Towards a Medieval Posthumanism

Those of you who know me know my 2017 to the present has been suboptimal, and not just for political reasons. Nonetheless, I got a book contract and, just now, finished the last bit of writing the book wanted, the Introduction. I’m surprised! And, I guess: proud. As a monument to getting things done, here it is, the Introduction to Medieval Nonhumanisms: Sympathy, Edibility, and Vulnerability (under contract, University of Minnesota Press):

Halfway through Marie de France’s twelfth-century “Bisclavret,” its eponymous werewolf hero is on the run. Trapped in his lupine form by his frightened wife, he survives in the forest by stealing food, until the king’s dogs and hunters find him and make him their sport. Just as he is about to be torn to pieces, he runs towards the king and begs his mercy (“vers lui curut querre merci”; 146) by taking hold of his stirrup and kissing his leg and foot (“il l’aveit pris par sun estrié, / la jambe li baise e le pié”; 147-48).[1] In his terror (“grant poür”; 149), the king scarcely knows what to do. He orders his men and their pack to stand down and to “look at this marvel” (“iceste merveille esguardez”; 152). Look, commands the king, at “how this beast humbles itself” (“cum ceste beste s’umilie”; 153), at how “it has human intelligence” (154;”ele a sen d’ume”; 154): after all, “taking hold of” rather than grabbing, “kissing” rather than licking—these gestures could belong to none but a human animal. When the king finally concludes that “this beast has understanding and intelligence” (“ceste beste a entente e sen”; 157), Bisclavret joins the king’s retinue and becomes his intimate companion, for when he at last returns to his human form, he does so alone, on the king’s own bed.

Marie and her contemporaries inaugurated an interest in sympathetic, intelligent werewolves that lasted well past the end of the Middle Ages.[2] Werewolves ask a priest to administer last rites;[3] another wages a guerrilla campaign against his treacherous wife to regain his stolen heritage;[4] another allies with two noble youths to secure justice from a wicked stepmother.[5] Each of these other werewolf stories insists on the human core of their animals: peeling back the fur, in one case, reveals the face of a sickly old woman;[6] an ineptly recited curse transforms a man into a wolf, but leaves his intelligence intact;[7] or the story simply asserts that “even though he was a wolf / he retained the reason and memory [sens et memoire] of a man.”[8]  Another story, about a man turned into a bear, and clearly based on “Bisclavret,” stresses that its unfortunate knight “had far more intelligence than if he’d been a real bear.”[9] Narrative tics like these attest to a desire to ensure that humans stay human, and animals animal, so that any apparent category play is nothing more than a bit of toying. In these other stories, however mysterious a concept reason might be, only humans possess it, and we should never forget that. Not so for “Bisclavret”: the king slides from identifying Bisclavret as a marvel, as a beast, as a beast with human intelligence, and then, finally, as a beast with intelligence, whatever that could be. And there he rests. Bisclavret can take a human form, or a lupine one, but whatever his form, he has intelligence too.

But what is his intelligence but the expression of needs difficult to distinguish from those possessed by any living thing, human or otherwise? He knows how to perform noble gestures, but he first uses these gestures to keep himself alive: and submission, as Peggy McCracken observes, is just as well a canine habit.[10] In the tale’s conclusion, when he attacks his estranged wife’s lover, and, soon thereafter, tears the nose from his wife’s face, he acts indeterminately as either a spurned, abusive husband, inflicting a recognized punishment for adultery, or as a savage beast.[11] However the king might choose to judge his actions, Bisclavret does what he does not necessarily because of reason, which is to say, not necessarily because of concerns that are abstract, objective, and concerned with generalizable laws. Free choice of the will hardly seems to be the engine of the defense of one’s life, or the enraged rectification of injustice: his actions feel reflexive. It is not, however, that Bisclavret is really an animal, but that what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen memorably terms the “undifferentiated concurrency”[12] of Marie’s story makes it impossible to distill any pure human intelligence, or a purely animal irrationality, from the actions of “ceste beste” identified as having “entente e sen.”[13] What ultimately matters to “Bisclavret” is an interspecies homosocial aristocratic loyalty, at the expense of one unfortunately married woman;[14] what matters is not that Bisclavret has intelligence, but that rather his actions receive royal legitimization. By the tale’s end, human difference comes to register only as a slight and fading ripple in its narrative current. Any contemporary theologian would be scandalized.

Such scandals are the subject of this book, which aims to explore what is left out of most discussions of medieval treatments of the distinction between humans and animals. From the standpoint of professional, scholarly texts running through the entirety of the Middle Ages, the difference between having human intelligence and a beast having intelligence is that between a pleonasm and an impossibility: for Augustine, for Aquinas, for a host of other thinkers, to be human at all is to be a mortal body conjoined with an immortal, rational soul, and to be a beast is to be precisely that form of life barred from reason and delivered over to everlasting, meaningless death.[15] Nothing could be more important than the difference between rational humanity and irrational animality, for without reason, there could be no free will, and without free will, there could be no moral culpability: lose human difference, and the whole edifice of divine justice collapses. Christ would have sacrificed himself for nothing. Yet these old means of making division are hardly only a relic of medieval theology. When Vincianne Despret describes a governing model of modern ethology as one in which the nonhuman animal is a “biological machine at the whim of uncontrollable laws…whose motivations can be mapped like a quasi-autonomous plumbing system,”[16] she could just as well be describing the insistence in medieval professional thinking on the impossibility of any nonhuman animal ever making a real choice. The thirteenth-century political theorist Marsilius of Padua affirms, without any fear of contradiction, that “man alone among the animals is said to have ownership or control of his acts.” [17] And when Marx writes that “man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or anything else you like,”[18] this reads like nothing so much as a slight revision to Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth-century assertion that humans surpass “brute beasts” by “his reason or mind or intelligence or whatever we wish to call it.”[19]

This is what most medieval textuality says, at least within the bounds of systematic thought, but outside systematic thought, a vast array of other material teemed. Medieval Nonhumanisms aims to give nonsystematic animal thinking the attention it deserves. “Bisclavret,” for one, merits the attention, as in the middle as in the modern ages, it has an audience: the Middle Ages gives us two manuscript copies, one complete, of Marie’s own text, twice as many as, for example, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; “Bisclavret” was itself adapted into the far more misogynist Biclarel, and also translated in the thirteenth-century Norwegian Strengleikar,[20] surviving in one manuscript, and then independently into Tiódéls saga in Iceland, preserved in an astonishing 24 manuscripts, the earliest dating to 1600: here, the wife, a murderer, is far crueler than Marie’s original, and the hero successively transforms into a wolf, a bear, and then, finally, a polar bear.[21] And in our present day, few undergraduate surveys of pre-Romantic European literature would be complete without at least one of Marie’s tales. Yet the story’s sympathetic, beastly intelligence renders it virtually unusable if it is meant to represent the most common features of “medieval literature”: undergraduates, and not only undergraduates, might come away from it mistakenly certain that medieval thought was generally disanthropocentric and otherwise free-roving when it came to human and animal difference. Given the master codes of medieval humanity, produced as they were in university settings, inculcated in religious doctrine, themselves at times defended by sword and fire and inquisition, to what degree can we claim that “Bisclavret” is a medieval work?

We can, if our aim is at describing possibilities, rather than providing only a clear map of the intellectual thruways of any given era. By way of comparison, I offer up two moments from Enlightenment French thought, the former repeatedly upheld as a key moment in the transition to modern humanism, and the other, almost entirely forgotten. The first comes from Nicholas Fontaine’s early eighteenth-century Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Port-Royal. Hundreds of scholars have cited one passage from this book, from what seems to have become the standard translation, dating back to its appearance in Tom Regan’s 1982 All That Dwell Herein, a foundational animal rights text, who in turn seems to have plucked it from Loren C. Eiseley’s 1960 The Firmament of Time.[22] Nicholas Fontaine recalls that Antoine Arnaud, le grand, held to Descartes’s opinions on the question of animals. When he relaxed among his friends, Arnaud often asserted that animals were nothing other than automata, little wind-up machines, and that consequently it was nothing to beat a dog, or to nail it to a board and cut it open to examine its circulation, because its cries were little more than the creaking of a displaced spring. And with that horror, scholars frighten us into recognizing that our modern regime of factory farming, animal experimentation, and indifferent instrumentalization of nonhuman life is an era that broke with something better. Things had once been less bad for animals, and for humans too, and they might be so again, so long as we confess to the guilt bequeathed to us by modernity.

But to my knowledge literally no modern animal rights writer cites the following story, also from Fontaine’s Mémoires, and like the other also about Antoine Arnaud, le grand:

But can I forget the pleasant conversation when this good lord closed the mouth of Monsieur Arnaud, as sophisticated as he was? They were speaking of Descartes’ philosophy, who was then the subject of everyone’s conversation. Monsieur Arnaud, a true renaissance man, had joined with Descartes’ system on the question of animals, holding that they were nothing more than clocks, and that when they cried out, it was nothing more than clockwork making noise. Monseiur de Liancourt [Duke Roger du Plessis] said to him, “Down there [in the kitchen] I have two dogs who daily alternate turning a spit. One of the dogs constrained to do this hid himself when they where going to put him to it, and he had recourse to his comrade [another dog] to turn the spit in his place. The comrade cried out and signaled with its tail that he should be followed. He turned up the other in the attic and reprimanded him fiercely. Are these clocks?” he said, which Monsieur Arnaud found so pleasant than he could do nothing else but laugh at it.

