Some Medieval Dogs to Haunt David Brooks and His Modern “Mutts”

by KARL STEEL

Because Julia Carrie Wong has already destroyed David Brooks’ “A Nation of Barrel Fish Mutts,” my dog post can be nothing but a whisper in the ear of the moderns. With that caveat, here’s the atrocity from Brooks:

we will no longer be an outpost of Europe, but a nation of mutts, a nation with hundreds of fluid ethnicities from around the world, intermarrying and intermingling. Americans of European descent are already a minority among 5-year-olds. European-Americans will be a minority over all in 30 years at the latest, and probably sooner.

and, in his last paragraph:

On the whole, this future is exciting. The challenge will be to create a global civilization that is, at the same time, distinctly American. Immigration reform or not, the nation of mutts is coming.

Brooks isn’t exactly decrying the disappearance of a European-Americans. Like a good capitalist, Brooks doesn’t want to be tied down to the old verities. He’s looking forward to the new mobility, and especially to the new interracial dynamic upper class, smugly and self-deceptively “meritocratic” like any other, and–I sense–like a good right-winger, he’s looking forward to the disappearance of protections of minorities in his new America (“We now have this bogus category, ‘minority,’ in which we lump the supposed rainbow coalition of immigrants and blacks.”) (edit: and I just remembered the work of my Brooklyn College colleague Alan Aja, who’s doing important work on the ways that ethnic categories of, say, Cuban immigrants to America gradually transform into the ethnic categories of America).

These are problems, but the big problem, at least in Wong’s post and on twitter in general, is mutts. Again, see Wong’s excellent post. And then read this twitter exchange.

Animal comparisons tend to be bad not because “people aren’t dogs” because because people don’t think much of most animals (and that’s how they know they’re “people” and not animals). You probably know this by-now hoary observation from Cary Wolfe:

so long as it is institutionally taken from granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well. (8)

Though dogs are dogs and not wolves or lions, I suspect dogs and their people wouldn’t mind having dogs compared to wolves or lions. Or even jellyfish, if the dog is silly enough. The problem isn’t bad classification in general but what happens to humans reclassified as “mere” animals. 

Sometimes, not much. It’s really not always bad to compare people to dogs. Edward, Duke of York, via Gaston Phébus, and indeed via medieval animal lore as a whole, assures us that dogs are the noblest of beasts, the most kind, loyal, and brave. So far as Edward’s concerned, it’s not so bad to be a dog, since most dogs are probably better than most people. Better than most women, particularly, at least in the more misogynist circles of medieval (and modern) dog culture.

Again, the problem with Brooks isn’t the dog but the “mutt” comparison, which relies on the paired notion of both purebred Europeans (and others, but especially Europeans) and purebred dogs. We probably have a hunch (see this tweet, reproduced above) how useful this comparison has been to people like Brooks. And having at least brushed by books by Goffart and Geary, and maybe having a hunch at how painful and partial assimilation into dominant America has been for Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants (for example), we of course know how historically and scientifically risible it is to talk about “European-Americans.” 

But what about the dogs themselves? What about this word “mutt”? Here’s something I should know about that I don’t. I recommend you start with Harriet Ritvo and then, if you remember, get back to this post. 

Now, “regarding types of dogs,” writes Kathleen Walker-Meikle, “we must remember that [in the Middle Ages] they were generally classified according to function, and breeds were considerably less closely defined that they are now” (Medieval Pets 6). Her primary cite here is John Caius’s De canibus Britannicis, which we might supplement, if we’re feeling a bit wacky, with Toy Dogs and Their Ancestors. To these, we can add the laws of the Salian Franks (perhaps as early as 6th century?), whose laws against dog rustling impose separate penalties for crimes against “trained hunting dog[s],” “tracking hound[s],” “dog[s] that [are] usually tied up,” and, finally, “herd dog[s]” (70-71). Skipping ahead to the English Forest Law (12th – 14th centuries), we notice how dogs large enough to hunt should be mutilated if they live in or near a royal hunting preserve:

All dogs which were found that could not or would not be drawn through a strap of eighteen inches and a barleycorn in length and breadth were hombled. The further joints of the two middle claws were cut clean away, and the master or owner of the dog was amerced in three shillings and a penny.

It’s clear, then, that Walker-Meikle’s “function” means, for the most part, the serviceability of different shapes of dogs to different kinds of hunting. 

And now you know enough to laugh at the American Kennel Club‘s entry on Bloodhounds, which explains? imagines? the following: 

In the twelfth century, when even bishops rode to hounds, dignitaries of the church were among the foremost in fostering the development of the Bloodhound. A number of high ecclesiastics maintained packs, and the kennel was an important part of every monastery. To them goes a great deal of the credit for keeping the strain clean. In fact, so much care was taken in the breeding of this hound that it came to be called the ‘blooded hound,’ meaning aristocratic.

The Middle English Dictionary sort of hints at this, incorrectly I think, while the OED–shockingly–gets it right with “apparently so called from its use in tracking (wounded) game.” It cites a Middle English Guy of Warwick, where it’s clear that Tirri uses his “blod houndes þre” not because of their “clean strain” but because they do a different job than the hounds he used to first harry the boar.

In sum, medieval breeds don’t have genealogies; they have purposes. Functions not aesthetics. Medieval people didn’t really have pets in the way we silly moderns do. We alienated moderns have lost touch with the real stuff of existence. Whoever this “we” is. 

This division, at least, is the general sense of things. The general sense divides medieval practicality from modern frivolousness, medieval masculinity from modern femininity (think of Deleuze and Guattari’s notorious contempt for the lapdogs of “elderly women“), the medieval foundation from its dispersal into modern heterogeneity, and so forth. Holding on to this temporal/cultural division keeps us in Brooks’ territory and in fact in the territory of all conservatives who believe in the homogeneous thing that existed before the mutt.

Except, pace Brooks et al., we do have medieval breeds, sometimes described in ways familiar to our modern sense of breed as shape, color, and parentage, where the aesthetic can’t be so easily distinguished from the functional. When Albertus Magnus details the body type for mastiffs and greyhounds (the latter should have “an elongated neck which flares laterally near its connection to the head; an enormous chest which tapers to a sharp edge along its inferior border” (81)), he doesn’t always hold strictly to functional preferences. Greyhounds should have “upper lips which overhang the lower jaw very slightly,” which perhaps has a practical use, though, to my unprofessional eye, it sounds as though Albert just wants himself a sloppy dog. More notably, he believes reddish dogs are easily trained to do tricks, though not so easily as a little fox (which may be a particular kind of dog, given that foxes don’t train well). Furthermore, Albertus suggests that “genus canum ignobilius” (edit to correct translation: the most [more?] ignoble type of dogs) are suitable for guarding houses. When James Scanlan translates the phrase as “mongrel” (79), which is to say, “mutt,” he may just be correct. For Albert, some dogs just look better than others. Some dogs just come from better families than others.

