A brief talk on animal lives


British Library Add MS 11390, 18vDer naturen bloeme.

Just wrote this thing, for the “Channeling Relations” medieval conference at the Graduate Center, May 4, 2018. The program looks fantastic, and I’m proud to be part of it.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me forth in the spirit of the Lord: and set me down in the midst of a plain that was full of bones. And he led me about through them on every side: now they were very many upon the face of the plain, and they were exceeding dry. And he said to me: Son of man, dost thou think these bones shall live?

In part, my goal in doing medieval animal studies has been to try to give flesh and life back to animals. Of course, medievalists do that with people too, but the tendency for decades of medievalist writing about animals had been to take animals as medieval symbolic schemes took them: chiefly as textual. The old method is effectively an extension of the medieval genre of the bestiary, whose various entries on animals, and sometimes stones, and sometimes humans themselves, begin with a compendium of natural history – what we might call the ‘real’ of the animal – before swinging into Christian moralization. That is, the older method of reading medieval animals had been to concentrate on animals as if they had a final cause, namely, what they meant symbolically for us, as if understanding that was sufficient for giving us something like the truth, because a symbolic truth produced with a clerical imprimatur, that is, with the approval of trained intellectual, would have been presented as the truth.

Giving life back to animals means working with less certain materials, with a mind not just to the final cause, but also to the material, formal, and efficient ones, as well as the ongoing cause of the thing itself, distinct from whatever end it ends up as. Sometimes attention to this rich range of truths requires working with the history of interest, an attention to the way that animals drew culture makers — writers, visual artists, and so on — to dwell with them as something more than mere opportunities for thought. It wasn’t the symbolic use that first drew them on: the symbolic use feels very much like an arbitrary schoolroom exercise, sometimes quite calcified with centuries of hermeneutic habits — the eagle’s ability to look directly at the sun is predictably a model for the life of a holy person — and sometimes quite arbitrary, with no particular or necessary attachment to the animal on hand.

What drew culture makers to dwell with the particular animals was not only the desire to make symbols, but also, and perhaps even but also primarily the body and ways of the animals themselves. More than a decade ago, in his “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen observed that the various nonhuman lifeworlds of animals – the gender complexity of hyenas, the fact that bears literally lick their cubs into shape after they’re born, and so on — offered humans a chance to imagine other ways of life, not so predictably bound to being merely human.[1] In some sense, material like medieval natural science – a man will lose his power to speak if a wolf sees him before he sees the wolf, but he can regain his voice if he takes off all his clothes – is something like medieval science fiction, an imagination of what else the human might be, to the extent of losing human difference altogether. Many of you here will of course be thinking of “Bisclavret.”

And yet that’s still about what the animals can do for us. A more animal-focused approach might be inclined to want the data provided us by archaeology. On Monday, in Leeds, a graduate student offhandedly told me about work she’s read about evidence of dietary differences between working dogs in the country and companion dogs that lived mostly indoors: I’ve yet to be able to track down the article, but I thought I’d mention it here on the off chance that one of you knows about it. And just yesterday, I found an article on a dog skeleton discovered in Southwestern France; it had been buried, quite deliberately, during the 11th or 12th centuries. Of average size, the dog had suffered broken bones on at least three separate occasions, but there is no evidence of its carcass having been abused, or its having been skinned for its fur, or butchered for its meat.[2] A victim of abuse, it was also cared for in death. We can put flesh on the dog by imagining its grim life, its being beaten by what Chaucerians know as yerdes smerte, and by wondering whether the person who buried the dog was the one who beat it, or the one who loved it, or both.

We can give animals more life by not just attending to how we dream new lives for ourselves through their exotic bodies and capacities, and not just by relying on so-called “brute matter” offered us by archaeology–—the brute matter metaphor, incidentally, may date, in English anyway, to Robert Boyle, in 1686, on God as divine clockmaker[3].  The material of brute matter calls out to us in the voice of truth, which they seem to have because it exists whether or not we’re there to take notice of it. But of course life is a truth too, as are shared lifeworlds, which means we have to attend to narrative, to the way the animal unfolds itself through its own time and space, sometimes with us, and sometimes for reasons that are not for us at all. As I’m nearly out of time, let me just point you to the Life of Cuthbert, to remind you of the story of the horse that gnaws on a thatched roof, dislodging a loaf of bread: the horse’s appetite feeds the saint, who, in gratitude, and to preserve his fast, gives half the loaf to the horse.[4]

Thank you.