Mais puis-je oublier le plaisant entretien, où ce bon Seigneur ferma la bouche à M. Arnaud, tout savant qu’il étoit? On parloit de la philosophie de M. Descartes, qui étoit alors l’entre[c]ien de toutes les compagnies. M. Arnaud qui avoit un esprit universal & qui étoit entré dans le sistême de Descartes sur les bêtes, soutenoit que ce n’étoient que des horloges, et que quand elles crioient ce n’étoit qu’une roue d’horloge qui faisoit du bruit. M. de Liancourt lui dit: “J’ai là bas deux chiens qui tournent la broche chacun leur jour. L’un s’en trouvant embarasse se cacha lorsqu’on l’alloit prendre, et on eut recours à son camarade pour tourner au lieu de lui. Le camarade cria, et fit signe de sa queue qu’on le suivît. Il alla dénicher l’autre dans le grenier et le houspilla. Sont-ce là des horloges?” dit-il, à M. Arnaud qui trouva cela si plaisant, qu’il ne put faire autre chose que d’en rire.[23]

The ironies are almost too obvious to describe: though the Duke kept his dogs as literal machines, he knew them to have a sense of justice; though Arnaud beat and crucified his dogs, though he used them to study life itself—or to liberate “life,” whatever that is, from the body—he considered them, at best, mechanical puzzles to be solved. Even here, under Descartes, human confidence could go awry, with only a tickled, nervous, or uncertain laughter where we might expect to find cold reason. The mistake would be to take Arnaud’s laughter or the Duke’s proof as a vestige of an earlier zootopic dispensation, or even to take it as anticipating the so-called modern rise of house pets, the proliferation of eulogies for animals and animal biographies, and so on. Antoine Arnaud and Roger du Plessis lived in the same, heterogeneous era, representing competing discourses; the former belonged to the faction that gave us modern science, and the latter, to what we might hopefully call a science-to-come. A discourse powerful and influential enough to represent an era and those that followed should not be mistaken for the only story an era can offer us.

Far more familiar writing on animals furnishes similar complexity. In Genesis’ first creation account, God creates various creatures according to their kind and particular domains, and then forms humankind, uniquely, in his own image and grants them dominion over other animals, twice, in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28. In Genesis’ second creation story, beginning at 2:4, God creates Adam to tend to the plants he first created, and then tries to cure his loneliness by providing him with living things “like unto himself” (2:18), “all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air” (2:19). Though Adam knows his new companions well enough to name them, God’s experiment still fails: Adam, malcontent, wants something even more familiar. Exegetes wondered how animals had proved unsuitable, and what else could have gone wrong, as Adam, when he first regards Eve, declares: “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man” (2:23). The point of exegetical contention was the “this now”: some imagined that God might have provided a previous, unsatisfactory Eve, while the eleventh-century scholar Rashi outraged his successors by explaining that “this now” meant that “Adam mated with (she-ba’ adam) every [species of] domesticated animal (behemah) and wild animal (ḥayah) but his appetite was not assuaged (lo’ nitkarerah da’ato) by them.”[24] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has observed how some medieval writers saw in animals “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory.”[25] Adam’s bestiality might be seen as just such a exploration of “spacious corporeality,” a possibility for an anti-narcissistic relation to the other that does not seek satisfaction in “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” For whatever else Genesis’s second creation story is, it must be recognized as a creation account whose fundamental assumptions of human and animal relations and distinctions differ radically from that of the first, just as these two accounts differ in turn from the chaoskampf of the Bible’s third creation story, in Psalms 73/74:12-17. One story concerns separation and dominion, another thriving and cohabitation and loneliness, and the third a great oceanic conflict. Animals come first, or Adam does, or perhaps “the dragons in the waters” do. Despite the organizing efforts of the Bible’s ancient editors, no story has clear priority, and none is the clear endpoint.

The complicated relationship of “Bisclavret” to medieval professional doctrine, or Roger du Plessis to Descartes, or Genesis 2 to Genesis 1 should not be understood as temporal, as if one pure episteme gave way to other. The point is not that “Bisclavret” is ahead of its era, or that, at least on the question of nonhuman life, medieval people were Descartes avant la lettre. Nor, as delightful as it may be to claim Descartes as premodern, and therefore medieval (!), none of us, including medievalists, should make strong claims of temporal transformation until we have thoroughly mapped the heterogeneity of a given moment or even individual. Bisclavret was of its time, and so too were Marie’s university contemporaries. These differing perspectives could therefore better be understood not as temporal but as territorial divisions, describing how people draw borders around themselves and every other thing. Some are concerned with human/animal differences, and others with other differences. They represent a set of various simultaneously existing territories, some of which we might call intellectual superpowers—many medieval university texts survive in literally hundreds of manuscripts—but for all that, the rest of their balkanized world existed at the same time.[26]

Finally, the Middle Ages is a particularly apt era for investigating posthumanism, because moderns often tend to assume that the Middle Ages is particularly “brutal”: Katrin Bennhold is one of several New York Times writers who has deployed the common phrase “medieval brutality,” in her case, in a study of the similar paths to radicalization for both neo-Nazis and Islamic radicals, the latter of whom practice a supposed “medieval brutality.”[27] Web searches for cruel practices particular to specific eras, for example, “colonial brutality” and “capitalist brutality” can return more hits than “medieval brutality,” but comparable phrases for other eras—”early modern,” “renaissance,” or “classical” “brutality”—turn up little or nothing: especially since World War II, moderns have tended to flatter themselves by characterizing the Middle Ages as filthier, crueler, and more ‘ferocious’ (from the Latin ferox, wild animal, as “brutal” comes from the Latin brutus, “beast”). In the self-regard of modernity, the medieval is not just more violent than the present; in its “savagery” (from saeva, “raging”), it is more animal: closer to beasts, more intimate with them, and unthinkingly prone to what is presumed to be “animalistic” behavior. Assumptions like these hold that the past is cruel, the present civilized; the past superstitious, the present rational; and by extension, the past animal, bound unthinkingly to now outmoded traditions and stupid, pointless violence, while the present is human, able to master its instincts, refuse supposedly biologically hardwired hierarchies, and open itself to create a future of its own design.

That is, simply recognizing the cultural complexity of the Middle Ages—using, for example, the territorial model I propose above—helps combat the smug certainties of modernity. Furthermore, reliteralizing the metaphors, so that we recognize how medieval “brutality” animalizes an entire era (or supposedly “backwards” regions or peoples),[28] pays obvious dividends for animal studies and posthumanism by reopening the unexamined temporal, and hierarchical relationships of the animal to the human to the supposedly posthuman future. A simplistic conceptual sequence would hold that animals come first, then humans, and then posthumans. The final, posthuman element might be either a technological abandonment of both animality and humanity, in which brute matter, and even mortality and individuality, are sloughed off as the human uploads itself into a higher, technological existence. Alternately, the final, posthuman element can be a synthesis that finally recognizes the animal characteristics of even the traits humans claim as uniquely theirs: language, reason, even the soul, as the old certainties of humanism give way before the scientific onslaught of evolutionary genetics and disanthropocentric, nonprejudicial ethology. In either case, however, what is normally understood is the sequence, with true posthumanism requiring the intellectual freedom and atheism of the present. By contrast, recognizing the contradictions and complexity of the “normative humanity” of the Middle Ages prevents modern critics from mistakenly thinking that the category of the human had ever functioned perfectly.[29] Even the most mainstream medieval thinkers, in their attempts to separate humans from all other animals, recognized that claims to human reason rested on a shaky foundation. Outside these orthodox environs, medieval textually offered, in addition to Marie’s “Bisclavret,” works like the thirteenth-century old Norse Konungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror), which draws on Irish writing and storytelling to imagine the fate of men driven mad by battle: they flee into the woods, where they grow feathers, and “run along the trees almost as swiftly as monkeys or squirrels”;[30] or Thomas of Cantimpré’s thirteenth-century life of Christina Mirabilis (“the Astonishing”), from what is now Sint-Truiden in modern-day Belgium: after dying briefly, and then being restored to life, Christine now has the benefits of the resurrection body, but in the mutable, present world. At one point she collapses her limbs “together into a ball as if they were hot wax” so that “all that could be perceived of her was a round mass,” and then, once finished with her “spiritual inebriation,” she returned to her proper form, “like a hedgehog” unrolling itself.[31] These may be stories about humans, but they are hardly stories that rely on the typical, upright human posture, or on the supposed centrality of ratiocination to being truly human. To the degree that the category of the human jealousy guards its privileges, especially immaterial privileges like the claim to an immortal soul and the unique possession of language and free will, it has always been in crisis; and a not inconsiderable amount of medieval textuality, even amid such category crises, was more or less indifferent to the orthodox chore of defending an absolute human difference. Posthumanism need not await some coming technocultural shift; it simply requires more careful reading of the material we already have.

The chapters of Medieval Posthumanism follow a trajectory from minimal challenges to human particularity to a final wriggling free from the presumption that agency, free will, and rationality are the defining characteristics of the human experience. My first chapter, on pets, illustrate interspecies emotional bonds in their promise, danger, and pathology. It begins with how cats draw affectionate attention from even their most suspicious critics; next, it considers the widespread “canis” or “Guinefort” legend, in which a knight goes on pilgrimage or even kills himself because he has unjustly and killed his dog; and finally Chaucer’s Prioress, whose keeping of pets, even in recent criticism, has been derided as a symptom of her thwarted motherhood or as otherwise pathetic. Rather than normalizing her by, for example, historicizing monastic pet-keeping, I will explore the Prioress’s misdirected love of (certain) animals as both a node in her antisemitism and a queer refusal to go along with the human community.