Finally, Edward, Duke of York, explains that “the goodness of running hounds, and of all other kinds of hounds, cometh of true courage and of the good nature of their good father and of their good mother.” This is breeding, though we might observe, far too simply, that this is breeding for character rather than strictly for lineage. Edward also prefers tan running hounds, black-muzzled greyhounds, and alauntes that are white with black spots about the ears.” When he praises Spanish dogs for use in flushing game for hawks, Edward observes:

For a country draweth to two natures of men, of beasts, and of fowls, and as men call greyhounds of Scotland and of Britain, so the alauntes and the hounds for the hawk come out of Spain, and they take after the nature of the generation from which they come.

Edward’s combination of human and animals in breeding may sound familiar (perhaps chillingly so) to modern readers (though to complicate your sense of medieval race, region, and climate, read Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s Idols in the East : European representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450).

We do have medieval canine aesthetics, just as we have medieval notions of race whose differences from modern notions of race in categorization and “science” and imagined histories render the notion of a foundational European-American strain intellectual unsustainable except as an element in histories of identity.

The simple point, contra Brooks, is that we’re all mutts; that the medieval isn’t any simpler than the now; and that we all pretend to purity, simplicity, humanity, and merit when it suits us, sometimes for good, sometimes not. It’s not that the past is another country but that the past had its own certainties, like we have ours, and that knowing them, and knowing enough to know how they’ve changed, may help us hesitate before we stupidly throw about words like mutt or stupidly pretend that American modernity and capitalist rationalism will finally and gently do away with the ongoing violence of naturalized hierarchies.

Feeding the Dogs

Images by Saiman Chow. Source, without words.

Images by Saiman Chow. Source, without words.

Ryan Judkins reminds me that:

during the curee, the dogs were usually fed on the innards of the deer, including the stomach, lungs (if they be hot) and the intestines, after they’d been washed, usually chopped up and all mixed together with blood and bread.

How to Make a Human talks about this too:

Humans’ mastery over their hunting animals is even more apparent in techniques that prevented dogs from killing or freely eating the prey. Dogs were allowed to slow, harry, and corner prey, while humans were meant to deliver the killing blow. Hunting rules required that the field butchery reserve a portion of the prey for the dogs, but they also required that the dogs eat only at their master’s command. In practical terms, the restrictions preserved the bulk of the carcass for the human hunters while ensuring that the dogs received the positive reinforcement of a reward. At the same time, to restrict dogs’ actions in hunting, restrain them from the kill, and permit them to eat only with human permission ensured that neither the dogs’ violence nor their necessity to human hunting might call human mastery into question. The ritual protection of human mastery encompassed even carrion birds, which were left the scraps from the carcass; as the Middle English Tristrem puts it, “þe rauen he 3aue his Ʒiftes, / Sat on þe fourched tre” (to the raven he gave his gifts, and set them on the forked branch; 502–3). The ravens now became beneficiaries of the hunters’ largesse, their appetite appropriated by a ritual that indicates that the control not only of violence but also of meat-eating concerned humans (64-65).

Judkins’ forthcoming JEGP article on the royal hunt stresses the community around the breaking of the deer carcass, in which servants and colleagues, whether human or animal, receive their due. More and more, I’m slipping away from my strong paranoid reading of human mastery (see above!) and sliding towards readings like Judkins’, which consider affects other than anxiety and cruelty. Love, familiarity, conscientious attention to particular appetites, shared joy: these matter too.
This isn’t something as simple as a switch from negative to positive affect. Things are more complicated. Think of this brief encounter in Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation:

Each boar had his own little perversion the man had to do to get the boar turned on so he could collect the semen. Some of them were just things like the boar wanted to have his dandruff scratched while they were collecting him. (Pigs have big flaky dandruff all over their backs.) The other things the man had to do were a lot more intimate. He might have to hold the boar’s penis in exactly the right way. There was one boar, he hold me, who wanted to have his butt hole played with. “I have to stick my finger in his butt, he just really loves that,” he told me. Then he got all red in the face (103).

Grandin aptly calls this section “How to Make a Pig Fall in Love.” Like all love, things can go awry. Our face might go red, maybe because the pig doesn’t love us anymore, or maybe because we’re a bit embarrassed. When intimacies that can hardly be named find their way into the public eye, things can be a bit disgusting or embarrassing for the guardians of human exclusivity. For more on love’s weirdness, see my post below, and also see Dominic Pettman’s Human Error77-101, which discusses the films Zoo and Tierische Liebe (Animal Love) as well as Haraway’s dog love in When Species Meet and J. A. Baker’s The Peregine to track love’s strangeness, how it can entail, don’t forget, “monomania, projective narcissism, and so on,” a “familiar libidinal economy, involving the kind of struggles around difference and recognition that can lead to passive-aggressive sulking because of perceived miscommunication” (95).
I have this in mind because I’ve just read Kathy Rudy’s Loving Animals: Towards a New Animal Advocacy. Rudy, a dog lover, says that “the task of coming out as gay was a piece of cake compared to coming out as–what?” She observes “there is not an adequate name for the kind of life I lead, the way my desires organize themselves around animals, especially dogs” (35), that “it’s not so much that I am no longer a lesbian…it’s that the binary of gay and straight no longer has anything to do with me. My preference these days is canine” (41). For more on this kind of love, we might look to “Michael Field” and their love for and through Whym Chow: perhaps start here and here.
Rudy cooks for her dogs. One loves any kind of meat, another needs a lot more food than you’d think to look at her, and another, Duncan, a yellow lab mix, goes nuts for oatmeal and scrambled eggs (when I told my wife, Alison, about this, she cried “he’s a breakfast dog!”). Rudy’s learned a lot more about her dogs by feeding them; it’s another way to “talk” to the dogs, to build affection and knowledge, another way to render “their subjectivity more visible” (184). She’s made a better love between them, which is to say, this queer animal lover is making love to them in a new, better way.
Feeding animals, eating with them–as Cuthbert did with his horse, you remember–makes us companions, a word Haraway often uses in When Species Meet. And companionship can be very intimate indeed. The scholar of How to Make a Human would claim that this is just bad faith: after all, look at Chaucer’s Prioress, so deeply sad about her dogs and mice, but still happy to feed her dogs roast meat. Charity begins and ends at home, says the old me. The scholar I am now isn’t so sure, and Rudy’s partially to thank for that. Because becoming companions (or concarnians, as I say in AVMEO) with animals might mean something’s not quite clicked with your human relations. It isn’t just hypocritical humanism. To be sure, animal companionship isn’t necessarily a better love; it’s just, perhaps, a love that disorients you from the community of humans. It’s a weird love, like any love, but weirder than most because it lacks the veneer of (human) normalcy.
After all, isn’t the Prioress a bit camp, what with her silly romance name, her (arguably) bad French accent, her fancy wimple, by which I mean, aren’t the Prioress and her dogs a bit queer?
I have in mind dog-feedings, like the one Judkins describes above. Or Yvain and his lion sharing meals when the lion may be the only one who knows who Yvain really is. Or even the willingness among the philosophers (of all people, generally the most obstinately human)–Albert the Great, Thomas of Cantimpré, Vincent of Beauvais–to repeat Pliny’s observation that certain cuts of deer meat disgust dogs, unless (as Vincent says), they’re especially hungry. Or Richard Wyche’s fifteenth-century account of his religious persecution, where amid his tortures, he “asked the bishop to have my horse taken to his stable, and I gave what I had in my purse to the man leading it there” (trans. Christopher G. Bradley, PMLA 127.3 (2012): 630 [626-42]). Yes, Richard asks this because the horse, a special kind of transportation machine, needs sustenance, but I have to think he asks also because he likes his horse, and he, a religious man (of all people &c.), remembers it, even with execution looming, with nothing mattering for eternity, we would think, but his imperiled soul.
So the shared affect of a meals draws my attention. The love the hunters and the dogs share matters, even as we must not forget the dismembered carcass of the deer around which this affect clusters.
One more thought on the queer love of dogs: if this particular project continues (and it could, if someone’s looking for a Kalamazoo paper to fill a slot?), think of the stories of knights who love hunting and disdain the love of women…until they’re forced to grow up. Guigemar, for example, but we could come up with dozens more. Think of how queer that love is, particularly when read with the compulsory erotics whose force draws the knight out of his pleasures with his horses, hounds, and hawks, and into his human, only human maturity.
(for more stuff on zoophilia, see James Goebel’s excellent musings over at “A Geology of Borders”)

