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] When commentators settled on a particular language, however, they tended to choose 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”;[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 the language of salvation, that of Christ and in which Christianity was first preached, 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] Yet only 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 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 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 source may be Herodotus himself, or at least Pedro Mexía, with the Pharaoh now garbed 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 the failure 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 cannot learn to talk without being taught (“nunquam sua sponte ullam humanam vocem profereunt”[37]). 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 this 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 by contrast 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, choice, 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 choices, compromises, 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 one, 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 misrepresents Catrou when it translates these two passages differently. While it explains that Sanskrit “holds among them the same place, as does the Latin among the learned in Europe,” it holds gestures only “substitute signs for articulate sounds,” editorializing 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 particular 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, impersonality, 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,” what Catrou provides instead is a language that is an “here I am” enabled by a “here we are,” together, as bodies needing care, in as impure and shifting a relationship as any community.

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 human longevity and 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), 12:25-26, 73. The text, originally written in Hebrew, survives largely in Ethiopic translations of the fourteenth through the twentieth centuries. [check SYNCELLUS CHRONOGRAPHIA 185.6-8, 9th-century Byzantine chronicler]

[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 generally 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 from 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] Pliny, Natural History, trans. D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 67, XXXVI.19. and Pomponius Mela’s Chorographia (I.48I.56 in English), credit him with building the first labyrinth)

[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 deep 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 prior to Catrou, 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, and Harlan Lane, When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (New York: Random House, 1984), 100–101, which led me to the Amman.

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.

Logsex in Hell: An Anecdote

The opening to a forthcoming essay, “Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations.”

[content note: sexual coercion and abuse]

The single manuscript of Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations (c. 1200) comprises more than 1000 accounts of visions of and visits to heaven, hell, and less certainly identifiable places, assembled, as Peter explains, to prove that our souls are immortal and that the afterlife exists.[1] The work is chiefly remarkable for its size. It makes no attempt to respond to newly developing concept of purgatory, nor to look much further for its material than the desert fathers, a handful of saints’ lives, writings by Bede and Gregory the Great, and other timeworn, doctrinally tested texts. Even its few unique visions—typically neat accounts of monks or canons who either stay in their cloister or don’t, and who are either rewarded, or aren’t—tend to be narratively indistinguishable from the work’s older material.

This would seem to suit the work for a study of prevailing monastic mentalités, were it not for one story in particular, Peter’s version of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which appears here and nowhere else in medieval storytelling. Uniquely for Peter’s collection, this story says nothing definite about the afterlife or the sensible governance of this or any other world and refuses the easy moralization otherwise common to this genre as a whole and to this compilation in particular. More than that, it’s an astonishing story, outstanding even among the enthusiasm for British clerics of this period (Gerald of Wales, Gervase of Tilbury, Ralph of Coggeshall, inter alia) for assembling collections of wonders and oddities.

It goes as follows: on a small island in Ireland, north of Galway, a knight enters a well-appointed hall, followed soon thereafter by a certain King Gulinus and retinue, who are met with wild applause, as if returning from a hunt. Gulinus chats briefly with the knight, who, on spotting the king’s beautiful daughter, at once “exarsit” [blazes up] with love for her.[2] Gulinus asks the knight if he would like to “uti amplexibus” [use the embraces] of his daughter, and the knight says yes. Then this happens:

And [Gulinus] ordered a servant to prepare a bed for them in a chamber. And this was done. And, lo, when the knight believed he was about to consummate marriage with this girl, his eyes were opened and he saw a most ancient, arid, and misshapen trunk lying between his arms, and his male member was squeezed into a certain hole made in that trunk, which a servant deputed to the task by Gulinus shredded and weakened by striking a nail with a hammer vigorously and very frequently, confining his virile member in that hole, so that the knight desired a hundred times to incur death, if it were possible, rather than sustain such agony even for a brief while. When the foresaid servant had very frequently repeated the blows on the nail with the hammer, and, more narrowing compressing the knight’s penis, had dashed, smashed, battered, and pounded it, and when this knight had suffered these dire straits of tortures and cried out and wailed for the great part of the day, and was exhausted to death, Gulinus said to his ministers, “How’s that knight, our son-in-law, getting on?”

