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

by KARL STEEL

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

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

The posts are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Branch,

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

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

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

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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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sovereignty, Biopolitics, the Forest, and the King’s Jews: Sketch for a Research Program

Tony Lewis from Whitney Biennial

by KARL STEEL

What the title says. Over the past couple days, I’ve been reading David Nirenberg’s forthcoming Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, whose fourth chapter makes an old point with atypical neatness:

Medieval kings had expanded their sovereignty (in part) by assigning the Jews to a status outside normative law and claiming exceptional power to decide their fate. Sovereign power was thus (in part) performed through the protection of those who had denied God’s sovereignty, his ‘enemies’ and ‘killers.’

Nirenberg argues that kings would later demonstrate their sovereign power not by protecting but by murdering and expelling Jews: the sovereign exception, as we know, can go both ways, towards “mercy” or towards the full, arbitrary exercise of the Law, nothing at its core but the king’s whimsy. If not in practice, at least in sovereign fantasy.

Nirenberg brilliantly connects this medieval sovereignty to famous passages in Schmitt and Benjamin (“Sovereign is he who decides the exception” and “The Prince, upon whom the decision over the exception rests, discovers in the best of situations that a decision is impossible for him”) and from thence to the “miracle” in Schmitt and Benjamin, and, as expected, to the redemptive rereading of the political miracle in Agamben, Žižek, and Santner. Almost needless to say, Nirenberg isn’t on board with the miracle in any form, neither in Schmitt’s sovereign version nor the post-Sovereign versions of B, A, Ž, and S.

More about that much later (like, later this year). What strikes me now is the relation of Nirenberg’s point to one I’m making in an article, “Biopolitics in the Forest,” that will appear in Randy Schiff and Joey Taylor’s Politics of Ecology anthology. You’ve had the chance, often, to see preliminary bits: here, here, here, and here (and even this post from 2006). The article’s key argument is that the sovereign exception and biopolitics each sprang up simultaneously in the 12th-century English forest. Biopolitics is not a paradigmatic modern form of governmentality that follows long after sovereignity, but rather coincides with sovereign claims; also coincident with those claims is the way that bodies “naturally” resist biopolitics, a point I’m developing from Cary Wolfe. As Wolfe argues, and me with him, agency and objecthood, the problem of the possibility of “conscious resistance,” and other humanist, rationalist concerns start to fall away once we start to think about bodily forces in biopolitics. Thinking like that makes way for thinking about animals in the political community, Wolfe’s main point, but it also makes room for thinking more fluidly about dominated humans. Like, for example, the Jews of thirteenth-century England.

Here’s how it goes in the article itself:

Husbandry is the scandalous foundation of a biopolitical analysis that has tended to be committed, more or less explicitly, to defending human particularity by trying to keep humans from being treated “like animals.” Foucault observes that “Unlike discipline, which is addressed to bodies, the new nondisciplinary power [of biopolitics] is applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being; ultimately, if you like, to man-as-species” and that in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we witness the “development of a medicine whose main function will not be public hygiene, with institutions to coordinate medical care, centralize power, and normalize knowledge.” Esposito writes that in modern biopolitics “life enters into power relations not only on the side of its critical thresholds or its pathological exceptions, but in all its extension, articulation, and duration,” and calls this a “new rationality centered on the question of life.” The obvious modernist and humanist biases of these observations ought to be contested. When Foucault states that “man is to population what the subject of right was to the sovereign,” or Esposito explains that biopolitics aims not only at “obedience but also at the welfare of the governed,” their analysis might have gone even further had they said that biopolitics treats humans like livestock, or, more particularly, like the sovereign’s livestock, which is to say, like venison.

I stand by that argument. But Nirenberg reminds me of something that I missed, which is another 12th/13th-century English (for example) development of both sovereignty and biopolitics. The king called the Jews his Jews, and (so?) they were the victims when the King’s subjects rebelled (for example, in the 1260s, against Henry III, and also especially in York in 1190, committed when Richard I was–as was his habit–overseas). Also note this antisemitic 13th-century cartoon, where Isaac of Norwich is represented wearing Henry III’s crown (and read the post itself, while avoiding its comments). That’s sovereignty, and a set of standard resistances to sovereignty.1

But there’s also biopolitics. Strikingly, a lot of regulation about the Jews in England, first from the church and then from the crown, tries to manage what might be called biological relations between Christians and Jews. The 1219 statutes of William of Blois, Bishop of Worchester, for example, forbid Christians from serving Jews as nurses (see also here). Other statutes, echoing Lateran IV.68, explain that Jews should wear a badge to prevent sexual mixing between Christians and Jews [the same statutes, better edited here, 121, have “quoniam in partibus istis sic inter christianos et iudeos confusio inolevit ut fere nulla differentia discernatur, propter quod nonunquam continigit quod christiani iudeis mulieribus commiscentur”]. That’s the church. But then January 1253 Statute of the Jews gives a secular reaffirmation of these and other points. In regards to the Jews, English sovereignty and biopower had now combined.2

