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.

Intro to Medieval Studies, Class 2, Norse Sagas, Free Write

(going to do this every Thursday so help me God, and thank to the Most Dangerous Writing App)

Anyone familiar with Marie de France’s Lais, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Parsifal will recognize narrative elements from the Saga of Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga: the outsider to court who, like a fool, neither knows nor respects the rules of courtesy and the underlying social hierarchies that they sustain, but who reveals himself to be a greater, less self-conscious hero than anyone already lodged in court, like Svipdag and Bodvar in Hrolf; the strange figure who comes from the outside, a man older or at least more imposing than the usual run of men, who arrives to turn a feast to worry and wonder with his uncanny demands, like Bertilak or Odin; and then, birds that enter through windows, assume the forms of humans, and then have sex with humans longing for a mate, like Marie’s Yonec, or any number of stories in Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga about transformations into fierce, forest carnivores — bears or wolves — and the difficulty of living as both human and beast. Even the bear mate material appears in the late vernacular literature of Christian England. Much of this material belongs to still more widespread narrative traditions, like women who interpret dreams correctly, tell the terrible future, and get ignored, a trend we can identify running from Cassandra’s to Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (where Chaucer parodies the tradition by making Pertelote a misreader) to Hilary Clinton herself.

My hunch is that we might want to avoid calling these elements “folkloric,” although I offer this hunch without any strong grounding in the scholarship of folklore. I am more inclined to mark these elements as common narrative elements belonging to generally non-literate forms of transmission. The kinds of narrative, and what they supposedly say about either a people or the purported “deep structures of human thought,” probably matter less than the technologies of transmission, first of all, and secondly, how the spread of these stories say about the supposed ethnic unities of ancient peoples. If these stories can be so widely told, then what matters is the stories, not the “people,” if that makes sense.

Finally, however, I am interested in what drops out from this material as it makes its way into the storytelling in the later medieval continent, in, say, French, Middle English, and Latin. The question of fate remains important, of course; but now fate becomes wrapped up with the philosophical problem of “free will.” Women warriors do not entirely disappear, but they are far more often outliers; eating the flesh or drinking the blood of the powerful no longer grants the eater the power of what they had eaten. As professional, supervised religious monocultures emerge, we get a new notion of the outside, no longer organized simply between the Hall and the Forest: the outside might be a civilization too. We might do well to consider, then, not the “survivals of the ancients” but rather what does not survive, and what social and economic transformations lead to their disappearance and transformations.

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Bret Stephens, Mosquitos, and the Fantasies of Freedom

Bret Stephens, a 45-year-old white man who is currently a New York Times columnist, was recently called a “bedbug” by a faculty member at the George Washington University.  His bizarre reaction to this stimulus: to write both the George Washington University Provost and the Director of its School of Media and Public Affairs, to invite the GWU professor to his house to insult him, personally, in front of his wife and child, and to complain on national television that “there’s a there’s a bad history of being called uh of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past.”

As others have observed, this “bad history” (double entendre no doubt unintentional) goes back to 2013, in Stephens’ column for the Wall Street Journal. He was then not quite 40. There, in a column someone titled “The Boring Palestinians,” he wrote:

Only the Palestinians remain trapped in ideological amber. How long can the world be expected to keep staring at this four-million-year-old mosquito?

Outrageous and pathetic, and, had Stephens stuck to the Wall Street Journal, the column would have remained undiscovered and unread. But as the Times saw fit to translate him to a higher post, I’m going to briefly point out the antisemitic roots of Stephens’ analogy, and then suggest, just as briefly, a few points about the problem of freedom, which I’m considering for my book-in-progress, The Irrational Animal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s chapter on “Race” in his 1856 English Traits argues that the particularly mixed nature of the English, comprising Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic blood, creates in them a freedom of character that has suited them for mastery of the world; what Emerson sees as particularly American, he implies, derives from just this mixture. It’s a telling moment in this history of racism: Emerson isn’t arguing for racial purity, but rather for something more foundational to the dream of racial purity, namely, the dream of natural superiority, and the freedom of culture and self-invention that comes with it.

By way of contrast, Emerson observes, predictably enough: “Race in the negro is of appalling importance”; “the Arabs of to-day are the Arabs of Pharaoh”; and “Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments.”

One race is free: free of compulsion, free of history, and, paradoxically enough, free of racial instincts. The others are constrained to be what they are, forever: trapped in amber.

Medieval European Christian thinkers would generally not have said such things about “Negroes” or “Arabs” (and I use generally advisedly: of course they did, sometimes, but not as often, or with the same political effects, as a nineteenth-century European Christian). They would have said such things about Jews, often. The classic treatment is Jeremy Cohen’s Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999), published when Bret Stephens was 26, by which point he was already working as assistant features editor at the Wall Street Journal. To read Cohen’s book in its entirety is to realize that medieval Christian intellectuals often portrayed Jews as unchanging, sclerotic, as trapped in a kind of perpetual animal obedience to their Law, incapable of true thought. They were intellectual peasants, and peasants were, essentially, beasts. Twelfth-century Christian scholars, in speaking to Rabbis, as they sometimes did, imagined they were speaking directly to the “Old Testament.” One might imagine the same, mutatis mutandis, of scientists able to extract the DNA from the mosquito frozen in amber.

The trick is not, however, to insist that Palestinians are free political actors, and that Jews are rational too, like Christians, although I do recognize the occasional local political utility of such claims. The trick is to push back against the underlying claim of freedom. Stephens’ insistence that the Palestinians are mosquitos frozen in amber — and his implicit claim that Israeli Jews, in their attachment to the Holy Land, are somehow exercising their rational will — relies on an unexamined certainty that certain kinds of people have freedom, and that others do not. It relies on what were already outmoded ideas by the time young Stephens was doing his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in the early to mid 1990s: for ideology can’t be escaped; the claim to “reason” is never anything more solid than a self-justifying fantasy; and nothing is more delusional than the man who sees himself as free of the weight of history’s incubus, speaking truths that no one else dares to voice. Such a man is, in essence, a bedbug dreaming of being a human. Like us all, I suppose.

 

 

Saint Ephigenia: when did she become a Black saint?

Recently, at the Cathedral Fortress of Tui, in Galicia, my companions alerted me to what I guess is a 17th- or early 18th-century statue of Ephigenia, an Ethiopian saint associated with Saint Matthew who seems to have first appeared in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. Maybe 30 minutes of research so far shows that she’s well known to scholars of colonialism, race/racialization, and piety. But my suspicion is that this same body of research hasn’t communicated much with the medievalists. I’m certain I’ve missed something, and I’d be shocked if the Hispanicists weren’t on this already. So consider the above statement a hunch.

[next day edit: h/t to Cynthia Hahn for turning me on to Erin Rowe’s work on this. Looks like she has it covered. Two of her articles, which are, presumably, preparatory for her next book, are:

“After Death Her Face Turned White: Blackness and Sanctity in the Early Modern Hispanic World,” American Historical Review, Vol. 121, no. 3 (June 2016): 726-754. [ebsco link, but prob works only for CUNY]

“Visualizing Black Sanctity in Early Modern Iberia.” Invited contribution to: Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, edited by Pamela Patton. Leiden: Brill, 2016.]

Here’s the statue:

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Saint Yphigenia, Cathedral of Tui, Galicia, photo by Karl Steel, July 23, 2019

I’ve tried to make the image as clear as possible, but for someone else’s photo, with more of a snapshot feel, see here.

My hunch was that she’d be light-skinned in her first medieval appearances. The hunch seems to be, at least in part, correct. Examples:

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Golden Legend, Bruges, Morgan Library, MS M.672-5 IV, fol. 92 (1445-1455).

The Morgan’s caption explains: “Within second room of architectural setting, Iphigenia and virgins gather as man, standing outside, holds bucket of flames to walls of enclosure.”

