Review: Our Dogs, Our Selves

Gelfand, Laura D., ed. Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society. Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 6. Leiden: Brill 2016. Pp. xxxv, 446. €170,00 ISBN: 978-9-00426-916-3.

Reviewed by Karl Steel
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

[for The Medieval Review]

This fifteen-chapter anthology, originating in several sessions at Kalamazoo’s International Medieval Conference, is self-consciously a labor of love, its author biographies often furnished with photos, not of the writers, but of their dogs. Focused chiefly on the social and especially the art history of medieval and early modern Europe, each of its chapters, if read one after another, tend to be repetitive, as nearly all include a summary of the common features of medieval dog writing: we learn often about standard exegesis of the Bible’s dogs (predictably in bono and, especially on the matter of returning to their vomit, in malo), that dogs were praised especially for their loyalty, that large dogs tend to be coded masculine, small dogs as feminine, and that the status of dogs followed that of their owners. It is, then, the particular content of each chapter, as particular as dogs themselves, that saves the volume from repetitiveness: since so few animals, human or otherwise, can boast such extraordinary variety in size, purpose, and comportment, and since so few can belong so comfortably in so many environments, the possibilities for considering “dogs and x” in medieval cultures may well be inexhaustible. Every reader interested in dogs will therefore feel the absence of their favorites. I wanted considerations of Theodorich of St Trond’s eleventh-century poem for his Pitulus, a little dog praised for having no purpose but to play, or the equally charming dog of the Book of Tobit, the loyal companion of the Middle English Sir Tryamour, the whelp of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, or the tragedy of Guinefort, or, for that matter, the few headstones to pet dogs from the classical world, like the second-century grave stele for Helena at the Getty Museum (Object 71.AA.271) or a Greek example at the archaeological museum of Istanbul (Inv. 411 T), dedicated to Parthenope.[1] But the very fact that I missed all this, yet found so much that I otherwise would not have known to miss, is evidence enough of how much more work we can still do in dog studies.

The volume is sorted into five sections: Literal and Literary Dogs (ranging from Greek encomia, to the urban dogs of England and France, to those of Sufi literature); Signs, Symbols, and Dogs (the Bayeux Embroidery and Barocci’s counter-Reformation painting); Love and Dogs (further art history, with a lapdog in the Morgan Old Testament, Giotto’s dogs in the Scrovegni Chapel, and a set of hunting dogs in a late-medieval marriage allegory); Death and Dogs (three chapters on dogs in funerary monuments); and finally Good Dogs and Bad Dogs (ranging from a survey of nearly two thousand years of Japanese dog culture, to dogs as aristocratic accessories in late medieval Europe, to Walter S. Gibson’s study of the infernal dogs of late medieval Dutch writing and art).

For this reviewer, John Block Friedman’s contribution stands out. Far more wide ranging than its title suggests (“Dogs in the Identity Formation and Moral Teaching Offered in Some Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Miniatures”), its payoff here is less its several conclusions (for example, that the dog was “thought to be far more feudal than cats” and that the collared dog shows “rational control over the instinctual side of nature”) than the fact that it covers much of the same ground as several other chapters in this volume, but so much more thoroughly. As one would expect from Friedman, its footnotes are a treasure.

Alexa Sand provides a satisfying entry on the Morgan or Crusader Bible (Morgan Library, MS M.638), that, like Friedman’s chapter, could happily find its way onto a syllabus. Although this manuscript is typically read for its relationship to chivalric narrative and crusader concerns, Sand finds new opportunities by attending to the presence and absence of a little dog in the arms of Michal, daughter of King Saul and David’s first wife, a victim of dynastic politics. When they first meet, Michal carries a little dog; in her few subsequent appearances, after she has been forcibly reunited with David, the dog is absent. Sand quite rightly takes the dog in the first image as a sign of her courtliness, as, by the thirteenth century, small dogs were among the essential accouterments of noblewomen. However, by reading Michal’s gesture alongside similar gestures of the Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Sand extends the reading to account both for Michal’s childless and ultimately unhappy marriage to King David, and also, more tentatively, for a common plight of noblewomen during crusades, often bereft of their husbands for years on end. In this rich article, then, the dog functions as much a sign of courtier comforts as it does of neglect and sadness.

