Humans as Oysters, on Nonconsensual Existence

Sri Lankan oysters (?), BN fr. 22971


Hey gang! I’ve just (finally) submitted my contribution for Steve Mentz’s forthcoming Oceanic New York anthology. I’ve scrapped the essay I wrote for the actual conference in favor of a consideration of consent and existence, in part in response to a paper on (human) consent I heard at Kzoo2014.

Towards the beginning, I consider one of Descartes’ letters to Margaret Cavendish, infamous because he bars all animals from moral relevance on the basis of the “imperfection” of oysters and sponges:

The most one can say is that though the animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their bodies are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to these organs some thought such as we experience in ourselves, but of a much less perfect kind. To this I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters as sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.

A usual animal studies/new materialist response might be to use a “touch of anthropomorphism” to discover the agency and voice of the oysters. The resources would be the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Oyster riddle, or the talking oyster of Gelli’s Circe, his adaptation and expansion of Plutarch’s Gryllus. But this might be little more than discovering the rabbit we ourselves had enhatted; and it continues to take the speaking voice as the preeminent ethically relevant subject. My essay counters these tendencies by observing, first, that the most salient characteristic of these talking oysters is not their voices, but rather their helplessness. From this point, I try to take oysters on their own terms — helpless, mute, and mostly indifferent to the world — not by enhancing their agency, but by diminishing ours.

Here’s where I take it:

We’re now in a position to reconsider Descartes’ letter to Cavendish. Much of the letter– a little more than two pages long in a modern translation — is not about denying thought to animals. Rather, it opens with a lengthy proof of automatism of most human life. As Descartes explains, somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we don’t need to think while we eat or walk; and if we tried not to cover our face as we fell, we wouldn’t succeed. The apparently conscious existence of others may just be mechanical. All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconsciousness. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions — of hunger, of self-protection, of motion — is the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence.

In other words, even Descartes begins by admitting that the dominant condition of being human is unwilled exposure. Our existence is at its root not chosen, not rational, not elective, but rather, primarily, nonconsensual. We flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, but we might ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal.” We do not chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still doesn’t untether us from having to live somewhere. The same goes for our ability to seek out our food rather than just receive it as the water gives it, like an oyster. We have a degree of free movement, but we still can’t chose not to eat. Whatever the powers of our agency to supplement our fundamental inadequacy by building ourselves homes, by wrapping ourselves in clothes and armor, to, in effect, give ourselves the covering oysters already have, we can never eliminate our vulnerability. We cover ourselves for the same reasons, and with the same necessity, that oysters do.

Thanks! There’s more. Looking forward very much to seeing how well it plays in the anthology itself. If you’d like to see some other stuff I’ve done here on Descartes and his disciples, read here.

(you might also read this philosophical essay on oysters, which I still plan to do, and, while you’re at it, read a recent and excellent essay on MOOCs by the Dominic Pettman who suggested the oyster essay to me)


Day 12 – Tundale, Disputation Body and Worms, and Thacker


  1. I also provided links to some guidance on conference going: here is a good guide on how to write abstracts, how to identify conferences, and how to fund your conference travel and here’s one on the expectations for presentations in the humanities; I also forgot to share guidance on the length of the average dissertation.
  2. here’s a “storified” Twitter record of a materialism session from the Shakespeare Association of America, to give you a sense of the fun of conferences.
  3. links
    1. photo series of depressing zoo architecture, where the landscapes painted to satisfy the human viewers. Obviously, this can be critiqued as an example of the fantasy of the wild, but we can turn that same critique back around on the photos themselves, which are obviously framed to make us believe the animals are depressed.
    2. animal architecture, with an example of an Australian Bird with a keen eye for color and arrangement. The bird in this case is trying to attract a mate, but we of course are also delighted by the color. Desire and courtship are working across species lines, then, a point that would work well for papers looking to Chaucer’s Parliament.
    3. A Roman-Age mint has been turned up in England, complete with dog prints: here’s a bit of the world-without-us, Thacker’s third category of world. World-for-us is our world; world-in-itself is the world with humans subtracted; and the world-without-us is the world that’s still here with us but somehow impersonally so, as it’s not for us. Thacker takes this as horrific (setting up the Haraway vs. Thacker throwndown that would erupt later in our discussion), but we might also just take it as these dog prints and the stone, a whimsical element of surprise crosses into our world without becoming fully ours.
    4. For summer reading, I recommended [[[type|link[postId|1566575923[asin|022605750X[authorId|1203060269|this book on the oldest living things]]: here’s another example of a World-without-Us, but perhaps without Thacker’s horror. The issue of timescale and life of course intersects nicely with our Purgatorial Poetry.
    5. Bad Dogs, here, with the question of nonhuman responsibility. we connected this to a recent article in the NY Times Magazine on chimps suing their owners, which led to the less attractive flip side, which is that a chimp that can sue should also be a chimp that canbe sued
    6. Parrots, among other animals, seem to have names: now, whatever else the name is, it’s also, as Derrida reminds us often, a promise of death. The name can potentially outlive us, marking the place where we once were. Anyone who reflects on their own name and its use by others must know this. This depressing realization is also a way to overturn Heidegger’s distinction between human death and animal “perishing,” since the name also ‘grants’ (some) animals the same extrinsic relation to world that humans have: parrots and humans both, perhaps, are aware that the world will move on without them.
    7. I recommended people enjoy the Middle English Romance Database

After showing images from British Museum MS Add. 37049 and the Getty Tondale, we moved into 3 great presentations and also one sneak-preview of one of my Kzoo papers.

