Response for Medieval Academy 2022

I am a respondent to “On the Human / Nonhuman / Posthuman in Medieval China I” at the Medieval Academy of America Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia. The papers are as follows:


“Mistaken Identities: Passing as Human in Medieval Chinese Accounts of the Strange” (Antje Richter)

“What is a Tree to a Medieval Buddhist?” (Natasha Heller)

“The Puppet’s Wink: Artificial Humanity in Medieval China” (Xiaofei Tian)

The Dialogue of Miracles of Caesarius of Heisterbach, a collection of hundreds of stories of piety and peril for monastic edification, includes an account of a cleric famous for his beautiful singing. “One day,” Caesarius writes, “a man of religion coming and hearing the sweetness of that harp said: ‘That is not the voice of a man but of a devil.'” As soon as he compels the devil to depart, “the body at once collaps[ed] and bec[ame] putrid.” Novice and monk then talk briefly — that’s the “Dialogue” of Caesarius’s title — to try to make sense of what it meant. Here, the novice says something bland about how demons infernally torment “the souls of those whose bodies they abuse in life.” There’s nothing about what might strike us as a keener fear, namely, that those around us might not be what they seem: that they might be flesh animated by demons rather than by human souls, that all that keeps them fresh and fleshy rather than rotten dust is, in fact, these demons, hidden to all but the holiest of passers-by.

The larger issue, in this case, we too are flesh animated by a rational spirit, since an at-least rational spirit is what a demon arguably is. For this isn’t a story of demonic possession, not exactly; it’s not a story of a person tormented by demons. It’s a story of a body animated by a spirit, and then disanimated. A singing priest whose body loses its animating soul and then putrefies: what is this but an illustration of what will happen to any of us?

I may be pushing things too far, because what matters is that the singing priest is animated by the wrong kind of spirit. But so long as he can act as a human in holy orders, why should it matter? It does, presumably, because the spirit can do nothing for its final disposition in eternity: demons were already damned, well before humans came on the scene. Its liturgical actions are therefore bootless.

Absent that orientation towards eternity, the problem becomes harder to discern.[1]There’s also something to say about the “psychosomatic unity” (Bynum) of the self in mainstream medieval Christian theology. The fox demon in Antje’s paper acts like a father; the dog demon, like a husband; and the other fox demon, like a scholar. If these demons act so convincingly like the pillars of their society — father, husband, and scholar — then what could be the problem, because what are any of us doing in those roles except going through the motions?

The problem with animated puppets – or animated puppets that are actually animated bodies – seems to be that they are doing more than simply going through the motions. But perhaps that’s less of a problem than an illustration. The background issue to this, as Xiaofei observes, is social rank: an enslaved human, or possibly even a courtier, occupies a strange zone of having just enough agency to be able to be bossed around. That minimal agency is part of what makes the bossing around worth it. One presumes that the satisfaction of controlling someone comes not from controlling someone who has been fully dehumanized but rather from controlling someone who retains just enough of their human agency to be able to be significantly controlled. I’m sure I’m thinking a bit of Hegel here. The enslaved person in relation to the slaver is in a relation of someone who has been thingified: not entirely a thing, but not not a thing. And the mysteriously animated puppet seems to me to illustrate how the human domination of humans is not simply an act of dehumanization, for even this nonhuman servant or enslaved person is humanlike. They sometimes wink.

Finally, I’m thinking of the relative lack of anxiety in Natasha’s paper on Buddhist – or Buddha – Trees. The problem there is one of getting things right, but not excessively so. My own training leads me to exegetical worry about Romans 8:19-23, where “every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain,” but each will be “delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.” Paul is typically opaque, but he seems to promise universal salvation for all creation, a relief from a universal misery. Sentience is everywhere here. But even Origen, who believed stars to be rational, ensouled beings, insisted that Paul was talking only about human beings; Augustine refined this by reminding us that humans are a microcosm, the whole universe in miniature, and that this must have been what Paul meant.[2]This is the note on the topic from my first book: Paul Lebeau, “L’interpretation origenienne de Rm 8:19–22,” in Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, vol. 1 (Munich: Aschendorff, 1970), … Continue reading In these responses, the worry is that God cares as much about others as he does about us. Natasha’s trees suggest something more interesting, namely, not jealousy over divine care, but a sense of being surrounded by a shared orientation towards something better than this world where we all groan and travail in pain, but where we all, whatever we are, might worship together, perhaps unwittingly, allowing ourselves variously to be directed towards something better.

I’m looking forward to our discussion.


1 There’s also something to say about the “psychosomatic unity” (Bynum) of the self in mainstream medieval Christian theology.
2 This is the note on the topic from my first book: Paul Lebeau, “L’interpretation origenienne de Rm 8:19–22,” in Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, vol. 1 (Munich: Aschendorff, 1970), 336–45. For Origen’s contempt for animals, see Hobgood-Oster, Holy Dogs and Asses, 59, and Spittler, Animals in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, 39–42. For more on Origen’s exegesis of Romans 8:19–23, see Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 147–48, and passim for the background of Origen’s thought on stars. By the later Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas and William of Auvergne, among other theologians, argued that considering stars to be rational beings was a form of demon-worship: see Michael D. Bailey, “A Late-Medieval Crisis of Superstition?” Speculum 84 (2009): 648. Not all early commentary considered this verse a problem; Ambrosiaster, Commentarius in Epistulas Paulinas. Part 1: In Epistulam ad Romanos, ed. Henry Joseph Vogels (Vienna: Hoelder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1966), which primarily concerns itself with the cessation of corruption, is innocent of all controversy. For Augustine’s influence, see the commentaries by Lanfranc, PL 150:132A-B; Hervé de Bourg-Dieu, PL 181: 710D–11C; Hugh of St. Victor, PL 175:481D; William of St.-Thierry, PL 180:634D–635A; and Peter Lombard, PL 191:1442B–1444C.