I was also impressed by the two chapters that mined urban records of dogs for Northern Europe, Emily Cockayne’s on medieval and early modern England, and Kathleen Ashley’s, much more specifically, on the Burgundian town of Beaune. The chapter on England discovered, for example, that whatever the legislative anxiety over the problems of stray dogs, particularly during time of plague, actual human deaths from dogs were quite rare. From police dogs to butchers’ dogs to nuisance dogs of all sorts, Cockayne’s wonderfully recreates the dog-rich environs of English cities. Ashley, by contrast, encounters a surprising paucity of dog records, especially in wills and urban documents, hinting at the need for more comparative work on the varying dog cultures of England and France.

Craig A. Gibson, Nathan Hofer, and Karen M. Gerhart all effectively presented material unfamiliar to a medievalist focused on Western Europe. Gibson summarizes several dog encomia from the ancient Greeks through to medieval Greek and late medieval Latin humanist writings, describing the standard features of an unfamiliar genre: hunting praise is common, but not universal, for example, and some paeans to dogs single out their barking as uniquely meaningful among animal noises. In the 1420s, Leon Battista Alberti even transforms his subject into an exemplar of the humanist itself, famous for its knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Etruscan. Hofer complicates the mistaken notion that Islam is hostile to dogs. After considering several positive references to dogs in the Qur’ān and its commentaries, and after pointing out that while dogs are ritually impure, so too is sleep, Hofer concentrates on Egyptian Sufi storytelling, in which the very degraded position of dogs allows mystics to engage with them as holy fools. Gerhart’s ambitious chapter covers the whole cultural history of dogs in premodern Japan, concentrating on their behavior in the handscrolls of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries: some are comfortable domestic animals; some creatures of the margins, like beggars and hinin (literally “nonhumans,” people who did impure jobs), living off or near the diseased, the dying, and corpses; and some are border figures, associated with figures of the spirit world (European medievalists might be reminded here of the dog of the Irish blacksmith Culann).

In general, I was less convinced by several of the art history chapters, particularly those that sought primarily to discover the “intention” of artists, since I am skeptical about any one-to-one-to-one mapping of artistic intention to symbolic meaning to reception history. Judith W. Mann demonstrates that the animals in Federico Barucci’s counter-Reformation paintings were not painted from life, but then argues that because Barucci was not a “true naturalist,” we might then be allowed to read its dogs symbolically to discover his “intentions,” which, in effect, requires assembling iconographic and doctrinal evidence, alongside currents in doctrinal debates during the counter-Reformation, to fix his canine images as symbols, for example, of unworthy participation in the Eucharist. I am convinced by Jane C. Long’s argument that the dogs of Giotto’s picture cycle of Joachim and Anna recall dramatic conventions, but not by her tendency to read the expressions of dogs and humans both rather straightforwardly as expressing some familiar emotion (“joyful greeting” for example); similarly, at once point, Donna L. Sadler proposes that the “unmistakable smile” of a pair of dogs on a tomb of St Denis “betray[s] [an] unassailable belief in the afterlife” (I liked her suggestion, however, that early modern pleurants may perform the same function as, and be understood as replacing, the dogs of medieval funerary art). Jane Carroll exhaustively treats a late medieval tapestry from Alsace, Die Jagd nach der Treue [The Hunt for Fidelity], in which a husband and wife ride together on a horse, amid a pack of hounds: to solve the problem of how to illustrate the ongoing devotion of married love rather than the successful consummation of courtship, this tapestry features a deer in flight, but not yet captured, by hunters that want only to chase it, so “encod[ing] a fitting summation of traditional marriage” as a balance of “dualities.” Janet Snyder identifies the dogs on Spanish tomb sculpture with contemporary Iberian breeds (the Galgo, Phalène, Alano, Burgos Pointer, Spanish Mastiff, and so on), and then describes the breed-specific traits of these represented dogs to unpack the sculptures’ symbolism: thus the Spanish rat terrier, bred to work in dark wine cellars, is a suitable dog for the tomb of Isabella of Portugal, “who was kept out of the public eye for the last four decades of her life.” I found this approach ingenious but unconvincing, its conclusions too neatly determined by its argumentative approach. I am much more convinced by Sophie Oosterwijk’s study of dogs on tomb monuments: towards the end of her chapter, she suggests that the dead had originally been shown trampling on animal representations of vices and infernal forces, like lions, serpents, and dragons, and that companion animals gradually crowded in on and nudged aside this meaningful symbolic code.

