Mary’s Imperial Mercy, or, What an Empress Needs

Last post for my Intro to Medieval Studies class, and several days late at that. For a record of part of the seminar’s conversation, see Miranda Hadjuk’s post here.

According to the Gracial of Adgar, there once lived a certain secular man, a farmer, who devoted himself to worldly pursuits. As this French work, dating to around 1165, compiles miracles of the Virgin Mary, we can guess at what might happen next. The Farmer’s a wicked man: he routinely plows onto his neighbors’ lands, sends his reapers into their wheat, and pastures his livestock in their fields. But whenever he’s on his way to do his wickedness, he habitually says a little prayer to the Virgin Mary. When he dies, demons come rushing for his soul, confident that so dedicated a sinner belongs to them. The angels concur, until one angel recalls the farmer’s devotion to the Virgin. And with that, the unclean spirits flee. (I cite from a Latin translation; Adgar himself claims to be translating from a Latin original, by a certain Master Alberic; for another Latin account, nearly identical, see Caesarius of Heisterbach)

And in another exempla collection, the friar Nicholas of Wexford tells of a certain wretched man [miser] who “sororem suam tenuit multis temporibus fornicarie” [a hard clause to translate, because it’s so very repulsive: literally, who had fornicated with his sister many times]. After a long time in this vileness [vilitate], he was struck by a heavy illness, and he lay for a day, or more, with his entire upper body cold, and lower too, with only a spark of heat still trembling in his heart. And then he’s led to hell, with demons wanting to throw him him; the Virgin shows up, liberates him, and restores him to life. Nicholas, the man’s confessor, asked how such a thing could be possible, given the horrendous sin? For no other reason, he says, but that my sister was a sometimes brewer; whenever she’d brew, we’d habitually reserve a “bolla,” that is, two gallons, out of love of the Virgin, and that alone was enough to save me from hell.

Marian stories of this sort are first written in Jerusalem, Syria, and Egypt, in Greek, in the fourth century; Gregory of Tours compiles the first set of stories in Latin in the sixth century; and they began to be compiled in great numbers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, like the ones above. Those compiled by Bartholomew of Trent (d. 1251) would make their way back to Egypt, where they would be, in part, translated and adapted into Arabic. And then, around 1400, they would be translated into Ge’ez, a a Semitic language that remains the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christianity; there hundreds of additional stories would be added to the collection.

Christianity became the official religion of the royal court of Ethiopia in the fourth century, perhaps in 333, under King Ezana; bishops were provided from Alexandria in Egypt. By the sixth century, the scriptures would be translated from Greek into Ge’ez, . I’ve read — in my inexpert and probably haphazard way — that we have only minimal historical records of Ethiopian Christianity between the first period of Muslim contact until the twelfth century, when Christian Zagwe rulers arose (and created the astonishing Lalibela), and then, in 1270, the Solomonids, so-called because of their claim to be descended from Menelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is in this period that we witness the proliferation of Ethiopian stories and holidays devoted to the Virgin Mary.

Many of these Marian stories date to the seventeenth century, that is, at a time when the Solomonic rulers were in desperate straights. One — the topic of Thursday’s class — concerns a certain nobleman of Qəmər, nominally Christian. He was an anthropophage [bälaˁe säbˀ, which literally means “man eater”]; he killed and ate 78 people, and, when his remaining — surviving, really — servants fled, he killed and ate his wife and children. With nothing but a leather water bag, his golden bow, and his appetite, he wanders. He finds a plowman too strong to kill, so he asks him to sell him his ox. The plowman refuses; the anthropophage offers him his bow; the plowman, perhaps nearly a vegetarian, refuses (“I prefer bread to anything else; I reject your offer”); the anthropophage raises the offer, with two arrows, and is similarly rejected. Finally and fully rebuffed, he asks for cave to shelter in, and on the way there, he finds a beggar covered with hideous lesions; the anthropophage is too disgusted to eat him. Please, calls the beggar, give me some water! In the name of the heavens and earth, in the name of the righteous and martyrs, in the name of — and here the anthropophage finally relents — the Virgin Mary. And the beggar gets a swallow of water, and then — in at least one version of the story (and here) — the anthropophage manhandles him so he stays thirsty; and then, in his cave, the anthropophage starves to death. And that one drink of water, offered in the Virgin’s name, is enough to save the anthropophage from hell.

Wendy Belcher, to whose discussion, and translation, I am indebted, reports on the early reception of this tale in 20th-century European medieval scholarship. Most found it exaggerated, absurd, or worse (one thought its cannibal material a reflection of its African context!). Belcher offers several readings of the tale: as about Mary’s intercessory powers; as a fable not about morality — as European Mary tales often were — but about mere survival; as a coded conflict between nobles and peasants, or between hunters and farmers, or between the wealthy and the poor (recall Swift’s “Modest Proposal”); and finally the intertextual: Belcher finds that the tale’s much closer to Islamic stories of terrible killers saved by God than it is to European Marian tales, which tend not to concern murderers (though see, for example, this one).

All that is convincing, of course: Belcher is an expert on early modern Ethiopia, and I couldn’t be any further from such a thing. But I’m going to suggest, briefly, that the Ethiopian adapters of this Marian material understood its core motive, which isn’t necessarily especially “African,” nor about anything more outrageous than Mary’s own sovereign mercy. Here’s what I (think I) know: from its thirteenth-century inception in Solomonic Ethiopia, Marian devotion is an Imperial cult: one fifteenth-century ruler was even named Bä’edä Maryam (He who is in the Hand of Mary); at any given moment when these works were being adapted and promulgated, the Solomonic rulers were in some manner of difficulty: in establishing their rule, in expanding it, in resisting Muslim and Pagan incursions (indeed, they sent emissaries to Venice, Genoa, Rome, and Aragon, variously looking for their own Prester John, even as the Europeans sought their own in Africa). Strong but embattled rulers need to exercise, chiefly, their authority, and they need strong supporters.

Enter the cannibal. Why doesn’t he repent? Why is murder no impediment for entrance into heaven? Why, but that the murderous nobleman — abounding in servants, baring a golden bow — is precisely the kind of supporter any Emperor requires. Pacifying a region, after all, typically doesn’t mean bringing it peace; it means bringing the murderers into your camp. As the pirate said to Alexander the Great, it’s only because you kill on a grand scale that you’re called an Emperor (Confessio Amantis, III.2380-97). The close Latin analogs to the tale don’t quite get this: a farmer who steals his neighbors’ property, and the man who commits fornication with his sister are each people who don’t respect boundaries. The same is the true for the anthropophage. All of them show insufficient deference to the border between self and other. But the sovereign mercy the first two men receive has little to do with how Mary’s majesty might play out in the political world. She’s not just thaumaturgical; she’s not just any old Saint; she is the Empress of Heaven. And as an Empress, what she wants is submission. And submission, alone, is sufficient to garner Imperial grace. And what’s still better is if that Imperial grace falls upon the most reprobate killer imaginable, reprobate in all ways save his Imperial devotion.

