Man is the Pasture of Being, Part 2: Sky Burial, Mostly Persian

This blog post is a preliminary sketch of what and when medieval Western Europe (hereafter, for simplicity’s sake, “medieval” or “medieval people”) would have known about funerary practices of exposing bodies to be eaten by dogs or birds (i.e., “sky burial”). I’m concentrating on classical and late antique texts, saving John Mandeville for the next post.

If you’ve been following along, this Friday continues last Friday’s treatment of the medieval legend of Evilmerodach (who, by late twelfth century, was known for having dismembered the corpse of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, and feeding it to birds). Like the Evilmerodach post, it is also a sketch for the second part of the “Creeping Things” chapter for my second book, currently titled How Not to Make a Human: Ecology, Ethics, and Vulnerable Animals in the Middle Ages (everything after the colon is up for grabs; suggestions from you are just short of obligatory). I will be aiming to explore the differences between being esca vermibus (food for worms) and esca avibus (food for birds) in medieval culture and, ultimately, in the contributions this contrast might make to contemporary ecocriticism.

Again, I’ll stress that embryonic character of this post, despite its great length: I have a hunch where thick footnotes are needed, and slightly dimmer hunches about where I might be wrong. If you’re at all in the vicinity of offering a “well, actually,” don’t hesitate.

If they could, medieval people tended to bury their dead, flesh still on bone, ideally near some a church, a shrine, or some other holy site. This habit of fleshy inhumation has a distant analog in ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, where burial is needed to give the spirit rest, to provide continuing rites of care, especially for the sake of family or the larger community, which constituted itself by seeding the ground with its dead, suffusing a place with memory (Walton, 317, and of course Peter Brown). As in these ancient worlds, shrines, churches, and the blessed dead were the hearts of any medieval community worth a Fodor’s Guide.

That said, for a medieval Christian, practices like this could be, technically, unnecessary: Augustine of Hippo’s On the Care of the Dead (late fourth century) argues that the dead, as a rule, have no knowledge of goings-on in the mortal world, and, furthermore, that they (and their corpses) are past all harm or human benefit. Heartbreakingly, at least for those of us bereft of beloved parents, Augustine says that if the dead knew our world, then his mother would come and comfort him; but they don’t, so she doesn’t (16). For all this, Augustine allows that the dead, or at least their bodies, can be cared for: he reasons that care in burial and prayer at well-situated gravesites, though probably of no benefit to the dead themselves, still can witness to Christian belief in the bodily resurrection, encourage bodily training of piety (Althusser avant la lettre) and also comfort us, because we ourselves are also creatures of flesh. Measured and thoughtful care of the dead have some use.

Augustine’s cautious approach to funeral rites were clearly overshot in medieval Europe. There, elaborate inhumation, memorial rites, and a whole industry of pleading for intervention from the holy dead became nearly as common as human death itself.

In this culture, exposure was a horror. We all know about the “beasts of battle” of Germanic poetry, the eagles, ravens, and wolves that eat the unburied corpses of the dead. In the Song of Roland, as the Battle of Roncesvalles sours for the Christians, Turpin begs Roland to blow the horn and summon Charlemagne; while they’re all certain to die before rescue arrives, at least the Emperor can take their bodies away and bury them in churches, where “neither wolf nor pig nor dog will eat of us” (1750; “N’en mangerunt ne lu ne porc ne chen”; trans. from Gilbert). Petrarch’s Historia Griseldis, itself an adaptation from the last tale of Boccaccio’s Decameron, allows its heroine to register a complaint when she’s certain her children are being taken away to be killed: “I ask you one thing: take care that wild beasts or birds do not mutilate this little body, unless you are commanded to the contrary” (Unum queso: cura ne corpusculum [mark the anguish of that “little body”] hoc fere lacerent aut volucres, ita tamen nisi contrarium sit preceptum; trans and text from Sources and Analogues I.121; in the medieval French, “Je te prie, toutesfoiz…que tu gardes a ton povoir que les bestes sauvaiges ne devourent ou menguent le corps de cest enfant, se le contraire ne t’est enjoin”; in the English poet, ll. 567-72). And the Apocalypse of St John, last book of the Christian scriptures, features birds invited to “the great supper of God” [cenam magnam Dei], to feast upon the soldiers and horses of the army of the Beast: this is clearly a humiliation, at least for the dead (for the birds, it is something better: more on that in a later blog post). No one would willingly allow the corpse of anyone they loved to be exposed like this.

Nonetheless, at least from Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Europeans knew about still another funerary practice, which stretched from the Caspian Sea and Caucasus through Mesopotamia and perhaps even as far as the Indus, and, as I’ll write in next time, when I finally take on Heidegger, eventually up to Tibet.

