Man is the Pasture of Being 3: Mandeville in Tibet, at long last

by KARL STEEL

Hi everyone! I’m trying to trick you into reading this whole thing with this jaunty opening.

My interest in Sky Burial and the European Middle Ages can be traced, exactly, to this July 13th tweet. Since then, I’ve become, I think, the world’s leading expert in the medieval Evilmerodach tradition (it didn’t take more than 3 days) and written somewhere close to 11,000 words on the topic. I’m also making this the center of one of my talks during my week as a visiting medieval scholar at UCLA in early February: trust me, I’ll get it down to 5000 words for you, by then.

The posts are as follows:

The following post, which should be savored (or avoided?), comprises three parts, which you might read sequentially, or which you might take à la carte: part 1 is a brief review of medieval European burial habits, and more on the knowledge of sky burial in the West; part 2, on Mandeville’s texts on sky burial, and their patterns of illustration; part 3, where I finally do some interpretation, some of it speculative, and some of it wrestling with contemporary art also interested in the practice. It’s where I get ecocritical. Hip folks might skip to the end.

This is the time. And this is the record of the time.
I. Burial Habits and Foreign Customs: Esca Vermibus meets Esca Avibus

Medieval aesthetics keep coming back. Gothic lines and gothic semicircles can be found anywhere anyone in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries had too much money and a more than a bit of mania (at Wave Hill, for example); they’re anywhere any university ever hankered for what they believe to be respectable antiquity (or perhaps not so respectable); I’ve watched fireworks, with other medievalists, from a Brooklyn building blessed with a Romanesque façade and lobby. But none of these buildings that I know of includes its own transi tomb; no industrialist, no moneyed aesthete – none I know of, anyway – had themselves, or their prospective tenants, represented in full size (if not “life size”) sculptures in the process of becoming esca vermibus (food for worms).

Here, then, is one of the sharpest cultural differences between the Middle Ages and now: they were fascinated with human putrefaction, and we are not. The villains of our big-budget films often meet their ends, not through a gut-devouring disease, but by tumbling off something tall. To this, we can compare the legendary death of the heretic Arius, whose guts slid out as he sat on a toilet; the sinus cavities of Vespasian, swarming with his namesake wasps; Guinevere’s ghost, crawling inside and out with vermin (105-23); the many corpses of Sir Amadace; the beloved body of The Squire of Low Degree, which, though embalmed, and though the wrong body, is still worn to dust by the kisses of an insatiable princess (929-32).

For all this, for the medievals, the exposure of human corpses to the appetites of larger animals was generally considered a horror: an accident of war, a deliberate humiliation, an erasure of the memory of the deceased. Unless something went wrong, the transformation of body to dust was subterranean work, something done out of sight. Some of you will remember the ninth-century program of establishing funerary chapels to ensure paupers had decent burials; or a forged cartulary from the same period that requires the “humane inhumation” (“humanitatis causa humaverit”) of the indigent, “so that they are not polluted by pigs, nor torn by beasts or dogs” [ut neque a porcis inquinetur nec a bestiis seu canibus laceretur; PL 97: 749b-c]. Thomas of Kent tells of how Alexander the Great, before burying the assassinated Darius, took the extra step of burning Darius’s viscera, to keep pigs from eating them, while Thomas of Cantimpré’s exempla collection (The Book of Bees) recounts why this wasn’t over-cautious: there, invisible, grunting pigs invaded a monastery, broke into the sepulcher of a wicked man, and scattered his guts about the cloister.

Amid this focus on inhumation of still fleshy (if sometimes disemboweled) corpses, other funerary methods were known in Europe and parts immediately adjacent, if only faintly. Classical texts are very well aware that many Central Asians – Zoroastrians, the peoples living around the Caspian Sea (Scythians, Bactrians, Hyrcanians, Massagetae, &c) – exposed corpses, or even the not-quite-dead, to be eaten by dogs and birds. The practice was sufficiently well-known for Diogenes the Cynic to turn it into a joke (It is reported that Diogenes said that if dogs tore apart his body, he would have a Hyrcanian funeral; if Vultures, Iberian; Diogenem dixisse testatur, si canes cadaver suum dilacerarent, Hyrcanam fore sepulturam; si vultures Iberam).

A small group of early Christian works recorded this fact too, though most of this material was just as lost to the Middle Ages as the classical texts themselves. With some help, I’ve turned up a few more texts since I last posted here: Theodoret of Cyrus’ A Cure for Pagan Maladies (9.33), smugly content that Persian converts to Christianity now bury the dead; Procopius’ The Persian Wars (I.xii.3-5), in which a Georgian Christian king switches his allegiance to the Byzantines when commanded by the Persians to follow their funeral customs; the martyrdom of Saint “not the Cornish one” Ia, her corpse left to be eaten by birds, not to scorn it, but because this is what Persians do (Latin here, at 11); and especially Agathius’s sixth-century Histories (Latin translation in footnotes here and here), which, though disapproving, still tells a story of several Byzantines (of course called “Romans”) who come across an exposed corpse in territory newly captured from the Persians. Piously, they bury it, and then at night, they endure a dream vision of an old, dignified man, garbed and bearded like a philosopher, who rebukes them for stuffing a corpse into Mother Earth. In the morning they find the corpse lying atop the grave, evicted by the insulted soil. My hunch, however, is that none of this was known to Latin Christendom, nor would the Latins have cared much about the issue, given their wonted distance from Persia. And with the Muslim conquests that followed not long after Agathius’ writing, burial practices through Mesopotamia would have seen radical changes.

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, the key source (if not the choke point) for most medieval ethnographic and geographic musings, drew its material on Central Asia from Solinus, which records the superb camels of the Bactrians, the anthropophagy of the Scythians, and the fire-worshipping of the Zoroastrians, but nothing about exposing the dead. Jerome’s Against Jovinian was well-known to the Middle Ages (as it is to Chaucer scholars) primarily as a vector of misogynist contagion, while its ethnography would be repurposed much more rarely: in a (pseudo?) Chrysostomic sermon adapted by Paul the Deacon (PL 95:1542D-1543A), and then, much later, copied into the Speculum Historiale of Vincent of Beauvais, a work of no small popularity. That may be it, however, for Jerome’s material on cultural variation.

The Latin Middle Ages would have to wait until the late thirteenth century, and especially the fourteenth, for the deliberate, funerary exposure of the dead once again to become a cultural thing. This required, first, the emergence of Jacopo de Cessolis’s hugely popular political allegory on chess, which made Evilmerodach a star by featuring him as its exemplary bad king. No longer relegated to being just a bizarre Babylonian footnote, Evilmerodach parlayed his newfound fame into a staff position with the Speculum humanae salvationis¸ few of which could be complete without its own illustration of Evilmerodach dismembering Nebuchadnezzar’s corpse and feeding it to birds. This was not exactly sky burial: Evilmerodach did this not to honor his father but to ensure this former king, who had already come back once before, stayed dead.

II. Tibetan Sky Burial Finally Comes to Europe: Franciscan Missionaries, and the Many Mandevilles

Into this fertile soil fell Odoric of Pordenone’s account of his time spent (1320s) in, or near, Tibet, during his return from his missionary trip to China. This friar heard of, or witnessed, a Tibetan funeral method in which, if a man’s father dies, he summons his relations and the clergy and:

carry the body into the country with great rejoicings. And they have a great table in readiness, upon which the priests cut off the head, and then this is presented to the son. And the son and all the company raise a chant and make many prayers for the dead. Then the priests cut the whole of the body to pieces, and when they have done so they go up again to the city with the whole company, praying for him as they go. After this the eagles and vultures come down from the mountains and every one takes his morsel and carries it away. Then all the company shout aloud, saying, ‘Behold! the Man is a saint! For the angels of God come and carry him to Paradise.’ And in this way the son deems himself to be honoured in no small degree, seeing that his father is borne off in this creditable manner by the angels. And so he takes his father’s head, and straightway cooks it and eats it; and of the skull he maketh a goblet, from which he and all the family always drink devoutly to the memory of the deceased father. And they say that by acting in this way they show their great respect for their father. And many other preposterous and abominable customs have they.