Think, finally, of this Marian miracle, from the Middle English Alphabet of Tales: a thieving, murderous knight captures a cleric of some sort. The “man of religion” asks the Knight to summon all his men together. He does, but one’s missing, the chamberlain. When the chamberlain is made to appear, he stares with mad eyes at the cleric, who compels him to reveal that he is, in reality, a fiend that had been encouraging the knight in his wicked ways, and he has waited for years on end to strangle the knight, but the knight, even amid his murdering, had always, every day, said an “Ave Maria.” That alone was enough to keep him safe. The knight falls on his knees before the cleric, asks for penance, and amends his life. And the tale ends like so:

And þis holie man commandid þis fend þat he sulde go his ways, and nevur aftur presume to dissese any creatur þat had deuocion vnto our̛ ladie, Saynt Mari.

[And this holy man commanded this fiend that he should go his way, and never afterwards presume to trouble any creature devoted to our lady, Saint Mary].

That’s good, to a point. But if you’re not in Mary’s camp, watch your neck!

[thanks to Wendy Belcher for offering several key corrections to the above! much appreciated]

Reading

Belcher, Wendy Laura. “Mary Saves the Man-Eater: Value in the Medieval Ethiopian Marian Miracle Tale of “The Cannibal of Qəmər”.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 8, no. 1 (2019): 29-49. doi:10.1353/dph.2019.0013.

Kleiner, Michael, and Wendy Laura Belcher. “Appendix: The Cannibal of Qəmər.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 8, no. 1 (2019): 138-144. doi:10.1353/dph.2019.0019

Appleyard, David. “Ethiopian Christianity.” Chapter. In The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity, edited by Ken Parry, 2008. doi:10.1002/9780470690208.ch6

Crummey, Donald. “Church and Nation: the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahedo Church (from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century).” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of Christianity, edited by Michael Angold, 5:457–87. Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521811132.020.

Oliver, Roland, and Anthony Atmore. Medieval Africa, 1250–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511811036.

Salvadore, Matteo. “The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458.” Journal of World History 21, no. 4 (2010): 593-627. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41060852.

and, for further reading, various works by Habtamu Tegegne

William of Auvergne, on Delirium as the Highest Activity of the Human Soul

William of Auvergne (Bishop of Paris, 1228 to his death in 1249) was a key figure in Christianizing material flowing into Latin Christian theological philosophy from Arabic and classical Greek philosophy. His On the Immortality of the Soul, long misattributed to Dominicus Gundissalinus, proves its point by arguing, chiefly, that the particularly human soul is distinct from the body and has aims and purposes that are completely independent from the body. Plants and animals have, like us, immaterial souls; they too are alive; but their souls die with their bodies, because their souls have no aims apart from the body. Feeding, what the vegetable soul does, and sensing, what the animal soul does, have no purpose once the body’s gone.

William argues this point because Aristotle and his commentators at least propose the possibility of a mortal human soul; chiefly, however, he has to argue this point because God’s justice demands it. Given that the wicked often flourish in this world, and the good suffer, then punishment and reward must happen elsewhere. Otherwise, we should just abandon ourselves to every vice (24-26).

Establishing the independence of soul from body leads William to make these unusual arguments:

“the more [the intellective power] becomes involved with and immersed in the body, the more its intellectual knowing will be obscure, dull, slow and mixed with errors. But the more it separates and withdraws itself from the body, the more it will be sharp, clear, quick, and free from errors” (28)

“But it is certain that prophecy and revelation are the strongest and most noble activities of the intellective power while it is in the body, and it is very much strengthened for these by the greatest bodily impediments and injuries. This is the reason why prophetic illumination or revelation hardly ever occurs except with a great weakening of the body, as occurs in ecstasy” (30)

the soul’s “proper activity is strengthened in separation from the body and not as a result of the body, as can be seen in rapture and ecstasy” (38)

“For divine revelations and prophecies are what chiefly order human life, and every art and every wisdom yields to and is subjected to them” (39; Revelatines enim divinae ac prophetiae maxime ordinant vitam humanam, et omnis ars et omnis sapientia cedit eis atque subicitur)

“those suffering from melancholy, and delirious persons who, though they are prevented from reasoning about these sensible things, still at times see much concerning lofty things and foretell the future, as if they were prophesying” (42; et hoc euidenter apparet in melancholicis aegris et freneticis, qui licet prohibiti sint ratiocinari de sensibilibus, tamen de sublimibus multa vident et praedicunt futura quasi divinantes)

“melancholy persons who otherwise do not prophesy at all, but do prophesy when they are in the grip of this illness” (42; quia frenetici arrepti morbo tun divinant et alio tempore non)

William had already made points like these in his more general, much long De anima:

ecstasy is “the departure of the mind, in accord with the meaning of the word, and the proper raising of the human mind above itself as if upon a height from which it sees itself and its own and other things as if below itself” (De Anima VI.32 (II, 191b-192a), qtd 30n21)

“And it is known from experience that the intellective power is strengthened to such an extent by the gravest illnesses of the body that many souls foretell and prophesy about the deaths of their own bodies and at times of others” (De Anima VI.5 (II, 161a), qtd 31 n22)

Teske’s note on the William’s first proof-from-ecstasy directs me to Augustine’s Literal Commentary on Genesis, Book XII, where Augustine treats the apostle Paul’s remarks on a man taken up into the Third Heaven. I don’t quite see the connection, however. What’s striking to me is that William relies on a proof of certain “out-of-body” experiences to establish the fundamental independence of our soul from our bodies. These conditions — ecstasy, melancholy, and delirium — he recognizes as at once sicknesses, as a form of liberation, and as a form of cognition. For what the afflicted person often experiences is access, quite accidental, to the higher truths: prophesy, religious revelation, the very foundations of the claims about God’s mercy, justice, and providence that undergird William’s treatise.

William wouldn’t be the only one to make such arguments. The treatise on the soul by John de la Rochelle (d. 1245) — also at the University of Paris, and known to William — while discussing the “two faces of reason,” namely, the lower reason, concerned with sensible things, and the higher reason, concerned with sublime, observes “Unde et phraenetici prophetant et multa de subliminibus interdum vident, quamvis prohibiti sint rationcinari de sensibus istis” (Thus it is that the delirious sometimes prophesy and see many sublime things, although they are barred from reasoning about these {work on translation!}]. Here, then, we witness William’s fellow Parisian academic philosopher proving the higher reason via truths that are, in fact, inaccessible to reason. The proof of the powers of the rational soul rest on its capacity to be taken beyond reason.

It is of course banal to observe that it was once believed that mentally ill people had special access to truths. But to argue, as William does, that melancholy and delirium provide access to the highest modes of intellection, perhaps can still surprise us. Loosely speaking, William wants the mind to be independent of the body; freeing the mind from the body means freeing it from the senses; it also means freeing it from the routine cause and effect of things bumping up against and past each other in this merely material world. Madness — because of its indifference to the senses, to what we mundane people would say “is really happening” — liberates us. Because the mad can think anything, they are free from the body.

