Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro

This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here’s what’s undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I’ve found easiest to navigate:

British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings
.
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Petworth Manuscript [newly digitized].
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the ‘Devonshire Chaucer’).
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the ‘Delamare Chaucer’).

If you’re reading this, I trust you’re already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook’s Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you’ll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight’s Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has “Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia,” and where Hengwrt 25v has “Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda,” Christ Church 152, 26v, has “the ordinannce of lystys that thesyiis ordaynyd.” Does the Knight’s Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of “ordaining” the divisions of the plot?

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Or here’s the Reeve’s Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v. Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself (“Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale” — note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes “Prologue” in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath’s Tale start? In at least one case, her tale – or one of them anyway – begins after the Pardoner interrupts her:

Harley 7334 89r

Harley 7334 89r, with a red “Narrat” in the margin.

Here, then, the Wife’s prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her “experience.”

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife’s Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here’s my (crowded) slide:

slide

Is it just “words between” the Friar and Summoner? It is an “interpretation” of the Wife’s tale? An “interruption”? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife’s prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar’s Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Should the carter be taken down to hell? “Nay q[uo]d þe deuel,” he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda’s story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v

Harley 1758 126v

The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin’s Tale — not the Merchant’s — begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire’s Tale. They’ve clearly “sought in diuers places” for the “the reaste” but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn’t get changed: in red, “The Prologue to the Merchaunt.” Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant’s Tale (“Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight”). No correction. No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn’t bothered by variance in Tale order. If you’re having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than “fragments.”

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:

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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:

3

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.

Finally!

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.

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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:

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Dame Darcy, Meat Cake #0, 1996.

Medieval Muteness: Disability, Objects, and Animals

Sabbatical honesty, then – in the two weeks since the last post, I’ve given back revisions to articles for the Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History (“Animals and Violence: Medieval Humanism, ‘Medieval Brutality,’ and the Carnivorous Vegetarianism of Margery Kempe”), The Open Access Canterbury Tales (animals and the Friar’s Tale), and a revised talk for a chapter in The Body Unbound, a classics &c anthology (“Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations“). I’m hoping to get back to the Book soon, as soon I get past doing my review of a book I’ll tell you about after I write my review.

What follows is a draft of a talk I’m giving in Madison, for the UW Madison Graduate Association of Medieval Studies on Friday, April 14. I’m sure to tweak this again in a few weeks, but just to get it out of my hair, and potentially into yours, here it is.

I’ve tried to do a little of everything in this, so my theory heads can gnaw on something, as can the ones who mainly want a bunch of neat medieval stories, as can the ones who want some hardcore medieval stuff to fight back against [and, to be honest, my competence in medieval grammar is minimal. At least for now]. 5,000 words is a lot to read! For you, and for me, but it’s a good 40-45 minutes, and: well! One hopes for the best.

Continue reading

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.

Narrative Proof, or ‘You Lost. Get Over It.’

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Angry ape on wall of the Halle Saint Pierre

The King of Tars is story about proof. So is Guy de Cambrai’s Barlaam and Josephat. And likewise an account of a divining ape at the early 17th-century Mughal court. The first needs to demonstrate the proof of Christianity: it does this, spectacularly, by transforming a “wonderlumpe” (from Sarah Star, here) — a unformed, bloodless, boneless nub of stuff — into a baby, through baptism; its father from a Black Sultan into a White Crusader; and the near east, from Islam to Christianity, through a crusade that batters its Muslim opponents into bloody submission. The second, a medieval Christianized version of the story of the Buddha, similarly ends its philosophical debates — about the unity of the Trinity and the singular power of the Creator and the uselessness of worldly pleasures — with its own crusade, rare in the Barlam tradition, in which Christianity wins again by beating its pagan enemies down. And in the last story, we have an ape unerringly drawn to Christ’s name:

his Majesty…caused in twelve several papers in Persian letters, to be rewritten the names of twelve Lawgivers, as Moses, Christ, Mohamet, Ally, and others: and shuffling them in a bagge, bad the beast divine which was the true law: who putting in his foot tooke out the inscribed of Christ. This amazed the King, who suspecting that the Apes master could reade Persian, and might assist him, wrote them anew in Court Caracters, and presented them the second time: the ape was constant, found the right, and kissed it. Whereas a principall Officer grew angry, telling the King it was some imposture, desiring he might have leave to make the lots anew, and offered himselfe to punishment if the Ape could beguile him; he wrote the names putting only eleven into the bagge, and kept the other in his hand. The beast searched, but refused all; the King commanded to bring one, the beast tore them in fury, and made signe the true Law-givers name was not among them. The King demanded where it was, and he ran to the Noble-man and caught him by the hand, in which was the paper inscribed with the name of Christ Iesus. The King was troubled, and keepes the Ape yet. (here; also here; and here; and see here for more)

All of these stories are about proof. Narrative fundamentally differs from philosophy in its mode of proof. Philosophy tends to operate sequentially, but timelessly, in a kind of parallel universe in which the only things that move are arguments, and in which the final argument somehow reaches back through the whole line of proofs to affix it in a quivering, shining stasis. Narrative operates sequentially as well, but it ends when action must stop, when the genre demands that it be wrapped up, not when thought has sufficiently demonstrated itself.

The problem with narratives of proof, therefore, is their being narratives, bound to action, and as a result, committed to establishing their proofs through action. Whatever the truth of Christianity, or a Trump Electoral College victory, the only real order of truth these narratives are able to follow is that of action, in which truth is established when the other side is made to stop talking, or when some dumb beast proves truth because it cannot do anything but. Or when the rules of the genre demand that the game end.

We see, then, that narrative proof fundamentally wants to escape from reason and disputation. This is a Christian ‘humanism’ – or an electoral movement – that wants an end to conversation, that yells at us to ‘give up! you lost!’, and is always seeking some way not to have to reason anymore. That always wants the action to relieve them of the work and responsibility of having to think.

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your humble author, in the midst of it.