But I’ll have to write tomorrow at length about what we talked about: cows in Hell, worms and their character, the peculiar character of the ‘tomb verses’ in the “Disputation,” and the horrific lack of concordance between punishment/reward and the human world. Especially thrilling: imagining how Haraway would handle Thacker’s material, or, why does this all have to be so horrific? Why can’t we make friends with our worms, anyhow?

Our presentations on Tundale, Thacker, and the “Disputation Between the Body and Worms” covered some of the following:
Tundale and the World-without-us: purgatorial poems tend to feature catalogs, of punishments, of sinners, of places. Here’s an abundance that alienates, surely a concretized version of the cosmic horror of Thacker’s world-without-us. See also the total lack of correspondence between punishment and sinner: certainly, the punishment has an analogical relationship, but it always seems excessive in relationship to the actual, mortal sin, which is a much smaller thing than eternity. We also considered Satan, the “big bad” here as in Dante, but, as in Dante, also immobilized, fixed at the bottom, and thus a superhuman figure that is, in his way, as trapped as any human. Somehow this is quite the opposite of comforting.

While Thacker concentrates on a set of “weird” literature, his schema can also help unpack the Volsung saga. We have three varieties of Black Metal, with the one simply a heretical, Satanic inversion, the second a mythological pagan multiplicity, and the third something far more inhuman. In the Volsung saga, we see the theological give way immediately to the mythological which then, in turn, gives way to a kind of cosmic pessimism. We also played with the nonrepresentational quality of music, something that Thacker oddly didn’t exploit in his discussion of Black Metal (which instead concentrated on the lyrical content). Conversation turned to the way that humanity works, granted from outside as a kind of ‘reverse’ exorcism, with humanity just as much a possession as its demonic reversal. Finally, we pushed back briefly on Thacker’s reading of Inferno, as his typology of demons moves, oddly, and without acknowledgement, backwards through Dante, starting with Satan, then the masses of demons, and then the ‘climatic’ demons of the lustful.

Finally, on the Disputation, a didactic debate poem, instruction for novices, which swings between horror of death and the promise of wiping the slate clean. We reviewed the cultural history of worms, ranging from the renewable Phoenix and its worm-like larval stage to Christ as worm to the worms of our own bodies, spontaneously generated from flesh we thought our own. Apparently some medieval people wore worms as a cure for the plague. Now, the worms, in this erotic assault, refashion the human body in its own image, by making the soft and shifting body into a hard set of bones, without any vanity or decoration.

Conversation after the presentations turned on Thacker vs. Haraway (whose When Species Meet we had read in part earlier in the semester): what does Haraway’s political optimism and feminism do with Thacker’s (unmarked) masculine pessimism? What happens if we don’t start by assuming that the human has separate boundaries from its “environment,” as Thacker does? How does Haraway help us understand what it means — as in the “Disputation” — to make “friends” with one’s worms, given that this friendship must be temporary (the worms are there only so long as the body has flesh to eat, the body is there only until the resurrection takes its bones, which means the worms will leave first).

And what happens to the “Disputation” if we read this poem in the long tradition of Lady Philosophers disputing with men? Where’s the “Lady Philosophy” here?

We returned, at last, to the question of the cow in “Tundale,” which its TEAMS editor thinks is just hilarious. But no.

“When he on the brygge was,
The cow wold not forthur pas.
He saw the bestys in the lake
Draw nerre the brygge her pray to take.
That cow had ner fall over that tyde
And Tundale on that todur syde.”

We noted the cow’s terror, and how the cow just disappears after Tundale’s down his penance. Has the cow been punished for having been stolen? Is the cow a demon in the form of a cow? What do we do with the pure terror, unredeemable, of the cow, completely outside the economy of purgatory?

How NOT to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives

Some of the pleasant cows of Bréhat.


Nearly two years ago (!), I outlined a prospectus for my next book. You’ll have noted, I hope, that book doesn’t yet exist. So, here I am, two years later, solemnly swearing on everything that’s holy to me (a tangle of worms, a bit of pottery, the ozone layer) that 2015 is the year of the book.

This means saying NO, no to all requests to contribute to special issues, no to all chapters in anthologies, no to book review essays, no to book reviews, no to anything not directly related to writing/assembling this second book. My apologies in advance? Or perhaps none necessary.

The latter would be worse, because everyone wants to be cared about enough to be able to disappoint someone. Also, impostor syndrome, the condition that justly and rightly afflicts us all (unless you’re a total fake), is also a good way to eructate a yes where a no might be better. When you’re asked, you know you exist, you know you’re wanted, and you get what should be the quick hit of a publication. Writing when there’s so many words already, when every new book catalog means reading about how many friends you’ll fail, has a phatic quality, anyway: the underlying point may always be “Look, over here: here I am, with you.”

