Deviant Bodies and Animalized Humans

Nearly two years ago, I announced:

For several years I’ve wanted to write an essay on the way that ‘mute beasts’ communicate through gesture in a host of medieval texts (famous examples include the ravens in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the lion in Yvain), with some consideration of the way that some monks complained that the use of monastic sign language reduced them to animality. So, a chapter on disability and animals, in terms of muteness, interspecies communication, sign language, and signs, maybe with a strong gesture towards the use of CS Peirce in HOW FORESTS THINK, would be a lot of fun to write.

And now it’s basically done. I’ve submitted it to the medieval disability anthology, and then revised it a bit and submitted it again, and then revised it a lot more, because I’m sharing it at the University of Pennsylvania Medieval-Renaissance seminar this September 7. For the interested, here’s the first part opening of my paper, my first real attempt to do disability studies.


Saxon Mirror, Mscr.Dresd.M.32 6r

For several medieval writers, differences in mental capability are partly an effect of particular kinds of bodies or environments.[1] For example, an eighth-century medical treatise by Qusta ibn Luqa (in Latin, Costa ben Luca), translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and listed as a Parisian university text in the thirteenth, holds that women, those too close to the sun, like “Ethiopians,” and also those too far from it all have souls that are “imperfectiores et debiliores” [more imperfect and weaker] than those of people whose internal heat and cold are in “perfectione aequalitatis” [perfect equilibrium].[2] Shape and size could matter as well as internal or external ecologies: Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals held that since birds, fish, quadrupeds, and children were all “dwarflike,” their intelligence was inferior to that of upright humans. Michael Scot’s early thirteenth-century translation follows its ninth-century Christian Arabic source by omitting this specific comparison, but repeats logic, drawn from elsewhere in Aristotle’s treatise, that holds that “animalia sunt minoris intellectus quam homo” [animals are less intelligent than man], because they have more flesh in the front part of their bodies than humans do.[3] The thirteenth-century natural history of Thomas of Cantimpré begins its chapter on “The Monstrous Humans of the East” by proposing that although satyrs and onocentaurs lacked rational souls, they nonetheless could exhibit behaviors that seemed rational to the degree that that their bodies resembled those of humans.[4] And the discussion of the human worldly superiority in Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon observes that well-proportioned limbs signify (“denotatur”) a good mind, and then adds that “inde sentatiavit Plato quod qualis animalis effigiem gestat homo, talis animalis sequitur mores et affectus,” rendered by one translator as “wherefore Plato 3afe sentence that man folowethe the maneres and affectes of that beste, of whome he hath similitude.”[5]

The possession of speech was a key concern. A thought experiment, repeated through the Middle Ages from Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) to William of Saint Thierry (twelfth) to Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth), held that if humans had no hands, they would be quadrupeds, and therefore be forced to grasp food with their mouths, and as a result would lose the flexibility of lips and tongue that allowed for the production of rational speech.[6] A handless body, being unable to express its rationality, would be functionally irrational. Like an animal or stone, it would be mute. This word, mutum (to choose a declension at random), appears 469 times in the Patrilogia Latine, and accompanies the word “animal” 43 times: not more often than it accompanies surdum [deaf; 160 times], but often enough to attest to a widespread association of nonhumans and muteness across scholarly cultures. This association is not because animals were thought silent, but because what sound they made was understood as mere noise. Habakkuk 2:18 is just one of several scriptural mockeries of those who believe that the “simulacra muta” [mute idols] they themselves created possess divine power.[7] Augustine’s commentary on Psalms 144:10 applies the same adjective to stones and nonhumans alike when it insists that no one should “think that the mute stone or mute animal [mutus lapis aut mutum animal] has reason wherewith to comprehend God.”[8] The condition of muteness thus traversed those of human impairment, animal inability, and material inertness. It slid from irrationality into inanimacy, from a life whose noise could not be understood to one that has no life, no voice, and no agency.

Law reinforced this division. The Justinian code ruled that humans who were permanently “mutus et surdus” (mute and deaf) could not legally draw up contracts, as they had no more capacity for judgment than young children, the insane, and even the chronically ill.[9] This legal voicelessness could also be applied to humans who bodies were marked as deviant. The thirteenth-century Saxon Mirror (which survives in more than 400 manuscripts) begins its discussion of inheritance law by likening kinship to a human body, so that, for example, “the children of legitimate brothers are located at the level where the arm connects to the shoulders,” with more distant relations located further out on this imagined body; it concludes this discussion by decreeing that property cannot “devolve upon the feebleminded, dwarfs, and cripples.” With one stroke, it cuts such people off from the legal, genealogical body and subjects them to legal conditions elsewhere applied to people unable to express their rationality in socially normative ways.[10] To be sure, Henry de Bracton’s thirteenth-century compendium of English laws nuanced the Justinian code by allowing the entirely deaf to validate contracts by means of “signs and a nod.”[11] But even this modification still preserved the fundamental notion, namely, that certain impairments reduced people to a functional status of stones or nonhuman animals, without legally recognizable agency of their own.

In effect, since the Latin word “animal” could simply mean a “living” or “ensouled” thing,[12] common medieval references to “irrational animals” could functionally encompass several groups: nonhuman animals, humans with mental or intellectual impairment, and, less often, humans with deviant bodies. The phrase “mute animal” could similarly encompass both nonhumans and some humans. Although no widespread medieval law collapsed the distinction between these groups, rhetorical comparisons between nonhumans and impaired humans were frequent. They appear in work by, for example, Augustine (“they differ little from the beasts of the field”), Henry of Ghent (without “intellect…they remain only an animal”), Aquinas (“so long as man has not the use of reason, he differs not from an irrational animal”), and Henry de Bracton, who declares that the insane “are not far removed from brute beasts which lack reason.”[13] Proverbs did similar work: in Middle English, one could be “deaf as an adder,” “mad as a goose” and blind “as a bear,” “as Bayard,” a common horse’s name, or “as a beetle,” a word that denoted either an insect or a hammer.[14] This logic at least implicitly asserted that nonhuman animals were impaired by their own natural capacities, while impaired humans were not quite human.