But they are also free in ways that can make no sense to them. The true prophet is the prophet who can’t stop themselves from doing it. Many of you will know Margery Kempe, who begged to be relieved of the gift of ecstasy. She didn’t want to cry constantly over a Christ crucified so long ago. Her book wants us to know she can’t help it, and because she can’t help it, she’s authentic.

William is trying to prove something else, however, something perhaps more fundamental: the particularity of the human soul, what’s generally called the rational soul, to distinguish it from the vegetable and sensible souls of plants and nonhuman animals. The rational soul is typically understood as concerned with causes; as able to abstract to general truths; to be able to syllogize. And it can, but that’s not its highest modes. Its highest modes, William avers, come from a certain passivity, the terror and misery even of the heavens forcing themselves onto us. We are most ourselves when we cannot know ourselves, when we are made conduits for truths beyond our capacity to articulate them.

Further reading:

A dissertation on William’s demonology

Drew Daniel, The Melancholic Assemblage.

László F. Földényi’s Melancholy.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization [on the gradual elimination of the mad to speak of any truth outside or beyond their own, personal madness]

Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, for a translation of pseudo-Aristotle Problema XXX, a medical consideration of melancholy, and why “all those who have beocme eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics”

Sample of manuscript: here, and here,

“You have turned us into great lovers of death”: Animals, Freedom, and Aristotle’s Book of the Apple

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According to its 1968 translation, the earliest surviving version of the pseudo-Aristotelian Liber de Pomo is Arabic (by the 10th century, the Kitab al-Tuffahah). It could have been translated from Greek, or Syriac, but the version we have is Arabic (and a version may still be in Aleppo): it would be translated from thence into Persian (Tarjuma-imaḳala-i- Arasṭaṭalis), and independently into Hebrew (the Sefer ha-Tappuah), by Abraham Ben Samuel, in Barcelona (1230s) and from Hebrew into Latin (before 1258?), perhaps by Manfred of Sicily himself. Despite some skepticism about its authenticity, the work entered the late medieval university corpus of Aristotle, where it wouldn’t be dislodged until after the Middle Ages (notably, print versions of Latin exist only in incunabula; Arabic manuscript copies date as late as the 17th c; a Hebrew print version survives from the late 18th). Other medieval translations exist, for example, into Catalan. Mary Rousseau’s superb introduction to her translation attests to some 90 extant manuscripts of the Latin: perhaps more have been found since.

The Book of the Apple adapts Plato’s Phaedo — the account of Sophocles’ deathbed lecture on the forms — to render Aristotle palatable for monotheists. In both the Persian and Latin (and presumably in their sources), Aristotle’s cheerily on his death bed, discoursing to his grieving students, as he smells an apple to keep himself alive. At the end, his energy dips, he drops the apple, and he dies. Each aims to dissuade us from the lusts of the body; to rejoice in death; and to hope for permanent things. And each has its Aristotle, unlike the actual philosopher, argue that the material world begins in time, and that the rational soul outlives the body. Given the popularity of the work in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, its lessons must have been ecumenical.

The Persian version is, after a fashion, philosophical (and indeed, all versions belong to a genre counted as “philosophical,” the protreptic). Aristotle’s disciples ask him a series of hard questions — what is brightness? does it come from warmth? what kind of knowledge does the present give us of the future? are mixed things worse than pure things? — but his responses are, effectively, supremely confident assertions. No one really worries about how to get to the answers. The Hebrew version is somehow even less worried. Aristotle speaks, at length, and his students accept it. He observes, for instance, that some say the soul shares its existence with the body: note, these people say, how boys cannot learn the sciences as easily as adults do, or how sickness makes us less able to think well. If that’s the case, the soul grows and diminishes with the body itself. But, he insists, “these men look for and apprehend the great science of God and His works in the members of the body, in its essence and sinews” (58). And that, apparently, is sufficient to disprove his opponents.

What the Hebrew/Latin Aristotle offers, too, unlike the Arabic/Persian Apple, is a contempt for the life of beasts. While the former never references nonhuman animals, the latter offers this:

you, if you are disturbed and afraid of death, which is the departure of the soul from the unknowing body and its entrance into comprehension of the divine degrees and union with wise and happy soul — you do not allow knowledge its proper rank or value; you are submerged in a bestial spirit along with other beasts. (52)

people must purge their soul “of its impurities,” for it must depart “from the uncleanness which is imprisoned with it–which is produced out of earth, and pursues the pleasures of eating, drinking, and amusement, as do other animals (52)

“the first ones we mentioned,” that is, those who follow philosophical precepts without understanding them or judging them as good or evil, are like “children,” or “like beasts. There is no difference between them and the beasts which are led along the right path by the man who bridles them. These are men who do not know how to think for themselves” (57)

And, from Manfred’s prologue:

he is so greatly impeded by the darkness of the companion [the body] subjected to him, from which every weakness of his corruption originates, that he is deformed by the vice of earthly desire and, like a beast of burden, understands nothing (48)

men, who seeking pleasures so licentiously, differ not at all from the beasts (47-48)

Becoming a philosopher means becoming a human being, while enjoying the pleasures of the body means being an animal. So we see, for example, a late medieval ritual of cutting the horns from the beani, the first-year students, so that they can advance into the higher ranks: see Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men, and for a medieval witness, the Manuale scholarium (Heidelberg, 1481), where two upperclassman insult and harrass a beanus:

Cam[illus]. First, I’ll get rid of his horns. Bart, hand me the saw. Little ass, would you fight against your physician?
Bar[toldus]. Check his attack, and restrain him like an intractable horse. Take care that he doesn’t strike you with his cruel hoofs, or injure you with his horned head.
Cam. How hard and deeply rooted are these horns! Look, the saw is broken, and almost all its rotten teeth shattered. Now look at your horns, violent beast! Before this you couldn’t see them, and didn’t believe us.

As the ritual shows us, “humanity” is always a moving target, and entering it is not only a matter of practicing dominance, routinely, but also of believing that someone, out there, is naturally suited for dominance. For university students, it’s the beani; for the Liber de Pomo, it’s the body itself.

The body is unknowing, heavy, a prison, an impediment; it is unfree, unable to think for itself. If the rational soul is the free soul, then we can sense how the notion of “freedom” depends on the idea of “subjection” or “subservience.” The free soul doesn’t know that it’s free unless there’s something that it dominates, or that it imagines that’s fit to dominate. We can witness, then, in the Liber de Pomo, an infection in the body of philosophical thought, namely, a belief in natural dominance at the heart of any claim to liberty or freedom. The claim to be thinking freely, necessarily brings with it a claim that others are not thinking freely, like animals, with all that entails. In this case, what’s to be dominated is the body, those beings thought of as excessively embodied (animals), and those beings who have let themselves be dominated by their bodies (non-philosophers).

It is in this context that we need to hear the Liber de Pomo‘s inherent praise of suicide. Aristotle’s disciples marvel at his deathbed happiness, and they try to understand whether the contempt for this corporeal world means we should rush to our deaths as soon as we find the necessary philosophical conviction. The Hebrew/Latin version even imagines an Abraham, perfectly enlightened, who might have justifiably killed himself (56). It is shocking to find statements like these in a work so widely read in religious traditions generally opposed to suicide, shocking, that is, until we realize that the Liber de Pomo is not arguing that existence is meaningless: rather, it’s that bodily death frees us for a better life, and leaves everyone else behind in a life unworthy of the name.