Earlier accounts of Tibetan funerary rituals were already available, in the thirteenth-century missionary ethnographies and travel accounts of the Franciscans John of Plano Carpini and, later, William of Rubruck. Neither writer includes the birds, however; for them, the anthropophagy is the sole responsibility of the family of the deceased. And, as William of Rubruck observes, the Tibetans have abandoned the practice, “for it made them detestable in the eyes of all men” (143). Both works enjoyed a little popularity: fourteen manuscripts, comprising two versions, survive from John of Plano Carpini, and only five of William’s, all produced in England (58).

By contrast, Odoric’s travels enjoyed an astounding success: more than 117 manuscripts survive, with translations into French, German, Italian, and Latin. And with Odoric travelled the Tibetan funerary birds, and from this success, the birds assumed even more popularity, as his account of “Tibet” or “Ryboth” found itself incorporated, as you might have expected, into the Book of John Mandeville.

The key difference between Mandeville and Odoric is not Mandeville’s omission of the final, negative judgment. That happy deletion had already happened in Odoric’s 1351 French translation, Mandeville’s more immediate source, which ends its account of Ryboth only by speaking of the honor done the father. The difference is, instead, something that appears in every Mandeville I’ve read (including the Latin here or here). To save you the work of checking mine, and because there are no word count limits on the internets, here is my record of (mostly) the English versions, from printed sources:

and the birds of the country, which have long known the custom, come flying above — such as vultures, eagles, and all other birds that eat flesh — and the priests throw pieces of the flesh to them, and they carry it not far away and eat it (insular French, 182, trans Higgins; possibly the earliest version)

And briddes of the contré cometh thider, for they knoweth the custome, and they flieth aboute hem as egles and other briddes eteth, and eteth the flesshe. And the prestes casteth the flessh to hem, and they berith hit a little thenne and eteth hit. (Defective Version, 2770-73133, ed. Kohanski and Benson, and the most widespread of the English Mandevilles; Anthony Bale’s translation in modern English here)

And [the] byrdes of the countre come theder. For they know Well the custome. And they flye above theym as they were Egles and other Byrdes: that ete flesshe. And the preestys cast the pecces unto them and they bere hit a lytell from thens and than they ete it (Richard Pynson’s 1496 printing, based on a version of the “Defective” Mandeville; used again in Wynken de Worde, 1499; likewise in a 1568 printing; very small changes—“about” and “then” for “above” and “then” —happen in 1582, repeated in 1612, 1618, 1639, &c, into 1705 and 1722)

And the foules of raveyne of alle the contree abowten [that] knowen the custom of long tyme before comen fleenge abouen in the eyr, as egles, gledes, rauenes, and othere foules of raveyne that eten flesch. And than the preestes casten the gobettes of the flesch, and than the foules eche of hem taketh that he may and goth a litille thens and eteth it, And so thei don whils ony pece lasteth of the dede body. (Cotton, 224, ed Seymour)

And the Fowles of raveyne of alle the Contree abouten knowen the custom of long tyme before, and comen fleenge aboven in the Eyr, as Egles, Gledes, Ravenes and othere Foules of raveyne, that eten Flesche. And than the Preestes casten the gobettes of the Flesche; and than the Foules eche of hem takethe that he may, and gothe a litille thens and etethe it: and so thei don whils ony pece lastethe of the dede Body. (1725 printing, proud of being based on the Cotton. This is the first comparative, scholarly edition, and, like a scholar, it snipes at its predecessors: “all other printed Editions are so curtail’d and transpos’d, as to be made thereby other Books”; Google’s version lacks a charming handwritten note in the copy scanned for Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Read its whole introduction: as with Elizabeth Elstob, it’s an essential piece in the development of English medieval studies)

And fewles of þe cuntree þat knawez þe custom commez þider and houers abouue þam, as vowltures, egles, rauyns, and oþer fewlez of rauyne. and þe prestez castez þis flesch to þam, and þai bere it a lytill þeine and etez it. (Egerton Version, 167, ed. Seymour)

Than cometh foules fest fleenge / That knoweth the maner of þat doynge / And etenne the flesshe eueri dele, / For thei knowe the custome wele. (Metrical Version, 2826-29, Seymour; the Metrical version is so highly idiosyncratic that it may deserve a post of its own)

One 1705 printing, based on the “defective version,” misses the Tibet bit, as does the 24-page (!) version, printed at least four times from 1710 to the 1780s, and which stands among the last Mandevilles produced without pretentions to scholarly antiquarianism, and also as the Mandeville most ruthlessly winnowed to its zaniest core: all who teach Mandeville should teach it, alongside the introduction to the 1725 scholarly edition. To tempt you, here is its complete title:

 The Foreign Travels and Dangerous Voyages of that renowed English Knight Sir John Mandeville. Wherein he gives an Account of Remote Kingdoms, Countries, Rivers, Castles, and Giants of a prodigious Height and Strength. Together with the People called Pigmies, very small and of a low Stature.

To which is added, An account of People of odd Deformities, some without Heads, — Also dark inchanted Wildernesses, where are fiery Dragons, Griffins, and many wonderful Beasts of Prey, in the Country of Prester John. — All very delightful to the Reader.

In printed editions, illustrations of sky burial portray one of three things:

the father corpse’s, bent on hands and knees, with blood gushing from the stump of its neck; above it is a knight (perhaps a priest in knightly garb) with a sword, handing the father’s head, on a platter, to his son (1481 (also here) and 1482 German printing (in full color), quite similar to this;

two naked men standing over or nearly straddling a table, one holding an arm and a leg, the other a cleaver, with nothing on the table itself but a head, while birds swoop about them, flying off with bits of body (1499, German);

one perhaps naked man, with a cleaver, and two nearly naked companions, wearing what may be medieval speedos, likewise around a table, with birds making off with body parts (1488, German; or this one, 1481).

This latter is similar to this c. 1425-1450 German Mandeville, St. Gallen, Stiftsarchiv (Abtei Pfäfers), Cod. Fab. XVI, 101v, with two fully clothed men, one a priest in a robe, each with cleavers, around a table on which lies a mostly intact, bald corpse, itself in a black speedo, while 2 birds make off with a hand and a foot. A similar image appears in this well-known French manuscript (BNF fr. 2810, 223r), which lacks the speedo, and has the priest only standing by, flanked by two attendants. These latter types must have their origin in illustrations of Evilmerodach.

My current sense is that illustrations were not terribly common, and, furthermore, that English printed books were content just to copy German illustrations, and, furthermore, that they compounded that lazy efficiency by letting this plagiarized program of illustration taper off before the book’s final sections, where the sky burial passage appears: prior to the nineteenth century, no English printed edition that I know of illustrates sky burial. Neither do any of the digitized manuscripts or printed books have marginalia, annotation, or doodling in the sections of sky burial, so, for now, here is a case where modern edited texts may be mostly sufficient for interpretation.

III. Your Bodies, Ourselves: On Waste, Wanting, and our Feathered Friends

Mandeville’s account of sky burial chiefly differs from Odoric’s in its awareness of the cultural participation of the hungry birds in this ritual. Birds come because they know the custom. We know this kind of behavior is not atypical for birds, squirrels, goldfish, or the other critters of city parks, which all know well what a sandwich, or a bag of bread and a pensioner, promise. We and other animals habituate ourselves to each other. We like to be their hosts; we find it amusing to watch them eat; we like to feel that we’re helping out somehow.

Admittedly, this all may be pushing too hard at Mandeville. A Tibetan plateau is not a city park. But even the most cautious interpretation must still recognize Mandeville’s careful attention to nonhuman behavior, and, more importantly, to their essential function for this ritual. Here is a case where the edibility of the human corpse is not a battlefield horror, as with most medieval accounts of bodies eaten by birds; nor is it a sign of the transience, and hence contemptibility, of all mortal things, as with most, if not all, medieval accounts of bodies eaten by worms, toads, and other swarming things of the grave. Nor is it hidden away underground, a repulsive sign of the body’s failure, offered up to others as a warning against worldly attachment.