In an approach indebted to feminist care ethics, my second chapter demonstrates that stories of isolated and feral children are less about a foundational extrajudicial masculine power than they are about the need for community, of whatever sort. First I consider the famous language deprivation experiment, considering examples from Herodotus through to early modern retellings of a similar experiment supposedly conducted at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. The chapter next considers stories of “feral founders” like Romulus and Remus to argue that they should be understood not as stories of sovereignty, but as stories of “feral foundlings,” for in all of them, the abandoned human children thrive only because they are cared for. I finally consider the fourteenth-century wolf child of Hesse, whose story belongs to the point when old stories of heroic feral founders began to become modernity’s familiar stories of wretched feral children. As I observe, the brief discussion of him in the Chronicle of Peter of Erfurt hints that he may have joined his pack in eating human flesh. Though the story presents an alternate model of being human, and a surprising degree of sympathy for the melancholic adult the boy becomes, it nonetheless does not flinch from picturing what might be required to become a companion of wolves.

My third chapter, “Food for Worms” recuperates medieval death art for ecocritical thinking. Although this particularly medieval material has been understood primarily as driven by moral, ascetic, and antifeminist concerns, its interest in the material edibility of the human body might also be read ecologically. I focus at length on the Middle English “Disputation between the Body and Worms,” a poetic dream conversation between a woman’s corpse and a pack of moralizing, hungry vermin. I engage with the poem in four ways: a study of the weird modes of sexualized identification between dreamer and putrefying flesh; a consideration of the challenge worms pose to the “unsubstitutible singularity” at the heart of main streams of critical animal theory; a rehabilitation of spontaneous generation to challenge metaphors of life and vitality; and finally, a consideration of the poem’s call for “friendship” between corpse and worms, and how we ought to respond to the call to embrace the edibility of what we believe to be our own bodies.

“Food for Birds,” my fourth chapter, begins by focusing on the classical and medieval interest of inhumation cultures in the “sky burial”– the ritual exposure of human corpses to be eaten by birds—as practiced by Iranian Zoroastrians and, later, by Tibetan Buddhists. Writers from Herodotus on took a variety of stances, but many simply took an interest, without condemnation. Later medieval material ultimately stems from reports from Franciscan missionaries in Central Asia, and the transmission of this material into the enormously widespread Book of John Mandeville. The practical, unhorrified attention to differing cultural practices anticipates contemporary attempts to concoct ecologically sound burial practices, while the medieval material, ultimately concerned with the culture of birds, challenges the tendency in modern writing to represent “sky burial” as a return to “natural balance.” Extending the previous chapter’s interest in the edibility of humans, this chapter ultimately concerns human edibility as a negotiation or accommodation with a host of interested parties, irreducible to any facile split between culture and nature.

My final chapter considers the oyster, which, from Plato at least through the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment encyclopedia, incarnated animal life at its most helpless. Philippe de Thaon and Robert Grosseteste thought of oysters are basically rocks, generated spontaneously (rather than through deliberate mating) by the action of the sun upon the waters. The fourteenth-century encyclopedist John Trevisa is more typical of the tradition in calling oysters the “lowest in animal kind, surpassing but little the highest form of life of trees and plants,” unable to move, and with no sense but touch. Ficino’s fifteenth-century commentaries on Plato called the life of the oyster one of “pure pleasure” and the form of life that was “closest to death,” while Diderot and d’Alembert thought that a human stripped of everything but life would effectively be an oyster. Thinking with oysters counters the emphasis on “agency” that is so typical of the last decade’s work in posthumanist philosophy and literary criticism, while also generating an alternate history of the key critical concept of “bare life.” Through identifying with the oyster, so helpless and senseless, we might might recognize how little a role agency plays in most of our lives. For as even Descartes observed, our existence is mostly unwilled.

Medieval Posthumanism has as one of its goals a reorientation of critical animal studies from the certainty that the way to philosophical and ethical truth is through the study of violence. Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am famously focuses on Jeremy Bentham’s argument that the most important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer. With Bentham’s new formulation, Derrida claims, everything changes, as philosophical attention can be shifted away from capacities—the presence or absence of language, for example—and towards the “nonpower at the heart of power,”[32] namely, the incapacity to avoid suffering, shared by all sentient things, human or animal. By shifting attention, Derrida aims at what he calls ‘the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life’ [la façon la plus radicale de penser la finitude que nous partageons avec les animaux, la mortalité qui appartient à la finitude même de la vie].[33] Derrida discovers the most intense form of the question in death, suffering, and inability, all of which lie on the other side, at the before (the radical, from the Latin radix, root) and at the after (the finitude, from the Latin finis, a close or conclusion). But recalling Herbert Marcuse’s short classic of anti-fascist writing, his “Ideology of Death,” should make us suspicious about any elevation of “a brute biological fact…into an existential privilege”:[34] death need not be upheld as the truth of life. Likewise, recalling Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty should guide us away from the “Messianic approach to art-making” that holds that revelations of violence are key to shaking us out of our complacency.[35] With Marcuse and Nelson in mind, we might do better to begin our analysis with other forms of nonpower, those of emotional attachment, the need for care, the strange nonhuman materialism of our own bodies, or the nonpower of simply being incapable of fully apprehending the world we inhabit. Attention to suffering can get our analyses far, but this pessimism ultimately constrains any fuller account of the strange communities characteristic of any existence, which can just as well be cluster around care as around vulnerability. Let’s experiment by trying another way.

[1] Marie de France, Die Lais der Marie de France, ed. Karl Warnke, 3rd ed. (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1925). Good translations of Marie’s Lais are easy to come by.

[2] For a survey of the tradition, Leslie Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson  N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2008).

[3] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 70–72.

[4] “Melion,” in Amanda Hopkins, ed., Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werwolf Lays, trans. Amanda Hopkins (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Department of French, 2005).

[5] Leslie Sconduto, trans., Guillaume de Palerne (Jefferson  N.C.: McFarland, 2004).

[6] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, 71–72. In the first of his several revisions to this text, Gerald cites still more stories of animal transformation. including Welsh, Scottish, and Irish old women [vetulas] who turn into hares and surreptitiously suck on teats to steal milk (“sub specie ubera sugendo, lac alienem occultius surripient”), before concluding – as a good Christian intellectual – that no such transformations really take place. He of course cites Augustine of Hippo: Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 106.

[7] “Arthur and Gorlagon,” in Mildred Leake Day, ed., Latin Arthurian Literature, trans. Mildred Leake Day (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2005), 216–17.

[8] “Melion,” 217-18, in Hopkins, Melion and Biclarel. “Biclarel,” 44-47, makes a similar assertion. The Old Norse “Saga of Ali Flekk,” in W. Bryant Buchman, jr. and Guđmundur Erlingsson, trans., Six Old Icelandic Sagas (Lanham: University Press of America, 1993), 43-61, is a distant analogue to this kind of story, as Ali’s unmistakable eyes reveal his identity as he rampages as a wolf. For more, Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, “The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106, no. 3 (2007): 277–303. For a Hebrew analogue from a commentary by Judah the Pious (d. 1217) on the serpent from Genesis, David I. Shyovitz, A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 138–39.

[9] Nigel Bryant, trans., Perceforest: The Prehistory of Arthur’s Britain (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2011), 201. For more, Miranda Griffin, “Animal Origins in Perceforest,” Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes 21 (2011): 169–84.

[10] Peggy McCracken, In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 62.

[11] Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 64.

[12] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “The Werewolf’s Indifference,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 353.

[13] For an allied reading, Crane, Animal Encounters, 55.

[14] For a comparable interpretation, closely aligned with Agamben, Emma Campbell, “Political Animals: Human/Animal Life in Bisclavret and Yonec,” Exemplaria 25, no. 2 (2013): 98–101. On gender and Bisclavret, also see Paul Creamer, “Woman-Hating in Marie de France’s Bisclavret,” The Romanic Review 93, no. 3 (2002): 259–74; H. Marshall Leicester, “The Voice of the Hind: The Emergence of Feminine Discontent in the Lais of Marie de France,” in Reading Medieval Culture: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Hanning, ed. Sandra Pierson Prior and Robert M. Stein (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 145–49; Miranda Griffin, “The Beastly and the Courtly in Medieval Tales of Transformation: Bisclavret, Melion, and Mélusine,” in The Beautiful and the Monstrous: Essays in French Literature, Thought and Culture, ed. Amaleena Damlé and Aurélie L’Hostis (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), 142–46; and Victoria Blud, The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature, 1000-1400 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2017), 122–28.

[15] Karl Steel, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011).

[16] Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, trans. Brett Buchanan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 38.

[17] Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis, trans. Alan Gewirth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), II.12.16, 193.

[18] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The German Ideology,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 50.

[19] Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, 41, 42 (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 96.

[20] Mattias Tveitane, ed., Strengleikar: An Old Norse Translation of Twenty-One Old French Lais, trans. Robert Cook (Oslo: Norsk Historisk Kjeldeskrift-Institutt, 1979), 85–99. The translation is largely faithful to Marie, differing in Bisclavret’s gestures of submission (he places both paws on the king’s knee), and his violence against his estranged wife (he tears off her clothes rather than her nose).

[21] Tove Hovn Ohlsson, ed., Tiodielis Saga (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum, 2009). For an English summary of the plot, see the review by Marianne E. Kalinke, in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology 110, no. 3 (2011): 394–95.

[22] Tom Regan, All That Dwell Therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 5; Loren C. Eiseley, The Firmament of Time (New York: Atheneum, 1960), 28.

[23] Nicolas Fontaine, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Port-Royal par M. Fontaine, 2 vols. (Utrecht, 1736),  2: 470.

[24] Eric Lawee, “The Reception of Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah In Spain: The Case of Adam’s Mating with the Animals,” Jewish Quarterly Review 97 (2007): 50.

[25] “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” in Engaging With Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 55.

[26] The background to these ideas is Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). More recently, see Steve Mentz, Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), x, for a “composting model of historical change [that] recognizes multiple presences in multiple states of decay at all times.”

[27] Katrin Bennhold, “Same Anger, Different Ideologies: Radical Muslim and Neo-Nazi,” The New York Times, March 5, 2015,

[28] Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[29] For this argument at more length, see my “Medieval,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, ed. Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 3–15.