[Et precepit ministro, ut pararet illis in camera straum. Quod et factum est. Et ecce cum crederet se miles uti connubio illius puelle, aperti sunt oculi eius et uidet truncum uetustissimum et aridissimum et deformem iacere inter amplexus eius, et uirilem ipsius uirgam in quodam foramine facto in illo trunco coartatam, quam minister ad hoc deputatus a Gulino contriuit et eneruauit percutiendo uiriliter et sepissime maleo clauum stringens in illo foramine uirilem uiram illius, ut miles desideraret centies si fieri posset incurrere mortem magi squam talem cruciatum uel ad modicum horam sustinere. Cumque predictus minister sepissime claui cum malleo percussiones iteraret, et uirilem ipsius uirgam arctius stringendo collideret, confringeret, quassaret, et contereret, et miles ille per multum diei tempus inter has angustias crutiatuum laboraret, clamaret, eiularet, et usque ad mortem fatigatus esset, ait Gulinus ministris suis, ‘Quomodo se habet miles ille gener noster?’]

When the knight understandably complains, Gulinus offers him a warm bath. Plunged into it, he is boiled and liquefied like wax, then transfixed with icy spikes in the next one. The relaxing game Gulinus offers next is no better for the knight: trussed from the rafters in a “domum ludi” [play house] studded with spiky stones, he is batted about by Gulinus’s ministers “usque ad effusionem cerebri” [until his brains pour out]. This, the knight says, was the worst torment. At length, dawn comes, and he finds himself whole again at the entrance to Purgatory. Peter concludes by scoffing at the reluctance of other men to visit this place, though he admits few “emerge from there without debility or even some loss of mind.”

Peter’s story was one of several accounts of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory that sprang up in the later twelfth century. The most influential appeared around 1170, in Henry of Saltry’s Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patrici. Unlike the Book of Revelations, Henry’s work was enormously popular: surviving in some 150 Latin manuscripts, and 300 additional manuscripts of translations and adaptations into nearly all European languages–including, for example, no fewer than seven independent French versions — the Tractatus largely concerns a terrifying penitential journey through a place of torment taken physically (that is, not as a spiritual vision) by an Irish knight, Owein, who then enjoys a brief respite in paradise before returning to this world.[3] Like many of the work’s medieval adapters, modern scholars have tended to concentrate on Owein’s adventure, but Henry ends his treatise not with the knight and his decision to become a monk, but with a series of narrative vignettes in which clerics conquer their desire.[4] The last one concerns a priest who finds an infant girl, left by demons for him in a graveyard. For years, he raises her charitably until the demons tempt him to rape her. He flees her bedchamber, and, outside, as Marie de France’s translation has it, he “ses genitailles trencha / hors les geta de meintenant” [2272-73; cuts off his genitals / and cast them away from him].[5] Nothing more is said of the girl. Not every version or adaptation of Henry’s Tractatus ends with the vignettes; many end with Owein’s return from Purgatory; but Marie’s translation, produced not long after Henry wrote his work, suggests that purgatorial travel, the dangers of sexual desire, and castration or at least genital injury traveled together in the early decades of this tradition, as they do in Peter of Cornwall’s story as well.

Henry’s castration story makes straightforward sense: the priest is tempted, and he removes from himself the target of temptation. Peter of Cornwall’s story of genital injury is far stranger, because it cures nothing, and because it isn’t even the central injury of the story: the knight wants to die when his penis is shredded, but he proclaims the loss of his brains still worse. As expected, my chapter will engage with Peter of Cornwall’s purgatory story, but perhaps less expectedly, will make an argument about its ultimate resistance to interpretation. In particular, I will concentrate on how poorly this story fits within the medieval, largely clerical traditions of castration that would be the expected discourse to which Peter’s story belongs. As I will ultimately argue, Peter of Cornwall’s story features what might be called a non-phallic castration, without admonition or redemption, disassociated from medieval and modern narrative and legal traditions that so often mark it as the injury of injuries.

Getting to this point, however, requires first exhausting the paths of meaningfulness. Although the genital injury will be my major concern, nothing in the story can quite be wrangled into easy sense. Several elements of the story can be classified with pieces of the purgatorial traditional and medieval folklore more generally, just enough to demonstrate that this is indeed a purgatorial story, but also just enough to disappoint the straightforward meaning-making the genre typically invites. Peter has a secular man visit a site in Ireland and then physically travel through a portal to a place where he undergoes extraordinary suffering, in particular, a succession of hot and cold waters, common to many accounts of otherworldly torment. That’s all usual. That he arrives there accidentally is uncommon, but also not entirely unheard of. Though Vincent of Beauvais’s entry on Patrick’s Purgatory in his thirteenth-century historical encyclopedia, for example, explains that the site is guarded by walls and iron doors, “ne quis eam temere et sine licentia ingredi praesumeret”[6] [lest anyone should rashly and without permission presume to undertake it], in Gerald of Wales’s own, roughly contemporary version of the Purgatory, from his History and Topography of Ireland, people arrive at it “forte” [by chance] and there undergo “gravibus penis” [heavy punishments].[7] Even the rocky walls of the Purgatorial playroom hint that Peter really may have got the story, as he claims, from Irish clergy: an eighteenth-century skeptic visited Station Island and marveled at tunnels so “thick set with small pointed Stones, [so] that the greatest Saint in the Church of Rome could not bear it now.”[8] But what is missing is just as striking: the perilous bridge, the demonic invitation to despair and to remain in torment, particular sins – lust, apostasy, and so on – all receiving their appropriate, meaningful torments, and especially the promise to the purgatorial traveler, key to Gerald and especially Henry of Saltry, that he will be relieved of any future otherworldly punishment. All this material, indispensable to other Patrick’s Purgatory stories, is missing.