A humanist disability rights perspective would at least hesitate before these comparisons, because they disable impaired humans by reducing them to a condition of being animals or even objects.[15] It might argue that deviations from the normative human body should be understood only as deviations within the range of human possibility, not as animal degradation. Without denying the fact that humans can suffer deprivations to which humans are uniquely vulnerable (for example, an awareness of legal exclusion), and therefore without declaring, for example, that “humans and animals are really the same,” my work in critical animal studies and posthumanism encourages me to linger with these comparisons instead of simply decrying them. Of course I am not the first to argue in this way. Sunuara Taylor begins an essay about her own impairment, animal metaphors, and animal rights by listing animal insults used against her impairment and those of others; but she admits that when she walks, she really does “resemble a monkey,” in particular, a chimpanzee. These comparisons need not “be negative.”[16] Rather, Taylor argues that they offer an opportunity to rethink embodiment, dependence, and autonomy so that nonhumans might be included in what might be called a vegan community of impairment. With this work, we can recognize that the paired accusations of impairment against nonhumans and certain humans alike call not for a reassertion of precritical humanism and its hierarchies of significant vulnerability, but rather for a reevaluation of the social and ethical functions of impairment, disability, and agency. Mel Y. Chen’s Animancies carries out this work thoroughly. In case studies ranging from lead paint and burst oil wells, to furniture, to the insidious feline genius of Fu Manchu, to semi-domesticated chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals, Chen tracks how certain groups and forms of life—particularly impaired people, racialized immigrants, and the sexually heterodox—are culturally invested with varying degrees of liveliness, agency, responsibility, and animalization. Chen prefers not to shift excluded people up the “animancy hierarchies” of “Western ontologies,”[17] however politically advantageous this reaffirmation would seem to be such groups. Rather, as with other feminist reevalations of materialism, agency, vulnerability, and autonomy, Chen prefers to “reside in this…negative zone”[18] to jostle aside the centrality of claims to agency and animancy in arguments for rights, justice, and care.[19]

Taylor and Chen’s work happily stymy one possible, straightforward argument about animalized metaphors of disability and the social animalization of impaired humans. This would be the assertion that nonhumans, being variously suited to each of their particular environments, are not in fact impaired, and that any supposedly natural animal impairment should be understood instead as representing multiple sensory and bodily norms, rendered “abnormal” and disabled only as an effect of environments and cultures built for other norms. Such a reading would effectively “deanimalize” animals by both freeing them of their negative cultural associations; it would invest them with the agency that uncritical humanism assumes them to lack; and it would simultaneously perform an analogous function for impaired people. Against these critical mistakes, I can also offer Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “misfit” model of disability, which, by emphasizing material conditions fitted for certain bodies and capacities, deemphasizes the supposed personal bodily inadequacies of the disabled subject, so that “vulnerability is in the fit, not in the body.” Garland-Thomson argues that “fitting” requires a “generic body” in a “generic world,”[20] while I would push this point perhaps past the point of utility by arguing that any no fit can ever be perfect, because there is no perfectly generic world and certainly no perfectly adequate fit. The ineradicable vulnerability and ongoing unbalanced homeostasis of any entity means that no body, even those that belong to the community of “uniform, standard, majority bodies,”[21] can ever be perfectly fitted to its environment.

The remainder of this chapter will concentrate on an encounter that foregrounds and preserves such misfit moments. This is the meeting of Saint Cuthbert and the penitent ravens, which I offer as an experiment in the utility of considering disability studies, critical animal studies, and ecocriticism together, for both historical cultural studies and perhaps even more present-minded cultural studies. The encounter is notable for the gestural communication used by these “mute” beasts to effect a community; for the fact that the birds are not made to talk, although birds, particularly corvids, were a paradigmatic talking animal; and finally for where it takes place (the island of Farne, rendered hospitable to both saint and birds by continuous effort). This encounter does not affirm any bodily or environmental norms. It instead emphasizes the work communication and community require in an environment perilously inhabited by vulnerable bodies that can never be quite at home in it.

[1] Like all cultural studies that unsettle categories that “go without saying,” terminology is a central issue in disability studies. For useful recent surveys of terminological debates from a medievalist perspective, see Joshua R. Eyler, “Introduction: Breaking Boundaries, Building Bridges,” Joshua R. Eyler, ed., Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 1–11, and Richard Godden and Jonathan Hsy, “Analytical Survey: Encountering Disability in the Middle Ages,” New Medieval Literatures 15 (2013): 313–39. My chapter uses the social model of disability, in which “impairment” indicates the subjective experience or condition of discomfort, incapacity, illness, and so on, while disablement/disability occurs because of physical or social expectations and architectures that reduce or deny cultural participation to people with impairments (stairs rather than ramps are the classic example). This division between impairment and disability is analogous to the sex/gender division and vulnerable to the same critiques.

[2] Carl Sigmund Barach, ed., Excerpta e libro Afredi Anglici De motu cordis item Costa-ben-Lucae De differentia animae et spiritus liber translatus a Johanne Hispalensi (Innsbruck: Wagner’schen University Press, 1878), 138-39. Barach’s edition, which has the nonsensical “solari” living far from the sun, requires supplementing with other copies of the work; Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer 10, 245r, for example, reads “ut sclavi et mauri” [like Slavs and Moors], which respectively stand for those “longe distare a sole uel uicinare” [a long ways or close to the sun].

[3] Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, trans. James J. Lennox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 686b23-9; the Greek is “νανῶδες.” Michael Scot, De animalibus: Michael Scot’s Arabic-Latin translation. Part Two, Books XI-XIV: Parts of Animals, ed. Aafke M. I. van Oppenraaij (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 187–88. Michael Scot’s source may be drawing on discussions of body mass in Aristotle Parts of Animals 689a25.

[4] Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de Natura Rerum: Editio Princeps Secundum Codices Manuscriptos, ed. Helmut Boese (Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1973), 97.

[5] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby, 9 vols. (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol 2, 180-81, anonymous English translation from British Library, Harley 2261. Trevisa himself says nothing about nonhuman animals, but instead says only “þerfore Plato 3af his doom, and seide suche ordenaunce, disposicioun, and schap as a man haþ in his kyndeliche membres and lymes, suche kyndeliche maneres þey foloweþ in dedes.” For several medieval assertions of the independence of body and mind, see chapter four in Irina Metzler, Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).

[6] For sources, and a longer discussion, see my How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 47–50.

[7] Scriptural translations are the Latin vulgate and, for the English, the Douay Rheims.

[8] Enarrationes in Psalmos, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrilogiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, 217 vols. (Paris, 1844) (hereafter PL), 37:1877. For a book-length discussion of the animancy of stones, see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[9] Paul Krueger, ed., Justinian’s Institutes, trans. Peter Birks and Grant McLoed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), II.12.13. Also see Alan Watson, trans., The Digest of Justinian (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011),, 166.

[10] Eike von Repgow, The Saxon Mirror: A ‘Sachsenspiegel’ of the Fourteenth Century, trans. Maria Dobozy (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 69-70. For more on legal history, see Christian Laes, “Silent Witnesses: Deaf-Mutes in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” Classical World 104.4 (2011): 451–73; Irina Metzler, “Reflections on Disability in Medieval Legal Texts:  Exclusion – Protection – Compensation,” in Disability and Medieval Law: History, Literature, Society, ed. Cory James Rushton (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 19–53; and Wendy J. Turner, Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013).

