I decided to give up on gumming my dissertation to death for a moment to offer our readers this, an inchoate version of my upcoming Kalamazoo paper, but with discussion questions and a bit of blegging.
The Golden Legend is one of many medieval works that lavish attention on the enormities of Titus’s siege of Jerusalem. In it, a rich woman despairs after robbers empty her house; she “strangled her son, had him cooked, ate the half of his body, and hid the other half. But when robbers smelled the odor of the cooked meat, they burst in and threatened the woman with death if she did not give up her store of meat.” She shows them the half-eaten body, and the robbers shrink in horror: both at the infanticide and at their realization that their appetite had betrayed them by making no distinction whatsoever between animal and human flesh.
Human flesh smells like—because it is—meat. More than that: in a number of medieval texts, it’s the best of meats, the healthiest and most delicious. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Brian, unable to find venison for his ailing uncle Cadwallo, feeds him a roasted piece of his own thigh; Cadwallo, enjoying the flesh very much, regains his health and goes on to reign as the last of the British kings. In a now-infamous Middle English romance, Richard Coer de Lyon, Richard’s men trick an ailing Richard, who yearns for pork, into eating the heavily spiced body of a “ჳonge and ffat” Saracen. While “hys ffolk hem tournyd away and lowჳ,” Richard enthusiastically consumes his meal and regains his health. Edward of York’s hunting manual observes that a wolf, having once tasted human flesh, will prefer this to all others because “mannys flesh is so savery and so plesaunt.” No doubt: in a crusade narrative by Richard the Pilgrim (will need to check my sources on this), the Tafurs delight in feasting on the corpses of Turks because human flesh “molt est cis savourés, / mius vaut que cars de porc ne que bacons ullés’” (is very flavorful. It is better than any pork flesh or bacon), and in one of Poggio Bracciolini’s tales, a teenaged serial killer, when caught, “fassus est se plures alios comedisse, idque se agere, quoniam sapidiores reliquis carnibus viderentur” (confessed that he had eaten many other [children], and that he had done this because they seemed tastier to him than any other flesh).
It’s usual to read anthropophagy as a political metaphor. While Geraldine Heng is probably best known for this, the approach has a long pedigree: for example, see a thirteenth-century estates satire, “De diversus ordinibus hominibus” (in Thomas Wright, The Latin Poems Commonly Attributed to Walter Mapes. Camden Society, 1841), where “Comites et milites quos gentes honorant, / pauperum substantiam subito devorant” (the counts and knights whom men honor devour the substance of the poor in no time at all) and for many further examples, see Nicola McDonald, “Eating People and the alimentary logic of Richard Coeur de Lion,” in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England, 126, and 221-31 in Philippe Buc, “Manducation et domination: Analyse du Métaphore” in his Ambiguité du livre, where he argues that “le cannibalisme des ‘princes et tyrans’ est une perversion du sacrifice eucharistique” (nb: I rather think it’s the other way around, with the Eucharist as a secondary formation on the fundamental horror of anthropophagy).
I’m going to argue that the imagined enjoyment of human flesh in general, as a communifying process centered around not an ethnic, religious, or colonial identity but around human identity itself. Rather than understanding anthropophagy in relation to activities between humans or between humans and their divinities, I want to understand it through meat-eating and flesh in general, which means understanding it in terms of the human relation to animals and to their own appetite. In brief, I want to get past anthropophagy as metaphor, inasmuch such a thing is possible.
Here’s what I intend to do: the purported deliciousness of human flesh likely derives from a desire to reinstate the superiority of humans to animals despite their shared meatiness. Since humans are superior to animals, their flesh must be superior too. But a separation along these lines can only be a failure, because if it succeeds in preserving human specialness, it does nothing to prevent anthropophagy: it in fact encourages it. It’s not been so easy to nail this project down, and not only because I’m easily distracted. Hunts for interesting exegesis on a verse in one of Paul expositions of resurrection doctrine, 1 Corinthians 15:39, “All flesh is not the same flesh: but one is the flesh of men, another of beasts, another of birds, another of fishes,” have so far returned very little for thinking about edibility and savor (granted, I’ve looked only in the PL, and not yet deeply). The exegetes seem to have failed me here, but Aquinas, may he be praised, has come to my rescue in his explanation for why Lent forbids humans the flesh of quadrupeds:
For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.
If the consumption of animal red meat incites lust because of the flesh’s resemblance to human flesh, anthropophagy must be a very great pleasure indeed.
Following Žižek, I suppose, I want to track this certainty of the pleasure of human flesh as a “belief in belief,” as a way to imagine oneself—at least the fleshy self—as special by imagining one’s flesh as desired by others. I think of the story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, a hagiographic horror story in which Nicholas asks a butcher for “better” flesh: the better flesh is the flesh of three murdered clerks, transformed by the butcher into pork pies. Nicholas’s desire for better flesh is what rescues the clerks from mere porcine animality, but, in the process, the story gives up a secret of human flesh and human identity.
In other words, human flesh in its edibility also belongs to the regime of control and pleasure to which the ‘flesh’ belongs in medieval ascetic systems, but with various differences having to do with violence and self-violence and human/animal relations that I’ve not quite got a handle on yet.
I’m surprised that no one’s yet mentioned the violence I’m doing to these texts, my willful damage to the particular contexts of things….
Curious about the use of the Wilhelm Stekel, which I read yesterday (alongside the Blumstein, Stephen, and the Price book on medieval Cannibalism). Many, many case studies, but the argument, what little there is of it, seems to boil down to cannibalism as an atavistic urge that occasionally bursts to the surface. For Stekel, the rest of the world is the past of the West.
The case study of the Lesbian 1/2-native american, 1/2-white vampire is one that he treats in two ways, one much more useful than the other. The useful way first:
“She had…to suffer all her life under the absurd hatred and scorn with which the white people in the colonies (and at home) look upon half-castes. Her whole pride revolted against this separation of men into two groups, one of which was placed on a level with the beasts. Vengeance upon the white race–that was her secret guiding motive. To drink the blood of the hated whites, was her secret craving. At the same time she would have been happy to have been white” (314).
But he also writes that “one can understand her sadism if one remembers that the wild blood of savages runs in her veins” (314) and that “Instead of adapting herself to the civilization of the white race, she fled in defiance to the savagery of her mother’s ancestors” (314).
I should say, not at all incidentally, that Stekel has already, almost interminably, presented the “civilization of the white race” as suffused with cannibalism, necrophilia, and vampirism. She is of a piece with the others.
– See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/04/delicious-kzoo-preview.html#sthash.mQtcJrK8.dpuf