This one is a bit harder to spot, but I think she’s among the nuns in the upper left-hand corner. From the Morgan’s description: “Hyrtacus denied Iphigenia — Hyrtacus, crowned, with arms crossed on his breast, stands behind five seated nuns, all looking toward Evangelist Matthew, nimbed, preaching from pulpit.”

This post couldn’t be more preliminary. I’m hoping to explore all this further in my Fall Intro to the Medieval Studies seminar at the CUNY Grad Center, by which point, I trust, I’ll have found more images and also, I expect, the scholarship that’s already thoroughly explored what I’m playing with here.

My goal here is to further tease out the history of racialization, and the intertwined histories of gender and sexuality (as I suspect that were Efigenia an Ethiopian male saint, she’d be dark-skinned in the Golden Legend), less for my own scholarship, and more for my teaching.

Further reading includes:

Cheek, Sheldon, “The Black Saint Who Embodied Christianity for the African Masses,” The Root, April 29, 2014.

Maddocks, Hilary Elizabeth, The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Légende Dorée: Jean de Vignay’s Translation of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (PhD Thesis, U of Melbourne, 1989) (pdf)

Sánchez, Roberto. “The Black Virgin: Santa Efigenia, Popular Religion, and the African Diaspora in Peru.” Church History 81, no. 3 (2012): 631-55 (JSTOR)

Valerio, Miguel Alejandro. 2016. “The Queen Sheba’s Manifold Body: Creole Black Women Performing Sexuality, Cultural Identity, and Power in Seventeenth-Century Mexico City.” Afro – Hispanic Review 35 (2): 79-98

What Hanne Darboven can tell us about the Middle English ‘Names of the Hare in English’

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And here’s my last paper for Spring 2019, and by far my most tentative. It’s for Session 157, “Forming Character: Between Personhood and the Nonhuman,” for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, assembled by Ingrid Nelson and Julie Orlemanski. Here’s the Powerpoint, but the images will be below as well. None of the images are essential for understanding my paper.


The Middle English “Names of the Hare in English” appears, with its French title, amid a host of other works in a famous late thirteenth-century miscellany, Digby 86. Its 63 lines begin with a warning to anyone who encounters a hare: he will never fare well unless he drops what he’s carrying in his hand, be it a staff or a bow, and then bless himself with his elbow — whatever that could mean — and then “say an orison in worship of the hare” to ward off bad luck. Then follows the orison: 77 names of the hare, running from the expected, like the first, which is simply “the hare,” to more fanciful ones, many hapax legomena, including “the steal-away,” “the evil met,” “the grass biter,” “the friendless,” “the sitter, the grass hopper,” “the fold sitter,” “the sittest-ille,” which I suppose might be translated as “the worried sitter,” and finally “the animal” — the Middle English here is der — “that all men scorn / the animal that no man dare name.” The poem finishes by freeing the transfixed unfortunate man: once you have recited these names, it says, then you can move on, east or west, south or north. The poem itself then wishes the hare “good day,” and hopes that the hare is next encountered as a nice, cooked meal.

Commentators routinely mark the poem as the earliest English witness of the legendary, and widely cross-cultural bad luck attributed to hares. I’m reminded too of a belief as old as Plato and repeated at least through the seventeenth century, which held that a human would be rendered speechless if seen first by a wolf, and that they could regain their speech only if they stripped themselves naked. The belief attests, of course, to a certainty that human supremacy is a zero-sum game – as it may well be in a wilderness meeting with a wolf – that locates human supremacy in language itself. See the wolf first and know it, and it has been made subject to your rational classification; failing that, reboot your humanity by getting naked, and try again.

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With that in mind, it’s easy to take the Hare poem as a contest of mastery. But it’s as if the primordial Adam, commanded to name the animals, found himself compelled to keep going, as if the very act of naming, and the slightly worried humanity that that singular capacity to name offered, had got the mastery of him. For the very excess of the poem – again, 77 names – suggests either a poet who’s not in control of what they’re doing, or – and this is my preference – one whose principles of composition and description are either irrecoverable or irreducible to a single system.

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Why so many names? It’s not that the poem just needs to fill up space. It runs in two columns, with the first 11 lines on 168 recto, and the rest, which is all the actual names of the hare, minus the first line, on the verso. But after it stops, there’s sufficient space to squeeze in, somewhat clumsily, Digby 86’s second copy of “The Dolorous Days of the Year,” and we can guess that the theme of bad luck inspired this recopying, even if we have to wonder why the recopying. Why not take that space, instead, to keep coming up with more hare names? There’s room, by my count, for about 26 more. Why so many? Or why so few?

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Nor, so far as I can discern, do the poem’s names follow any particular order. The introductory and closing materials are, mostly, octosyllabic couplets; the names themselves use end rhymes, but according to a varying and unpredictable pattern. The rhymes are always more than a couplet, with the most common being the -art rhyme – akin to the -ard suffix, think dotard, which tends to be derogatory: 14 lines in all, 9 at the beginning, and then 5 more towards the end. Most lines have two names, but seven have only one.

Metrically, the poem is just as unpredictable. To my knowledge, no one has attended to the poem with more sensitivity than Carolynn van Dyke, whose formal aspects she treats towards the tail-end of her monumental article on medieval “animots.” As she observes, the poem’s “strong but varied rhythms suit the movements of an alternately wind-swift, lurking, scuttling, leaping ground-sitter,” or, as I’ll say, its “strong but varied rhythms” attests to a poem that follows patterns, but never just one at any given time.

Ultimately, I would propose that the effect of “The Names of the Hare” far exceeds its seemingly express aims of either describing the hare or at evading the bad luck of encountering one. Once at the end of the list of names, we don’t have that clear a view of what a hare does, or what we should think of it. And if the point is to ward off unluck, the requirements are so far in excess of the possible — are we supposed to have these 77 names on hand, just in case, and is the hare meant to wait while we recite them — that the work can function only as a burlesque of actual utility. Remember the rules for encountering a wolf: comparatively speaking, those are eminently practicable.

An accumulation that runs for an arbitrary, but excessive, length; that takes much longer to recite than could ever make it useful; the seeming gesture towards something in the real world that, through its excess and heterogeneity, refers far more clearly to its own bravura, but seemingly pointless, act of creation: these are the features that compelled me to try, finally, to think these poem through the monumental, overwhelming, durational art of Hanne Darboven.

Born in Munich in 1941, Darboven trained as a pianist, became an artist, and moved to New York City in 1966, where she stayed for several years, interacting with several key New York conceptual artists, like Sol LeWitt, before moving back to Germany in 1969. She died in Hamburg in 2009 on her family estate.

A classic Darboven piece might fill several gallery walls with repeated, framed images that seem based on calendrical calculations. But, and this is key, there is never just one principle that generates her figures. Dan Adler offers a reading that could be drawn from any number of her critics: she “habitually disrespects the parameters of subgroups within all her sequential arrangements….there is never simply only one series at work, but rather an entangling of sequences and overlaid progressions — the number of the page, the number of the grid, the date, the handwritten number, the roman numeral.” If Darboven’s work has in common with pop and conceptual art its “deskilled” and even “bureaucratic” techniques, it diverges from both, the uniform and anonymized reproduction of pop art, and the intellectualism of conceptual art, which, at times, relied upon another kind of anonymity, that of the systematic generation of form and line, almost independent of the actual artist. Instead, her work requires her presence, her labor, and above all her time, and arguably references nothing but these things, and her interruption, and generation, of ultimately irrecoverable sequences.

I’m drawn to the hare poem and to Darboven because of my developing interest in irrational forms of reason, and because I’m finding Darboven a rich conceptual resource. How do eminently human activities, like animal onomastics, or collecting and presenting images, become inhuman through seemingly compulsive repetition? Ultimately, they no longer reference what they claim to reference — hares, or, in Darboven’s case, Cultural History, 1880-1983 — and instead point only to the work itself. In both case, what they reference is not any abstract principle of creation, but only the time of their recitation and labor themselves. And I’m hoping you might help me find out where else I might take this.