For in the Liber de Pomo, to become a lover a death is, at once, to become certain that one has oriented oneself towards the better life and convinced that those who haven’t are lovers of the wrong thing, namely, the body and its pleasures. This work’s faint call for suicide does not suggest that non-existence lies on the other side of death. If anything, non-existence is on the side of the only apparently alive, because things here are mutable, where everything that supposedly is is itself only for the briefest while. And with that, we can sense how the love of “freedom,” the love of escaping constraint, also consigns everything else to subjection, contempt, and a life not meriting the respect due to truly living things.

For more on these developing ideas, see my work on Marguerite Porete….

Women and Ladies: A hint at a reading of the Life of the Countess Yolanda

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Brother Hermann’s Life of the Countess Yolanda of Vianden [Bruder Hermanns Leben der Gräfin Iolande von Vianden] concerns the daughter of Henry I of Vianden and Margaret, Marchioness of Namur, struck with a desire, as she enters her teens, to become a Dominican nun at Marienthal, now in present-day Luxembourg. Her worldly family resists: her mother, particularly, who at one point intrudes on her daughter’s bed, strips her of her borrowed clerical habit, and leaves her naked, compelling her either to stay in bed in her parents’ castle, or to get dressed in the fancy, worldly garb her parents prefer she wear — she also leads a band of armed men who extract her from a nunnery by theatening to burn it down around her; her father, more distant, but also stricken by unending and, eventually, mortal grief when his favorite daughter abandons him, and the whole of her worldly family, for the cloister; and her brother, Henry, provost of the Cathedral of Cologne, who, at a family council to determine what to do about this meddlesome girl, strikes her full in the face.

There’s no sense, as in the Middle English “Why I Can’t Be a Nun,” that a nunnery is a place unfit for any girl: and no wonder, because Brother Hermann is sympathetic, writing something as close to a saint’s life as he can (indeed, he argues that Yolanda suffered more than classic virgin martyrs, like Catherine and Agnes, in that these martyrs had to suffer only for a day, and that they never felt betrayed by the people who shared their belief or whom they expected to protected them: what Yolanda suffers is a protracted sense of being let down). The work is closer to the Life of Christina of Markyate, who, about a century earlier, in England, likewise braved her family, and refused her lineal obligations, to become a religious woman.

For English readers, Yolanda’s life is most easily available in Richard H. Lawson’s 1995 translation for Camden House; for this, he relies on John Meier’s 1889 edition of a 17th-century Jesuit transcription of Hermann’s original German poem. The same Jesuit, Alexander von Wilheim, also translated the work into Latin, which he published in 1674. Any direct medieval witness to her life was presumed lost, until 1999, when Guy Berg rediscovered the manuscript, the Codex Mariendalensis, at Castle Ansemberg. The Codex matters, for among other reasons, because it’s the earliest witness, some claim, to the language of Luxembourg (for a skeptical treatment about this ideological hunt for the past, see here).

There’s not a great deal in English on Yolanda. See, for example, Elisabeth van Houts in Married Life in the Middle Ages, 900-1300, here, or Enrica de Domínguez, here. There’s much to do in this work: studies of consent and daughters (see Jennifer Alberghini’s 2018 CUNY dissertation for such a study in Middle English); fanciful links between Lacan’s reading of Antigone and Yolanda’s equally unrelenting splendor; attention to tears and other extra-rational means of persuasion; Yolanda’s encounter with famous churchmen like Albert the Great (whom she convinces to help ordain her); the history of religious institutions (Franciscans come in for scorn, for example) and quasi-institutional religion — beguines figure in this as one possible model for Yolanda; and especially, for my purposes, the final bit, where Hermann tries to navigate his way through the problem of clerical misogyny.

For the final section of the work tries to split the difference between “women” and “females.” From Larson’s translation (rendered, I’m afraid, nearly obsolete by Claudine Moulin’s 2009 edition from the Codex):

Yolanda could well be termed both woman and female (wîf unde vrôiwe beide). But there is sometimes a difference among women, and I had better write it down (dat soilde ich nôede schrîven). Among females are those undeserving of the name “women” (doch under vrôiwen sint unwîf) — women without women’s nature (wîf sint sy sunder wîves lîf). They are rare among women. A woman’s name and nature are very holy and agreeable: God called his Mother “Woman” (got sîne múder nante wîf). But females are to observe here how good the name of “woman” is, for all females are not women (alle vrôiwen sint nyt wîf). Yolanda can be called “woman” without any doubt. She had a pure and chaste heart” (69-70)

Vrôiwen corresponds to the modern German Frauen, and Wiven to Weib (neuter in modern German, so the plural nominative’s also Weib). Hermann makes no such distinction between men, and no wonder, first of all, because his work’s about a girl. His work, more importantly, participates in a European clerical culture that had become, by his day, suffused with misogyny. He’s compelled to split the difference between “female” and “women,” to preserve an outside to which he can compare Yolande — and so he’s not, simply, blaming the worldly desires of parents, which is to say, his patrons — and, finally, to mark another gender, one inaccessible to most, untainted and untouched by the abuse heaped upon “females.” If he’s writing to nuns, as he probably is, then he’s trying to get them to behave like “women.” We can, necessarily, draw a line, however wavering, to more recent formulations, like those that distinguish nastily between “females” and “ladies.”

But during our seminar, we discovered something odd: Hermann calls Yolanda’s parents “dy vrôiwe gut, der werde man” (The good woman, the worthy man: all trans Larson’s); she wants to go a convent “van vrôiwen ordene” (belonging to a female order); an older woman, at line 252, advises her about whether she should become a nun: the woman’s called a “vrôiwe.” Yolanda is called a “juncvrôiwe” more than once. That same “good woman” is a good “wîf” at 35.

It’s not that Brother Hermann has insulted every woman in his Life by calling them “females.” Rather, as I suggested in seminar, it’s that he’s discovered at the end of the Life that he needs a new categorical system, or to reimpose an old one, and invents, on the fly, a terminological hierarchy that he has used nowhere else. People who know this particular German will know more than me, but, for now, I think there’s much to be done with this odd linguistic, and sexist, tic.

[further reading:
an online multimedia project about Yolanda from 1999/2000. It is wonderfully of its era

Heinz Sieburg, from Luxembourg University, on the Yolanda Epic

Jean Portante, on the Codex (typical moment: “C’est par conséquent aussi l’un des rares textes décrivant les mœurs et le contexte historique, culturel et spirituel, à la fois dans les comtés et les châteaux impliqués, ceux de Vianden et de Luxembourg en l’occurrence, et dans les couvents de la région”)

Miranda Hajduk, CUNY Grad Student, who wrote this blog post for my class

A translation of Wiltheim’s 17th-century Latin translation, into modern German

And, via Wikipedia, there’s an 1832 English poem about Yolanda! Fascinating topic for a student of medievalism

Historical Sources of the German Middle Ages, on Yolanda]

A bit on medieval animal trials

This evening, I’m part of a pre-performance conversation for a play called Twelve Angry Animals, written by Reginald Rose. The talk’s at 6pm, and the play at 8.