How quickly does a deer go off?

by KARL STEEL

To ensure the blog stays as eclectic as possible, I’m here to talk, again, about deer carcasses, so you may want to read Jeffrey first and never come back. I’m also here to avoid grading my first set of papers (incidentally, on Žižek’s “Bring Me My Philips Mental Jacket,” for English 2, “The Research Paper,” with a theme of “Nature,” and a set on Marie’s Lais, and a small set of Chaucer translations). Enough of that!

The fourteenth-century Diuersa Servicia comprises 92 recipes, for “blomanger,” “egerduse” (i.e., aigredouce, “sweet and sour”), and so on, and two guides for dealing with rancid venison.

57. For to kepe venisoun from restyng, tak venisoun wan yt is newe & cuuer it hastely wyþ fern þat no wynd may come þereto and wan þou hast ycuuer yt wel led yt hom & do yt in a soler þat sonne ne wynd may come þerto. & dimembre it, & do yt in a clene water & lef yt þere half a day, and after do yt vpon herdeles for to dre; & wan yt ys drye tak salt, & do after þy venisoun axit, & do yt boyle in water þat be so salt als water of þe see and moche more. & after lat þe water be cold, þat it be þynne, & þanne de do þy venisoun in þe water & lat yt be þerein þre daies & þre ny3t; & after tak yt owt of þe water & salt it wyþ dre salt ry3t wel in a barel, & wan þy barel ys ful cuuer it hastely þat sunne ne wynd come þereto.

58. For to do awey restyng of venisoun, tak þe venisoun þat ys rest & do yt in cold water & after mak an hole in þe herþe & lat yt be þereyn þre dayes & þre ny3t; & after tak yt vp & frot yt wel wyþ gret salt of poite þere were þe restyng ys. & after lat yt hange in reyn water al ny3t or more. (73)

 

57. To keep venison from going rancid, take venison when it is new and cover it quickly with ferns so that no wind can reach it and when you have covered it well take it home and put it in a cellar so that no sun or wind can reach it. and dismember it and put it in clean water and leave it there half a day, and afterwards put it on hurdles to dry it; and when it is dry, take salt and salt your venison as much as it needs, and then boil it in water as salty as sea water and even much more. and afterwards, let the water cool so that it thins [i.e., so that the sediment settles to the bottom], and then put your venison in the water and leave it there for three days and three nights; and afterwards, take it out of the water and salt it with dry salt very thoroughly in a barrel, and when your barrel is full, cover it hastily so that neither sun nor wind can touch it.

58. To salvage rancid venison, take the venison that is rotten and put it in cold water and afterwawrds make a hole in the earth and leave it there for three days and three nights; and afterwards take it up and rub it well with saltpeter [potassium nitrate] where it is rotting. and afterwards hang it in rain water all night or longer.

The two guides appear only in Bodleian Douce 257, dated to 1381, which includes “various mathematical and calendrical treatises, riddling verses, and practical jokes” (Hieatt and Butler 18), mostly in Latin. If the manuscript’s available online, or even just a full list of its contents, please let me know in the comments.

EDIT: grading procrastination update, several hours after first posting. Douce 257 was formally Douce 21831. Some of the Middle English appears in the DIMEV here; and contents summarized briefly here (A Summary Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford 569-70); and summarized at more length here (Catalogue of the printed books and manuscripts bequeathed by Francis Douce, to the Bodleian Library 40-1).

It’s no great surprise that Diuersa Servicia items 57 and 58 appear only in this manuscript, as the other extant versions are missing many or most of the other recipes. It’s more surprising that none of the other cook books in EETS ss. 8 have guides for preventing or correcting putrefaction, and that neither do any of the (few) others I’ve examined (eg, these two Anglo-Norman cookbooks; or this first foray into Taillevent). I’ve vainly looked for bits about rotten meat in the cynegetic manuals of William Twiti and Edward of York, but if my search is to be anything but preliminary, ARLIMA’s list tells me I have much more hunting to do.

Turning from what we can loosely call practical advice to what we can just as loosely call textual advice, Hildegard’s Physica doesn’t help me, while Albert the Great’s De Animalibus and the very similar material in Thomas of Cantimpré tantalize with “The innards of a deer are very malodorous, a condition Pliny ascribed to the bile diffused through them” (97; in Thomas, “Intestina cervi fetida valde sunt, et hoc opinatur Plinius proptera, quia fel in intestinis habet, quod abhominantur canes” [which dogs hate]; see also Vincent of Beauvais, “intestina cerni [sic, for cervi] valde foetida sunt, vnde non comeduntur a canibus, nisi sint valde famelici” [hence they won’t be eaten by dogs unless the dogs are very hungry]). Also, says Albert, and Thomas, and Vincent,  “twenty worms reside in the deer’s cervical spine.”

To me, that seems like a lot of worms.

For the time being, I’m at bay, with no clear way out. I do know that medieval cooks are a passionate lot, and hunters just as much so. If you’re one of these–or even if you’re just an interested passer-by–weigh in. You think I can take “venison” in the Diuersa Servicia as meaning just or primarily “cervids”? Is this concern about rancid venison unusual? Just practical advice any hunter would know? Where else should I look? I haven’t yet looked at Walter of Bibbesworth, but a helpful spirit on Facebook tells me I’ll come up empty. Walter of Henley‘s on his way to me. Where else?