They found this practice alternately repulsive, barbaric, antiquated, but also, in some instances, of most interest to me, another way to mourn, no less valid than fleshly inhumation. Knowledge of these practices not only connected medieval people to a wider cultural world, doing much to help themselves imagine themselves in light of another’s word; as I will argue in a later post, they also provided a way for medieval people to imagine themselves and their bodies differently, by recognizing that bodies could be given over as flesh to large carnivores, not just worms, but without abandoning mourning. Exposure need not be humiliation, and being consumed need not be done in secret, in the grave. Here, in this open consumption, was a place for medievals to recognize that our bodies could be material flesh and our bodies at the same time: as I will argue in an upcoming post, this was material recognition of the way all flesh, all bodies, belong to the world at large and ourselves at the same time. A material reduction (we are flesh) can continue to acknowledge our emotional connection to the particularity of our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones (we are beloved flesh).

This post, however, will mainly be devoted only to what the medievals could have known. Evilmerodach and Odoric of Pordenone (especially as transmitted by the Book of John Mandeville) were enormously popular in the later Middle Ages. But what about the earlier period?

The oldest potential references to “sky burial” may be those depicted in an obelisk carving at Göbekli Tepe (or Göbeklitepe) and paintings at Çatal Höyü (or Çatalhöyük), both in modern-day Turkey (thank you to Kathleen Kennedy for turning me on to these!), which each feature vultures soaring over or fluttering about headless human corpses. I make no claims that memories of these astonishingly ancient cultures reached to the Middle Ages or even to the classical world: each site was occupied for some 2000 years (itself no small time!), the former abandoned about 10,000 years ago, the latter 7,000, and therefore at the most recent more temporally distant from Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) than we are, now, from the invention of writing (c. 3500 BCE).

Testart p 35

Testart p 35

And what some think to be sky burial in fact may be only depictions of military victories, with the headless corpses of the vanquished left to be eaten by vultures, and the skulls taken as trophies, or so argues the, it must be said, appropriately named Alain Testart in “Des crânes et des vautours ou la guerre oubliée” (“On Skulls and Vultures, or, The Forgotten War”). We will let that rest, then, and return to what I suspect may be our most ancient, incontrovertible reference to sky burial, from Herodotus.

Our Greek historian writes:

But there are other matters concerning the dead which are secretly and obscurely told–how the dead bodies of Persians are not buried before they have been mangled [without my knowing Greek: ἑλκυσθῇ, to drag, draw, or tear in pieces] by bird or dog. That this is the way of the Magians I know for a certainty; for they do not conceal the practice. But this is certain, that before the Persians bury the body in earth they embalm it in wax (Godley trans, Loeb, Vol 1, I.140, p 179).

This account is more than a little confused (I’m not the only one who thinks so: one expert calls this account “desperate”): either the practice is secret, or it’s not; and corpses are left out to be dragged or torn, but not so much so that they can’t be embalmed and buried. Herodotus may be reflecting (and, if we’re feeling reckless, anticipating) the variety of Zoroastrian burial methods under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids: the famous exposure of bodies in free-standing dakhma, “towers of silence,” must be remembered alongside the cliffside and other tomb structures of ancient Iran. The towers may be but a (ninth-century?) refinement of a cultic practice of keeping the decomposing corpse free from contact with visible plant life and damp earth, which, we can observe, might be achieved just as well by swathing the corpse in wax, or letting dogs or birds consume the flesh of a corpse staked to dry, bare ground.

Strabo’s Geography (before 23 CE) is more assured that Herodotus, though perhaps no more accurate. He writes that the Persians “smear the bodies of the dead with wax before they bury them, though they do not bury the Magi but leave their bodies to be eaten by birds,” adding what became a common charge that “these Magi, by ancestral custom, consort even with their mothers” (XV.iii.20). Elsewhere (XI.xi.8, V, p. 293 in Loeb trans), Strabo explains that the Caspians starve and expose those over 70 years old, abandoning them on (or strapping them to?) desert biers, watching from a distance, and considering them blessed if – and only if – these hapless elderly are attacked by wild dogs or birds. Very Mad Max. And, citing Onesicritus, a historian who embedded with Alexander the Great, Strabo imagines that the Bactrians keep dogs expressly to kill their aged and sick, adding a description that, in essence, imagines the Bactrian cities as necropoles:

While the land outside the walls of the metropolis of the Bactrians look clean, yet most of the land inside the walls is full of human bones (XI.xi.3, V, p. 282-83 in the Loeb).

To me at least, further examples are shockingly plentiful: in what might be chronological order, from 45 BCE to the third century CE, Persian sky burial shows up in Cicero’s stoic Tusculan Disputations (I.xlv); Plutarch’s Moralia (499, Vol VI p 371 in Loeb, where he says Hrycanians do it with dogs, Bactrians with birds); Sextus Empiricus’s skeptic Outlines of Pyrrhonism (III.227); Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (XLI.iii); Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (IX, on Pyrrho); and Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Killing Animals (IV.21). Christian examples, in a list that may be just as non-exhaustive, include the Book of the Law of the Countries, written by pupils of the Syriac gnostic Bardesanes (d. 222; in Syrian, Bar Dayṣān; one translation here: search for “In the whole of Media”); the Recognitions of pseudo-Clementine (IX.25); and Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel (I.iv, search for “And of the benefit which visibly proceeds”). And, finally, the source that first led me down this path, Jerome’s Against Jovinian (II.vii), where he writes:

The Tibareni crucify those whom they have loved before when they have grown old. The Hyrcani throw them out half alive to the birds and dogs: the Caspians leave them dead for the same beasts. The Scythians bury alive with the remains of the dead those who were beloved of the deceased. The Bactrians throw their old men to dogs which they rear for the very purpose, and when Stasanor, Alexander’s general, wished to correct the practice, he almost lost his province (a point Jerome gets from Porphyry).

