Chapter 3 – Food For Worms, Part I

IMG_0141What follows is, as the title promises, the beginning of what is, by my current count, Chapter 3 of my Book2 [the next bit is here, and I’m sure to revise this to give it some room to breath]. I’ve revised material that’s appeared in print before, in postmedieval’s “Ecomaterialism” special issue, itself a development of several blog posts from 2012 [here and here for example], but in this pass, apart from overhauling the introductory paragraphs entirely, I get to go at things without the space limitations of a journal article, and, moreover, without of the cruft of engagement with ooo, very au courant in 2012, but not so much now. I’d like to think of this is an improvement.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through a gate, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17).[2] However many the roads to this gate, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise, or threat, of an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. The subject might think this abyss grand: abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few artistic bodies may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[5] or Alexis Shotwell’s, via Lisa Heldke, for an understanding of “the entangled features of our eating behaviors,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food, with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of the well-known morality play Everyman, about the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the general body of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of medieval death work is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. Certainly most of this material aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. This material can still be read profanely, however, some of it more easily than others. My chapter does not aim to be comprehensive.[8] My interest will be in a work like this version of a famous and widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders it as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.
Earth drew the other earth to the earth.
Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.
Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Admitting that this rendition is “crude,” Rudd then opens up the moral content of the poem’s dense imagery, in which earth is human, flesh, and spouse, but then returns us to the quatrain’s bare materiality: “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” For what we might call Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take this profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem shockingly lacks a soul—not being a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are—it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. My chapter, then, will treat each of these elements singly: flesh; then worms, particularly the natural, antipaternal science of spontaneous generation; and then finally how this alliance between worms and flesh challenges the somber “unsubstitutable singularity” of what is by now a classic strain in critical animal theory.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves,[12] and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[13] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[14]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[15] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[16] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. The bones once again have a place in the Merina community. Think here also of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[17] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[18] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[19] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;
trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;
leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[20]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But of course their material continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[21] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[22] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[23] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[24] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, as could but here I will offer just one more, the Disputation. The body of this poem, far from finding rest in the grave, instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to the body about their hosts of allied vermin:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.[25]

[The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon, The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake, The toad, the mole, and the scorpion, The viper, the snake, and the adder, The toad, the ant, and the crab, The spider, the maggots, and the newt, The water leech, and the others are not far behind.]

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.

[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64.

[6] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017,,

[hereafter DIMEV], 6292. This version might be contrasted with the far more neatly moral and anthropocentric DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 15–17, 21–22, 28–29.

[13] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[14] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[15] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[16] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[18] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[19] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[20] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[21] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les Vers Comme Heritiers: Aspects de La Poétique Du Testament Aux XIVe et XVe Siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[22] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[23] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[24] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[25] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13.

Medieval Muteness: Disability, Objects, and Animals

Sabbatical honesty, then – in the two weeks since the last post, I’ve given back revisions to articles for the Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History (“Animals and Violence: Medieval Humanism, ‘Medieval Brutality,’ and the Carnivorous Vegetarianism of Margery Kempe”), The Open Access Canterbury Tales (animals and the Friar’s Tale), and a revised talk for a chapter in The Body Unbound, a classics &c anthology (“Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations“). I’m hoping to get back to the Book soon, as soon I get past doing my review of a book I’ll tell you about after I write my review.

What follows is a draft of a talk I’m giving in Madison, for the UW Madison Graduate Association of Medieval Studies on Friday, April 14. I’m sure to tweak this again in a few weeks, but just to get it out of my hair, and potentially into yours, here it is.

I’ve tried to do a little of everything in this, so my theory heads can gnaw on something, as can the ones who mainly want a bunch of neat medieval stories, as can the ones who want some hardcore medieval stuff to fight back against [and, to be honest, my competence in medieval grammar is minimal. At least for now]. 5,000 words is a lot to read! For you, and for me, but it’s a good 40-45 minutes, and: well! One hopes for the best.

Continue reading

No Soul, No Exit – Getting with/at the Body in the Disputation between the Body and the Worms

The 218-line “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes” (hereafter Disputation) survives only in British Library, Additional 37049, a much studied mid-fifteenth-century miscellany likely produced for or in a Northern English charterhouse, that is, a Carthusian monastery.[1] Medieval debate poetry includes arguments between scholars and knights, water and wine, various birds, and many postmortem debates between body and soul;[2] but the Disputation is the only one of these latter type with a specifically female gendered body, and, to boot, certainly the only one featuring a body at odds, so to speak, with its own edibility.

