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.

A little on Thomas of Monmouth and Intersectionality

I had the honor today of being on a panel called “ A Conversation about Intersectionality on National Coming Day.” Each of us was asked to present for 5-7 minutes. Others talked generously and well about students; I focused on what I know best, analyzing medieval literature. I didn’t have time to do much more than sketch some ideas, but if you’d like to see them, they’re below, and maybe they’ll help with your teaching.

I teach mostly medieval literature, and what I’m going to offer today is what an attention to intersectionality brings to literary and historical interpretation, as a model, I hope, to some of the ways those of us in the humanities might teach.

Recently, I’ve been teaching Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of William of Norwich. “Passion” here means suffering and death, like the “Passion” of the Christ, for Thomas’s work is a twelfth-century account of the torture and murder and eventual sainthood of a boy, apprenticed as a tanner. None of this is unusual fare for medieval writing, except for one thing, which is the reason I’m teaching it to undergraduates in my History and Literature Course: it’s the earliest recorded version of the “ritual murder” legend.

If you’re fortunate enough not to know what the legend is, let me explain: it’s said that every Passover, Jews kidnap, torture, and murder a Christian boy, in scorn of Jesus’s crucifixion. The alleged ritual is, of course, a nightmare version of the Roman Catholic Mass, which is itself a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, conducted with what Catholics hold to be Christ’s real flesh. The ritual murder legend is a clear case of projection and inversion, in other words, a common psychological mechanism in which a dominant group blames some minority or disempowered group for everything about its own claimed identity that it finds uncomfortable or worrying. Someone has to be blamed, given the anxiety over the ritual cannibalism at the heart of the Mass.

Now, the Jews were accused of randomly selecting a city every year to hold their ritual; they did it only once a year, and that year, the year Thomas writes about, it happened in Norwich. In centering the ritual in his own community – for Thomas was a Benedictine monk at Norwich cathedral — Thomas aimed to inspire a new cult for a new saint, drawing pilgrims to his workplace. He failed in that goal, likely because Thomas Beckett was far more spectacularly killed not long after Thomas of Monmouth himself died, and no English saint would have ever been able to compete with the popularity of an Archbishop of Canterbury murdered on, sort of, a king’s orders. What Thomas inadvertently succeeded in doing, however, was promulgating an antisemitic legend that continues to be told to the present day, and whose effects for the Jews of Northern Europe would be quite literally murderous.

I’ve been surprised by student reactions when I’ve taught material like this. After I gave a capsule history of medieval anti-Semitism some years ago, and I asked students what questions they had, one asked, “why are Jews so whiny.” As I was being observed that day for a teaching award, I had to pause a little longer than usual before I found a suitably diplomatic way to push back. More recently, while teaching Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ — not a ritual murder story, not exactly, but similarly anti-Semitic — one student interrupted to castigate the tale’s wicked Jews, because she was so horrified by what she imagined might happen to her own son. I responded by observing how antisemitism can weaponize the feelings that are dearest to us, in this case, her own mother love.

But none of that analysis is strictly speaking intersectional. In my remaining time, I’m going to sketch out how an attention to intersectionality can help us notice things about what we teach that might otherwise pass without notice. An intersectional analysis, of course, requires attention to how differing positions of structural difference interrelate. Not all these categories will necessarily be subordinated or minority categories; some categories contradict each other; others amplify each other’s effects, sometimes to weird or surprising effects. Kimberlé William Crenshaw’s foundational article “Mapping the Margins,” to cite the key example, observed that in Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings, we had, on the one hand, feminist anti-rape activism running up against cynically deployed anti-racist anti-lynching activism.

The antisemitism of Thomas of Monmouth’s text draws some of its force from intersecting relations of oppression. Notably, almost none of text’s Jews are women, and none of them are children. The murder victim, William, is a child– a boy, of course, but still not sexed in the same way an adult is – and the boy’s father basically drops out of the narrative in favor of William’s mother, who gets several big grieving scenes.

My students tend to believe, not unfairly, that the Middle Ages was a period that was bad for women; their mistake is to take this period as uniquely bad. That said, the fact of the murderers being men, and the victim and his family being a child and mother, means that we have to attend to the way that the text’s Jews being members of the dominant gender makes them suitable victims. The very oppressed status of women, and, to an extent, children makes them the object of paternalistic protection; and the dominant gender status of Jews means that they be targeted without activating any of the paternalistic defenses that would call for the protection of women. What we have here, in a sense, is a version of Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase about colonialism and neo-colonialist military adventures, “white men saving brown women from brown men,” and what I’ve tried to hint at, in this brief talk, is how attention to intersecting categories of dominance and oppression helps us to better understand, and to teach, our materials.

Thank you.


Fall 2018 – MA Canterbury Tales


Everything else is basically the same text as the Undergrad version. We’ll just be doing things faster and with more sophistication.

Date Reading/Assignments
T 8/28 Introduction to Middle English
T 9/4 General Prologue and Physician
[sign up for presentations]
Translation “exam” due
T 9/25 Knight
First Paper Due
T 10/2 Miller, Reeve, and Cook
T 10/9 Man of Law
T 10/16 Wife of Bath Prologue
T 10/23 Wife of Bath, Tale
T 10/30 Telling Tales
T 11/6 Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo, The Miller’s Tale: Wahala Dey O!
First day second paper can be submitted
T 11/13 Clerk
T 11/20 Franklin
T 11/27 Prioress / Thopas
[Last day of presentations]
T 12/4 Nun’s Priest and Manciple, and Retractation
Last day second paper can be submitted
Questionnaire Due
T 12/11 Final Paper Writing Workshop
Sample Paragraph/ Annotated Bibliography Due
T 12/18 Final Paper Due – Expanded and thorough revision of one of earlier papers


Fall 2018 Courses – Undergrad Canterbury Tales

English 3112: Chaucer
Fall 2018, MW 12:50-2:05, Boylan 3408
Professor Karl Steel
Contact Information: ksteel AT brooklyn.cuny.edu | twitter @karlsteel
Office: Boylan 2157      Office Hours: MW 11:30-12:30, 2:15-3:15 MW, 5:15-6:15 Tues

“Diverse folk diversely they seyde
But for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.” (I.3857-3858)

We will read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a sprawling, unfinished masterpiece of fourteenth-century literature, which might be understood as compendium of most medieval genres: history, saints’ lives, dirty stories, and philosophy. You will learn to read Chaucer’s Middle English and to put digitized medieval manuscripts to use. We will also read Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, a modern adaptation and response to Chaucer’s work.