Here edibility is instead part of the public acts of mourning, of familial attachment, especially of material connection of father to son. Managed edibility also recognizes the material stuff of life, and how this material stuff will always come to belong to some other body, and so forth, until this whole sublunary world comes to nothing. This ceremony recognizes, as well, that we are not exempt from this attachment to bodies at once ours and destined for others: not only the birds partake of the corpse. When the human – at least in Odoric and Mandeville – share out tidbits of the father’s head among friends, they join the birds in this simultaneous recognition of body as flesh and as a temporary home.

In brief, Mandeville’s account recognizes that we are bodies, made of the same material stuff as other bodies, while also recognizing that the passing association in which matter becomes, for a time, self, also counts for something. We love these bodies and these selves that are never just our own. Mandeville doesn’t pretend that bare materialism is the one answer, that our whole family is made of meat; but, in this passage, he doesn’t argue that we’re not meat, either. Within this consumable world, not one or the other answer will suit.

Mandeville’s accomplishment can be best understood by comparison to a set of modern works concerned with feeding birds. Greta Alfaro’s “In Ictu Oculi” (also) consists of a single camera trained on a banquet table, laden with food, open to the sky. Then vultures arrive, in shocking numbers, to eat and fight over and through the dinner, until they leave nothing behind but shambles. Valerie Hegarty’s crows do similar work: in 2013, they mangled and tore at several historical rooms at the Brooklyn Museum. These birds are reminders of death (the most famous “in ictu oculi,” I’ve just learned, is this painting); they are chaotic eruptions into the bourgeois order of dining and reception protocol, like the famous Last Supper of Buñuel’s Viridiana. In effect, these birds are worms, representing and enacting the fundamental, filthy disorder of this mortal world.

Mandeville likewise diverges from several works, all titled “Sky Burial,” published over the last 16 years in a clump of literary journals (feel free to alert me to others). Representative gobettes: Vida Chu “bodiless soul / set free” (Literary Review 1999); David Citino, “carrion me” returned to “bless the soil” (Southern Review 2000); Wanda S. Praisner, “‘You see?’ I say, / pointing to the birds. / But she doesn’t” (“Earth and Sky Burials,” Paterson Literary Review, 2004); Hoag Holmgren (in prose), “ancient burial ceremony for humans,” “a giving back…nothing wasted” (Gettysburg Review 2005); Peter Pereira, “released to the sky,” “not dust into dust / but flesh into flesh” (Prairie Schooner 2006); Cara Dorris, on a murdered (?) woman, “the vultures have already flown to the / light, yet / something is alive here” (Cicada 2010); Dean Koontikoff, whose stubbornly anti-spiritual poem breaks the convention, “To the side a fire pit / cradles jigsaw pieces of charred / bone in its ashen basket: a skull” (This Magazine, 2010); Joseph Harrison, “summoned, for centuries,” “flying / ever higher, / They disarticulate / In wind and sun” (Parnassus 2013); and Eric Weinstein, “A smudge of dust or mud goes / undissolved, though it grows less // with each digestion by another” (Michigan Quarterly Review 2014). These might be understood as works that, mostly, imagine our world as wormless.

I do like many of these. Some, however, mistakenly believe that Tibetans expose their dead because they lack timber for burning corpses or soft earth for digging, as if Tibetans did not practice other methods of burial (including inhumation), as if all practices but inhumation were deviations from the norm (for this critique, 69), and as if all culture can be traced to a practical origin having to do with one’s natural environment (a kind of ecological evo-psych; see also the otherwise excellent Sandman “World’s End,” 121, for an example of this error). Several more of the poems characterize the practice as “ancient,” or use some similar marker of antiquity: but Tibetans seem to have picked up the practice only in the tenth century (65; certainly a long time ago, but not “ancient” so far as concerns medieval scholars). And, at any rate, William of Rubruck marked how Tibetan practices, as he understood them, had changed since the time of John of Plano Carpini’s visit. Neither Mandeville nor the European Franciscan missionaries believed the Tibetans practiced an unchanging, older, and – therefore – purer, form of culture than their own: that mistake, rare in the Middle Ages, would have to await the smugly triste dominion of world colonialism (see for example Khanmohamadi and Phillips).

The poems especially tend to take the practice as a balance or giving back, or as an abandonment of bodily constraints: “nothing is wasted,” writes Hoag Holmgren (a sentiment that also features in the “urban death” movement, with its call for composting our corpses: Slate; NYTimes). Given that our earth is not a closed system, given that we thrive, for now, on heat emanating wastefully from our Sun, and given that we have only 1.2 billion more years left to thrive in, the closed loop of the ecological fantasy is simply a bad idea (“heat is a disordered, useless state of energy that is generically the endpoint of an energy flow process”). Life is good at capturing and using heat that would otherwise go to waste, and our atmosphere at deflecting the light that would kill us: heat capture (and, one hopes soon, more effective heat dispersal) is what keeps us going.

And even if this funeral ceremony is a gift to the birds, a gift is always bound up with competition and especially with a continued grasping that marks the thing given as a gift, as having belonged to the giver and as being transferred to someone else, freely, without theft (we can all well imagine the use of reading this whole ceremony through The Gift of Death). For a taste of this competition:

And he that hath most nombre of foules is most worshiped….And thane alle his frendes maken hire avaunt and hire dalyance how the foules comen thider, here v., here vi., here x., and there xx., and so forth” (Mandeville, Seymour 1967, Cotton, 225)

Our social and emotional practices cannot be cancelled out by the gift, nor can these be reduced to pure sense. Bad feelings, misplaced longing, free-floating delight, and rambunctiousness, coupled with the memory and the pride in a lineage and the hope that the birds will come too to affirm our familial pride: all these are too part of the ceremony as Mandeville tells the story. Where culture and energy are concerned, waste is inevitable. Closed loops are an ontotheological fantasy, nothing more.

The project that most closely matches my particular interest in sky burial is the work of Brooklyn artist Alex Branch (written about so well in Alison Kinney’s “Every Creeping Thing that Creepeth”). Her video “Nothing Left to Take Away” (2011) records her feeding a swarm of seagulls on a snowy hillside until she runs – nearly – out of bread. She collapses herself into a nodule, while the seagulls refuse to leave: she has given them – nearly – all that she decided to bring them, and they remain unsatisfied (bad emotions on the nonhuman side too!). But there’s more: Branch is wearing a helmet made of bread, which the seagulls go for, horribly rending chunks from it, as she continues to lie still, letting them take it until, presumably, they fall to complaining again.

Alex Branch,

Alex Branch, “Nothing left to Take Away,” screenshot

We have generosity, bad feeling, bad feeding, and even grief, all at once; attachment to ourselves, which is also to the bodies that enable us to be, for a time; but also disattachment, an ironic displacement from our self-possession once we realize, too, that the stuff that lets us be can never be fully ours.

Where Branch does Mandeville still better, finally, is by being a woman. Her bread armor gets at this better, at the body given over as food to others, and at the traditional associations of women and kitchens and ovens. If the paradigmatic verminous medieval corpse is a woman, a sign of the grotesque truth of feminine beauty so far as clerical misogyny was concerned, then the bird-eaten corpse of Tibet, with the body honored by being eaten, is a man, with all the public honor and dick-measuring that accompanies that. What Branch offers, however, is her own body, “armored” by food, harassed by gulls, hers and vulnerable and a gift all at once, wrapped in art’s high culture, which never offers itself as just a “natural” gift to a fundamentally sensible world. This is a practice that collapses the distance between vulnerability and (a male fantasy of) permanence; Branch is turning herself into remains, but remaining here too as the artist. I can imagine, finally, that she and Elaine Tin Nyo might have something to say to one another.