Irrational (Human) Objects of a Rational Law — More on Deer Carcasses and the Medieval English Forest

Bruce Nauman, Portland Art Museum, "Animal Pyramid," Picture by Alison Kinney

Bruce Nauman, Portland Art Museum, “Animal Pyramid,” Picture by Alison Kinney

Now I’m just posting my own NCS paper, which you might recall appeared a little more than a month ago before the Paris medieval animals conference. I revised that paper for Portland: cut the bits on penitentials, expanded the discussion of Bennett, gestured more towards the problem of objectial “agency,” and clarified the issues at stake. A lot of this is due to Susan Crane’s very welcome interventions in Paris and over email since then: I’m happy to take the blame for continuing slips in my thinking.

My carcass project’s going to lead, knock on wood, to two publications: the first in the inaugural issue of O-Zone, a journal of object-oriented studies, and then–in a more biopolitical vein–in an anthology on the medieval English forest law. So I need your comments and interventions; I so need your comments and interventions.

Responses from NCS include Laurie Finke’s hesitancy about both “strategic” anything and the word “intention”, Eileen’s promotion of “propulsion” via Bennett, and Liza Strakhov’s recommendation of Bleak House as a good model for the law as actor. My response to Finke’s question included an attempt to work through the problem of agency via Derrida’s “And Say the Animal Responded,” which does so much to lean on the opposition between “free response” and “compelled reaction.” Further very welcome interventions came from Alison Kinney, my wife, and Seamus Campbell, an old friend and one of my Portland hosts. Additional v.r.i. on deer carcasses arrived pseudonymously via Facebook; and several people–Peggy McCracken, Susan Crane, and an eavesdropping lawyer in downtown Portland–pointed me to sources on various local laws for the disposal of deer carcasses in twenty-first century America (for example).

More to come, especially once I’m back in Brooklyn and can get my hands on some reputable editions of medieval insular cookbooks, and an old Annales article on venison I remember encountering ages ago. Expect me to work out what my last paragraph’s “significant and forceful” means sometime in the next month.

Thanks very much to Randy Schiff for assembling the panel and for the ongoing discussion of biopolitics.

Away we go:

An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, requires that the carcass of deer found dead in the forest “should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freemen of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.”

To discourage poaching, it makes good sense not to let the neighboring folk or the forester have the meat. But it doesn’t make obvious sense to return it to the king’s control, and then to distribute it to people who would normally never have eaten venison. And despite some concessions for convenience—the nearest leper house or, failing that, some other nearby charitable institution—the law still required foresters to take on an onerous, annoying, and possibly repulsive duty.

Repulsive in several senses. The law makes no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. A late fourteenth-century English recipe book requires a multi-day sequence of covering, washing, hanging, salting, and boiling to keep venison from rotting, implying that unsupervised venison was thought to go off quickly. Furthermore, I’m told, the ideal temperature for curing a deer carcass is no warmer than 4 degree Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even cooler. Thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries: in this climate, carcasses would have bloated or putrefied quickly. Finally, the law required that the king’s agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In short, there’s something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law imposed on the king and his agents.

The “seemingly” of “seemingly irrational” of course promises that I’ll reveal a reason at work: but this reason won’t be a human one. What the humans are doing is irrational, excessive, repulsive, for them: but humans aren’t the only actors at work in this system.

Such seemingly irrational human actions help us identify where humans are being made to operate by another, perhaps nonhuman actor: from an anthropocentric perspective, it doesn’t make sense to redistribute the carcasses of deer to socially inferior eaters, or even to keep deer at all; but all this might make good sense from the perspective of the forest law itself.

To allow for this speculation, I need to situate this seemingly irrational activity within a larger system, itself just as seemingly irrational, the medieval forest. You know medieval English forests were for hunting, and mainly for hunting deer. Like other scholars, Simon Schama observes that “outside of war itself, [the hunt] was the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.” The conception of authority required aristocrats to keep hunting parks and to monopolize the legitimate killing of deer. And though forests were enormously expensive, they were the last good impoverished aristocrats would give up, because they were too important a theater of authority to be abandoned.

Deer were the cause of the forests’ enormous expense. Compared to other food animals, deer require a lot of land, don’t easily turn fodder into edible body mass, are prone to disease and theft and destructive of ground cover and crops, and require the expensive care of specialized professionals. Furthermore, deer were literally beyond price: they could not legally be sold. As such, deer can be counted among the “quasi-sacred” things enumerated in the 1230s in Bracton’s On the Laws and Customs of England. Bracton lists the crown, his “position of rule,” peace, justice, and salvage from the sea as among the things that “cannot be given or sold or transferred to another by the prince or reigning king” (see here, 2.57): the king can’t sell any of these without undoing his own kingly position. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and what materialized his own authority. These drove him to expend energy and wealth to maintain an animal seemingly designed to frustrate rationalist explanations.

Nonetheless, we can still come up with a few. To ensure forests make sense to a managerial mindset, we might claim that hunting was only an ancillary function, and that forests actually turned a profit. But S. A. Mileson’s recent Parks in Medieval England reemphasizes both the centrality of hunting to forests and enumerates how forests were far less profitable than comparable nonforested land. Another anthropocentric rationalization might claim that forests produced social capital: they were good for networking, for distinguishing aristocrats from their inferiors, for providing opportunities for largesse. Finally, we might pivot towards a derationalizing approach to the forest by taking its irrational obligations as symptoms of the Real, capital R, which always undoes our rationalist pretensions.

I propose, however, that the logic of the forest and indeed that of royal authority have their own reason, which puts humans to work for it. We don’t need to explain the logic by turning up a rational human benefit for the forest, in financial or social profit, as if human actions must only make good human sense. Nor must we give up on rational explanations too quickly, as if there’s only a positive human pretension to order, always inevitably undone by the irrationality of everything else. Thoroughgoing posthumanism requires us to seek out another, nonhuman reason, in, for, and through which the king and his agents operate.

I am drawing on Jane Bennett’s “theory of distributive agency” in her book Vibrant Matter. From her, I take the recognition that “human intentions [are] always in competition and confederation with many other strivings,” a “heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and efficiency.” She illustrates her argument with the 2003 American blackout, for which no one element can be wholly responsible: storms and climate change, capitalism and deregulation, and flows of various kinds of electricity interact to produce results that can’t quite be predicted or reduced to a single reason. Through “a touch of anthropomorphism” (99), Bennett keeps open the possibility of various nonhuman agencies to “catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99).

I also rely on Steven Shaviro (h/t Eileen Joy), who advocates for a “deflationary” description of intention via George Molnar’s concept of “physical intentionality” (see chapter 3, “Directedness,” in his Powers: A Study in Metaphysics), by which “physical powers, such as solubility or electrical charge, also have that direction toward something outside themselves that is typical of psychological attributes,” even if this intentionality has no “semantic or representational content.”

