” that is so typical of the last decade’s work in posthumanist philosophy and literary criticism, while also generating an alternate history of the key critical concept of “bare life.” Through identifying with the oyster, so helpless and senseless, we might might recognize how little a role agency plays in most of our lives. For as even Descartes observed, our existence is mostly unwilled.

Medieval Posthumanism has as one of its goals a reorientation of critical animal studies from the certainty that the way to philosophical and ethical truth is through the study of violence. Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am famously focuses on Jeremy Bentham’s argument that the most important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer. With Bentham’s new formulation, Derrida claims, everything changes, as philosophical attention can be shifted away from capacities—the presence or absence of language, for example—and towards the “nonpower at the heart of power,”[32] namely, the incapacity to avoid suffering, shared by all sentient things, human or animal. By shifting attention, Derrida aims at what he calls ‘the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life’ [la façon la plus radicale de penser la finitude que nous partageons avec les animaux, la mortalité qui appartient à la finitude même de la vie].[33] Derrida discovers the most intense form of the question in death, suffering, and inability, all of which lie on the other side, at the before (the radical, from the Latin radix, root) and at the after (the finitude, from the Latin finis, a close or conclusion). But recalling Herbert Marcuse’s short classic of anti-fascist writing, his “Ideology of Death,” should make us suspicious about any elevation of “a brute biological fact…into an existential privilege”:[34] death need not be upheld as the truth of life. Likewise, recalling Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty should guide us away from the “Messianic approach to art-making” that holds that revelations of violence are key to shaking us out of our complacency.[35] With Marcuse and Nelson in mind, we might do better to begin our analysis with other forms of nonpower, those of emotional attachment, the need for care, the strange nonhuman materialism of our own bodies, or the nonpower of simply being incapable of fully apprehending the world we inhabit. Attention to suffering can get our analyses far, but this pessimism ultimately constrains any fuller account of the strange communities characteristic of any existence, which can just as well be cluster around care as around vulnerability. Let’s experiment by trying another way.

[1] Marie de France, Die Lais der Marie de France, ed. Karl Warnke, 3rd ed. (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1925). Good translations of Marie’s Lais are easy to come by.

[2] For a survey of the tradition, Leslie Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson  N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2008).

[3] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 70–72.

[4] “Melion,” in Amanda Hopkins, ed., Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werwolf Lays, trans. Amanda Hopkins (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Department of French, 2005).

[5] Leslie Sconduto, trans., Guillaume de Palerne (Jefferson  N.C.: McFarland, 2004).

[6] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, 71–72. In the first of his several revisions to this text, Gerald cites still more stories of animal transformation. including Welsh, Scottish, and Irish old women [vetulas] who turn into hares and surreptitiously suck on teats to steal milk (“sub specie ubera sugendo, lac alienem occultius surripient”), before concluding – as a good Christian intellectual – that no such transformations really take place. He of course cites Augustine of Hippo: Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 106.

[7] “Arthur and Gorlagon,” in Mildred Leake Day, ed., Latin Arthurian Literature, trans. Mildred Leake Day (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2005), 216–17.

[8] “Melion,” 217-18, in Hopkins, Melion and Biclarel. “Biclarel,” 44-47, makes a similar assertion. The Old Norse “Saga of Ali Flekk,” in W. Bryant Buchman, jr. and Guđmundur Erlingsson, trans., Six Old Icelandic Sagas (Lanham: University Press of America, 1993), 43-61, is a distant analogue to this kind of story, as Ali’s unmistakable eyes reveal his identity as he rampages as a wolf. For more, Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, “The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106, no. 3 (2007): 277–303. For a Hebrew analogue from a commentary by Judah the Pious (d. 1217) on the serpent from Genesis, David I. Shyovitz, A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 138–39.

[9] Nigel Bryant, trans., Perceforest: The Prehistory of Arthur’s Britain (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2011), 201. For more, Miranda Griffin, “Animal Origins in Perceforest,” Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes 21 (2011): 169–84.

[10] Peggy McCracken, In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 62.

[11] Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 64.

[12] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “The Werewolf’s Indifference,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 353.

[13] For an allied reading, Crane, Animal Encounters, 55.