Objectives: Students will develop skills in

  • Expressing ideas clearly in writing, including skills in grammar, organization, and revision
  • Understanding and analyzing literary writing, including the understanding of literature in its interdisciplinary contexts and the conventions of literary argumentation
  • Using theory and criticism to complicate and enrich their understanding of cultural materials
  • Using an academic library to find scholarly sources
  • Speaking effectively about cultural objects, including literature
  • Reading Middle English

Required Texts [link to buy books]

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: Seventeen Tales and the General Prologue, ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson (Norton, 2018), ISBN: 9781324000563

Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (Canongate Book, 2015)

The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales, ed. Candace Barrington, Brantley L. Bryant, Richard H. Godden, Daniel T. Kline, and Myra Seaman, https://opencanterburytales.dsl.lsu.edu/

The Canterbury Tales edition above is absolutely required. You might also get a modern English translation: I can’t recommend one, but they’re easy to find. We will be reading it in Chaucer’s Middle English.

Date Reading/Assignments
M 8/27 Introduction to Middle English
W 8/29 Reading: General Prologue: 410-44; Physician’s Tale 1-317
W 9/5 General Prologue: Finish It [sign up for presentations]
W 9/12 Knight’s Tale Part 1
First Paper Due
M 9/17 Knight’s Tale Part 2
First Day of Presentations
M 9/24 Knight’s Tale Part 3
W 9/26 Knight’s Tale Part 4
M 10/1 Miller’s Prologue and Tale
W 10/3 Reeve and Cook, Prologues and Tales
W 10/10 Man of Law, Prologue and First Half of Tale
M 10/15 Man of Law, Finish It
W 10/17 Wife of Bath, Prologue
M 10/22 Wife of Bath, Tale
W 10/24 Wife of Bath, Further Discussion
M 10/29 Telling Tales – first half
W 10/31 Telling Tales – finish it
M 11/5 Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo, The Miller’s Tale: Wahala Dey O!
First day second paper can be submitted
W 11/7 Clerk’s Prologue, First Third of Tale
M 11/12 Clerk’s Tale, Second Third
W 11/14 Clerk’s Tale, finish it
M 11/19 Franklin’s Prologue and Tale
W 11/21 Prioress / Thopas
Last Day of Presentations
M 11/26 Nun’s Priest
Last day second paper can be submitted
W 11/28 Summoner’s Tale and Friar’s Tale
M 12/3 Manciple’s Tale and Retractation
Questionnaire Due
W 12/5 Course Review 1
M 12/10 Final Paper Writing Workshop
Sample Paragraph / Annotated Bibliography Due
W 12/12 Course Review 2 / Review for Final
W 12/19 Final Paper Due – Expanded and thorough revision of one of earlier papers

Attendance is required. You are allowed 3 absences for whatever reason without penalty. Your grade will be penalized one grade step (eg, from a B+ to a B) for every absence after the third. Be on time!

You are expected to have done all the Reading and to be prepared to talk about it. Bring the day’s reading to class.

For a good Participation grade, be respectful of and – especially! – be engaged in the class discussion. Phones and computers can be used only to take notes or to look something up for class.

Note regarding Student Disability Services:

I am committed to providing accommodations for students with disabilities. If you are disabled or suspect you may have a disability, the Director of the Center for Student Disability Services, contact Valerie Stewart-Lovell (718-951-5538, vstewart@brooklyn.cuny.edu, 138 Roosevelt Hall Building) to have your disability documented, as this will ensure you receive the accommodation that it is your right to receive. Do not hesitate to appeal to Stewart-Lovell’s office if you are not receiving accommodations for a documented disability.


Participation: 5%
Weekly Blackboard writing: 15%
Presentation+ Presentation Paper: 15%
Short Writing Assignments: 20%
Questionnaire: 5%
Sample Paragraph/Annotated Bibliography: 5%
Final Paper: 25%
Final: 10%




Fall 2018 Courses – English 4113, Introduction to History and Literature

English 4113: Introduction to History and Literature
Fall 2018, MW 3:40-4:55, Boylan 4315
Professor Karl Steel
Contact Information: ksteel AT brooklyn.cuny.edu | twitter @karlsteel
Office: Boylan 2157      Office Hours: MW 11:30-12:30, 2:15-3:15 MW, 5:15-6:15 Tues

Introduction to History and Literature will study questions of “national belonging,” the uses of history, and, in particular, racialization from the Middle Ages to the present, using literary examples in conjunction with nonliterary archives to introduce students to “the concept of interdisciplinarity and to fundamental methods of analyzing history and literature.” We will begin with the Middle Ages, studying first an early instance of colonialism, and then the origin of an antisemitic legend; then we will examine the law and protest literature surrounding the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, before concluding with Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved, and a late nineteenth-century memoir on legal remedies for oppression, Lucy Delaney’s Out of the Darkness Cometh the Light.