Habitability: Buridan on Dark-Skinned People

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BnF français 25344, 128v, Gautier de Metz, Image du Monde

Today, my “Problems in Posthumanism” graduate seminar worked on Alexander and Dindimus, Montaigne on Cannibals, Petrarch on the Canary Islands (well, we at least read it), and chiefly Sylvia Wynter’s groundbreaking, monumental “1492: A New World View.” Given Wynter’s arguments about the cognitive disruption occasioned to the “Scholastic order of knowledge” by the full-scale European encounter of a globe fully inhabited by humans, I prepped by rereading Valerie Flint’s 1984 Viator article on the (uninhabitable) antipodes and the premodern community of monsters and men, encompassed within a homogeneous humanity; and by glancing at Aquinas on Aristotle’s Meteorology, where our Dumb Ox follows Augustine, Bede, and other luminaries by likewise asserting that most of the earth is unpeopled, eg,

Just as these places are uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat, so the regions under the constellation of the Bear [which is the part of the heaven always visible to us] are uninhabitable on account of the cold caused by the sun being far away. Hence that part of the earth in which we live is between the two circles, i.e., between the one that passes through the summer tropic and the one which bounds that part of the heaven always visible to us.

So far so good. But to complicate Wynter, I also reviewed the Book of John Mandeville, whose hundreds of manuscripts affirm a fully inhabited globe; consulted Higgins’ Mandeville to glance at the 1330 Directorium ad faciendum passagium transmarinum (translated soon thereafter into French by Jean de Vignay), in which a widely traveled Dominican asserts the general habitability of the world; and, at last, I skimmed the problem of the habitability of the Earth in Jean Buridan’s fourteenth-century Quaestiones super libris de caelo et mundo, which presents a wide range of options on this problem, even in the very Parisian center of the “Scholastic order of knowledge.”

I did this not to disprove Wynter (and indeed, in the course of prepping the class, I found ‘disproofs’ of Wynter that stumbled, badly, because of their ignorance of the Middle Ages). As my students observed, Wynter is enormously generative, and though she does make errors in (medieval) facts, so do Agamben and Foucault and other notables in “traveling theory”: few declare Agamben and Foucault useless because of this. One suspects that the withering corrections of Wynter are motivated by something other than scrupulous rigor.

Rather, I was doing my duty as a medievalist and to the Middle Ages: I presented a heterogeneous premodern, a Europe not dominated by a singular scholastic “Feudal” order of knowledge, but one that nonetheless would be profoundly altered by the European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.

And while reading Buridan, I found this:

And now we speak about the middle zone that is between the tropics within the equator. Immediately it appears that this is uninhabited because of too great heat, since coming up on the tropic of Cancer they [=travelers?] find so much heat that there the men are burned and black beyond the common measure of men, looking like those of India and Ethiopia. Therefore, it seems that beyond this heat that no man could live there. And this is confirmed, since if it was inhabited beyond this zone, some of us would have come to them, or they would have come to us; because none has been heard [to do so], as some say.

Et modo dicemus de zona media quae est inter tropicos sub aequinoctiali. Statim enim prima facie apparet quod illa propter nimium calorem sit inhabitabilis, quia procedentes usque ad tropicum Cancri inveniunt tantum calorem, quod ibi homines ultra communem modum hominum aduruntur et fiunt nigri, sicut apparet de Indis et Aethiopibus; ideo videtur quod ultra esset tanta caliditas quod non possent ibi homines habitare. Et hoc confirmatur, quia si essett ultra habitatio, aliqui nostrum venissent ad eos, vel illi venissent ad nos; quod non est auditum, ut aliqui dicunt. (quoted from Ernest A. Moody, “John Buridan on the Habitability of the Earth“) (also available here, p 156).

My Latin’s a bit rusty, so do correct me if I went astray. As as counterexample, Buridan next cites Avicenna, who believes that the equatorial zone is not only inhabited, but even graced by mild weather (and a very noble city!), since there the sun passes directly overhead, remaining so only for a short time, while elsewhere, the angle of the sun means it beats down on us for longer. Maybe so!

I’m particularly struck by Buridan’s “proof” on the basis of skin color. While this is a scholastic “proof,” and therefore offered more as a thought experiment than a certain description of reality, it still says something about what dark-skinned people are made to represent for Buridan. Even as a man from the “frozen North” (which is to say, Béthune, roughly between Arras and Dunkirk), he likely would have encountered dark-skinned people in his life, and certainly in art. However, Buridan’s proof at least implicitly asserted that such dark-skinned people were evidence that there could be no darker people. The darker the person, the more certain that the torrid zones were uninhabitable. Darkness tended towards impossibility, nonexistence, a life that could not be.

He notably has nothing similar to say about whiteness “beyond the common measure of man” as disproving the habitability of the far North. More directly to my point, and perhaps to Wynter’s, darkness is at once evidence of the limits of habitability and an intimation of uninhabitability: it was a visible sign of the limits of life, and therefore a kind of geographical memento mori. Or vacuum. Wynter argues that in the modern era the medieval habitable/uninhabitable mapping would be remapped onto the color line:

the color line had come to inscribe a premise parallel, if in different terms, to that which had been encoded in the feudal Christian order, by the line of caste that had been mapped onto the physical universe as well as onto the geography of the earth….[viz.] the white (unmixed people of Indo-European descent) and the black (peoples of wholly or of partly African descent) opposition, with the latter hereditary variation or phenotype coming to reoccupy the earlier signifying place of the earlier torrid and Western Hemisphere, within the logic of the contemporary globalized and purely secular variant of the Judaeo-Christian culture of the West. (39)

In other words, in the modern era, Black people come to signify, for the dominant White-identified genre of Man, the form of human life that is excluded from the human. They are a materialization of non-identity, of non-existence, of Human non-being. And perhaps we have here, in Buridan, a hint of the same, of what would metastasize into the full, horrendous form it took in the fifteenth century and onwards.

Deviant Bodies and Animalized Humans

Nearly two years ago, I announced:

For several years I’ve wanted to write an essay on the way that ‘mute beasts’ communicate through gesture in a host of medieval texts (famous examples include the ravens in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the lion in Yvain), with some consideration of the way that some monks complained that the use of monastic sign language reduced them to animality. So, a chapter on disability and animals, in terms of muteness, interspecies communication, sign language, and signs, maybe with a strong gesture towards the use of CS Peirce in HOW FORESTS THINK, would be a lot of fun to write.

And now it’s basically done. I’ve submitted it to the medieval disability anthology, and then revised it a bit and submitted it again, and then revised it a lot more, because I’m sharing it at the University of Pennsylvania Medieval-Renaissance seminar this September 7. For the interested, here’s the first part opening of my paper, my first real attempt to do disability studies.