[11] Henry de Bracton, On the Laws and Customs of England, ed. George E Woodbine, trans. Samuel E Thorne, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), Vol. II.286. For evidence of the persistence of this law, see Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, in Four Books, 12th ed., vol. 4 (London: A. Strahan and W. Woodfall, 1793), Vol. I, 304, “A man is not an idiot, if he hath any glimmering of reason, so that he can tell his parents, his age, or the like common matters. But a man who is born deaf, dumb, and blind, is looked upon by the law as in the same state with an idiot; he being supposed incapable of any understanding, as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with ideas.”

[12] For an example of the word’s range of meanings, see Alan of Lille, Distinctiones dictionum theologicalium, PL 210:701A–B.

[13] I draw all these examples from Metzler, Fools and Idiots, 108, 114, 120, and 154.

[14] Middle English Dictionary online (hereafter MED; accessed 8 August 2016), s.v. “bitil” and “betel.”

[15] For an admirable example of this kind of work, see Licia Carlson, The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 160-61.

[16] Sunaura Taylor, “Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights,” Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 192 and 196 [191–222]; see also Sue Walsh, “The Recuperated Materiality of Disability and Animal Studies,” in Rethinking Disability Theory and Practice: Challenging Essentialism, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 20–36.

[17] Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). The first phrase (sometimes under the form “animate hierarchies”) appears 33 times in Chen’s book; although the latter phrase is from page 127, references to “Western” thought abound in her book. Medieval studies help challenge sedimented, homogenized notions of what constitutes “Western” thought.

[18] Ibid., 17; for one sample of feminist approaches to these issues, see Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53.

[19] For further work in this line, see Eunjung Kim, who, in writing about the artist Marina Abramović, asks “in what way can an embodiment of immobility and speechlessness challenge ableism, which is firmly grounded on the criterion to control one’s body to determine whether one qualifies as human?”; “Unbecoming Human: An Ethics of Objects,” GLQ 21.2-3(2015): 230.

[20] “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 600 and 594.

[21] “Misfits,” 595. For homeostasis and systems theory, see the first several chapters of Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Margery Kempe’s Vegetarianism I


British Library, Add MS 61823 78v: “Cap. 66,” and, in a red box, “fleyshe”

Thinking about animals and violence and the middle ages tends to follow one of two routes. The first holds that medieval people were more “brutal” — the animal metaphor is telling — because they lacked the “humane” delicacy of modern civilization. The other route holds that medieval people were not more animal than us but rather just more “closely connected” to them, because big, working beasts were so much a part of their daily lives, because animals were driven “on the hoof” into the very heart of cities to be butchered, and because virtually no book could be produced without killing animals for their skin. If reducing cruelty to animals requires getting closer to what “really” happens to them when we have them butchered, then animals may well require that we “get medieval” for them.

That may strike you as self-evidently silly as it does me, but in a purely quantitative sense, animals did have it far better in the Middle Ages than they do now. On occasion there were mass killings, to provision military expeditions, or, for example, to make up the parchment for the eighth-century Codex Amiatinus and its two matching volumes. But the 1500 calves this extraordinary project required hardly register in comparison to the figures of annual cattle slaughter in the United States (in this century, generally well above 32,000,000 individuals per year). In the twelfth century, Walter Map furnished what looks like a more typical portrait of premodern animal intimacy: each evening, a rich man entered his barn “and approached each oxen in turn, shook up their fodder, running his hand along the backbone of each, approvingly and fondly, instructing each by name to eat” (515-16). They worked for him; they would end their lives of labor by being slaughtered and eaten; but at least he knew them individually, and, inasmuch as he could, he treated them with kindness; and, as the story concludes, should a deer hide itself from hunters among his herd, the rich man, even in darkness, would immediately identify it, eject it, and have it put to death.

What follows restores to the Middle Ages some of the cultural complexity often denied it by a modern self-satisfaction that makes the middle ages little more than either a barbaric anticipation of modernity or its less decadent origin, or both, simultaneously. My subject is the fifteenth-century bourgeoise, contemplative, preacher, mother, troublemaker, and pilgrim, the author, through her amanuenses, of the first English-language autobiography, the extraordinary Margery Kempe. To use terms not often used to describe her: Kempe was a vegetarian who wept sorely at the sight of animal suffering. This makes her sound as if she would be a troublesome crank, or worse, for omnivores, and a founding hero for modern vegetarianisms. But most modern vegetarianisms want to end animal suffering: not Kempe. Hers was a carnivorous vegetarianism, whose practice was founded on a sublated preservation of desire for the suffering and death of animals (I am distinguishing my approach sharply from several excellent published articles on food and Kempe, by Cristina Mazzoni, Melissa Raine, and animals and Kempe, by Lisa Kiser; see also this seminar paper by Elizabeth Knight, whose development is certainly worth watching). This at least was perfectly in line with contemporary Christian piety. What distinguished her was less her diet than her gender, age, and life experience as a mother, all of which generated a particularity potent sanctity, established through identification with a suffering, pleasurable flesh that was at once animal, female, and divine.

Around the year 1409, Christ granted Margery Kempe his first long visionary visitation, in which he commands her to “forsake that which you love best in this world, and that is eating of flesh. And instead of that flesh, you shall eat my flesh and my blood, which is the true body of Christ in the sacrament of the altar” [forsake that thou lovyst best in this world, and that is etyng of flesch. And instede of that flesch thow schalt etyn my flesch and my blod, that is the very body of Crist in the sacrament of the awter” (Chapter 5, line 379 ff)]. Despite the exertions of pilgrimage, and despite bullying from her fellow travelers, she keep the vow for years, begrudgingly having some meat when he confessor insists, but for no more than “a lytyl whyle” (Chapter 26, line 1404). It is not until Christ himself intervenes, years later, that she fully “resort[s] ageyn to flesch mete,” and that only because he wants her to build up her strength for another pilgrimage. Obedient on both occasions to her divine lord, she – in Sarah Salih’s words – gets “to have her fast and eat it” too.

In her fifteenth-century England, Kempe’s decision to forgo meat for years on end would have been unusual for a secular woman, but was otherwise perfectly orthodox. Kempe could have gone much further and still remained within the church: the twelfth-century mystic Alpais of Cudot, for example, is said to have subsisted on nothing but Eucharistic hosts. Meat would not necessarily have been rare in the diet; late fourteenth-century harvest workers in eastern and southern England would have received nearly a pound of it daily during the laboring season (28). Baseline Christian dietary practice thus really did require some care: for Kempe’s Christianity would have required that she, like any other layperson, abstain from meat for nearly a third of the year, mostly during the fasting season of Lent. Monks tended to do still more, and Carthusian monks, whose practice Kempe’s most closely resembled, did the most of all, by requiring that their adherents keep to an entirely meatless diet.