[30] Laurence Marcellus Larson, ed., The King’s Mirror (Speculum Regale–Konungs Skuggsjá, trans. Laurence Marcellus Larson (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1917), 116.

[31] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Life of Christina Mirabilis, trans. Margot H. King (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing, 2000), 18–19.

[32] The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 28.

[33] Derrida, 28; “L’animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 278.

[34] Herbert Marcuse, “The Ideology of Death,” in Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Emancipation: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume Five, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (New York: Routledge, 2010), 124. For introducing me to this important essay, thanks to Louise Olga Fradenburg, “Sacrificial Desire in the Knight’s Tale,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 27 (1997): 47–75.

[35] Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 94.


Crawling Matter: Spontaneous Generation from the Ancients to the Moderns – a preview

A preview of a talk I’m giving for the British Animal Studies Network meeting in late April, 2018, in Glasgow.

The key challenge of spontaneous generation is its disruptions of agent/object divisions and the hierarchical divisions they support, including that between immaterial life and mere matter. Very few medieval thinkers followed these thoughts to this point without seeking succor in some quasi-divine force: one was Blaise of Parma (d. 1416). Known to his enemies as the ‘Doctor Diabolicus,’ Blaise’s fame to date rests largely on his work on optics and weights. His optical theories led him to argue that intellection was a form of sense perception, and since sense perception requires a distinct, material object, the objects of intellectual, thought, must be material too. From this, he finally proposed this hypothetical conclusion: ‘that human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.’ He reached similar conclusions in considering the problem of spontaneous generation, where he argued that not just gnats, bees, mice, toads, and the like, could emerge spontaneously, but all life could, including human life, for ‘nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, and so on.’ Blaise was eventually forced to recant these views, which included an argument that the story of the Ark was mythical, given that the postdiluvian world would have given rise again to the life that had once inhabited it. In this shocking thinker, we can observe a fully materialist, nonpaternal, acentric conception of life, without any transcendent pretensions of a cause disentangled from an effect.

Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro

This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here’s what’s undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I’ve found easiest to navigate:

British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Petworth Manuscript [newly digitized].
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the ‘Devonshire Chaucer’).
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the ‘Delamare Chaucer’).

If you’re reading this, I trust you’re already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook’s Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you’ll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight’s Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has “Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia,” and where Hengwrt 25v has “Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda,” Christ Church 152, 26v, has “the ordinannce of lystys that thesyiis ordaynyd.” Does the Knight’s Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of “ordaining” the divisions of the plot?

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Or here’s the Reeve’s Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v. Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself (“Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale” — note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes “Prologue” in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath’s Tale start? In at least one case, her tale – or one of them anyway – begins after the Pardoner interrupts her:

Harley 7334 89r

Harley 7334 89r, with a red “Narrat” in the margin.

Here, then, the Wife’s prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her “experience.”

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife’s Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here’s my (crowded) slide:


Is it just “words between” the Friar and Summoner? It is an “interpretation” of the Wife’s tale? An “interruption”? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife’s prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar’s Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Should the carter be taken down to hell? “Nay q[uo]d þe deuel,” he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda’s story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v

Harley 1758 126v

The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin’s Tale — not the Merchant’s — begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire’s Tale. They’ve clearly “sought in diuers places” for the “the reaste” but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn’t get changed: in red, “The Prologue to the Merchaunt.” Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant’s Tale (“Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight”). No correction. No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn’t bothered by variance in Tale order. If you’re having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than “fragments.”

My letter to Vassar in support of Dorothy Kim

Here’s David Perry’s excellent letter. Here’s a summary of the present situation.  Here’s evidence of Fulton Brown’s creepiness.

UPDATE: President Bradley has issued a statement of support. Very happy to see this.

Dear President Bradley,

I’m sure you’ve become aware of the outrage directed at Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor in the Vassar English Department. As one of the co-editors of the blog, In the Middle, which has hosted much of her work describing the racial politics of medieval studies, I am, unsurprisingly, writing in support of her. I admire her work greatly, and am certain that the field is much better to have her in it.

While many medievalists have worked to undo racist misappropriations of our field, Dorothy Kim has been the primary target of one, tenured medieval historian, Rachel Fulton Brown, of the University of Chicago. This is telling, I suspect, because she could have just as easily gone after me: but I’m tenured, white, and male. Frankly, I find her focus on Kim suspicious.

Furthermore—and this is the primary reason I’m driven to write—Fulton Brown has enlisted the support of several right-wing personalities and websites with an enormous reach far outside the academic communities in which these debates typically take place. While Kim has addressed her fellow academics—experts in the field, with a particular duty to teach and tell the story of our field correctly and ethically—Fulton Brown has played to the crowd.

I fear the results may be unpleasant, and I urge your office, particularly your public relations people, to do what I would expect they’re already doing, which is not to mistake the voices of nonexperts for the voices of experts. Notably, several of the leading professional organizations in medieval studies, including the Medieval Academy of America and the New Chaucer Society, have recently issued statements on respect and professional ethics, all at least implicitly in support of Dorothy Kim. Fulton Brown has just as notably received no such support from professional, academic organizations, whether in or outside her field.

If the university is to survive as a vibrant and worthwhile place for the free exercise of intellectual inquiry, it needs to respect the expertise of its members and their communities. I write with that in mind.


Karl Steel
Associate Professor
English Department
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

What the article didn’t include: on whiteness, medieval studies, and the adulation of creeps

Yesterday, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education contacted me, and my co-bloggers, for an interview for the Rachel Fulton Brown situation. I begged off, because I’d just arrived back in NYC at 6am and needed the day to try to sleep a little and to prep for several hours of teaching. But, being a creature of words, I wrote a long email in response to the reporter’s initial set of questions. I won’t include the questions, because they’re not mine to share, but you can surmise what they might have been easily enough.

I’m sharing my response because, for better or worse, none of this was included in the article. And I’m sharing it here rather than at ITM for what should be obvious reasons of not centering me in this situation. A shorter version of the argument is available here, on twitter. And, it should be needless to say [edit] anyone who’s now defending Milo “Feminism is Cancer” Yiannopoulos ought to stop for a while, and reflect.

Lightly edited, my email response to the reporter follows:

Online debates in the academic blogosphere date at least from what we might call the “heroic era” of blogging. In the Middle originated in this period, joining blogs like The Valve, Crooked Timber, and Michael Berubé as a place for engaged, theoretically sophisticated humanities discussion. We joined an already existing vibrant medievalism blogosphere, and distinguished ourselves, eventually, by simply outlasting the other members of our online community. Debates about the “unprofessionalism” of blogging date from this era as well: many scholars, established and otherwise, warned that blogging would be a career killer, a distraction from careful academic work, which was always said to require more space than afforded by whatever medium was being sniffed at, whether this was a blog post or the microblogging platforms of facebook or twitter.

All of this is to say that in a sense none of this is new. From my perspective, what’s new is an extremely well-organized on-line radical right, able to transform online noise into real-world political action. Political blogging in the era of Townhall, the Volokh Conspiracy, Pandagon, Daily Kos, Eschaton, and so on was noisy and ridiculous, but effectively [edit] intramural. Political blogging in the Breitbart era, with the online political right embedded in the White House, is a different, and far more dangerous animal. Stormfront used to be a fringe movement; now, frighteningly, it isn’t.

Which is to say, what distinguishes this latest blogging argument, between In the Middle and its allies and Rachel Fulton Brown and her allies, is that RFB has sought and received approving attention from this Right Wing activist online world. This attention has transformed the stakes of the argument, and also transformed the nature of the competing set of allies. Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin, for example, were the stars of the right in the Heroic Age of Blogging, but their profiles never rose to what Milo Y possesses now. Furthermore, ITM remains largely within the community of academics, mostly medievalists, whereas RFB has moved outside this world to draw on the approval of politically very well-connected nonexperts. That’s key.

The other key new element is a new public voice of antiracist activism. While ITM has always complicated unscholarly notions of race and racialization, from my perspective, Ferguson and the rise of the so-called Dark Enlightenment, both in 2014, radically transformed the nature and force of the discussion at ITM about racism, racialization, and misappropriations of the Middle Ages by white supremacists. RFB is a kind of photo negative of our work on this topic.

In sum, very little of this is new – the charges of unprofessionalism, the acrimonious debates, and even the occasional unbalance – but what may be new is the on and offline nature of online Right Wing activism and the new urgency in antiracist activism.

From The Forbidden Experiment to Little Communities

Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale

Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5212 20v

Further Sabbatical Fruits – the first third of what’s bound to be the longest chapter of Book 2, Chapter 2, On Isolated and Feral Children. Thanks to Maryam Razaz and St Chad’s, Durham University, and also to Anna Klosowska in Dijon for letting me present this material (in two separate chunks, mercifully) in June 2017.

Earlier versions are here and here, or, what began as accidentally falling down an irrelevant research hole became, knock on wood, something that’s going to be, um, ‘real.’


A group of children, confined to a house, never taught to speak; an infant, certain to grow up to supplant the king, exposed and left for dead, only to be rescued by a mothering wolf; an abandoned child, raised imperfectly by animals, unwilling or unable to adapt to the expectations of human culture: stories like these, of children deprived of—or preserved from—human nurturing and cultural training have typically been thought to say something about what it means to be a truly human, truly sovereign, or even to be confirmations of the superiority of an ethnos or faith. They are, in other words, taken as stories of isolation, and therefore as stories of truth, as if the truth is the thing that emerges only when all the merely secondary things have been refined away.

This chapter argues that these stories are better understood not as about isolation, but about community, sometimes failed, sometimes present, and ultimately, in my treatment of the Wolf Child of Hesse, a choice that makes one group at the expense of another. Normative notions of what the human should be make these stories speak predictable lessons about the opposition between spoken language and irrationality, nature and culture, and even care and violence. But this material does not quite take the human for granted. They pose it as a question, and in the space opened by that question, we have the chance to answer it otherwise.