Thank you.

Bibliography

Hanne Darboven:
Dan Adler. Hanne Darboven: Cultural History, 1880-1983. Afterall Books / MIT, 2009.

Ernst van Alphen. “Staging the Archive: Ydessa Hendeles and Hanne Darboven.” Journal of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum 28: (2014): 108-133

Briony Fer, “Hanne Darboven: Seriality and the Time of Solitude.” Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice. Ed. Michael Corris. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 223-234.

Names of the Hare in English”:
John Andrew Boyle. “The Hare in Myth and Reality: A Review Article.” Folklore 84.4 (1973): 313-326.

Simon Carnell. Hare. Reaktion Books, 2010.

Carolynn van Dyke. “Names of the Beasts: Tracking the Animot in Medieval Texts.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34.1 (2012): 1-51.

Margaret Laing. “Notes on Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86: The Names of a Hare in English.” Medium aevum 67.2 (1998): 201-211.

A. S. C. Ross, “The Middle English Poem on the Names of a Hare.” Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, Literary and Historical Series 3.6 (1935): 347-77 [edition]

Be Reasonable: Animality and Personifications of Reason, Loosely through Langland

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Here’s the talk I’m giving [or have given, depending on when you’re reading this, at NYU, 6:30pm, May 1, 244 Greene Street in Manhattan]. I’m posting it so that people can read along with it as I read. You’ll note, perhaps, that my title is slightly different.


Hi everyone. Thanks for being here, and thanks to Jessica Chace and Katie Clark for the honor of the invitation, and to NYU’s Medieval Forum for making all this possible. What you’ll witness today is my second time talking in public about what might be my third book; the first time was last month, in Miami, for the International Piers Plowman Conference, and, as promised, I’m going to talk about some Langland here too, eventually.

(As you’ve just heard) My first book dealt with systematic medieval thinking about human/animal difference. My second, coming out, I hope, towards the year’s end, with the University of Minnesota Press, is How Not to Make a Human: Pets, Feral Children, Worms, Sky Burial, Oysters. The chapters follow a trajectory from a slight indifference to the human/animal boundary — that’s the pets chapter — to a maximal indifference, with oysters. A bit on that, to whet your appetite: at least from Plato to the Enlightenment Encyclopedists, oysters were the animal at the bottom end of the scale of animals. They weren’t plants, but they were only just not plants, because they possessed sense alone, but nothing to sense with. The fifteenth-century commentary on Plato’s Philebus by Marsilio Ficino characterized these minimal animals as having “a life of pleasure without wisdom . . . the lowest form of life, the one closest to death.” The life of pleasure, the one closest to death! Eventually, I try to re-imagine human existence through this form of bare life, to suggest that we too might recognize ourself as also being like oysters — and here I quote Chaucer’s translation of The Consolation of Philosophy — “such things as feed clinging to rocks.” And that’s my pitch for the book! I’m happy to chat further about it during the q & a or at the reception that follows this talk.

Book three’s title might turn out to be The Irrational Animal. It’ll track “animal irrationality” as a master trope for justifying subordination. As the word “animal” could simply mean any living thing — since the word derives from “anima,” soul — medieval writers often used some form of the phrase “irrational animal” to distinguish nonhuman from human animals. Most humans don’t benefit from that distinction, however. Dominant humans tend to judge subordinated groups — Jews, women, the mentally ill, peasants, and so on — as wanting in reason, and therefore as more animal than human, with all that implied for whether they have what ethicists term moral or legal considerability.

Challenging the hierarchies of that distinction between irrational and rational requires digging into what medieval people meant by Reason, and also paying attention to the ways that the supposed humanity of Reason could go awry. I’ve long been guided by Derrida’s question “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal”: key attributions include language, free response—contrasted with a merely instinctual reaction—and, of course, reason itself. A doctrinaire deconstructionist reaction would point out that all abstract concepts fail when subjected to a sufficiently rigorous investigation. So, perhaps predictably, I’m going to follow how claims to Reason collapse when we try to make them live up to their pretensions. My two chief medieval case studies will be Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls and then the autobiographical self-justification from the C version of Piers Plowman.

Humans are called the rational animals because they, uniquely among mortal life, are recognized as having the rational soul. Mainstream medieval Christian thought held that all living things had souls: thus, in the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon scoffed, in audible frustration, at the “mob of uneducated people who still believe that only humans have souls,” who “mock clergymen who say that dogs and other beasts have souls” (Immo vulgus laicorum in multis regnis adhuc credit quod soli homines animas habent, unde derident clericos qui dicunt canes et cetera bruta habere animas”). Clergymen got their beliefs ultimately from Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, which observed that although plants, animals, and humans are all alive, they don’t seem to possess the same form of life. The solution to that problem is a tripartite soul, three different forms of life, all three of which are gathered in humans: plants have the vegetative soul, through which they can feed and grow; nonhuman animals have that soul as well as the sensitive soul, through which they can sense things and, for the most part, move; and the human animal has these first two as well as the rational soul, “added,” as Bacon observes, “from without and by an act of creation” [ab extrinseco et a creatione], by which he presumably means not through merely material processes. The rational soul was generally thought to be able to act without a body or sensory organs; in other words, it had, and needed, no material component. Proving its existence, and that humans had it, was therefore no simple matter.

I’ve long been interested in Augustine’s solution to this problem in his On the Free Choice of the Will. He needs to establish that humans possess reason, because without reason, we have no free choice, and without free choice, we have no moral culpability, and without moral culpability, there’s no point to the whole economy of salvation. What sense could the ideas of sin and merit have if humans couldn’t choose to do good or bad? To prove we have reason, and thus, ultimately, to save the meaningfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, Augustine surprisingly doesn’t point to what we might typically think of as rational actions. He doesn’t talk abut us writing laws, or engaging in acts of altruism, or philosophizing: rather, he talks about how we dominate animals. Augustine admits that animals do sometimes get the better of us, but in the long term, we overmaster them. He concludes, “something is not present in their souls (and so we tame them) that is present in ours, so that we are better than they are. Since it is apparent to anyone that this is neither insignificant nor trivial, what else shall I call it more rightly than ‘reason’?”

I’m struck by the vagueness of what counts reason here, and what that says about what the claim is for. Perhaps a decade later, in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine’s notably no more eager to nail down precisely what reason is: “man,” he writes, “was made to the image of God in that part of his nature wherein he surpasses the brute beasts. This is, of course, his reason or mind or intelligence, or whatever we wish to call it.” Medieval thinkers could, of course, be more specific about what reason was, or what it allowed us to do: it allowed us, for example, to form abstract concepts. But what about animals that seem to be able to do the same? When sheep run from wolves, are they frightened of only that particular wolf, or by lupinity as a whole? Dogs are neutral, even excited, about sticks; but beat a dog with a stick — that’s a medieval example, from Avicenna, not from me — and the dog grows generally frightened of sticks: does the dog now have an abstract sense of universal stickiness?

A key resource here is Anselm Oelze’s recent book on later medieval theories of animal rationality. Oelze demonstrates that medieval thinkers recognized a subtle range of quasi-rational capacities in nonhuman animals, but underlying all that recognition is an unwavering commitment to denying animals reason, so that reason can be preserved as a faculty proper only to humans and to spiritual beings, like angels. Derrida calls the list of qualities proper to humans “nonfinite” in the mainstream philosophical tradition: they’re nonfinite, not so much infinite, because there’s always just one more. For whenever animals seem to be acting human — by universalizing about sticks, for example — the definition of what counts as rational activity shifts slightly, and defensively, to keep humans on the inside, and to keep animals out. So, here’s my first conclusion, one whose implications I explore at length in my first book: the claim to human rationality is less about claiming a particular set of capacities for humans, than it is about claiming both human difference and human superiority, and laying claim to everything that follows from that. The claim to have reason, like the claim to “the absolutism of reason,” is primarily a hierarchical one, rather than a description of a particular kind of thought, necessarily weaponized against both nonhuman animals and most humans.