That intentionality makes objects agents for themselves and turns other agents into the objects by which these agents realize their intentions. It allows for nonhuman intention and direction without requiring something so grand as free choice. For my paper, the agents might be deer and maggots, the trees and soil, or, the forest law itself; here I draw on a recent Facebook comment by Levi Bryant, who observes that “people are fascinated with the question of whether there’s nonhuman intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But we’ve already encountered it here on Earth. It goes by names like ‘corporation,’ ‘government,’ ‘institution,’ etc. The terrifying thing is that these beings have very different aims than our own.”

I’m proposing that the deer, poachers, the king, the king’s royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, and appetite itself, all have their own reason within the forest system, all their own sense of the irrational, their own orders and perhaps their own anxieties. All interact more or less harmoniously with others; all enable, constrain, and channel the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Everything’s incompletely entangled in meshworks of intention and objectification, and none should be thought of as the center, or as the only center.

Let me stress: this doesn’t mean that the king and his agents have been reduced to being just the objects of nonhuman intentionality. We can preserve anthropocentric explanations—social capital and so forth—while supplementing them with others in the interests of richer description, a more supple understanding of intention, and an improved sense of responsibility. Bennett’s posthuman insights don’t eliminate human agency; they just democratize it, to use the metaphor from Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects.

And just as the king’s selfhood exceeds what the forest and royal authority make of him, so too with the other elements in the forest assemblage. Here, in my paper’s last section, I derive from object-oriented ontology the point that the constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own intentions; they have their own umwelt—that is, their own limited, subjective mode of engagement with the other elements of the assemblage; and, finally, their participation in the assemblage does not exhaust what they are.

This particular quality of inexhaustibility is what object-oriented ontology calls the “withdrawn core” of any object. Levi Bryant argues that “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations”; or, Ian Bogost puts it in Alien Phenomenology, “The tire and chassis, the ice milk and cup, the buckshot and soil: things like these exist not just for us but also for themselves and for one another, in ways that might surprise and dismay us.” Human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, cannot be encountered or used fully by any other object.

This insight leads us to recognitions we wouldn’t have if we paid attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or just to the vain efforts of dominant humans to manage the Real.

For example, as Julie Orlemanski has recently reminded us, people with leprosy have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust. The carrion law wants these people to serve as a disposal system for deer who died improperly. It wants them to function as elements in a charitable machine for turning assistance into prayers. But people with leprosy might not have needed or wanted this particular charity: leprosaria, as Carol Rawcliffe tells us, “often had fishing rights, and reared dairy cattle, [and] pigs and hens,” which ensured they had the right diet on hand for medicinal purposes. Game itself was a medically unsuitable meal for the sick. A mangled, perhaps rotten carcass, made of the wrong kind of meat, might have been an unwanted or unnecessary gift, and might have gone uneaten.

Similarly, the deer, whether alive or dead, is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. Deer have their own existence, their carcasses another, the microbes and insects and birds that break down the carcass yet another: and none is an inert plaything for human reason. Like other hunting laws, the carrion law aims to protect the aristocratic monopoly on legitimate violence in the forest. Records of the practice of the law, however, attest to the deer’s own life, independent of aristocratic control. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of another that died from injuries after fighting with one of its peers. The deers’ own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own deadly erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. Similarly, in what must be my last point, the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass’s susceptibility to putrefaction also witness to a stubborn liveliness outside of the operations of the forest law, or of the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

My project is just getting out of its infancy, obviously, in that I haven’t yet described the actual intentions of the forest law, nor yet determined how to distinguish intentions from accidental effects. I know I need to read up in systems and legal theory, and I know I can’t just say that law does what it does because it wants to sustain itself. For now, I remain convinced that limiting significant intentionality to humans or indeed to living beings is unwarranted; that a keen ethical investigation must seek out the exclusions of anthropocentricism, or, for that matter, cervidocentrism; that products–textual, technological, legal, indeed anything that is–have a significant and forceful existence independent of their creators; and that efficacious political action requires recognizing that human intention isn’t the only game in town.

The Forest Law and the Deer’s Lively Carcass

Laurent Millet, "L'herbier"

Laurent Millet, “L’herbier”

This week I’ll be participating in the International Medieval Society – Paris’s annual symposium, whose topic is animals. On Saturday, I’ll be presenting a paper on forest law about which I wrote here long ago. In that post, most of which my dissertation swallowed up, I thought of the forest law only in terms of human interests and human anxieties, though I thought I was doing a lot to unsettle human pretensions to natural superiority. What Levi Bryant wrote in Democracy of Objects certainly applied to me: “while anti-humanisms rescue philosophy from its focus on individual minds, allowing us to discern the sway of far more impersonal and anonymous patterns and structures at work in the heart of thought and social relations, it by no means follows that anti-humanism has escaped anthropocentrism” (39).

This Saturday, and in what I know will be a thoroughly revised version in July at the New Chaucer Society, I’m going to think of the systems of the human and of the royal forest as nonhuman assemblages in which humans act and are acted upon, compelled to do irrational things, so far as they’re concerned, to uphold the reason of the larger assemblage; and I’m going to remark on how irrational inconvenience some elements in an assemblage experience alerts us to the “withdrawn core” of the assemblage’s constituent elements, in this case, people with leprosy and the deer. I could expand this insight to look at the forester and the sovereign as well.

Or I could if I had time. Because I have only 20 minutes, I don’t really have space to do all I should do. So for that excuse, among others, what I’m sharing with you isn’t anywhere near as accomplished as Jeffrey’s extraordinary grey ecology paper. But it’s good to share, and good for you, if you have time or interest, to share your comments with me. I might not have time to respond to them by Saturday, but I certainly will by July. Thanks for what insight you provide.

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An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, concerns the problem of deer whose death violates the smooth operations of the forest. It runs as follows:

If any dead or wounded wild animal should be found and it does not belong to a herdsman. First, there should be an inquiry in the four closest towns, which should be recorded; and the finder should be put by six pledges; the flesh however should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freemen of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.

Today I’m primarily concerned with the apparently charitable distribution of the deer’s carcass. The law mandates that the carcass be confiscated or, more accurately, that it be returned to the king’s control. The skin and head go to the nearest freemen, and ultimately from there, as G.J. Turner suggested long ago, to the crown, while the meat go to people with leprosy or, failing that, to the sick and the poor. In other words, the meat must be used; the law offers no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. Regardless of their condition, they cannot just be discarded.

To discourage poaching, it makes good sense not to let the neighboring folk or the forester have the meat. It doesn’t make obvious sense, however, to return the meat to the king’s control, and then to take the trouble to distribute it to people who would normally never have eaten venison. While the law makes certain concessions for convenience—the nearest leper house or, failing that, some other nearby charitable institution—it still requires that forester inconvenience himself with an onerous, annoying, and possibly repulsive duty.

Repulsive in at least two senses: first, thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries, and, I’m told, the ideal temperature for curing a deer carcass is no warmer than 4 degree Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even cooler. A carcass left in thirteenth-century English woods wouldn’t have taken long to putrefy. Second, the law required that the king’s agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In sum, there’s something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law is compelling the king and his agents to do.