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A Saint Nicholas Miracle, or, These PIES, they are DELICIOUS

Over at the Smithsonian, Natasha Geiling writes about Santa, who has as many hometowns as Christ has foreskins. Santa lives at the North Pole, or, rather, the “North Pole,” variously in New York, Alaska, and Finland. Saint Nicholas, we medievalists know, lived further South. Geiling writes:

The real Santa Claus—the historical figure upon which the legend is based—never lived anywhere near the North Pole. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century bishop who lived and died far from the Arctic Circle, in what is now Turkey. Born into a wealthy family, Nicholas is said to have loved giving gifts, once throwing three sacks of gold coins into the house of a poor family, thereby saving the home’s three daughters from a life of prostitution. Nicholas was also a favorite among sailors, who prayed to him during rough seas. The sailors spread Nicholas’ story around the world, turning him into one of the most popular saints in Christendom.

My favorite Saint Nicholas story, though, is the Miracle of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, an early version of the Sweeney Todd legend. I tell the story in my How to Make a Human (210-216), where it’s subjected to the kind of microscopic, psychoanalytic exegetics academic literary critics, and only us I think, delight in doing (“The furtiveness instead announces the presence of a secret; it gives up the secret, and what the secret wants to hide: the presence of narrative content too traumatic to relate directly” and so on; really very sorry).

From the twelfth century on, the story’s told often, in art, in poetry, and in song, beginning with a story about — yes — a travelling salesman. The one I like best is in one manuscript (Bodley 779) of the South English Legendary, a massive Middle English collection of saint’s lives.

It begins like so: “on a tyne thre clerkis com wandry in a street / of hongred and ful sore athirst” (once upon a time, three clerks were wandering in a street, suffering much from hunger and thirst). When the clerks plead with a butcher to board them (“her out that we ne sterue”), he refuses, often and rudely, until his wife suggests that they kill and rob the students in the night. After all, students are rich! (“of siluir habbeth gret plente. and ek [also]…gret…sacheles”). The students eat their fill, and then bed down, all the while invoking the name of Saint Nicholas. Soon after, the butcher has his wife fetch his ax, and he goes to work (“”for culle ich wole hem sone” [for I will slaughter/kill them [or sort them!] soon]).

Being students, they have nothing worth stealing but their bodies.

When the butcher panics, he blames his wife: you should never have called the clerks back! His wife patiently reminds him of his craft: they should make the corpses into “pastis and pyus . . . for pork hy cholleth ben solde” (pasties and pies . . . [to] be sold as pork). The next day, the butcher announces that he is selling three pennies’ worth of pies for the price of one (“for on peny ich wolde yeue, for hanseles sake, / that is worth to other thre, whoso hit wolde take”).

Quickly, maybe even before the butcher manages to unload any stock, Jolly Old Saint Nick arrives, with his entourage of ushers. Nicholas “axed of [the butcher] what he hadde, and what to sillin wolde” (asked [the butcher] what he had and what he would sell), who “answered baldeliche, pasties and pyes he hadde / and good chep” (boldly answered that he had pasties and pies, and that for cheap). The butcher intensifies his pitch, “and swythe loud he gradde / for a peny that is worth to. to the ich wele selle / lok nouthe wher hit be gret chep. by hem yif thou wille” (and he cried out very loudly, “I will sell two pennies’ worth to you for one. You can’t find it this cheap anywhere else. Buy them if you like!”). Nicholas’s response:

hastou any other flesch. telle swythe anon
for ich wold ther of bigge. wel swythe gret won
of bacon that were fair and clene. fain ich wolden habbe
sel me so wel as thou wost. and nought that thou ne gabbe
other flesch nab ich non. tha thou sext her to sille
yis for soth hastou. bakis thre ich wene
that liggeth isilt ther in thy fate . . .
do and bringe me ther to. yif hit thin wille be
for my wil is of hem to bigge.

Do you have any other flesh? Answer quickly, for I would buy from you a great deal of fair and clean bacon. I would gladly have this. Sell me as good meat as you know of. And don’t lie.” “I have no other flesh except for what you see here for sale.” “Yes, in truth, you do have it. I believe you have baked three that lay salted there in your vat . . . bring me there, if it is your will, for it is my will to buy them.

The butcher and his wife confess and cry for mercy, promise not to do this anymore (“”for neuer her after ne cholle we more”) — though it’s unclear whether they mean butchery or slaughtering students (in which case, how many times have they done this?) — and Nicholas resurrects the clerks. The end!

Or not! You’ll notice a continuity error: are the boys in the pies or not? Why does Nicholas keep insisting that he wants better meat than the meat that he’s being sold? Aren’t the boys right there on the counter already? There’s something a bit off here, as if the story’s too embarrassed to admit what it’s done: like all embarrassments, the story’s furtiveness instead announces the presence of a secret; it gives up the secret, and what the secret wants to hide: the presence of narrative content too traumatic to relate directly (ha! got it in). It’s that boys and pigs are pretty similar (the corpus/porcus joke is tediously common in medieval writing, and not just in medical texts); it’s that, as we know from Snowpiercer, babies taste best. It’s that Nicholas wants a bit of that Christmas pie, but he’s too ashamed to go at it directly.

Remember this miracle today by feeding a student. Tell them it’s Christmastime, and there’s no need to be afraid, because today’s a butchers holiday. And if you’re having ham (shame on you if you are), think on where it might have come from; if there’s a knock on the door, and you see a fourth-century bishop outside, you’ll know what you did.

THE HORDE (2012): before before Orientalism, the new (?) medievalism

by KARL STEEL

A few nights ago, I made the mistake of watching The Horde, a 2012 film produced by the Orthodox Encyclopedia, (!), that combines the story of the fourteenth-century collapse of the Mongol empire with a hagiographical yarn of the miraculous Saint Alexius, Metropolitan of Moscow, and the blindness of Taidula, Queen Mother of the Mongols. The film earned its controversy:

[Vadim Rudakov, labeled a Golden Horde expert] came away from the first meeting feeling enthusiastic that Russia would “finally” have an accurate depiction of life under its Mongol forbearers, who are widely credited with establishing regional government, a postal system, census-taking, and military organization.

But once the script was developed, Rudakov was crestfallen. Most of his suggestions about historical accuracy had been ignored, he told RFE/RL. And the depiction of the Mongols, he said, was deeply degrading.

“Some of them were given human qualities, but the overall impression is of brutal, bloodthirsty, evil-minded, greedy people. Even the jokes they told were flat and stupid,” Rudakov says. “It was all of the worst traditions of the old Soviet films about Tatar Mongols and nomads.

Reactions to this debate have been predictable: films, we’re told, can change what they like to be entertaining (or, if Google translate can be trusted, it’s actually quite accurate); authentic Russians should celebrate breaking the Mongol yoke; Russians should be proud of Russia; and something to do with whether the Ukraine as such ever existed (in comments) and whatever the comment at September 21, 2012 08:48 could possibly mean (“CIS nations are not ‘Indians’ as Russian Neanderthals saying, Their nations emerged Caucasians long before came Varaga. Varaga were Neanderthals, only since fifth Century BC mixing With Sam-Gad corsed tribes”).

Nuts, Turnips, Water, Blood, Bread, Watermelon

Nuts, Turnips, Water, Blood, Bread, Watermelon

I’m particularly interested in how The Horde uses food to delineate human from subhuman. In it, the ‘good guys’, i.e., the Christians, don’t eat meat: they eat turnips, bread, and nuts and drink only water; the ‘bad guys,’ i.e., the Mongols, eat roasted meat, drink strong liquor and horseblood, and, at one point, scarf a watermelon, whose red dripping ‘flesh’ surely is meant to resemble meat.

Early on, Jani Beg (Джанибек), just on the verge of becoming Khan, mimes taking a bite out of his dinner mate. Then he strangles his brother and declares himself Khan. Later, his mother, Taidula, convinces him to decapitate some captured Russians to save having to feed them, as otherwise

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

they’ll have “to eat people again.” Jani Beg agrees: “it’s bad to eat people; the demon steals into your soul” a line whose initial blandness charges it with extra horror: “It’s bad to shoplift; it’s bad to jaywalk; also, while you’re at it, don’t eat people.”