From The Forbidden Experiment to Little Communities

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the “children of Adam” decide to erect a tower to “reach to heaven” to “make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands.” This is a story about the architectural possibilities brick opens up over stone (11:3); about collective rather than regal politics, as later commentators, not scripture itself, lay the responsibility for Babel Tower on the tyrant Nimrod;[1] and yet another Genesiac story about God’s jealous destruction of human felicity.[2] Most famously, it is about the catastrophic origins of linguistic diversity, and therefore yet another tantalizing account of the irretrievable loss of a first, happy unity.[3] At times studious indifference characterizes speculations about the language God used to create the world in Genesis’ first creation story and Adam to name the animals in the second: Augustine sometimes does no more than allow that the language of Adam and Eve, whatever it might have been, might have survived to the present, but he insisted that it was but a sop to human limitations to imagine that God “spoke” in language.[4] Those many commentators less reluctant to settle on a language tended to chose Hebrew.[5] The Book of Jubilees, a second-century BCE retelling of Genesis, is one of the earliest witnesses of this tendency, when it has God teach Abraham this “revealed language,” the lost “language of the creation,” once shared with “the animals, the cattle, the birds, everything that walks and everything that moves”;[6] when the Syriac Cave of Treasures—a Christian universal history begun as early as the third century and finalized by the sixthadvocates for Syriac, its sneering reference to the “ignorant mistake” of those who believe the first language to be Hebrew is itself evidence for how common this identification must have been already.[7] Key early Christian advocates for Hebrew include Isidore of Seville and Bede, and even Augustine, in his City of God;[8] the eighth-century commentator Alcuin of York explains why: to realize the typically neat symmetry of medieval exegesis, Alcuin writes that it was suitable (oportuit) that Christ’s salvific language, which he supposed to be Hebrew, should also be the language through which death first entered the world.[9]

In a letter protesting her own monastery’s excommunication, the twelfth-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen proposed that the first language was not speech but angelic musical harmony, in whose glory Adam shared until he sinned, which is why her nuns should be allowed again to sing their services.[10] With Hildegard’s longing to participate in the first “divine melody”; with Jubilees and its angelic language; with the generally “numinous character” imparted to Hebrew in speculations on Babel and Eden;[11] and, for that matter, with the “Evernew Tongue” of a ninth- or tenth-century Irish visionary hexameron, the Tenga Bithnua, which will also be understood by the “sea-creatures and beasts and cattle and birds and serpents and demons, which all will speak at the Judgment”[12]: in all of this, we witness the two main motives driving attempts to identify the first language. The first is to find a language before a diversity of tongues to get at language’s truth, led by the still-common assumption that singular things are truer or at least better than heterogenous ones. The second motive is to arrive at that great unity, God Himself, through his own language, which must be a language, like Hebrew, that persists into the present day, just as God himself does.[13] The original language becomes key to burrowing under the wreck of the present, to emerge once again in paradise, or in the time of the Last Judgment and the coming glory. With this, language’s inadequacy can be cured of its seemingly irreducible confusion, and we can know it as the voice of our truth.

The first record of an experimental attempt to find such a language and such a foundation dates to the fifth century BCE, from Herodotus’s story of Psamtik (whom Herodotus calls Psammetichus), a powerful and long-ruling Pharaoh of the twenty-sixth dynasty. Though the Egyptians reputed themselves to be the “oldest nation on earth,” others argued that the honor belonged to the Phrygians: as Psamtik wanted experimental confirmation, he had children raised in isolation with a herdsman who was never to speak to them, with the expectation that, freed from educational meddling, they would produce the primordial language, spontaneously. After two years — and as the first Englishing of Herodotus runs — “both the little brats, sprawling at his feete, and stretching forth their handds, cryed thus: Beccos, Beccos,”[14] which Psamtik and his advisers understood as the Phrygian word for bread. Thus he had the unpleasant surprise of learning that not the Egyptians, but the Phrygians, were the oldest culture. Later commentators have tended to misunderstand the story’s punchline: it is less about the first language than the first people.[15] What Psamtik wanted was not a general principle of the origin of language, but a miraculous, and therefore extracultural foundation for his claims to cultural superiority.

Medieval Latin Christendom could have heard only faint report of this story. Herodotus would not be translated into Latin until the later fifteenth century, while his Psamtik story slides into European vernaculars only with the widely popular Silva de varia leccíon of the sixteenth-century Sevillan humanist Pedro Mexía, itself quickly translated into French and English,[16] and from thence into virtually uncountable paraphrases, for example, the discussion by the Montpellier physician Laurence Joubert (d. 1582) of linguistic origins and deafness.[17] As long ago as the first century of our era, Herodotus already tended to be cited, by Cicero among others, only through intermediaries.[18] The story itself may still have circulated independently. Aristophanes uses it in his Clouds to form an insult about “moon-bread” children, suggesting he trusted his audience to get the joke. The first-century Roman rhetorician Quintillian tells what may be an independent, or garbled, version, in which not one but several princes conduct the experiment.[19] In the version told in the Exhortation to the Greeks (the Protrepticus) by the early Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), it is not a herdsmen but goats that raise the children, a strange misreading of the original that would be reproduced in commentaries on Aristophanes at least as late as the tenth century.[20] But Quintilian sustained little regular readership in medieval Latinity,[21] while Clement’s Protepticus, a rare work even in its original Greek, would not be translated into Latin until 1551.[22] Clement’s contemporary Tertullian also tells the story in his To the Heathens (Ad nationes), drawing on a version Herodotus rejected, in which not a herdsman but a nurse with an amputated tongue nurtures the children: her injury is sufficient for Tertullian to dismiss the story, as no one could survive the removal of “that vital instrument of the soul.”[23] Just one medieval manuscript of this last work survives, a ninth-century copy used by the notorious polemicist Agobard of Lyons,[24] and I have encountered no medieval quotation of or even allusion to Tertullian’s retelling of the story. Ad nationes would not appear again until 1625, well after Herodotus and Psamtik made their way back into European writing.[25]

The next version of the experiment appears an astonishing 1700 years after Herodotus, in the thirteenth-century chronicle of the Franciscan historian Salimbene di Adam, who, several decades after the events he claims to be recording, explains that Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, wanted to know what language children would spontaneously produce if they were never spoken to, or even “blandirentur” [dandled].[26] As thirteenth-century Sicily was a particularly language-rich environment, Salimbene may have imagined Frederick conducting the experiment to establish a linguistic foundation for his rule in a place without any obvious cultural unity. He has the emperor wonder whether the spontaneous language would be Greek, Latin, or Arabic, or perhaps even their parental language, the kind that can be acquired without training, as if there were no originary language and as if one’s mother tongue were, so to speak, a genetic inheritance. What he learned instead is that without affection, without clapping and gestures and funny faces and babbling from their nurses, babies die [“non enim vivere possent sine aplausu et gestu et letitia faciei et blanditiis baiularum et nutricum suarum”].

Faint allusions also appear in a number of medieval Jewish writers, who take various stances on the experiment—Abraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1167) expects that a child raised in a desert with only a mute nurse would spontaneously produce Aramaic; Hillel of Verona expects the result to be Hebrew (d. c. 1295); Abraham Abulafia (d. 1291) and his contemporary Zerahyah ben Isaac ben Shealtiel Hen each doubt that any language would emerge, though both insist on Hebrew’s special character.[27] The Scottish historian Robert Lindsay (d. 1580) has his king King James IV conduct the experiment in 1493 with a mute woman housed with two children on Inchkeith, a barren island in the Firth of Forth. Lindsay concludes dubiously with “Sum sayis they spak goode hebrew bot as to my self I knaw not bot be the authoris reherse”;[28] he is writing late enough that his unnamed and uncited “authoris” may be Herodotus himself, or at least Pedro Mexía, with the Pharaoh garbed now in tartan.

Finally, the story is included in a great many records of the sixteenth-century court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, in chronicles kept in Persian and Arabic by both Akbar’s allies and enemies, and in Italian and Latin by Jesuit missionaries, whose letters and memoirs helped spread the story through European early modern and Enlightenment philosophical, medical, and travel writing. The anonymous continuation of the Akbarnama, the “Book of Akbar,” may be the only version that has any grounds to claim to be a first-hand account, although even this may well be just a local variant of the Herodotus story, transmitted to Akbar’s court by European travelers. To prove that speech comes from hearing, Akbar had several children raised by “tongue-tied” wetnurses, confined to a building that came to be called the “dumb house.” When Akbar visited the house in 1582, four years after the children were first interred, he heard “no cry…nor any speech…no talisman of speech, and nothing came out except the noise of the dumb.”[29] Much the same story would be told decades later, in the anonymous Dabestan-e Mazaheb (the “School of Religions), written between 1645 and 1658, whose surprising conclusion is that since “letters and language are not natural to man,” but only the result of instruction and conversation, the world must be “very ancient.”[30] The Arabic Selection of Chronicles by Bada’uni (d. 1605) has the version closest to those told by European writers. Bada’uni records Akbar’s astonished encounter with a man who can hear, despite having “no ears nor any trace of the orifice of the ear”: to test the origins of language, he has several infants locked up, with “well-disciplined” (rather than mute) nurses, who are commanded not to give the children “any instruction in speaking.” Then, without any transition or explanation, Bada’uni changes Akbar’s motivation: he now wants to determine which religious language the children would naturally produce, presumably Arabic, Hebrew, or Latin.[31] Roughly twenty children are locked up in what comes to be called the “dumb house,” and “three or four years” later, none can speak. Nothing more is said about the earless man.