It may be even more thoroughly phatic when, practically, there’s no reason for me to write this book: I’m getting tenure/promotion (I presume!) on the basis of the one book, and, with a 21-credit load, with automatic annual salary increases (thanks union!), there’s no monetary reason to write the second book, no reasonable local professional expectation. And not a lot of time. And yet.

The book is tentatively titled How Not to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives. Is it a joke title? Does it set up an inevitable third book (How to Serve Man)?

It’ll loosely be structured around food and eating. Food’s a key site for thinking materialism: as we know from Bakhtin and Bynum, ingestion and digestion and nurturing have to do with care, boundaries, incorporation, violence, persistence, with the actual but temporary, vulnerable existence of things, and with the unequal exchange of any encounter. Food also of course has to do with gender (Bynum again, but also Bordo of course) and who provides food, who should be fed, whose needs are always secondary, and who is made to feed others.

It’s possible too that not everything will be from the medieval archive: I should take on the temporal intermixture of REMEDIAEVAL. For more, read on:

Chapters, which are much the same as the initial proposal, again, from two freakin’ years ago:

(1) Feeding Others and Pets, focusing on the prioress and the queer antisocial antifuturity of her pet feeding, and on the gender of dog women.

(2) Eating Others, and Feral Children, focusing on the wolf-child of Hesse, Bisclavret, and Melion. And perhaps Sawney Bean and story’s afterlife? And perhaps Humanimal, a Project for Future Children?

(3) Not Eating, focusing on Alexander and the Brahmins, with Alexander and Gog/Magog as the pivot, thinking of the wretched, vegetable — or oystery — existence of these philosophers, perhaps with a conjoined study of Breatharianism. And perhaps some engagement with my vegan friends and gleaners, with some memories of my dumpster-diving days.

EXIT – Being Eaten, focusing on, of course, worms, sky burial?, and that flip side of the ethical injunction from Levinas, summarized by Derrida here:

the hostage is the one who is delivered to the other in the sacred openness of ethics, at the origin of sacredness itself. The subject is responsible for the other before being responsible for himself as ‘me.’ This responsibility to the other, for the other, comes to him, for example (but this is not just one example amog others) in the ‘Thous shalt not kill.’ Thous shalt not kill thy neighbor. Consequences follow upon one another, and must do so continuously: thou shalt not make him suffer, which is sometimes worse than death, thou shalt not do him harm, thou shalt not eat him, not even a little bit, and so forth.

Because, of course, we’re all hostage to others in another way, that of being organic materials available to be eaten by other organic subjects, themselves available in turn, so long as there are organic materials to be had.

Any other must write about texts you want to see here? My secondary aim’s a modest 70,000 words.

My primary aim, of course, is just to keep the promise of this blog post.

Day 8 – Volsung Saga and Vita Merlini

stone3906We started with a recent NY Times editorial, “Why Nothing is Truly Alive.” Illustrating his point with Strandbeest, Ferris Jabr argues:

Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work. All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life —
metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold.”

Now, it’s one thing to say that there’s no one precise definition of life, and it’s another to say that this lack of a precise definition means that it’s “all in our head” and “futile.” The former is obviously correct, while the later is the kind of mistake one makes only by assuming that concepts must be completely airtight to function at all. But, as pragmatism observes, no one actually lives their life that way. And all concepts, being of this world, are necessarily impure and shifting. So, while the life/nonlife distinction works a lot of different ways, so there’s no ONE boundary, it still works, necessarily in a variety of ways, as we’ll see in Gerald of Wales.

I also directed our attention to this excellent blog post on good conference behavior: the short version is be mutually supportive, but the longer post is well worth reading.

I pointed out some medieval Sigurd art: the Sigurd portal, and especially the Sigurd Runestone. This recent article mentions a fifteenth-century account that features Sigurd’s enormous sword as a relic at what might be Aachen. I also pointed out material that I had found mostly from Mary Gerstein’s “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf,” whose richness I can’t do justice to. Some observations are that Odin, being a god of frenzyand oath breaking (among other things), seems to be a version of Loki and Fenris, and that the wolf outlaw seems to be at its root a grave robber or cannibal, at least if we go by these early Germanic laws (onetwo). I have texts like these in mind, which use archaeology, philology, and comparative folklore to discover the deep roots in, say, the concept of the hanging god, or of the antlered woodgod, or of the dragon-fighting hero (present in seventh-century English box, and pictured on page 410 here, pdf), when I ask: how can we read these kinds of works? If animals are key to “early” or “prehistoric” mythology, if there’s a universal (?) tendency not to take much account of human/animal differences, then are works like the Volsung Saga and the Vita Merlini somehow representative of an earlier stage in human thinking? The simple answer is of course not, but the better answer complicates things further.

Day 7 – Lydgate Horse Goose and Sheep

lydgate horse goose and sheep 1495Here’s the frontispiece (if that’s the word) to one of Wynken de Worde’s printings of Lydgate’s Horse Goose and Sheep. You’ll note that it doesn’t actually correspond to the content of the work, except that it features a regal lion king. Obviously, a woodcut has been reused from a collection of fables, so this says something about what the printer thought the genre was, but it also says something about the relative flexibility of mass-produced items as compared to manuscript culture, which was, for the most part, not mass produced (though, as I understand, late medieval psalters at least got close to an assembly line production). Printers had to go with what was available; scribes could go with whatever the story needed. More complicated than that, but that’s a good place to start.