[14] For a comparable interpretation, closely aligned with Agamben, Emma Campbell, “Political Animals: Human/Animal Life in Bisclavret and Yonec,” Exemplaria 25, no. 2 (2013): 98–101. On gender and Bisclavret, also see Paul Creamer, “Woman-Hating in Marie de France’s Bisclavret,” The Romanic Review 93, no. 3 (2002): 259–74; H. Marshall Leicester, “The Voice of the Hind: The Emergence of Feminine Discontent in the Lais of Marie de France,” in Reading Medieval Culture: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Hanning, ed. Sandra Pierson Prior and Robert M. Stein (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 145–49; Miranda Griffin, “The Beastly and the Courtly in Medieval Tales of Transformation: Bisclavret, Melion, and Mélusine,” in The Beautiful and the Monstrous: Essays in French Literature, Thought and Culture, ed. Amaleena Damlé and Aurélie L’Hostis (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), 142–46; and Victoria Blud, The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature, 1000-1400 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2017), 122–28.

[15] Karl Steel, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011).

[16] Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, trans. Brett Buchanan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 38.

[17] Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis, trans. Alan Gewirth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), II.12.16, 193.

[18] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The German Ideology,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 50.

[19] Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, 41, 42 (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 96.

[20] Mattias Tveitane, ed., Strengleikar: An Old Norse Translation of Twenty-One Old French Lais, trans. Robert Cook (Oslo: Norsk Historisk Kjeldeskrift-Institutt, 1979), 85–99. The translation is largely faithful to Marie, differing in Bisclavret’s gestures of submission (he places both paws on the king’s knee), and his violence against his estranged wife (he tears off her clothes rather than her nose).

[21] Tove Hovn Ohlsson, ed., Tiodielis Saga (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum, 2009). For an English summary of the plot, see the review by Marianne E. Kalinke, in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology 110, no. 3 (2011): 394–95.

[22] Tom Regan, All That Dwell Therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 5; Loren C. Eiseley, The Firmament of Time (New York: Atheneum, 1960), 28.

[23] Nicolas Fontaine, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Port-Royal par M. Fontaine, 2 vols. (Utrecht, 1736),  2: 470.

[24] Eric Lawee, “The Reception of Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah In Spain: The Case of Adam’s Mating with the Animals,” Jewish Quarterly Review 97 (2007): 50.

[25] “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” in Engaging With Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 55.

[26] The background to these ideas is Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). More recently, see Steve Mentz, Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), x, for a “composting model of historical change [that] recognizes multiple presences in multiple states of decay at all times.”

[27] Katrin Bennhold, “Same Anger, Different Ideologies: Radical Muslim and Neo-Nazi,” The New York Times, March 5, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/world/europe/two-outcomes-similar-paths-radical-muslim-and-neo-nazi.html.

[28] Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[29] For this argument at more length, see my “Medieval,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, ed. Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 3–15.

[30] Laurence Marcellus Larson, ed., The King’s Mirror (Speculum Regale–Konungs Skuggsjá, trans. Laurence Marcellus Larson (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1917), 116.

[31] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Life of Christina Mirabilis, trans. Margot H. King (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing, 2000), 18–19.

[32] The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 28.

[33] Derrida, 28; “L’animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 278.

[34] Herbert Marcuse, “The Ideology of Death,” in Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Emancipation: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume Five, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (New York: Routledge, 2010), 124. For introducing me to this important essay, thanks to Louise Olga Fradenburg, “Sacrificial Desire in the Knight’s Tale,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 27 (1997): 47–75.

[35] Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 94.


The Plagiarism Speech – another approach

Last night in my medieval comp lit class, as I described the first paper assignment, I fell into what I described as the “obligatory plagiarism speech.” I felt so embarrassed to have to give it at all. No one becomes a professor because they want to be the police.

So I started, as I usually do, in a mumble of reluctance. And then I found my groove, and the way I’m going to give this talk from here on out. I said:

I’m an expert, and I care about your writing and I care about you. You may think my job is to judge you. It’s not. It’s to help you get better. I’m on your side. This relationship we have here, where you have an expert give your writing close attention, just because they want you to get better, is such a rare and beautiful thing. Take advantage of it! Because it is a relationship. I trust you, and I want you to trust me. Give me writing you’ve worried over, that you’ve agonized over, that you’re worried about: that’s fine! That’s what I expect and what I want. I just want it to be yours, all yours, because I care about you. I can’t wait to read what you give me and help you find how to be the best possible writer and thinker you can be.

Completely sincere. Maybe something like this can help you too.

Crawling Matter: Spontaneous Generation from the Ancients to the Moderns – a preview

A preview of a talk I’m giving for the British Animal Studies Network meeting in late April, 2018, in Glasgow.