[1] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” in Engaging With Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 39–62.

[2] Annelise Binois et al., “A Dog’s Life: Multiple Trauma and Potential Abuse in a Medieval Dog from Guimps (Charente, France),” International Journal of Paleopathology 3, no. 1 (2013): 39–47, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpp.2013.02.001. For butchery of dogs, see, for example, Eileen M. Murphy, “Medieval and Post-Medieval Butchered Dogs from Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland,” Environmental Archaeology 6, no. 1 (June 1, 2001): 13–22, https://doi.org/10.1179/env.2001.6.1.13.

[3] Timothy Shanahan, “God and Nature in the Thought of Robert Boyle,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988): 558. He develops his example by pointing to the clock at Strasbourg.

[4] Many versions of this story survive; for one, J. T Fowler, ed., The Life of St. Cuthbert in English Verse (Durham: Surtees Society, 1891), ll. 1278-1306.


Glasgow Spontaneous Generation Talk

If you’d like to follow along this way….

Thank you so much to Erica Fudge and the British Animal Studies network for the invitation to speak to you today. It’s a great honor. What follows is based on a chapter from what will be my second book, Medieval Nonhumanisms, which will be coming out with the University of Minnesota Press. As there’s still time to entertain comments, corrections, or generative ideas for it, I’m looking forward to hearing from you. If you’d like a copy of the paper, or you’d like to read along as I present, I’ve posted a copy of my talk to my personal website, medievalkarl.com.

Despite what you may have been led to expect by the conference’s title, my talk is not in fact about “sex,” but rather about reproduction—or, rather, generation, but of a sexless sort. I’ll be focusing on the Middle Ages, in part because that’s what I do, but also as a kind of ambassador for my scholarly field:  nonmedievalists sometimes mistake my period as a kind of dead zone for thought, or as sloughed off or disconnected from our present except as an embarrassing remainder: recall the pleonastic insult “medieval brutality” and so on. I’d like to try to change that.

So, here’s a picture of the way we generally expect reproduction to work, from Basil, fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, a city located in what is now Turkey. He observed that

nature, once put in motion by the Divine command, traverses creation with an equal step, through birth and death, and keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance, to the last. Nature always makes a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle, and preserving each animal by these uninterrupted successions she transmits it to the end of all things. Animals do not see their peculiarities destroyed or effaced by any length of time; their nature, as though it had been just constituted, follows the course of ages, for ever young.

Even here, you might notice that something is not quite right: Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals remarks that although “anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity,” “the first beginning of this deviation is when a female is formed instead of a male, though this indeed is a necessity required by Nature,” which is to say, the first interruption of “uninterrupted succession” occurs with binary heterosexual reproduction itself. All boy children are “really in a way” monstrosities. Sexual reproduction is imperfect as reproduction, then, because it requires unlikeness: it’s generation, but not straightforwardly reproduction.