LATE EDIT – I shared the above paragraph with Kathleen Kennedy, whose forthcoming Courtly and Commercial Art of the Wycliffite Bible attests to her considerable knowledge in book history. Two key things:

1. If you’re interested in late medieval/early modern English book history, Professor Kennedy recommends you start with Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin’s The Production of Books in England, 1350-1500.

2. I got a TON wrong in my paragraph above, but I basically don’t know anything about book history. So! Here are Kennedy’s corrections:

I’m going to paraphrase the email that she sent me, though the words are [mostly] hers. It’s actually hugely commmon in early print to have a “frontispiece” (a useable term, albeit an anachornism) that doesn’t correspond to the work’s textual content. Indeed, woodcuts often got assigned randomly, so any claims about the relationship between perceived genre and woodcuts needs to be made very carefully.

And here’s a big chunk of important stuff:

Early print was hugely flexible, and that very flexibility is what challenges cataloguers today- there are good arguments in fact that we shouldn’t even talk about an ‘edition’ until the mid-16thc, as before that each copy is so very unique.

– psalters, books of hours, the entire enormous trade in single-sheet miniatures to collect or tip into manuscripts- the list goes on. By the 15thc many kinds of religious and devotional text were quite fixed in iconography, as were legal texts, among others. The production of books of hours and miniatures in the Low Countries used pouncing, a mass-production technique. In England, most Books of Hours were imported, many the product of such mass-production, while almost all psalters were made in England (which had an iconographic cycle different than Continentally-produced psalters). Much could also be said of the Continental runup to blockbooks, in particular the Speculum Salvationis.


We spent the first hour finishing up texts from last week (the Chester Balaam and Balaak and Gelli’s Oyster from his Circe), talked a bit about manuscripts, and reviewed several resources for medievalists.

I talked up the advantages and disadvantages of, highlighting two profiles, one by a French animals scholar, and the other an Icelandic scholar who has done work on trolls and dwarfs. I suggested that our medievalists should get an email subscription to The Medieval Review, filter the email into their own folder, and keep them on hand, as this allows the reviews to be searched easily (eg, for “animals”), which makes assembling an up-to-date bibliography quite easy. I also plan to provide a complete list of my ‘e manuscript’ book marks (DONE). In the meantime, we played with a tool for learning paleography, learning a bit about the Euphrates in the process.

To wrap up last week, we first considered the problems of the exegetical tradition of Balaam and Balaak: the ass is normally considered the body, and the human rider the soul, a standard “horse and rider” interpretation, which, however, totally fails with this story: the donkey, after all, sees the angel, and the human doesn’t, at least not initially. How is this represented? Like this and this and this and this (and here’s a late entry, from Cotton Claudius b. 4 126r, with faceless angel, human, and donkey) and yet another one here (h/t Martin Foys). The artist has to represent something impossible or unknown: a donkey thinking and speaking and terrified, normally not things that medieval artists thought possible or interesting. The deformations to otherwise unconsidered humanist representative schema lead to these solutions, so a study of what the donkey is looking at in these and other images is in order. We also considered the issue of “second sight” in animals and children (as in a horror film, the animal can see the spirit before the human can): is this related to the issue of animal “nudity” Derrida discusses, and also the transparency of bodies in Eden in some Christian thinking? The animal has never fallen, after all.

We also thought a bit about oysters with regard to Gelli’s Circe. Plutarch’s “Gryllus” is its source, while Plutarch himself wrote a treatise against eating meatAquinas SCG 2, 68, 6 thinks of oysters as just this side of plants, an opinion that’s far from uncommon. That’s interesting, but what’s more interesting, as we observed, is the way the oyster takes advantage of Ulysses during the conversation. The oyster has to make itself vulnerable to talk, leaving its insides exposed, so it demands that Ulysses stand guard against crabs, which he does! Who is the servant in this case? I can also add that Ulysses’s inability to have his mind changed, in this and in Gelli’s other dialogues, suggests a kind of mechanical attachment to the human that looks rather like, well, an oyster.

We heard about the two medieval talks last week, one by Eleanora Stoppino at NYUand the other by Maggie Williams at CUNY, which both attest to the ways that animal studies and material studies can both do work together in trying to apprehend things nonsymbolically. I also used this chance to plug //Punctum Books// as a resource everyone should familiarize themselves with.

We looked at a few manuscript images to get a sense of the limitations of representation, as Elaine Treharne discusses in postmedieval. One wasthis Genesis, Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, ms. 20, f. 5v-6, which of course would not be seen like that: we wouldn’t be standing above it. We’re also unable to feel the texture of the page, although, even with a relatively low-resolution scan, we can still see that the manuscript has holes and tears in it, and this despite its being a obviously expensive work. We wondered at Adam’s skin color, which differentiates his skin from that of the manuscript, and we proposed a study that looked at Adam’s skin color in a range of Genesis representations.