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Saxon Mirror, Mscr.Dresd.M.32 6r

For several medieval writers, differences in mental capability are partly an effect of particular kinds of bodies or environments.[1] For example, an eighth-century medical treatise by Qusta ibn Luqa (in Latin, Costa ben Luca), translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and listed as a Parisian university text in the thirteenth, holds that women, those too close to the sun, like “Ethiopians,” and also those too far from it all have souls that are “imperfectiores et debiliores” [more imperfect and weaker] than those of people whose internal heat and cold are in “perfectione aequalitatis” [perfect equilibrium].[2] Shape and size could matter as well as internal or external ecologies: Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals held that since birds, fish, quadrupeds, and children were all “dwarflike,” their intelligence was inferior to that of upright humans. Michael Scot’s early thirteenth-century translation follows its ninth-century Christian Arabic source by omitting this specific comparison, but repeats logic, drawn from elsewhere in Aristotle’s treatise, that holds that “animalia sunt minoris intellectus quam homo” [animals are less intelligent than man], because they have more flesh in the front part of their bodies than humans do.[3] The thirteenth-century natural history of Thomas of Cantimpré begins its chapter on “The Monstrous Humans of the East” by proposing that although satyrs and onocentaurs lacked rational souls, they nonetheless could exhibit behaviors that seemed rational to the degree that that their bodies resembled those of humans.[4] And the discussion of the human worldly superiority in Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon observes that well-proportioned limbs signify (“denotatur”) a good mind, and then adds that “inde sentatiavit Plato quod qualis animalis effigiem gestat homo, talis animalis sequitur mores et affectus,” rendered by one translator as “wherefore Plato 3afe sentence that man folowethe the maneres and affectes of that beste, of whome he hath similitude.”[5]

The possession of speech was a key concern. A thought experiment, repeated through the Middle Ages from Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) to William of Saint Thierry (twelfth) to Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth), held that if humans had no hands, they would be quadrupeds, and therefore be forced to grasp food with their mouths, and as a result would lose the flexibility of lips and tongue that allowed for the production of rational speech.[6] A handless body, being unable to express its rationality, would be functionally irrational. Like an animal or stone, it would be mute. This word, mutum (to choose a declension at random), appears 469 times in the Patrilogia Latine, and accompanies the word “animal” 43 times: not more often than it accompanies surdum [deaf; 160 times], but often enough to attest to a widespread association of nonhumans and muteness across scholarly cultures. This association is not because animals were thought silent, but because what sound they made was understood as mere noise. Habakkuk 2:18 is just one of several scriptural mockeries of those who believe that the “simulacra muta” [mute idols] they themselves created possess divine power.[7] Augustine’s commentary on Psalms 144:10 applies the same adjective to stones and nonhumans alike when it insists that no one should “think that the mute stone or mute animal [mutus lapis aut mutum animal] has reason wherewith to comprehend God.”[8] The condition of muteness thus traversed those of human impairment, animal inability, and material inertness. It slid from irrationality into inanimacy, from a life whose noise could not be understood to one that has no life, no voice, and no agency.

Law reinforced this division. The Justinian code ruled that humans who were permanently “mutus et surdus” (mute and deaf) could not legally draw up contracts, as they had no more capacity for judgment than young children, the insane, and even the chronically ill.[9] This legal voicelessness could also be applied to humans who bodies were marked as deviant. The thirteenth-century Saxon Mirror (which survives in more than 400 manuscripts) begins its discussion of inheritance law by likening kinship to a human body, so that, for example, “the children of legitimate brothers are located at the level where the arm connects to the shoulders,” with more distant relations located further out on this imagined body; it concludes this discussion by decreeing that property cannot “devolve upon the feebleminded, dwarfs, and cripples.” With one stroke, it cuts such people off from the legal, genealogical body and subjects them to legal conditions elsewhere applied to people unable to express their rationality in socially normative ways.[10] To be sure, Henry de Bracton’s thirteenth-century compendium of English laws nuanced the Justinian code by allowing the entirely deaf to validate contracts by means of “signs and a nod.”[11] But even this modification still preserved the fundamental notion, namely, that certain impairments reduced people to a functional status of stones or nonhuman animals, without legally recognizable agency of their own.

In effect, since the Latin word “animal” could simply mean a “living” or “ensouled” thing,[12] common medieval references to “irrational animals” could functionally encompass several groups: nonhuman animals, humans with mental or intellectual impairment, and, less often, humans with deviant bodies. The phrase “mute animal” could similarly encompass both nonhumans and some humans. Although no widespread medieval law collapsed the distinction between these groups, rhetorical comparisons between nonhumans and impaired humans were frequent. They appear in work by, for example, Augustine (“they differ little from the beasts of the field”), Henry of Ghent (without “intellect…they remain only an animal”), Aquinas (“so long as man has not the use of reason, he differs not from an irrational animal”), and Henry de Bracton, who declares that the insane “are not far removed from brute beasts which lack reason.”[13] Proverbs did similar work: in Middle English, one could be “deaf as an adder,” “mad as a goose” and blind “as a bear,” “as Bayard,” a common horse’s name, or “as a beetle,” a word that denoted either an insect or a hammer.[14] This logic at least implicitly asserted that nonhuman animals were impaired by their own natural capacities, while impaired humans were not quite human.

A humanist disability rights perspective would at least hesitate before these comparisons, because they disable impaired humans by reducing them to a condition of being animals or even objects.[15] It might argue that deviations from the normative human body should be understood only as deviations within the range of human possibility, not as animal degradation. Without denying the fact that humans can suffer deprivations to which humans are uniquely vulnerable (for example, an awareness of legal exclusion), and therefore without declaring, for example, that “humans and animals are really the same,” my work in critical animal studies and posthumanism encourages me to linger with these comparisons instead of simply decrying them. Of course I am not the first to argue in this way. Sunuara Taylor begins an essay about her own impairment, animal metaphors, and animal rights by listing animal insults used against her impairment and those of others; but she admits that when she walks, she really does “resemble a monkey,” in particular, a chimpanzee. These comparisons need not “be negative.”[16] Rather, Taylor argues that they offer an opportunity to rethink embodiment, dependence, and autonomy so that nonhumans might be included in what might be called a vegan community of impairment. With this work, we can recognize that the paired accusations of impairment against nonhumans and certain humans alike call not for a reassertion of precritical humanism and its hierarchies of significant vulnerability, but rather for a reevaluation of the social and ethical functions of impairment, disability, and agency. Mel Y. Chen’s Animancies carries out this work thoroughly. In case studies ranging from lead paint and burst oil wells, to furniture, to the insidious feline genius of Fu Manchu, to semi-domesticated chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals, Chen tracks how certain groups and forms of life—particularly impaired people, racialized immigrants, and the sexually heterodox—are culturally invested with varying degrees of liveliness, agency, responsibility, and animalization. Chen prefers not to shift excluded people up the “animancy hierarchies” of “Western ontologies,”[17] however politically advantageous this reaffirmation would seem to be such groups. Rather, as with other feminist reevalations of materialism, agency, vulnerability, and autonomy, Chen prefers to “reside in this…negative zone”[18] to jostle aside the centrality of claims to agency and animancy in arguments for rights, justice, and care.[19]