Objectives: Students will develop skills in

  • Expressing ideas clearly in writing, including skills in grammar, organization, and revision
  • Understanding and analyzing literary writing, including the understanding of literature in its interdisciplinary contexts and the conventions of literary argumentation
  • Using theory and criticism to complicate and enrich their understanding of cultural materials
  • Using an academic library to find scholarly sources
  • Speaking effectively about cultural objects, including literature

Required Texts
[link to buy books]
Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John O’Meara (New York: Penguin, 1983), ISBN 0140444238
Thomas of Monmouth, Life and Passion of William of Norwich, trans. Miri Rubin (New York: Penguin, 2015), ISBN
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2003), ISBN 0142437166
Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987 [Vintage Reprint 2004) ISBN 1400033411

Course Pack

Date Reading/Assignments
M 8/27 Introduction – the Myth of Europe and the problem of National Belonging
W 8/29 Online : William Harrison, “Of the general constitution of the bodies of the Britons” [Volume 1, Chapter 20, 1587 version, online at The Holinshed Project]; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Race,” in English Traits, 349-65
W 9/5 Coursepack – Joseph Rouse, “Power/Knowledge,” from the Cambridge Companion to Foucault (read this first to help you understand)
Paper 1 Due
W 9/12 Gerald of Wales, Part 1
Presentations Begin
M 9/17 Gerald of Wales, Part 2
M 9/24 Gerald of Wales, Part 3
W 9/26 Coursepack: Linda E Mitchell “Gender(ed) Identities? Anglo-Norman Settlement, Irish-ness, and the Statutes of Kilkenny of 1367”
M 10/1 Thomas of Monmouth 1 + Chaucer, The Prioress’s Tale [find online]
W 10/3 Thomas of Monmouth 2 + Richard of Devizes, Chronicle, pages 59-64
W 10/10 Thomas of Monmouth 3
M 10/15 Thomas of Monmouth 4 + Coursepack: Meir of Norwich
W 10/17 Course Review – Coursepack: Walter Johnson, “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice”
M 10/22 Coursepack – William Dunbar poem; historical materials; Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, VI.x-xi – DISCUSSION: Misogynoir + Colorism
W 10/24 Coursepack – Barbados Laws 1654, and Mark A. Peterson ‘The Selling of Joseph: Bostonians, Antislavery, and the Protestant International, 1689-1733’
M 10/29 Online reading: Declaration of the Rights of Man; Edward Rushton letter to George Washington; Dessalines letter to Jefferson; 1805 Haitian Constitution; “Race and the Haitian Constitution
W 10/31 Coursepack: Two Essays from European Romantic Review: Manu Samiriti Chander and Patricia A. Matthew, “Abolitionist Interruptions: Romanticism, Slavery, and Genre,” and Rebecca Schneider, ““He says he is free”: Narrative Fragments and Self-Emancipation in West Indian Runaway Advertisements”
M 11/5 Equiano, Interesting Narrative – Coursepack: excerpts from Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon
W 11/7 Equiano, Interesting Narrative
M 11/12 Equiano, Interesting Narrative
W 11/14 Coursepack: Margaret Garner Readings
M 11/19 Beloved
W 11/21 Beloved
M 11/26 Beloved – Coursepack, Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”
W 11/28 Beloved
Paper 2 Due by Now
M 12/3 Coursepack: Lucy Delaney, Out of the Darkness, and Eric Gardner “‘You Have No Business to Whip Me’: The Freedom Suits of Polly Walsh and Lucy Ann Delaney”
Last Day of Presentations
W 12/5 Questionnaire Due
M 12/10 Final Paper Writing Workshop
Sample Paragraph / Annotated Bibliography Due
W 12/12 Course Review / Final Paper Writing Workshop 2
W 12/19 Final Paper Due – Expanded and thorough revision of one of earlier papers

Attendance is required. You are allowed 3 absences for whatever reason without penalty. Your grade will be penalized one grade step (eg, from a B+ to a B) for every absence after the third. Be on time!

You are expected to have done all the Reading and to be prepared to talk about it. Bring the day’s reading to class.

For a good Participation grade, be respectful of and – especially! – be engaged in the class discussion. Phones and computers can be used only to take notes or to look something up for class.

Note regarding Student Disability Services:

I am committed to providing accommodations for students with disabilities. If you are disabled or suspect you may have a disability, the Director of the Center for Student Disability Services, contact Valerie Stewart-Lovell (718-951-5538, vstewart@brooklyn.cuny.edu, 138 Roosevelt Hall Building) to have your disability documented, as this will ensure you receive the accommodation that it is your right to receive. Do not hesitate to appeal to Stewart-Lovell’s office if you are not receiving accommodations for a documented disability.


Participation: 5%
Weekly Blackboard writing: 15%
Presentation+ Presentation Paper: 15%
Short Writing Assignments: 20%
Questionnaire: 5%
Sample Paragraph/Annotated Bibliography: 5%
Final Paper: 25%
Final Exam: 10%



Institutional Power, Sexual Harassment, and the Physician’s Tale

Hi gang,

What follows was my contribution to the 2018 Kalamazoo Medieval Congress’s session on “Mood,” organized by Dan Remein and Arthur Russell (185 in the program). Discussions of institutional power and the star system in academia in the wake of the Avital Ronell case make me feel that it’s a good time to share this piece for a wider public.

First, a content note: I’m concentrating on the Physician’s Tale, which is one of Chaucer’s many tales about rape. It may seem at times as if I’m about to let the attempted rapist off the hook: I won’t. I also want to acknowledge my admiration for Carissa Harris’s public scholarship, in Vox and elsewhere, which is a model for all of us for thinking with medieval cultures to combat rape culture in the #metoo era. So:

We all know that the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales begins with the season and the weather that draws life from the earth, keeps birds awake for love, and sets pilgrims voyaging. Springtime is general, for all that lives; it catches us up too: so priketh hem nature in hir corages.

Springtime Christians don’t decide, not quite, to go on pilgrimage; they find themselves stirred up — by gratitude to the holy blissful martyr, by April’s suitability for travel, and also by the stirrings the season awakes in their hearts. As I routinely tell my students, that’s a lovely ecological observation. Ecocriticism habitually dislodges human supremacy by recognizing unintentional forms of agency, often nonhuman, operating as a network, a mesh, a mangle, chose your metaphor, irreducible to firmly defined subjects and objects. We can be happy with how well Chaucer responds to Jane Bennett’s model of an “agentic assemblage,” in which, to quote Bennett, the “efficacy or effectivity to which [the term agency] has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts.” Bennett’s example is the American Power Grid failure of 2003, and Chaucer’s, we might say, is springtime stirrings, for springtime Christian are agents, but they also the objects of other agencies.