The poem’s action is as follows: It opens with its narrator escaping a plague and entering a church to pray. There, he encounters a new, freshly painted tomb, personalized with coats of arms and a copper plate engraved with the image of a fashionable woman.[3] The narrator swoons—“rapt and rauesched from my selfe” (25; rapt and ravished from my self) and, in a vision, witnesses the disputation. In it, Body protests the loss of her former beauty under the violence of the “most vnkynde neghbours þat euer war wroght” (44; the most unnatural/improper neighbors that were ever made). The worms insist that they will not leave “while þat one of þi bones with oþer wil hange” (59; while one of your bones still adheres to another), because they want only to feast on flesh. When Body threatens the worms with the warriors she commanded in life, the worms mock her with a typical ubi sunt catalog of departed worthies—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Arthur, Dido, and others—all of whom ended up as wormfood too. The worms remind Body that she always been food for vermin: parasites have gnawed on her since she came into existence. Finally accepting this lesson on the vanity of worldly glory, Body awaits the Last Judgment, when she will rise again and be glorified. Then the narrator awakes and briefly recounts the clerical imprimatur granted this vision and its subsequent versification.

The Disputation has been often and correctly numbered among a host of late medieval memento mori and contemptus mundi works, which instruct people to prepare for their eventual death and to abandon the mutable and temporary pleasures of this world for the permanent rewards of heaven.[4] These studies remain faithful both to the poem’s moral conclusion and to the first two, especially the second, of its five illustrations: the first shows the narrator kneeling before a gruesome crucifix, an image both of suffering flesh and, at least implicitly, of that flesh’s promised perfection. The gendering of corpse and visionary, one a woman, the other a man, allows for straightforward interpretation of the poem as a whole: obviously the Disputation abjects putrefaction onto the feminized body. As is well known, the late medieval culture of celibate male clerics—practiced with particular intensity in Carthusian environs like the one that produced the compilation in which this poem survives—is just one hot zone of the longstanding misogynist habit of male-identified people performing their disappointment with and superiority to the flux and interdependency of material existence by insulting women.[5] Women, particularly old or laboring women, were made to emblematize the failure of all corporeal delights, all that inevitably goes awry with costume, beauty, desire, sex. The few who went along with the program might be exempted, for instance, a few other women illustrated in this compilation: the Virgin Mary, or its handful of saints, like Mary of Egypt, pictured with a body concealed under her own cascade of thick hair.[6]

Most other women, though, were made to be not bodies but flesh: if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder.[7] One body, the male visionary’s, kneels; the other, the woman’s, rots, liquefying into flesh and from there to ash. Thus the poem’s Body is herself made to say that all should “avoyde fleschly temptacone” (189; avoid fleshly temptation), and that she too, even at this late stage, has to unlearn her own attachment to her flesh, just as the poem’s presumptively male-identified readers have to work up a horror for the fleshy existence they share with her.[8]

The poem’s grave and its horrid contents are therefore the interior of a cordon sanitaire into whose horrific interior these readers can clamber to safely explore the failures of their or any body. The poem’s narrator, the visionary, is their obvious stand-in. No stoic, his relationship to his own body, and the suffering bodies of others, is one of fear, horror, and, given the right body, honor: he arrives in the poem fleeing the plague, and then worships before a lurid image of the bleeding Christ. “Ravished” into a vision, he witnesses exactly what he should loathe, another incarnated form of the mortal delights of the world he had just fled. But if the vision is to do its work, the abjection needs to be minimally enacted, with the loathing for this corpse circling back to become self-loathing.

Elsewhere in this compilation, for example, an emperor has his pride tamed by being taken by his steward to his father’s grave. The emperor has the tomb opened, finds a stinking, worm-eaten body within, and then the emperor and his father’s corpse converse:

Þan sayd þe son, “Horrybil bestes restys with þe.” Þe voice sayd, “Thow sal cum and reste with me.” Þan sayd þe son, “Thy fayr flesche falls and fadys away.” “Son, so sal þine do, þat is now so gay.”[9]
[Then the son said, “Horrible beasts rest with you.” The voice said, “You shall come and rest with me.” Then the son said, “Your attractive flesh falls and fades away.” “Son, so shall yours do, which is now so elegant.]

With the son’s voice written in a column on the left, the father’s on the right, and the whole enclosed in a banderole, the conversation occurs in a frame that draws present flesh and future putrefaction into one field, not a conversational sequence but rather a completed admonition. So long as he identifies with his father—and he must, as the tomb’s carved figure of the dead emperor looks virtually identical to the body of the living one—the emperor will be made to know that his present is just the promise of an inevitable future. At minimum, the Disputation also requires identification like this. But only at minimum. Assuming what we can clumsily call a dominant heterosexuality,[10] the male-identified visionary is supposed less to want to be what the corpse was (an emperor, for example) than he is supposed to want the body itself. “Sex,” Masha Raskolnikov observes, “haunt[s] the rhetoric of all Body/Soul debates,”[11] but nowhere else in the tradition does this specter assume quite so material a form. Consider the famous encounter of the three living and three dead, but imagine in this case that the dead, with their statements of “what you are, I once was,” and so on, had once been sexually desirable to the living.