We also looked at this image from a French manuscript of Elizabeth of Schönau’s visions; I pointed out this blog post, but today, to get even more materialist about animals, and to lead us into talking about Lydgate and his attention to marketable animals, I pointed out why a hill would have rabbits in it. Sharon Farmer’s “Aristocratic Power and the “Natural” Landscape: The Garden Park at Hesdin, ca. 1291–1302” observes that rabbits show up in France beginning in the 12th century and really become successfully domesticated in the 14th century with the introduction of “pillow warrens,” “artificial hills with numerous openings and tunnels” (656), just as we see illustrated here. This visionary hill is also a representation of the real kinds of artificial hills that were proliferating in France in the very era this manuscript was produced (1370-1375). What is the reality of this “real hill,” and how does a pillow warren help us get to heaven?

Lydgate’s “Horse, Goose, and Sheep”

We covered a lot here.

  • The poem as a whole features animals who argue about which serves humans better. They do this so enthusiastically, so thoroughly, that virtually nothing remains for humans to do for themselves except to make use of animals. Without horses, geese, and sheep, there is no war worth the name; no chivalry; no commerce of any real value; no farming (a point that marks the transition from oxen to horse as the standard animal for plowing); no transport; no archery; and above all no cultural memory. The question here and elsewhere is which one is the prosthesis of the other, and what, if anything, happens to the human when its various rational and civilized qualities are so throroughly animalized/technologized.
  • War figures enormously in this poem, with the sheep coming in to as the one agent of peace, speaking in the terms of the clergy (as it’s the only animal that speaks in Latin, the only one who cites Augustine, and the only one directly associated with Christ). And yet even it ends up offered as a player in war, since the profits of wool inspired greed and hence war. And without war, the economy, which rests on war, would collapse. Nothing has any natural quietude in this poem.
  • We wondered why the sheep needs mediation, as the Ram speaks for her? it? him?. Of course, the poem itself wants to stress the sheep’s Christlike humility. Still, there’s something sinister about the Ram’s bragging about the deliciousness of mutton takes on a more than sinister character.
  • We also wondered about the gender of the animals. The sheep might be a ewe. The goose is not a gander. And the horse? A stallion or mare?
  • We especially liked how the poem picks up on the de contemptu mundi tradition and the bodies of humans and animals. First, we observed how geese and sheep disappear into quills and parchment: their bodies can and should be used in a way that dematerializes their actual bodies, in a way that should put Treharne in conversation with Kay. Treharne is concerned about the disappearance of the manuscript into the digital, and what gets lost; Kay is concerned with the disappearance of the animal into the parchment and the manufacturing of meaning. Certainly remembering that the parchment was sheep’s own flesh helps envelop us in it (per Anzieu) rather than simply making it disappear behind the meaning we give it.
  • Then we observed that Kay’s citation of a Latin verse from a mortuary role sounds a lot like the goose’s insult to the horse: on the one hand:
    • Vilior est huma[na] caro quam pellis ovina;
    • extrahitur pellis et scribitur intus et extra;
    • si moriatur homo, moritur caro, pellis et ossa’
    • (‘Human flesh is viler than a sheep’s skin. Its skin is taken off and written on inside and out. But if a man dies, flesh, skin and bones die)
    • and on the other: “A ded hors is but a fowle careyn, / The ayr infectyng, [it] is so corrumpable” (204-5), and “Entryng the feeld he pleyeth the leoun; / What folwith aftir? his careyn stynkith sore” (222-23).
    • Why not use a horse’s flesh? why not use its skin for parchment? The latter point has a practical answer (although they might have been selectively bred for whiteness, like sheep), the former none, at least none by the fourteenth century, long after the age of conversion. And in what way is the uselessness of the horse’s carcass like that of the human, at once a mark of its abject status (a status applied incidentally only to something that needed to be humbled) and of its treasured status beyond all utility. Uselessness is at once the mark of the utterly contemptible and of the thing beyond all use-value, the end in itself.
    • in a larger sense, all this is problematized by the skin/flesh dichotomy. While skin can apparently articulate itself and its identity and flesh cannot (or cannot completely), we have in the mortuary poem a comparison is between human flesh and sheep skin. Do we make anything of this elliptical non-parallelism? And do we keep certain bodies taboo/safe from violation because they hover in some realm between material use and the symbolic? After all, the sheep in Lydgate is the most symbolic figure, yet we find it the most turned into material in to ground and prove its symbolic value.
    • All this might have to do with how we technologize bodies. The horse is a technology to humans and can offer itself as human technology in life, therefore prohibiting us from using their bodies in their deaths. But the use of wool violates this paradigm! Maybe the problem may be divided between using the body as a material (as with a sheep) vs. using the body as a being (as with a horse).
    • [and much of the above has to do with Isabel Stern getting to this before I finished editing and leaving a long and very useful comment, which I somehow decided was my own and which I edited accordingly. So here it is, in her original:
      • “We were interested in the ways in which dead bodies are discussed. For the sheep and the goose, they are stripped of their having bodies in the way that Treharne uses the word: they have no identities and they are made flesh (or for the sheep, made parchment). And in opposition to the use of certain animal bodies, the identity of a thing (flesh) as having a body can only be maintained if that body is made taboo by its abjectification. But in the de contemptu tradition, the body is made more flesh-like in order to stress a kind of impermeability of the human soul (I think): “Human flesh is viler than a sheep’s skin / Its skin is taken off and written inside and out” (from Fasciculus Morum ?, quoted in Sarah Kay’s article). That is, the material is temporal and useless, it rots, yet in some sense this is only because we are choosing not to make parchment out of it (perhaps not to make it completely abject?). This is mirrored by Lydgate’s sentiment to the body of the Horse. But this is in a way problematized by the skin/flesh dichotomy…skin can apparently articulate itself and its identity and flesh cannot (or cannot completely), yet here the comparison is between human flesh and sheep skin . Do we make anything of this elliptical non-parallelism? And do we keep certain bodies taboo/safe from violation because they hover in some realm between material use and the symbolic? After all, the sheep in Lydgate is the most symbolic figure, yet we find it the most turned into material in defense of its existence. I think this has to do with how we technologize bodies. The horse is a technology to humans and can offer itself as human technology in life, therefore prohibiting us from using their bodies in their deaths. But the use of wool violates this paradigm. Maybe it’s more so something like a problem of using the body as a material body vs. using the body as a being”]
  • We also wanted to work with the envoi. In what little criticism there is (and there’s still astonishingly little), the envoi gets only the slightest attention. Yes, it’s socially conservative in its calls for peace and for tamping down on social climbing, but it’s also totally incoherent, switching between demands for lords to treat their subjects kindly and rather violent calls to keep the filthy peasants in line. And then there’s the king’s realization that his flesh is no different than a peasant’s (612-13), a material condition that either separates us from our inauthentic bodily selves (i.e., the king is like the peasant only in ways that ultimately don’t matter), or reduces us all to bodies at our most authentic, with social status only a decoration on top of our fundamentally vile and temporary selves. And its plea for social conservativism seems to run counter to its earlier praise of wealth and the disruptions and desires it brings.
  • We also thought about manuscript vs print culture: 12 manuscripts of the poem survive and 5 early printed editions, with at least one of the manuscripts being copied from one of Caxton’s printings. The poem itself was probably written between 1337 and 1340, before print culture. What happens when a poem that praises the utility of sheep and geese for serving as quill and parchment finds itself in print culture? Do the goose and sheep speak with the voices of nostalgia? And then when it’s copied again?
  • Finally! The horses recalls “Ector the Troian chaumpioun, / Whoos hors was callid whilom Galathe” (50-51). Not a terribly famous horse, all things considered, but nonetheless one that appears in Lydgate’s monumental //Troy Book//.
    • With-oute abood for to take his stede,
    • Whiche was in bokis callid Gallathe,
    • Of alle hors havyng þe souereynte,
    • As fer as men ride in any coost….
    • So like an hors parformed oute & oute–
    • And with a wyre men my3t hym turne aboute (398-401, 405-406)
  • This will recall the brass robohorse from the Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale in a couple ways: that horse is also “so horsly, controlled by a pin in its ear (“whan yow list to ryden anywhere, / Ye mooten trille a pyn, stant in his er”). A pin and a wire: no so different. So, in a Troy Book, we have Lydgate copying Chaucer to attest to the excellence of this horse, which is so like a horse, when this language is copied from a horse whose horsely perfection comes from its artificiality. Wheels within wheels! Susan Crane has more to say about this in her Animal Encounters, though without the Lygdate material.

We concluded by looking at this wonderful list of group terms from an early printing of Lydgate’s “Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” a text not by Lydgate, but still, apparently, too delicious for Wynken de Worde to omit. Here’s a screen shot of part of it:horse goose sheep animal terms

Day 6 – Animal Testaments

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Today we considered a little-studied genre that comprises animal complaint poetry and animal testaments. Our texts were the late antiqueTestamentum Porcelli, two Middle English works, “By a Forest as I gan fare” (aka The Hunting of the Hare) and the Chester play’s “Balaack and Balaam,” and several late medieval or early modern works, the oyster section from Thomas Brown’s translation of Gelli’s Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s “Gryllus,” Martin Luther’s “Complaint of the Birds,” and finally Margaret Cavendish’s, “The Hunting of the Hare.” We could have added several more to this list: the “Lament of the Roast Swan” from the Carmina Burana, the Anglo-Saxon riddle about the oyster, Jacques’ lament of the the hunted deer in As You Like It, and so on. We could certainly add Robert Henryson’s “Preaching of the Swallow” from his Fables too. Such works occupy a spectrum from the clearly parodic (the Testamentum, Carmina Burana, and the Martin Luther) to the obviously serious (Cavendish), with most uncertainly occupying a place somewhere in between. Our conversation didn’t get to half of these today, however.

Preliminary to starting, I encouraged everyone to go see Eleonora Stoppino, “Animals, Contagion, and Education from Boccaccio to Fracastoro,” this Wednesday evening at NYU.