Human agency may be rational, but only to a degree; it does what it does amid a host of other encouragements, guiding us according to the determinations that the weather and other systems deal us. But the redistribution of agency can get us into trouble if we start to look at more unpleasant effects. What happens to our ecological pieties when we examine a moment of distributed agency that we’d likely prefer to center on one, very bad man?

This is the judge, Apius, of the Canterbury tale generally ascribed to the Physician. The story ultimately comes from Livy, although Chaucer’s direct source was the Roman de la Rose. It concerns a girl, Virginia, her father, Virginius, and the judge, who decides to expose Virginia to his lust by falsely having her declared an escaped slave; Virginius solves the problem by killing his daughter. Livy’s original is a highly dramatic story about a suitable match shattered by an old man’s cruelty, as well as, crucially, a story of political resistance; Chaucer’s story is primarily about the fatal allures of beauty, or the equally fatal compulsions of masculinity and paternal authority, tied up with an unsettling final warning about one’s secret sin always finding one out.

But even though Chaucer probably had not read the Livy, he shares something with Livy that the Roman de la Rose omits, namely, the strangely impersonal motivation that leads Judge Apius into corruption. For Livy, he is “stuprandae libido cepit,” that is, the desire to defile her seizes him; and, later, he is “amore amens,” driven mad by love. And for Chaucer, as soon as Apius beholds Virginia wending her way to the temple with her mother, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood / so was he caught with beautee of this mayde.” The second line’s “caught” uncannily echoes Livy’s cepit; the first line gives us “mood,” the sessions’ theme. I’ll talk about that word in a bit. For now, let me just point out that we find similar descriptions of motive in Boccaccio’s Virginia story in his De mulieribus claris, where his Apius “ab eo amaretur perdite,” “falls desperately,” or even ruinously, “in love with her” — note the passive verb, amaretur — and in Gower’s Confessio amantis, where Apius is subject to “The blinde lustes of his wille” (7.5147). Lust—blind and mad—makes them do things that make no sense, perhaps not even to lust itself.

We can contrast these impersonal accounts of desire with Chaucer’s other rapists, attempted and otherwise. While Chaucer gives us access neither to the mental state of the Wife of Bath’s knight nor to the thief on Constance’s boat in the Man of Law’s Tale, we do witness the deliberations of the Reeve’s calculating clerks, and those of Tereus too, in the Legend of Good Women, who “caste his fyry herte upon” Philomena, and then acts, quite by his own volition. But Apius is his mood’s object, in the standard reading–again, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood”–and especially in one striking variant of the line, present, probably inter alia, in Trinity College R.3.15 and Caxton’s 1476 printing: “anon his hert chaunged alle his mode.”

I’m reminded of Palamon’s “A,” his cry as he spies Emelye through his prison bars, a human voice that gives sound to his desire’s irresistible force; or the “O mercy, God” of Troilus when he first spots Criseyde. These are the sounds not of a decision, but of something having been decided. The key element, for all of these, is that of being captured, driven mad, irredeemably altered, of one’s faculties fleeing, as the self affixes itself to what it sees in another.

The off-kilter agency of this scene demands that we approach it with something like an “agentic assemblage” in mind, because it’s not so easy to put the blame exclusively on Apius. That is, I’m suggesting that we worry about his consent too. I recognize that this is an appalling suggestion, so I’m just asking you to hold on with me for a bit. “Mood” is a good word for thinking of an other-than-rational agency, although it’s somewhat less good for this in Middle than it is in Modern English. Middle English did not yet have a meaning that, according to the OED, first appeared in 1902, that is, “The pervading atmosphere or tone of a particular place, event, or period.” Per the Brothers Grimm, the German stimmung, translated into the “mood” so well-known to Heideggarians, originates in a term for musical tone or tuning, and is first applied to human comportment only in the 1770s. And humeur, the French analogue to the modern English “mood” and German stimmung, has a strictly medical meaning in the Middle Ages, as it does in Chaucer’s works.

That said, by Chaucer’s day, the English “mood” had generally stopped referencing the “rational mind” or “spiritual self”—its primary meanings in Old English—and had instead come to mean “the emotional mind”: this I draw from Ágnes Kiricsi’s research. In the later fourteenth century, mood is a feeling; it isn’t deliberative. Much too is suggested by the Middle English “moody,” whose meanings encompass states of being like bravery and nobility, but also more negative states like arrogance, stubbornness, and lasciviousness. Then as now, to be moody can mean to be stuck in an unpleasant relation to things — to recall the German, to be somewhat poorly tuned. Mood can also mean a character or a disposition, in fact not unlike the French humeur. It’s not quite clear what changes when Apius’s mood changes, but the key thing is that what changed didn’t happen through deliberation. He has become an object to himself.

Christine Rose’s “Reading Chaucer Reading Rape” observes that “multiple agents are involved in raping Virginia in this tale”: to her human agents, I would add the inhuman force of Virginia’s beauty and virtue, which surely, in the cruel, misogynist logics of chastity discourse, may be the chief cause of her misfortune (here and here), and Apius’s too. Virginia’s deobjectifying mental interiority, when we finally glimpse it, is a resistance to tale’s logic of beauty – you’ll recall that she talks back to her father, one of Chaucer’s unique additions to the tale.  Apius’s interiority, however, is a kind of unthought assent to her beauty and tale both. In some sense, Harry Bailly may be right when he exclaims “Hire beautee was hire deth, I far wel sayn,” for, faced with such a powerful actant, what else could Apius do?