This is why the Dreamer must also be identified with the worms too, because they mark out a space of difference between the Dreamer and the (female) Body, so that desire can be enacted, but piously, which is to say, in this case, through loathing and punishment. By speaking the most orthodox lessons in ascetic disgust, the “phallic”[12] worms play the part of the wise men, the angel, or the other knowing figures in other such stories. As a man, the visionary can join this crowd of Big Others in lecturing this woman about the proper, disdainful relation to the flesh, hers and his—with full mouths. This in a Carthusian manuscript, a product of an order that was, by the fifteenth century, infamous for its fanatic vegetarianism![13] As if doubling down on the hypocrisy, the worms explain that they know how disgusting their meal is, even if they cannot feel the disgust: “If we, as bestes, had smellyng & tastynge, / Trows þou þat we wald towche þi caryone playne? / Nay, parde, we wald it voyde for certayne!” (69-71; if we, as beasts, had the capacities to smell or taste, do you think that we would touch your bare carrion? No, by God, we would certainly vomit it out!). This is not the compilation’s only overdetermined entanglement of flesh, self, authority, retribution, and asceticism. A short poem, set down a few pages before the Disputation, features a falconer who entices a restless bird to return by showing it a hunk of “rede flesche”;[14] so too, it explains, does Christ draw us back, where we can join him on the “cros of penaunce” through “discrete poneyschyng of thi body.” Jessica Brantley dryly remarks that “the poem sets up a number of complex equivalences”:[15] Christ is falconer, but also meat, while the reader is a falcon whose submission to Christ transforms him into both “meat and crucified savior.” What the Disputation has on this is sexual desire and gender transformation: the visionary has to want this woman, or someone like her, or he has at least to imagine himself superior to anyone who would have been taken in by her. He wants the ascetic lesson inflicted on her for what she and others like her make him want, but at the same time he has to know himself as her too, because unless he recognizes her body as like his own, this ouroboric lesson simply cannot take.

Of course, it matters that the male visionary gets the gift of humiliation by tarrying with a rotten woman. Put bluntly, the Disputation is about a man scared of death who draws solace and wisdom from watching a beautiful woman putrefy. In this system, she should be humiliated, because she is a woman; and if only he would understand himself correctly, he can choose to be humiliated too. The emperor of the parable comes to know that the mighty are finally brought low; the dreamer of this poem, that the attractive, but socially semi-subaltern (given Body’s nobility), are really to be scorned, but also that, when it comes to our bodies, he is not really so different from them. This lesson is meant for all, generated from her body and her comeuppance. But when poem ends with the dreamer telling both “Man & Woman…al lustes for to lefe” [215; men and women to leave all lusts], and indeed with Body intoning “What he salbe & also what is he / Be it he or sche, be þai neuer so fayr, bewar / Of pryde” (184-6; what he shall be, and also what he is, whether it be a he or she, no matter how attractive they are, beware of pride), these universal lessons, for men and women both, erase the distinction between lust for the other and lust for the self that drives the poem’s weird drama. In particular, it erases how this story of sanctimonious retribution draws its vocabulary, as Elizabeth Robertson observes, from the pastourelle poetry of rape.[16] Ecocritical writing on flows of identity and material immanence must always remember what bodies are made to be naturally suitable for their lessons:[17] I know of no medieval death vision of a woman looking, lips tightened with disgust, into the grave of a man

This is all true, but for most of the poem, the visionary is only implicitly present. He is watching, but he does not interact. This absence allows us to concentrate not just on the bizarre identifications the poem requires, but also the lesson of the grave, to identify the feature that distinguishes the Disputation from perhaps every other work in the vast and crowded genre of medieval death piety. This is its refusal to provide the immanent Body with an immaterial counterpart. Typical debate poetry of this sort tends to split body from soul, and sets each to arguing with the other over which should be blamed for the infernal or purgatorial plight the self has fallen into: “Nou is mon hol and soint” [Now is Man Whole and Sound] has soul blame the body for not fasting on Fridays, not giving alms on Saturday, and not attending church on Sundays; “In a þestri stude I stod” [In a Dark State I Stood] has soul begin with contemptuous “Wo worþe þi fleis, þi foule blod, wi liggest þou nou here” [woe betide your flesh, your foul blood, why do you lie here?], an anger that soul unrelentingly maintains until its final prophetic flourish, an eschatological sequence of the world’s terrifying last seven days that concludes with Christ’s return; “Als I lay in winteris nyt” [As I lay in Winter’s night], whose 624 lines give Body space to fight back against Soul’s pious sarcasm (here soul’s “þi foule blod” is met with body’s “3if þou hast schame & gret despite, / Al it is þine owhen gilt” [if you have shame and great disdain / it is entirely your own fault]).[18]