Some writers (Herodotus and Justin) – or, I might say, some genres –present themselves as simply doing ethnography, only listing customs, as they might list geographical features. Strabo is horrified, at least by the Bactrians. Porphyry is horrified too, although his conclusions may surprise: yes, some people are meat-eaters, or parent-eaters, or parent-exposers, but at least we philosophers need not behave like this. And Eusebius anticipates the colonial missionaries of modernity, when he argues that the conversion to Christianity corrects these terrible practices (the pagans no longer “expose their dead kindred to dogs and birds….For these and numberless things akin to these were what of old made havoc of human life”), so that Christian conversion is, for any culture, and not only Jews (more frequently targeted as culturally anachronistic), an emergence out of a muddled past into a neat, correct, universal civilization.

Still, whether in philosophic or many of these religious texts, the most frequent reason for these ancient writers to cite sky burial (and its associated practice that we might call “sky euthanasia”) is to pose as cosmopolitan admirers of the great variety of human culture. Plutarch lists these and other practices (sati, for example) to argue that virtue can resist chance’s worst harms: Central Asians positively love to have their bodies exposed to beasts! Bardesanes’s students and pseudo-Clementine alike use worldwide cultural heterogeneity to argue for human freedom and against the compulsion of the stars. If stars had so much power, human culture would be more easily classifiable, more homogeneous. But, says Book of the Law of the Countries, “the truth is, that in all countries, every day, and at all hours, men are born under Nativities diverse from one another, and the laws of men prevail over the decree of the stars, and they are governed by their customs.”

In the hands of other writers – Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus, and even Jerome – we have something similar to Pomponius Mela’s first-century Chorographia (II.8), namely – a curious appreciation of human difference in what we might call (and no doubt has been called) the “cultural variation topos.” Diogenes does it with admirable force:

The same thing is regard by some as just and by others as unjust, or as good by some and bad by others. Persians think it not unnatural for a man to marry his daughter; to Greeks it is unlawful. The Massagetae…have their wives in common; the Greeks have not. The Cilicians used to delight in piracy; not so the Greeks. Different people believe in different gods; some in providence, others not. In burying their dead, the Egyptians embalm them; the Romans burn them; the Paeonians throw them into lakes.

Cicero Tusculan Disputations also merits citation at length:

But why should I notice the beliefs of individuals, since we may observe the varied deceptions under which the races of mankind labour? The Egyptians embalm their dead and keep them in the house; the Persians even smear them with wax before burial, that the bodies may last for as long a time as possible; it is the custom of the Magi not to bury the bodies of their dead unless they have been first mangled by wild beasts [nisi a feris sint ante laniata]; in Hyrcania [no surprise] the populace support dogs for the benefit of the community, while the nobles keep them for family use: it is as we know a famous breed [nobile…genus] of dogs, but in spite of the cost, each householder procures them [translation modified] in proportion to his means, to mangle him [lanietur], and that they consider the best mode of burial (Loeb, King translation, p. 291, I.XLV).

I’m as yet uncertain about the medieval afterlife of these points. To take two examples: Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies accuses Persians only of being fire-worshippers (XIV.iii.10), led to this error by “the giant Nebroth,” and its several references to the ferocious Hyrcanians and neighboring Scythians says nothing about the exposure of the elderly or the dead to possible animal mangling or excarnation. Gregory of Tours, writing a generation before Isidore, likewise calls the Persians only fire-worshippers (History of the Franks, I.v), blaming this, more correctly, on “Zoroastra.” Note also his annoyance (X.26) at the appointment of a Syrian merchant, Eusebius, as bishop of Paris in 591, who stuffed the household with other Syrians: some of them, I expect, might have had more than passing knowledge of the customs of the Sassanids: and yet no word from Gregory. Nor am I entirely sure, yet, about the survival of many of my texts into the Middle Ages. Chaucerians know the afterlife of the more misogynist passages of Jerome’s Against Jovinian, and I know the text as a whole survived, as we see from this twelfth-century copy.

But quick searches of the Patrologia Latina and the Monumenta Germaniae Historica suggest that Jerome’s ethnographic musings may not have been much talked about.

More research is needed! The next post – here perhaps before next Friday – will be on Mandeville, and, if there’s room, against Heidegger and on the ecocritical and affective implications of all this. Hang out, hang on!


Man is the Pasture of Being, Part 1: Evilmerodach

This series of posts is going to be about sky burial, ecomaterialism, edibility, and birds vs worms as eaters of bodies, and it’s going to be the rough draft for the first section of my “worms” chapter for my second book. Hang tight if that’s what you want. If the first thing you want, however, is a deep dive on the cultural afterlife of one of the less famous Babylonian kings, then you, my friend, my perhaps avian friend, are in for a treat.