But what does reason look like? What does it want us to do? With all due respect to Thomas Paine, I’m tempted to call the Middle Ages the Age of Reason. Personification — of the soul, the body, the virtues, the vices, wine, anything imaginable — are figures common to medieval writing, personifications of Reason among them. I’ve started to collect these figures, and, while I haven’t yet read some of what might be your favorites — the Reason personification from The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man chief among them — I’ve read enough to get a sense of what they tend to do and to advise us to do. I’ve been surprised to discover that in this tradition Reason tends not to be a figure of free will, or skepticism, or meta-analysis, or independence from tradition, nor even logical induction. I’ve been surprised, as I’ll describe at length soon, at a certain animality to Reason in this tradition. As the inheritors or victims of our own “Age of Reason,” all our expectations of what Reason is are bound to be disappointed.

The Reason of Augustine’s Soliloquies is probably the closest we get to familiar ground among these personifications. This early dialog sees Augustine talking to Reason to try to find a way to know God. He offers fascinating material on the truth and falsity of art — an actor’s truth, Reason and Augustine observe, lies precisely in his able feigning — and an insistence that nonhuman animals — his examples here are fleas and bugs — have only animal life, but no life — that is, no rational life — worthy of being loved. Ultimately, what Augustine wants is as certain a knowledge of God as he has of abstract geometric truths, that is, a knowledge independent of the senses, and thus sure, steady, and unchanging, like God. Augustine turns to Reason because Reason’s capacity for immaterial abstraction can free Augustine from sensory limitations.

By contrast, the twelfth-century Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lille has its personified Reason know the the origins of material things, pure Form, independent of matter, and especially the constant motion of Form’s mingling with matter, which is always necessarily a degenerate imitation of Form’s supermaterial ideal. Alan based Anticlaudianus on Claudian’s fourth-century Against Rufinus, which characteristics a certain Flavius Rufinus as the worst possible man; Alan of Lille’s poem in turn imagines the best possible one: hence, Anti-claudianus. Alan’s presentation of Reason is therefore as good as it gets, but, even so, it suffers from limitations: its chariot falters as it tries to rise to knowledge of the divine, and only Theology — that’s with a capital T — can take things further. One of the works medieval French adaptations adds a scene where, as Reason drives the chariot headlong to flee the vices, her passengers, Prudence and Religion, cry out, “Reason, look out!…You’re going to roll the chariot!” (“Raison, prenez garde … Vus et le char verrez tumer,” 2945-2947). Reason knows things; it’s essential to being human; but it can go only so far, and it’s even reckless in its confidence: it’s to this particular branch of the personification tradition that my first sustained examples belong.

If you’re interested in the limitations of reason in medieval thinking, the place to look are spiritual guidebooks. I’m going to compare two, one of which gives us a standard picture of things, and the other, a surprising preservation of reason’s hierarchical and defensive functions, but now under another name. The first is the Middle English, anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, from the fourteenth century, and the second, Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls, from the late thirteenth. Neither work was unread in their era, even though Porete was burnt as a heretic in Paris in 1310. The Cloud would be translated from French into Latin several times in the fifteenth century, and, the Mirror, once safely stripped of the taint of its author’s name, into English, Italian, and Latin. Both works advise the spiritual practitioner to gradually empty themselves of all sensation and knowledge, and with this, all attempts to understand or comprehend God; because God is infinite, we cannot comprehend God, so the best, indeed the only way, to get close to him is through a process of self-abandonment and a gradual unloosing of the mind from all ways of knowing suitable for mere mortal, bounded things.

Apart from their own particular program of spiritual training, the two works differ chiefly in their use of allegorical personification: the Cloud, written in a single voice, doesn’t use it, and the Mirror, written as a set of sometimes contentious conversations, does. In the Cloud, Reason is chiefly a human capacity, and it functions as it typically does outside of such apophatic works; there’s nothing unusual, in other words, about how the Cloud uses reason. “Reason,” it explains, “is the faculty through which we separate bad from good, bad from worse, good from the better, the worse from the worst, and the better from the best” (Reson is a myght thorou the whiche we departe the ivel fro the good, the ivel fro the worse, the good fro the betir, the worse fro the worste, the betir from the best; Chapter 64). Reason is not without its limits: as it has been “blinded” by original sin, it now requires the illumination of Grace to properly do its work (Chapter 64). Having described Reason as a faculty of what we might call either general evaluation or moral judgment, the Cloud then describes the mind’s other capacities according to usual divisions of medieval faculty psychology: will, imagination, and sense-perception. Elsewhere, the Cloud explains that while Imagination and sense-perception are “secondary faculties,” because they “work bestially in all bodily things” (Ymaginacion and sensualité worchin beestly in alle bodely thinges, Chapter 63). Reason and Will are “principle faculties, because they work purely spiritually, without anything corporeal” (“principal mightes, for thei worchen in pure spirit withouten any maner of bodelines”). Reason divides us from animals, because animals don’t possess it; reason is incorporeal, because it functions without sense-perception, which, in the Middle English, is “sensualité,” a word that is, at this point, just starting to acquire its slightly disreputable connotation; Reason judges, and it also knows the “virtue and conditions” of material creation (“vertewe and the condicions of bodely creatures”), and what sustains their being or caused them to come to be, knowing them not as they present themselves to the senses, but according to their origins and ultimate purposes. For the Cloud, as in much other medieval thought, reason is thus a particularly human, and even ascetic, capacity that knows and judges things, which is no way impedes the techniques of prayer and meditation, the “work of contemplation,” through which it tries to bring the soul close to God.

On the other hand, Reason in the Mirror is an ass. That’s Porete’s metaphor, not mine, in its French original, and the Middle English translation. Despite its sometimes incomprehensibility, I’m using the Middle English for my talk, to emphasize that Porete’s ideas circulated: though Porete’s treatment of Reason may be obscure, as the Mirror was neither isolated, unread, nor unused, it can stand as representative of at least one strain in late medieval thought.

So: “Truly,” Porete has Love explain to Reason, “the unsophistication and burden of those who are governed by reason surpasses all description. Reason’s teachings are a donkey’s work” (“Soþeli, seiþ sche, þei þat ben guerned by reson, þe rudenesse ne þe combringes of hem no man may seie. At her techinges it schewiþ an asse deede,” 317). For Porete, Reason is, astonishingly enough, bestial. “Ah Sheep,” shouts Soul at Reason, “how bestial is your understanding! You take the chaff and leave the grain” (“A, schepe, schepe, seiþ þe fre soule, what 3oure vndirstandynges ben beestli. 3e taken þe chaf and leuen þe greyn,” 309). People who follow Reason’s guidelines, says Soul, are “donkeys who seek God in creation” (“Suche folkis, seiþ þis soule, þat I clepe asses, seken God in creatures and bi hilles and dales,” 306). Those who listen to Reason’s advice “are so bestial and so asinine” that Soul wants nothing to do with them (“To alle þo, seiþ sche, þat lieun by 3oure counseil, þat ben s bestial & so assed þat me bihoueþ for her rudenesse answere my langage,” 304).. And late in the treatise, Soul offers to clarify a division of the spiritual practice to make sense for “the bestial understanders” (“bestials vndirstanders,” 331). Amid all this, Reason has been at least implicitly lumped in with merchants, here understood as “thralls,” servants or slaves, because they “meddle in merchandise,” and to a churl who shows up at a gentleman’s court, without the lineage that would justify his presence (“Þis peple, seiþ þis soule, ben marchauntes þat in þe world ben clepid þrallis, for þralles ben þei, for it falliþ not for no gentelman to kunne medle of marchaundise ne to be oon of hem. But shal seie 3ou, seiþ þis soule, whereynne I me apeese of þis peple. Of þis, lady loue, þat þei ben put out of þe curt of 3oure secres, ri3t as a cherle is out of a gentelmannes court in iugement of Parise, for þere may noon be hadde but if he be of gentel lynage and nameli in þe kynges court,” 302).