Early medieval monastic rules tended to forbid all but the sick from eating quadrupeds and sometimes even birds; later monks developed loopholes by distinguishing forbidden carnes (fresh-cooked meat recently cut from the joint) from licit carnea (pre-cooked, pre-salted meat) (40), so much so that a monk like the twelfth-century Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds, earned high praise for eating neither (40). Carthusians would have none of this. After centuries of debate, even the chancellor of the University of Paris weighed in. Jean Gerson’s 1401 De non esu carnium Carthusienses admitted that while abstinence from meat was bad for the health, so too were mercantile voyages and nearly all other human endeavors, so there was nothing inherently wrong with Carthusians damaging their health for God, and therefore no reason for their critics to charge them, as they often did, with homicide (101-103). Carthusian attitudes towards meat-eating found themselves promulgated outside the cloister in works like the enormously popular Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a meditative guide that explains that Christ ate meat only once, at the Last Supper, where Christ’s typological role as the sacrificial, sacramental Paschal lamb made eating symbolically useful (51, 377). Carthusian approval for Kempe’s ascetic diet is suggested by the so-called “red pen annotator,” an early sixteenth-century monastic reader of the sole extant manuscript of Kempe’s Book. Willing at times to delete or even rewrite passages to suit his doctrinal preferences, he leaves the margin blank when Kempe first stops eating meat (9r), but when she takes it up again, he writes “fleysche” near the passage, and draws a box around it: it may be too much to suggest that he was disturbed by this change in Kempe’s religious practices, but he certainly found her new difference from his own vowed commitments remarkable.

In Kempe’s England, the common heresy was not one of not eating meat, but of eating it at the wrong times, and without due regard for its special importance. Peter of Bruys provides a spectacular twelfth-century continental example: he dined on meat that he had roasted in front of a church, on Good Friday, on a pyre of disarticulated crucifixes (PL 189:771C-D). According to records produced in the last decade of Kempe’s life, the heretics of Norwich – a town some 40 miles from Kempe’s own King’s Lynn, one which she visited frequently – broke with the church with far less fanfare, by saving leftover meat to eat on fast days (Margery Baxter, 46), or by declaring that anyone on whatever day “can eat fish or flesh indifferently, according to the desire of their appetite” (potest indifferenter edere pisses vel carnes secundum sui appetitus desiderium). This studied carelessness was punished with a temporary diet of bread and water, or, in one case, bread and ale, simultaneously depriving these heretics of meat and returning them to the cycle of penitential eating that was supposed to be common to all of the faith.

The heretics who had worried the church the most were the s0-called Cathars, who “shun all flesh…but not for the same reason as monks and others living spiritually abstain from it” (PL 195:14C), according to Eckbert of Shönau’s complaint in his 1163 sermon in praise of meat-eating. Eckbert explains that the Cathars believe that since some vast prince of shadows (“quemdam immanem principem tenebrarum”) created the material world, they should not eat meat, the most material of foods. Eckbert then sarcastically regrets that there had been no Cathar present to whisper his doctrine in Noah’s ear after the flood, when God first authorized this new diet of flesh. It is in memory of beliefs like these that one late medieval defender of the Carthusian vegetarianism explains “unlike certain heretics, [we] hold like other Christians that all God’s creatures are good,” which is to say, inherently good for food.

While medieval ethnographers were willing to imagine fully vegetarian, entirely peaceful ascetics, and to let them voice disdain for those who “made their bellies a tomb,” they deposited these ascetics safely in the far east, or the distant past of the classical “Golden Age,” before humans turned to meat, warfare, and commerce. Good Christians, even Carthusians, were supposed to want to kill and eat animals, and to recognize that God had given them animals for exactly this purpose. They were encouraged to refuse this pleasure, but they were supposed to refuse it as a pleasure, so that the Christian year, even for laypeople, may be understood as a elaborate management, and refinement, of the pleasurable satisfactions of denying oneself the pleasures of eating meat. This is how Kempe fasts: the orthodoxy of her abstinence is marked by what Christ says to her: leave off eating what “thou lovyst best.”

Since orthodoxy requires that she never give up this desire, her fasting must therefore be distinguished from her celibacy: the two asceticisms differ. Quite early in the book, after waking up to celestial song, she suddenly loses all sexual desire for her husband (Chapter 3); and she dolefully recollects, as she cares for him in his incontinent dotage, that she had once desired him (Chapter 76): but now, she thinks sex “abhominabyl,” a sin, a distraction, certainly fleshy, but only repulsive. Meat, on the other hand, she has given up without giving up desire for it. The preservation of this pleasure preserves the desire for this substance, flesh, that was the material sign of human supremacy over animals, the particularly feminine unruliness and pleasures of the body (in particular see), and the very substance of the incarnated Christ himself. It was all these that she presented, denied, identified with, and performed, troubling nearly all who came in contact with her with the noisy insistence of her fleshy and suffering piety.


(to be continued)

NO FILTER: Suffering, Finitude, and other supposed truths about animals


Sauprellen, anon c. 1720, detail; from the Jagdschloss Grunewald (see also)

It is not uncommonly said that habitats generated by internal combustion engines and electronics lack the crowds of animals common to what are often called “premodern,” “preindustrial,” or “developing” habitats. It is supposed that medieval people were therefore “more in touch with” animals than their modern counterparts. The standard argument continues in this way: because medieval people relied on animal labor, traveled on animals, and because they could not have misunderstood where meat came from, they did not need to compensate for their “unnatural” separation from animals by surrounding themselves, for example, with overbred, useless pets. Their relationship to animal life was truer than ours, where “ours” equals that group of people most likely to be reading this chapter.

The faults of the argument stem first from its implicit narrative of a fall and decadence, as if the real came first, followed by a long slide towards our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin and its attendant belief in the truth of first things can and has been traced from, for example, Plato and his Ideal Forms to present-day postapocalyptic literature (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the “underlying” – a favored spatial metaphor — reality of nature). The idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from and more authentic than cultural practice, that getting before “modern civilization” is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined unmediated contact.

In an animal rights context, the argument has been that industrialized production of meat somehow separates us from our “real” engagement with its real source in animal life and animal death. Supermarket culture is particularly to blame for shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery, of getting past the hypocrisies of industrialized carnivorousness, is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the [I recommend not clicking on the link] industrial, cannibalistic dismemberment of female clones in Cloud Atlas. This argument follows the standard logic of ideology critique, insofar as it claims that only by coming face-to-face with the “reality” of the modes of production can we finally surmount the cruelty of our polyannish relationship to work and consumption. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in a variety of contexts, such claims are overblown: there may be some value in revealing what goes on in industrial farming – the very reluctance of these operations to open their doors to scrutiny is evidence enough of that – but what may be far more difficult to change is the consumer’s certainty that, in the end, their needs are worth it all, regardless.

Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning lambastes the “Messianic approach to art-making,” which holds that being “ambushed” by with the “truth” is an essential or even desirable goal of art. Nelson argues that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art may not require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction. Revelations of cruelty may be little more than revelings in cruelty. They might produce nothing but sensations of disgust, alienation, self-loathing, and guilt, or the self-aggrandizement of feeling that one feels more intensely or just more honestly than others, or that one has been exiled from bourgeois comforts (or that one has discovered some new way to épate them for their supposed hypocrisy). Revelations of cruelty might lead to still worse, titillation and enjoyment and from there to the desire for more cruelty, not because cruelty treats others as things, but because it recognizes that others can suffer in ways that things cannot.

Dominic Lacapra’s History and its Limits arrives at similar ends through its assault on conjunctions of the sublime, the transcendent, and sacralized violence, and on generalized, antihistorical obsessions with wretchedness, particularly as practiced in the work of Agamben, Bataille, and Žižek. When Lacapra turns his attention to one of Coetzee’s fictional creations, the animal rights activist and writer Elizabeth Costello, he joins Nelson in arguing against the notion that identification necessarily leads to empathy, and empathy necessarily to kindness. Coetzee’s Costello analogizes the death of animals to the Holocaust, accusing those who kill animals of being like the camp guards, whose fault, she insists, was that “the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims.” Lacapra observes that while this may be so, Costello’s argument that this cruelty can be blamed on a failure of identification can hardly account for sadomasochistic projection: no doubt, some killers and other villains can and do perceive their victims as like themselves, vulnerable and dependent, and therefore, for those very reasons, suitable targets of cruelty.

With all this in mind, we are now in a position to reconsider one of the most philosophically challenging, influential demands for an identification with nonhuman suffering. This is Derrida’s statement on the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As Derrida observes in his The Animal that therefore I am (L’animal que donc je suis), when Bentham proposes that the important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer, this “changes everything” [change tout]. To a large degree, Derrida is correct. Where philosophers have traditionally excluded or included nonhumans within the human community of rights on the basis of positive capacities – for example, the capacity to make tools, form family relations, exhibit a theory of mind, or various forms of “lack” in Lacan, Heidegger, and their epigones – Derrida focuses on a shared non-capacity, what he calls a “nonpower at the heart of power,” the ineluctable, general exposure of animals and humans alike to discomfort, injury, and death. If thinking about animals and humans begins not with abilities, language in particular, but with a shared vulnerability, certainties about agency and freedom all happily collapse.

Derrida’s recentering of the animal question on suffering still has two problems: the first is that it raises the possibility that animals may be killed ethically so long as their suffering is eliminated. This would be “humane killing,” which comes as such a surprise that an animal has no time to experience fear or pain: this is the goal of the slaughterhouse design championed by Temple Grandin, developed through her identification with nonhuman sensory worlds. The second issue is that identification with the “nonpower at the heart of power” need not necessarily result in less cruelty or more kindness. An awareness of suffering need not necessarily result in the desire to end it.

These objections are perhaps too practical. Derrida’s concern is less with animal welfare than with philosophy. He is led to his logical endpoint by his approach to language, in which having language, this supposed distinguishing capacity of humans, is itself not a capacity, but an entanglement in an always shifting, preexisting, limitless network. At the furthest end of this “nonpower” lies the figure of the animal, preserved in Derrida’s analytic, despite his attempts to do otherwise, as a homogeneous figuration of abyssal mystery.

More to the point for my analysis is that Derrida arrives at this problem by aiming at “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]. The truth of things may be an aporia, and therefore necessarily, anti/foundationally unreachable, but what it is not is in the middle of things. One has to follow things through to their end to find this truth of absence. Toril Moi’s championing of ordinary language philosophy identifies many of the problems in this, not least of all the fact that “Derrida’s deconstructive concepts at once enact and deconstruct such ideality,” thus requiring that concepts meet the demands of a presumably philosophical purity so that deconstructive analysis has something to disprove.

The purity in its most intense form, as an absence, Derrida discovers 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). The “nonpower at the heart of power” locates truth, even if that truth is a void, in suffering, vulnerability, violence, death, across borders, and at least implicitly across temporal limits. Whatever its dedication to upsetting pretensions to unmediated experience, nostalgia for origin, and all other myths of purity, it also needs these myths in order to preserve the grounds for deconstructive analysis.

All this is not to demand that human and animal difference should be conceptualized around differences in ability. I welcome a focus on nonpower, among other things, even if, as Dominic Lacapra observes, this focus goes rather “too far in acknowledging human disempowerment” in relation to nonhumans. It is rather to question both the centrality of suffering in Derrida’s analysis and the accompanying centrality of finitude, and the presentation of all of all of this as authenticity: Herbert Marcuse’s “Ideology of Death” should make us suspicious about any elevation of “a brute biological fact..into an existential privilege” (for introducing me to this essay, thank you to Aranye Fradenburg’s superb Sacrifice Your Love).

Nor am I denying the actual practice of cruelty. Animals can and do suffer, generally not just like people, but nonetheless in their own ways. Recognizing this suffering is no small matter. Furthermore, to say that revelations of cruelty may not necessarily lead to an end to cruelty is not to say that such revelations are valueless: possible results may range from individual kindness to wholesale assaults on an otherwise indifferent or worse social order. Or they may lead to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic assaults on (certain forms) of animal slaughter: good for some animals, bad for some people. I am challenging notions that center right action on the discovery of suffering, especially when this discovery of suffering is elevated into being a central truth – as it can be, strangely enough, for thinkers as antithetical as Bataille and Derrida — and on those that insist that the route to that truth is through the discovery of cruelty where it was otherwise unsuspected or unfelt.

Thursday, February 18, 2016 Purity is a Proud Toad’s Game, a Fable from Jacques de Vitry

While doing some philological noodling with the word “fabulous” (because what else does one do on sabbatical?), I found, in this entry in the Middle English dictionary, a citation from a Middle English translation of Jacques de Vitry’s Life of Marie of Oignies:


“I telle a fabil not fabulos and sey fals not falsly.”

I was hooked. Yesterday, I responded to copy edits for my entry on “Beast Fables” for the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, where I write:

The obvious fictionality of fables, as well as the youth of their first audience, inspired debates over their utility: Seneca thought them frivolous and William of Conches meaningless, and Conrad of Hirsau and Boccaccio thought them suitable for teaching only rustics and children. While the word “fable” itself comes simply from the Latin fabulor, “to talk” (which eventually provides, for example, the French parler and the Spanish hablar), it also came to stand in for fiction as a whole or even, with the sense of moral condemnation, as a false story, a use that appears even in fable collections themselves.

“A fabil not fabulos”! What treasures awaited me in Marie? What had I (dammit) omitted from my encyclopedia entry? Read on. My translation from Carl Horstmann’s edition with some help from the Latin (because I don’t have Brown’s on hand: lo how lapsed copyright preserves old scholarship!): the story of a monk first led to anhedonia, then depression, and then, for a monk, the worst sin of all, disobedience. If only the monk had been a happy toad, content in its batrachoidal squalor.