I’m deliberately ascribing agency to the legal space of the forest. Towards the end of my paper, I will discuss the more obvious agencies of people with leprosy of the deer themselves, but mostly today I’ll be presenting the legal system of the forest as itself possessing an agency in excess of human efforts and desires. Throughout my paper, implicitly and explicitly, I will be understanding all of these human, animal, and systemic efforts, obligations, and resistances through a posthuman understanding of agency inspired by the new materialisms, a body of work encompassing, more or less harmoniously, actor-network theory, vital materialism, object-oriented ontology, and so on. Thinking with this body of work helps me understand how humans are not the only significant actors in this situation of the deer’s carcass; and it helps me be aware, as well, of the independent existence of the deer and forest law and, as well, people with leprosy. In a larger sense, I’m using this body of work to complicate and enrich our understandings of both responsibility and ethics.

What the king and his representative, the forester, must do is as inconvenient and possibly repulsive and dangerous as it is necessary. That necessity doesn’t derive in any direct way from the king’s own choices, but rather from the logic of royal authority itself, which encompasses the operations of the king, forester, poachers, freemen, and people with leprosy, deer and less-valued beasts, the forest as place and the forest as a legal space. Thus when I call the law’s requirements “seemingly irrational,” I mean that they look irrational when judged from an exclusively anthropocentric perspective; from other perspectives,ones not necessarily human, the law makes perfect sense. In other words, we don’t need to declare the law simply irrational, nor need we turn up a rational human benefit—say, in hygiene—for this food law, as scholars have done with so many others. Instead, we can work out how there’s another, nonhuman reason at work, which puts humans to work for it.

The first of these is the system of the human itself, which operations we can discover by looking at analogous food requirements in the penitentials. The penitential’s carrion laws proscribed humans from eating the meat of any animal they did not intend to kill. Moreover, some penitentials, particularly the earlier ones, demanded that the meat be distributed to pigs, dogs or, significantly, to homines bestiales, bestial men, humans in what Rob Meens identified as the outer circle of the human community.

To be sure, the penitentials may be irrelevant for an early thirteenth-century law: by this point, penitentials were a moribund genre, already being supplanted by more elaborate tools of spiritual guidance. Certainly, some evidence survives for the continued practice of the carrion laws in later medieval England, for example, in William of Canterbury’s late-twelfth-century Life and Miracles of Thomas Becket, where a sheep injures itself, and its owner stabs it in the threat to kill it himself “lest it become carrion.”

But I don’t think I need to demonstrate the continuing vitality of earlier carrion laws to read the penitentials with this forest law. Rather, I’m pointing out these earlier handbooks only to call attention to a similar logic at work in both. The confiscation of the carcass and its redistribution to dogs, or, in
later periods, people with leprosy or the poor, repairs what the law
demands be understood as an assault, depending on the law, on human or
royal control over life and death in the forest.

The paired action marked some animal deaths as illicit; it enshrines human agency or the agency of dominant humans as legitimate, even while constraining or channelling that agency by turning humans into tools of the human system; it returned control over the dead animal and its flesh to the humans or dominant humans, even as it required humans to go without food to defend their own pretence at agential particularity; and it showed the scorn for the flesh and for anyone who would, in effect, share a meal with those not authorized to kill animals legitimately, or, put another way, for those not constrained to follow the dictates of the human or forest system.

In both the penitentials and the forest law, humans are made to
refuse to eat certain meats, even if the meat might have been perfectly
edible and desperately needed, and they were compelled to distribute
this meat to eaters that were disdained, despised, or pitied. They’re acting in the service of a larger system.

By the same logic, the distribution of carrion to people with leprosy should not be understood only as a freely chosen act of charity. The loss of enforested deer to violence seriously damaged the crown. Again, a seeming irrationality, this one of the forest system, helps us understand what humans are being made to do. Recently, S. A. Mileson’s Parks in Medieval England has reasserted the centrality of hunting to the purpose and function of the forest, and Simon Schama, like other scholars, has observed that “outside of war itself, [the hunt] was the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.” The king needed the forest, as lesser nobles needed their parks and chases, and they fed that need despite their considerable expense.

Forests might generate some money, through forges and tanneries, through the extraction of turf and stone and wood, through fees for pannage rights and fines imposed for violating the forest law. But enforested land turned a much smaller profit than comparable nonforested land, and these meagre forest profits seem to have been cycled back into forest maintenance. Despite this, hunting parks were the last good that an impoverished aristocrat would give up. Instead of going without, they would dedicate themselves to these money pits, even at the cost of their own line’s well-being.

The center of this drain was the deer itself, the focus on aristocratic violence for which the forests existed. Deer were great wastes of money, inefficient at converting their food to body mass, prone to disease and theft, destructive of ground cover and crops, needing the particular and expensive skills of parkers. Furthermore, as historians of medieval English hunting often observe, deer were literally beyond price: they could not legally be sold. As such, deer can be counted among the “quasi-sacred” things enumerated in the 1230s in Bracton’s On the Laws and Customs of England. Bracton lists the crown, his “position of rule,” peace, and justice themselves, along with salvage from the sea, as among the things that “cannot be given or sold or transferred to another by the prince or reigning king” (see here, 2.57): the king can sell none of these without undoing his own position as king. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and the things that materialized his own authority—the deer and the forest system most notably—which drove him to expend energy and wealth on the maintenance of an animal almost by design resistant to any reductively rational explanation.

I’m not saying that the king would be a free actor were it not for the constraint of the dull, unthinking drag of the forest/royal system. It’s not a matter, for example, of just taking the human as unbalanced by the inhuman and irrepressibly chaotic forces of the Real, whose energies remind us that no structure can live up to its pretences to rationality. It’s a matter of recognizing something perhaps more terrifying, namely, that there’s another reason at work in whose service the king is operating. I think we can strike a kind of compromise between these positions, however. The king’s not just the object of another’s agency. He’s an actor in this forest system; he’s choosing to engage in charity and to defend his rights; but he’s also acting for others, who are making their choices, all of them imperfectly enmeshed in a forest assemblage that has them acting for it. The king’s agency, like any agency, is shared in meshworks of agency and constraint, communication and miscommunication, in which what’s irrational or unfair to one member might make perfect sense for another.

From Jane Bennett’s “theory of distributive agency” in her book Vibrant Matter, I take the recognition that “human intentions [are] always in competition and confederation with many other strivings,” a “heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and efficiency.” The deer, poachers, the king, the king’s royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, appetite itself, and perhaps, although this is hard to imagine, the thirteenth-century climate: within the forest system, all these have their own reason and own sense of the irrational, their own orders and anxieties. All are interconnected more or less harmoniously with others, all enabling and constraining or channelling the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Humans are a part of these meshworks of agency and objectification, and they shouldn’t be thought of as the center, or as the only center. The king’s at once acting to defend his royal position and being compelled to order behavior that may seem inconvenient to him and his servants. He’s making a choice, and also having a choice made for him, and so too with everything in the assemblage of this forest law.