Porete’s Reason simply doesn’t know what it’s doing. In her Mirror, its chief role is to exclaim in dismay as it’s assailed with one paradox after another, occasionally stopping to suggest that Love or its other interlocutors have gone too far. Reason is incredulous, committed to obedience to the virtues — surely as is appropriate for a faculty of moral judgment — and angrily befuddled whenever it has to abandon the principle of non-contradiction. Porete’s Reason, in sum, represents her reader prior to receiving the techniques of meditation and prayer she teaches; a perfectly good Christian, but merely rule bound, without much access to grace or God’s infinitude.

That Porete thinks Reason inadequate for her techniques is not unusual. But typically, the problem is understood to be the human limitations of reason. Dante’s Letter to Cangrande, for example, in talking of his Paradiso, speaks of the “intellect in its ascent passing beyond human reason,” humanam rationem…transierat” (XIII.80), and in the Paradiso itself,Dante speaks of Richard of Saint Victor, “as he whose meditation made him more than man” (“che a considerar fu più che viro,” X.132). Richard’s own twelfth-century contemplative manual, his Mystical Ark, speaks of a level of contemplation that “rises above reason,” and one that goes still further “by admitting no human reason,” humanam rationem, “at all” (I.ix). And The Book of Privy Counseling,also by the Cloud author, interprets the Biblical Rachel’s death, in giving birth to Benjamin, as demonstrating how “human reason completely dies” “as soon as the soul is touched with true contemplation.” In all these treatments, reason retains its human character, and because of that, it must be abandoned by the contemplative as they move beyond the limitations of being a merely created, human being.

I do recognize that there are differences of technique between, say, Porete and Richard and the Cloud author that are of enormous importance to both the scholars and practitioners of contemplation, but for my present purposes Porete’s difference from her fellow contemplatives is not so much in her contemplative schema as it is in her characterization of reason. For in teaching her readers to be better Christians, Porete is also teaching them to realize their full humanity, and does this — in the paradox characteristic of such spiritual guidebooks– by demanding that her readers recognize their rational humanity as actually bestial.

But, after a fashion, Porete still preserves the prejudices of Reason. Yes, Porete wants her readers to abandon Reason and enter into a superrational realm where the dull boundaries of created Being no longer apply. But as she does so, she also preserves the characteristic structural division between Reason and Irrationality, but, in this case, by demoting what she calls “Reason” to the side of irrationality. The contemplative is not moving beyond human reason, but moving beyond a reason now understood to be bestial. Submissive to the virtues, Reason is rule-bound, without freedom. Attentive to the created world, including its own self — for the human rational soul is a created thing – it is bound to this world so long as it refuses to allow itself to move past itself towards the infinite. By reading only for the literal sense, Reason “takes the husk and leaves the grain”: this medieval metaphor of bad exegesis could hardly be more widespread, and here means that Reason can understand no more than what is right before it.

That is, Porete’s Reason reads like an animal thinks. Or, for that matter, like a Jew, according to a common Christian antisemitic prejudice. I’ll offer but one typical example of this Christian collapse of Jewishness, animality, and literal interpretation, from the twelfth-century autobiography by a convert to Christianity who calls himself “Hermann, the Former Jew,” where he says of his former coreligionists that “the Jews, like certain brute beasts of burden, are contented, in these things, by the letter alone, like unto chaff, [while] Christians, as men who use reason, may be refreshed by spiritual understanding, like unto the most sweet kernel within the chaff” (“ut scilicit Iudeis tamquam brutis quibusdam iumentis sola in his littera velut palea contentis, Christiani ut homines ratione utentes spirituali intelligentia velut dulcissima palee medulla reficerentur”).

It’s not that Porete lets go of reason, then, so much as she preserves its standard function under another name, and thus allows us to understand the function of the category of reason without getting hung up on what we suppose reason does,or on our own self-regard as rational creatures. For in the Mirror of Simple Souls,and, I suspect, more generally, Reason might well describe a particular set of activities — calculation, judgment, analysis, and so on — but above all, it describes a particular boundary. That boundary places the so-called rational actor on the side of freedom: freedom from the body, freedom from stolid animality, and freedom from those humans who might as well be animals, in this case, merchants and peasants — the Third Estate that is — and Jews. Porete’s animalized Reason has thus smuggled in the ideological function of Reason through its liberatory practice of mysticism, and, as much as she claims to be devaluing or moving past what she calls “Reason,” she preserves the distinctions that typically travel under the titles of Reason and Irrationality. The implications are equally typical: those on the wrong side of the boundary might be able to read, but they’re unable to think; they can read, but only mechanically, without true understanding; what they mistake as thinking is actually only obedience; and, at best, they are made to serve. Ultimately, it little matters that Porete scorns what she calls Reason as “bestial understanding,” as she’s preserved Reason’s hierarchies, prejudices, and self regard when she presents herself, and her practice, as the only proper activity for truly liberated, free-thinking people. Or, to put this another way, for the only people.

That’s how personifications of Reason work in spiritual handbooks: they claim to abandon or move beyond Reason, but they preserve the prejudices of reason so long as they preserve the binaries of freedom versus instinct, transcendence versus immanence, and especially liberation versus being rule-bound. These are personifications that seek to help to achieve the Self reach beyond itself, to achieve what its immortal soul just barely makes possible.

But another tradition of Personification, that of Rational Consolation, is about following the rules: it doesn’t demand freedom. Rather, it constrains the addressee, by demanding that they “be reasonable,” which is to say, by demanding they accommodate themselves to the prevailing circumstances, where any analysis it offers always draws its interlocutor to a foreordained conclusion of just getting along with things as they are. Isidore of Seville’s Synonyms is the key early text in this tradition. Middle English scholars perhaps know this work from Hoccleve’s fifteenth-century paraphrase of it in the first of his Series, when he turns to it to make sense of his own period of mental illness: Hoccleve doesn’t focus on the section where Isidore has Reason spell out an appropriate way of life for virtuous men according to their professions, but instead on the section where Reason helps the unconsoled penitent understand that his sorrow is a divine gift of punishment. He has to learn to be happy not only with his madness, but also with the social ostracism he suffers, because that, Reason tells him, has been sent to him from God. In essence, the consolation Hoccleve temporarily finds in Reason is one of learning to endure his suffering by convincing himself that God has sent it, that, in other words, of convincing himself that someone else must be doing the reasoning on his behalf.

The Reason of Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose continuation, perhaps the chief of these Consolation Personifications, is the hingepoint to my final example, and a perfect example of the unthinking, sclerotic Reason of the Consolation tradition. Jean has has Dreamer encounter a successive set of figures, some of them allegorical personifications, to advise him about love and seduction: an old woman, a scheming man, “False Seeming,” and first of all, Reason herself, who urges the Dreamer to abandon his erotic goals and, by extension, all his attachments to the temporary gifts of fortune. Desire comes and goes, and is, by its nature, mobile. What Reason advises in response is immobility. Reason insists that the life of perfect rational virtue can be found in Socrates, “whose expression,” Jean writes, “always stayed the same and was found unmoved even by those who killed him with hemlock.” The ultimate source for Jean here is Solinus’s third-century Collectaneum rerum memorabilium, his Collection of Memorable Things. But the Roman de la Rose has Reason give the common story a subtly but significant twist: Solinus is one of many writers who has Socrates remain imperturbable in the face of his impending death. Reason’s Socrates, on the other hand, has an unchanging face, “whatever happened to him.” Not in the face of danger, but in the face of everything, Socrates never reacts. Although Socrates had become, in Christian storytelling, martyred for his contempt for idols, he here has taken on a face of absolute fixity, whose living expression is, one imagines, indistinguishable from a unmoving, carved one. Here is miniature is Reason’s advice to the Dreamer: Reason does not suggest analysis, nor does it move the spirit at least partially upwards towards God, as it does in Alan of Lille, nor does it use the knowledge of unchanging, abstract things as a helpful analog for knowledge of the divine, as in Augustine. Instead, Reason offers this consolation to ward off not only love, but all sensation: a kind of numbness of simply not caring about what happens, or, to put this another way, of making peace with things as they are.