It happened that Cistercian monk had such a great zeal and love of innocence and purity, but not of wisdom, that he strove with a fervent spirit come to the same state as the first father, Adam.

And when after much vain effort, tormenting himself in fasting, vigils, and prayers he could not recover the first state of innocence, he fell first into a heaviness and sloth (that is, he became depressed). For he would eat his food, but would feel no sensible delight; he devoted himself not only to refraining from, but also from fully quenching the first stirrings of sensuality and bodily feeling; and so he devoted himself to keeping his life in perfect purity without any venial sin.

And so by the temptation of the noonday demon, he aspired to impossible things, but no matter how much he had labored, he could not in any way have what he wanted: at last in sorrow he slid into the ditch of despair, so much so that he expected he could not be saved at all in the state of corruption that he was in, as he counted venial sins as deadly — and venial sins cannot be avoided in this life. Therefore he would not take the Eucharist on those days his order ordained for this. Behold to how much misfortune and how much and what manner of wretched ruin that ancient enemy dragged a simple soul under the color of the good [Ecce ad quantum infortunium, ad quantam & quam miserabilem ruinam, sub specie boni hostis ille antiquus simplicem illam traxerat animam], so that the sick one fled salvation, and he who had once forsook his own will, took off the yoke of obedience.

And about that I tell a fable that is not fabulous, and say something fictional but not false [Ut autem fabulam non fabulose referam, nec falsa non fallaciter interseram {such a nice metaphor for tale-telling!}]:

This monk who tried to come to the same state of the first father, he is like a toad that in seeing a handsome and strong ox, wanted to become like that very ox; she tried with great force to stretch and to inflate herself; but in vain, for even if she had burst, she might not have taken on the quality of that ox.

And so that brother, while he would have enhanced himself above himself, fell wretchedly into despair under himself [the Latin’s sharper: Frater autem ille dum se supra se extollere voluit, infra se miserabiliter per desperationem corruit]

[Hit happenyd þat a monke of Cisteus ordyr hadde so grete 3ele and loue of Innocens and clennesse, þof not after sciens, þat hee enforced and bisyed hym wiþ feruour of spirite to come as to þe euenlik state of the firste fadir Adam.

And whan longe wiþ ful myche laboure, but veyne, turmentynge hym-selfe in fastynge, wakynges and prayers hee myghte not recuuir þe firste state of Innocens, he felle firste into an henynesse and slouþe. For hee woldde ete his mete, but he wolde not fele no sensible delite, while he eet; hee studyed not oonly to refreyne, but to qwenche fully þe firste stirynges of sensualite 7 bodily felynge; he studyed als to kepe his lyfe in parfite clannes wiþ-outen any venyalle synne.

And so by entisynge of þe myddaye fende, while he desyred impossibil, nor, how so mykelle he hadde labored, he myghte on no manere haue hadde þat hee wolde: atte laste for sorowe hee slode in to þe dyche of dispaire, in so myche þat hee hopyd to gete saluacyone no-wyse in þe state of corrupcyone þat hee was in, as he þat countid deedly synnes þoos þat are venyalle — þe whiche wee maye not wante in þis lyfe. Wherefore hee wolde not receyue Crystes body any-maner, not þoos dayes þat were ordayned þere-to in þe ordyr. Lo, to how grete unhappe and to how mikel and how myserabil fal under þe coloure of gode þat olde enmye drowe a symple soule, þat was sieke and fledde salue, 7 þat onys hadde forsaken his owne wille, putte aweye from hym þe 3ok of obedyens.

And, atte I telle a fabil not fabulous and sey fals not falsly, 

þis monke þat assyed to come to þe euenlike state of þe firste fadir, to whome is hee like but vnto a paddoke, þat seynge an ox of grete strengthe and fayre quantite, wolde haue comen to þe gretnnesse of hym and hane be like to þe same ox; þen she bygan wiþ grete enfors to streke hir and blowe hir-selfe abrode; but in veyne: for þos she hadde brosten, she myghte not haue taken þe quantite of þe ox.

And so þat broþer, while hee wolde haue enhaunced hym-selfe aboue hymselfe, felle wrecchidly be dispeyre vndir hym-selfe.]

The lesson of the fable is as conservative as usual (from Caxton’s version, “The poure ought not to compare hym self to hym which is ryche and myghty”).

I’m struck less by the strangeness of comparing an overfastidious monk to a toad than I am by the greater lesson: this life here demands not purity but a reasonable accommodation with corruption. Impurity can only be managed.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an ecocritical crank, but with Jacques de Vitry, and with a good awareness of enmeshment in this Naufragocene (more on Steve Mentz’s great new book, later), I think the lesson of the toad and ox fable, secularized, could be: “The corruptible ought not to compare hym self to hym which is incorruptible.”

The conservative lesson of the fables, so seemingly poisonous from a gender, Marxist, or sexuality studies perspective, is, from an ecological perspective, the key lesson: you must make do, but don’t expect miracles. Don’t expect an escape. As our friend Steve writes:

Shipwreck is not something to prepare for, something that is about to happen. It is happening. Now. We are inside it,  not waiting for it. Castaways, that name belongs to our present and our future both. (163)

So, hello fellow toads! Let’s do what we toads can.

An Attempt at the Definitive Squirrel Post

Rouen, BM ms. 3028, 89v

Rouen, BM ms. 3028, 89v

National Squirrel Appreciation Day came and went, as it always does, with me in the yard, hiding my nuts, and missing my chance, again, to tell the squirrels of America how much I love them.

Sorry, little guys! You’ll have to make do with this, days in the making, a squirrel post so long you may want to bury bits of it to read later.


Squirrels are a good subject for pet studies because domesticated squirrels are obviously just pets – although I’m prepared to pretend to be shocked when you tell me about your guard squirrel – and because domesticated squirrels strike most of us as an anomaly. Newspapers periodically run stories on cab drivers and other local characters who pal around with squirrels (a sample), but otherwise, to find a land where the squirrels are still chained and tamed, we might have to visit Southern Italy, where I’m told they’re sold in petshops.

Eighteenth-century paintings of children with chained squirrels are not all that uncommon. The Brooklyn Museum has one, the New York Historical Society another, the Museum of Fine arts in Boston still another, and the list scampers on to include one by Thomas Hudson, with a boy whose perhaps too wizened face recalls nothing so much as John Malkovich’s. More are collected in this much-plagiarized blog post. One famous champion of slavery, Robert E. Lee, loathed his sister Mildred’s pet squirrel, named Custis Morgan, while the founders of the country he sought to destroy were themselves also mixed up variously with squirrels: in 1772, Paul Revere himself billed one client for a silver chain for a squirrel, while Benjamin Franklin wrote a mocking epitaph for another, named either Mungo or Skugg.