The compilation itself has its own Body versus Soul debate.[19] This four-page prose work, excerpted from the Pilgrimage of the Soul—itself translated from Guillaume de Deguileville’s fourteenth-century Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme—begins with the usual vituperation: “Art þou þere yon wretchyd body so horribilt and fowle stynkyng wormes mete and noreschyng of corrupcioun? Wher is now þi pryde and þi fers hert? What is þi lewd play cummen to”[20] [are you there wretched Body, so horrible and foul, stinking worms’ food and nourishment of corruption? Where is your pride and fierce heart now? What has your foolish conduct come to?]; it stops, with startling practicality, to consider the science of putrefaction (noble things, Soul explains, smell worse when they rot)[21]; and most of the debate tends to argue in favor of the actual unification of Body and Soul, implicitly resisting the very separation of aspects of the self that makes debate possible. Like so much else in the compilation, it is illustrated. The first three of its four images pair Body, brown and ghastly, stretched out in its shroud, with Soul clean, white, and presumably male (although its pubes, like the other souls of the compilation, are smooth and featureless). Body has itself become white in the last illustration, perhaps finally reduced to bones, as if, by the debate’s end, Body had finally finished rotting. The first and last illustrations also include a hovering angel, who, in the debate, has the last word, telling Body and Soul to leave off their squabbling, since they predestined to salvation anyway,[22] after which it addresses the audience with an allegorical story about two men, one blind, the other deaf, condemned for colluding in the theft of fruit from an orchard in which they had been set to work. By providing each disputant with a clear locus of speech (itself indicated so neatly with their gestures), by furnishing a hovering angel, there to quench the anger with a promise of salvation, and by repairing the self that both death and the debate had split apart, this text offers an end and an escape and a permanence of the self. Though the self does fight, it fights with itself, which will eventually be made whole and find its way, in this case, to heaven.

In the Disputation, however, there is no soul, nothing that could be identified as having any permanence. To be sure, Body does speak of the coming Resurrection, but we need not furnish it with an exit if it provides none,[23] just as we need not provide it with a soul.[24] Speaking objects are not uncommon in medieval debate poetry: water and wine, for example, go at each other, as do abstractions like Nature and Nurture (which argue over who has more claim to the gender indeterminate knight of the Roman de Silence), and animate but supposedly irrational animals, like the Owl and Nightingale of the poem of the same name. No modern reader of these works has argued that these entities must have souls, rational or otherwise, to be able to talk; no one has been troubled by their obvious fictionality, by how this form allows problems to be worked out in a dramatic, and open-ended form of a debate, whose superiority to typical philosophical texts lies in their having no illusion that their positions are anything but competing forms of situated knowledge. Speaking bodies are common enough in medieval writing of this period,[25] and, to put it baldly, in a Body and Soul debate, the position of the soul is obviously held by the Soul. That the debate is between the Body and the Worms, and named as such in the manuscript, should mean, quite simply, that it is a debate between exactly these two things. If some fifteenth-century “context” is needed to avoid furnishing the Disputation with a soul, the simplest explanation is that the lady had once had a soul, and that by the time the poem begins, it has already left, either to heaven, hell, or what is more expected in this period, purgatory, and that what we witness in this debate is what is left over, in the period between death and the soul’s return to a recreated body in the Last Judgment.

What remains is Body. As a named character with motives and a voice, Body has everything a literary work typically needs for a personality. With all this, and with its claims to ownership of flesh and bones, Body in effect plays the part of soul in this poem, with one crucial exception: Body is a body, and therefore immanent rather than transcendent. The place that would have been held, in other such works, by the voice of what could have escaped, is here held by a voice that just marks out the place where the self can be located for a while within always shifting materiality. If the soul is located in the function it plays in other poems in this tradition, as the voice of moral and doctrinal authority, then the worms may be the poem’s soul, with this crucial, obvious distinction: they are not the self, nor, as a crowd, even a self, and as nonhuman life, they are certainly, for better or worse, not destined for eternity.

We need not imagine that Body’s voice must emanate from some spiritual immateriality, some promise of transcendence, some separation of agential self from the objectified matter it inhabits and moves.  This is all to say, despite the tendency of even modern critics to persist in using metaphors of “vitality” and “animation” to describe the character of “agency,” this poem presents a disanimated, corporeal self, aware of itself as self, of course, but without any principle of separation that would rescue the self from being an object for others. What the soullessness of the Disputation presents, then, is an almost unimaginable immanent selfhood, something that suffers from a capacity often ignored in accounts of impersonal life, “composting,” and other ecocritical, posthumanist philosophy, namely, the capacity to die, which it gives voice to, impossibly, from the other side of death. This immanent self does not own its death; nothing can. Rather, it gets its voice only to complain that its claim to itself can only be temporary; for all that temporariness, this is a voice nonetheless, whose very intensity of complaint, and capacity to learn even, counteract the disdain for the body that the poem aims to summon. And as I will consider in my next section, the forces of dissolution that take its flesh are not alien to it but inherent to its and any material existence.

[1] For a brief treatment of the manuscript and its likely contexts, Emily Richards, “Writing and Silence: Transitions Between the Contemplative and the Active Life,” in Pieties in Translation: Religious Practices and Experiences C. 1400-1640, ed. Richard Lutton and Elisabeth Salter (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 168–70.

[2] Histories of this genre are easy to come by. One of the best is in Masha Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 62–63, 71–72.

[3] At this point, the poem becomes garbled, with perhaps as much as two of its 7-line rhyme royal stanzas missing between the description of the tomb and the narrator’s ravishment; John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), 53 n22-8.