It’s with that in mind that I turn to my last example, the Reason of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, which I think offers a particularly sharp example of the political cruelties of the demand to “just be reasonable.” As many of you already know, Langland revised Piers Plowman over the course of decades, unsystematically and more than a little obsessively, in response both to political events, and to his attempts to imagine both a perfect politics and the right route to salvation. There are three major versions of Piers: the A, B, and C texts, and although personifications of Reason are important to every version of Piers, it’s the C text that’s going to concern me tonight.

The classics of criticism are very interested in situating Reason within Langland’s own version of faculty psychology. Reason can do things that Kind Wit and Conscience can’t. I’m happy that critical tradition exists, and have no interest in correcting it; but neither do I have any interest in expanding it. Instead I’m going to try to open a new path. I wonder at bit at Derek Pearsall’s note in his C-Text edition, where he explains “Reason is the personification of the waking dreamer’s own rational self-analysis“: that’s slightly circular reasoning, yes? Reason is Rational is Analytical is Admirable, because of course self-analysis is admirable: only by leaning harder on reason itself as a category can we break that circle’s track.

The key point in Langland is that Reason is, at least for a while, top dog in the hierarchy of psychological qualities: a host of qualities crowd into the king’s court in Piers B and C Passus 4, but Reason’s ultimately left in charge. In the C Text, Passus 5, the Dreamer meets both Conscience and Reason, but Conscience drops out: it’s only Reason that rebukes him. Whatever the specific functions of Reason might be, we can simply mark its preeminence in these passus, while also recalling how it must function as a kind of placeholder or even a kind of encampment for human difference from nonhuman life, or at least as a principle of superiority.

In a passage unique to the C text, after having finished a dream in which Reason finally establishes himself as the chief of the King’s advisers, the Dreamer awakes, in Cornhill, a somewhat disreputable London locale, where he meets Conscience and Reason again. There Reason accosts him, because he sees the Dreamer as a good-for-nothing vagabond. Reason conducts a mean-spirited job placement interview: can you serve in a church? can you cook? load a cart? bail hay? can you stay out in a field all night, guarding grain against thieves? Can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?

I’m struck by how “kyne,” livestock, is echoed in “kynes,” kind of. Might we hear “kynes craft,” a kind of occupation or skill, as the shadow of a phrase we could also hear as animal labor? What is it actually that Reason is demanding the Dreamer do? What does “being Reasonable” actually look like? And does it look anything at all like thinking?

Many of you no doubt know Anne Middleton’s analysis of C-5 in the context of the September 1388 Cambridge Parliament’s legislation on beggars and vagabonds. That Reason wants the Dreamer, primarily, to take up some kind of agricultural labor is, no doubt, due to the 1388 statute’s effort to regulate precisely that: it wasn’t concerned with guildspeople. But, as Middleton also observed, the 1388 Statute, in its somewhat desperate attempt to force farmworkers back to the conditions of labor they had before the Black Death arrive, also tended to make all other occupations seem to be built on the base of agrarianism, so that, I would add, it tends to make all labor servile: people needed to know their place, to be put in it, and to remain in it, which is precisely what the Dreamer’s apologia ends up agitating for. Reason is about becoming useful, according to whatever seems most reasonable.

Which brings me, inevitably, to Max Horkheimer, especially his Eclipse of Reason, lectures he delivered at Columbia University in 1944, as he anticipated both the Nazi defeat and the dangers industrial rationality would continue to pose to free thought and free action in postwar democracies. Without getting into the dialectical history of Reason Horkheimer offers — the death of objective reason, the rise of subjective reason, and the negation of reason itself by the latter — I’m interested in his critique of how “in the view of formalized reason, an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose, e.g. health or relaxation, which helps to replenish his working power.” Reasonable action, reasonable thought, is made to have purpose; that purpose is neither thought nor critique, but rather just the preservation and renewal of the subject for socially useful practice. “Pragmatism” is a word Horkheimer can scarcely say without spitting.

Although I started with reason as the chief of human characteristics, the one that separates us from nonhuman animals, I gave you one form of animalized reason, from Marguerite Porte, and end with another, from Piers Plowman. For in Piers C-5, Reason is not a principle of thinking, but of social quiescence. To behave “reasonably” is to be made productive for the existing order. And in his encounter with Reason, that fundamental quality of being human, the Dreamer loses the flexibility–what we might call the capacity for vagabond thought–that we think of as essential to human freedom. And if the prevailing social order is understood as fundamentally agricultural, then living reasonably means being made to live productively, which means being made to feed the system in a quite particular way. And that particularity is where I hear, without much straining, the echo of “kyne” in “kynes craft,” of cattle in work. For what Reason demands of the Dreamer, and thus in a larger sense of everyone it addresses, is a brute rationality, of making oneself useful. Like a cow is made to be useful. This is a Reason that, as always, animalizes most people; it’s just that in this case, to the degree that we let ourselves be hailed by its demand for rational activity, that is, by its demand for productive labor, by its demand that we be reasonable on its terms, we are agreeing to precisely that bovine animalization.

Thank you.

“Posthumanism” Entry for Chaucer Encyclopedia

Wrote a thing I agreed to write, and no doubt what I’m publishing here is going to be wrung through the editorial mangler, as is its duty. So here’s what I hope is the penultimate draft of what I hope manages to find its way into the home built for it.

What follows are basically the same ideas as my “Medieval” chapter for the Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, with different texts and slightly modified emphases.


The “post” in posthumanism would seem to demand a state that comes after being human, in a sequence that runs animal, then human, and finally posthuman, with the latter category requiring some technological development that enables abandoning outmoded or inefficient conditions of individuality, mortality, and dependence on the body and its needs. Posthumanist thinkers, however, tend to label this technological dream, or nightmare, as “transhumanism,” while “posthumanism” can indicate, instead, a more general skepticism about what it means to be human, and, in particular, skepticism about traditional claims of human superiority to or separation from all other sublunary things. Posthumanism thus need not await some technological transformation. Rather, posthumanist engagement means raising questions about the unexamined characteristics generally held to be unique qualities of being human. In the Middle Ages, these include the possession of the rational soul, which, unlike the vegetative and sensible souls, would live forever; free will, enabled by the rational soul; articulate, meaningful language; and above all, human dominance over all other life. Poshumanist questioning of these qualities can enable other forms of ethical obligation, based on something other than a presumption of shared rationality, while also discovering the limits to human fantasies of freedom.

The final stanzas of Troilus and Criseyde illustrate a transhumanist fantasy. Before the walls of Troy, the hopeless Troilus dies, and, as his spirit rises through the heavens, it looks down on “this litel spot of erthe”  and laughs at everyone who weeps for his death. Freed from earthly love, the spiritualized Troilus now knows the mutable world to be nothing but “blynde lust, the which that may nat laste.”  With his shifted perspective of time and space, his old loyalties and desires appear ridiculous, and anyone still entangled in them, contemptible. In other words, he has achieved the transhumanist dream, as everything that he once was seems to him pathetically constrained by bodies, their desires, and their brevity, while Troilus believes he has transcended all that by becoming a free spirit. The spirit functions like a technological liberation of the self from its limits, insofar as the spiritualized self reaches past its temporal and spatial constraints to enjoy invulnerability, freedom of motion, invisibility, and “subtlety,” that quality that allows spirits to pass through walls or travel from place to place in an instant (ST Suppl., Q 81-85).