A horrifying suggestion, I know, one to which we have to respond by finding Apius guilty. But we have to do more. Distributed agency does not dispel responsibility; but it does make certainty much more difficult and only ever partial. Joanna Zerlinska’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene is a good model for how to do this: she recognizes that on a sufficiently long or brief scale — whether that of the universe itself, or the subatomic — human agency may seem not to matter. But in our little space of responsibility, we still have to take care. A little power is still power. And Apius, moved as he is, still has it.

Furthermore, a distributed model of agency also gives us better tools for fending off future dangers from the likes of Apius. The tale may suggest that a posthuman framework like that offered by Jane Bennett’s accounts of agency may be an effective analytical tool for fighting rape culture. Apius is guilty; but not only Apius is guilty, and the tale’s “surplus” guilt can’t be located in only individual human subjects. We can condemn Apius through more traditionally human frameworks of course: in 1981, Sheila Delany argued that Chaucer missed the real political force of Livy’s original condemnation of judicial tyranny, while Dan Kline has often read the tale as a critique of the murderous logics of the patriarchal family (here and here). But we can also ask what kind of power beauty has.  what kind of power desire. Do we need something more than a critique of rational, human actors to account for what Apius did?

We can go further with a posthuman engagement of the power of mood. Thus I can tentatively suggest, by way of conclusion, that what must be done with Apii is first to anticipate what moods a given social system will deliver to them, and then to disarm these moods in advance by destroying everything that gives them such power over women. In a larger sense, I’m trying to rescue the ecological and posthuman accounts of distributed agency by testing them against a limit case, and trying to imagine what grounds remain for justice in the face of very bad actors whose agency, like anyone’s, are not entirely their own. Psychoanalysis may be one way in; affect theory another; while today, for my purposes, in a very preliminary way, I’m wondering about ecocriticism and the new materialisms.

Thank you.

Shakespeare Invented the Boring Animal

Part III of III of my chapter on Shakespeare and Animals: now present.

Part 1, “The Last Honest Beast: Timon of Athens,” is here.

Part 2, “On the Limits of Shakespeare’s Poetic Ethology,” is here.

And Part 3: below.

Shakespeare can feel contemporary to us because we are unlikely to find his animals surprising; his contemporaries, however, might have found them somewhat pedestrian. Shakespeare’s panthers are hunted (Titus Adronicus 1.i.502), spotty (The Tempest IV.1.284), and dangerous to deer (Troilus and Cressida III.iii.196), but they lure no prey to their dens with their sweet breath. His hyenas laugh (As You Like It IV.1.163), but never draw humans to their doom by counterfeiting their voices. While his bears do attack if they feel their young threatened (Merchant of Venice II.ii.30), Shakespeare has nothing to say about the bear mothers literally licking their newborn cubs into shape. His beavers are just parts of armor, not animals at all, and certainly not animals that castrate themselves to escape their hunters. His eagles are the steeds of Jupiter (Cymbeline V.iv.95), the insignia of Rome (Cymbeline V.v.566), far-sighted (Love’s Labor’s Lost, IV.iii.240 and Richard II III.iii.70), and noble, disdainful master predators (King John V.ii.128); one may be long-lived (Timon of Athens IV.iii.247), and another stare directly into the sun (Love’s Labor’s Lost IV.iii.246-8), but his never renew their youth by soaring far into the sky. It has been said, sometimes laughingly, that Shakespeare invented the human; but we might say instead, just as seriously, that he invented only the boring animal.

Drawn from classical writers like Pliny and Solinus, repeated and refined by great Latin medieval natural history compendia of Albert the Great (On Animals, and Questions Concerning Aristotle’s ‘On Animals’), Thomas of Cantimpré (On the Nature of Things), Vincent of Beauvais (The Mirror of Nature), and Bartholomew the Englishman (On the Properties of Things), or even from the Bible itself — Psalms 103:5 praises God renewing our youth, “like the eagle’s” — the old strains of animal lore would be repeated well into the seventeenth century, preserved, sometimes skeptically, in texts like Stephen Batman’s slightly updated version of John Trevisa’s late fourteenth-century English translation of the Bartholomew (1584), or in Edward Topsell’s widely reprinted Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607). Some old facts might be met with doubt: Topsell repudiates, for example, the shapelessness of cubs:

And whereas it hath been believed and received, that the whelps of Bears at their first littering are without all form and fashion, and nothing but a little congealed blood like a lump of flesh, which afterwards the old one frameth with her tongue to her own likeness, as Pliny, Solinus, Aelianus, Orus, Oppianus, and Ovid have reported, yet is the truth most evidently otherwise, as by the eye-witness of Joachimus Rhetious [or this], and other, is disproved: only it is littered blind without eyes, naked without hair, and the hinder legs not perfect, the fore-feet folded up like a fist, and other members deformed by reason of the immoderate humor or moystness in them.

He is just as certain, however, about the sweet breath of panthers. Some natural historians argued that panthers hunt by hiding in trees and changing the color of their spots, so camouflaging themselves into murderous invisibility. Topsell counters with a perhaps uncharacteristic conservativism, “there is no cause to draw the Beasts unto him, but the attractive power of his sweet savour.” Batman on beavers approvingly repeats the old belief about castration (“they geld themselues when they be ware of the hunter“); for his part, Topsell thinks this an outrageous error (“But this is most false“), akin to the credulousness that infected the old true Christianity with superstition (“his poyson hath also crept into and corrupted the whole body of Religion”). Topsell nonetheless endorses the belief — found, for example, in Gerald of Wales’ twelfth-century History and Topography of Ireland–about how aged beavers, their teeth too worn to gnaw through trees, remain useful to their fellows:

upon his belly lade [the fellow beavers] all their timber, which they so ingeniously work and fasten into the compasse of his legs that it may not fall, and so the residue by the tail, draw him to the water side, where these buildings are to be framed: and this the rather seemeth to be true, because there have been some such taken, that had no hair on their backs, but were pilled; which being espied by the hunters, in pity of their slavery, or bondage, they have let them go away free.