Of course, the Mongols have already eaten people; so they are, of course, a people possessed, more beast than human.

Food divisions like these would be perfectly expected had this film been written in 1240 by, say, Matthew Paris. “Thirsting after and drinking blood, and tearing the flesh of dogs and human beings,” the Mongols swarm “like locusts,” writes Matthew, joining with the 1238 Chronicle of Novgorod, whose Mongols “eat the flesh of the strong, and drink the blood of the Boyars,” and Yvo (or “Ivo”) of Narbonne in 1243, where the Mongols eat their victims “like bread.” I quote all this from Kim M. Phillips’s Before Orientalism, 91, but I just as well might have plucked it from Shirin Khanmohamadi’s In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages, 60.

Phillips observes that since no one else accused the Mongols of anthropophagy, it’s unlikely that they ate people with any regularity. Rather, as both Khanmohamadi and Phillips observe, these accusations are just elements of the “barbarian topos,” common since at least the classical era (key examples, here and here), the same fevered depictions of the other we’re likely to encounter anywhere (trigger alert).

Notably, the records of Mongol eating change as Christian missionaries produced better and better ethnography. When William of Rubruck writes that the Mongols have many “little creatures…which are good to eat, and which they are quite able to tell apart,” he may be a bit disgusted, but he at least has to admit they have a cuisine. And during his time among the Mongols, he himself comes to like kumis, a slightly boozy potable made from fermented mare’s milk.

Using these and other, similar texts, Khanmohamadi and Phillips each argue that the ethnography of 13th and early 14th-century Latin Christendom, at least for Central and East Asia, can’t be typified as “orientalist.” Their argument doesn’t snipe at Said; rather, as they argue, the colonial conditions Said studied simply don’t apply to this period and the relationships between these regions. Latin Christians couldn’t colonize or conquer Central Asia (as for East Asia, it was almost literally off the map). Instead, the Latin Christian writers Khanmohamadi and Phillips treat feared Mongol conquest (or hoped to convert the Mongols to ally against a common Islamic foe); they correctly thought China superior in nearly every way, in matters of culture, artistic skill, in the glory of their cities and the virtue of their women, in just about everything — stupidly — but food.

None of the Christian travelers in Khanmohamadi and Phillips would have produced anything like The Horde. They probably wouldn’t have portrayed Queen Taidula as the film did, as a dragon lady mastering her childish son: medieval misogyny has its own, probably less racist features. Furthermore, none would thought so highly of their own eating: none thought that Christians in general ate like the legendary Brahmans, on only roots (like turnips), nuts, and water.

For all that, the film still contains what may be the seed of a small critique of Khanmohamadi and Phillips. The film misconstrues both Mongol culture and what I know (which isn’t much) about the “contact zone” of Christian and Mongol (“Russian” and Mongol?) encounters and interchange in the 14th century. The film chooses the worst over the best medieval ethnography to portray the Mongols as lawless, uncivilized, cruel to animals, and somehow even more fleshy than Christians, because they eat little but flesh.

Yet this portrayal isn’t quite Orientalized either. After all, the Christians in The Horde could hardly be more ignorant about the Mongols; they barely speak the language; they can only guess at Mongol history; there’s no certainty that the Mongols represent the living past of Christianity (that position, rather, was mostly reserved for the Jews, “living letters of the law”): there’s no Foucauldian Power/Knowledge at work here. What the Christians feel, primarily, is threatened by a lawless and violent enemy of civilization.

What they feel, in other words, is what “the West” feels in what may now be a post-Orientalist time, when the West longs melancholically and guiltily for its former dominance over “the East” and everywhere else, and when the West knows the East only as an implacable and incomprehensible enemy. The Horde must be read in light of Chechnya. Or at least as a kind of anti-foundation myth, where Russia, as such, emerges only when its illegitimate rulers finally collapse.

“Westerners” have come out the other side of Orientalism, not into the future it might have hoped for, but rather into the prehistory of the time before Orientalism Khanmohamadi and Phillips study. The trick for reading this present moment, perhaps, may not lie with Said, but rather with rereading, critically, Matthew Paris and his heirs, and likewise rereading texts about Gog and Magog and the “red Jews.” The heirs of medieval Christendom feel an eschatological threat again. They feel themselves embattled in their own presumed superiority without any real hope of escape, even delighting in being trapped, since, as the theological story goes, worldly suffering is the clearest evidence of who God really loves.EDIT: READ THIS FOOTNOTE FOR UPDATES1

For more on the Mongols at this site, see this 2011 post here. See also this 2006 (!) post on meat-eating and masculinity. Elsewhere, see this superb recent post on veganism and hospitality, by Rebekah Sinclair at An und für sich; and enjoy this picture of Mongols eating, here. And for the food aversion and modern racism, see, for example, this.


1 Noreen Giffney has written well both on the need for an engagement with the Mongols informed by theory (see here, especially) and, here, on how discourses of monstrosity and apocalypticism play out with thirteenth-century Christian depictions of the Mongols, particularly with Matthew Paris, Thomas of Spalato, The Chronicle of Novgorod, and Ivo of Narbonnes. Thanks to Michael O’Rourke for the reminder. And for a far more detailed and expert engagement with the Mongols than I can provide, listen to 2013 UCLA Conference on “The Mongols from the Margins: New Perspectives on Central Asians in World History,” particularly Christopher Halperin’s “No One Knew Who They Were: Russian Interaction with the Mongols.” Thanks to Sharon Kinoshita for alerting me to the conference records. And Idols in the East has, as I’ve recently discovered, the best medievalist treatment of Orientalism.

You’ll remember how “Bisclavret” begins:

Quant de lais faire m’entremet

ne voil ubliër Bisclavret.

Bisclavret a nun en Bretan,

Garwalf l’apelant li Norman.

Jadis le poeit hum oïr

e sovent suleit avenir,

hume plusur garwalf devindrent

e es boscages maisun tindrent.

Garwalf, ceo est beste salvage;

tant cum il est en cele rage,

humes devure, grant mal fait,

es granz forez converse e vait.

Cest afere les or ester:

del bisclavret vus voil cunter. (Bisclavret, 1-14)

[In my effort to compose lays I do not wish to omit Bisclavret–for such is its name in Breton, while the Normans call it Garwaf. In days gone by one could hear tell, and indeed it often used to happen, that many men turned into werewolves and went to live in the woods. A werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests. I leave such matters for the moment, for I wish to tell you about Bisclavret” (translation by Gallagher)].

Frightening, no? Well, no, not really, since we never see our werewolf hero [hereafter Mr. B] eat anyone. Or really, anything (barring, perhaps, his estranged wife’s nose). When Mr. B’s wife wheedles him into giving up his secret, lupine life, he confesses that when he becomes bisclavret he goes into the great forest, into the deepest part of the woodland, and there lives on prey and plunder (“vif de preie e de ravine“).

This is violent language, but there’s nothing here about his explicitly eating humans. At least not so far as he tells his wife, or us, for that matter. Jeffrey will remark on the vagueness of Mr B’s account of his diet in a forthcoming piece in Studies in the Age of Chaucer; Burgwinkle’s talked about it too (“As he ceases to be dangerous – no devouring of men that we know of – his wife appears ever more treacherous” (166); no doubt there’s more: I don’t have Bynum’s discussion on hand, for example (although I don’t think McCracken and Kinoshita discuss this matter in their recent critical companion to Marie).

Readers of my AVMEO essay would expect me to suspect Mr. B of anthropophagy: wolves like to eat people, and Marie’s already told us werewolves eat people. Only special pleading could get Mr. B off the hook: maybe, some might say, Mr. B would be unlikely to find many humans to eat in the deepest part of the forest. That’s not much of a defense. It’s easier to accuse Mr. B of hiding the nastiest truth from his wife, who nonetheless proves that she understands him perfectly well by immediately plotting to get rid of him. More sympathetically, we might even suspect Mr. B not of being duplicitous, but of being too self-deluded to admit, even to himself, what he’s really doing.