Jessica Grindstaff, Phantom Limb Company
Naama Harel, Columbia University
Catherine Young, Princeton University
Karl Steel, Brooklyn College and CUNY Grad Center
Joshua Williams (moderator), Tisch Drama

We were asked to talk for about 8-10 minutes, more or less informally. Here’s what I just wrote:


I’m here to talk about medieval animal trials. The key thing to note here is how spotty the records are: some medieval people sometimes in some places put animals on trial, and what kinds of trials the animals were subjected to depended on the kinds of animals being tried. It’s much harder to punish a swarm of insects or rats for eating what we’d rather they hadn’t than it is to execute a pig or a horse for taking human life. In the former case, we’re likely to witness abjurations — cursing that is — directed against a swarm that isn’t likely to take any notice of it. But the very apparent ineffectiveness of the curse suggests that the curse’s purpose concerns something other than the targeted swarm. I’ll come back to that at the end of my remarks.

First, though, I want to stress that it’s not that medieval people were, sometimes, more credulous than we are, whoever we are, or more willing to extend animals the benefit of the doubt. If anything, your average medieval trained thinker – the kind of people more likely to leave records than most – is much more skeptical about animal responsibility that anyone familiar with modern ethology. The key point here is that mainstream medieval thinkers universally denied nonhuman animals a rational soul: without a rational soul, they could have no moral responsibility. So, Philip de Beaumanoir, author of a thirteenth-century French law book, observes that, yes, people do “punish animals when they kill someone: for example if a sow or other animal kills a child, they hang it and draw it.” “But,” Philip writes, “this should not be done, for dumb animals have no discrimination of good and evil, and for this reason the punishment is lost on them, for punishment should be executed to avenge the offense, and so that the offender will know and understand that he has a certain penalty for a certain crime.” More about that later (and, not incidentally, thanks to Julie K. Chamberlin, whose recent dissertation I helped supervise, for guiding me towards this book!) For now, let’s just observe that Philip says, yes, if I were to deliberately drive my horse into a crowd of children, I should be held liable. If my horse wanders away from me and injures someone, I should pay for the damages; but if it kills someone, I can’t be tried for murder, and neither can it. And if a horse is unruly, I might even use that unruliness at my defense.

What’s notable to me is that Philip feels compelled to consider the problem. It’s not unheard of to want to punish an animal in the same way you might punish a human. Let me offer another example: a twelfth-century cleric, Gerald of Wales, in his History and Topography of Ireland, considers the case of a certain Parisian lion that a woman, Johanna, fell in love with. Lion and woman were both executed. But, Gerald insists, “the beast is ordered to be killed, not for the guilt, from which he is excused as being a beast, but to make the remembrance the act a deterrent, calling to mind the terrible deed.”

People are going to execute animals, Philip and Gerald both know that. The question is why? We can get a sense of why by looking to medieval England, where, to my knowledge, you’re not going to find any animals on trials. It’s not that English horses were less unruly, or its lions less alluring, than those on the continent. It’s that the English crown already had a legal system in place to deal with the problem, namely, the Deodand. Any case of accidental death would attract the attention of the coroner. He would investigate the death, determine what had caused it – maybe a ladle that’s too short, a cartwheel that shattered, a hungry pig meeting a helpless infant – assess the monetary value of the cause, and levy that as a fine to be paid to the crown. Whatever the cases of accidental death, the king eventually got it all under control, ensuring that he remained his realm’s master of life and death.

Or let’s look at the late medieval Low Countries. New data on animal trials has been scarce. Many researchers have been content to rely on already published material, or even to reach back to that foundational, but slightly credulous work on animal trials by E. P. Evans, published in 1906. But we have a bright spot, and that’s a history doctoral student at Yale, Mireille J. Pardon, who’s working on violence and social control. I’m drawing from a paper I heard her give this May in Kalamazoo, at the big medieval conference. While looking at as yet unedited and unpublished late medieval archives of punishment in Bruges, Pardon compiled some shocking statistics: for the period she was studying, she found that 335 people had been executed in the city, and 64 animals; in greater Bruges, 127 humans, and 45 animals. You can do the math on the ratios. No wonder that clerics complained about the execution of animals: in some places, they may have been quite common!

I’m struck by one of the records Pardon quoted: it’s about a certain master Jacques, paid for having “fait justice,” done justice. on two pigs, which had killed a child.

Justice for whom or for what?

Banishing rats is less about the rats that the banishing. It’s a performance of disapproval; it’s lodging a complaint; it’s asserting, publicly, that what’s happened isn’t okay. And what’s the point of executing an animal? It’s not to frighten other animals into respecting our lives more than they’re accustomed to do. I doubt even master Jacques believed that he was dissuading future pigs from consuming future children. Rather, the point is to do justice. A person who’s been killed has been harmed, in a couple of ways: they’ve been killed, of course, but they’ve also been disrespected. And a human who’s been killed by an animal is doubly disrespected, because animals are, in themselves, made for our use, at least according to mainstream medieval thought. That’s why I believe that executing animals doesn’t have much to do with the animals; it has to do with repairing a harm to the human community. It has to do with recognizing the dead human as having been murdered. It’s about restoring dignity to humans by reasserting their unique condition as the one form of murderable life.

Of course, historically speaking, and indeed in the present, most humans don’t get that recognition. Any discussion of humans, as a whole, is going to run aground on the actual conditions of life for most humans. But we can observe, too, that the point of execution can, logically, have little to do with the executed animal, or person: they’ll be dead, and that’s the end of their possibility of regret. The execution is about repairing the injured dignity of the community, and to that, we can ask whether we might find other, more effective, and more morally difficult methods of getting dignity back.

Thank you. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Gens and Populus in the History of the Kings of Britain: translation problems

I’m sure this topic has been covered thoroughly often; and now I’m doing it too, less thoroughly.

The translation of the History of the Kings of Britain for Penguin, by Lewis Thorpe (1913-77), published in the mid 60s, was my first time meeting Geoffrey of Monmouth, and I suspect it remains a standard classroom edition. Neil Wright and Julia Crick, via Boydell & Brewer, have done the work the honor it deserves, but the version most of us are likely to read remains Thorpe’s.

Geoffrey of Monmouth is more than a little interested in grouping people. The Trojans, Greeks, Picts, Saxons, Britons, Italians (which is to say, the Romans), Gauls, Irish, and, among them, a few others, like the Huns and the Scots: all of these are quite distinct, for Geoffrey, and intermarriage — barring the occasional intermarriage with a Roman — tends to trouble him.

It’s not, of course, that Geoffrey witnesses to actual ethnic divisions among the peoples of Northern Europe. It’s that he’s inheriting categories from his sources, which include the early medieval histories of Gildas, Ninnius, and Bede; and it’s that medieval peoples sorted themselves into groupings that they liked to imagine were bound by natural kinship, as Walter Pohl, among others, have argued. Geoffrey’s very insistence on the kinship divisions among these people, and his insistence that conquerors come, homogeneously, as a “people,” witnesses to a myths of ethnic division that many modern people have dismayingly continued to promote. His history, like any history, is also a work of motivated fiction.