Sometime in the early fourteenth century, the Speculum humanae salvationis (The Mirror of Human Salvation) hit Latin Christendom like a ton of allegorical bricks. Available in more than 380 manuscripts from 1324 on, a typical page looks like this:

BnF Lat 512 34r

BnF Lat 512 34r

Above, we have two illustrated scenes from the Bible, and below, an interpretation in Latin verse (or, as the fourteenth century wore on, still other languages: English, French, Dutch, Czech, and especially German, but oddly not Italian). For the most part, the SHS illustrates expected scenes: Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden; Noah’s ark; Jonah’s slithering out from the whale; Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac; the misery of Job. More surprising are the many historical scenes, largely drawn from the life of David and the Book of Judges: Ehud kills Eglon; Samson pulls apart a lion’s jaws; Benaiah (whom you might remember as a son of Jehoiada) also kills a lion; and, in illustrations as horrific as Goya’s Disasters of War, David punishes his enemies.

And, in every illustrated version I’ve seen (17 so far), Evilmerodach (elsewhere also spelled Evilmarodach, Awel-Marduk, and, less likely, Amel-Marduk) is dismembering the exhumed corpse of his father, Nebuchadnezzar the great, and feeding his limbs to the birds. He is supervising, alone or with his retinue; or he’s standing over a slab or table or down in the sarcophagus, doing the dirty business himself; he has an ax, a knife, or a falchion, presumably coded as the weapon of an “eastern” tyrant. We know he’s the king because he’s wearing a crown; his father’s also crowned, although his head’s likely to be lying on the ground, staring up blankly at his son; or it might be the meal of one hungry bird. Or, it might be hoisted aloft, slung between two. Like a cocoanut (BnF Latin 512, 27r or especially BL Sloane 346 18v).

This would clearly seem to be a bad thing. This is how, for instance, Jacopo de Cessolis’ kingship manual-cum-commentary on chess takes the story: though I don’t know why Friar Jacopo made Evilmerodach his exemplary bad king (research is ongoing, but my eye’s on you Giles of Rome), this exhumation is chief evidence that our Bablyonian king needs moral instruction: for Evilmerodach was “a jolye [vigorous] man without justyce and so cruel that he did do hewe his fader’s body in thre hondred pieces and gaf hit to ete and devoure to thre hondred byrdes that men calle voultres” (Caxton’s translation; for the medieval French, see here). I would be astonished if this late thirteenth-century work (surviving in more than 100 manuscripts) were not the immediate source for SHS’s Evilmerodach moralization. But I’m just as certain that neither treatment is quite fair to our king.

The earliest account dates to Jerome’s early fifth-century commentary on Isaiah (for 14:18). He ascribes the story to the Jews (narrant Hebraei huiusmodi fabulam; PL 24: 162C-D), but Josephus’s history, for example, confines itself only to the Biblical account of Evilmerodach’s involvement in Joachin’s triumphal return (Jeremiah 52:31-34, essentially the same as 2 Kings 25:27-30); the Biblical history in pseudo-Philo (middle of the 2nd c?) doesn’t go any later than the Book of Judges; the twelfth-century traveler Benjamin of Tundala sticks to the Biblical account; so the earliest extant written Jewish version of it belongs to the fourteenth-century Rhineland. Or so says Louis Ginzberg. It may be that the tradition passed, in fact, from the Christians to the Jews.

In Jerome, Evilmerodach gets what Jacopo doesn’t grant him: a motive. Evilmerodach had reigned during the seven years his father lived as a beast, and, when Nebuchadnezzar returned to sanity, he, in his gratitude, flung his son in prison, where he (along with the Jewish king Joachin, aka Jeconiah, aka Coniah) languished until the old king finally died. But Evilmerodach’s counselors needed convincing that Nebuchadnezzar was really gone (metuebant ne viveret qui dicebatur exstinctus); so Evilmerodach had him dragged from the tomb with hooks and ropes, and, with all the moral authority of a just king, proclaimed: “Sepultis omnibus qui a te interfecti sunt, tu solus insepultus iacebis” (all will be buried whom you killed, and you alone will lie unburied). End of story. Quite the opposite of tyranny.

The story shows up next in one of Agobard of Lyon’s (d. 840) many treatises against the Jews, where this Johnny One-Note uses it to prove the truth of Christ’s resurrection. Of course. Still hooks and a rope (unco et funibus); no dismemberment; no birds. These we first get in Haymo of Auxerre’s (d. 855) roughly contemporary Isaiah commentary. Evilmerodach is certain his father will come back: “my father dies when he wants, he rises up again when he wants!” (Pater meus quando vult moritur, quando vult resurgit). Joachin – now coming into his own as a clever courtier – knows just the trick: get 300 birds from various parts of the world, exhume the body, cut him into tiny pieces, and tie every part to a bird (ligaret unicuique avi partem suam), saying: whenever these very birds gather together, then your father will resurrect (Cum hae simul aves quandoque convenerint, tunc resuscitabitur pater tuus). Hugh of St Victor’s (d. 1141) commentary on Joel, like Jerome, ascribes the story to the Jews (Hebraica docet), and simply has Evilmerodoch, still scared, concoct the idea on his own. Here he burns his father to cinders, which he splits into four bags: tying the bags to the necks of four eagles, he releases them to travel to the four corners of the world (Quo in quatuor marsupiis dispertito ad quatuor aquilarum colla ligagavit, quibus per quatuor orbis climata dispositis eas avolare permisit).