But there’s yet another strange form of generation that concerns me today, namely, “spontaneous generation.” My talk will aim, in some way, to recuperate this now discredited idea. “Spontaneous generation” is not quite the medieval term. The medieval terminological distinctions were rather between generatio univoca and generatio equivoca, that is, on the one hand, generation from a single source, cause, or even voice–as voca comes from the Latin vox, voice–and, on the other, generation from an ambiguous source. In generatio univoca, a horse produces a horse produces a horse, a human produces a human produces a human, and so on back to the primordial pairs, with the voice of God as the ultimate, paternal creative principle, whatever the gender difference that materializes the operations of univocal generation; in generatio equivoca, for vermin and crawling things of all sorts, the cause is not a certain voice, and certainly not sex either, binary or otherwise, but rather a process indistinguishable from rejected, disordered, and shapeless materials—dust, filth, putrefaction, and slime—or from the general restlessness of the earth itself. For in medieval Christian thought, the earth was not solid, dull stuff. Instead, it was, as Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materialism points out, “fertile, maternal, labile, percolating, forever tossing up grass, wood, horses, bees, sand, or metal.” Although I’ll vacillate indifferently between the two terms over the course of my paper, “equivocal” happily suits my purposes much better as a term for this kind of generation than “spontaneous” does: the latter carries some hint of a thing happening automatically through its own efforts, a “self-starter” if you will, whereas “equivocal”  suggests indetermination, uncertainty, a resistance to being known completely, perhaps acting on its own, but perhaps being enacted in a way that could never be reduced to a singular cause.

Consider an entry in Isidore of Seville’s foundational medieval encyclopedia, his seventh-century Etymologies, which explains that worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus,” whatever that is, “in fat.” Generated by what? By whom? Certainly not by sex. Something has gone awry. Sexual reproduction goes awry because of the very need for sexual difference; asexual reproduction goes awry, we might say, because something happens where it ought not to, because life crawls from disorder, a living something whose swarming, verminous character can hardly be distinguished at all from the disorder that produced it. What happens in and through this disorder happens because of multicausal, indifferent material processes themselves, irreducible to any binary of agent and object, to any hierarchy of form and matter, untraceable to any principle of paternity or maternity. The resonances with contemporary ecocriticism may strike you as obvious.

From the ancients through at least the end of the seventeenth century, equivocal generation was simply a known fact, but generally a known fact about only a specific subset of life, often termed “imperfect,” but which I’ll call crawling or swarming life. Aristotle’s natural science was the key resource, as when he spoke of

some insects not derived from living parentage, but . . . generated spontaneously: some out of dew falling on leaves . . . others grow in decaying mud or dung; others in timber, green or dry; some in the hair of animals; some in the flesh of animals; some in excrements: and some from excrement after it has been voided, and some from excrement yet within the living animal.

Albert the Great’s thirteenth-century commentary on Aristotle’s work on animals makes exactly the same point: “One must respond that some animals are generated from propagation, and some from putrefaction. In those generated from putrefaction there are no members designated for generation, because they are not generated from semen.” Bartholomew the Englishman’s fourteenth-century encyclopedia of natural history explains that the louse is “birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores”; the snail in “lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean”; butterflies lay eggs in fruit and “breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth”; and that fleas lay eggs without “mixing of male and female.”

No one seems to have found the science anything but common sense. Basil the Great remarks that on hot rainy days in Thebes, hordes of field mice swarm from the earth and the “mud alone produce[s] eels; they do not proceed from an egg, nor in any other manner; it is the earth alone which gives them birth.” Isidore’s Etymologies just as blandly observes that “many people know from experience that bees are born from the carcasses of oxen,” hornets from horses, “drones from mules, and wasps from asses.” And without any expectation of disagreement, Augustine explains that Noah had no need to coax equivocally generated lifeforms into his ark, because God specifically commanded him to gather only male and female animals, in other words, those generated through sexual reproduction, and anyway vermin would have infested the ark, as they do any house, “not in any determinate numbers.”

The problem was not the natural science itself but rather how equivocal generation challenged God’s monopoly on creation. If equivocal life comes from putrefaction, and if the created world was perfect before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, then creeping things may have emerged only after God has finished making the world. Though creeping life, reptiles in Latin, is created twice in the Bible’s first creation story, in Genesis 1:20 and 1:24, it is notably almost entirely absent from medieval artistic depictions of creation, in which the absence perhaps acknowledges that such a form of life had yet to emerge in the earth’s first, uncorrupt days. No doubt the absence is partly due to technical constraints. Creeping things would be too small to illustrate easily, particularly on the sixth day of creation, crowded as that day was with the creation of quadrupeds and humans. However, even when artists had ample space, as in carvings on cathedrals, they still tended to omit the creation of vermin. Who or what could be responsible for them?