Taylor and Chen’s work happily stymy one possible, straightforward argument about animalized metaphors of disability and the social animalization of impaired humans. This would be the assertion that nonhumans, being variously suited to each of their particular environments, are not in fact impaired, and that any supposedly natural animal impairment should be understood instead as representing multiple sensory and bodily norms, rendered “abnormal” and disabled only as an effect of environments and cultures built for other norms. Such a reading would effectively “deanimalize” animals by both freeing them of their negative cultural associations; it would invest them with the agency that uncritical humanism assumes them to lack; and it would simultaneously perform an analogous function for impaired people. Against these critical mistakes, I can also offer Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “misfit” model of disability, which, by emphasizing material conditions fitted for certain bodies and capacities, deemphasizes the supposed personal bodily inadequacies of the disabled subject, so that “vulnerability is in the fit, not in the body.” Garland-Thomson argues that “fitting” requires a “generic body” in a “generic world,”[20] while I would push this point perhaps past the point of utility by arguing that any no fit can ever be perfect, because there is no perfectly generic world and certainly no perfectly adequate fit. The ineradicable vulnerability and ongoing unbalanced homeostasis of any entity means that no body, even those that belong to the community of “uniform, standard, majority bodies,”[21] can ever be perfectly fitted to its environment.

The remainder of this chapter will concentrate on an encounter that foregrounds and preserves such misfit moments. This is the meeting of Saint Cuthbert and the penitent ravens, which I offer as an experiment in the utility of considering disability studies, critical animal studies, and ecocriticism together, for both historical cultural studies and perhaps even more present-minded cultural studies. The encounter is notable for the gestural communication used by these “mute” beasts to effect a community; for the fact that the birds are not made to talk, although birds, particularly corvids, were a paradigmatic talking animal; and finally for where it takes place (the island of Farne, rendered hospitable to both saint and birds by continuous effort). This encounter does not affirm any bodily or environmental norms. It instead emphasizes the work communication and community require in an environment perilously inhabited by vulnerable bodies that can never be quite at home in it.

[1] Like all cultural studies that unsettle categories that “go without saying,” terminology is a central issue in disability studies. For useful recent surveys of terminological debates from a medievalist perspective, see Joshua R. Eyler, “Introduction: Breaking Boundaries, Building Bridges,” Joshua R. Eyler, ed., Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 1–11, and Richard Godden and Jonathan Hsy, “Analytical Survey: Encountering Disability in the Middle Ages,” New Medieval Literatures 15 (2013): 313–39. My chapter uses the social model of disability, in which “impairment” indicates the subjective experience or condition of discomfort, incapacity, illness, and so on, while disablement/disability occurs because of physical or social expectations and architectures that reduce or deny cultural participation to people with impairments (stairs rather than ramps are the classic example). This division between impairment and disability is analogous to the sex/gender division and vulnerable to the same critiques.

[2] Carl Sigmund Barach, ed., Excerpta e libro Afredi Anglici De motu cordis item Costa-ben-Lucae De differentia animae et spiritus liber translatus a Johanne Hispalensi (Innsbruck: Wagner’schen University Press, 1878), 138-39. Barach’s edition, which has the nonsensical “solari” living far from the sun, requires supplementing with other copies of the work; Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer 10, 245r, for example, reads “ut sclavi et mauri” [like Slavs and Moors], which respectively stand for those “longe distare a sole uel uicinare” [a long ways or close to the sun].

[3] Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, trans. James J. Lennox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 686b23-9; the Greek is “νανῶδες.” Michael Scot, De animalibus: Michael Scot’s Arabic-Latin translation. Part Two, Books XI-XIV: Parts of Animals, ed. Aafke M. I. van Oppenraaij (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 187–88. Michael Scot’s source may be drawing on discussions of body mass in Aristotle Parts of Animals 689a25.

[4] Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de Natura Rerum: Editio Princeps Secundum Codices Manuscriptos, ed. Helmut Boese (Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1973), 97.

[5] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby, 9 vols. (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol 2, 180-81, anonymous English translation from British Library, Harley 2261. Trevisa himself says nothing about nonhuman animals, but instead says only “þerfore Plato 3af his doom, and seide suche ordenaunce, disposicioun, and schap as a man haþ in his kyndeliche membres and lymes, suche kyndeliche maneres þey foloweþ in dedes.” For several medieval assertions of the independence of body and mind, see chapter four in Irina Metzler, Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).

[6] For sources, and a longer discussion, see my How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 47–50.

[7] Scriptural translations are the Latin vulgate and, for the English, the Douay Rheims.

[8] Enarrationes in Psalmos, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrilogiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, 217 vols. (Paris, 1844) (hereafter PL), 37:1877. For a book-length discussion of the animancy of stones, see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[9] Paul Krueger, ed., Justinian’s Institutes, trans. Peter Birks and Grant McLoed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), II.12.13. Also see Alan Watson, trans., The Digest of Justinian (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 5.1.12.2, 166.

[10] Eike von Repgow, The Saxon Mirror: A ‘Sachsenspiegel’ of the Fourteenth Century, trans. Maria Dobozy (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 69-70. For more on legal history, see Christian Laes, “Silent Witnesses: Deaf-Mutes in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” Classical World 104.4 (2011): 451–73; Irina Metzler, “Reflections on Disability in Medieval Legal Texts:  Exclusion – Protection – Compensation,” in Disability and Medieval Law: History, Literature, Society, ed. Cory James Rushton (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 19–53; and Wendy J. Turner, Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013).

[11] Henry de Bracton, On the Laws and Customs of England, ed. George E Woodbine, trans. Samuel E Thorne, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), Vol. II.286. For evidence of the persistence of this law, see Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, in Four Books, 12th ed., vol. 4 (London: A. Strahan and W. Woodfall, 1793), Vol. I, 304, “A man is not an idiot, if he hath any glimmering of reason, so that he can tell his parents, his age, or the like common matters. But a man who is born deaf, dumb, and blind, is looked upon by the law as in the same state with an idiot; he being supposed incapable of any understanding, as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with ideas.”