The key challenge of spontaneous generation is its disruptions of agent/object divisions and the hierarchical divisions they support, including that between immaterial life and mere matter. Very few medieval thinkers followed these thoughts to this point without seeking succor in some quasi-divine force: one was Blaise of Parma (d. 1416). Known to his enemies as the ‘Doctor Diabolicus,’ Blaise’s fame to date rests largely on his work on optics and weights. His optical theories led him to argue that intellection was a form of sense perception, and since sense perception requires a distinct, material object, the objects of intellectual, thought, must be material too. From this, he finally proposed this hypothetical conclusion: ‘that human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.’ He reached similar conclusions in considering the problem of spontaneous generation, where he argued that not just gnats, bees, mice, toads, and the like, could emerge spontaneously, but all life could, including human life, for ‘nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, and so on.’ Blaise was eventually forced to recant these views, which included an argument that the story of the Ark was mythical, given that the postdiluvian world would have given rise again to the life that had once inhabited it. In this shocking thinker, we can observe a fully materialist, nonpaternal, acentric conception of life, without any transcendent pretensions of a cause disentangled from an effect.

Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro

This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here’s what’s undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I’ve found easiest to navigate:

British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Petworth Manuscript [newly digitized].
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the ‘Devonshire Chaucer’).
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the ‘Delamare Chaucer’).

If you’re reading this, I trust you’re already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook’s Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you’ll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight’s Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has “Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia,” and where Hengwrt 25v has “Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda,” Christ Church 152, 26v, has “the ordinannce of lystys that thesyiis ordaynyd.” Does the Knight’s Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of “ordaining” the divisions of the plot?

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Or here’s the Reeve’s Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v. Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself (“Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale” — note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes “Prologue” in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath’s Tale start? In at least one case, her tale – or one of them anyway – begins after the Pardoner interrupts her:

Harley 7334 89r

Harley 7334 89r, with a red “Narrat” in the margin.

Here, then, the Wife’s prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her “experience.”

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife’s Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here’s my (crowded) slide:


Is it just “words between” the Friar and Summoner? It is an “interpretation” of the Wife’s tale? An “interruption”? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife’s prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar’s Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Should the carter be taken down to hell? “Nay q[uo]d þe deuel,” he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda’s story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v

Harley 1758 126v

The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin’s Tale — not the Merchant’s — begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire’s Tale. They’ve clearly “sought in diuers places” for the “the reaste” but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn’t get changed: in red, “The Prologue to the Merchaunt.” Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant’s Tale (“Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight”). No correction. No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn’t bothered by variance in Tale order. If you’re having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than “fragments.”

My letter to Vassar in support of Dorothy Kim

Here’s David Perry’s excellent letter. Here’s a summary of the present situation.  Here’s evidence of Fulton Brown’s creepiness.

UPDATE: President Bradley has issued a statement of support. Very happy to see this.

Dear President Bradley,

I’m sure you’ve become aware of the outrage directed at Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor in the Vassar English Department. As one of the co-editors of the blog, In the Middle, which has hosted much of her work describing the racial politics of medieval studies, I am, unsurprisingly, writing in support of her. I admire her work greatly, and am certain that the field is much better to have her in it.

While many medievalists have worked to undo racist misappropriations of our field, Dorothy Kim has been the primary target of one, tenured medieval historian, Rachel Fulton Brown, of the University of Chicago. This is telling, I suspect, because she could have just as easily gone after me: but I’m tenured, white, and male. Frankly, I find her focus on Kim suspicious.

Furthermore—and this is the primary reason I’m driven to write—Fulton Brown has enlisted the support of several right-wing personalities and websites with an enormous reach far outside the academic communities in which these debates typically take place. While Kim has addressed her fellow academics—experts in the field, with a particular duty to teach and tell the story of our field correctly and ethically—Fulton Brown has played to the crowd.

I fear the results may be unpleasant, and I urge your office, particularly your public relations people, to do what I would expect they’re already doing, which is not to mistake the voices of nonexperts for the voices of experts. Notably, several of the leading professional organizations in medieval studies, including the Medieval Academy of America and the New Chaucer Society, have recently issued statements on respect and professional ethics, all at least implicitly in support of Dorothy Kim. Fulton Brown has just as notably received no such support from professional, academic organizations, whether in or outside her field.

If the university is to survive as a vibrant and worthwhile place for the free exercise of intellectual inquiry, it needs to respect the expertise of its members and their communities. I write with that in mind.


Karl Steel
Associate Professor
English Department
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

What the article didn’t include: on whiteness, medieval studies, and the adulation of creeps

Yesterday, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education contacted me, and my co-bloggers, for an interview for the Rachel Fulton Brown situation. I begged off, because I’d just arrived back in NYC at 6am and needed the day to try to sleep a little and to prep for several hours of teaching. But, being a creature of words, I wrote a long email in response to the reporter’s initial set of questions. I won’t include the questions, because they’re not mine to share, but you can surmise what they might have been easily enough.