Of course, what is most striking is what happens between the knight and Gulinus’s daughter. The king and daughter are themselves somewhat familiar: the Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature offers a crowded listing for what it calls “sex hospitality,”[9] and a much larger entry, from Irish storytelling and elsewhere, could be assembled of visitors who find themselves trapped or worse by tasting of the favors of the otherworld. The king’s daughter, unnamed and silent, become a hideous log, recalls fairies from German and Scandinavian folklore, like the skogsrå of Sweden, who appeared as beautiful women from the front, but as a tree or even a hollowed-out log from behind.[10] She might also be connected with the so-called “Sovranty hag” of medieval and, presumably, pre-medieval Irish tales, perhaps most famously reutilized in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale, a repulsive older woman, generally found in a forest, who demands that a hero sleep with her: when he does, sometimes only after his siblings demur, he is rewarded with sovereignty, an answer he needs, and sometimes a now beautiful lover.[11] But Peter of Cornwall’s log lady doesn’t just lack of voice or any indication of independent volition; she is more of an “anti-Sovranty hag,” as she begins in beauty and sovereignty — which we might assume from her connection to her father—and ends in hideousness and the devastation of the knight’s hopes. In becoming not only a log, but an ugly log, she obviously is made to enact a standard, gendered clerical revelation of the disgusting truth underlying all sexual desire, particularly of men for women.[12] Still more might be said about her hardness and dryness, suggestive, among other things, of a masculine transformation away from the proverbial wetness and softness (so that mulier and mollis were linked) often imputed to women in clerical writing.

My main concern here, however, is what happens to the knight’s genitals. Transformed into a twig, and pounded away at with hammers and nails, his penis suffers in a way that looks like punishment directed against the offending member.[13] Technically speaking, this is of course a temporary genital injury, catastrophic though it may be, rather than a castration. This is not unexpected. Although genital punishment is common in the classical, Jewish, and Christian infernal traditions, with women hung on hooks by their breasts and their hair (surely understood, as it is in 1 Corinthians 11:6, as a secondary sexual characteristic) and with men suspended from their penises, actual castration is rare. Coded castration is also a feature of medieval narrative more generally, most famously, in the Parsifal legend, in which the wound to the Fisher King’s thigh blights the surrounding land with infertility. Peter’s monastic audience probably understood the knight’s first injury, then, as castration, and given its purgatorial framing, probably understood it as mortification, expiation, or a warning.

Or they tried to. Without quite accusing these hypothetical monks of misreading, I suggest that they still would have had to struggle to make this text work for them, because the story as a whole neither suits Peter’s stated program for the collection nor makes much sense as record of specifically Purgatorial punishments. Whatever his claims to want to prove the immortality and the real existence of the otherworld, the knight travels in his own body, not his spirit, and encounters no one who ever shared an existence in his own world: no spirits of the dead, no references to the living, none of the privileged knowledge of the present or future to which the dead had access. Furthermore, since this knight neither fasts, prays, nor confesses before entering, his visit to Gulinus and desire for his daughter is far less a penitential motif than one from conte d’aventure.[14] He will learn nothing from his injury, because he has not been seeking knowledge, and because no one has anything to teach him. His tormentors are not obviously demonic, and, unlike Owein, the knight never saves himself by calling out to Christ. No one in the vision, in fact, invokes this name or even acknowledges any divinity, let alone any spirituality. He never sees paradise, and, also unlike Owein, he emerges from the purgatory without a desire to become a monk. He is only weakened, not chastened. None of this would present such a puzzle for signification had Peter of Cornwall not called this a Purgatory, and not included it among so many other, straightforward otherworld visions.