[12] For an example of the word’s range of meanings, see Alan of Lille, Distinctiones dictionum theologicalium, PL 210:701A–B.

[13] I draw all these examples from Metzler, Fools and Idiots, 108, 114, 120, and 154.

[14] Middle English Dictionary online (hereafter MED; accessed 8 August 2016), s.v. “bitil” and “betel.”

[15] For an admirable example of this kind of work, see Licia Carlson, The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 160-61.

[16] Sunaura Taylor, “Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights,” Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 192 and 196 [191–222]; see also Sue Walsh, “The Recuperated Materiality of Disability and Animal Studies,” in Rethinking Disability Theory and Practice: Challenging Essentialism, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 20–36.

[17] Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). The first phrase (sometimes under the form “animate hierarchies”) appears 33 times in Chen’s book; although the latter phrase is from page 127, references to “Western” thought abound in her book. Medieval studies help challenge sedimented, homogenized notions of what constitutes “Western” thought.

[18] Ibid., 17; for one sample of feminist approaches to these issues, see Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53.

[19] For further work in this line, see Eunjung Kim, who, in writing about the artist Marina Abramović, asks “in what way can an embodiment of immobility and speechlessness challenge ableism, which is firmly grounded on the criterion to control one’s body to determine whether one qualifies as human?”; “Unbecoming Human: An Ethics of Objects,” GLQ 21.2-3(2015): 230.

[20] “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 600 and 594.

[21] “Misfits,” 595. For homeostasis and systems theory, see the first several chapters of Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Margery Kempe’s Vegetarianism I

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British Library, Add MS 61823 78v: “Cap. 66,” and, in a red box, “fleyshe”

Thinking about animals and violence and the middle ages tends to follow one of two routes. The first holds that medieval people were more “brutal” — the animal metaphor is telling — because they lacked the “humane” delicacy of modern civilization. The other route holds that medieval people were not more animal than us but rather just more “closely connected” to them, because big, working beasts were so much a part of their daily lives, because animals were driven “on the hoof” into the very heart of cities to be butchered, and because virtually no book could be produced without killing animals for their skin. If reducing cruelty to animals requires getting closer to what “really” happens to them when we have them butchered, then animals may well require that we “get medieval” for them.

That may strike you as self-evidently silly as it does me, but in a purely quantitative sense, animals did have it far better in the Middle Ages than they do now. On occasion there were mass killings, to provision military expeditions, or, for example, to make up the parchment for the eighth-century Codex Amiatinus and its two matching volumes. But the 1500 calves this extraordinary project required hardly register in comparison to the figures of annual cattle slaughter in the United States (in this century, generally well above 32,000,000 individuals per year). In the twelfth century, Walter Map furnished what looks like a more typical portrait of premodern animal intimacy: each evening, a rich man entered his barn “and approached each oxen in turn, shook up their fodder, running his hand along the backbone of each, approvingly and fondly, instructing each by name to eat” (515-16). They worked for him; they would end their lives of labor by being slaughtered and eaten; but at least he knew them individually, and, inasmuch as he could, he treated them with kindness; and, as the story concludes, should a deer hide itself from hunters among his herd, the rich man, even in darkness, would immediately identify it, eject it, and have it put to death.

What follows restores to the Middle Ages some of the cultural complexity often denied it by a modern self-satisfaction that makes the middle ages little more than either a barbaric anticipation of modernity or its less decadent origin, or both, simultaneously. My subject is the fifteenth-century bourgeoise, contemplative, preacher, mother, troublemaker, and pilgrim, the author, through her amanuenses, of the first English-language autobiography, the extraordinary Margery Kempe. To use terms not often used to describe her: Kempe was a vegetarian who wept sorely at the sight of animal suffering. This makes her sound as if she would be a troublesome crank, or worse, for omnivores, and a founding hero for modern vegetarianisms. But most modern vegetarianisms want to end animal suffering: not Kempe. Hers was a carnivorous vegetarianism, whose practice was founded on a sublated preservation of desire for the suffering and death of animals (I am distinguishing my approach sharply from several excellent published articles on food and Kempe, by Cristina Mazzoni, Melissa Raine, and animals and Kempe, by Lisa Kiser; see also this seminar paper by Elizabeth Knight, whose development is certainly worth watching). This at least was perfectly in line with contemporary Christian piety. What distinguished her was less her diet than her gender, age, and life experience as a mother, all of which generated a particularity potent sanctity, established through identification with a suffering, pleasurable flesh that was at once animal, female, and divine.

Around the year 1409, Christ granted Margery Kempe his first long visionary visitation, in which he commands her to “forsake that which you love best in this world, and that is eating of flesh. And instead of that flesh, you shall eat my flesh and my blood, which is the true body of Christ in the sacrament of the altar” [forsake that thou lovyst best in this world, and that is etyng of flesch. And instede of that flesch thow schalt etyn my flesch and my blod, that is the very body of Crist in the sacrament of the awter” (Chapter 5, line 379 ff)]. Despite the exertions of pilgrimage, and despite bullying from her fellow travelers, she keep the vow for years, begrudgingly having some meat when he confessor insists, but for no more than “a lytyl whyle” (Chapter 26, line 1404). It is not until Christ himself intervenes, years later, that she fully “resort[s] ageyn to flesch mete,” and that only because he wants her to build up her strength for another pilgrimage. Obedient on both occasions to her divine lord, she – in Sarah Salih’s words – gets “to have her fast and eat it” too.

In her fifteenth-century England, Kempe’s decision to forgo meat for years on end would have been unusual for a secular woman, but was otherwise perfectly orthodox. Kempe could have gone much further and still remained within the church: the twelfth-century mystic Alpais of Cudot, for example, is said to have subsisted on nothing but Eucharistic hosts. Meat would not necessarily have been rare in the diet; late fourteenth-century harvest workers in eastern and southern England would have received nearly a pound of it daily during the laboring season (28). Baseline Christian dietary practice thus really did require some care: for Kempe’s Christianity would have required that she, like any other layperson, abstain from meat for nearly a third of the year, mostly during the fasting season of Lent. Monks tended to do still more, and Carthusian monks, whose practice Kempe’s most closely resembled, did the most of all, by requiring that their adherents keep to an entirely meatless diet.