That some elements of a system feel themselves irrationally constrained indicates that these elements have an existence in excess of the operations of the system. Here, in my paper’s final portion, I’m turning our attention to another insight from the new materialisms, specifically as developed by object-oriented ontology. The constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own motivations; that they have their own umwelt (see Democracy of Objects 63)—that is, their own limited, subjective mode of engagement with the other elements of the assemblage; and, finally, their participation in the assemblage does not exhaust what they are.

This particular quality is what object-oriented ontology, as practiced, for example, by Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, calls the “withdrawn core” of any object, in which, as Bryant writes, “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations.” Any object, which can be human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, whether briefly existing or seemingly perpetual, is inaccessible in its fullness to what any other unit does with it.

This insight leads us to recognitions that we wouldn’t get if we pay attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or if we paid attention only to the irrational inconveniences and anxious compensations of dominant human existence. People with leprosy, for example, have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust, as Julie Orlemanski reminds us in a recent article. The forest law treats these people as the objects of charity, as a kind of machine for turning assistance into prayers. But lepers themselves might not have needed or wanted this particular charity: leprosaria, as Carol Rawcliffe tells us, “often had fishing rights, and reared dairy cattle, [and] pigs and hens,” which ensured they had the right diet on hand for medicinal purposes, but which also, I speculate, might make them potentially independent of further charitable donations. Though hailed as objects of charity, the leprous subject might not have needed or wanted a more or less intact or edible deer carcass that the forest law demanded they take. They might not have needed or wanted to serve as a disposal system for the forest system’s failures.

Furthermore, recalling the existence of any unit’s withdrawn core means we must recall that the deer has its own particular existence, that the deer’s carcass has another, and that neither is an inert plaything for human reason. Whether alive or dead, the deer is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. If the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass’s susceptibility to putrefaction witness to a stubborn liveliness, as well, outside of the operations of the forest law, or the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

Like other hunting laws, the law aims to control human behavior, in this case, serving as yet another injunction against poaching. Records of the practice of the law, however, witness to the deer’s resistant bodies and activities, which the law can only hope to control after the fact. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of a hart that had come out the loser in mortal combat with one of its peers. Here we have death and violence that, through their indifference to the king, frustrates sovereign mastery of the forests. The deers’ own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own murderous erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. For more on this point, which will have to be my final one, I advise you to look forward to Cary Wolfe’s forthcoming Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, whose thoughts on the resistant bodies of factory-farmed livestock inspired my thinking here.

101 Uses for a Dead Deer

deerI’ve been driven to write about carrion for the past few months because of an early thirteenth-century English forest law that goes like this:

If any dead or wounded beast should be found and it does not belong to a herdsman. First, there should be an inquiry in the four closest towns, which should be recorded; and the finder should be put by six pledges [i.e., the finder needs people to attest for him or her]; the flesh however should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freeman of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.

There are a number of ways to approach this law’s peculiar (but, as I’ve discovered, widely enforced) approach to poaching. I’ve been at it through the ideological utility of hunting to England’s thirteenth-century elites, but there’s also an approach that jives with discussions we’ve had repeatedly at this blog, namely, the power that the dead have over the living. When can a corpse finally be put to rest? Because of its illicit death, the carcass has become an uncanny, all too incarnate mockery of elite pretensions to inviolate mastery of violence. The illicit violence that the carcass suffered requires that it be ritually humiliated — or so I argue — by being fed to lepers. It is only then that the carcass becomes truly dead to the living. Here’s what I have to say in the chapter itself:

Through this dual activity of rejection and distribution, the elites reestablish their control over violence in hunting preserves, perhaps the most privileged space for elites to practice, demonstrate, and uphold their exclusive right to violence. Through these two actions, the carrion laws protect the community—of humans or elites, depending on the law—from contamination. The double action also reforms the disrupted power over life and death by substituting the right of distribution and the right of denying consumption for the temporarily lost control over human space and its killings. While the meat itself is lost to dogs, pigs, bestial men, the poor, or lepers, the combined refusal and distribution returns what really matters, the control of meat and, in a broader sense, of death, to the realm of lawgivers and their agents.

Forest animals that suffer proper deaths live on uncannily too. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, Tristan explains how a deer’s carcass should be treated after its dismemberment:

 

Ride two and two together and keep close beside one another, preserving the shape of a hart. Let the horns go ahead, the breast follow in their track, the ribs come after the fore-quarters. Then arrange for the hind-parts to follow on the ribs. After that, you should see to it that the quarry and fourchie bring up the rear–such is true huntsmanship. And do not be in too great a hurry–ride in due order, one behind another.

In field butchery, human elites grant dogs and ravens little dainties, so emptying the flesh and body of the deer of its valueless portions. With this elimination, the deer becomes perfected, for nothing remains but what elites want for themselves. The deer has been made ready for a procession in which the very ritual that broke its body into pieces now grants it a return to a bodily integrity that is also a perfect materialization of elite power and its meaningful, absolute, creative violence. The reassembling of the dismembered carcass reminds me of the Japanese puppet theater of Bunraku, but perhaps still more strongly, because of the simultaneous fragility and completeness of the animal form, of those collapsible toy ponies of my childhood (when I depressed part of the statuette’s platform, the elastic holding it upright would go slack, and its knees would buckle). I might not have been able to control my own bodily integrity, but at least I could take it away from others and grant it once more (under my terms).

I’m inspired to this little post by an astonishing case of necrobestiality (sfw) that our friend JKW sent to me:

Prosecution of a Douglas County case involving alleged sexual contact with a dead deer may hinge on the legal definition of the word “animal.”Bryan James Hathaway, 20, of Superior faces a misdemeanor charge of sexual gratification with an animal. He is accused of having sex with a dead deer he saw beside Stinson Avenue on Oct. 11.

A motion filed last week by his attorney, public defender Fredric Anderson, argued that because the deer was dead, it was not considered an animal and the charge should be dismissed. …

A judge should decide what the Legislature intended “animal” to mean in the statute, he said. “And the only clear point to draw the line in that definition, I believe, is the point of death.”

Assistant District Attorney James Boughner said the court can use a dictionary to determine the meaning of the word, but it doesn’t have to.

“The common and ordinary meaning of a word can be found in how people actually use the word,” Boughner wrote in his response to the motion.

When a person’s pet dog dies, he told [Judge Michael] Lucci, the person still refers to the dog as his or her dog, not a carcass.

“It stays a dog for some time,” Boughner said.

He referred to the criminal complaint, in which Hathaway told police he saw the dead deer in the ditch and moved it into the woods. Hathaway called it a dead deer, Boughner said, not a carcass.

“It did not lose its essence as a deer, an animal, when it died,” he said.

Anderson argued that the statute, which falls under the heading “crimes against sexual morality,” was meant to protect animals. That would be unnecessary in the case of a dead animal.