We started the class proper by continuing conversations from last week and also from the intervening conversation on the wiki. To this end, I showed a scene from František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová, a classic of Czech and medievalist cinema (now showing at BAM). The film responds well to critical animal studies: in it, the medieval, in its violence and lust, is animal, arguably, though the film’s wolfpack motif suggests a natural that’s, well, beyond good and evil. We watched a scene about the transformation of Christian (that name!), a German knight, and the paragon of chivalric civilization, into a hulking wolf man. When his pagan lover, Alexandra, discovers him, she bashes in his skull with a rock, seemingly with his permission. She herself is a creature of the woods, hardly more than animal herself: having had an incestuous something with one of her brothers, Vláčil clearly wants us to regard her as beyond culture. Which one is the animal here? Which one the wolf? Which the human?

So, how can we read this with Melion? What if the Irish forest woman had bashed in Melion’s skull when he turned into a wolf (to please her)? In a larger sense, what is the gender of the forest?

The forest as silva or nous is clearly feminine, either as form awaiting content, or as the material not organized into service of a masculine order. But the forest is also the place where men go to live more authentically, unmixed with women. And there, they meet women, or things like women. Melion and Guigemar are but two examples of this, but we can think of innumerable examples from modern culture. Like civilization, like culture, the forest has a double gender, then, one that can’t be organized into one or the other neatly.

We used this as an entrance to finish discussing “Guigemar” and “Yonec.” Putting aside the fact that intersex cervids are not all that uncommon, biologically speaking, and thus not exactly “wonders,” and putting aside the tendency of white stags or boars to draw heroes into sylvan adventure in Celtic stories, there’s also the intersex doe as a family unit. She’s with a doe, and she’s also a he. She is, in that sense, a representation of the way that a married couple becomes two in one flesh. Having been forced to leave his pure masculinity, Guigemar finds himself compelled to give up hunting and to enter into the queerness of heterosexual mixing. Through his erotic love, he perhaps may be forced to discover the larger, more ethical love that would recognize the wounding of animals as an injury to himself as well.

And then “Yonec,” where we concentrated on the unnamed wife’s admiration of “Yonec” first of all for being a hawk of quality (species rank is social rank, with the human in general not of paramount importance), and on the shifting bodily perfection of Maldumarec, who can take on any form, versus the tight stasis of the senex amans, who is, in Gallagher’s translation, “baptized [in] hell; strong are his nerves, strong his veins, and full of pulsing blood,” a body that’s at once too tight and full of secret, horrific life. How else to read these bodies against each other?

We also heard a bit about humans suckling puppies. For more on such matters, from medieval perspective, see Peggy McCracken’s essay in this volume.

To turn into animal testaments, we observed how recent laws in Idaho ensure that the killing of animals remains invisible.

Our presentation was on the two poems about hare hunting, the Cavendish and one in Middle English. Our presenter set things up by using Erica Fudge’s “Two Ethics: Killing Animals in the Past and Present” to sketch three (not two) early modern ways of thinking about animals:

  • Cartesian mechanization, in which animals were only objects, there to be used in whatever way, guiltlessly;
  • “inward government” and self-fashioning, in which treating animals poorly might disorder a rational mind;
  • and Montaignian skepticism, in which humans and animals all operate together in a community.

The larger distinction is between empirical accounts of animals, which start with animal behavior, and metaphysical accounts, which start with ideas. Descartes clearly is a metaphysician, then.

Now, the Cavendish gives us only observations of the external life (and death) of the hare, while the Middle English poem gives us the voice of the hare itself. Both give us living creatures, anything but mechanistic, anything but there only to be killed. Cavendish’s emphasis on animal life and human tyranny clearly belongs to the Montaignian project of a community of creatures. Cavendish also troubles the human arrogance at hunting: culture is a kind of witchcraft, in its supernatural ability to counteract the wind’s own protection of the hare, and, at any rate, since the dogs do the actual hunting, all humans do is exult. Cavendish’s poem clearly also belongs to 17th-century scientific projects, but with a twist. It’s very careful to observe correctly, but in this case, this “scientific” view does not lead to “instrumental reason,” which simply masters everything it regards, but rather creates emotional connections between viewer and observed animal. Sight here does anything but reduce a body to only a body.

We also thought of Cavendish’s bad poetry. The hare “gives up its ghost.” This is a cliché. But a cliché is also a mark of what “goes without saying.” What does it mean to grant a nonhuman death the unthought sympathy of a cliché? If a community is the group whose borders “go without saying,” how does the cliché actually include the dying hare within it?

Notably, the Middle English poem gives us a “living death,” where the hare witnesses its own death, and the turning of its body into garbage: its guts thrown away, its skin turned into a toy for puppies. And somehow, for some reason, this is the hare “coming home,” as we see from the last two stanzas. Is this, then, the purpose of the hare, where it was never really alive, since it becomes itself fully, it “comes home,” only when its cooked with leeks?