“The Former Age” offers as clear a contrast as imaginable to Troilus’s journey into liberated scorn, yet it too does little to dislodge the certainties of traditional humanism. The poem’s eight stanzas describe the “Golden Age,” that period in human development before the inevitable arrival of commerce, war, money, private property, and meat-eating. Nothing in that now lost era suffers any deliberate injury: not just animals, which have yet to know “offence of egge or spere,” but everything else too — neither vines, as yet “unkorven and ungrobbed [unpruned and untilled],” nor spices, not yet ground in mortars, not the sea, not yet “karf” by ships, nor the ground, not yet “wounded with the plough.” Although Chaucer purports to admire these gentle folk, he describes what they eat as “mast,” the forest food that fattens domestic pigs for winter slaughter. He calls them a “lambish people,” recalling the animals that enabled him to work as controller of the wool custom at the Port of London. From Chaucer’s perspective, these humans, having not yet taken up the practice of human superiority, are as yet little better than animals, unwitting, exploitable resources.

Troilus’s ascent and the “Former Age”‘s immersion in animality offer two fantasies of innocence and perfection: the first an immunity from contact with others, and the other an immunity from conflict, labor, resource scarcity, and the hard decisions these conditions require. Each imagines the human perfected and unpolluted and, through that perfection, somehow beyond what is recognizably human. Neither really challenges the pretensions of traditional humanism. A better posthuman practice might lead humans away from these fantasies by opening them to a more general compassion, so that they experience not innocence, but entanglement. This we find in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, where Canacee, Genghis Khan’s daughter, has received a ring that allows her to understand avian language. Entering her garden, she hears a falcon piteously crying out. She takes it in her lap, and only then do she and the falcon begin to talk. Even prior to the production of rational language, and without requiring any magical gadget, Canacee lets the the bird impose itself on her as an ethically considerable subject. And though the falcon tells her story of betrayed love, she never ceases to be a bird, for at last Canacee furnishes her with a velvet-lined “mewe,” a coop: by laying aside her human supremacy, if not her nobility, Canacee and the falcon meet each other not as “rational subjects,” with the bird “elevated” into being human-like, but as bird and human, each worried about the compulsions of love.

But Canacee is still making a choice to succor the falcon. That capacity for free choice is the most cherished capacity of being human, as it liberates us from the instinct and chain of mere cause and effect to which nonhuman animals and inanimate objects alike are subjected. Chaucer challenges even this human quality, at the very beginning of The Canterbury Tales. For there, April, the West Wind, and Springtime’s general renewal inspire birds to sing all night, and people to go on pilgrimage. What seems to be a conscious human choice may be driven primarily by ecological forces, so that what is felt as a spontaneous, even holy motive is also a kind of migration. That what these pilgrims do is instinctual does not, however, devalue them: Chaucer no more intends that we scorn the “smalle foweles” than we should scorn his pilgrims. Though we have language, spirit, and technological mastery over other creatures, if we think past our human pretensions — as posthumans — we pilgrims can recognize ourselves anew as dependent creatures like others, constrained and enabled by the world we all inhabit and make.

‘Kynes Craft’: Animal Labor and Brute Rationality in Piers Plowman

Here’s my paper for the 2019 International Piers Plowman Society in Miami, Session 25, “Post-Humanist Langland,” organized by Adin Lears and Wan-Chuan Kao.


Welcome to my first time talking about Piers Plowman in public. As you all know, one of Langland’s chief additions to the C-text is Reason’s upbraiding of the dreamer for what Reason understands as his laziness. Today, I’m going to wonder just what Reason is, and wonder at what it is that Reason wants the dreamer to do.

What’s on offer today is the first public hint of what might be my third book project, whose necessarily tentative title is The Irrational Animal. It’ll track “animal irrationality” as a master trope for justifying subordination. As the word “animal” could simply mean any living thing, medieval writers often used some form of the phrase “irrational animal” to distinguish nonhuman from human animals. Most humans don’t benefit from that distinction, however. Dominant humans tend to judge subordinated groups — Jews, women, the mentally ill, for example — as wanting in reason, and therefore as more animal than human, with all that implied for their moral, political, and legal considerability.

Exploring the social danger of the claim to Reason thus requires a certain suspicion about claims to rationality. I’ve long been guided by Derrida’s question “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal”: key attributions include language, free response—contrasted with a merely instinctual reaction—and, of course, reason. A doctrinaire deconstructionist reaction would point out that all abstract concepts fail when subjected to a sufficiently rigorous investigation. So, perhaps predictably, I’m going to follow how claims to Reason collapse when we try to make them live up to their pretensions.

Back to the text at hand. Taxonomies of Reason abound in the classics of Piers Plowman criticism, and I’m going to assume you know them better than I do. In that material, the questions concern the distinct spheres of activity for Kynd Wit, Conscience, and Reason, key allegorical figures in Piers since at least its A text. I’m happy that critical tradition exists, and have no interest in correcting it; but neither do I have any interest in expanding it. Instead I’m going to try to open a new path. I wonder at bit at Derek Pearsall’s note in his C-Text edition, where he explains “Reason is the personification of the waking dreamer’s own rational self-analysis“: that’s slightly circular reasoning, yes? To get us out of the analytical circle we’re stuck in whenever we presume to know what reason is—in this case, Reason is Rational is Analytical is Admirable, because of course self-analysis is admirable —I’m going to lean harder on Reason itself, by not presuming that we humans have it, or that we know what it is, or that we know what its effects or demands or social force might be.

The particular Piers passage that’s going to lurk in the background of my paper is this:  the Dreamer has just finished a dream in which Reason finally establishes himself as the chief of the King’s advisers; he then awakes in Cornhill, a somewhat disreputable London locale, where he meets Conscience and Reason again, and Reason accosts him, because he sees the Dreamer as a good-for-nothing vagabond. Reason conducts a mean-spirited job placement interview: can you serve in a church? can you cook? load a cart? bail hay? can you stay out in a field all night, guarding grain against thieves? Can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?

I’m struck by a number of things here: the emphasis on field labor, about which more later, but as a hint: I’m hoping to do more work on the habitual animalization of farmworkers in late medieval literature. I’m also struck especially by the way that “kyne,” livestock, is echoed in “kynes,” kind of. Might we hear “kynes craft,” a kind of occupation or skill, as the shadow of a phrase we could also hear as animal labor? What is it actually that Reason is demanding the Dreamer do? What does “being Reasonable” actually look like? And does it look anything at all like thinking?

To explore these possibilities, I’m going put Langland’s Reason not in relation to Langland’s own complicated, precise psychological mapping, nor in relation to key doctrinal mappings of Reason — those of Aquinas, especially — but rather in relation to three things: the first is animality, then a sampling of the many other personifications of reason we find in medieval literature, and, before I bring this all together, a bit of Max Horkheimer.

Following and developing Aristotle’s model of the tripartite soul, medieval thinkers chiefly understood that nonhuman animals possess only the vegetative soul — that’s the principle of both growth and life itself —and sensible soul, which allows them to move and react to stimuli. Humans were the sole kind of mortal life that possessed both these first two souls as well as the rational soul. Humans therefore are the uniquely rational animals.

I’ve long been interested in a passage in Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will where he takes pains to demonstrate that humans possess reason, because without reason, we have no free choice, and without free choice, no moral culpability, and without moral culpability, well, there’s no point to the whole economy of salvation. To prove we have reason, and thus to save the meaningfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, Augustine observes, naturally enough, that humans dominate animals routinely; sometimes they get the best of us, but in the long term, we’re in charge of them. He concludes, “something is not present in their souls (and so we tame them) that is present in ours, so that we are better than they are. Since it is apparent to anyone that this is neither insignificant nor trivial, what else shall I call it more rightly than ‘reason’?” Perhaps a decade later, in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine’s no more eager to nail down precisely what reason is: “man,” he writes, “was made to the image of God in that part of his nature wherein he surpasses the brute beasts. This is, of course, his reason or mind or intelligence, or whatever we wish to call it.” For Augustine, whatever reason might be, it is at least this fundamental enabler of human superiority.