Medieval Christian thinkers offered a range of solutions, more or less convincing, to preserve a divine or at least a celestial cause for swarming life. For example, Robert Grosseteste, thirteenth-century Bishop of Lincoln, felt compelled to defend God’s sole responsibility for the ongoing production of oysters, here presumably standing in as a paradigmatic “equivocal” critter. According to Grosseteste, since oysters evidently generate from the water itself, God’s “increase and multiply” has to apply to oysters in some specific way particular to them, not “by the propagation of things brought forth one from other” but rather “through a multiplication of individuals that are begotten from water.” Other writers, using Aristotle, concocted better explanations by following a more logical, less haphazard system, in which the earth is cold, and life requires warmth from some source or other. Thus for Duns Scotus, stellar heat operated on a cow’s corpse, inscribing the matter in such a way that it might produce bees; a work ascribed to Albert the Great similarly explains that when the sun heats rotting matter, trapped heat causes vibrations within the matter, which produce spirit, and thus life. The actual Albert the Great insists that animals sprung from putrefaction require “a superior power and an inferior power. The inferior power disposes the matter for putrefaction, into which, once it has been disposed, the celestial power is introduced, operating on the matter just as sperm operates on the menses.” Albert’s solution suggests an effort to keep God ultimately responsible, in this case through a deputized virtus caelestis, a heavenly patriarchal force, working, like God, on merely receptive, feminine sublunary matter.

The Middle Age’s most widely respected resolution to the problem belongs to Augustine’s On the Trinity. In the course of examining the competing serpent-creating miracles between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court, told in Exodus 7:9-12, Augustine explains that demons have no power to create matter, and neither, in fact, does anything else but God. Rather, during Creation God had “interwoven” a “natural seminal power” in all life from which they produced particular kinds of seemingly new things, like serpents. Elsewhere, in a Genesis commentary, he suggests that these seeds might have been implanted on Creation’s third day, along with the seeds of plants. Although putrefaction had not yet happened at the time of Creation, seemingly “spontaneous” life has already been provided for by God’s foresight. All these explanations sought to keep God ultimately responsible, and, through that, to preserve hierarchies between object and agent, matter and spirit, and the host of other inequitable distinctions these divisions attach themselves to, like paternal form and feminine matter. And all the explanations themselves, through these strange, extrabiblical interventions, attest to some worry over whether all life is a life enabled by spirit.

The stakes of the problem become even clearer in the waning days of spontaneous generation, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The typical story is one that culminates in Louis Pasteur’s conclusive demonstration that a sufficiently sterile environment would prevent even the smallest microbes from arising, and with that, a conclusive demonstration that things in themselves have no power to bring forth something new. The counternarrative is perhaps equally familiar: some thirty years ago, the story of the death of spontaneous generation became a key site for the social history of knowledge, in which the victory of Pasteur over Felix Archimede Pouchet could be understood not simply as the rise and triumph of experimental science over ancient superstition but instead, or at least also, as a victory of Pasteur’s Catholicism and Imperial sympathies over Pouchet’s Protestant Republicanism, differences that themselves correspond to two distinct understandings of what matter can do.

In 1864, Louis Pasteur denounced spontaneous generation as an ally of atheism: “what a triumph, gentlemen, it would be for materialism if it could affirm that it rests on the established fact of matter organizing itself, taking on life of itself.” In the same year, Pasteur again argued that

If we also granted matter this other force we call life, life in all its many manifestations, varying as it does according to the conditions under which it is encountered, what would be more natural but to deify it? What could then be gained from recourse to the notion of an original creation, to whose mystery we must defer? What use the idea of a divine Creator?

What use indeed. Roughly 180 years earlier, Ralph Cudsworth’s massive True Intellectual System of the Universe had made exactly the same point without feeling compelled to don scientific costume: “to assert . . . that all the effects of nature come to pass by material and mechanical necessity, or the mere fortuitous motion of matter, without any guidance or direction, is a thing no less irrational than it is impious and atheistical.” To preserve reason, which, for both Pasteur and Cudsworth, is much the same thing as preserving God, matter and motion and life must all be dependent, ultimately, on some divine or quasi-divine monopoly on a final creative power. Pasteur, the modern scientist, has more than a little in common with his medieval predecessors.