That pity for these living sleds is a striking moment of cross-species sympathy. Just as striking is the dynamic of doubt and credulousness, in which written authority wavers before eyewitness testimony, even if just second-hand. Topsell relies on hunters for parts of his beaver knowledge. One of his chief sources, the mid sixteenth-century Historiae animalium of Conrad Gessner, proudly relays a story from the astronomer Georg Joachim Rheticus about Polish hunters who had taken a bear with a tiny bear-shaped fetus still in its uterus. Old knowledge might be on their way out, but they could be preserved at least so long as someone could be provided to believe in it.

That is, belief can be a more complicated matter than a simple determination of truth or falsity. Sometimes simply knowing about something can be a record of a kind of belief. Scholars have broken themselves for centuries on the question of whether Shakespeare read Batman (150-53), but even if he never did, Shakespeare, like his fellow dramatists, would have certainly known something of traditional animal lore, because others outside the natural history compendia still repeated the old knowledge. Michael Drayton’s preface to a reprinting of his tragic poems on Robert of Normandy, Queen Matilda, and Piers Gaveston (1596) complains that sections had been released “contrary to my will,” full of mistakes, “left unformed and undigested, like a Bear whelpe before it is licke by the Dam“; after William Bullein’s Bulkwarke of Defense against Sickness (1562) praises bear fat for soothing the pains of footmen, it pauses to disprove “the common fable among the people, that….Beare hath a disformed Whelp in the time of deliverance, without Members“: as a poet and physician, Drayton and Bullein each has his own standards of truth. But even by disproving common knowledge, Bullein attested to its continued currency, even if just as a strawman of presumptive superstition that allowed him to present himself, a physician, as an authority. We can safely assume that Shakespeare, as well-read as he was, and as social as he was by profession, had at least a passing familiarity with the common wisdom of his era. And familiarity is enough for a poet to make an effective allusion.

We should therefore avoid two great mistakes of dealing with early modern natural history. We should not assume that classical and medieval writers were more credulous than the early moderns. Although the thirteenth-century Dominican Albert the Great, for example, is well-known for arguing that barnacle geese hatch not from shellfish, but from eggs, William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est [1544; The Principle Birds mentioned by Pliny and Aristotle] repeats the belief: he doubts his main source, Gerald of Wales’ Topography, but then offers the testimony of an Irish theologian of his own era, who swore on the Gospels that he had seen and touched the barely formed chicks. The third volume of Conrad Gessner’s natural history, on birds, repeats a similar story from “not very truthworthy Normans” about geese hatched from rotting wood. And John Gerard’s Herball (1597) concludes “with one of the marvels of this land (we may say of the world)…certaine trees, whereon doe growe certaine shell fishes, of a white colour tending to russet; wherein are conteined little living creatures: which shels in time of maturitie doe open, and out of them grow those little living things; which falling into the water, doe become foules, whom we call Barnakles” (thanks to the Hoenigers and Anderson). Nor should we assume that the use of odd ethology for metaphor necessarily required that either the writer or their audience straightforwardly believed in the fact being metaphorized. The new science of the seventeenth century slowly relegated the old ethology to only antiquarian knowledge, but it did not erase the knowledge altogether. Responding to or recognizing a metaphor requires a kind of belief in it, albeit of a different form than scientific knowledge: we skeptical moderns still know what it means to talk about ostriches putting their heads in the sand. Likewise, for the sake of making a metaphor, John Marston need not have scientifically believed anything about the “Scotch barnacle, now a block, instantly a worm, and presently a great goose” (The Malcontent, 73). It was enough that he knew, and that he expected his audience, to know about it. And while Shakespeare did not draw on the old ethology for his animal metaphors, we should not assume because of this omission that he is somehow more modern or scientific than his contemporaries, or, for that matter, that he was a less fanciful poet; nor should we assume that he knew less than his fellows. It is just that, for whatever reason, many of his contemporaries drew on the resources of the old ethology, and Shakespeare did not.

Fully treating ethology and natural history in English drama from, say, the sixteenth through the mid seventeenth century — that is, up to the gravity of the scientific revolution began to generally deform and break apart the old beliefs — would be beyond the scope of my chapter. A sample suffices for identifying patterns. I draw from the TCP/EEBO project, and especially the VEP Core Drama corpus, comprising 554 plays, about 80 more than TCP/EEBO has, in which I searched for animal terms using DocFetcher, a simple desktop search engine providing easily and quickly readable results. Print indices compiled before widespread textual digitizations have also proved useful. I make no claims that the prevalence of terms or ideas in a corpus necessary indicates anything about their prevalence or influence in a larger culture. I follow the hesitations of Katherine Bode about “distant reading”: the frequency or paucity of any given term, phrase, or idea in a given corpus by no means reflects which texts were read or reread or neglected, how they were ignored or loved, or, for that matter, where they were read (87-89 especially).

Much of the old natural history lent itself readily to dramatic metaphor. Even seemingly inapposite material could be used, like barnacles and bear cubs and beavers and long-lived eagles. The Rebellion, a tragedy by the engraver Thomas Rawlins, performed in 1629-30, has its “Count Machvile” scheme like so:

Plot, plot, tumultious thoughts, incorporate;
Beget a lump how e’re deformed, that may at length
Like to a Cub licked by the careful Dam,
Become like to my wishes perfect vengeance. (I.i.91-95)