Putting aside the question of whether the conciliar decrees were enforced, and the related point of whether the laws were simply mechanical repetitions of older laws (like these or these), we might observe that the laws themselves witness to the fact that bodies are a place for sovereignty to expand its area of concern. Bodies must be managed, not just by violence, but also by nurturing, to maintain the health of populations and to prevent contagion. Bland points like these of course take on a sinister aspect when we remember that we’re talking about relations between a dominant Christian majority and a dependent Jewish minority. We know that concern for the health of the body politic or the corpus christianorum could just as well be murderous to those marked as not belonging. It might even turn against members of the community, accused, for example, of “judaizing.” That’s the model of biopolitics as the extension of sovereignty, and it’s what we find especially in Roberto Esposito.

Simple points like these will reshape my considerations of sovereignty and biopolitics in 12th and 13th-century England. The baronial killing of Jews is analogous, mutatis mutandis (!), to poaching the king’s deer: that’s resistance to sovereignty. The insistence that Christians not eat food rejected by Jews, and that Jews not nurse Christian children and vice versa may be analogous to the necessity of royal management of cervid populations in hunting preserves. That’s biopolitics.

And, as with the cervids, we’ll probably find that bodies, even under sovereign control, act independently. Here’s Cary Wolfe, from Before the Law:

the power of Foucault’s analysis is to demonsrate just how unstable and mobile the lines are between political subject and political object–indeed to demonstrate how that entire vocabulary must give way to a new, more nuanced reconceptualization of political effectivity. And equally important is that Foucault’s introduction of “life into history”–of the body in the broadest sense of the political equation–does not lead directly and always already to an abjection for which the most predictable tropes of animalization become the vehicle.

Bodies will do what they have to do. This isn’t a matter of agency, nor a matter of complete exposure, nor a matter simply of suffering or of being “reduced” to animal, bare life. This isn’t the lachrymose biopolitics of Agamben and Esposito, whose only escape is some kind of messianic break. Rather, this is an array of forces, in which subjects do suffer but in which they also inevitably resist, regardless of whether they want to or not.

We know Jews and Christians mixed in medieval England (for example). They probably did eat and drink together from time to time, again, just because a body, infant or adult, has to eat. Since that bodily need can’t be stopped, since it will find its own solutions, independent of biopolitical control, things will inevitably go awry. Note this: thirteenth-century English laws that compelled Christians to refuse meat that the Jews had themselves rejected ended up requiring Christians, in effect, to keep kosher, and this during some of the worst persecutions of Jews in England’s history. The imperative, then, is to follow up on points like these to find moments where bodily control in an antisemitic biopolitical regime behaved, well, oddly, to trouble our sedimented, humanist notions of agency, political control, and “active” rebellion.

One last irony, as a repulsive epilogue: the ritual murder charge — dating from the mid 12th century and probably originating with an English monk — often accused Jews of anthropophagy. The Jews, supposed to want to kidnap and torment Christian children to enact their contempt for Christ, were often supposed to want to eat them too. See especially the “Adam of Bristol” story, where Samuel, the murder’s chief architect, promises, “I will rotate him” so that “this body of the God of the Christians will be roasted by the fire just like a fat chicken” [“ego regirabo”; “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”].3

Now, of course, this charge could not be a more obvious example of psychoanalytic projection, since the Christians were the “real” anthropophages; they, not the Jews, ate their god.

And sometimes Christians ate their own martyrs. In the late eighteenth century, Dean Kaye and Sir Joseph Banks opened the tomb of young Hugh of Lincoln, murdered by Jews, as the (false!) story goes, stuffed in a well, and then retrieved to be buried as a martyr. Inside the tomb, they found a child’s body wrapped “in a leaden cere cloth, in a kind of pickle (which Sir Joseph is said to have tasted), but whether so perfect as to show the marks of crucifixion we are not told.”

Which Sir Joseph is said to have tasted. Bodies go awry.

Meanwhile, during the period of Hugh’s supposed murder, the English Christians were, in fact, dumping the bodies of Jews, including children, in wells, no doubt poisoning their own drinking water. And so the rebellion against sovereignty leads us, also, to biopolitical failure.


1 Robert C. Stacey “Anti-Semitism and the Medieval English State,” in J. R. Maddicott and D. M. Palliser, eds, The Medieval State: Essays Presented to James Campbell (London, 2000): 171-72 [163-77]

2 John Edwards, “The Church and the Jews in Medieval England,” in The Jews in Medieval Britain, ed. Patricia Skinner (Boydell & Brewer, 2003), 91 [85-96]; See also J. A. Watt, “The English Episcopate, the State and the Jews: the Evidence of the Thirteenth-Century Conciliar Decrees,” in Thirteenth Century England II. ed. P. R. Coss and S. D. Lloyd. Proceedings of the Newcastle Upon Tyne Conference 1987. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell P, 1988, 137-147