From there, we considered the recent food ethics issue of Phaen/Ex. We talked about meditative baboons, thinking about how the constitutive things of the ‘nature’ that humans often seek to become ‘one with’ in meditation also have their own meditative practices, suggesting a heterocentric mysticism rather than a unified nature from which humans, uniquely, are excluded; we considered how cattle culture in Alberta (and Argentina)doesn’t hide the animal behind the meat but rather makes the slaughter of cattle visible and central to its regional identity: this is a sacrificial culture, then, something quite other than many contemporary discussions of gender and meat-eating in, chiefly, Carol Adams; we considered how the death camp model of biopolitics and modernity promoted by, for example, Agamben, needs to be revised if we’re talking about factory farms: while the Nazis sought to make themselves visible and to erase their killing (as at Treblinka or Sobibór), and while Nazis sought to eliminate an entire people, factory slaughtering operations by contrast want to make the killers invisible and the product of the killing visible. And it wants to continue producing corpses indefinitely. This killing treats the bodies as products, as “already dead,” not in a way that’s worse than death camps, but in a way that’s certainly different, requiring a different thought. And, finally, we considered the problem of thinking of women as food: there’s more to be done here, next week, but we’re found that the essay wanted Bynum as well as an account of the human biome and how the human body-as-food is essential to human health, whatever the gender of the body.

We also considered something called “meat glue,” as a way to think about how we might have a return to the medieval “entremets,” those elaborate margin-hybrid-style sculptures that one would find in the middle of a medieval aristocratic feast. Here, after all, the animal is not an “absent referent” but rather present, in its body, as itself, but also dead. Is a poem like the “Testamentum” a kind of “present absence” in this regard?

On the Testamentum Porcelli, an oddly popular medieval text (some 8 or 9 manuscripts survive), we considered how the pig needs to write with someone else’s hand, which is indeed a porcine problem, but also one general to anyone who needs to use the law to write a will or indeed anyone who needs to use language, since language — as Cary Wolfe among others reminds us — is always already there, belonging to someone else, before we get a chance to use it. In this, as in so many ways, the Testamentum challenges human/animal divisions. Notably, its dispersal of its body alternates between the useful (bristles for shoemakers, bladders – for balls – to boys) and the silly (tongue for lawyers). We wondered whether it had the means to dispose the grain and other pork feed it promised to its relatives.

Fifteenth-Century Collective Nouns, from Lydgate’s Horse, Goose, and Sheep


The second edition (and perhaps the first?) of Caxton’s 1477 printing of Lydgate’s “Horse Goose and Sheep” has a couple surprise endings: a list of collective nouns, followed by a list of hunting terms (which terms also fill out the last pages of Wynken de Worde’s two printings of the poem; some versions here).

Click to embiggen.

Such lists didn’t start with print culture, of course. Riches upon riches await you here if you click through to Thomas Wright’s A Volume of Vocabularies: illustrating the condition and manners of our forefathers, as well as the history of the forms of elementary education and of the languages spoken in this island from the tenth century to the fifteenth (and do let me know if you have a working link for Wright’s Second Volume of Vocabularies). For one manuscript version, see Laura Saetveit Miles’s very helpful blog post on Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.18, ff. 44v-45r, a volume that’s full of hunting and cooking guidance. Miles in turn directed me to the enormously helpful Rachel Corner, “More Fifteenth-Century’Terms of Association’.” Review of English Studies (1962): 229-244, which, however, doesn’t consider the Lydgate “Horse, Goose, and Sheep” printings. A quick check shows that the Caxton and Wynken de Worde lists are similar to, but not identical, to the lists Corner provides.

I haven’t examined manuscripts of the Lydgate, so I can’t tell you if these appear with hunting and cooking materials. If they did, or even if they didn’t, it’s clear that someone, somewhere, decided that Lydgate’s animals poem could travel well with other animal poems. And though “Horse, Goose, and Sheep” isn’t much concerned with hunting (otherwise we’d have dogs and hawks in it too), animals were animals, at least to some fifteenth-century reader. That’s obviously a point that needs more unpacking.

Second, though: a post that produces a modern edition of medieval collective nouns like this, which organizes the nouns neatly into groups of beasts, birds, dressing of game, objects, and humans, misses the point. It misses both the inhuman charge of alphabetization as well as the associational logic less concerned with human and other difference than with similarities of mass, motion, and needs.

It’s not that the human disappears in these alphabetical lists, but rather that the logic of the alphabet prevails, if we want to get linguistic (though edit of course the list isn’t really alphabetized!); or, if we want to get materialist, it’s that the logic of recognizing a group differs wildly from that which tries to carve out a recognizable individual, whether human, nun, or otherwise, from the heterogeneous field of stuff. More could be said, of course: there’s probably a conference paper lurking in this post somewhere.

Thus, in addition to the always delightful “superfluity of nuns,” we get groupings like the following:

a beuye of larkes

a beuye of ladyes

a beuye of quayles

a beuye of roos

a hoost of men

a hoost of spawwes [sparrows, which I maybe mistranscribed]

a gagyll of ghees

a gagyll of women

a mutation [of what? all by itself!]

a cety of greyes

a rowte of knyghtes

a rowte of wolves

Skulke of foxes

a skulke of freres [friars]

a skulke of theuez [thieves]

scole of fysshe

scole of scolers

cluster of grapes

cluster of nottes

cluster of carles [hey!]

cluster of tame cattes

destruction of wilde cattes [!]

or, in the hunting list

a herte is herbored

a knight is herbored

a bucke is logged

a squyer is logged

a roo is bedded

a yoman is bedded