What may be strangest of all is a story of injury to a man’s genitals that just takes it as one among many injuries—a bad one, to be sure, but not the one. The knight suffers the genital injury first; afterwards, he is boiled and frozen, thrashed about, his whole body hideously damaged, but with no sense of order or purpose, without any hint that he gradually learns anything. Juridically and morally speaking, this is parataxic punishment, without the subordination of one injury to another, because things just happen, and then more things happen, horribly, but without any one injury taking absolute precedence over the others. Then he’s expelled and everything stops. If the knight’s injury is technically castration—or at least a stranger version of how otherworldly traditions represent castration—it is not culturally meaningful as castration, neither in its negative valences, nor, especially, in the positive representations of this injury sometimes found in texts praising medieval clerical celibacy. My next section will describe this peculiar feature of medieval culture at length, before I return, in my conclusion, to what the meaningless “castration” of Peter of Cornwall’s account might mean both for our reading of this story of the knight, Gulinus, and the log lady, and for our cultural understanding of castration more generally.

[1] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, ed. and trans. Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013).

[2] All quotations from this story are from the Book of Revelations, 136-37. Translation is Easting and Sharpe’s, barring “uti connubio,” which they render as “enjoy sex.” Bede’s Ecclesiastical History IX.19 has “uti connubio” in the context of an attempt to convince a holy queen to consummate a marriage, and that seems to be its use here too, given Gulinus’s later reference to the knight as a his “gener.”

[3] The history of the development of the story has been told often. For a brief and thorough account, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 469–70; for an extended treatment, see Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, eds., The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European Tradition (Enniskillen: Clogher Historical Society, 1988).

[4] For a rare exception in modern scholarship, see Peggy McCracken and Sharon Kinoshita, Marie de France: A Critical Companion (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2012), 167–68. For representative medieval witnesses to the Patrick’s Purgatory tradition that end with Owein’s return from Purgatory, see Matthew of Paris, Chronica Majora, ed. Henry Richard Luard (London: Longman & Co., 1874), 203; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 192–94; Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry Octavius Coxe, vol. 2 (London: English Historical Society, 1841), 271, Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, 1624 ed. (Reprint, Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1964-65), XX.23, 789 (brief and skeptical), and the Middle English versions in Robert Easting, ed., Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1991).

[5] Marie de France, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Poem, ed. and trans. Michael J Curley (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).

[6] Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, XX.23, 789.

[7] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 61, translation slightly modified. Gerald continued adding to the work throughout his life. For the Latin of the first recension, cited above, Gerald of Wales, “Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernie: Text of the First Recension,” ed. John J. O’Meara, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52 (1949): 137. The second recension extends its discussion by naming the site (“Purgatorium Patricii”) and admits the utility of lurid stories of infernal punishment for taming the hard necks of the Irish; Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 82–83.

[8] John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition, and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland (Dublin: J. Hyde, 1727), 9.

[9] Tom Peete Cross, Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952), 488.

[10] John Lindow, Swedish Legends and Folktales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 105–7; H. R. Ellis Davidson, Roles of the Northern Goddess (New York: Routledge, 1998), 26; Reimund Kvideland and Henning K Sehmsdorf, eds., Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 217. Most of these records have been collected by modern folklorists since the nineteenth century. For similar Estonian and Russian accounts, see Torsten Martin Gustaf Löfstedt, “Russian Legends about Forest Spirits in the Context of Northern European Mythology” (University of California, Berkeley, 1993), 162–65.

[11] For detailed treatments of this figure, Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329–45, and Amy C. Eichhorn-Mulligan, “The Anatomy of Power and the Miracle of Kingship: The Female Body of Sovereignty in a Medieval Irish Kingship Tale,” Speculum 81, no. 4 (2006): 1014–54.

[12] Consider, for example, the story of Gerald of Aurillac’s temptation for a beautiful girl, cured only when the girl miraculously appears “deformed” to Gerald’s sight; cited in Jacqueline Murray, “‘The Law of Sin That Is in My Members’: The Problem of Male Embodiment,” in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women, and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J. E. Riches and Sarah Salih (New York: Routledge, 2005), 13–14.

[13] See the table of hanging punishments in Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 87.

[14] For a description of the pilgrimage features of the main line of the tradition, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 467–85; for the requisite cleansing before entering the purgatory, see G. Waterhouse, “Another Early German Account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” Hermathena 23, no. 48 (1933): 115, which ends, unlike the main line of the tradition, with a short exemplum in which a rich man is demonically immolated in life for refusing to believe in Purgatory.