Earlier examples not having to do with America’s Founding Fathers, include Aelbert Cuypt’s Portrait of the Sam Family before the Town of Bacharach (1653), where little Abraham Sam clutches the chain of his little squirrel, and Francesco Montemezzano’s of a woman and hers, in 1575. Later pet squirrels include Bonnie, painted by Joseph Decker in various wild settings, in The Seated Squirrel and another, called either Their Winter Hoard or, outrageously, The Gluttons. The poet Christian Friedrich Hebbel’s squirrel, Lampi (or Schatz), mourned deeply, may be pictured here, living and chained to his kennel.

As for the real goods, the medieval pet squirrels, we have enough to assert, with small confidence, that people kept squirrels for pets, with more frequency, per capita, than they do now. We have a fifteenth-century love ring, French or English, whose inside engraving features a woman with a leashed (metaphorical?) squirrel, at the British Museum; or this page from a mid fourteenth-century Quest for the Holy Grail, whose right margin pictures, naturally enough, a squirrel cleverly chained to its pole, perched atop its little squirrel house, thinking, one presumes, about the Arthurian court’s coming doom. A similar squirrel kennel shows up in an early fourteenth-century Flemish Psalter (MS Douce 5), while the Hours of Anne of Bohemia (1382-1384) have a squirrel with its kennel, no pole, and in the Luttrell psalter, an unchained, unkenneled squirrel, wearing a bell (and later, in the same manuscript, a squirrel riding the shoulder of lady in a wagon). The early fourteenth-century Ormesby Psalter also has a lady with a squirrel in her hand, as does one of the Chertsey Tiles, dating to the last decade of the thirteenth century. Even more medieval (and early modern) squirrels, mostly undomesticated, are collected by this extraordinary post.

Squirrels, like other small animals, seem to have been kept mainly by women and, in later centuries, children, though we know of plenty of men from the later eighteenth century on not afraid to give squirrels their love: in addition to Hebbel, there’s the pet squirrel in the third volume of Hal Willis’s delirious medievalist novel Sir Roland; there’s also I. W. Sickels, who wrote in 1903 that  “the male squirrel is always more or less treacherous,” and observed that a pet squirrel will often hide its nuts “in the pockets of your coat, vest, or pantaloons, or between your collar and neck”; and even John Huston, whose little Pachito, normally a placid chap, once bit the producer Ray Stark.

What’s harder to come by, however, are written accounts of medieval domestic squirrels. To be sure, monastic visitation records complain about nuns keeping squirrels, among other animals (for example, Eileen Power, here; or Archbishop Eudes in mid thirteenth-century Rouen, [also here], whose contempt for pets merits nothing less than his being immortalized as an operatic, or Disney, villain). But without easy access to the Acta Sanctorum (thanks CUNY!), it’s hard to find the stories about squirrels that would be preserved, no doubt, in hagiographic records of grief, trauma, and healing (think of St Cantilupe, who once resurrected a pet dormouse! n5, here).

It’s hard, as well, to find squirrels, because they’re so blessed with names. Which brings me to my second point:


The problem with squirrel research is knowing what to call them. The base form in Latin – sciurus – throws off a mess of possibilities: scira, scuirus, scurulus, scuriolus, quirolus, squiriolus, squiriolis, escorion, escuratus, escurellus, exquirium, squirio, escurellus, aspriolus, esperiolus, espirio, expereol, pirolus, pirulus, pyrolus, speriolus, spiriolus, spiriculus, spirgulus, and asprigulus. I’ve found these mostly through searching the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and Louis Gauchat’s article, below. With no small trepidation, I can also cite cirogrillus, to some, a squirrel, to others, a hedgehog.

This proliferation raises a question of just what counts as a Latin word: obviously, despite having learned Latin as a second language, our writers had some freedom with this noun that they don’t have with, presumably, verb endings. Latin may be a deadish language, but through its pile of corpses scampers the ever-transforming squirrel. All that makes these words specifically Latin are that they’re used with a Latin grammar and vocabulary that made it readily distinguishable different from the common tongue (which may nonetheless have used precisely the same word for “squirrel,” unless it was a region that preferred eichhorn, eichörnchen, or acquerna).

One final point here: the origin of the word squirrel is, they say, in the Greek σκίουρος, σκιά shade + οὐρά tail. This etymology appears wherever squirrel etymologies are likely to be found: in the OED, in the Deutsches Wörterbuch, and so too in this arm of the French state. Centuries old, the proposal may have first been suggested by Conrad Gesner’s mid sixteenth-century Historiae animalium:

Graecum nomen est animalculo datum à cauda, qua supra dorsum reflexa se tegit & inumbrat…ut pedes hominibus illis quos sciapodes fabulose nominant

The Greek name of this little animal is given from its tail, which it bends around above its back and covers and shadows itself…like the feet of those fabulous men that they called “sciapods.”

As fabulous as this is, Gesner might have been wrong, as might everyone who followed. There’s little surprise that no one’s bothered much to correct him, since, in the humanities, the squirrel tends attract no more than its due interest. It may nonetheless be worth noting that, a century ago, Gesner met his match in a skirmish that might be refought, if etymologists see fit, once again, to take up the banner of accuracy.

Louis Gauchat’s 1909 “Les noms gallo-romains de l’écureuil” (available in Volume 2, here) calls the “shade tail” origin an “idée bizarre,” and cites as support, “entre autres,” Schader’s 1901 Reallexikon der indogermanischen Altertumskunde (whose later versions you might check for me) (meanwhile, the OED et al. might check the 1903 Universal Cyclopaedia and Atlas). The Reallexikon suggests that the word might come, more naturally, from scéri, fast or agile, while also pointing out the importance of the root preserved in the Slavic véverica (consider the Welsh wiwer, for example), as this element appears in the Anglo-Saxon ácweorna (Gauchat 194). At the least, the OED might hint at some other possibilities!


At the Twitter, the great Matthew Harrison gifted me with Topsell on squirrels:

They growe exceeding tame and familiar to men if they be accustomed and taken when they are young, for they runne vp to mens shoulders, and they will oftentimes – it vpon their hands, creepe into their pockets for Nuttes, goe out of doores, and returne home againe, but if they be taken aliue, being olde, when once they get loose, they will neuer returne home againe, and therefore such may wel bee called Semiferi [semi-wild] rather than Cicures.

They are very harmeful, and wil eat al manner of woolen garments [and scamper across all manner of power lines], and if it were not for that discommidity, they were sweete-sportful-beastes, and are very pleasant play-fellowes in a house.