Maybe we can suspect worse. For while there’s something marvelous about not being confined by the armor of an alienating (human) identity, there’s also something horrific (to us) about letting the human frame slip. Again following the path laid by my AVMEO essay, I suggest that Mr. B’s own vagueness hints at the consequences of giving up on human supremacy, namely, that once human supremacy doesn’t matter, humans fall under the general category of “prey and plunder.” There’s no need for Mr. B to conceal anthropophagy, but neither does he need to disguise it with a euphemism, because, for him, human flesh is just like other fleshes. There’s violence here; there’s a wrong being done, to someone or something; but it’s not a particular violence, or a violence that quite knows what it’s injuring, unless it’s the particular violence through which a nobleman sustains his position within the state of exception.

The dehumanized point of view isn’t the only stance the lai takes, however. Its opening doesn’t forget about the specificity of human flesh, not at all. I propose that we read the opening lines as modeled on a bestiary, not at all an inconsequential genre for the late twelfth-century England in which Marie wrote. See the Aberdeen Bestiary’s entry on the wolf, for example. Like Marie’s lai, we have an initial discussion of names, followed by a summary of behavior. To be sure, I may be over-reading the resemblance, but I suggest it to call attention to the generic difference between the lai’s narrative and the lai’s opening. Marie opens with what we might call a scientific and humanist voice, maybe like a bestiary, maybe not. Whatever the voice, it’s knowledgeable, distant, one that looks out at the nonhuman world, always thinking of how it might help or hurt people. To this voice, a werewolf, like wolves in general, can only be a threat.

(Monday edit: I really do need to say, here, that Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters will be doing interesting stuff with bestiaries and Bisclavret in ways that will be enormously important to my own developing Bisclavret argument)

The narrative voice, on the other hand, doesn’t care so much about human supremacy. For this point, in the next few months, look for Cohen and, as well, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters; also see McCracken on translation and movement. The narrative voice concerns itself with gender and sexuality (see Burgwinkle and Tovi Bibring), and with feudal loyalties, but not with humanity, except to observe how it’s slipped. Note that when the King meets (the) bisclavret, he declares, first, that “ele [i.e., this beast] a sen d’ume” [154; this beast has human intelligence], and then revises himself three lines later: “ceste beste a entente e sen” [157; this beast has understanding and intelligence]. Beasts, he realizes, have their own intelligence, not a wan imitation of human reason, but rather their own. When anthropocentrism collapses, what dangers follow?

We might therefore hear Mr. B’s “preie e ravine” as at once being aware of the violence of appetite and unaware of the specificity of human flesh as compared to the flesh of deer, or pigs, or sheep. Mr. B may be hiding something from his wife; or he might just have forgotten, like most eaters, that what he eats has any significance apart from how it benefits him. After all, he’s concerned mainly with his own safety, not hers, and not with–it seems–ours.

Or he might be observing that eating means subjecting someone or something to prey and plunder; that it means taking someone’s “better part” (again, my AVMEO essay), regardless of what that thing is. This is a lai, in other words, that knows what it is to eat in a world without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute human privilege.

Next-Day Edit: that should read “without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute privilege, human or otherwise.” For some recent discussions of posthuman ethics, relevant to my post, see Levi Bryant and Scu at Critical Animal. I think Scu gets it exactly right when he says “Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world.” I think that “Bisclavret” might answer Levi’s statement that he’s “not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like.” Well, here’s one, and it’s lycanthropocentric. It’s not a flat ontology (edit of the edit: or rather, not a flat ethics), because–as Bogost reminds us–there’s no escaping -centrism, of whatever sort. But to eat from the perspective of the wolf (as I suggest the Wolf-Child of Hesse does) or the werewolf (as Mr. B does), is certainly to be non-anthropocentric. Edit of the edit: although I may be speaking far above my pay grade, and certainly far outside my expertise, while we might be able to conceive of a flat ontology, I’m not sure we, or anything else, can conceive of a flat ethics.

And one more next-day edit: I know that going into the deep woods to “vif de preie e de ravine” essentially describes the life of a poacher, which matters, of course, in late twelfth-century England, given the rising importance of royal forest privileges. But I just don’t see that observation leading to an interesting reading. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

That’s all I have for now, though I have notes on hand for talking about the eaten nose. Those who looked at my book two proposal might suspect (correctly) that this material will probably form the introductory section to second chapter, leading up–of course–into my Wolf Child of Hesse discussion. Time, and effort, will tell. For now, though, I’m planning to learn what the latest issue of postmedieval has to say about about lepers.

(video from Emilie Mercier’s animated Bisclavret)

Climate/Weather/Responsibility: Mandeville’s Tartars

TartarsTonight, my grad class did 1/2 of Mandeville and 1/2 of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. Mandeville–drawing on John of Planto Carpini and Simon of Saint Quentin via Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Historiale–has this to say about the Tartars:

[Tartary] is a most miserable land, sandy and not very fertile, for few goods grow there: not wheat, not wine grapes, not fruit, not peas, not beans. But there is a great abundance of animals. Therefore they eat only meat without bread, and sip the broth, and drink milk from all animals; and they eat dogs, foxes, wolves, cats, and all other animals, wild and tame, and both rats and mice. Also, they have no wood or little, and therefore they heat and cook their meat with the dung of horses and other animals [that has been] dried in the sun. And princes and others eat only once a day and less, and they are an extremely filthy people and of a wicked nature. In summer throughout all this country storms and lightning and thunder often happen, and many times they kill the people, and the animals too.

Translation from the excellent new one by Iain MacLeod Higgins, 80

As readers of this blog likely know, Vibrant Matter complicates any linear notion of causality and therefore any linear notion of responsibility. As much as Bennett would like to blame only “deregulation and corporate greed” (37) for the 2003 American blackout, she can’t and remain intellectually honest.

Correspondingly, we can’t blame ourselves only when we find ourselves having eaten an entire tube of Pringles, since “to eat chips is to enter in an assemblage in which the I is not necessarily the most decisive operator” (40). The students and I all agreed about this, and one added that the shape of certain foods–cherries, M&M’s–lends itself well to this kind of vital mechanistic eating, while others–cantaloupe–does not. Much depends, she observed, on the size and shape of the human hand. And as much as Nietzsche’s dietetics annoy, we who entrust our mental health and acuity to Omega-3 fatty acids must take seriously his argument that food interacts “in conferations with other bodies such as digestive liquids or microorganisms but also…with the intensities described as perception, belief, and memory” (45).

With all that in mind, how can Mandeville get away with calling the Tartars “an extremely filthy people…of a wicked nature”? Look at what they eat! Look at what they put up with!

I remembered someone being referred to as “like the weather, without shame.” Likewise the Tartars. After some discussion, I declared: The Tartars are bad like the weather is bad. If I weren’t a bit tired from just having finished a day’s teaching, I might dilate on this; instead, here I’ll just propose that traditional models of responsibility are like the weather, and that a properly materialist thinking understands responsibility as being like the climate. Perhaps there’s something in this?

(image of Tartars from Otto von Diemeringen’s German translation of Mandeville, via the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland: St. Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Cod. Fab. XVI, f. 46v, detail)

“The Hunger,” or Precarious Self

3172529153_98325ef2c2How does the cliché go? “Being a blogger means never having to say you’re sorry”? Brooklyn College begins its semester today (and before your jealous hackles rise, know that it ends on May 20th), and I imagine many of my colleagues will complain about how quickly the break went, wondering what they could have done to make it better. These wistful words have been mine, too, but not this time. In the midst of various obligatory visits, I managed to exceed my own expectations, generating about 100 pages of [what I think of as] good solid bookdraft. What suffered? The blog, and, even if I don’t have to, I apologize.