Thorpe doesn’t help us much, however, in supporing these observations. Here are some of his translations, with a few from Wright to compare:

“Britain is inhabited by five races of people” (54) – quinque…populis

“When Brutus realized that these people were of the same race as his ancestors, he stayed some time with them” (55) – Agnita igitur ueterum conciuium prosapia, moratus est Brutus apud eos [Once Brutus learned of their descent from his ancient countrymen, he lived among them; Wright trans, 8; Faletra trans., 44; “Perceiving their distant kinship, Brutus lives for a time among these slaves” — note that Faletra is a translation from a single early manuscript, and Wright is from several]

“for they have found it intolerable that they should be treated in your kingdom otherwise than as the purity of their noble blood demands” (56) – serenitas nobilitatis eius expeteret [Wright, trans 8: otherwise than their serene nobility demanded; Faletra, 45; “being treated in your realm with less dignity than their lineage demands”]

“The nobility which flourishes in him, and his fame, which is well-known to us, show him to be of the true race of Priam and Anchises [quem ex genere Priami et Anchisae creatum]” (63) [Wright trans, 16: “descent from the race of Priam and Anchises; Faletra trans, 50; “as is the nobility that pulses through his veins, being a descendant of the line of Priam and Anchises”]

“The two Kings took hostages from the Consuls, and the showed them mercy, leading their own troops off to Germany. No sooner had Belinus and Brennius begun harassing the German people than the Romans repented of the treaty just described” (97); “Sumptis igitur obsidibus, ueniam donauerunt reges cohortesque suas in Germaniam duxerunt. Cumque populum infestare institissent” &c [Wright trans., 56: The kings granted their request, took hostages and led their troops against Germany. Once they had begun their assault on that people”; Faletra, 76, “and leading their own forces into Germany. As soon as the Britons and their allies began to attack Germany”]

“Cassivelaunus therefore sent a message to Androgeus, asking the Duke to make peace for him with Julius, for otherwise the majesty of the race [ne dignitas gentis ex qua natus fuerat] into which he, Androgeus, had been born would come to an end with the capture of its King” (117) [Wright trans. 78, lest his capture should dishonour the race to which they both belonged; Faletra, 91, “lest the honor of his native people by sullied by the capture of its King”]

“Caradocus felt that Maximianus had a right to Britain, for he came both from the family of the Emperors and from a British origin” (135) – matre uero et natione Romanus ex utroque sanguine regalem ferebat procreationem. Iccirco igitur stabilitatem pacis promittebat quia sciebat illum et ex genere imperatorum et ex origine Britonum ius in Britanniam habere. [Wright trans, 98; whilst his mother and his nation were Roman were Roman, so that he was of royal blood on both sides. Hence Caradocus could promise an enduring peace, since he knew that Maximianus’ claim to Britain rested both on imperial descent and British birth; Faletra, 107, “who is Roman by birth but also descends from the royal line of the Britons”]

Royal blood is Geoffrey’s locution, and certainly a significant mystification of aristocratic power. But Thorpe’s rendering of genus and populus as “race” needs to be rethought (as Wright has done, to a degree). On the one hand, it’s advantageous to rethinking the modern pseudo-sciences of race to observe how minutely Geoffrey divides “racial” grouping: all of these people would be adjudged, more or less, white in the modern era. On the other hand, what’s left out of this translation is the way that whiteness promised mastery to all whites, emancipating them to the degree that it gave them some other group to dominate.

Whatever inequities existing among white people in the Americas in the eighteenth century, for example, they were all the masters of people they identified as Black. That sense of the kind of democratic brotherhood of whiteness, core to modern racial thinking, isn’t at all present in Geoffrey of Monmouth. He’s quite dismissive of the peasants, of whatever stock. When Brutus recognizes the enslaved Trojans as his countrymen, he’s recognizing, presumably, only those people he recognizes as worthy of having a lineage: only the aristocrats. And that subtle, yet significant, elitism of Geoffrey is what gets lost when we translate genus as “race.”

Thinking like a Cow: Bestial Reason and Posthumanism in the Mirror of Simple Souls

EFRkwz_X4AUYKjwWhat you’re about to hear is an attempt to work out what is shaping up to be my third book. My first dealt with systematic medieval thinking about human/animal difference; the second concerns a less containable topic, nonsystematic thinking about humans and nonhuman animals: there I look at a range of cultural documents not so worried with policing whether a living thing can be recognized as having agency, moral considerability, or reason, and more concerned with the way we live and die together, and our shared dependencies and vulnerabilities. Reason will be the key concern for book three, The Irrational Animal, which will track “animal irrationality” as a master trope for justifying subordination and hierarchy. 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, which opens them up to being treated, as the common phrase goes, “like animals,” with all that implies in terms of exposure to premature death.

The simplest response to those forms of dehumanization is to include excluded humans within the circle of humans recognized as rational beings: conceptually simple, but of course, I’ll stress, not politically simple. But a merely more expansive humanism does nothing to challenge the significance, the arrogance even, of that claim to, and bestowal of, reason. Challenging the hierarchies of that distinction between irrational and rational therefore requires digging into, among other things, what medieval people meant by Reason, and also paying attention to the ways that the supposed humanity of Reason could go awry. Can the category Reason live up to the claims people make about it? On this point, I’ve long been guided by Derrida’s question in his The Animal that Therefore I am, namely, “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. My talk today is interested in what that claim to reason does for marking humans out from animals; in the way that several medieval writers considered the real limitations of reason; and whether these writers, even when they criticize reason, are really abandoning the exclusions and delusions of any claim to be “the rational animal.”

One book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, will be my eventual focus, because it goes further than any other medieval theological work I know in asserting the inadequacy of reason for getting close to God: that in itself isn’t unusual for a work of mystical theology, which is what the Mirror is. What’s unusual is its assertion that reason fails because it is, essentially and paradoxically, bestial. That’s an outrageous claim, perhaps even a unique one in medieval textuality. It may be of some importance to note that the Mirror of Simple Souls would be burned by church authorities, and, five years later, its author too. Notwithstanding the enormous importance of these events, I will make no claims that the Mirror’s portrayal of reason as animal has anything to with the author’s fate. Instead, I’m going to argue that the very strangeness of the Mirror’s portrayal tells us something key about what the claim to reason does in medieval, and perhaps even modern thinking. Its claims are indeed strange, but that strangeness does not put the Mirror outside the medieval rational tradition: instead, its strangeness gives us a better understanding of what drives the more normative claims to reason that circulated generally in medieval intellectual cultures.

To understand the full strangeness of Marguerite’s particular demotion of reason, we have to understand what medieval thinkers said reason granted humans. Humans are called the rational animals because they, uniquely among mortal life, are recognized as having the rational soul. It’s not that we had a soul and other things didn’t; it’s that our particular kind of soul enabled the whole economy of salvation. The problem is proving that we had it, and that, among mortal life, we alone had it.