William Strode’s The Floating Island, a statescraft allegory performed in 1636, has its Iratus, an angry lord, speak of extracting himself from a plot with “Thus when the Beaver smells the Hunters aime, / He throwes away the price of his escape” (I.vii). Though the eagle’s keen sight was, as one would expect, a frequent source for metaphor, even its youth-restoring powers could be put to use: Ben Jonson’s Alchemist has Sir Epicure Mammon believe in an elixir that can “Restore his years, renew him, like an eagle, / To the fifth age” (II.i.55-56), while William Davenant’s The Just Italian (1629) has its crafty suitor Florello imagining that “The gentle Turtle shall direct us how / T’augment our loves; the Eagle to renew / Our youth.” The deadly deceits of panthers and hyenas unsurprisingly proved more popular, because of their obvious use for dramatic metaphors about speech, deception, and murder. John Lyly’s comedy Midas (1589) speaks of “the craftines of the fox, the cruelty of the tiger, the ravening of the woolfe, [and] the dissembling of Hyena” (IV.ii.31); John Marston resorts to hyena metaphors at least twice, in Eastward Ho (1605;”I am deaf still, I say. I will neither yield to the song of the siren nor the voice of the hyena“) and What You Will (1601;”He Is a Hyena, and with Ciuitt scent / Of perfumed words, draws to make a prey / For laughter of thy credit”), although in the later allusion, he confuses the hyena with the panther. Ben Johnson also slips, by mistaking the panther (“whose unnatural eyes / will strike thee dead,” The Poetaster, IV.vi.11-12) for the basilisk. Shakespeare’s pelicans, to be sure, still do what they had done since the classical writers; in Hamlet (IV.v.167), Richard II (III.iv.76), and King Lear (II.1.131), they pierce their breasts and feed their young with their own blood. But otherwise, readers looking for lost ethologies among the dramatists will have to search outside Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s animals are, for the most part, familiar. They are pedestrian, or, we might say, terrestrial. Constrained, they reflect our own prejudices about our emotional lives, and our own vulnerabilities. They are for us, there to be obediently eaten, to be pestiferous or dangerous or angry or noble, but only rarely will they challenge us to think of how the other ways we might live. They live as we do, but in a narrower way. For a richer world, one that better represents both the treasure of prescientific animal lore and the anticipates the new treasures of modern ethology and biology, we have to look elsewhere.

For the animals of the other early modern English dramatists do strange things: not strange, of course, to the traditional animal lore–they would have been familiar from storytelling, despite the tendency of the panther to be blurred with hyenas and basilisks — but strange to how we imagine life to operate. They live at different scales than us: occupying the sky, beyond our sight; possessed of senses and capacities that we could never imagine ourselves having; the bear mother is a female who provides form, challenging the Aristotelian model of conception in which only the male can shape matter into coherence; and trees might become birds. Modern ethology can sometimes still leave old prejudices unsloughed: Vinciane Despret’s What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions complains of the continued prevalence of a certainly that animals are motivated only by a “quasi-autonomous plumbing system” (38) of thoughtless natural selection. And many cultural conservatives profess believe in a natural two-gender model, despite the rarity of sexual reproduction among living things, and despite the 36,000 genders of some fungiColin Dickey’s review of Marah J. Hardt’s Sex and the Sea speaks of an undersea world “sovereign and strange,” whose world is not parallel and instructive to our own, but rather one that informs us “how alien our own behavior is to the vast range of life that we share the Earth with.” Such wonderful and various ways to be alive give us a nature that teaches us that nothing is normative except life’s ceaseless creativity. If a bear can lick a baby into shape, what foolishness it is to think there is only one way to be born!

On the Limits of Shakespeare’s Poetic Ethology

And here’s part II of my developing chapter on Shakespeare and Animals. For the first part, “The Last Honest Beast,” on Timon of Athens, see here. Or just wait for the Routledge Handbook to come out a couple years from now.

Part III will be coming early next week, I expect, and in it, I’ll get free from Shakespeare. Preview the argument here.


Sick Lion, c. 1465, Ulm or Basel. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

To be just, William Painter’s Timon chapter is of two minds about beasts. Despite repeating the old idea of beastly solitude (“how like a beast (in deede) he was”), the chapter’s first sentence imagines beasts as typically social: “all the beastes of the worlde do applye themselves to other beasts of theyre kind, Timon of Athens only excepted.” And while Shakespeare is generally hostile to beasts, he likewise observes that “nature teaches beasts to know their friends” (Coriolanus II.i.6). Beasts are furious, raging, destructive, except when they cluster sociably into their own kinds. The fantasy of beastly self-sorting attests both to a belief in a naturally communal quality to all life—not a “red in tooth and claw” war of all against all, but a massive set of what we might call homogeneous animal republics — and to a taxonomic imagination that atomized the homogenized mass of beasts into particular kinds, each having their own individual characteristics. Being a beast might just be awful, but what it means to be a particular kind of beast depends on the beast. Because a sheep is not a wolf is not a fox, there is no one form of dehumanization.

But the metaphorical use of animals might be said not to have all that much to do with animals themselves. In response to Apemantus’ “beastly ambition” (IV.iii.368) for a world denuded of humans, Timon imagines Apemantus becoming various animals: “if thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee. If thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee. If thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee when peradventure thou wert accused by the ass. If thou wert the ass, thy dullness would torment thee, and still thou lived’st but as a breakfast to the wolf” (IV.iii.370-75), and so on. Timon of course is not the only one in Shakespeare’s work to make such a speech. In King Lear, Edgar, during his feigned madness, bemoans a woman “false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey” (III.iv.98-101). Comparisons like these do not actually imagine their humans targets transformed into animals; instead, the rich and varying lifeworld of an animal disappears into the one trait each is made to embody. The metaphorical lion is less a big hairy feline carnivore than just something “valiant” (Henry IV, Part 1, II.iv.286), “proud” (Macbeth IV.1.103), and possessed of a terrible roar (Henry VI, Part 2, III.1.19; King John II.1.306). Being compared to a fox implies nothing about furriness or pointed tails; instead, it is just that the fox, always “subtle” (Cymbeline III.iii.44), aptly illustrates treachery:

For treason is but trusted like the fox,
Who, never so tame, so cherished and locked up,
Will have a wild trick of his ancestors. (Henry IV Part 1, V.ii.11-13).