And the defense of divine powers was, unexpectedly, also a defense of human particularity. Cudsworth’s late seventeenth-century contemporaries Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Jan Swammerdam provide a surprising example of such a motivation in response to their microscopic examinations of insects. In this little world they discovered an astonishing richness of detail, especially in insect wings. They were astonished because of traditions inherited from Aristotle and Albert the Great that held that the more perfect an animal, the more differentiated its parts. Insects should have been minimally detailed, unglorious, uncomplicated, and ugly. But if such beauty could arise from merely material processes, by the work of filth upon itself, then by extension other complex creatures–humans, in particular–could ultimately arise in just the same way. Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam had to find some cause of insect reproduction more aligned to what they believed to be the typical, sexual modes of animal reproduction. Recognizing the centrality of human dignity to their research helps explain why these and other seventeenth-century Natural scientists were so dedicated to defending the doctrine of bodily resurrection as well, for if human life, like swarming life, could just arise from natural processes, then what spirit could persist after our bodies returned to the swarming earth? Resurrection promises a release from mundane flux; a spontaneously generated soul forces us to recognize that there’s no escape from this or any other earth.

Even the attempts to preserve a responsible celestial power for apparently spontaneously generated life could end up imagining a human self entirely immanent to the ongoing flux of mortal existence. To remind you: many thinkers held the sun or even every celestial body responsible for equivocal generation, explaining that when rotting matter was heated with the right kind of heat, a membrane formed that trapped the heat, which, in seeking to escape, vibrated the matter, which vibrations forced a soul to generate, and with that, life. From this, it could be but a short intellectual step to propose a fully material concept of the soul, distinguishable in function from matter, but not quite a separable, independent principle of identity. A completely immanent concept of life, that is. One astonishing speculative thinker along these lines was Blaise of Parma, whose dates, roughly speaking, were 1347 to 1416. Alternately known as Blasius, Biagio Pelacini da Parma, or, to his enemies, as the “Doctor Diabolicus,” his present fame, such as it is, rests largely on his work on optics and weights. His optical theories led him to argue that intellection was a form of sense perception, and since sense perception requires a distinct object, but available to perception, so too did the intellect; and since the objects of the sense are material, so too are the objects of intellection, that is, thought. The conclusion about the materiality of thought led him on to this astonishing last point:

the final conclusion: that the human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.

I’ll repeat that: “human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.” Human reason here is an effect of ongoing, imperfect material processes. Blaise reached similar conclusions in considering the problem of equivocal generation. Agreeing with Avincenna rather than Aristotle, Blaise argued that not just gnats, bees, mice, toads, and the like, could emerge equivocally, but that all life could, including human life, for “nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, and so on, which is commonly called the “intellective power.”

Some of you might know Avicenna’s influence on another work, the Hayy ibn Yaqzan, that is, Alive Son of Awake, written by the twelfth-century Iberian Muslim scholar ibn Tufail, translated into Latin in the later seventeenth century as Philosophus Autodidactus. Tufai’s philosophical novel is a kind of theological experiment that tries to demonstrate that the highest, divine truths can be arrived at simply through human reason—thus Tufail needed to imagine a human free of any influence from written revelation or inherited tradition. He solved the problem by imagining an island at the equator, uncommonly hot, and thus not unlikely to just produce the highest kind of terrestrial soul, a rational one, spontaneously. We don’t know if ibn Tufail ever had defend himself, but Blaise was eventually forced to recant his views, which also included an argument that the story of the Ark was just a myth, an unnecessary solution to a false problem, given that the postdiluvian world would have given rise again to all the life that had once inhabited it. In Blaise and Tufail and a couple other medieval thinkers, all life, vermin, human, and otherwise, could be produced naturally, through a nonmiraculous interaction between a mobile earth and a mobile sky. Life for them is not something added to matter, but just one of the things matter does.