Several early European accounts of Akbar’s court omit this story. Giovanni Battista Peruschi’s 1597 Informatio del regno, et stato del gran re di Mogor (published in Latin the following year, with additional material on Japan) limits itself to worrying whether Akbar could be an ally of Roman Catholicism,[32] while the True Relation without all Exception, of Strange and Admirable Accidents, which lately happened in the Kingdome of the Great Magor, from 1622, is little but an exoticizing indulgence in fantasies of absolute royal power: it devotes several of its thirteen pages to an often-told story of a problem-solving ape, which frolics among the Mughal courtiers and Akbar’s two hundred “boyes…which hee keepeth for unnaturall and beastly uses.”[33] Akbar’s forbidden experiment enters Europe via the letters of another Jesuit missionary, Jerome Xavier (d. 1617), who claims to have had the story from Akbar himself. Xavier explains that “nearly twenty years ago,” Akbar closed up “thirty children,” and “put guards over them so that the nurses might not teach them their language.” There is nothing about an earless man. Xavier instead only has Akbar conduct the experiment with an eye towards following “the laws and customs of the country whose language was that spoken by the children.” Since “none of the children came to speak distinctly,” Xavier calls the experiment a “failure”; for Akbar, it may have been something else, since it allowed him to justify following “no law but his own.”[34] Here Xavier presumably means the short-lived, syncretic faith of Dīn-i Ilāhī, designed by Akbar himself. With this, we have yet another story of Roman Catholics disappointed in their search for Prester John, the Asian or African king who might swoop in from “behind enemy lines” to crush Islam. Once Xavier introduced the story, other European writers would, so to speak, close the narrative loop, by telling it with Herodotus’s account.[35] Retellings often secularized the Akbar story, rendering it only about language origins rather than religion, so establishing the habit of modern critics to read the forbidden experiment as about anything but ethnos or religious creed.[36] Its inclusion in Daniel Sennert’s posthumously published medical manual, his Paralipomena, merits individual citation for its unexpected conclusion about parrots, which, as he explains, also can “never produce any human voice by their own will” (“nunquam sua sponte ullam humanam vocem proferunt”[37]) unless they are captured as chicks and taught to speak. By the later seventeenth century, Akbar’s experiment would be collected alongside stories of children raised by animals, like the sheep-boy of Ireland,[38] a mythic tradition I treat in the next two sections of this chapter.

Perhaps the strangest strain in modern discussions of these stories has been their credulity, especially given that Herodotus himself doubted the historical reality of at least some versions of the Psamtik tale. Modern scholars, however, sometimes take the trouble to quibble with Herodotus by insisting the experimental method seems more Egyptian than Greek, or vice versa, and that the word “Beccos” sounds more Egyptian than Phrygian. Professionals in early childhood development and linguistics, and even a few cultural historians, not infrequently dispute the validity of its design, sometimes after making a point of their skepticism over whether it happened. Others flaunt their conscience by condemning Psamtik’s cruelty. This is a very strange body of scholarship to read, not only because it misunderstands or forgets how early historiography works, but also because no one unpleasant enough to conduct these experiments could possibly be convinced by these arguments to abandon their vices.[39] Such errors of interpretation can be avoided simply by sorting the language experiment with the other, equally grandiose claims that clustered around all these potentates: Psamtik, for example, was reputed to be the inventor of the labyrinth,[40] while Salimbene frames his story with a set of what he calls the emperor’s other “superstitions.”[41] Frederick had a scribe’s hand cut off for spelling his name “Fredericus” instead of his preferred “Fridericus”; he had a man sealed and drowned in a winecask to demonstrate that the soul dies with the body (a point Salimbene counters with a flurry of scriptural citations); and he ordered one of his men go hunting, and the other to sleep through the day, and when the hunter returned, had them both cut open to see who had better digested his food. James IV was a famous polymath, well known for his mastery of many languages. Bada’uni in particular presented Akbar as such an irreligious tyrant that chunks of his history were repressed until after Akbar’s death. In part, these rulers are all said to carry out the deprivation experiment because cruel experimentation is what learned, excessively curious tyrants do. With all this in mind, we should not worry whether these stories could be true, straightforwardly, but neither should we simply dismiss them as untrue: rather we should assume that their “truth” is what the stories are interested in.

One key motive in these experiments is that of getting past culture and into a human behavior, trait, or characteristic that just is, automatically. That is, what the experiments seek is a cultural element—not only language, but a particular language, or a religion, or an ethnos—that comes into being without any need for cultural or even human support. Unlike the thought experiments of the Islamic theological novels by Ibn-Tufail (d. 1185) and Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288)—which each have children spontaneously generated on remote islands, where each systematically and rationally, without cultural training, arrives at philosophical and religious truths[42]—the classical language deprivation experiment wants a truth that emerges from nowhere, freed from any train of causes, rational or otherwise. Unlike the isolation thought experiments that would proliferate in linguistic speculations in eighteenth-century Europe—in Bernard Mandeville’s 1729 Fable of the Bees,[43] the Abbé de Condillac’s 1749 Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines,[44] and Montesquieu’s Pensées,[45] among others—the classical thought experiment does not expect that the first language would be primitive or “savage,” but rather that it would be perfect, divine, or at the very least, identical with some culturally dominant language of the present. The eighteenth-century isolation experiment emerges from a European present increasingly certain of its own cultural supremacy and worldwide dominance; the earlier versions feature cultures that seek to ground themselves in something surer than their own momentary supremacy. The classical isolation experiment is thus driven less by a hunt for origins than by a hunt for foundations, a hunt that, moreover, wants to do without the ongoing, reciprocal, and uncertain work of cultural interchange, as if anything acquired by deliberation, desire, and compromise must be inherently suspect. In brief, the classical isolation experiment wants something impossible, a natural culture. It wants the benefits of language, ethnicity, and religion, all the supposedly “timeless” or “traditional” stuff of a “people,” without having to own up to the ongoing negotiations, historicity, and inadequacies of living through particular manifestations of these categories.

But what they tend to find instead, however, is the necessity of care, and the catastrophe of its absence, excepting one late version of the Akbar experiment, from François Catrou’s 1708 Histoire générale de l’empire du Mogol. Catrou bases his account on Niccolao Manucci’s 1698 History of Mughal India. Manucci has Akbar hunt not for religious but rather, simply, linguistic origins. Some thought it would be Hebrew, others “Chaldean,” likely meaning Aramaic, others Sanskrit, “which is their Latin.” Here Akbar provides no nurses, but rather commands only that no one, “under pain of death,” was to speak to the children or, notably, “to allow them to communicate with each other.” When the children turned twelve, they were questioned, but responded only by cringing, and remained “timid [and] fearful” for the rest of their lives.[46] Catrou reproduces all of this, with one enormous change. Being curious as to what language children would speak who had never learned any, and having heard that Hebrew was a “natural language” [“une langue naturelle”], Akbar shuts up twelve children with twelve mute nurses, and a male porter, also mute, who is never to open the doors of the “château” in which they have all been confined. The result:

When the children had reached the age of 12 years, Akbar had them brought into his presence. He then assembled in his Palace people skilled in all languages. A Jew who happened to be in Agra could judge if the children could speak Hebrew. It was not difficult to find in the capital Arabs and Aramaic speakers. On the other hand, the Indian scholars claimed that the children would speak the Sanskrit language, which they use as their Latin, and which is used only among the learned. They learn it to understand ancient books of Indian philosophy and theology. When the children appeared before the emperor, all were very astonished that they could not speak any language. They had learned from their nurse to get by without it. They expressed their thoughts only by gestures, which they used as words. In the end, they were so wild and so timid that it was a great deal of trouble to tame them, and to loosen their tongues, which they had made almost no use of in their childhood.

Quand les Enfans eurent attaint l’âge de douze ans, Akebar les fit venir en sa presence. Il rassembla alor dans son Palais des gens habiles en toutes les langues. Un Juif qui se trouvoit à Agra pouvoit juger si les Enfans parloient Hebreu. Il ne fut pas difficile de trouver dans la Capitale des Arabes & des Chaldéens. D’une autre part les Philosophes Indien prétendoient que les Enfans parleroient la langue Hanscrite qui leur tient lieu du Latin, & qui n’est en usage que parmi les Sçavans. On l’apprend pour entendre les anciens Livres de la Philosophie & de la Théologie Indienne. Lorsque ces Enfans parurent devant l’Empereur, on fut tout étonné qu’il ne parloient aucune langue. Ils avoient appris de leur Nourrice à s’en passer. Seulement ils exprimoient leurs pensées par des gestes qui leur tenoient lieu de paroles. Enfin ils étoient si sçauvages & si honteux, qu’on eut bien de la peine à les apprivoiser, & à délier leur langues, don’t ils n’avoient Presque point fait d’usage dans l’enfance.[47]

This is the very first time in the versions that cluster around Akbar that the children acquire language, and, barring the minimal account about James IV, the only time this happens in the whole tradition. Though pessimistic about the social training of the children, Catrou is surprisingly sympathetic to their language, using the same construction, tenir lieu, to act or substitute as, for both the relation of Sanskrit to Latin and sign to spoken language. The 1826 English translation notably misses this point. While it explains that Sanskrit “holds among them the same place, as does the Latin among the learned in Europe,” a correct translation, it then presents gestures as only “substitute signs for articulate sounds,” not quite incorrect, but incorrect in its erasure of Catrou’s own verbal echo; then it editorializes further with “they used only certain gestures to express their thoughts, and these were all the means which they possessed of conveying their ideas, or a sense of their wants.”[48] From Akbar’s perspective, this is a failure, as it is for Catrou’s first translator; for Catrou himself, perhaps not. From ours, one hopes, the story can be read as a kind of success, of the nurse and her charges circumventing the assumptions of the experiment to join together in a minority community, frustrating any expectations of foundation, origin, or the grandeur of a majority culture.