It would take Peter Comestor’s (i.e. Peter the Eater’s) enormously successful Historia Scholastica (1173) for Evilmerodach story to get close to its final form: king, 300 parts, 300 birds, and, finally, birdfood. Peter’s version also benefits from an admirable directness:

When he began to reign, he raised up Joachin, whom he had a companion in prison, and fearing that his father would resurrect, who had returned from being a beast into being a man, took Joachin into counsel; at whose counsel, he exhumed the corpse of his father, divided it into 300 parts, and gave the 300 parts to 300 vultures. And Joachin said to him, “Your father will not resurrect until these vultures return together”

[Cumque regnare coepisset, elevavit Ioachim, quem socium habuerat in carcere, timensque ne resurgeret pater suus, qui de bestia redierat in hominem, consuluit Ioachim. Ad cuius consilium cadaver patris sui effossum, divisit in trecentas partes, et dedit eas trecentis vulturibus. Et ait ad eum Ioachim: “Non resurget pater tuus, nisi redeant vultures in unum.”]

All that Peter misses is the accusation of tyranny. For my friends in English departments, one last, less recherché citation: Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, which is basically Peter Comestor’s version, with its English translations having Nebuchadnezzar’s diced corpse going to “þre hondred vultures” for “etynge” (in Higden’s Latin, “devorandas”), and in the other, as well, to “iij c. gripes” [300 vultures; def. C], presumably also for eating.

To look at this with more charity than Jacopo de Cessolis did, Evilmerodach is simply doing what any king must do. He must secure his rule, both against other present claimants, and against his own lineage, which must neatly, definitively swap him in for the previous king. The previous king really needs to be gone: the king is dead (“are you sure?”); long live the king (“but only this one, for now”)! Faced with this, Evilmerodach, like any king, does what he must. Antique psychoanalytic interpretations of the primal hoard, with everything that follows from that (non/nom/nomnomnom du Père), should also be suggested: the dismembered father, made really dead, is all at once an overcoming of Nebuchadnezzar’s tyranny, a perpetuation of it (by dishonoring the dead), an act of power (who else can get away with desecrating a king’s corpse?), an act of fear (“is dad really dead?”), and of course something that looks more than a little like butchery. As if Evilmerodach were planning to eat his father’s corpse.

Like a ferocious beast. Recall that the story is also one about humans and animals: being with the beasts is like being dead; and being returned to the beasts simply reverses what he had been in his madness. He ate grass as an ox (Daniel 4:30), and now he himself is fodder.

Evilmerodach makes his father a bird feeder.

But Jacopo de Cessolis made him a tyrant, and the Speculum humanae salvationis piled on, so that, even in published scholarship, Evilmerodach’s sometimes charged with having killed his father (this post is, among other things, a resource to ensure that no one else makes this mistake). The Middle English verse explains:

King Evilmeredach of swilk / some tyme gaf for lyknesse

When he in his dede fadere / exercised his wodenesse

Whas body dolven out of the grave / in thre hondreth gobets he kitte

And to thre hondreth voltoures / forto devoure dalte itte

So in thaire fadere crist for thaym dede / haves fals cristen thaym wodely

What thay wilfully synnyng hym est sones crucifye

And thay synne more wreching / crist in his deitee

Then they yt crucified hym lyving / here in humanitee.

That is, Evilmerodach’s treatment of his father is like those who through their sin crucify him over and over again. And that would seem to be that: Evilmerodach is now just plain Evil.

Except that Evilmerodach normally shares his page with Absalom, David’s rebellious son, captured and killed when his long, beautiful hair tangles itself in a tree.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1806 31v

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1806 31v

For the SHS interpretation, Absalom is no bad son. Instead, he’s a symbol of Christ: Absalom is stabbed by three spears as he dangles from the tree, just as Christ was stabbed by three lances, that is, three pains, namely, the severity of the pain, the bitter grief of his mother, and carrying the weight of the sins of the damned.

This delirious allegorization, like nothing so much as the modern habit of finding Christ in any given thing (warning: dog), reminds us that allegory does not completely overwrite the vehicle. Instead, the sometimes shocking inadequacy of the vehicle to tenor forces us to remember the vehicle’s continued material existence. Though allegory is sometimes — especially in the Middle Ages — held to be the “nut” underneath the shell of a literal reading, in this case, the “nut” is the historical referent, available for, and grounding, unceasing and mobile interpretation. In this case, though he is temporarily read as Christ, Absalom remains behind the SHS interpretation what he must still be, a bad son; though he is temporarily read as a figure for blasphemous, false oaths, or just sin in general, Evilmerodach likewise remains a frightened king, doing what he must. And whatever the interpretation, his father’s corpse remains a corpse, dismembered, and the birds remain hungry birds.