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”). Of course they had souls, Bacon insisted; it’s just that theirs are less impressive than ours. Clergymen like Bacon 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 forms of life. His solution to the problem of varying kinds of animacy is split the soul into three types: 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 by miraculous rather than through merely material processes. Because the rational soul was independent of material processes, it was generally thought to be able to act without a body or sensory organs; in other words, it had, and needed, no material component. Demonstrating that we have it was therefore no simple matter: it’s easy enough to prove that something is alive and needs to eat; and that it has working sensory organs that stimulate it to move; but proving that something thinks?

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 define reason precisely: “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.” That word “surpasses,” antecellit, tells us exactly how we know that humans are reasonable: whatever we might have in common with nonhuman animals, we dominate them, and that alone is sufficient to prove that we are rational animals, and they’re not. You’ll note, then, the circularity of claims for the unique moral significance of humans: because animals are irrational, it’s okay for us to dominate them; and we know animals are irrational because we dominate them.

Medieval thinkers, including Augustine could be far more specific about what reason was, or what it allows us to do: it enables 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. Although Oelze demonstrates that medieval thinkers recognized a subtle range of quasi-rational capacities in nonhuman animals, underlying all that recognition is an unwavering commitment to denying animals reason. However subtly professional medieval thinkers divided reason from other psychological powers or split it further several constituent faculties, reasons remains that capacity that only humans possess, and indeed that faculty that, added to a mortal living thing, transforms it into a human. The claim to reason is then, primarily, a defensive rather than a descriptive one.

Consider an illustrative quodlibetal problem from Thomas de Bailly. Thomas, a French theologian, died in 1328 in the role of the Chancellor of the University of Paris. Thomas was also one of 21 clergymen who condemned The Mirror of Simple Souls as heretical, and his recorded university debates date to the period of the book’s condemnation, and its author’s, that is, to the first decade of the 14th century. What Thomas says about reason, then, isn’t just normative — and it is, absolutely — but also particularly normative for understanding the scandal of the Mirror’s claims about reason.

Thomas is faced with the question of whether irrational animals have any way of thinking that relies on extrasensory powers. What about a dog that follows a robber to a very remote place and captures him, and not someone else? How did he choose the right person? Only through its senses, says Thomas. He relies chiefly on existing authorities in natural philosophy to do his thinking for him. Aristotle, Thomas explains, holds that only humans can think; even elephants, the most tractable of wild animals, don’t have any intellectual capacity. And while humans and animals may both have memory, Averroes and Avicenna–and, he might have added, Augustine, in De Trinitate 12 — all hold that only humans conjoin memory with intellect, which allows them to recall and analyze things long after they have faded from the senses. And so on, with increasingly subtle, yet quite familiar, taxonomies of psychological faculties, until Thomas gets to his conclusion: yes, a dog might catch a thief far from the scene of the crime, but it does this purely through its sensory capacities: the dog might sense the thief’s fear or some other violent passion, or the dog might discover that the thief shares an odor with the air of the place where the theft happened. But nothing other than sensory knowledge enables the dog’s success. It draws no logical conclusions. For, as Thomas explained almost as soon as the quodlibet started, if a dog were to have a form of thinking that was of a higher power than all sensory powers, it would transcend its own species and be a human — this is literally what he says, “et esset homo,” — “quod est inconveniens,” which would be unsuitable.

That unsuitability, which keeps a dog from becoming human, is why Derrida calls the list of qualities generally supposed to be proper to humans “nonfinite”: they’re nonfinite, not so much infinite, because there’s always just one more. For whenever animals seem to be acting human — by getting their man, for example — the definition of what counts as rational activity shifts slightly, with jealous defensiveness, to enclose humans on the inside, and to keep animals out. 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 is therefore primarily a hierarchical one, rather than a description of a particular kind of thought, which is always necessarily weaponized against both nonhuman animals and most humans.

But what does reason look like? What does it want us to do, apart from overmastering animals? What are its limitations? 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. 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.

To say that reason is the essential characteristic of being human, that its presence determines whether a created being is worthy of being loved, that there’d be no point to Christ’s sacrifice were humans irrational, and that the very purported irrationality of nonhuman animals means that their lives are, ultimately, nothing more than natural resources for us: all of these claims, as true a description of mainstream medieval thought as they are, mistaken to the degree that they imply the human insistence on their superiority over animals means that humans are at the top of the hierarchy. For if reason is, as Roger Bacon among others argued, a miraculous capacity, rather than a natural one, then it has to come from God. Reason may be the highest capacity humans possess, but it alone cannot bring them close to reason’s creator.

So we have, for example, the twelfth-century Anticlaudianus of Alain de Lille, which has its personified Reason know no more than material things. Reason knows how material things take their particular character from pure Form — this here is basic hylomorphism — and its knows the constant motion of Form’s mingling with matter, which is always necessarily a degenerate imitation of Form’s supermaterial ideal. Alain’s work imagines the best possible man; so its presentation of that man’s Reason is therefore as idealized as possible. Even so, Reason suffers from limitations: its chariot falters as it tries to rise to knowledge of the divine, and nothing but Theology — that’s with a capital T — can take things further. One of the work’s 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 reason needs to learn to know its place, as cannot take anyone to the highest truths.

So we can say that we have the irrational on the one side, and on the other, the extrarational. We can complicate this further by dividing reason in two, into the ratio inferior and the ratio superior, as Augustine did in his De Trinitate: the former a helper, like a woman — that’s Augustine’s metaphor, not mine — for temporal things, and the latter, the superior, contemplative reason, for dealing with eternal things.To this subdivision we can add, for example, those of Hugh of Pontigny, a twelfth-century Cistercian bishop of Auxerre, who argues that intellect is a higher power than reason, or perhaps still higher is prudence, which comprises memory, intellect, and providence. In either case, the chief distinction holds: humans have some capacity that distinguishes them absolutely from animals, and they have another one that further divides them from material, sensible, temporal things, pointing the way to God.

I know of no medieval work that more thoroughly devalues reason for this highest purpose than The Mirror of Simple Souls. The work is very likely by a woman, Marguerite, “called Porete,” as most contemporary documentation names her. As Porete may have been a nickname rather than a surname, I’m going to call its author simply Marguerite. She worked in Valenciennes, in what’s now Northeast France, and was probably both unmarried and not professionally affiliated with the church. The book was condemned in 1305 by Guido of Collemezzo, Bishop of Cambrai, and Marguerite forbidden from continuing to distribute its ideas; she seems to have added material to the book instead to better explain herself. Her persistence gained her further attention from clerical authorities. Eventually she found herself caught up in royal politics, as the French King had been seeking to assert his supremacy as God’s representative, at least in his own kingdom, at the expense of the Jews, whom he expelled, the Knights Templar, whom he bankrupted and destroyed, and, almost incidentally, the unfortunate Marguerite. The book was adjudged to be heretical, and then Marguerite was burned to death on June 1, 1310, in Paris, alongside a Jew condemned as an apostate convert to Christianity. While no copy of the the Mirror survives in its original Old French, several medieval translations do: some of these, the first Latin one and the Middle English, seem to provide good witnesses to the version or versions of Marguerite’s work that her accusers might have read. Further translations, into Latin and Italian, as well as several references to the work, many disapproving, indicate that it continued to be read.