What follows below is the conclusion to a chapter. It relies heavily on Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a book whose title promised productive interchange with my own (titled, at this point, How to Make a Human: Violence and Animals in the Middle Ages). I’ve not been disappointed, but I’ve also experienced a sense of relief in reading it. G. W. Bush had not yet finished his first term when Butler published many of the pieces that comprise Precarious Life, and the conditions she analyzed and decried only worsened in the four years following the book’s first edition. She wrote against the conditions of Guantanamo, where the US held prisoners in a place outside the law [baring in mind edit, haha bearing in mind the complex relation to the outside Agamben analyzes in Homo Sacer and State of Exception], where the US held prisoners, we now know, for the sake of being held, held with no expectation of their ever being prosecuted of anything, held them, it seems, only to be tortured (see here: “the Bush administration’s focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority”). With so much changing in the last week, not least of all, the condition of being of the Guantanamo prisoners, much of Butler’s book has become obsolete. Perhaps “obsolete” is not quite the right word, but it is certain that its relation to the present has changed utterly.

At the same time, Butler’s analysis will, for better or worse, be of continued utility. Its applicability–despite Butler’s persistent [albeit complicated] humanism–to critical animal theorists has already been insisted upon by Chloë Taylor when she writes, inter alia,

When exposed to the fragility of human bodies, to our own mortality, we say that we are sick like dogs, that we die like dogs, that, in the worst cases, we are slaughtered like sheep. Contra Butler, it would seem that vulnerability makes us animal, rather than specifically human. It is insofar as we are animal, embodied, that we are vulnerable. (66)

Inspired by Butler, in league with Taylor, and animated by more hope than I have felt in years, I wrote the following words, which I expect you to read, if at all, only in your leisure.


“Frank fed us human meat, and we got the hunger. That’s how you become a cannibal, Dee. You get one taste of delicious, delicious human meat, none of this stuff ever satisfies you ever again for the rest of your life.”

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [thanks Mike Smith for turning me on to this clip]

Judith Butler has written about the exclusions that mark certain lives as “grievable” and exclude others from the community of concern. “Each of us,” she writes, “is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies.” Those not recognized as belonging to the community have no social vulnerability. They are not recognized as vulnerable insofar as they are not recognized as belonging to the community of those whose lives matter and thus who are understood as being fully alive. They, who “cannot be mourned because they are always already lost, or, rather, never ‘were,’” who possess only what Agamben terms “bare life,” a life outside the boundaries of a meaningful life or death, cannot be recognized as suffering violence, since no one feels any outrage or sense of shared suffering for what they suffer. Thus, “if violence is done against those who are unreal…from the perspective of violence, it fails [from the perspective of the dominant community] to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” This exclusion, which is, to cite Derrida’s phrase again, a “denegation of murder,” helps constitute the human, for, as Butler writes, “I am as much constituted by those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I disavow.” She writes that therefore the obituary should be understood “as an act of nation-building,” but, as Chloë Taylor insisted in a recent reading of Butler, the obituary should also be understood as an act by which animals lives become forgotten. After all, no casualty list ever records massacres of beasts.

It bears repeating that in the dominant medieval intellectual and social traditions, animals do not belong to the community of the grievable; to recall Augustine, animals “are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses.” Being that animals are given over to humans to be used, it would be absurd to mourn their deaths, to grant them some manner of obituary, to pray for the horse, as Bevis asks we do for Arondel (4613-19) In a popular medieval story, a greyhound overturns a cradle and bloodies itself defending its master’s infant son from a poisonous serpent. When its master is summoned home by news of his son’s death, he kills the greyhound, but, quickly realizing his error, he abandons himself entirely to grief. In one Middle English version, he “brake his sper in thre partiis, & put his wyf in preson, and yede him self to the holy londe”; in another, he enters his orchard “and for dule of hys hounde / he lepe in and sanke to gronde” (884-85), drowning himself; in another, he strips off all his armor:

And al barfote forth gan he ga,
Withowten leue of wife or childe.
He went into þe woddes wild,
And to þe forest fra al men,
þat nane sold of his sorow ken. (918-22)

In all three versions, he surrenders his entire social existence. He breaks his spear, forsakes his family, and leaves for the Holy Land; he drowns himself; he disappears into the woods, where no one would know of his sorrow. Each version has in common contempt for the advice of women, for the initial mistake of either his nurses or wife guides the knight to catastrophe. The misogyny, however, is not what the story is really about, but rather a screen around its incognizable content; as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, misogyny protects readers from a story that would have otherwise taken them into an abyss. Each of these stories of the knight and the greyhound is also a story in which choosing to grieve for a dog means abandoning the community of humans; each story is therefore one of realizing the structures of violence by which the human inessentially sustains itself. Once astonished by his recognition of his shared vulnerability with what should be recognized as a mere dog, the knight must exclude himself from a community that constitutes itself by knowing that humans should not die like animals. Humans who mourn dogs no longer have any place to be. For the knight to remain himself, animals must die like animals: unmourned, eaten or used up in labor, discarded and unmemorialized.

It would not do, for example, to wonder what became of the lions that ate Ignatius, or to wonder too much about what Ignatius himself ate before he met his grisly end. Since Ignatius disdains the Jewish law and sects that prohibit certain foods, it seems that his alimentary codes at least anticipate those of Augustine. Without objections to eating meat—or, perhaps better said, objecting to objections to eating meat—Ignatius likely broke bones and tore limbs, inflicting on animal bodies what he expects the lions will inflict on him. To be sure, this is a speculative reading. But because the lives of animals are so far outside the considerations of the Christianity exemplified by Ignatius, the disdain they suffered at the hands of the saint can be reconstructed only by compelling the silences in Ignatius’s ouevre to speak. The community his writing helps constitute constitutes itself in part by excluding from consideration the significance of all violence except what humans suffer. The silence on all deaths but those of Ignatius and their co-believers is therefore a kind of evidence. Even as Ignatius harnessed the horror of his coming death for rhetorical force, he never considered that the deaths he silently countenanced, that he himself likely encouraged through his appetites, were just as horrific. Lions and other, less mighty animals, never having had life in the way that humans do, cannot be grieved unless humans recognize their shared vulnerability with them. But had Ignatius given voice to this shared vulnerability, he would have lost himself, for the indifference of Ignatius’s ouevre to violence against animals, his almost complete silence about the food he ate before he himself was eaten, inscribes the boundaries by which Ignatius knows himself and his fellows as human.

The imagined deliciousness of human flesh functions in a manner akin to the human recognition of their social vulnerability amidst other humans, for it sets human life apart as special. The death of another human demands mourning, and also demands that each human remember that he or she will someday die as well: each recognized death is a memento mori. The remembrance is therefore also a remembrance of weakness. The fantasy of the deliciousness of one’s own flesh, by contrast, is not a reaction to someone else’s death but a fantasy of one’s own death and one’s own flesh that transforms human death from an occasion of grief into an occasion of triumph. The anthropophage commits violence against the human, and thus, by inspiring mourning in the human community, reminds humans of the vulnerability of their lives; yet its unshakeable fixation on human flesh simultaneously attests to the supremacy of human life. This is a violence akin to that suffered by the martyrs in hagiography, where every torment inflicted on them by some insatiable, compulsive tyrant bears witness not to the power of the tyrant but to the power of Christianity.

It is therefore to the advantage of humans that the taste of their flesh encourages anthropophagy. In the widespread story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, Nicholas, dissatisfied with the meat the butcher tries to sell him, demands the three clerks the butcher has slaughtered, butchered, and salted like pigs. One manuscript of The South English Legendary records Nicholas’s words before the counter:

ich wold ther of bigge. wel swythe gret won
of bacon that were fair and clene. fain ich wolden habbe
sel me so wel as thou wost.
I would buy from you a great deal of fair and clean bacon. I would gladly have this. Sell me as good meat as you know of.

In describing the clerks as “so wel as thou wost,” Nicholas elevates the dead clerks above the common run of meat. By coming to their assistance, as he would for no pig, he has mourned them or at least, through his actions, memorialized their deaths; when he resurrects them, he at once witnesses to and rectifies his grief over the violence they suffered. But even while the clerks are dead, even before the resurrection, Nicholas knows their flesh as human, because he knows it as far more desirable than the flesh of any pig. In that regard, the clerks have not been reduced to utter weakness by being slaughtered, for, inasmuch as they demand special attention, they still have an effect on this world greater than that of any animal.