We should not lose track of the material business of Evilmerodach. If we remember that, we can pay better attention to the Evilmerodach’s craft. Certainly, sometimes the SHS just throws the new king into the tomb with his father, losing itself in the specificity of this weird solution to royal succession (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Ms. germ. fol. 245 48r; similar, but less odd, BnF Latin 511, 26r). At times, Evilmerodach wields a sword, a royal weapon, and just hacks away at his father’s corpse as he would any other human body (Ms Douce 204 25v or Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 206(49) 25r). Sometimes, however, he uses an ax (BnF Latin 9585, 30v), sometimes with the body on a wooden table, working like a butcher (Sarnen, Benediktinerkollegium, Cod. membr. 8, f 26r).

Sarnen, Benediktinerkollegium, Cod. membr. 8, f 26r

We can compare it to this butcher, for example, from Caffaro di Rustico da Caschifellone’s groundbreaking annals of Genoa, one of whose manuscripts features this worker among its many other civic marginalia (BnF Latin 10136, 6v).

BnF Latin 10136, 6v

As I observed in How to Make a Human (208-10), medieval people were fully cognizant of the similarity between animal and human flesh (after all, the Latin carnis doesn’t differentiate between the two), and the concomitant similarity between butchers and, well, people butchers. Like soldiers. And not only soldiers.

But the distribution of the royal body to the birds also recalls a ritual that has captured the love of ecocritics, me among them. This is the Tibetan ritual of “sky burial,” which, regardless of its variations, always sees corpse fed to wild birds. I’ll have much more to say about this in my next post: about the sometimes ahistorical enthusiasm for this ritual in ecocritical art, in what would have been known about it in Latin Christendom, what this has to do – and doesn’t have to do – with late medieval Christian burial practices, and what is at stake, from an ecocritical perspective, between being esca vermibus (food for worms) and esca avibus (food for birds). And I’ll also have something to say about Heidegger (a sneak preview: I’ll argue that der Mensch ist das Futter des Seins, Man is the fodder of beings).

For now, though, I’ll leave you with this: the connection of Evilmerodach with sky burial seems to be a stretch, and, indeed, for most of the manuscripts I’ve been able to examine, it is. Evilmerodach is a bad, bad king, and he’s doing a bad, bad thing, although he is also, in some manuscripts, being a perfectly good butcher, albeit with an unusual carcass. It may be too much to see this as intimating any kind of sky burial.

Except that at least one German illustrated adaptation of the Bible, Morgan M.0268, fol. 021v, features – surprisingly – Alexander the Great arriving (naked?) through the woods, and, in the middle, a dinner party with Roxana of Bactria, and then, in the right, what I think might be mistakenly labeled as Evilmerodach, dismembering his father and feeding him to the birds. Whoever he is, he’s not wearing a crown; but the Morgan believes him to be Evilmerodach; notably, he is in the east, where this late fourteenth-century artist would have expected to find sky burial. And in at least one German Alexander, Evilmerodach’s shrine [“sarc”], green as grass, makes an appearance (3563-67) .

Morgan M.0268, fol. 021v

Morgan M.0268, fol. 021v

I may just be on to something. Part two will arrive in several days.

Fire, Air, Earth, Water: Elemental Order vs. Phenomenological Order


Here’s a T-O Map from the Mandeville epitome that begins that famous fifteenth-century Carthusian miscellany, British Library Add 37049, f. 2v. (also famous for including the unique copy of the Middle English “Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” which I write about here).

Warning: I’m not a map scholar, and, as Chet van Duzer probably already said what I’m about to say here, I apologize. Be patient and imagine briefly that you’re one of my students, befuddled, curious, and confused. Or imagine you’re one of my colleagues, ideally one who knows more about paleography, maps, and medieval science than I do. I humbly submit myself to the correction of all.

I’m fond of this map because it comprises two intersecting two-dimensional planes, which together generate an approximation of three dimensions. Note, first, the geography: the left bottom quadrant is Europa, the right bottom quadrant Affrica, and the top half Asya (if I’m reading that right). Various cities and regions have been labeled: Syria, Alpes, Roma, Gallia (France), Hispania, Ethiopia, Carthago, etc.

Meanwhile, at the very top we find a band of red, which is Fire; below that, a band of clouds running through a scribble of blue, which is Air; below that, written below a band of trees, Earth; and then, dividing the Asia, Europe, and Africa, the element of Water.

If fire, being lightest, is above the slightly heavier air, and if both of these are above the surface of the earth, then the labeling of elements intersects the world map at a perpendicular. There’s a catch, though: as earth is heavier than water, the labeling of elements reverses the final two, as it places water below the earth. The simple explanation is that this reversal just represents our experience of our world: so long as we’re not wading or drowning (or being rained upon), earth, for us, is above the water, whatever the claims of natural science.

