Review: Our Dogs, Our Selves

Gelfand, Laura D., ed. Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society. Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 6. Leiden: Brill 2016. Pp. xxxv, 446. €170,00 ISBN: 978-9-00426-916-3.

Reviewed by Karl Steel
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

[for The Medieval Review]

This fifteen-chapter anthology, originating in several sessions at Kalamazoo’s International Medieval Conference, is self-consciously a labor of love, its author biographies often furnished with photos, not of the writers, but of their dogs. Focused chiefly on the social and especially the art history of medieval and early modern Europe, each of its chapters, if read one after another, tend to be repetitive, as nearly all include a summary of the common features of medieval dog writing: we learn often about standard exegesis of the Bible’s dogs (predictably in bono and, especially on the matter of returning to their vomit, in malo), that dogs were praised especially for their loyalty, that large dogs tend to be coded masculine, small dogs as feminine, and that the status of dogs followed that of their owners. It is, then, the particular content of each chapter, as particular as dogs themselves, that saves the volume from repetitiveness: since so few animals, human or otherwise, can boast such extraordinary variety in size, purpose, and comportment, and since so few can belong so comfortably in so many environments, the possibilities for considering “dogs and x” in medieval cultures may well be inexhaustible. Every reader interested in dogs will therefore feel the absence of their favorites. I wanted considerations of Theodorich of St Trond’s eleventh-century poem for his Pitulus, a little dog praised for having no purpose but to play, or the equally charming dog of the Book of Tobit, the loyal companion of the Middle English Sir Tryamour, the whelp of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, or the tragedy of Guinefort, or, for that matter, the few headstones to pet dogs from the classical world, like the second-century grave stele for Helena at the Getty Museum (Object 71.AA.271) or a Greek example at the archaeological museum of Istanbul (Inv. 411 T), dedicated to Parthenope.[1] But the very fact that I missed all this, yet found so much that I otherwise would not have known to miss, is evidence enough of how much more work we can still do in dog studies.

The volume is sorted into five sections: Literal and Literary Dogs (ranging from Greek encomia, to the urban dogs of England and France, to those of Sufi literature); Signs, Symbols, and Dogs (the Bayeux Embroidery and Barocci’s counter-Reformation painting); Love and Dogs (further art history, with a lapdog in the Morgan Old Testament, Giotto’s dogs in the Scrovegni Chapel, and a set of hunting dogs in a late-medieval marriage allegory); Death and Dogs (three chapters on dogs in funerary monuments); and finally Good Dogs and Bad Dogs (ranging from a survey of nearly two thousand years of Japanese dog culture, to dogs as aristocratic accessories in late medieval Europe, to Walter S. Gibson’s study of the infernal dogs of late medieval Dutch writing and art).

For this reviewer, John Block Friedman’s contribution stands out. Far more wide ranging than its title suggests (“Dogs in the Identity Formation and Moral Teaching Offered in Some Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Miniatures”), its payoff here is less its several conclusions (for example, that the dog was “thought to be far more feudal than cats” and that the collared dog shows “rational control over the instinctual side of nature”) than the fact that it covers much of the same ground as several other chapters in this volume, but so much more thoroughly. As one would expect from Friedman, its footnotes are a treasure.

Alexa Sand provides a satisfying entry on the Morgan or Crusader Bible (Morgan Library, MS M.638), that, like Friedman’s chapter, could happily find its way onto a syllabus. Although this manuscript is typically read for its relationship to chivalric narrative and crusader concerns, Sand finds new opportunities by attending to the presence and absence of a little dog in the arms of Michal, daughter of King Saul and David’s first wife, a victim of dynastic politics. When they first meet, Michal carries a little dog; in her few subsequent appearances, after she has been forcibly reunited with David, the dog is absent. Sand quite rightly takes the dog in the first image as a sign of her courtliness, as, by the thirteenth century, small dogs were among the essential accouterments of noblewomen. However, by reading Michal’s gesture alongside similar gestures of the Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Sand extends the reading to account both for Michal’s childless and ultimately unhappy marriage to King David, and also, more tentatively, for a common plight of noblewomen during crusades, often bereft of their husbands for years on end. In this rich article, then, the dog functions as much a sign of courtier comforts as it does of neglect and sadness.