I’m sharing my response because, for better or worse, none of this was included in the article. And I’m sharing it here rather than at ITM for what should be obvious reasons of not centering me in this situation. A shorter version of the argument is available here, on twitter. And, it should be needless to say [edit] anyone who’s now defending Milo “Feminism is Cancer” Yiannopoulos ought to stop for a while, and reflect.

Lightly edited, my email response to the reporter follows:

Online debates in the academic blogosphere date at least from what we might call the “heroic era” of blogging. In the Middle originated in this period, joining blogs like The Valve, Crooked Timber, and Michael Berubé as a place for engaged, theoretically sophisticated humanities discussion. We joined an already existing vibrant medievalism blogosphere, and distinguished ourselves, eventually, by simply outlasting the other members of our online community. Debates about the “unprofessionalism” of blogging date from this era as well: many scholars, established and otherwise, warned that blogging would be a career killer, a distraction from careful academic work, which was always said to require more space than afforded by whatever medium was being sniffed at, whether this was a blog post or the microblogging platforms of facebook or twitter.

All of this is to say that in a sense none of this is new. From my perspective, what’s new is an extremely well-organized on-line radical right, able to transform online noise into real-world political action. Political blogging in the era of Townhall, the Volokh Conspiracy, Pandagon, Daily Kos, Eschaton, and so on was noisy and ridiculous, but effectively [edit] intramural. Political blogging in the Breitbart era, with the online political right embedded in the White House, is a different, and far more dangerous animal. Stormfront used to be a fringe movement; now, frighteningly, it isn’t.

Which is to say, what distinguishes this latest blogging argument, between In the Middle and its allies and Rachel Fulton Brown and her allies, is that RFB has sought and received approving attention from this Right Wing activist online world. This attention has transformed the stakes of the argument, and also transformed the nature of the competing set of allies. Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin, for example, were the stars of the right in the Heroic Age of Blogging, but their profiles never rose to what Milo Y possesses now. Furthermore, ITM remains largely within the community of academics, mostly medievalists, whereas RFB has moved outside this world to draw on the approval of politically very well-connected nonexperts. That’s key.

The other key new element is a new public voice of antiracist activism. While ITM has always complicated unscholarly notions of race and racialization, from my perspective, Ferguson and the rise of the so-called Dark Enlightenment, both in 2014, radically transformed the nature and force of the discussion at ITM about racism, racialization, and misappropriations of the Middle Ages by white supremacists. RFB is a kind of photo negative of our work on this topic.

In sum, very little of this is new – the charges of unprofessionalism, the acrimonious debates, and even the occasional unbalance – but what may be new is the on and offline nature of online Right Wing activism and the new urgency in antiracist activism.

Clara Rockmore, Thereministe, Activist for Racial Justice, and Pal of Paul Robeson


Yesterday, the Brooklyn Museum opened Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America. While it does too much to let the police off the hook — Trayvon Martin, killed by a civilian, gets a lot of attention, but none of the 121 Black people killed by police in 2017 are named — it’s still a great, necessary show. We can probably blame the corporate sponsor, Google. Praise to the Brooklyn Museum for using this opportunity to feature a great sample of its rich collection of works by Black American artists, including a rare collaboration between Kara Walker and Toni Morrison, and kudos to the Equal Justice Initiative, the exhibit’s collaborator, for its insistence of the continuity between lynching and the American death penalty.

I’m writing this, however, for something much more minor, but also as an invitation to screenwriters and playwrights. One display case highlights the Brooklyn Museum’s sponsorship of a mid 1930s Manhattan Gallery show dedicated to combating lynching. I was curious to see who was on the committee. Some expected names appear, like Countee Cullen; those of you who know the field will no doubt recognize many more. Who caught my eye was Clara Rockmore. You know, Clara Rockmore.

Am I completely certain it’s her? Nothing is certain, no. But yes, it’s her.[1] She’s listed with one Robert Rockmore, a name coincidentally shared by the husband of the famous thereministe.rockmore

Furthermore, a quick google books search (for Clara Rockmore naacp) gets me this excerpt, from a Paul Robeson biography:


Or this here:


Pavlik and Clarochka hit the road: a Jewish immigrant theramiste paling around with a Black American Communist, performing and laughing: this is a movie that needs to be made.

[1] For fans of the predicate nominative: “Am I completely certain it’s she? Nothing is certain, no. But yes, it’s she.”