The reversal also neatly represents our world’s slightly off-kilter arrangement of elements, as explained by one far-seeing mid-fourteenth-century theorist. Jean Buridan’s commentaries on Aristotle’s De caelo et mundi and Meteorologica consider the question of whether the whole earth is habitable. His answer? One quarter, yes, the rest not. He doesn’t get to that conclusion without some struggle. In Joel Kaye’s summary, Buridan first:

raises a question that Aristotle had never considered: why would any one quarter of the earth be more likely to remain above water and habitable than any other quarter?…Given the spherical nature of the earth, given that according to Aristotelian physics all earth falls naturally to the earth’s center, given the great abundance of water with respect to land, and assuming with Aristotle…that the universe is eternal…why in the fullness of time should any portion of land whatsoever remain habitable above water? (94)

To save the world from drowning, Buridan concocts “an interconnected physical system in dynamic equilibrium” (95), in which heat and cold make the earth above waters slightly lighter than drowned earth, so that the earth’s weight and its center of magnitude slightly differ. Only the earth below the waters is as cold as it naturally should be. The off-kilter interaction of earths of varying density, balanced in an eternal motion of unbalance, keeps exactly one ever-shifting quarter of the earth above water (96).

Is this eternal, Weeble Wobbly unbalance what’s represented by the T-O map of BL Add 37049? Doubtful. More likely, it represents the lived, human experience of elements, with the earth below us, and the water, we hope, even lower. But were some Carthusian bro a committed Aristotelian (unlikely!), we can imagine him looking at this map, on the verge of unloosing yet another “well, actually,” but then thinking back to his studies, and resting content, temporarily above the waters.

State of Exception

fui quod es, eris quod sum

fui quod es, eris quod sum, breakfast in Santa Barbara

I was sure I’d wet myself during the flight. I apologized to Steve: “What’s that awful smell. Is it me?” Like an old man in need of care, like my now-dead father: like urine, like mildew.

It was Eucalyptus, I was told, common to these parts of Southern California, and, I was told, planted deliberately for just this odor. Could have been a tree of heaven. Like something just this side of death but still certain it’s just fine.

Close to the water, Santa Barbara’s campus smells like oil. No one could swim without coming in smeared with black goop, maybe left over from the 1969 oil spill, maybe seeping from the rigs running along the horizon, maybe simply a “natural” “tradition.” The oil companies tell us we’re making it all up.

In a drought, in the end of California, there still was plenty of water to flush, plenty of ice for the oysters, plenty of plastic bottles of untarred water for the speakers.

There’s a lagoon on campus to remind us of what we drained and paved over. Sovereign mercy.

Using time that’s not ours anymore. Just this side of death.


Whale Not Watching

IMG_8335Cross-posted to ITM.

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

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

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

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

(h/t Asa Mittman for the title)


SATISFACTION: Interested; Omnipotent; Implacable


First, of course, read Jeffrey on Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human, which I’m co-endorsing as a masterpiece. I’m promising you my own, briefer post on it, now.

Second! A Kalamazoo paper, nearly a month on, from the second Impossible Words session, summarized by Jeffrey like this:

Some fragments: BLISS as an infusion of being as well as a theological colonization of joy (Randy Schiff); places can survive when human settlements do not, so that SURVIVAL is enwrapped in a plural physics, a tale of migration (Dan Remein); an afterlife tells us that our actions have consequences beyond human calculability, beyond SATISFACTION, a knowledge that resonates with ecology’s inhumanism (Karl Steel); within the “I” might be excavated a humble flicker of multiplicity to hold onto (Chris Piuma); TOLERANCE operates at every scale and within every discipline (from cancer to justice to botany) and exceeds them, as supplement (Laurie Finke); COMMUNITY is impossibly built of a with (cum-) and an obligation (-munus), we are incapable of paying the debt of distance from self that community demands, and yet a kind of infinite perishing shows another way (George Edmondson); if we are not gobsmacked, then who are we as a COLLECTIVE (Anne Harris)? The Q&A were fantastic, and a topic for next year’s roundtable even spontaneously emerged, “Lost Words.”

To which I’d only add that the Q/A circled around the horror of collectives. Many of us felt that the call and response of the Material Collective was a bit “creepy.”

My paper follows:

Those of us who do Middle English know that Pearl offers a picture of the “more and more” of God’s grace. In its 101 stanzas — notably, not the expected 100 — merely commercial economies, represented so neatly by the grieving jeweler, break open to make way for God’s unending generosity. Pearl teaches us that life, at its best, isn’t fair, and thank goodness for that.

So, Pearl gives us two ways of not being satisfied , the one insufficient, the other beyond sufficiency. We have the disatisfaction of the jeweler, greedy, malcontent, envious, impatient on his side of the river, sad at the death of what might be his daughter, more than a bit jealous that she’s made such a good match; and then there’s God’s infinite unsatisfiability, always able to do more than what’s required, always exceeding what’s on order, an unsatisfiability whose eternal grace keeps on coming, because — to paraphrase Anselm — it’s its own cause, its own power, its own necessity.1

But for a fuller picture of God’s unsatisfiability, we have to take another trip to the otherworld, travelling, as you might expect, in the other direction: our guide will also hail from the late fourteenth century, the Middle English translation of the Vision of Tundale, a representative medieval best-seller if ever there was one, with some 150 Latin manuscripts and translations into at least 12 vernaculars. It’s sometimes taught. As you might recall, Tundale’s a wicked Irish merchant, keen on collecting debts, who, after falling into a coma, travels first to hell and then, more briefly, into heaven.