Oosterwijk, however, does not propose why personal dogs might have crowded into a space previously reserved for such a clearly coded piety. This reluctance to speculate a little is indicative of the volume’s larger tendency not to complicate the motives of medieval people or modern scholars, and, more generally, of its disinterest in telling a more ambitious story. For, as a whole, the volume does not aim to shift the way that we think about dogs, the function of animals in medieval or even art history, or, for that matter, what might happen to how we think about ourselves once we think about our companion animals historically. The overall argumentative aimlessness of the volume may stem its near-total disengagement from contemporary critical cultural studies in animals. Such work is mostly concentrated in Elizabeth Carson Paston’s chapter on the Bayeux Embroidery. We would search in vain elsewhere for references, for example, to Donna Haraway’s essential work on play with and the labor of dogs, to her complicated political histories of dogs in American colonialism, environmental activism, and gender (consideration of this work, for example, would counter Pastan’s claims about the Bayeux Embroidery representing King Harold’s preconquest “harmony with nature”). For that matter, Erica Fudge is also missing, despite her decades of scholarship in modeling how to do philosophically savvy studies of early modern animal/human cultures. A fortiori, less obvious but still essential names are missing: Carla Freccero and Colin Dayan on race, dogs, and violence, for example, or Kathy Rudy on the queerness of dog love (which might have offered an interesting counterweight to the marriage tapestry studied by Carroll).

My point in mentioning these scholars is not to ask that footnotes be swollen so that frequently cited scholars garner still more citations. Rather, it is because without critical animal study, and indeed other without critical fields (like affect studies, for example, or even psychoanalysis), the emotional core to many of these works, which are self-avowedly in love with their subjects, is left unanalyzed. This means that one of key thread for the anthology — the dog as alter ego — is often described but its mechanics never considered. Dogs represent loyalty, to the family, to the church, to the honor of the house. We learn of all this, but without much consideration about what it means for humans to identify with animals, or to perform their own preferred identities through this intimate, living property. We encounter the word “pampered” often to describe certain dogs, but no reflection on what this word might indicate: envy, perhaps, or disgust (I was reminded of James Herriot’s unpleasant musings about Tricki-Woo, the overfed, epistolary Pekingese of All Creatures Great and Small). On this point in particular, then, more critical attention would have been especially welcome, even apart from the work of critical animal studies. As alter egos, dogs can be our ideal selves, in their hunting prowess and loyalty, what we would like to be; or they could be our “natural” selves, devoid of custom and manners, the brute self we must overcome to become truly human; or in their “pure grief and devotion,” as Pastan characterizes some of the dogs on the Bayeux Embroidery, they represent “our best selves,” one that no human could ever hope to achieve. In packs, we might say that dogs invite us to “to go with the flow,” at least as they figure in Deleuze and Guattari’s outraged response to Freud’s misreading of his “Wolf Man” patient, an anti-identitarian consideration of dogs so well treated, in a medieval context, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s reading of both cynocephali and the Middle English Sir Gowther.[2] Gelfand’s capacious anthology has so much material that we might use for further reconsideration of dogs and the self, to burrow further still into how dogs have domesticated us, how we might dream of getting undomesticated through them, and what we might owe the strays.


[1] Gutram Koch “Zum Grabrelief der Helena,” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 12 (1984): 59-72
[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 120-41.

Initial Thoughts on Graham Harman on Lovecraft


I’m told I’m 31% finished with Graham Harman’s Weird Realism. As a dabbler in speculative realism, and, especially, as an old-time Lovecraft fan forced by critical winds to revive his interest, I’m obligated to read it. But, as with any writing about Lovecraft, I suspect special pleading, and I cringe at the whiff of adolescent habits gone sour with the keeping.

And then there’s this, “No other figure in world literature is able to make such outbursts work so effectively,” a sentence that can be understood only as meaning I’m very deep into a shared culture. And, you know, guys read Lovecraft, and especially guys of a certain type. So there’s that. See also Americans certain that their TV is the “best TV ever.” That their preferred sport culminates in something called “the world series.” That superhero comic books matter (or, heck, that medieval superhero ‘comic books’ matter too, if I want to turn this back on myself). This  point, then, isn’t about absolute quality, but about the intensity of our interests, or about how our interests eclipse other things, or, more grimly, about the parochial dangers of not getting out into the wilds where you don’t know enough to crown anything as the best thing ever.