I was also impressed by the two chapters that mined urban records of dogs for Northern Europe, Emily Cockayne’s on medieval and early modern England, and Kathleen Ashley’s, much more specifically, on the Burgundian town of Beaune. The chapter on England discovered, for example, that whatever the legislative anxiety over the problems of stray dogs, particularly during time of plague, actual human deaths from dogs were quite rare. From police dogs to butchers’ dogs to nuisance dogs of all sorts, Cockayne’s wonderfully recreates the dog-rich environs of English cities. Ashley, by contrast, encounters a surprising paucity of dog records, especially in wills and urban documents, hinting at the need for more comparative work on the varying dog cultures of England and France.

Craig A. Gibson, Nathan Hofer, and Karen M. Gerhart all effectively presented material unfamiliar to a medievalist focused on Western Europe. Gibson summarizes several dog encomia from the ancient Greeks through to medieval Greek and late medieval Latin humanist writings, describing the standard features of an unfamiliar genre: hunting praise is common, but not universal, for example, and some paeans to dogs single out their barking as uniquely meaningful among animal noises. In the 1420s, Leon Battista Alberti even transforms his subject into an exemplar of the humanist itself, famous for its knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Etruscan. Hofer complicates the mistaken notion that Islam is hostile to dogs. After considering several positive references to dogs in the Qur’ān and its commentaries, and after pointing out that while dogs are ritually impure, so too is sleep, Hofer concentrates on Egyptian Sufi storytelling, in which the very degraded position of dogs allows mystics to engage with them as holy fools. Gerhart’s ambitious chapter covers the whole cultural history of dogs in premodern Japan, concentrating on their behavior in the handscrolls of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries: some are comfortable domestic animals; some creatures of the margins, like beggars and hinin (literally “nonhumans,” people who did impure jobs), living off or near the diseased, the dying, and corpses; and some are border figures, associated with figures of the spirit world (European medievalists might be reminded here of the dog of the Irish blacksmith Culann).

In general, I was less convinced by several of the art history chapters, particularly those that sought primarily to discover the “intention” of artists, since I am skeptical about any one-to-one-to-one mapping of artistic intention to symbolic meaning to reception history. Judith W. Mann demonstrates that the animals in Federico Barucci’s counter-Reformation paintings were not painted from life, but then argues that because Barucci was not a “true naturalist,” we might then be allowed to read its dogs symbolically to discover his “intentions,” which, in effect, requires assembling iconographic and doctrinal evidence, alongside currents in doctrinal debates during the counter-Reformation, to fix his canine images as symbols, for example, of unworthy participation in the Eucharist. I am convinced by Jane C. Long’s argument that the dogs of Giotto’s picture cycle of Joachim and Anna recall dramatic conventions, but not by her tendency to read the expressions of dogs and humans both rather straightforwardly as expressing some familiar emotion (“joyful greeting” for example); similarly, at once point, Donna L. Sadler proposes that the “unmistakable smile” of a pair of dogs on a tomb of St Denis “betray[s] [an] unassailable belief in the afterlife” (I liked her suggestion, however, that early modern pleurants may perform the same function as, and be understood as replacing, the dogs of medieval funerary art). Jane Carroll exhaustively treats a late medieval tapestry from Alsace, Die Jagd nach der Treue [The Hunt for Fidelity], in which a husband and wife ride together on a horse, amid a pack of hounds: to solve the problem of how to illustrate the ongoing devotion of married love rather than the successful consummation of courtship, this tapestry features a deer in flight, but not yet captured, by hunters that want only to chase it, so “encod[ing] a fitting summation of traditional marriage” as a balance of “dualities.” Janet Snyder identifies the dogs on Spanish tomb sculpture with contemporary Iberian breeds (the Galgo, Phalène, Alano, Burgos Pointer, Spanish Mastiff, and so on), and then describes the breed-specific traits of these represented dogs to unpack the sculptures’ symbolism: thus the Spanish rat terrier, bred to work in dark wine cellars, is a suitable dog for the tomb of Isabella of Portugal, “who was kept out of the public eye for the last four decades of her life.” I found this approach ingenious but unconvincing, its conclusions too neatly determined by its argumentative approach. I am much more convinced by Sophie Oosterwijk’s study of dogs on tomb monuments: towards the end of her chapter, she suggests that the dead had originally been shown trampling on animal representations of vices and infernal forces, like lions, serpents, and dragons, and that companion animals gradually crowded in on and nudged aside this meaningful symbolic code.