Briefly noted for The March for Science: in the margins, a little faith, a little reason, a little unclarity


This morning, the British Library tweeted that a manuscript of Henry of Huntington’s Historia AnglorumArundel MS 48, had just been digitized, so, rather than get into some real writing, I took a brief tour. Among its many treasures (so many marginal faces!), including a cute little miter, I found this bit, where Brutus seeks an omen from Diana about his future. Here’s a 19th-century edition of the Latin, if you like.

You’ll notice, however, that a much later commentator has issues. Earlier, they had complained about the avarice of contemporary clerics; here, they write ‘de veritate huius, doctores dubita[n]t’, ‘about the truth of this, theologians/scholars/teachers doubt.’ Of course Brutus didn’t hear from a sylvan goddess about his future passage to Britain! That’d be absurd!

But then, in response to ‘cui dea respondit’ [to whom the goddess responded], that is, Diana’s answer to Brutus’ supplication, our same commentator sniffingly intervenes, ‘cui diabolus respondit,’ ‘to whom the devil responds.’

I’m reminded, as I’m sure you are, of François Hédelin, whose 1627 treatise, Des satyres, brutes, monstres et démons, takes up the question of the famous talking satyr from Jerome’s Life of Saint Paul, the First Hermit. It’s perhaps a hard story to believe. Jerome himself offered proof, namely, that the corpse was sent along, salted, to the emperor in Antioch [postea cadauer exanime, ne calore aestatis dissiparetur, sale infusum et Antiochiam, ut ab Imperatore uideretur, adlatum est]. The skeptical and scientific Hédelin, however, insists that Constantine was already dead, so clearly this was impossible. And, anyway, the corpse must have been a monkey.

As for the talking satyr? Obviously a demon.

Chapter 3 – Food For Worms, Part I

IMG_0141What follows is, as the title promises, the beginning of what is, by my current count, Chapter 3 of my Book2 [the next bit is here, and I’m sure to revise this to give it some room to breath]. I’ve revised material that’s appeared in print before, in postmedieval’s “Ecomaterialism” special issue, itself a development of several blog posts from 2012 [here and here for example], but in this pass, apart from overhauling the introductory paragraphs entirely, I get to go at things without the space limitations of a journal article, and, moreover, without of the cruft of engagement with ooo, very au courant in 2012, but not so much now. I’d like to think of this is an improvement.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through a gate, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17).[2] However many the roads to this gate, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise, or threat, of an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. The subject might think this abyss grand: abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few artistic bodies may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[5] or Alexis Shotwell’s, via Lisa Heldke, for an understanding of “the entangled features of our eating behaviors,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food, with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of the well-known morality play Everyman, about the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the general body of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of medieval death work is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. Certainly most of this material aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. This material can still be read profanely, however, some of it more easily than others. My chapter does not aim to be comprehensive.[8] My interest will be in a work like this version of a famous and widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders it as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.
Earth drew the other earth to the earth.
Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.
Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Admitting that this rendition is “crude,” Rudd then opens up the moral content of the poem’s dense imagery, in which earth is human, flesh, and spouse, but then returns us to the quatrain’s bare materiality: “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” For what we might call Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take this profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem shockingly lacks a soul—not being a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are—it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. My chapter, then, will treat each of these elements singly: flesh; then worms, particularly the natural, antipaternal science of spontaneous generation; and then finally how this alliance between worms and flesh challenges the somber “unsubstitutable singularity” of what is by now a classic strain in critical animal theory.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves,[12] and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[13] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[14]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[15] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[16] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. The bones once again have a place in the Merina community. Think here also of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[17] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[18] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[19] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;
trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;
leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[20]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But of course their material continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[21] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[22] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[23] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[24] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, as could but here I will offer just one more, the Disputation. The body of this poem, far from finding rest in the grave, instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to the body about their hosts of allied vermin:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.[25]

[The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon, The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake, The toad, the mole, and the scorpion, The viper, the snake, and the adder, The toad, the ant, and the crab, The spider, the maggots, and the newt, The water leech, and the others are not far behind.]

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.

[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64.

[6] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017,,

[hereafter DIMEV], 6292. This version might be contrasted with the far more neatly moral and anthropocentric DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 15–17, 21–22, 28–29.

[13] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[14] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[15] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[16] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[18] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[19] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[20] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[21] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les Vers Comme Heritiers: Aspects de La Poétique Du Testament Aux XIVe et XVe Siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[22] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[23] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[24] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[25] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13.

Review: Our Dogs, Our Selves

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

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

[for The Medieval Review]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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