Early medieval monastic rules tended to forbid all but the sick from eating quadrupeds and sometimes even birds; later monks developed loopholes by distinguishing forbidden carnes (fresh-cooked meat recently cut from the joint) from licit carnea (pre-cooked, pre-salted meat) (40), so much so that a monk like the twelfth-century Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds, earned high praise for eating neither (40). Carthusians would have none of this. After centuries of debate, even the chancellor of the University of Paris weighed in. Jean Gerson’s 1401 De non esu carnium Carthusienses admitted that while abstinence from meat was bad for the health, so too were mercantile voyages and nearly all other human endeavors, so there was nothing inherently wrong with Carthusians damaging their health for God, and therefore no reason for their critics to charge them, as they often did, with homicide (101-103). Carthusian attitudes towards meat-eating found themselves promulgated outside the cloister in works like the enormously popular Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a meditative guide that explains that Christ ate meat only once, at the Last Supper, where Christ’s typological role as the sacrificial, sacramental Paschal lamb made eating symbolically useful (51, 377). Carthusian approval for Kempe’s ascetic diet is suggested by the so-called “red pen annotator,” an early sixteenth-century monastic reader of the sole extant manuscript of Kempe’s Book. Willing at times to delete or even rewrite passages to suit his doctrinal preferences, he leaves the margin blank when Kempe first stops eating meat (9r), but when she takes it up again, he writes “fleysche” near the passage, and draws a box around it: it may be too much to suggest that he was disturbed by this change in Kempe’s religious practices, but he certainly found her new difference from his own vowed commitments remarkable.

In Kempe’s England, the common heresy was not one of not eating meat, but of eating it at the wrong times, and without due regard for its special importance. Peter of Bruys provides a spectacular twelfth-century continental example: he dined on meat that he had roasted in front of a church, on Good Friday, on a pyre of disarticulated crucifixes (PL 189:771C-D). According to records produced in the last decade of Kempe’s life, the heretics of Norwich – a town some 40 miles from Kempe’s own King’s Lynn, one which she visited frequently – broke with the church with far less fanfare, by saving leftover meat to eat on fast days (Margery Baxter, 46), or by declaring that anyone on whatever day “can eat fish or flesh indifferently, according to the desire of their appetite” (potest indifferenter edere pisses vel carnes secundum sui appetitus desiderium). This studied carelessness was punished with a temporary diet of bread and water, or, in one case, bread and ale, simultaneously depriving these heretics of meat and returning them to the cycle of penitential eating that was supposed to be common to all of the faith.

The heretics who had worried the church the most were the s0-called Cathars, who “shun all flesh…but not for the same reason as monks and others living spiritually abstain from it” (PL 195:14C), according to Eckbert of Shönau’s complaint in his 1163 sermon in praise of meat-eating. Eckbert explains that the Cathars believe that since some vast prince of shadows (“quemdam immanem principem tenebrarum”) created the material world, they should not eat meat, the most material of foods. Eckbert then sarcastically regrets that there had been no Cathar present to whisper his doctrine in Noah’s ear after the flood, when God first authorized this new diet of flesh. It is in memory of beliefs like these that one late medieval defender of the Carthusian vegetarianism explains “unlike certain heretics, [we] hold like other Christians that all God’s creatures are good,” which is to say, inherently good for food.

While medieval ethnographers were willing to imagine fully vegetarian, entirely peaceful ascetics, and to let them voice disdain for those who “made their bellies a tomb,” they deposited these ascetics safely in the far east, or the distant past of the classical “Golden Age,” before humans turned to meat, warfare, and commerce. Good Christians, even Carthusians, were supposed to want to kill and eat animals, and to recognize that God had given them animals for exactly this purpose. They were encouraged to refuse this pleasure, but they were supposed to refuse it as a pleasure, so that the Christian year, even for laypeople, may be understood as a elaborate management, and refinement, of the pleasurable satisfactions of denying oneself the pleasures of eating meat. This is how Kempe fasts: the orthodoxy of her abstinence is marked by what Christ says to her: leave off eating what “thou lovyst best.”

Since orthodoxy requires that she never give up this desire, her fasting must therefore be distinguished from her celibacy: the two asceticisms differ. Quite early in the book, after waking up to celestial song, she suddenly loses all sexual desire for her husband (Chapter 3); and she dolefully recollects, as she cares for him in his incontinent dotage, that she had once desired him (Chapter 76): but now, she thinks sex “abhominabyl,” a sin, a distraction, certainly fleshy, but only repulsive. Meat, on the other hand, she has given up without giving up desire for it. The preservation of this pleasure preserves the desire for this substance, flesh, that was the material sign of human supremacy over animals, the particularly feminine unruliness and pleasures of the body (in particular see), and the very substance of the incarnated Christ himself. It was all these that she presented, denied, identified with, and performed, troubling nearly all who came in contact with her with the noisy insistence of her fleshy and suffering piety.

 

(to be continued)

Akbar and the Silenced Children: Language as Heritage, or Language as Community?

by KARL STEEL

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Chinese Parrot, c. 1700, collection of Marie-Antionette, 1785

As part of the process of assembling, expanding, and (re)writing the material for Book 2, I’ve returned to the problem of “feral children,” which I first visited here six years (!) ago, when I first stumbled across the Wolf Child of Hesse. It’s now been ten days since I decided language deprivation experiments needed to be part of this discussion. 

The form of this chapter will therefore be two studies of isolated children – first, feral ancestors, like Romulus and Remus, isolated from mundane humans; next, the child raised in silence, a supposedly true representation of the human condition, because they have been isolated from the secondary, cultural accumulation of the larger society – and then, finally, a study of a small set of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century feral children stories in which the children find community with wolves: from isolation to a lupine, more than human sociality.

I now have a lot of material on Herodotus, and its classical afterlife in commentaries on Aristophanes, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and even, perhaps, Quintilian, which I might share here; I have my material on Salimbene de Adam’s record of Frederick II, and even that barest reference to James IV’s deprivation experiment that we find Robert Lindsay’s Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. Outside of the historical texts, speculations about isolation and language appear in Pedro Mexia’s Silva de varia lección, the Qabus-nama, and in the medieval Islamic philosophical novels translated into Latin as Philosophus Autodidactus and Theologus Autodidactus. On the topic of isolation, Avincenna’s famous “floating man” thought experiment may be cited too. Once we abandon simplistic notions of historicity and recognize that thought experiments themselves are also “historical,” the archive fills and expands and fills and so on.