Oosterwijk, however, does not propose why personal dogs might have crowded into a space previously reserved for such a clearly coded piety. This reluctance to speculate a little is indicative of the volume’s larger tendency not to complicate the motives of medieval people or modern scholars, and, more generally, of its disinterest in telling a more ambitious story. For, as a whole, the volume does not aim to shift the way that we think about dogs, the function of animals in medieval or even art history, or, for that matter, what might happen to how we think about ourselves once we think about our companion animals historically. The overall argumentative aimlessness of the volume may stem its near-total disengagement from contemporary critical cultural studies in animals. Such work is mostly concentrated in Elizabeth Carson Paston’s chapter on the Bayeux Embroidery. We would search in vain elsewhere for references, for example, to Donna Haraway’s essential work on play with and the labor of dogs, to her complicated political histories of dogs in American colonialism, environmental activism, and gender (consideration of this work, for example, would counter Pastan’s claims about the Bayeux Embroidery representing King Harold’s preconquest “harmony with nature”). For that matter, Erica Fudge is also missing, despite her decades of scholarship in modeling how to do philosophically savvy studies of early modern animal/human cultures. A fortiori, less obvious but still essential names are missing: Carla Freccero and Colin Dayan on race, dogs, and violence, for example, or Kathy Rudy on the queerness of dog love (which might have offered an interesting counterweight to the marriage tapestry studied by Carroll).

My point in mentioning these scholars is not to ask that footnotes be swollen so that frequently cited scholars garner still more citations. Rather, it is because without critical animal study, and indeed other without critical fields (like affect studies, for example, or even psychoanalysis), the emotional core to many of these works, which are self-avowedly in love with their subjects, is left unanalyzed. This means that one of key thread for the anthology — the dog as alter ego — is often described but its mechanics never considered. Dogs represent loyalty, to the family, to the church, to the honor of the house. We learn of all this, but without much consideration about what it means for humans to identify with animals, or to perform their own preferred identities through this intimate, living property. We encounter the word “pampered” often to describe certain dogs, but no reflection on what this word might indicate: envy, perhaps, or disgust (I was reminded of James Herriot’s unpleasant musings about Tricki-Woo, the overfed, epistolary Pekingese of All Creatures Great and Small). On this point in particular, then, more critical attention would have been especially welcome, even apart from the work of critical animal studies. As alter egos, dogs can be our ideal selves, in their hunting prowess and loyalty, what we would like to be; or they could be our “natural” selves, devoid of custom and manners, the brute self we must overcome to become truly human; or in their “pure grief and devotion,” as Pastan characterizes some of the dogs on the Bayeux Embroidery, they represent “our best selves,” one that no human could ever hope to achieve. In packs, we might say that dogs invite us to “to go with the flow,” at least as they figure in Deleuze and Guattari’s outraged response to Freud’s misreading of his “Wolf Man” patient, an anti-identitarian consideration of dogs so well treated, in a medieval context, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s reading of both cynocephali and the Middle English Sir Gowther.[2] Gelfand’s capacious anthology has so much material that we might use for further reconsideration of dogs and the self, to burrow further still into how dogs have domesticated us, how we might dream of getting undomesticated through them, and what we might owe the strays.