[4] Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 221–27; Caroline Walker Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Medieval and Modern Contexts,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992), 203, 237; Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 29–30; Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 191–92; Marlene Villalobos Hennessy, “The Remains of the Royal Dead in an English Carthusian Manuscript, London, British Library, MS Additional 37049,” Viator 33 (2002): 310–354; Marjorie M. Malvern, “An Earnest ‘Monyscyon’ and ‘Þinge Delectabyll’ Realized Verbally and Visually in‘ A Disputacion Betwyx Þe Body and Wormes,’ A Middle English Poem Inspired by Tomb Art and Northern Spirituality,” Viator 13 (1982): 415–450; Philippa Tristram, Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 160–61; Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 328–30.

[5] The classic treatment is Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), eg, 15, “The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away.” For a good summary of the tradition and feminist developments, Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 25–26. For the persistence of this notion, Midas Dekkers, The Way of All Flesh: A Celebration of Decay, trans. Sherry Marx-Macdonald (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), 103, “Generally, it’s easier to tell a group of Chinese people apart than it is a circle of little old ladies from Florida,” here remarking on cosmetics, among many such appalling assessments, fatally marring a book so eager to be a modern version of Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall.

[6] British Museum Additional 37049, 48v. See also a similarly hirsute Mary Magdalene, ascending to heaven on 50v. For the benefit of non-medievalists: manuscripts are typically numbered by the sheet, rather than by the side of the sheet. The 48r would indicate the “recto,” the top side of one sheet (of paper, parchment, etc), and 48v its “verso,” the back side.

[7] For the gendered complexities of body, flesh, and spirit, Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 26–34, and, at length, Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

[8] For other comments on the poem’s multi-gendered identifications, Elizabeth Robertson, “Kissing the Worm: Sex and Gender in the Afterlife and the Poetic Posthuman in the Late Middle English ‘A Disputation Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 138 (“the dreamer is ravished and raped by his vision,” a submission to rape that anticipates what Robertson argues the Body suffers from the worms); Wendy A. Matlock, “The Feminine Flesh in the Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,” in Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 267 (“the initial image of the woman’s figure unites the anonymous narrator with the unknown woman”).

[9] Brant Lee Doty, “An Edition of British Museum Manuscript Additional 37049” (PhD Thesis, Michigan State University, 1969), 489, 87r. I have been unable to consult the other edition of the compilation, likewise available only in an unpublished dissertation; Barbara B Streeter, “British Museum Additional MS 37049: A Mirror of the Fifteenth-Century Contemplative Mind” (PhD Thesis, Rutgers University, 1971).

[10] James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, no. 1 (2006): 14, “If homosexuality was not a ‘recognized concept’ in the Middle Ages, then heterosexuality wasn’t either.”

[11] Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 62.

[12] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141–42.

[13] For a summary of fifteenth-century controversies about the Carthusian diet, Julia Fleming, “When ‘Meats Are like Medicines’: Vitoria and Lessius on the Role of Food in the Duty to Preserve Life,” Theological Studies 69, no. 1 (2008): 101–3.

[14] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 184, 28r.

[15] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 132.

[16] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141.

[17] Though the “we” in the following is true, I am wary of it: Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 97, “We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters–human and not–become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.” See similar statements at 32, 55, and 101-2. As much as I embrace her ontology and politics, Haraway rather has her foot on the scale in her praise for sympoietic becomings and disdain for anthropocentric refusals to involute: the former tend to be represented by queer, anticolonialist, antiracist art, while the latter is represented, for example, by Eichmann himself (“who could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle,” 36).

[18] All three poems are edited in Conlee, Middle English Debate Poetry.

[19] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 323, for the work, editions, and studies.

[20] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 455.

[21] Ibid., 461.

[22] Ibid., 463.

[23] See also Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 264, “the poem ends inconclusively without an account of the body’s fate after resurrection.”; Wendy A. Matlock, “Vernacular Theology in the ‘Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in Translatio: Or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Modes and Messages, ed. Laura Holden Hollengreen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 123–27, on the poem’s irresolution on the question of whether the body will be saved or not.

[24] Compare Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 126, “the corpse that speaks is animated by a soul, of course, because it is a soul that allows it to speak.” Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 274, “The soul never appears,” which leads Matlock to conclude that the soul is present indistinguishably with Body. Also see Katherine H. Terrell, “Rethinking the ‘Corse in Clot’: Cleanness, Filth, and Bodily Decay in ‘Pearl,’” Studies in Philology 105, no. 4 (2008): 437 n14, “the soul appears to remain with the body [in the Disputation], awaiting a judgment.”

[25] By engaging with a soulless death poem, I am going further than Phillipa C. Maddern, “Murdering Souls and Killing Bodies: Understanding Spiritual and Physical Sin in Late-Medieval English Devotional Works,” in Conjunctions of Mind, Soul, and Body from Plato to the Enlightenment, ed. Danijela Kambaskovic (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2014), 25–45, which tracks how bodies and souls sometimes “swap essential characteristics” in late medieval writing.


For  MLA 2017 session: #208. Ecological Catastrophe: Past and Present: Friday, 6 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 411-412.