The Mirror of Simple Souls is not a work of mystical ecstasy along the lines of other so-called works of “women’s” spirituality. There’s no pretense of autobiography, no hint of corporeal malaise or excess, no passionate attention to the crucifixion or Christ’s body, and no strong emotions except, perhaps, scorn or arrogance. It is a spiritual guide, which trains the 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-annihilation and a gradual unloosing of the mind from all ways of knowing suitable for mere mortal, bounded things.

What stands in the way of this ascent is Reason. One of the elements Marguerite might have in mind in her dismissal might have been the tradition of rational consolation, which is very much a tradition of following the rules. In this tradition, Reason doesn’t demand freedom, but rather constrains us to “be reasonable,” which means submitting to the prevailing circumstances. Most likely Marguerite would have known this tradition from Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose continuation: for the work’s psychological allegory may well have been, as Barbara Newman suggests, a key resource for Marguerite’s own allegory in the Mirror, and we know that the work circulated, sometimes in an abridged, bowdlerized form, in Valenciennes in the late thirteenth century.

In the Roman de la Rose, Marguerite might have read how 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, here he takes 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 Alain de 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.

I am reminded of Max Horkheimer, especially his Eclipse of Reason, the title of the collected 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 he offers — the death of objective reason, the rise of subjective reason, and the negation of reason itself by the latter — I’m interested in Horkheimer’s 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.

That socially useful practice is what Marguerite wants to move us beyond. The Mirror takes us beyond the virtues, beyond the need to do good works, beyond anything that would tie us to a predetermined goal. In developing these ideas, Marguerite would also have had in mind other works of spiritual guidance. Notably, even when these works dismiss reason, they don’t do so as utterly as does Marguerite.

Augustine, we have seen, salvages Reason by dividing it into practical and contemplative modes. The fourteenth-century Middle English Cloud of Unknowing, despite its analogous commitment to the abandonment of the self to God’s immensity, nonetheless simply characterizes reason as a particularly human, even ascetic capacity that knows and judges things, which is no way impedes the “work of contemplation” through which it tries to bring the soul close to God. The thirteenth-century Dutch contemplative Hadewijch, more ambiguously, at times makes Reason Love’s guide, while in her ninth vision, Reason is a queen in a dress covered with eyes, who awes her and then serves her until Hadewijch abandons her to serve love and her “unspeakable wonders.”

Elsewhere, Reason is more obviously an impediment, 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.” The idea comes from Richard of St Victor, on whom Marguerite herself draws. What Marguerite doesn’t do, however, is repeat Richard of St Victor’s otherwise completely standard division between merely corporeal beasts and a human reason that’s free to think beyond bodies. For Richard, and indeed, for spiritual works more generally, human reason may be a problem; but reason, at least, still stands us above animals. It’s still a paradigmatically human capacity.

But not in the Mirror of Simple Souls. For there, Reason is an ass. That’s Marguerite’s metaphor, not mine. “Truly,” Marguerite 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 Marguerite, 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).

Marguerite’s Reason could not be more inept. In her Mirror, Reason’s 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. Marguerite’s Reason 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.

Marguerite wants something better than just being reasonable. But it’s not, finally, that she abandons reason; it’s that she perfects its best functions under another name, and thus allows us to understand the purpose of the category of reason without getting hung up on either what we suppose reason does or our own self-regard as rational creatures. Recall that while the category Reason might well describe a particular set of activities — calculation, judgment, analysis, and so on — 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, because of their unfreedom, might as well be animals. That division is one Marguerite doesn’t abandon; she, in fact, doubles down on it.

For in teaching her readers to be better Christians, Marguerite 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. Marguerite wants her readers to abandon Reason by entering 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 bestial irrationality. The perfect contemplative is better than merely human, because the mere human is now understood as bestial. Submissive to the virtues, Bestial 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. Like an animal, or an uneducated layperson.

It’s notable, then, that Marguerite is so elitist. She characterizes merchants as “thralls,” servants or slaves, because they “meddle in merchandise,” and she imagines Reason as like 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). She draws an analogy about how no gentleman would ever deign to respond to a peasant’s demand to do honorable battle. She characterizes Reason as being rude, as being, in other words, low-class, like the kind of people who also have no regard for higher things.

So I can’t help but read the Mirror alongside a anti-peasant polemical poem surviving in a single late thirteenth-century manuscript mostly filled with fabliaux: this is “Le Despit au vilain.” The Despit recommends that peasants should “live in the woods and be enclosed in a sty” (manoir en bos, / et ester de séu enclose”), be forbidden to eat beef, and “eat thistles, / brambles, thorns, and straw” (mangier chardons / roinsces, espines, et estrain”). Peasants should “pasture on grass with the horned cows on all fours, entirely naked” (“pester herbe avoec les bues cornus, / a iiij. piez alez toz nus”). One imagines that only a modicum of decency kept the poem from modestly suggesting what else the lord might do with the bodies of his peasants.

What all peasants and animals have in common are their unfreedom. Reason’s adherence to sensible facts, to careful syllogistic chains, to the existing knowledge of what she calls the “little church” — recall, for example, Thomas de Bailly’s reliance on Aristotle, Avincenna, and other authorities — makes it similarly unfree. So, when Marguerite charaterizes Reason as animalized and servile, however much she may have abandoned the name of Reason, she has, by no means, abandoned its function or self-delusions. Under cover of the supposedly liberatory practice of mysticism, she has smuggled in the ideological function of Reason, because she preserves the distinctions that typically travel under the titles of Reason and Irrationality. She offers a small elite freedom, and correspondingly denies it to everyone else.

The implications of her animalization of what she calls Reason are equally typical: those on the wrong side of the boundary might be able to read, or to put things together logically, but they’re unable to think; what they think of as thinking is only mechanical, without true understanding; what they mistake as thinking is actually only obedience; and, at best, they are made to serve. In sum, it little matters that Marguerite 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.

I’m finally suspicious, then, of any claim for freedom or liberation, because these claims rely upon a disdained foundation of supposedly abandoned unfreedom. Whatever’s left behind in the position of unfreedom will be subject to the disdain the now, supposedly free subject claims for themselves. So long as the free subject believes itself to be existing beyond any given categories — and what better illustration of that than the annihilated subject of Marguerite’s Mirror — so long as it believes itself to be in the place where, to recall a still current cliché in literary criticism, “blurred boundaries,” then it can ignore its own constraints, its own necessary unfreedoms. My goal, then, isn’t to liberate us from bestial reason, nor to discover the ways that Marguerite’s self-shattering is itself, despite her efforts, is a new subject position; nor am I interesting in accusing Marguerite of not going far enough: as a theological woman, she may have keenly felt the masculine constraint of what passed for “institutional reason.” Rather, more simply, my aim has been to make us more attentive to the kinds delusions that travel under the claim of reason and freedom.