[1] Gutram Koch “Zum Grabrelief der Helena,” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 12 (1984): 59-72
[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 120-41.

Skin color and musical notation: A few fascinating manuscript images

One of my (many!) procrastination habits is poking around in manuscripts online to see what might turn up. Recently, I’ve found the following–

To start you off lightly, here’s a multicolored embroidered repair to a hole in a Historia Scholastica manuscript, in a section about the various woods used to manufacture Jesus’s Cross:

point 5

Aarau, Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, MsWettF 9 203r

And then this – the Occitan Abreviamen [or Abreujamen] de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, c. 1321-1324, an illustrated universal history, specifically, a diagrammic chronicle, remarkable, to me at any rate, for its representations of differences in skin color. Here’s one image:

and here’s another, 52v, from the same manuscript:


Guy of Lusignan and Sibilla of Jersualem;  Isabella, below, with 3 of her 4 husbands [Almaric, Henry & Conrad]

There is work on the manuscript by Catherine Leglu and especially by Federico Botana, but to my exceedingly limited knowledge, nothing on its skin tones. We could use further comparison. Botana’s superb codicology puts Egerton 1500 alongside Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, MS Zanetti Latino 399, but unfortunately, as the latter manuscript isn’t online, I don’t know how it shows its sultans, nor its Sibilla or Isabella. Nor do I know enough about diagrammic chronicles even to know whether it’s more or less unusual to decorate genealogies with faces: for example, click through for a Biblical genealogy from the Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, MsWettF 9 239v, mostly a list of names, but also featuring a delightfully nonplussed bird, grumpy at being dragooned into the Flood story. Cambridge, Trinity Library O.1.78 provides only the names of the English kings; see also this mixture of the two in the Biblical genealogies in Dijon Bibliothèque municipale Ms 634, a manuscript of Peter of Poitiers’ Compendium.

As further evidence that I poked around a bit, I can also cite these from the British Library: Royal MS 14 B VI (genealogy of the Kings of England, faces and for most kings, full bodies); Royal MS 14 B V (similar but with the full complement of silly medieval marginalia – snails, animal doctors, deer-hunting rabbits, &c); Add MS 48976 (the Rous Roll, so delicately drawn, whose genealogy diagrams are just names, sometimes becrowned); Cotton MS Domitian A VIII (English kings, just names); Cotton MS Nero D I (Matthew Paris’s notes, just names); Harley MS 7353 (Edward IV and biblical typography plus an actual genealogical tree with potentate portraits as leaves, and, well, just click through). The Abington Chronicle [Cambridge Trinity R.17.7] sadly isn’t online yet.

If anyone’s fishing around for an essay topic, then, you might want this in the mix as well:


King Penda, a red-faced pagan. Houghton Library 40, Chronicle c 1470

No other king in the manuscript is so colored; and if you’d like to try to guess by reading about Penda in a proximate English history, be my guest.


Marvel at this notation of hunting horns, represented as floating in air, as sound, in Hardouin de Fontaines-Guérin’s Livre du Tresor de Vanerie. There are just the three manuscripts, one of which, I believe, is a postmedieval copy, and the other unillustrated. But one, BnF 855 is so, so wonderful:

Notation like this graces so many of its illustrations. Of course your humble procrastinator is not the first to notice these: as of the 1990s, the modern expert is Eva Marie HeaterJulien Brunelliere has written on it more recently; and Henri Kling cracked the code in 1911.


Finally, it was edited twice in the nineteenth century, its illustrations reproduced both times, and once in a style that, at least for those of us who read independent comics in the 1990s, recalls nothing other than Dame Darcy’s legendary Meat Cake

Please compare, and with that, I am done, and back to much more mundane medieval matters:


Dame Darcy, Meat Cake #0, 1996.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 62.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 455.

[21] Ibid., 461.

[22] Ibid., 463.

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

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

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

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


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

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

The posts are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Branch,

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

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

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