In the interests of your time, though, I’m sharing only my material on Akbar’s experiment. This is all new for me, a medievalist trained in the later Middle Ages and English, French, and Latin materials: it’s not just that the sixteenth-century Emperor Akbar is early modern; it’s that the primary materials outside of Europe on his experiment are all in Persian, so I have had to rely on translations, perhaps disreputable, by Victorian Orientalists. But I had my quarry when I stumbled across a story about “Rege terrae Magor” while searching for early modern references to Herodotus. What could this Magor be?

Of course it’s the Mughals. You already knew that, but learning the obvious took me more than a day to figure out, and that here in Paris, where a day has more value than crummy old Brooklyn. In the process, I reconstructed a chain of witnesses to the experiment, tracking the story’s changes from one version to the next, from the late sixteenth through the early eighteenth century. I also determined that credulous, sloppy repetitions of stories of language deprivation experiments run from the present all the way back to Tertullian and even Quintillian and probably Herodotus himself, and that almost no one almost no one can keep the story straight from one telling to the next. That is, all these tellers always get it exactly right for whatever their needs are at the moment.

The story of Akbar’s experiment has often been told. This lengthy post is better cited than most tellings, so even without my final interpretations, it may have some value. My real interest here, however, is in attempts to think through the problem of the origin of language. Language, as a sign, proof, and indispensable tool of reason, attests to our human existence as being more than merely biological, in there being something in or of us that is mere than bare life. Where could the extra thing possibly come from? Answering this question is the concern of these and so many other language deprivation experiments: not to take something away from us, but to discover, within the crucible of this experiment, what our core self might be. The deprivation experiment wants to give us the gift of ourselves, what we really are once all that might be thought to be only secondary to us has been burnt away.

But what is finds itself is catastrophe. Or, despite itself, community.

The first account of Akbar’s experiment appears the Akbarnama of Abul Fazl, Akbar’s own court historian, which may be the only version that has any claim to being an eye-witness account: to prove that speech comes from hearing, Akbar had several children raised by “tongue-tied” wetnurses, confined to a building that came to be called the “dumb house.” When Akbar visited the house in 1582, four years after the children were first interred, he heard “no cry…nor any speech…no talisman of speech, and nothing came out except the noise of the dumb.” Much the same story (but without anything said about nurses or guards) would be told decades later, the anonymous Dabestan-e Mazaheb (“School of Religions), written between 1645 and 1658, which finished with a wonderful assertion about the deep time of human cultural development: the experiment proves that “letters and language are not natural to man,” but only the result of instruction and conversation, and that therefore (!) “the world is very ancient.”

The anti-Akbarian Montaḵab al-tawārīḵ of ʿAbd-ul-Qadir Bada’uni lays the foundations of the story’s several European versions. This work, the Selection of Chronicles, worries over Akbar’s disdain for religion, and Islam in particular; like Salimbene writing about Frederick II, Bada’uni may be portraying an impious tyrant who goes too far in his curiosity. First, however, Bada’uni attributes the experiment to Akbar’s astonished encounter with a man who can hear, despite having “no ears nor any trace of the orifice of the ear”: to test the origins of language, he has several infants locked up, with “well-disciplined” (rather than mute) nurses, who are commanded not to give the children “any instruction in speaking.” Then, without any transition or explanation, Bada’uni changes Akbar’s motivation: he now wants to test the idea that “everyone that is born is born in a state of nature” (George Ranking translation) or that “everyone that is born is born with an inclination to religion” (Lowe? translation). Twenty children are locked up in what comes to be called the “dumb house,” and “three or four years” later, none can speak. Nothing more is said about the earless man.

The language deprivation experiment is absent from several of the early European accounts of Akbar’s court. Giovanni Battista Peruschi’s 1597 Informatio del regno, et stato del gran re di Mogor (published in Latin the following year, with additional material on Japan) limits itself to worrying over possibilities for gaining the Emperor for Roman Catholicism, while the thirteen pages of the True Relation without all Exception, of Strange and Admirable Accidents, which lately happened in the Kingdome of the Great Magor, from 1622, are little but an exoticizing fantasy about the possibilities unleashed by absolute royal power: thus it devotes several of its thirteen pages to the story of a problem-solving ape, like a cleverer Hans, frolicking among the Mughal courtiers, including his two hundred “Boyes…which hee keepeth for unnaturall and beastly uses.”

Instead, the story first enters Europe via the letters of another Jesuit missionary, Jerónimo Xavier (d. 1617), who draws on either on Bada’uni or one of Bada’uni’s own informants to establish one of the main lines of the story’s European reception. Claiming to have had it from Akbar himself, Xavier explains that “nearly twenty years ago,” Akbar closed up “thirty children,” and “put guards over them so that the nurses might not teach them their language.” There is nothing about an earless man, nor any received wisdom about natural religious inclinations. Instead, Akbar had decided “to follow the laws and customs of the country whose language was that spoken by the children.” Since “none of the children came to speak distinctly,” Xavier calls the experiment a “failure”; for Akbar, it may have been something else, since it allowed him to justify following “no law but his own.” Here Xavier presumably means the short-lived, syncretic faith of Dīn-i Ilāhī, designed by Akbar himself.  What had been a story about the origins of language becomes one about what we might call the natural voice of divinity, and, more practically, about the early modern Roman Catholic failure to make Akbar their Prester John, that imaginary medieval Christian king of Asia or “Ethiopia” that Europe hoped would swoop in and crush Islam from what Europe must have thought of as “behind.”

European speculative scholarship happily stuffed the story into a set of examples that invariably, as they still do, began with Herodotus. In a discussion considering the immutability of language, Christop Besold’s 1632 updated version of his De natura populorum tells it exactly as Xavier does, but without saying anything about the muteness of the (thirty) children’s keepers. We find it again in August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem (1693)on whether the Hebrew language is natural, where Pfeiffer cites Besold, and then references Hebrew masters who claim that the Hebrew language was “implanted naturally” (naturaliter impantatam) in the first human. In English, we find the story preserved in these essentials in the chapter “Of the Great Mogor, or Mogoll” of Samuel Purchas’s 1626 travel writing.

Secularized, greatly shortened versions of the story appear in a 1632 entry in the journal of the English traveler Peter Mundy (“hee caused little children to brought up by dumb Nurses to know what languages they would naturally speak, but it is sayd that in a long time they spake nothing at all”), and on the very first page the Danish scientist Ole Borch’s 1675 On the Causes of the Diversity of Languages, whose Latin is repeated word-for-word in Christian Augustus Ludwig’s 1730 Brief Commentary on the Property of NamesLike so many more recent retellings of the story, both writers fold the story in among citations of the few other language deprivation experiments they know – Herodotus and Quintilian in this case – and in Borch, even the sheep-boy of Ireland, whose preference for the choicest pasture was recounted in 1641 by Rembrandt’s famous Doctor Tulp. Borch’s inclusion of this story amid his examples may be the first time an animal-raised child was deliberately understood not as a wonder, but as just one more, sad example of linguistic deprivation.