And looking ahead from Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam, into modern science, we now must recognize that all generation is spontaneous if tracked back far enough. Darwin himself made the admission in a letter written not long before Pasteur was celebrating his victory over Pouchet, when he recognized that life must be at its origin abiogenetic. To put all this another way: at the very moment spontaneous generation was giving way to modern life science, abiogenesis returned, with a recognition that life is had been aimlessly generated the impersonal, restless creativity of nonlife. Of course, the differences between spontaneous generation and origin of life research should not be obscured or dashed past. Origin of life research hypothesizes about the development of a paired genetic continuity and openness to adaptation across generations; it provides irreversible historical narratives, with key transitional points, of the long rise of DNA out of an RNA world; and it tends to insist that the time of abiogensis is long over, at least on Earth. Life requires at least a combination of both genetic continuity and an openness to the environment that allows for adaptation, which is to say, life requires cross-generational genetic continuity and discontinuity. Spontaneous generation by contrast is discontinuous, as much a closed loop in its own way as pre-Darwinian assertions that like always produces like: filth produces flies, the flies die and return to filth, and so on. And spontaneous generation may be inscrutable but it does not relegate its processes to the great temporal distances of the hundred-million-year rise of DNA out of RNA or to the great speed of chemical reactions occurring in a millionth of a second. Spontaneous generation by contrast happens right before us, though, of course, it does not actually happen, as we now know. Yet over the long time of life, matter still swarms, in mundane, perhaps inevitable ways that require no transcendent divine catalyst, or any supposedly atheological equivalent, to get going.

The campaign against spontaneous generation and various incongruent, profane materialisms must therefore be understood as something other than that of a modern split from medieval habits. We should therefore not draw a line between medieval superstition and modern science but rather between acceptances of material immanence and a faith in immaterial transcendence, and, by extension, a faith in the existence of clear lines between decisive agents and mere objects. The border between immanence and transcendence must be understood as grammatical, per Nietzsche’s famous critique in Twilight of the Idols of “the metaphysics of language,” which, he argues, persists in differentiating between a “doer and doing” and asserting some “will as the cause,” or, more simply, classifying things into clear subjects and predicates, between a matter that needs something or someone to make it happen, and matter whose operations cannot be neatly sorted into effect and external cause, object and external subject. The end of Nietzsche’s critique is well known: “I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” In short, spontaneous generation is godless, because it is ungrammatical.

In these equivocal operations, there is nothing of what Thomas Aquinas called an “aspect of generation and sonship,” where paternal life transmits information, a word here freighted with all its etymological weight of giving form. The information of supposedly normal paternal life is matter’s informing spirit, potentially separable from any particular materialization so long as it can be transmitted and received properly by other matter, so long, that is, as it can continue to establish a lineage. By these criteria, spontaneous generation fails. The signal meant to be transmitted by God’s first creative command has been cut off or has reconstituted itself on its own terms.

Two last asides as I make my way to my conclusion:

First: Spontaneous generated life tends to be creeping life: worms, maggots, insects, snakes, eels, things many of us find more than a little repulsive. But we need not be so shaken up by that. There is no need to go along with Georges Bataille, whose exploration of human limits delighted in 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.” To apprehend the heaving stuff of worms and body as repulsive is to view things only as ourselves and our own imagined order. It is to see things from the side of God or of masculine certainties about the perfect body. It is to place ourselves and our counterparts on the side of life with politics and a face, as if we, at least, are echoes of God’s primordial commandment, preserving the proper paternal traditions of Creation through our well-ordered but threatened bodies, and to relegate everything else to the side of mere being. We can try abandoning that hope for a beautiful singular Creator beautifully concerned chiefly with our coming beautiful perfection. Down here on earth, creeping things happen through the inscrutable, acentric operations of matter, without any transcendent pretensions of a cause disentangled from an effect.