The Piers Plowman critical tradition has devoted much attention to determining just what Langland means by “Reason.” Without devaluing that work, I’m just going to mark that for my present purposes, the key point in Langland, as with Augustine, is that Reason is top dog in the hierarchy of psychological qualities: a host of qualities crowd into the king’s court in Piers B and C Passus 4, but Reason’s ultimately left in charge. In the C Text, Passus 5, the Dreamer meets both Conscience and Reason, but Conscience drops out: it’s only Reason that rebukes him. Whatever the specific functions of Reason might be, we can simply mark its preeminence in these passus, while also recalling how it functions as a kind of placeholder or even a kind of encampment for human difference from nonhuman life. As in Augustine, Reason is a kind of principle of superiority.

First placeholder conclusion, then: in encountering Reason, if we assume that the dreamer is meeting a figure from what can call the spiritual tradition of Reason, then the dreamer is coming into contact with the essential element of his own humanity and the sine qua non of human worldly preëminence.

But I’m also going to quickly mark a medieval tradition of personified Reason, from Augustine and Isidore through the early fifteenth century, because however familiar Langland must have been with the psychological and spiritual tradition of Reason, he — or his readers at least — must also have had some familiarity with what we can loosely call the literary or personification tradition of Reason. In that tradition, in all its varieties, we can get a sense of what Reason is not according to its abstract functions, but according to what it tells us to do.

I’ve been surprised to discover that in this tradition Reason isn’t a figure of free will, or skepticism, or meta-analysis, or independence from tradition, nor even, or at least not very often, logical induction. As the inheritors or victims of the so-called “Age of Reason,” all our expectations of what Reason is are bound to be disappointed. Nor in this tradition is Reason clearly marked off from, say, Synderesis, that “spark of conscience” or “practical reason” or the habit of right action, whatever this important term in scholastic philosophy meant for determining just what Reason’s particular bailiwick might be among a set of equivalently powerful mental faculties. Instead, in the literary and personification tradition, Reason tends to be alone and in charge–just as Langland’s Reason also ends up singular and in charge–and tends to be a figure that essentially advises making peace with the prevailing circumstances: here Reason’s not a figure or function of resistance, nor of new thought, but rather of deliberate accommodation, where any analysis it offers always draws its interlocutor to a foreordained conclusion of just getting along with things as they are. In short, Reason just wants us to be reasonable.

The Reason of Augustine’s Soliloquies is probably the closest we get to familiar ground among these personified figures of Reason. This early dialogue sees Augustine talking to Reason to try to find a way to know God. He offers fascinating material on the truth and falsity of art — an actor’s truth, Reason and Augustine observe, lies precisely in his able feigning — and an insistence that nonhuman animals, fleas and bugs, have only animal life, but no life — that is, no rational life — worthy of being loved. Ultimately, what Augustine wants is as certain a knowledge of God as he has of abstract geometric truths, that is, a knowledge independent of the senses, and thus sure, steady, and unchanging, like God. Augustine turns to Reason because Reason’s capacity for abstraction can free Augustine from sensory limitations.

By contrast, the twelfth-century Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lille has its personified Reason know the the origins of material things, pure Form, independent of matter, and especially the constant motion of Form’s mingling with matter, which is always necessarily a degenerate imitation of Form’s supermaterial ideal. But Alan’s Reason has its limitations: its chariot falters as it tries to rise to knowledge of the divine, and only Theology — that’s with a capital T — can take things further.

That’s one tradition of personified Reason, then, which has to do with knowledge. There’s another that has to do with Consolation. Isidore of Seville’s Synonyms is the key early text in this tradition; Middle English scholars perhaps know this work from Hoccleve’s fifteenth-century paraphrase of it in the first of his Series, when he turns to it to make sense of his period of mental illness: drawing on the shorter version of Isidore’s text, Hoccleve doesn’t focus on the section where Isidore has Reason spell out an appropriate way of life for virtuous men according to their professions, but rather on the section where Reason helps the unconsoled penitent understand more generally that his sorrow is a divine gift of punishment, so the more he sorrows, the closer he comes to God.

One last one, for now: Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose continuation has its personified Reason advise the Lover to leave off his erotic goals and, by extension, all his attachment to all the temporary gifts of Fortune. Here Reason has much in common with Boethius’s Lady Philosophy, that giant of consolation literature, especially when Reason insists that a life of perfect rational virtue can be found in Socrates, “whose expression, whatever befell him, always stayed the same, and was found unchanged even by those who killed him with hemlock.” Reason here is not analytical; it is not mobile; it does not move the spirit upwards towards God, as it does in Alan of Lille, nor does it use knowledge of unchanging, abstract things as a helpful analog for knowledge of the divine: instead, it demands imperturbability, an absolute indifference, total fixity,  a steady face whose living expression is, one imagines, indistinguishable from the face in death. The Consolation offered by Stoic Reason is that of simply not caring what happens, or, to put this another way, of making peace with things as they are.

Which brings me, inevitably, to Max Horkheimer, especially his Eclipse of Reason, lectures he delivered at Columbia University in 1944, as he anticipated both the Nazi defeat and the dangers industrial rationality would continue to pose to free thought and free action in postwar democracies. Without getting into the dialectical history of Reason Horkheimer offers — the death of objective reason, the rise of subjective reason, and the negation of reason itself by the latter — I’m interested in his critique of how “in the view of formalized reason, an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose, e.g. health or relaxation, which helps to replenish his working power.” Reasonable action, reasonable thought, is made to have purpose; that purpose is neither thought nor critique, but rather just the preservation and renewal of the subject for socially useful practice. “Pragmatism” is a word Horkheimer can scarcely say without spitting.

Personified reason, then, sometimes thinks—Augustine, Isidore to a degree, and Alan of Lille—and often not: Jean de Meun, and the sclerotic forms of instrumental reason Horkheimer identified. The consolation Hoccleve temporarily finds in Reason is one of learning to endure his suffering by convincing himself that God has sent it, that, in other words, of convincing himself that someone else must be doing the thinking. And, to that particular angle of the personified Reason tradition, I can add, finally, Piers, and the two lines I started with: can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?

Everyone here surely knows Anne Middleton’s analysis of C-5 in the context of the September 1388 Cambridge Parliament’s legislation on beggars and vagabonds. That Reason wants the Dreamer, primarily, to take up some kind of agricultural labor is, no doubt, due to the 1388 statute’s effort to regulate precisely that: it wasn’t concerned with guildspeople. But, as Middleton also observed, the 1388 Statute also tended to make all other occupations seem to be built on the base of agrarianism, so that, I would add, it tends to make all labor servile: people needed to know their place, to be put in it, and to remain in it, which is precisely what the Dreamer apologia ends up agitating for.

Second, and final placeholder conclusion: in C-5, as in a major strain of the personified reason tradition, Reason is not a principle of thinking, but of social quiescence. To behave “reasonably” is to be made productive for the existing order. And in his encounter with Reason, that fundamental quality of being human, the Dreamer loses the flexibility–what we might call the capacity for vagabond thought–that we think of as essential to human freedom. And if the prevailing social order is understood as fundamentally agricultural, then living reasonably means being made to live productively, which means being made to feed the system in a quite particular way. And that particularity is where I hear, without much straining, the echo of “kyne” in “kynes craft,” of cattle in work. For what Reason demands of the Dreamer, and thus in a larger sense of everyone it addresses, is a brute rationality, of making oneself useful. Like a cow is made to be useful. This is a Reason that, as always, animalizes most people; it’s just that in this case, to the degree that we let ourselves be hailed by its demand for rational activity, that is, by its demand for productive labor, we are agreeing to precisely that bovine animalization.

Thank you.