That said, I’m getting a lot from his care in reading Heidegger and Husserl and Lovecraft together. What Harman knows how to do he does very well. Harman’s reading of Heidegger has always been perfectly clear, while Husserl is much, much harder to understand. So, thanks to Harman: I now get it when he points out that Heidegger gives us a model of space, and Husserl one of time. And I now have a better of sense of the sensual unity of, for example, the dog or the gibbering goat god, and the various qualities of the dog or ggg as it moves along through our perception.

And I love his exercise in literal writing to make things worse. It’s hilarious (and an important illustration of his point that reality is not made up of perfectly translatable, i.e., reducible propositions; but it’s also hilarious). For example, imagine someone summarizing Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” as “Ireland’s wet and squishy.”

Here’s Harman’s first big example, on Nietzsche’s comment about Shakespeare, “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon!”, Harman imagines a boring literalizer who goes on,

“What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! For although we might expect the contents of Shakespeare’s writing to be a direct reflection of his personality, modern psychology teaches the contrary lesson. For in fact, what people write if often the opposite of what they are feeling inside. In Shakespeare’s case, the clowning in his comedies may actually be an effort to counterbalance painful personal experience with an outward show of good cheer.”

Then he adds: “Along with the bore just described, we can add other personae capable of leading Nietzsche’s remark into ruin:

  • The Simpleton: “How happy Shakespeare must have been that he played the buffoon so often!” (Here the twist of paradox is destroyed in favor of a facile correspondence between an author’s life and work.)
  • The Judgmental Resenter: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! And I must say I find it a bit pathetic that Shakespeare is so needy and always clowns around to try to make us like him.” (Nietzsche’s cool distance and non-judgmental appreciation of human pathos is extinguished in a cesspool of private bitterness.)
  • The Waffler: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! At least I’m pretty sure about that. The other possibility is that he was actually happy. I could go either way on this one.” (Here we lose Nietzsche’s gallant decisiveness.)
  • The Self-Absorbed: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! But I’m not like that at all. Personally, I take a balanced approach to life and don’t feel the need to overcompensate.” (Nietzsche’s vigorous interest in the outer world gives way to petty Main Street narcissism.)
  • The Down-Home Cornball: “Whenever he has those comical scenes, I ain’t fooled. I know Ole Billy’s got something stickin’ in his craw!” (Here we completely lose the aristocratic elegance of Nietzsche’s style).
  • The Clutterer: “What people like Shakespeare, Molière, Aristophanes, Plautus, Menander, Juvenal, Rabelais, and Brecht must have suffered to have such need of being buffoons!” (No longer is Shakespeare addressed as one solitary figure by another. Instead, we have a confusing general proposition about a long list of comic authors.)
  • The Pedant: “Shakespeare’s plays exhibit instantiations of a ludic affect that, as it were, bespeak an inversion of his ‘true’ state of mind. Much work has been done in this area, but a full consideration lies beyond the scope of this essay. See Johnson 1994, Miner and Shaltgroverr et al., 1997.” (This character combines aspects of the Waffler and the original Literalizing Bore.)

Touché. Guaranteed, this exercise will appear this semester’s English Composition class.

Finally, for today, because DEADLINES: in his discussion of “The Call of Cthulhu,” Harman laughs about Lovecraft’s comic touches: a Providence scholar seeking out a “mineralogist of note” in, of all places, Paterson, New Jersey; the absolutely ludicrous stereotype of the “excitable Spaniard”; and how no one could honestly find “African voodoo” frightening in itself.

Here’s a sad case where we need a historical reading. It’s not just that Harman arbitrarily swings between what Lovecraft might have been intending (“Paterson, New Jersey, a fairly arbitrary choice of location that must have made Lovecraft chuckle”) and our own response (“Most of us do not live in fear of African voodoo circles, or think of them in anything more than anthropological terms”) depending on what interpretation he’s promoting at any given moment. It’s that Weird Tales published “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1928. To my knowledge, Paterson was a thriving industrial town in the 1920s, and seeking out practical, scientific help there would be no more silly than looking for it in Detroit in the 1950s. It would have made more sense, in fact, given Paterson’s important connections to New Jersey’s then thriving mineral industry (see also Franklin, NJ). Harman just didn’t bother to track things down.