In virtually none of these versions do the children ever acquire anything but inarticulate noises. The one exception is François Catrou’s 1708 Histoire générale de l’empire du Mogol (General History of the Mughal Empire), which he claims to have based on Niccolao Mannuchi’s 1698 Storia do Mogor (The History of Mughal India), itself based in turn on accounts of Xavier and others. Like Borch, Mannuchi holds that Akbar is seeking the original language. Some thought it would be Hebrew, others “Chaldean” (meaning Syriac? Persian?); and others Sanskrit, “which is their Latin.” Mannuchi has only twelve children, and says nothing about their nurses, only that no one, “under pain of death,” is to speak to the children “or allow them to communicate with each other” (!). When the children turned twelve, they were questioned, but responded only by cringing, and remained “timid [and] fearful” for the rest of their lives.

With one enormous change, Catrou reproduces Mannuchi’s story of Akbar’s “bizarre” experiment, inspired, Catrou says, by Akbar having heard that Hebrew was a “natural language.” The emperor shuts up twelve children with twelve mute nurses, and a male porter, also mute, who is never to open the doors of the “château” in which they have all been confined. Twelve years later, to witness and deliver the verdict, Akbar has filled his court with judges, led by a Jew who will question the children in Hebrew. Another “failure”: all are astonished (“on fut tout étonné”) that they speak no language. This may just be garbled; or Catrou may have drawn these details from now lost manuscripts, used to supplement Manucchi’s account; or – continuing the longstanding habit of scholars of language deprivation experiments – he may have simply dramatized the story further, or folded into it what he expected to find.

However it happened, what Catrou provides astounds: for in this version, for the first time, the children do in fact acquire language. In no earlier version of any account that pretends to be a true history – in neither Herodotus nor Quintilian nor Salimbene nor Robert Lindsey – are the children able to communicate anything but their distress, or some fundamental language. But here they have sign language, taught to them by their nurse; “they express their thoughts only by gestures, which they use in place of words”: in Catro: “Ils avoient appris de leur Nourrice à s’en parler. Seulement ils exprimoient leurs pensées par des gestes qui leur tenoient lieu de paroles,” or, as the 1826 English translation strangely expands the passage, “they had learnt, from the example of their nurses, to substitute signs for articulate sounds. They used only certain gestures to express their thoughts, and these were all the means which they possessed of conveying their ideas, or a sense of their wants.”

This detail has been understood by some writers as evidence that the Akbar story might be more than just another mutated iteration of the story that first appears in Herodotus; to put it simply these writers – linguists and advocates for the disabled among them – want this story of a sign language community passed on from nurses to children to be evidence that Akbar really conducted this experiment. Thus it could be a heroic story about Akbar underestimating his “mute” nurses, who had a language he and his philosophers were unable to understand. Community had survived after all, even amid this deprivation. I reluctantly doubt it: though certainly important to the history of disability, negotiation, and accommodation, this element of the story arrived late in its tradition, and likely has much more to do with developments in sign language in Europe than it does with the history of disability in the Mughal court.

This is not to say it lacks all truth. None of these stories should be taken as facts in any simple sense. All should be understood as being as legendary as any other bizarre tale about powerful rulers. They are nonetheless still true, in that they are true records of an interest, as real a record as any other fiction, which, as Anna Kłosowska observes of the truth of medieval stories, correspond “to an absolute reality–not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being… and [the] continuing desire for it performed by readers.”

The true record here is not the events but the concern, of course, with the relation between the authentic, the natural, and origins. Consider the version of the story in the “things omitted” section of Daniel Sennert’s medical manual, his Paralipomenon (written after 1631), the first time the story appears outside a missionary text or a travel narrative. Sennert tells the story as Xavier does, but then slides, surprisingly, into an anecdote about parrots, which, as he explains, likewise cannot learn to talk without being taught (“nunquam sua sponte ullam humanam vocem profereunt”). He concludes with an incidental tidbit of parrot lore from Apulius’s Florida 12 (teach a parrot to curse, and it will curse unceasingly, day and night, unless you cut out its tongue or send it back to the forest). With this, Sennert has recognized that speech originates in imitation, and indeed taught imitation. Sennert does not imagine that parrots spontaneously imitate language. They need instruction. At the same time, certain parrots (those with five toes, like humans) are better than others at learning languages: what has to be taught is not merely a cultural activity, but an interaction between bodily affordances and training. As Haraway writes in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs”: “one is too few, but two is too many.” Go back far enough, and what’s found is just this: accommodation, where language acquires the character of seeming natural by an entanglement of training and imitation that coalesces with bodies given the chance to thrive amid conditions designed for them. A “dumb house” is not one of these spaces, unless the nurses subvert the experiment.

Recall as well August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem, which follows its Akbar story with “others argue with those Hebrew masters who say that the Hebrew language was implanted in the first human” (Ebaorum Magistri alias disputant contra illos, qui Ebraeam linguam, ut primam homini naturaliter implantatam esse dicant). This strange metaphor (one might instead expect a metaphor of respiration) at least implicitly recognizes the manufactured character of humans in the Genesis creation myths. If being natural requires springing from or being born from itself or something like itself (as the word “nature” comes from “nasci,” to be born), if it requires spontaneity, humans are not, at their root, natural (barring a few outlying philosophers). Like the rest of organized creation, like everything after the first waters over which God’s form floated, humans are a manufactured product. Language, reason, and the soul: none of this is any more “natural” than we are.

Barring Robert Lindsey, where the children definitely speak Hebrew, and perhaps Herodotus, where the children are understood to have spoken Phrygian, the hunt for an origin, whether of ethnicity (Herodotus), religion (Akbar, in many instances), or language (Frederick II, and often Akbar), gets us nothing but nonsense. Language must be passed on in groups. The hunt for origins reveals not purity, not a definitive answer, but a community, and then, past that, nothing but the most wretched helplessness, a community that has arrived too late for help.

Isolation gets us only noise; being comes with the break into the noise, the wave-form collapse, the phenomenon. The hunt for origins is often a hunt for an excuse, a way past responsibility, to find things as they “really are.” But what we find instead is only one more requirement to have made a decision. What we find is the necessity of care.

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.