The vision says that God’s mercy “passes all things” (39; 813), while the demons, watching Tundale elude their grasp, complain that God “should reward each man according to what he has done” (275-6), that God, in other words, should just do the right thing, and only that. God being God of course does more. The deeper Tundale’s infernal journey, the deeper the pain: “he thought the pain seem to be more than all the pain he had encountered before: that pain surpassed all other pains” (403-5; see also 760-64), and the more he encounters “souls in pain without end” (1128), “in endless pain” (1163), who can do nothing but cry “welaway” (462; 1130), who can suffer “yet might they not fully die” (1080).

As we might expect, doctrinal debates worried over the justness of such eternal punishment. Hugh of St Victor’s De sacramentis explains that sinners wanted to sin eternally, so of course they should be punished eternally; while Aquinas heaps up a jumble of reasons, including that sin “offends God Who is infinite,” and since “punishment cannot be infinite in intensity, because the creature is incapable of an infinite quality, it must needs be infinite at least in duration.”2 Here, presumably, the antecedent, the it, refers to the duration of both punishment and sinner, who endures, “infinite in duration,” without ever fully dying.

Now, it’s easy to see how the same door that opens to infinite mercy also opens to infinite suffering: God is the sovereign, whose unregulated, self-generated goodness at once establishes and suspends the order of justice, with everything that follows from that.3 But this operation, which, essentially, flips or reverse engineers Schmitt’s Political Theology away from the secular and back towards the theological, makes God human, just as awesome and frightening as any other king.

God’s inhuman infinity requires that we not be satisfied with that. To grasp God’s inhuman horror more fully, we have to get him off his throne and sense the impossible, how he’s invisibly and impalpably everywhere. God’s time is beyond ours; his order beyond ours; his realm one that none of us, at least not here, can penetrate fully: you’ll remember what happens to the Pearl-dreamer when he tries, in his frenzy, to slip across the river, while Tundale just as badly fails in trying to get into the furthest reaches of heaven.

I’m saying that God offers a chance to get totally inhuman. He’s so much more than a sovereign. He–or the divine it–operates at a scale that no human action, no human conceptualization, could ever satisfy. And yet this It still takes an relentless interest, condemning us or saving us according to its own unlimited ends, far beyond anything that we could think just.

Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, on the topic of Very Large Finitudes, says that there’s “a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of ‘forever’ than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything.”4 Fair enough, but here’s a counterproposal: what the afterlife tells us is that our actions have consequences far beyond anything we could ever imagine. Something out there is taking an interest, disproportionate to our comprehension, but proportionate to Its own, rewarding or condemning us according to calculations that we will enjoy, or suffer, undergoing without understanding, and — given that this is an eternity — without ever giving us an out. Without ever being satisfied that we will have done enough for It, in It.

Having run my human time out, I’ll leave it to you to develop the ecological consequences.

1 Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Chapter V, in a dizzying attempt to save God from having something so compulsory as a motive: “God does nothing of necessity, since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his actions. And when we say that God does something by necessity, as it were, of avoiding dishonor–which, in any case, he need not fear–it is better to interpret this as meaning that he does thing from the necessity of preserving his honor. Now this necessity is nothing but his own changeless honor, which he has from himself and not from another, and on that account it is improper to call it necessity.” In Eugene Fairweather, ed, A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 150. [see also Aquinas ST 1a 2ae 112 art 1, “Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be more powerful than its effect. Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace.”

2 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis), trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951), 468. Also see Aquinas ST ss 99, Art. 1, “quia per eam contra Deum, qui est infinitus, peccatur. Unde, cum non posset esse infinita poena per intensionem, quia creatura non est capax alicuius qualitatis infinitae; requiritur quod sit saltem duratione infinita”

3 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 38.

4 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Kindle location 1095. Obviously, medievalists would lean on this point a bit with the way that Very Large Numbers work in, for example, the Chansons de geste.

Class 14 – SGGK, Weird Reading, and Ecowrap up


What you see above is most of today. We started by talking about Kzoo; everyone’s encouraged to review the #kzoo2014 twitter hashtag, and to get a sense of the volume and connections of tweets from here. Then we talked about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, surely one of the most taught Middle English texts (for example, here’s the first page of my Borroff translation from 2 years ago; even more crowded now). We covered some of the key ways it’s often taught: pagan and Christian and ‘vernacular Christianities’, focusing on the green belt, Solomon’s pentangle, and invocations like “Cros Kryst me spede“; gender and genealogy, with the former concentrating on Morgan’s control of the narrative, and the latter on Morgan’s connections to both Arthur and Gawain and, eventually, Mordred; queer sexhostipitality, and feminist critiques of supposedly gender neutral discussions of hospitality (see McCracken here); and Aeneas’s treachery at Troy, with the ambiguity of “was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe.”

But then we got ecocritical, with discussions of humeral and astrological theory, the horses and the ‘becoming horse’ of knights, the ‘desert’ that’s actually prolific with more life than can be handled (greener than you think!) and the ‘great outdoors’, and, of course, the butchering of the animals, with the move towards animals that are less and less receptive to ‘getting along with’ humans, concluding with the fox as the great outdoors of animals, vulnerable, useless, and clever.

And then the board happened! Above, our semester.