The excitable Spaniard is of course a symptom of Lovecraft’s pretentious Anglophilia (which he sends up most effectively in my favorite Lovecraft, always a feature in my lit theory courses to illustrate Bhabha, viz., “He.”)

As for the fear of “African voodoo”: well, this is a late witness, and all the more effective a counterargument for that. I remember a Sunday evening debate about the dangers of rock and roll in my parents’ church back in the … well, let’s just say that I had tickets for Love and Rocket’s “Earth, Sun, Moon” show in Seattle, and I didn’t want to have that wrecked. One old man, though, was sure rock and roll was of the devil because of the African drums. I quote. So.

And Harman writes of Lovecraft’s line about “New York policemen…mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22-23,” that “However blameworthy as a sample of Orientalism, Lovecraft’s reference to a mob of hysterical Levantines is genuinely frightening, presumably even for readers from present-day Lebanon and Syria.” Maybe. But I think “New York Levantines,” especially coming from Lovecraft, can only mean not “New York Syrians” or “Turks,” for example, but rather “New York Jews,” and while March 22-23 isn’t Purim in 1928, 27, or 26, it’s not far off, either. So, also: so.

There’s more to be said here about the dangers of a shared culture.

Surely no world philosophy is better suited to talk about this than object-oriented ontology.

Some Favorite bits from New Grub Street

“what I look to is intellectual distinction.’
‘Combined with financial success.’
‘Why, that is what distinction means.’ He looked round the room with a smile.

And then the following:

  • Compose yourself and be logical. In the first place, success has nothing whatever to do with moral deserts. [sends dead Dickens spinning]
  • He had the strange sensation of knowing that whatever was needful could be paid for; it relieved his mind immensely. To the rich, illness has none of the worst horrors only understood by the poor.
  • The man who laughs takes the side of a cruel omnipotence, if one can imagine such a thing
  • [says one character, in 1891!] “If Germany would shut up her schools and universities for the next quarter of a century and go ahead like blazes with military training there’d be a nation such as the world has never seen.”
  • When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market
  • Or again, the readers who sat here at these radiating lines of desks, what were they but hapless flies caught in a huge web, its nucleus the great circle of the Catalogue? Darker, darker. From the towering wall of volumes seemed to emanate visible motes, intensifying the obscurity; in a moment the book-lined circumference of the room would be but a featureless prison-limit.
  • And here comes in the benefit of the libraries; from the commercial point of view the libraries are indispensable. Do you suppose the public would support the present number of novelists if each book had to be purchased?

The Death of Grass, John Christopher

941731SPOILERS Greener than You Think far better, if you want an English-language novel of eco-collapse from this era, not only because of its anticapitalism and feminism, but because of its antihumanism: there, at least, grass has agency.

Here grass can just die, and we’re obligated to cathect onto some everyman human (a well-off white Englishman, an engineer and thus as clear a representative of modern culture as Christopher could imagine) and to play the standard make-believe of collapse novels by imagining what we will do to save our families when the end comes. That said, credit to Christopher for sending up the notion of British exceptionalism: they’re on their way to cannibalism, just like everyone else.

And…the women. Somehow Christopher’s worse than Wyndham. The women of Death of Grass are available only to be insulted by Tories, shot by jealous gun-nut husbands (the analogue to the old men of The Dog Stars), raped by ibid., or raped by others, and sometimes to dispense mercy to children and to intercede–like the BVM–with the father-gods to keep alit the flame of culture.

Cheers, though, to Christopher for an obvious fraud of an ending. It’s a lie, by design. Nothing will return to what it was. Custance will be a medieval tyrant, an obscene father, master of the women and children, keeping his Eden safe by murder and indifference.

And this isn’t the future. Calls in other reviews for a sequel, for a continuation, miss the point. We’re living in it right now, keeping ourselves alive through murder and indifference, clinging to our families, hoping that our wooden stockade keeps out the next virus that will come, inevitably, to destroy us all.

Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, Kelly Oliver

6714398A great and boggy disappointment. Do we need yet another book cataloging the failures of Lacan and Heidegger on animals? After Derrida, after Calarco, after Wolfe, probably not. It does help that Oliver gives us chapters on the failures of Freud and Kristeva, Rousseau and Herder, de Beauvoir and Agamben, and on the successes of Derrida and Merleau-Ponty, but the failures are all roughly the same (animals stand in for the body, or the presymbolic, or they’re symbolic substitutions of family relationships or drives, or human sociality forms around eating them and not other humans, or animals lack the ‘as such,’ with all that implies), and as for the successes, well, they’ve been cataloged too. It would have been more efficient, then, to present the book thematically rather than as successive brief chapter summaries of the animal attitudes of various philosophers.

And greater efficiency is needed. The book is unnecessarily long for what it delivers. Owing to its organization, Oliver repeats herself frequently, and then explains that time and space prevented her from dealing with Deleuze and Guattari on animals (let alone Montaigne, who surely deserves a place in here). She should have made room, though, as that would have cut down the padding in the Rousseau and Kristeva chapters, and eliminated the repetition of certain quotations (cf. 321 n9 to 319 n33). Had she trimmed, say, 20,000 words, she could have made room, as well, for Cary Wolfe’s “Logic of the Pet” (and indeed, while she cites Wolfe frequently, she never cites Animal Rites, whose points she often repeats; likewise, there are sadly few references to Donovan and Adams, and none at all to Ralph Acampora, despite the phenomenological turn she takes towards the end). She could have made space to acknowledge (and Wolfe would have helped here too) the tensions between Ecocriticism and Critical Animal Theory: the former deals with whole systems, and the latter, regardless of its sophistication, with individuals. Critical Animal Theory, as interested as it is in particular cats and dogs, too often forgets this.

This isn’t to say that Oliver has nothing to say for Critical Animal Theory: it’s good to have another strong feminist voice, good to have more exposition on Derrida’s hyperbolic ethics, and good to see Merleau-Ponty get his due, for example:

Unlike Heidegger, he does not distinguish between merely living and existing; rather, living beings exhibit different styles of existing. If meaning, style, expression, and logos are already exhibited in behavior, then animals also are intentional beings oriented to their environments and others….Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that for Merleau-Ponty, instincts are aimed toward pleasure, whereas for Heidegger, they are aimed toward self-preservation. (213)

Zing! Take that, Heidegger, and go cherish your being seriously elsewhere while we sit here and play with our reversible flesh.

The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen

Not really decadent enough for my tastes, though the ontological horror at the end is almost enough of a pay off.

I can imagine folks complaining about Machen’s inability to vary his tone. All his characters sound the same (so no wonder virtually everyone’s of the same class of Drones). For example, here are two characters talking:

“I was wide awake enough. Even if I had been dreaming as you say, what I saw would have roused me effectually.”

“What you saw? What did you see? Was there anything strange about Crashaw? But I can’t believe it; it is impossible.”

We might say that Machen’s displayed the smooth workings of this world of humans, beyond which lies the horror of Pan’s world, where we have, for example, “the hideous form upon the bed, changing and melting before your eyes from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast.” In other words, the very blandness and sameness of the dialog, the indistinguishability of the characters, perfectly represents the world’s unvarying and proper order. Change itself, then, is Machen’s great horror.

The Ox That Gored, Jacob J. Finkelstein

Fascinating, impassioned, and deeply learned. Finkelstein counters the notion that imputing judicial responsibility to nonhumans and inanimate objects represents pre-Christian primitivism by demonstrating that not only are deodanda and animal trials particular to the Christian Middle Ages (and afterwards, as deodanda laws were repealed in the first half of the 19th century), but also that no so-called primitive society had any such laws. Not the ancient Greeks, none of the Mesopotamian civilizations (barring the ancient Hebrews), and no one else, anywhere. Esther Cohen would later take him to task for not having a sufficiently expansive knowledge of what might constitute a trial, but Finkelstein’s work nonetheless has enormous importance, even if only to demonstrate the shakiness of Evans’ scholarship. He also, usefully, distinguishes between ecclesiastical exorcisms of vermin and secular animal trials, which were…totally different animals.

NB: Finkelstein also, importantly, demonstrates that medieval England had NO animal trials. While this may not quite be true, at least not in a narrative sense, the point still stands that England had a deodanda law, and no one on the continent did. Why? Because only England had a powerful, centralized state that could benefit from deodanda.

Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066-1550, Christopher Daniell

good on the logic of burial locations. not my cup of tea, though a great source for surprising medieval death facts (Richard Boyle, the suicide saint; St Bees man; burial under the eaves of church so as to be continually cleansed by the church’s blessed rain run off; Romuald, the saint who nearly became the Swamp Thing; the existence of several relatively well-preserved medieval human brains; members of Christian hierarchy buried with elaborate grave goods, particularly shoes, or monastic cowls, giving lie to notion that ‘grave goods’ were a pagan practice exclusively [and note that Vikings seem to have thrown the swords of their dead into rivers]. key argument is that changing burial practices in England due to spread of importance of purgatory. Location and treatment of corpse mattered a great deal, in order to attract prayers to speeds souls on to heaven. Smaller arguments include notion that in narrative, only non-Christians drown or die by falling.

Calls Christine de Pisan [sic] an “authoress.”
and despite something like 95% mortality from disease in the New World, calls “The Black Death…possibly the worst catastrophe that the human population has ever suffered.” Not even close.

Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, William Hope Hodgson

Read this because Eugene Thacker uses some of it to good effect in In the Dust of This Planet.

Odd to come at this after reading Lovecraft (or, for that matter, Ligotti). Unlike Lovecraft’s heroes, Carnacki seems to have no special affinity for the otherworldly. He’s a scientist, not a man of culture, and doesn’t feel himself to be an outsider. There’s nothing gothic or romantic about him, nor about the Hodgson’s prose, which tends towards the slangy (“funk” for fear, most notably), as if he’s, well, an Edwardian bro. He and his fellows seem to eat a lot of sandwiches, sometimes for breakfast, and their drink of choice is whiskey (try to imagine any of Lovecraft’s characters having whiskey and sandwiches!). The prose gets weird only when Carnacki tries to describe the ab-human or ab-normal. Strangely enough, the usual breeziness works. We might characterize the difference from Lovecraft this way: in the Carnacki stories, being normal is no protection from the otherworldly. Even dull people might get it. The weirdness might be anywhere.

Except….the Carnacki stories suffer from the usual humanism of ghost stories. Here’s where Lovecraft’s totally inhuman monsters are an enormous improvement. If every ghost is the ghost of–or directed at–a human, moreover, if every ghost lurks in some fancy house or with some fancy family, then the stories’ weirdness just doesn’t go far enough. We’re in a world in which certain deaths matter and most don’t: not the deaths of nonhumans, and not even most human deaths. There’s nothing here to shake humans out of their complacency, as they’re reminded with every ghost that the same species and class divisions of their Edwardian world also order the otherworld. I’m reminded of a friend who believes she has a ghost in her apartment, and I wanted to know if it could be, say, a chicken ghost, or a trilobite: why should we, who are, I hope, not humanists, always require the ghost to be human?

Some favorite bits below, some admirable, some just…silly.

“Another hour passed, after this, in an absolute quietness. I had a sense of awful strain and oppression, as though I were a little spirit in the company of some invisible, brooding monster of the unseen world, who, as yet, was scarcely conscious of us.”

“As the door flew open, the sound beat out at us, with an effect impossible to explain to one who has not heard it–with a certain, horrible personal note in it; as if in there in the darkness you could picture the room rocking and creaking in a mad, vile glee to its own filthy piping and whistling and hooning.”

“In addition to wearing the necklet, I had plugged my ears loosely with garlic.”

“There came a sense as of dust falling continually and monotonously, and I knew that my life hung uncertain and suspended for a flash, in a brief reeling vertigo of unseeable things.”

“it was a true instance of Saitii manifestation, which I can best explain by likening it to a living spiritual fungus.”

“And, indeed, as you are all aware, I am as big a skeptic concerning the truth of ghost tales as any man you are likely to meet; only I am what I might term an unprejudiced skeptic. I am not given to either believing or disbelieving things ‘on principle’, as I have found many idiots prone to be, and what is more, some of them not ashamed to boast of the insane fact.”

“I buckled on the plate armor and found it extraordinarily uncomfortable, and over all I drew on the chain mail. I know nothing about armor [Note: You don’t say?], but from what I have learned since, I must have put on parts of two suits. Anyway, I felt beastly, clamped and clumsy and unable to move my arms and legs naturally.”

“By ten o’clock, I had everything arranged, with the two pitchforks and the two police lanterns; also some whisky and sandwiches. Underneath the table I had several buckets of disinfectant.”