1  Seasonality is that quality of being at the right time, of using the right amount, or even of being “pleasant,” as when one fifteenth-century letter blandly observes “the wedder waxeth seesonable.” Seasonality marks a good fit. It’s a kind of duty to the time, in which whatever happens happens properly when it responds correctly to what should already be happening. And when unseasonality erupts – as it will in this handful of examples I’m offering you today – we might find it unjust, but mostly we just don’t know what to do.

First: the medieval labors of the months, the most widespread representation of seasonal activation, where we do what we do because it’s suitable: Whan that Aprill &c, the birds stay up, and we go on pilgrimage. The standard calendrical figures coalesce from classical representations of the zodiac and seasonal religious holidays, eventually coming down to earth, not as gods, not as worshipers, exactly, but as workers, and, sometimes, as the rich and indolent, laboring or having fun as they should according to what each moment of the year demands.[i]

And from very early on, winter was for feeding, killing, and butchering pigs. Here I offer two examples, one from the ninth century, and another from the twelfth.


And then I offer you this, from Texas, where 1.5 million feral pigs wander ineradicable through nearly the whole state, a symptom of colonial incursion and animals that refuse to stay put. As this manual explains, they are “unprotected, exotic, non-game animals. Therefore they may be taken by any means or methods at any time of the year.” In other words, there is no pig season. These animals belong to no one, belong to no time, and, so far as the Texan authorities are concerned, they have no end. They don’t come at the wrong time, because they don’t arrive at all. They are simply always there.


Another example: the Middle English Sir Cleges, in which an overgenerous knight finds himself broke and depressed, kneeling under a tree in the dark after a Christmas midnight mass. He grasps a branch to drag himself up, and finds his hand full of leaves, and on that branch, fruit.[ii] “Dear God in Trinity,” he wonders: “What kind of berries may these be, that grow at this time of year?” His wife wisely suggests that the cherries are his ticket to Uther’s court, where, if he plays his cards right, he might save his family from penury.

Winter miracles like these are not unheard of in medieval writing. Celtic saints cure the lovesick by providing them the fresh berries they impossibly desire; a shepherd miraculously bestows a flowering cherry bough on the infant Jesus; and in “The Cherry-Bough Carol,” Mary herself receives a similar wintertime gift.[iii] The point here is that unseasonality has to mean something; it can’t just be happening. It has to be a message, even if we’re just meant to respond to it with a certain practical exploitation.

More recently, we have here cherry trees flowering in Heidelberg in December, just in time for Christmas eve. Elsewhere, Japanese records of Cherry Blossom festivals, which date, somewhat spottily, back to the 11th century, and, with steadier continuity, to 1401, attest to shifting start times for the festival, as global temperatures waxed and waned. Both in the countryside and in urban hot pockets, since the 1950s, the festival has shifted steadily towards the year’s beginning; by 2080, it might start an entire month earlier.[iv]

I imagine this as a shift compressing time in parts of the year, and opening it up where it did not exist before. This is a kind of temporal tectonics, in which a maw opens in the midst of summer, a desert in its mouth, swallowing any without the means or the historical luck to escape it. A new season emerges, unsuitable for most.


Which of course leads to the world’s end. For this, I offer the medieval eschatological tradition of the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgment.[v] The tradition appears in writing in the mid eleventh century, and diffuses over the rest of the Middle Ages into hundreds of examples in writing and the visual arts, appearing in places as well-respected as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and The Golden Legend. Scholars divide the tradition into seven groups, which each vary the order of the final events slightly, but whatever the sequence, what remains is a sequence and the expectation of a future order of destruction: on the fifth day, pictured here on the right, from the Mirror of Human Salvation, the trees bleed, and the birds come together, but neither eat nor drink, for fear of the strict judge, des strengen Richters. On the eighth day, here from The Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgement, we get an earthquake, “laying low man and beast.”

In this tradition, though we dread the world’s end, we know how to recognize its coming. It will proceed in an orderly fashion, seasonably. As with the seasons themselves, there will be nothing we can do to stop it, but we can be certain too that someone is in charge.


I offer this not to suggest that the medievals were comfortable with a sensible nature, and we are not, although, of course, it would be foolish not to argue that point at least a little. I’m suggesting instead another way to think about this event we’re in the midst of. I’m responding to the critical habit of presenting the present ecocollapse as undoing the conceptual rift between culture and nature.[vi] This critical habit says we now know again that there’s no real difference between nature and culture; it even argues that what used to be called nature should just be understood as a symptom or effect of human activity, or some subset of humans: androcene, anglocene, anthrobrocene, and so on.

For a good, richly historical complication of this narrative, see The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz; for what the narrative does, see Clare Colebrook’s “What is the Anthro-Political,” who observes that it at once gives us someone to blame, while simultaneously dividing some idealized subset of humans, the ones who should be saved, from the ones who shouldn’t be, for example, the bros.