Second, as many of you know, sexual reproduction is, statistically speaking, an aberration, as most species don’t reproduce sexually. John Launer repeats a common observation along these lines in his recent essay “Do We Even Need Men?,”

There are asexual variants among all sorts of creatures, including jellyfish, dandelions, lichens and lizards. Of the creatures who do reproduce sexually, some species have two sexes, but others have three, or thirteen, or ten thousand, if you are a fungus.

Against this, we have works like George Ripley’s fifteenth-century Compend of Alchemy, which explains that “Things there be no more / except kind within kind in number two / male and female, agent and patient.” Once again, binary gender and binary gendered notions of sexual reproduction support a host of other binary systems, but in comparison to what we know about reproduction now, or indeed what the medieval believed they knew about spontaneous generation, nothing could be more simplistic.

So: Vermin swarm from and in matter without any sexual intermediary, without parental transmission, without a singular cause or singular voice, without a quality separable from their temporary affiliations. Vermin then return to earth, possibly to arise again at some point if conditions are right, but possibly not. What returns has no distinct informational line that could possibly be traced from parent to child. If this stuff is life, it must be life completely immanent to its temporary ordering of stuff, without any of the informational, transcendent, and spiritual implications that “life” carries, and without any split between its particular manifestation and a transcendent “life principle.” That is, the equivocally generated life ultimately offers us what we might call a disanimated, corporeal model of life, barely distinct from the matter from which it temporarily emerges and to which it will return.

If information is not distinguished from material structure, then we have the tools for a radically nonspiritual, nonpaternal, and nonvital conceptualization of objects in general, living things included. If this stuff is body, it is not body as origin or ground or the prediscursive repressed matter underneath social and gender codes. Individuation now need not be something that happens through the application of spirit, or vitality, or writing, or code to matter. It can be understood to happen with matter itself, through its inseparable organization within a roiling field of other matter.

We could do better, then, by recognizing the following: fundamental disorder is not a problem particular to vermin but rather one general to all that is; to call it disorder rather than, for example, “endless generativity” is to continue to think too highly of ourselves; we ourselves and our worldly counterparts are also immanent to material vibrancy or constantly erupting disorder; we are therefore not alive so long as “being alive” means having some escape from presumptively inert, “dead,” or uncreative materiality; that the opposition of life/death, with fertility on the side of life and sterility on that of death, is insupportable; and vibrancy will always swarm forth from the putrefaction, exhaustion, failure, or, for that matter, the ineluctable instability of matter, to try to sustain its own new, temporary order, and it will continue to do so long past anything we can imagine is past the point of caring.

And that’s my manifesto, and my argument, for the benefits for starting our thinking with equivocal generation.

Thank you.

Towards a Medieval Posthumanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[27] Katrin Bennhold, “Same Anger, Different Ideologies: Radical Muslim and Neo-Nazi,” The New York Times, March 5, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/world/europe/two-outcomes-similar-paths-radical-muslim-and-neo-nazi.html.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plagiarism Speech – another approach

Last night in my medieval comp lit class, as I described the first paper assignment, I fell into what I described as the “obligatory plagiarism speech.” I felt so embarrassed to have to give it at all. No one becomes a professor because they want to be the police.

So I started, as I usually do, in a mumble of reluctance. And then I found my groove, and the way I’m going to give this talk from here on out. I said:

I’m an expert, and I care about your writing and I care about you. You may think my job is to judge you. It’s not. It’s to help you get better. I’m on your side. This relationship we have here, where you have an expert give your writing close attention, just because they want you to get better, is such a rare and beautiful thing. Take advantage of it! Because it is a relationship. I trust you, and I want you to trust me. Give me writing you’ve worried over, that you’ve agonized over, that you’re worried about: that’s fine! That’s what I expect and what I want. I just want it to be yours, all yours, because I care about you. I can’t wait to read what you give me and help you find how to be the best possible writer and thinker you can be.

Completely sincere. Maybe something like this can help you too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

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

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

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

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

Harley 7334 89r

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

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

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


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

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

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

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

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

Harley 1758 126v

Harley 1758 126v

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

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

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

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

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

My letter to Vassar in support of Dorothy Kim

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

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

Dear President Bradley,

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

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

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

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

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


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