In all these experiments, we see that language, cultural specificity, religion, all these traits key to the “extra” or immaterial qualities that must accompany any animal that claims to be human, and any human recognized as belonging to the dominant human community, do not exist in some isolated, reasoning creature. Here there is no pure logos, no culture that just is. The human creature emerges in negotiated communion with others, in a shared time and space, or it doesn’t emerge at all. In Catrou’s version in particular, we have a language that cannot pretend to incorporeality, that, unlike spoken language and its written analog, cannot pretend so easily to be refined away from a particular body by impersonal abstraction. As the children have learned it from their nurse, neither does sign language function here as the first, primitive language—as in the “Linguistic Darwinism” hypothesized in the nineteenth century; rather it is a learned language, culturally developed and transmitted and worked out, collectively, sharing its present with Akbar, his court, and his experiment.[49] If the classical thought experiment wants to find the language that says “here language is,” or “here reason is,” or even “here is our culture, naturally,” if it wants to travel into the past to find the hidden truth that is still with us, what Catrou provides instead is a language that is an “here I am” enabled by a “here we are,” together, in the same time as any language, with as much truth, attesting to the need for care and recognition, in as impure and shifting a relationship as any community.

At least one question remains: apart from James IV, none of the rulers in the classical isolation experiment get what they want. Why should the story always be one of failure? The classical isolation experiment centers on tyrants; the story is about language, of course, but it is also, perhaps more so, sovereignty and its failed dreams. In wanting a culture or a language that just is, as a miracle, or pure decision, because it comes from nowhere and needs not justify itself to anything, the sovereigns are effectively seeking an analog to their own fantasies of sovereignty. But what the potentate witnesses, finally, is what he should have known all along: the impossibility of going it alone, and his own private helplessness, which can never be overcome, but which can only be shared.

[1] The Jewish writers Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and pseudo-Philo (Liber antiquitatem biblicarum, whose Hebrew original dates to the first or second century, its Latin translation to the third or fourth) provide the earliest extant associations of Nimrod with Babel Tower. See Phillip Michael Sherman, Babel’s Tower Translated: Genesis 11 and Ancient Jewish Interpretation (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 170–71 and 178-81, and Karel van der Toorn and Pieter van der Horst, “Nimrod Before and After the Bible,” Harvard Theological Review 83, no. 1 (1990): 17–19. Augustine City of God XVI.4 and Bede, On Genesis, trans. Calvin B Kendall (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 230–31 are influential early Christian sites of transmission for this story.

[2] See also Genesis 3:22, the expulsion from Eden, and possibly 6:3, God’s response to the early longevity of humans and their admixture with the Nephilim, the “sons of God.”

[3] For an early parallel, dating to roughly 2000 BCE, Samuel Noah Kramer, “The ‘Babel of Tongues’: A Sumerian Version,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, no. 1 (1968): 108–11.

[4] Augustine of Hippo, On Genesis, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2002), for The Literal Meaning of Genesis, IX.9, page 387 (perhaps not worth finding it out, but perhaps survives to the present), and Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees, Book I, IX, 15; page 63 (“with God there is just sheer understanding, without any utterance and diversity of tongues”).

[5] For a set of citations, see Irven M. Resnick, “Lingua Dei, Lingua Hominis: Sacred Language and Medieval Texts,” Viator 21 (1990): 55–57.

[6] James C. VanderKam, trans., The Book of Jubilees (Louvain: Peeters, 1989), 3:28, 20-21; 12:25-26, 73. The text, originally written in Hebrew, survives largely in Ethiopic translations of the fourteenth through the twentieth centuries. For later, highly skeptical references to the language shared by humans and nonhumans, both written in Greek, see the first-century Confusion of Tongues by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, On the Confusion of Tongues. On the Migration of Abraham. Who Is the Heir of Divine Things? On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, trans. F. H. Colson and George Whitaker, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), 12–15, III; and also George Synkellos, The Chronology: A Byzantine Chronicle of Universal History from the Creation, trans. William Adler and Paul Tuffin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 8, from the ninth century.

[7] Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, trans., The Book of the Cave of Treasures (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1927), 132.

[8] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) XI.1, 191; Bede, On Genesis, 121.; AUGUSTINE CITY OF GOD XVI.11 – check

[9] Interrogationes et responsiones in Genesin, PL 100: 533D; for later repetitions, see the Genesis commentaries by Remigius of Auxerre, PL 131: 81B, and Angelomus of Luxeuil, PL 155: 167B.

[10] Letter 23, in Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of HIldegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 76–80. As tempting as it might be to identify the 1011 nouns and 23 letters Hildegard invented for her lingua ignota with this paradisiacal language, Sarah Higley, Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language: An Edition, Translation, and Discussion (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 29, observes that it “stretches credibility that names for… ‘excrement’ and ‘privy cleaner’ would be needed by the virgin throng in heaven.”

[11] Resnick, “Lingua Dei, Lingua Hominis,” 57, a foundational and thorough account of the development of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as the three “holy languages” of Latin Christendom.

[12] John Carey, ed. and trans., Apocrypha Hiberniae II: Apocalyptica 1, In Tenga Bithnua, The Ever-New Tongue (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 113. For the date of the first recension, see 92.

[13] To be sure, Hebrew does not inevitably and always have this status for Christians: the Book of John Mandeville repeats the belief that Gog and Magog, the horrific Jewish tribe enclosed in Scythia by Alexander the Great, speak Hebrew, a language preserved by the remaining, unenclosed Jews, scattered homeless throughout the world, so they can lead these terrible people to ruin Christendom when they break out during the last days. John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels, trans. Anthony Bale (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 105.

[14] Herodotus, The Famous History of Herodotus, trans. B[arnabe] R[ich] (London: Thomas Marshe, 1584), folio 70, EEBO, STC / 216:06. The attribution to Rich is both traditional and also widely supposed to be incorrect.

[15] Margaret Thomas, “The Evergreen Story of Psammetichus’ Inquiry,” Historiographia Linguistica 34, no. 1 (2007): 37–62. For recent, reliable surveys of the primary texts, Deborah Levine Gera, Ancient Greek Ideas on Speech, Language, and Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 69–111, and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, “Not Beyond Herodotus: Psammetichus’ Experiment and Modern Thought about Language,” in Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Herodotus in Antiquity and Beyond, ed. Jessica Priestley and Vasiliki Zali (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 278–97.

[16] I have been unable to consult its earliest editions (two in 1540, and another 10 years later); for the 1570 edition, easily available online, Pedro Mexía, Silua de varia lection (Seville: Hernando Diaz, 1570), Chapter XXV, folio 26r. For the French and English, Les diverses leçons de Pierre Messie, trans. Claude Gruget (Lyon: Gabriel Cotier, 1563), 139–40, and The Foreste or Collection of Histories, trans. Thomas Fortescue (London: William Jones, 1571), 22–23. The title page of the French 1576 edition likely omitted the Roman numeral L, resulting in an impossible claim for 1526 for its printing date, an error perpetuated by the metadata of the Gallica website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

[17] Laurent Joubert, Erreurs populaires au fait de la médecine (Bourdeaux: Simon Millanges, 1578), 596; The Second Part of the Popular Errors, trans. Gregory David de Rocher (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 243. Joubert explains that he had written most of his discussion of this experiment—which begins with depositing two children with a mute nurse “en une forest, ou ils ne pouvoint ouïr aucune vois humaine” [575; in a forest, where they could not hear any human voice] –before having read Mexía.

[18] Félix Racine, “Herodotus’s Reputation in Latin Literature from Cicero to the 12th Century,” in Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Herodotus in Antiquity and Beyond, ed. Jessica Priestley and Vasiliki Zali (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 195–96.

[19] Quintilian, The Orator’s Educaton, Volume IV: Books 9-10, ed. and trans. Donald A. Russell, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 257, X.1. For a hypothesis that Quintilian may be telling a version of the story independent of Herodotus, see Daniel J. Taylor, “Another Royal Investigation of the Origin of Language,” Historiographia Linguistica 11, no. 3 (1984): 500–502.

[20] “Bekeselêne,” Suda Online, accessed July 1, 2017, from a tenth-century Byzantine commentary. For further discussion, see Stevens, “Beyond Herodotus,” 287.

[21] He enjoyed a brief revival in the twelfth century; see James Jerome Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 123–24.

[22] Carl P. Cosaert, The Text of the Gospels in Clement of Alexandria (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 13; Clement of Alexandria, Quis dives salvetur, ed. P. Mordaunt Barnard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), x.

[23] Chapter VIII, Tertullian, “Ad Nationes,” trans. Q. Howe, The Tertullian Project, 2007,

[24] BnF Latin 1622, the “Codex Agobardinus.” The Psamtik story is at 8v. He may have been drawing on Varro’s lost Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum; see Racine, “Herodotus in Latin Literature,” 209.

[25] Roger Pearse, “Tertullian : Ad Nationes,” The Tertullian Project, December 11, 1999,

[26] Salimbene de Adam, Chronica, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger, MGH, Scriptorum 22 (Hannover: Impensis bibliopolii Hahniani, 1905), 350. For a brief contextualization of this passage amid “signs, especially from the twelfth century onwards, of tenderness towards infants and small children,” Mary Martin McLaughlin, “Survivors and Surrogates: Children and Parents from the Ninth to the Thirteenth Century,” in Medieval Families: Perspectives on Marriage, Household, and Children, ed. Carol Neel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 39.