I’m not sure this spatialization of time and responsibility is quite adequate to the present weirdness. I think we have to add unseasonality to the mix. Unseasonality marks a new uncertainty not so much about the future as about predictable time. Unseasonality, that is, marks our being in the midst of an event. It marks the emergence of the terror of an actual future. Think of Derrida’s distinction between l’avenir and le futur.[vii]

Because with seasons, things go on, and then they go on again. This cyclic futurity cancels out uncertainty. It gives us the thing that comes next that is, in fact, only the same old thing coming around again. Seasonality gets us off the hook for really making decisions. It gives us some ground for making plans, so that making plans makes sense because they are mostly a matter of doing the right thing at the right time. Seasons – including the season of the coming destruction – are therefore traditions of subordination, in which nothing new needs be done because we’re not in charge, and because we’re taken care of, anyway. It would be absurd to slaughter a pig in the summer, absurd to hope for a December cherry, absurd to expect anything but an earthquake on the eighth day of the countdown to the world’s end. That’s a kind of comfort: one of giving up, of going along, and of knowing how little we can do.

Unseasonality marks an uncertain relationship to everything that is supported by predictable time, chiefly, what we should be doing at any given moment, and whether we can expect a return on what we are doing. If the season determines both expectations and right action, if the season swaddles us and everything that is, if it takes care of us by meeting our expectations, getting unseasonable puts us in a position of no longer being certain that what we’re doing isn’t absurd.

I’m suggesting, then, that a richer sense of the conceptual weight of normative seasonality can help us realize the absurdity of our present. Thank you.

[i] Standard references: foundational; James Carson Webster, The Labors of the Months in Antique and Mediaeval Art (Evanston: University of Illinois, 1938); popular, Bridget Ann Henisch, The Medieval Calendar Year (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University, 1999).

[ii] Dates to c. 1370-1380 according to Ad Putter. Two copies survive, Scotland, Edinburgh Advocates 19.1.11, and Ashmole 61 (Oxford Bodleian 6922); Bodleian 6922 has been edited twice for the TEAMS series (Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, and also George Shuffelton). I am indebted to Putter’s contribution to Time in the Medieval World for the ‘staging’ of Cleges’s tree prayer in the dark.

[iii] See C Grant Loomis, “Sir Cleges and Unseasonable Growth in Hagiology,” Modern Language Notes 53.8 (1938): 591-94 (for Celtic hagiography) and Sherwyn T. Carr, “The Middle English Nativity Cherry Tree: The Dissemination of a Popular Motif,” Modern Language Quarterly 36.2 (1975): 133-147 (for 3 examples from Middle English drama, a carol, and Cleges).

[iv] Uran Chung, Liz Mack, Jin I. Yun, Soo-Hyung Kim, “Predicting the Timing of Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC and Mid-Atlantic States in Response to Climate Change,” PLoS ONE 6.11 (2011): e27439. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027439 (consulted 15 December 2016); Richard Primack and Hiroyoshi Higuchi, “Climate Change and Cherry Tree Blossom Festivals in Japan,” Arnoldia, 65.2 (2007): 14-22; Jenica M. Allen et al., “Modeling Daily Flowering Probabilities: Expected impact of Climate Change on Japanese Cherry Phenology,” Global Change Biology 20.4 (2014): 1251–1263, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12364

[v] William Watts Heist, The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952) has not been superseded; Concetta Giliberto, “The Fifteen Signs of Doomsday of the First Riustring Manuscript,” in Advances in Old Frisian Philology, ed. Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., Stephen Laker, and Oebele Vries (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 129–52, is a good recent treatment.

[vi] Eg, “Recognition of the Anthropocene, therefore, involves acknowledgment that the refusal of premoderns to split nature from culture was wise, and that after a mechanistic interlude of five hundred years the ‘age of humans’ brings ‘natural’ and ‘human’ history back together again (Chakrabarty 2009).” Also see Michael Northcott, “Eschatology in the Anthropocene: From the Chronos of Deep Time to the Kairos of the Age of Humans.” Or Latour.

[vii] From the Derrida documentary – “In general, I try and distinguish between what one calls the Future and “l’avenir” [the ‘to come]. The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future, beyond the other known future, it is l’avenir in that it is the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Man is the Pasture of Being: Interlude on the Old Man Himself

Martin Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” (composed 1946) was his first published work after the Nazi defeat. He arranged his  emergence into postwar philosophy and rehabilitation by squabbling with Sartre, with existentialism, and, presumably, with Marxism, portrayed here at least implicitly as too tangled up with particular beings. With ecocritics, the particular fame of Heidegger’s “Letter” rests on its declaring twice that “man is the shepherd of being” [“Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins”]. First, in a passage on the “thrown” destiny of humans, a quality preceding their ability to choose their particular relation to beings (briefly: humans are da-sein, distinct from their world, because they know, unlike animals and rocks, that the world will go on without us: this relation to death loads us with a particular responsibility to being). Second, in a similar passage on the “dignity” of the shepherd, “consist[ing] in being called by being itself into the preservation of being’s truth,” Heidegger asserts that “man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of beings” [“Der Mensch ist nicht der Herr des Seienden. Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins”].