The identification of readers with the clerks of the Nicholas story also allows them to identify with the clerks as the best meat and thus to identify with the clerks as not pigs. To the degree that they expect that Nicholas would have described them too as the best meat, they experience what Žižek terms interpassivity, “believing or enjoying through the other.” In this case, the belief is akin to the self-satisfaction felt in imagining being present at one’s own funeral. The fantasy is not one of grieving for one’s own self, but one of imagining the power that one will continue to have over others. The human imagines itself dead, and imagines its corpse an object of great alimentary delight; by inspiring delight greater than that caused by any other food, it knows itself to be the superior kind of life and therefore human. This fantasy is not, then, simply a passive experience, nor is it a fantasy of vulnerability. Although the corpse seems inert, it still acts by and through itself by driving others either to grief or delight. Even in death, the human retains its structural position of power; while in life, the human enjoys a similar kind of passive power by imagining that its living flesh would, if dead, be cause for celebration—and obsession—among anyone lucky enough to eat it. Whatever doubts humans may have about the specialness of their being, doubts that perhaps inhere most deeply in the apparent indistinguishability between human and animal flesh, the overwhelming desire of others for human flesh convinces them that humans matter more than any other living thing. In this dynamic, grievable and desirable lives are inextricable.

The fifteenth-century moral treatise Dives and Pauper proves that the verb “occidit” of the Sixth Commandment does not apply “boþyn to man & of beste,” but it still places limitations on the slaughter of animals: anyone who butchers an animal “for cruelte & vanite,” that is, anyone who enjoys killing the animal, has sinned. Humans, however, must possess something more than mere life; they must be creatures who cannot simply be put to use; the supremacy of human life requires the supremacy of human death. The slaughter of humans should not be simply a job, but a sin, an object of desire, a pleasure, a pleasure that coerces, a pleasure that infects eaters with “the hunger.”

[photo from a few weeks ago, at a diner that any Twin Peaks fan knows serves “damn good coffee, and hot”]

“Free and Open at Eyther Ende,” or Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

gusbig(Image from here: Strange but Trewe)

I stumbled across an interpretation Tuesday in the course of teaching the Prioress’s Tale. As I said it, it sounded familiar to me, but I’ve gone through my notes with some fine teeth (mine) and haven’t been able to turn up anyone else who’s said it. So bear with me, read along, and if what I’m saying sounds familiar, please let me know.

It’s well-known that the ritual murder charge is often also one of anthropophagy. The late twelfth-century, and, it should be said, highly ironic chronicler Richard of Devizes records or invents a charge at Winchester in which an immigrant laborer disappears on Good Friday. His friend accuses a Jew of the crime with “isti unicum sodalem meum iugulavit, presumo etiam quod manducavit” (this man has cut the throat of my only friend, and I presume he has eaten him, too!). The chronicle of the monastery of Saint Peter of Gloucester writes that when Harold of Gloucester was murdered, he was (and here I quote at length because I can’t readily turn up any translations: so my quick and very dirty translation of this little bit might help scholars looking for a crib, or it might help you help me with that word “acellis,” since neither my Lewis and Short nor the online Du Cange want to cooperate: update thank you Nicola Masciandaro):

Nam tandam visum est medium duobus ignibus interpositum miserabiliter latera, tergum, nates, cum genibus, manibus, pedum quoque plantas torruerunt, defixas circa capitis ambitum spinas, et sub utrisque acellis, ardente quoque adipe veluti assatura carnis fieri solet guttatim in tota corporis superficie distillata…” (20-21)

For at last it was seen that he was been placed between two fires, and his flanks, back, buttocks, with his knees, hands, and the heels of his feet wretchedly roasted, and he had thorns wrapped around his head, and under each ACELLIS armpit, and just as if he had become roasted meat, blazing fat had been dripped drop-by-drop all over the surface of his body…

There’s also the narrative of the murder of Adam of Bristol, whose full and jaw-droppingly bizarre details I won’t go into here, just yet. In it, Samuel, the paternal head of a murderous Jewish family, refers to his victim, Adam, as “porcellum meum” (my little pig [which is strange: check my * below]). Samuel threatens to roast Adam by the fire rotisserie-style like a plump chicken (as Samuel says, “ego regirabo,” and adds “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”). Prior to the roasting, Samuel’s wife cuts off Adam’s nose and lips, using the knife customarily used to cut her bread (“cultello quo solebat incidere panem”). Moreover, the family plans the torments over a feast, so as the murderous family eats, it plans the disposal of the body that will be treated like edible flesh, that is, eventually deposited in a latrine and pissed on by Samuel.

It’s usual for the corpse in a ritual murder story to end up in such a place. This is what happens in the Prioress’s tale, where the Jews “in a wardrobe … hym threwe / Where as thise jewes purgen hire entraille,” although, strictly speaking, the Prioress’s Tale is not a ritual murder: however much Satan swelled up and reminded the Jews that their law was being scorned, the murder seems to be occasioned by irritation rather than by ritual necessity. And there’s no anthropophagy (at this point, imagine an ominous foreshadowing noise here, perhaps with this famous moving image swelling up in your sight).

All of this is a kind of hors d’œuvre for what I promised in my first paragraph, namely, an interpretation of the shape of the Ghetto in the Prioress’s tale (see another aside below). Because the ghetto is “free and open at eyther ende,” the little clergeon can make his way through it, singing his Alma redemptoris the whole way until he meets his end. But, as I observed in my (8am!) class on Tuesday, he also meets the Jews’ end, because, after all, what else is open at both ends and ends in a latrine?

(if you need a hint, look at the photo above)

I’m sure it’s been said before that the Ghetto in the Prioress’s Tale functions as a kind of corpus Judaeorum. What does that get us in terms of interpretation? I’m not entirely sure yet. I’ll share with you what I told my students, but I don’t want to take this any further until I know I’m not just filling someone’s else’s footprints, compelled unwittingly to follow by the memory of their passage through the critical swamp (and I’ll end the metaphor here). We have witnessed anthropophagy, albeit in a disguised form, and indeed we’ll witness it (disguised) again, when the boy’s body processes through the town to the church in a kind of Corpus Christi parade, and when the Abbot takes the greyn, which, whatever it might be, necessarily recalls the Eucharist. We might, then, if we wanted to push at this reading, see the tale as referencing debates and exempla about the indomitable purity of the Eucharist even when it’s threatened with transformation into feces by the ritual of the Eucharist itself. But that’s perhaps rather too much. It’s much simpler to see the main street of the Jewerye (or Juerie) as an alimentary canal, and the Jewerye as the body of the Jews. As I said to my students, this approach heightens the logic of revenge: a Christian body that functions as the corpus Christianorum has been destroyed, so there’s a Jewish body destroyed in turn. The collective punishment is also the punishment of a single urban body. So, where to take this?

* Strange because there’s such an emphasis (dare I say slapstick emphasis) placed on Jewish food codes later in the story, after Samuel has murdered his family (who had the gall to apostatize) and fled to his sister’s house, both out of guilt and out of fear of the inconvenient angel standing guard over Adam’s body, that is, in the latrine. When several credulous Irish priests show up in Bristol, Samuel and his sister offer them lodgings, hoping to trick them into getting the boy’s holy corpse

out of the latrineaway from the angel. Here’s the conversation once Samuel’s sister offers the priests some food. Pardon my stilted translation:

“Quales carnes vultis habere ad edendum?” Cui sacerdos: “O domina, carnes porcinas.” Et illa: “Carnes porcine non sunt bone nec sane in hac urba, quia plene sunt lepra et commedunt stercora hominum in plateis. Set dabo vobis carnes bovinas, et .3es. gallinas crassas vobis et nobis.”

“What sort of meat do you wish to have to eat?” The priest replied, “O mistress, pork.” She said, “Pork isn’t good or healthy in this town, since it is measly/leprous and they [the pigs] eat human excrement in the street. But I will give you beef and three fat chickens for you and your retinue.”