Topsell is one of many who repeats this legend:

The admirable witte of this beast appeareth in her swimming or passing ouer the Waters, for when hunger or some conuenient prey of meat costraineth her to passe ouer a riuer, shee seeketh out soe rinde or small barke of a Tree which shee setteth vppon the Water, and then goeth into it, and holding vppe her taile like a saile, letteth the winde driue her to the other side, and this is witnessed by Olaus Magnus in his description of Scandinauia, WHERE THIS IS ORDINARY AMONG SQUIRRELLES … [my emphasis]

Olaus Magnus is indeed one source for this, as is, in later years, Carl Linnaeus, who, under sciurus, observes briefly that “Cortice interdum navigat,” and, in later years, Squirrel Nutkin. Olaus’s contemporary Conrad Gesner also remarks on sailing squirrels, and, in my period, we have, in the fourteenth century, Conrad of Megenberg, and, in the thirteenth, Vincent of Beauvais and Thomas of Cantimpré’s roughly contemporary encyclopedias (the later being adapted into Dutch verse: “ende sitter op, alst in een scip ware, / ende metten staerte seyltet over dare”).

Here the trail goes cold: I’ve lost my nuts, because earlier medieval works of natural science, either say nothing about sailing (Albert the Great and Hildegard of Bingen), or, shockingly, not the least thing squirrels (Isidore, Bede, Rabanus). Why this story begins to be written down only in the thirteenth century is a mystery that could – and perhaps should – be solved only with a grant, or endowed chair, worthy of this great labor.

Thanks to the following for help and encouragement with this post. You may not have known this was coming: Irina Dumitrescu, Matthew Harrison, Kathleen E. Kennedy, Elaine Treharne, and “bxknits.”

Whale Not Watching

IMG_8335Cross-posted to ITM.

I’m in Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference. Today’s papers concluded with a whale watch, expressly framed by the excursion group as a strike against Iceland’s commercial whaling. Currently only 4 other countries commercially whale: Iceland, Norway, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. As we heard, whaling is not some ancient Icelandic tradition, but rather dates only to the introduction of the harpoon gun, by a Norwegian, and the expansion of Norwegian and English whalers into Icelandic waters. After a ban in the early 20th century, whaling resumes in earnest shortly after WWII, and now, only some 3% of Icelanders eat whale regularly; the whale meat of Iceland, rather, serves Japan and tourists, who eat it, thinking that they’re participating in heritage, like others, dripping with blood. We were encouraged to seek out restaurants displaying a BLUE WHALE STICKER, as these are explicitly whale friendly. I extend the same encouragement to you.

As the tour company itself reports, the whale watch wasn’t a straightforward success. We saw a number of animals. From their list: Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Storm Petrel, Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Eider Duck, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Manx Shearwater., Arctic skua, Great skua [terrible birds that live by theft!], and a couple pods of White-Beaked Dolphins. No cetaceans bigger than a dolphin, though: no Minke Whales and certainly no Orcas.

But, again, as the tour company explained, we were watching whales do what whales do, which sometimes  means not showing up for us at all. We knew the whales were out there; and we knew they were whales, for themselves, and not whales for us, when they didn’t show themselves for us. This, then, was a whale watch better than most, because it forced us to a better, truer engagement with whales than the bay-as-menagerie or reservation.

Attendees at the ecomaterialism session earlier in the day agonized a bit over the withdrawn object of some strains of speculative materialism. Well, here’s one model of the withdrawn object, present to us only in its absence, antipathy, or avoidance, but not removed from our ethical concern for all that. Because we should know that the whales are out there, even if not simply available to us, and, if we’re doing things right, we should defend their right to keep themselves hidden from us, who are, so often, especially in Iceland, their destroyers.

(h/t Asa Mittman for the title)


Refuse Baron Rejected

As recycling kingpin Chen Guangbiao toured the neighborhood around Tribeca’s New York City Rescue Mission, he whipped out a $100 bill and tried to hand it out to a man on Canal Street.

But, like any New Yorker approached by a clueless smiling tourist, the man just put his head down and kept walking.

The snub didn’t ruin Chen’s good mood, which got a boost as he crooned the sappy goodwill anthem “We Are The World” with a hobo….

The refuse baron — who is worth $740 million, according to Forbes — wants to lavish his largesse on New York’s poor to show Americans that wealthy Chinese aren’t just greedy robber barons.

Chen Guangbiao stalks New York City, failing to give away $100 bills, and planning, today, to hold a meal for 250 poor people in Central Park, who will each walk away with a cool $300 for having attended this theater of charity.

To put this medieval charity in context:

(300*250)/740,000,000=0.0000001013513514 of his net worth.

To put this in a more human context, calculating from my salary rather than my, haha, net worth, it would be the equivalent to me donating $0.000007, or of CUNY’s new chancellor (salary: $670,000) donating $0.000067. That’s somewhat shy of a penny.

To make this perfectly clear, Mark 12:41-44  and Luke 21:1-4:

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”


1 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

Jesus’s mistake, of course, is focusing on the widow’s piety rather than on what’s actually, practically needed. If this story, like so many others, aims to scour away hypocrisy and a good conscience, Jesus might have gone on to demand that the rich give it all away, or perhaps, at least, that they give up something slightly more than 0.0000001013513514 of their estate. And he might have continued, had he been as wise as he purported to be, by explaining the causal relationship between the wealth of the rich and the widow’s poverty. Then, maybe, the widow would have left the temple with something more substantial than a clean spirit.

Practically speaking, Chen Guangbiao is giving away nothing. Rather, he’s doing what he does, professionally, ensuring that the “trash” of capitalism, its refuse(d), its excess, and its outside, is caught up in the closed loop of recycling. If our trash is his profit–and, in comparison to $740,000,000, we’re all trash–then there’s no way out except, maybe, something a bit more substantial.

This point, which I borrow from from Nicole Shukin, is what I’ll leave you with:

Yet rendering convincingly poses as an ecological service that atones for carnivorous capital. It is through timagehe idea that recycling offers an antidote to the unbridled greed of industrial culture…that the even more total capitalization of nature promised by rendering evades notice….More than just mopping up after capital has made a killing, the rendering industry promises the possibility of an infinite resubjection (“return”) of nature to capital. The “industrial ecology” metaphor of the closed loop valorizes the ecological soundness of waste recovery and recycling just as the rendering industry effectively opens up a renewable resource frontier for capitalism.

The conclusion to this story is far, far stranger than even I, a prophet, could have predicted. An excerpt from the Times piece, on the whimsy of sovereignty and the sickness of charity:

The bad news had finally reached the last few tables: Their host, a Chinese millionaire, would not be handing out any cash.Only moments before, the host, Chen Guangbiao, had made a speech promising everyone $300 in cash. It was a particularly huge deal for this crowd: All the guests were homeless men and women.

There was grumbling, a few shouts of anger. But most — at least at first — were in a state of stunned despair.

“Are you serious?” said Tom Cargill, 52, staring into his dessert. “I feel so disappointed right now I’m going to throw up.” It was a pivotal moment in a bizarre event orchestrated by Mr. Chen, a 46-year-old recycling magnate who said he was seeking to help New York’s poor and inspire a culture of philanthropy around the world.