3 Christoph Cluse, “‘Fabula Ineptissima’: Die Ritualmordlegende um Adam von Bristol nach der Handschrift London, British Library, Harley 957” Aschkenas 5 (1995): 293-330

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

by KARL STEEL

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

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

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

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

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

Nuts, Turnips, Water, Blood, Bread, Watermelon

Nuts, Turnips, Water, Blood, Bread, Watermelon

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

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

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

How NOT to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives

Some of the pleasant cows of Bréhat.

by KARL STEEL

Nearly two years ago (!), I outlined a prospectus for my next book. You’ll have noted, I hope, that book doesn’t yet exist. So, here I am, two years later, solemnly swearing on everything that’s holy to me (a tangle of worms, a bit of pottery, the ozone layer) that 2015 is the year of the book.

This means saying NO, no to all requests to contribute to special issues, no to all chapters in anthologies, no to book review essays, no to book reviews, no to anything not directly related to writing/assembling this second book. My apologies in advance? Or perhaps none necessary.

The latter would be worse, because everyone wants to be cared about enough to be able to disappoint someone. Also, impostor syndrome, the condition that justly and rightly afflicts us all (unless you’re a total fake), is also a good way to eructate a yes where a no might be better. When you’re asked, you know you exist, you know you’re wanted, and you get what should be the quick hit of a publication. Writing when there’s so many words already, when every new book catalog means reading about how many friends you’ll fail, has a phatic quality, anyway: the underlying point may always be “Look, over here: here I am, with you.”

It may be even more thoroughly phatic when, practically, there’s no reason for me to write this book: I’m getting tenure/promotion (I presume!) on the basis of the one book, and, with a 21-credit load, with automatic annual salary increases (thanks union!), there’s no monetary reason to write the second book, no reasonable local professional expectation. And not a lot of time. And yet.

The book is tentatively titled How Not to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives. Is it a joke title? Does it set up an inevitable third book (How to Serve Man)?

It’ll loosely be structured around food and eating. Food’s a key site for thinking materialism: as we know from Bakhtin and Bynum, ingestion and digestion and nurturing have to do with care, boundaries, incorporation, violence, persistence, with the actual but temporary, vulnerable existence of things, and with the unequal exchange of any encounter. Food also of course has to do with gender (Bynum again, but also Bordo of course) and who provides food, who should be fed, whose needs are always secondary, and who is made to feed others.

It’s possible too that not everything will be from the medieval archive: I should take on the temporal intermixture of REMEDIAEVAL. For more, read on:

Chapters, which are much the same as the initial proposal, again, from two freakin’ years ago:

(1) Feeding Others and Pets, focusing on the prioress and the queer antisocial antifuturity of her pet feeding, and on the gender of dog women.

(2) Eating Others, and Feral Children, focusing on the wolf-child of Hesse, Bisclavret, and Melion. And perhaps Sawney Bean and story’s afterlife? And perhaps Humanimal, a Project for Future Children?

(3) Not Eating, focusing on Alexander and the Brahmins, with Alexander and Gog/Magog as the pivot, thinking of the wretched, vegetable — or oystery — existence of these philosophers, perhaps with a conjoined study of Breatharianism. And perhaps some engagement with my vegan friends and gleaners, with some memories of my dumpster-diving days.

EXIT – Being Eaten, focusing on, of course, worms, sky burial?, and that flip side of the ethical injunction from Levinas, summarized by Derrida here:

the hostage is the one who is delivered to the other in the sacred openness of ethics, at the origin of sacredness itself. The subject is responsible for the other before being responsible for himself as ‘me.’ This responsibility to the other, for the other, comes to him, for example (but this is not just one example amog others) in the ‘Thous shalt not kill.’ Thous shalt not kill thy neighbor. Consequences follow upon one another, and must do so continuously: thou shalt not make him suffer, which is sometimes worse than death, thou shalt not do him harm, thou shalt not eat him, not even a little bit, and so forth.

Because, of course, we’re all hostage to others in another way, that of being organic materials available to be eaten by other organic subjects, themselves available in turn, so long as there are organic materials to be had.

Any other must write about texts you want to see here? My secondary aim’s a modest 70,000 words.

My primary aim, of course, is just to keep the promise of this blog post.

Here, Have Some of My Roasted Polyp. I made it myself

A sequence of thoughts:

  1. one of the main problems with meat-eating is that the thing with the meat gives us its meat unwillingly
  2. one solution is to grow meat that has no will.
  3. another is to use meat from our own bodies. this is obviously the most ethical solution.
  4. but we can’t just use our meat for self-steaks, given that we need our flesh to get things done, like, say, standing up or sitting down
  5. so we should grow our meat as extraneous organs, like, say, polyps
  6. except that this would be really calorie-inefficient. it’d probably take more calories to grow the meat than we would gain by eating it, probably even if it were grown partly through photosynthesis.

It says something about something that it wasn’t until item #6 that I realized this was a bad idea.

But it did lead to this fun tweet: