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


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.”

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)

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!

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.