JJC has told us about fancy lawyers borrowing his professional expertise to map the history of one-eyed monsters. If only this case in Duluth were a bit, uh, fancier, I’m sure I could offer my services. I work cheap, even if it means going to Duluth (I’ve been a few times, and it would take a case like this to get me back). I might talk about what kinds of intimacy we are allowed with animals: why killing an animal to eat it is acceptable, even encouraged, while necrobestiality (or indeed any kind of necrophilia) is anathema. I might cite Cora Diamond, who observed in “Eating Meat and Eating People,” that the prevention of distress may have little to do with our dietary decisions, since, after all, “We do not eat our dead, even when they have died in automobile accidents or been struck by lightning, and their flesh might be first class….We also do not eat our amputated limbs…It is not a direct consequence of our unwillingness to cause distress to people. Of course, it would cause distress to people to think that they might be eaten when they were dead, but it causes distress because of what it is to eat a dead person.” With the weekend approaching, if you’re willing, I open the conversation up to you: about the undead demands of carcasses (and corpses) on the living, of bestiality, of the common medieval puns on the games of Venus and the venerial games of the Hunt, and of the justness of the prosecutor’s claim that allowing Hathaway to get away with his pleasure would encourage others to kill animals for sex.

Works

Assizes of the Forest, in The Statutes at Large from the Second Year of the Reign of King George the Third to the End of the Last session of Parliament. … With a Copious Index. And an Appendix, Consisting of Obsolete and Curious acts, … Volume the Ninth. London: Printed for Mark Basket and by the Assigns of Robert Basket; and by Henry Woodfall and William Strahan, 1765, 25-6.
Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat and Eating People.” Philosophy 53 (1978): 465-79, at 467 (original emphasis).
Gottfried von Strassburg,
Tristan, with the surviving fragments of the Tristan of Thomas. Arthur Thomas Hatto, trans. New York: Penguin, 1960, 83.


 

I also think that what we have with the 13th-century carrion law is a case of inexclusion: the exception has been folded into the law. Does the escape from power, now marked as a violation, bring the lacuna into the law with it? Inevitably, yes, because “managing the panic” of the illicitly killed high-status animal at the same time marks the death as an occasion for panic. In other words, having to manage the carcass creates the carcass as crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that poaching was thought a species of insurrection, both by the elites and by hoi polloi (at least in later medieval and post-medieval England).* I think of potty-mouthed children whose parents overreact, and the children, masochistically anxious for attention or just sadistic, return to cursing just to get their parents’ goat(s).

*Here’s a bit from my notes to I. M. W. Harvey “Poaching and Sedition in Fifteenth-Century England,” in Ralph Evans, ed. Lordship and Learning: studies in memory of Trevor Aston. 2004. 169-82:

Notes the way that poaching and protest assumed similar forms in SE England (175). False names: “during the second decade of the fifteenth century a Sussex chaplain under the assumed name of Friar Tuck led a poaching gang which made itself notorious for taking venison and burning foresters’ houses in Surrey and Sussex” (175). Eastern Kent Thomas Cheyne went by name of Hermit Bluebeard, and his captains named King of the Fairies, Queen of the Fairies (!), and Robin Hood (175). –

what fascinates me so much about the necrobestiality is that Hathaway’s act becomes a way to recognize the way carcasses are not quite dead. Necrobestiality, because it is a crime, necessitates a taxonomic effort that unravels certainties about the distinction between the living and the dead, about the ontologic (or at least symbolic) status of a carcass, about what counts as an animal, and so forth. If I wanted to condemn myself to the career path of the dirty minded, the Hathaway case could be folded into a discussion of the weird attention to “skull fucking” in pop culture over, say, the past 10-15 years. But no way am I going there. All I want to say, following you EJ, is to point out the perhaps unique, shocking force of sexuality to clarify or muddle things.

If I had to decide, right now, on my third book project (first: animals; second: meat?), I do something with corpses, beginning with Augustine’s On the Care for the Dead, going into the undead stories found in, say, Geoffrey of Auxerre’s On the Apocalypse,* going into the Cosmas and Damien story, and, of course, dead animals. –

* from my notes on the Joseph Gibbons trans.:

In Tripoli, a child dies who had been ordained as a cleric, and his uncle, consumed with grief, gives the boy over to an old woman: “No one knows what she said or did, but subsequent events proved that she cut the skin of his arm, and in the little opening she inserted certain written marks.” (163). Boy enters the choir, but after a while, another clergyman hears the boy singing and says, ” ‘I hear the voice not of a living man but of one already dead'” (164). He decides to prove that this is a soulless body: “…he set the naked boy on a rug and carefully felt his body in their presence. Under the skin of the arm he felt the little piece of paper which the wicked old woman had inserted. Without delay he opened the skin and took out the paper. Skin and flesh turned immediately to powder, and the bones fell apart from one another in a heap. Thus he showed that this was only a fantasy life that fooled onlookers, and that the boy was dead while he seemed to be alive” (164). –

I’ll start with my hesitance about generation, if generation is understood as reproduction: thinking sex reproductively is heteronormative (I’m thinking of Carolyn Dinshaw’s reading of Chaucer’s General Prologue in Getting Medieval, 117-21).

That said, the corpse is, as you point out, generative. What I think it “generates” is its own constitutive parts, heretofore held together and kept hidden by an imaginative force of desire for a self-same identity. The corpse, then, might be thought the truth of the body. In other words, I locate the problems of the corpse, not in the rotten body, but in the living body itself and what it must disavow in order to be produced as the site of a self.

In my perverse or playful or whatever attention to the living body as “really” a corpse (one of my tattoos simply says “dead flesh”), I’m thinking, too, of these points:

“So the word “fetish” fetishizes itself, in the same manner as do other words that speak of the false, the phony, the tawdry, the lustrous, the artful, and of course the simulacrum of art” (6).

“Behind the unveiled secret, another more convoluted secret cloaks itself—-one that perhaps will never be revealed absolutely: it is that of presence in general, which might never be exempt of fetishism.” (6).

“The fetish is better named than it appears. It is an artifice, a fact, something made: it is produced. It is the production of desire according to the double genitive: produced by desire and producing desire, namely, the desire of presence.” (7)

Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Two Secrets of the Fetish,” Diactritics 31 (2001): 3-8 (trans. T. C. Platt).

That said, once we start thinking of the sacred dismembered corpse–whether of saints or secular magnates–we have to go at these problems, probably, in a different way, since these bodies seem to acquire more power, more presence, the more widely they are scattered. One might even think of exemplary punishments, too, of bodies quartered and displayed through the realm–a particularly early modern punishment?–and the way this display is a spectacle, not so much of the dismembered body, or the body paradoxically made more potent through being scattered, but of power of Law to remake bodies into whatever form it likes. And this brings me back to the ritual in Tristan, in which the dismembered deer is a better deer than the living deer. The upshot of all this musing is to observe (not point out, since I’m sure you’re aware of all this), the multiple ways to understand corpses, dissolution, and dismemberment. – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2006/11/101-uses-for-dead-deer.html#sthash.jV6JINNq.dpuf