Here’s what I suspect is a not atypical ecocritical engagement:

humans’ speech [evidence of our “thrownness”] serves the greater process of unconcealment and thereby provides an inclusive forum to express the interests of those unable to do so. Thus we can point to an “ecologos,” or a grammar of inclusivity, in which humans’ compassionate actions toward animals become idioms that express the interests of nonhuman species and thereby form the cornerstone of a “transhuman ethic”… By upholding the humility that allows humans to speak, they can become the voice for those creatures whose suffering otherwise would go unheard. The voice, however, speaks in favor of showing compassion toward animals. (112; see also Garrard (2004 ed) 31-32)

I’m more inclined to find fault with Heidegger. I’m not alone on this: see Žižek (10), Wolfe (40), Morton (58), and especially Tom Tyler – with whom I recently spent a delightful afternoon — who neatly observes “Heidegger’s characterisation of beings has them dutifully running to heel when he (Heidegger, Man) points and calls them out (they are perhaps as much like the obedient sheep dog as the placid sheep). Though this is no small thing, the problem with “man is the shepherd of being” is not simply Heidegger’s disengagement from any actually existing beings in favor of a supposedly unmarked “whatever being.” We know any ostensibly prepolitical stance can only pretend to universalism, like any universalism, leaving most beings unshepherded, forced to fend for themselves or worse (and here I can point you to Ernst Bloch, who had Heidegger’s number long before the appearance of the Black Notebooks) (and of course I know there can be no defense of particular beings without some philosophy of being, but: ontoethics needs to respond to some particular being, eventually, which means needing an analysis of particular power relations: just musing in the clearing of being and thinking oneself free of master codes won’t ever be enough).

The other problem is the simplicity of Heidegger’s opposition between being “Herr” (lord) and “Hirt” (shepherd). From a historical perspective, we know the hirt works for the herr and that the herr has no lordship without the hirt. From an animal studies perspective, we know that the hirt isn’t herding only from the kindness of his heart: mutton may be eaten contemplatively, parchment can be scraped and enscribed gloomily, although this will be only cold comfort for the sheep. From a literary studies perspective, we know too that the hirt is the herr’s fantasy of leisure (as in the pastoral); as a schafhirtin (shepherdess) or perhaps schaferknabe (shepherd’s boy), the hirt is the herr’s fantasy of seduction or rape. At best, Heidegger’s opposition of (bad) herr to (good) hirt pretends to be wholly innocent of the whole tradition of pastoral, and of the fantasies of soil, place, and authenticity it sustains, not only in fascist Germany. He’s just not in control of his metaphor.

The other other problem is the absence of (at least) the third term. There are a lot of ways to care for things. One way to be a shepherd. The other is to be food. Allow me, then, to propose the following emendation, risking my elementary German in public: Der Mensch ist nicht der Herr des Seienden. Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins. Aber Der Mensch ist auch das Futter des Seins. Oder Seienden [Man is not the Lord of Beings. Man is the Shepherd of Being. But Man is also the Pasture of Being. Or Beings]. To be a shepherd is to be outside (ex-isting, we might say) other beings; it is to be singular, even heroic, among a crowd, the fortunate if often witless recipients of our protection. But a shepherd also is a body, and that body, like others, is mortal. We may be able to protect others, but our protection has its limits. We can give ourselves up willingly to be food; we can wait until we die; but – barring embalming and cremation – we are going to be the fodder of someone else, regardless. Who that imagined “we” is, of course, is a historical effect, and must be understood as such: more on that, and what the Middle Ages might say about it, in a later post.

As a teaser, for now, consider the long-term project of artist (and, we should say, practical ethicist) Elaine Tin Nyo to turn herself into sausage. See the Meat and Mortality site at MOMA for a brief introduction, which is not more than I can find, as of now, about this cuisinocentric artist (for more, briefly, here). Still more here:

“I’m going to make something that starts out like a baby book, and turns into a cookbook,” said Tin Nyo with a slight trace of amusement while she described her “This Little Piggy” project. Over the next decade, she plans on “adopting” five pigs from different “ham centric” countries and documenting each of their lives from birth to the abattoir.

Elaine tends to crave pork while working with pigs for “This Little Piggy,” but she says vegetarians and vegans understand her artwork because it values the lives of animals prior to being sold at the grocery store.

“What’s important to me is maximizing an immediate experience rather than a remote experience, and food is very good that way,” she said.

Her final project will be morbid a morbid one. “I also want to write a will where I become a sausage.”

Here’s a sometimes vegetarian who doesn’t think the pigs necessarily appreciate being the subject of her art/foodwork, but who fully supports the self-into-sausage project: if she has herself fed to pigs at the end, all the better. Certainly her work with pigs goes further than the tedious “bad boy” pig tattoo project of Wim Delvoye, which, coupled with his Cloacal factory, forgets the life cycle of pigs, of flesh, and of self. By contrast, Elaine Tin Nyo’s work is feminist, engaged, responsible, vulnerable, and present to beings in ways neither Delvoye nor Heidegger would ever allow.

(thanks to the great Karen Raber for turning me on to to Tin Nyo’s work)