[27] Alas for my ignorance, all of this material currently exists only in Hebrew; for commentary, see especially Moshe Idel, Language, Torah, and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia, trans. Menahem Kallus (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 15, 146–47, n73-75. A certain Obadiah the Prophet of Guratam tells a version in which a king performs the experiment twice, with a mixture of boys and girls, the first time with circumcised boys, the second, with uncircumcised: in both cases, the girls spontaneously produce Hebrew, but only in the first do the boys: see Gera, Greek Ideas on Speech, 94. Obadiah’s reference to a Jewish printing press elsewhere in his work indicates a post-medieval composition date; see Abraham Joshua Heschel, Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets: Maimonides and Other Medieval Authorities, ed. Morris M. Faierstein (Hoboken: KTAV, 1996), 25. See also Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, trans. James Fentress (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 49–50.

[28] Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, The Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, ed. Aeneas James George Mackay, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1899), 237. The work first appears in print in 1728; for an early assessment of the story, Sir Walter Scott, Tales of a Grandfather: Being Stories Taken from Scottish History (Edinburgh: Cadell and Company, 1828), 219, “it is more likely they would scream like their dumb nurse, or bleat like the goats and sheep on the island.”

[29] Abul Fazl, Akbar’s own court historian, began the work, but was murdered (in 1602) before he could complete it. Vol III? Chapter 68? Next volume coming out Jan 2018. Stuck with old translation.

[30] Mobad Shah [Muhsin Fani, attributed], The Dabistán, or School of Manners, trans. David Shea and Anthony Troyer, vol. 3 (Paris: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, 1843), 90–91. No more recent English translation yet exists; according to the assessment of Carl W. Ernst, “Situating Sufism and Yoga,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15, no. 1 (2005): 41 n111, the Shea and Troyer is at times “hopelessly incorrect.”

[31] For the two slightly divergent English translations, Abd-Ul-Qadir bin Maluk Shah [Al-Badaoni], Muntaḵẖabu-T-Tawārīḵẖ, trans. W. H. Lowe, vol. 2 (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1884), 296; H. M. Elliot, The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, ed. John Dowson, vol. 5 (London: Trübner and Co., 1873), 533.

[32] Giovanni Battista Peruschi, Informatione del Regno, et Stato del Gran Re di Mogor (Rome: Luigi Zannetti, 1597); Historica relatio, de potentissimi regis Mogor (Mainz: Heinrich Breem, 1598).

[33] Anon., A True Relation without All Exception, of Strange and Admirable Accidents, Which Lately Happened in the Kingdome of the Great Magor (London: Thomas Archer, 1622), 5–7. The earliest version of the ape story might be that of Thomas Roe, The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, ed. William Foster, vol. 2 (London: Hakluyt society, 1899), 318. See also Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, vol. 1 (London: William Stansby, 1625), 587.

[34] E. D. Maclagau, “Jesuit Missions to the Emperor Akbar,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 65 (1896): 77. No single-volume translation, or even edition, of Xavier’s correspondence seems to exist. This religious version of the story also appears in Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, 5:516, which concludes “For as they spake no certaine Languge, so is not hee setled in any certaine Religion.”

[35] For examples of mixing this story with Herodotus, Christoph Besold, De Natura populorum (Tübingen: Philibert Brunni, 1632), 57, which, like Xavier, has Akbar conduct a religious experiment; August Pfeiffer, Introductio In orientem (Wittenberg: Daniel Schmatz, 1671), 8, citing Besold, but adds that the Hebrew masters at Akbar’s court insisted that Hebrew was “implanted naturally” (“naturaliter impantatam”) in the first human. In neither of these, Xavier included, are the nurses and guards deaf; they are only commanded not to speak.

[36] For example, a 1632 entry in the journal of the English traveler Peter Mundy, excerpted in Michael H. Fisher, ed., Visions of Mughal India: An Anthology of European Travel Writing (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007), 78, where the nurses are mute. Ole Borch, cited below, and Christian A. Ludwig, Brevis commentatio de proprietate nominum (Geneva: M. Christiano – Augusto Ludwig, 1730), 13, which quotes the Borch exactly, are effectively secular, both because of their context of linguistic speculations and because their brevity trims away Akbar’s motivations.

[37] Daniel Sennert, Paralipomena (Lyon: Jean Antoine Huguetan, 1643), 76. For a similar point, see Isaac Cardoso, Philosophia Libera (Venice: Bertano, 1673), 648, which cites Jesuit letters as its source, and adds that not even birds can sing without being taught.

[38] Ole Borch, De causis diversitatis linguarum (Copenhagen: Daniel Paul, 1675), 1, whose first page mixes this story with Herodotus and Akbar.

[39] Most frustrating of these may be Gera, Greek Ideas on Speech, because it is by far the most learned study of the Herodotus tale; but she talks about it as if it were historically true, for example, at 78, “Perhaps only ordinary people could be compelled by the king to hand over their children for experimental purposes.” At 71, she argues that bekos sounds Egyptian, and the experiment seems more Greek, “more specifically, Ionian,” than Egyptian; by contrast, Arno Borst, Der Turmbau von Babel: Geschichte der Meinungen über Ursprung und Vielfalt der Sprachen und Völker, 4 vols. (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1959), 1:40, determines that “the formulation of the question is Egyptian and not Greek” [“die Fragestellung ist ägyptisch und nicht griechisch”]. Other dismaying responses include Michael Davis, The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 80, which scoffs at the Herodotus story as “utterly preposterous” and faults Psamtik’s reasoning; Marcel Danesi, Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 6, judges the experiment “clearly preposterous and bizarre”; Debra Hamel, Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of the History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012) disapproves of “Psammetichus’ peculiar brand of child abuse”; Seth Benardete, Herodotean Inquiries (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 2012), 33, faults the experiment for its design, including its failure to distinguish between logos and glossa. Less distressing, because it originates outside cultural history, is John D. Bonvillian, Amanda Miller Garber, and Susan B. Dell, “Language Origin Accounts: Was the Gesture in the Beginning?,” First Language 17 (1997): 219–39, which pairs its doubt of the Psamtik story with certainty about Akbar’s. Stevens, “Psammetichus” deserves praise, however, both for correctly understanding the Herodotus account as mythic, and also for detecting a sublimated desire in some linguistics scholarship to be able to perform the experiment.

[40] For example, Pliny, Natural History, trans. D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 67, XXXVI.19.

[41] Salimbene de Adam, Chronica, 350–53.

[42] Ibn Tufail, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, trans. Lenn Evan Goodman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Ibn al-Nafīs, The Theologus Autodidactus, ed. and trans. Max Meyerhof and Joseph Schacht (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968). The former, translated into Latin at Oxford in 1671 as Philosophus Autodidactus, exerted no small influence on European Enlightenment speculations about the origins of language, although neither Ibn Tufail nor Ibn al-Nafis are themselves much interested in the topic. Their autodidacts each acquire language through teachers, and that only long after they have reasoned their way on their own far into major philosophical truths.

[43] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, ed. Irwin Primer (New York: Capricorn Books, 1962), 261–62.

[44] Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, An Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, trans. Thomas Nugent (London: J. Nourse, 1756), Part II, Chapter 1, 171–79.

[45] Charles-Louis Montesquieu, My Thoughts, trans. Henry C. Clark (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), 51, #158. Clark bases his translation on Louis Desgrave’s definitive French edition of Montesquieu’s complicated notebooks, which date from 1720 until his death.

[46] Niccolo Manucci, Storia do Mogor; Or, Mogul India 1653-1708, trans. William Irvine, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1907), 142.

[47] François Catrou, Histoire generale de l’empire du Mogol depuis sa fondation (The Hague: Guillaume de Voys, 1708), 137.

[48] The anonymous translation compiled as Niccolao Manucci and François Catrou, History of the Mogul Dynasty in India (London: J.M. Richardson, 1826), 117.

[49] For discussions of Romantic, then Darwinist treatments of signing as the original, primitive, natural, or animal language, concentrating largely on the nineteenth century, Douglas C. Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 36–55; and Jennifer Esmail, Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2013), 102–32, who offers several such observations from mid-nineteenth-century language theorists: “Language…becomes grander, more dignified and more complex as it becomes less dependent on the body” (125).

Johann Conrad Amman, Surdus loquens (Leiden: Johannes Arnoldus Langerak, 1727), 2, a handbook for teaching the deaf to speak, originally published in 1692, and translated incompletely into English a year later, provides an anticipation of such sentiments in Catrou’s era, with its paean to the voice as the very breath of God: “and how little the deaf differ from beasts” [“quamque parum a brutis animantibus different”]. For further discussion, H-Dirksen Bauman, “Listening to Phonocentrism with Deaf Eyes: Derrida’s Mute Philosophy of (Sign) Language,” Essays in Philosophy 9, no. 1 (2008): n.p; Harlan Lane, When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (New York: Random House, 1984), 100–101, which led me to the Amman; and especially Rebecca Sanchez, Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2015), whose interest in “nonverbal communication” as resisting the “particular distaste for bodies in some branches of modernist writing” (68), as well as her engagement with queer theory and care ethics (eg, 48-61), is allied to my project here.

Keeping the Sabbatical Honest – Chapter 3!

Chapter 3 of the Book Project now exists in a start-to-finish form, suitable for submitting, with Chapter 5, on oysters, for whatever nefarious purposes presses might use them form [for example, a book contract…]

It’s here, not on academia DOT edu, because I am not a chump, and because CUNY, like other public goods, is great.

An excerpt:

What remains is Body. As a named character with motives and a voice, Body has everything a literary work typically needs for a personality. With all this, and with its claims to ownership of flesh and bones, we might say that Body plays the part of soul, but immanently rather than rather than transcendently, by a voice that just marks out the place where the self can be located for a while within always an always shifting materiality that it shares, unequally, with the worms. If we locate the soul in the function it plays in other poems in this tradition, as the voice of moral and doctrinal authority, then the worms may be the poem’s soul, with this crucial, obvious distinction: they are not the self, nor, as a crowd, even a self, and as nonhuman life, they are certainly, for better or worse, not destined for eternity.