And likewise with the metaphorization of lambs and wolves and pigs. None of this should be surprising. Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy spells out the common wisdom neatly, with a long passage on the moral degradation of humans into various beasts: “the violent plunderer of others’ wealth burns with avarice: you would say he was like a wolf. The wild and reckless man exercises his tongue in disputes: you will compare him to a dog”; the fox is a “trickster,” the lion driven by ungovernable anger, the deer “timorous,” the donkey “stupid,” birds “fickle and inconstant,” and a sow “filthy” and “gripped by pleasure.” To put it simply, once again in the serve of naive redescription, none of the metaphors imagine their targets undergoing complete animal transformations. Each instead distills the animal into a single, predictable unitary trait expressing specific actions and moods: the fox is nothing but a beguiler; the lamb nothing but meek prey; the donkey nothing but a dullard; and the wolf nothing but a despoiler of other people’s property. Because the animal metaphor sloughs off nearly the whole of the animal life, affixing an adjective to an animal — a ravenous wolf, for example — is supernumerary, because in metaphor, to speak of the wolf is to speak of nothing but its appetite, and likewise, mutatis mutandis, with any of the other commonly metaphorized animals.

The animal is a distinct kind of natural metaphor, of course, different from a rock or a river, for example. Animals have faces, they move on their own, they want things, and they can die. But in metaphorical refinement of animal behavior to a singular trait — in what we might call a tradition of poetic ethology — makes animals have desires, motion, and vulnerabilities only in highly constrained, predictable ways, without any choice to be anything other than what they do. When metaphor applies animal singularity to humans, it briefly freezes human multiplicity into one neat quality. The animal metaphor does not achieve its effects from the yoking together of unlikelinesses; only the human is unlikely, because a human might be anything at any given moment, in any given circumstance; but the animal side never varies. If human emotional expression has a history — if we expect men to faint and cry in twelfth-century warrior tales, and to keep themselves stoic in the sixteenth and seventeenth, as with “Dispute it like a man” (Macbeth IV.iii.259) — the character of animals in metaphor functions as a transhistoric emotional resource, predictable stages on which the variations of human comportment might play. Metaphorical animals thus work in a state of suspended animation, without any surprises, for the animal rendered into metaphor is less the gradual spilling out of a life than a GIF, an off-the-rack flipbook of satisfyingly looping action.

Critical animal theorists are fond of quoting Walter Benjamin’s comments on the animals in Kafka (e.g., Driscoll and Hoffmann): that they are “repositories of the forgotten,” like Kafka’s tubercular cough, which he called “the animal,” and which Benjamin glossed as “the last outpost of the great herd” (132). There is a similar fondness for John Berger’s “if the first metaphor was animal, it was because the essential relation between man and animal was metaphoric.” Derrida finds philosophy wanting, for “thinking concerns the animal…derives from poetry,” and poetry “is what philosophy, essential, had to deprive itself of” to present itself as making sense. The “animetaphor,” as Akira Mizuta Lippit writes, “supplements the dream, language, and world systems, providing an external source of energy that changes the machine” (130). And to this list, we can add Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s observation in his “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” which I find myself quoting often, that medieval writers found in traditional natural history “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human.” For these writers, for the “becoming animal” of Deleuze and Guatarri too, the animal is something not quite captured by human limitations; it is a source of energy, surprise, of a lurking surplus in our pretensions of order; it is what gets free and disarranges. Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital demonstrates the failures of such fantasies: the animal as outsider or natural foundation requires an undialectical, ahistorical, even nostalgic faith in an incorrupted outside, a belief that sometimes supports a politics of liberation and resistance, but not inevitably. Even without needing to appeal to Shukin’s critique, we can simply mark the utter predictability of Shakespeare’s animal metaphors: if the “animetaphor” is a “fabulous machine,” Shakespeare’s animal metaphors are just the half of that, mechanical. There is no “cough” in them, nothing to unsettle their smooth operation. Certain and straightforward, they set nothing free, but instead, briefly bind the human to an already bound animal.

His metaphors work so reliably because he draws them from how animals function for humans. Foxes are sneaky, because they slyly steal our things; wolves are ravenous, because they eat our animals, and they frighten us; sheep are meek and helpless and edible, because we have bred them to be just that. His animal metaphors are therefore not quite so much animal metaphors as they are animals-for-us metaphors, already trapped in a human orbit even before the obviously anthropocentric work of his metaphor. Foxes and wolves and lions might do other things, out of our sensing, but we are unlikely to hear about such things from Shakespeare; and if his dogs and horses have a more unpredictable liveliness, this is because dogs and horses serve more functions for humans. More likely than foxes and wolves and even sheep to be familiar to urban poets, they cannot be so smelted into one pure quality. His metaphorical dogs might be mad (Anthony and Cleopatra IV.xv.93) and beaten (Coriolanus IV.v.56) but, like actual dogs, they also might also be our intimates (Henry IV Part 2 II.ii.105). And his horses tend to be just that, horses, not metaphors.

The habits of critical animal theory have encouraged us to try to set literary animals free from the strictures of anthropocentric symbolism by discovering the real animal vibrating in animal tropes. We would be expected to salvage Shakespeare by proposing, for example, that his animal metaphors nevertheless infect the human with animality, as no human can escape the touch of a metaphor unscathed. We could “blur the boundary” between human and animal by demonstrating how much of our emotional lives, for example, our rage and hunger and loyalty is really animal, at least to the poets; the belief that category mobility is equivalent to liberation would encourage us to such an interpretation.

Such interpretations are possible, even welcome, but not with Shakespeare. We have to recognize his limits. It may be that Shakespeare strikes so many as a modern because his animals are so familiar to us: they are constrained in ways we expect them to be constrained, as the fabulous qualities of animals of classical and medieval natural history gave way to the anthropocentric prejudices of certain strains of modern science. For metaphorized animals better suited for setting in motion the “specious boundaries of the human,” we must look to the poetic ethology of other early modern dramatists. Marston and Shirley and Jonson do things with animals, and thus with humans, that Shakespeare refused to imagine.