Margery Kempe’s Vegetarianism I


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?



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


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

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

The posts are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Branch,

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

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

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

Man is the Pasture of Being, Part 2: Sky Burial, Mostly Persian

This blog post is a preliminary sketch of what and when medieval Western Europe (hereafter, for simplicity’s sake, “medieval” or “medieval people”) would have known about funerary practices of exposing bodies to be eaten by dogs or birds (i.e., “sky burial”). I’m concentrating on classical and late antique texts, saving John Mandeville for the next post.

If you’ve been following along, this Friday continues last Friday’s treatment of the medieval legend of Evilmerodach (who, by late twelfth century, was known for having dismembered the corpse of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, and feeding it to birds). Like the Evilmerodach post, it is also a sketch for the second part of the “Creeping Things” chapter for my second book, currently titled How Not to Make a Human: Ecology, Ethics, and Vulnerable Animals in the Middle Ages (everything after the colon is up for grabs; suggestions from you are just short of obligatory). I will be aiming to explore the differences between being esca vermibus (food for worms) and esca avibus (food for birds) in medieval culture and, ultimately, in the contributions this contrast might make to contemporary ecocriticism.

Again, I’ll stress that embryonic character of this post, despite its great length: I have a hunch where thick footnotes are needed, and slightly dimmer hunches about where I might be wrong. If you’re at all in the vicinity of offering a “well, actually,” don’t hesitate.

If they could, medieval people tended to bury their dead, flesh still on bone, ideally near some a church, a shrine, or some other holy site. This habit of fleshy inhumation has a distant analog in ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, where burial is needed to give the spirit rest, to provide continuing rites of care, especially for the sake of family or the larger community, which constituted itself by seeding the ground with its dead, suffusing a place with memory (Walton, 317, and of course Peter Brown). As in these ancient worlds, shrines, churches, and the blessed dead were the hearts of any medieval community worth a Fodor’s Guide.

That said, for a medieval Christian, practices like this could be, technically, unnecessary: Augustine of Hippo’s On the Care of the Dead (late fourth century) argues that the dead, as a rule, have no knowledge of goings-on in the mortal world, and, furthermore, that they (and their corpses) are past all harm or human benefit. Heartbreakingly, at least for those of us bereft of beloved parents, Augustine says that if the dead knew our world, then his mother would come and comfort him; but they don’t, so she doesn’t (16). For all this, Augustine allows that the dead, or at least their bodies, can be cared for: he reasons that care in burial and prayer at well-situated gravesites, though probably of no benefit to the dead themselves, still can witness to Christian belief in the bodily resurrection, encourage bodily training of piety (Althusser avant la lettre) and also comfort us, because we ourselves are also creatures of flesh. Measured and thoughtful care of the dead have some use.

Augustine’s cautious approach to funeral rites were clearly overshot in medieval Europe. There, elaborate inhumation, memorial rites, and a whole industry of pleading for intervention from the holy dead became nearly as common as human death itself.

In this culture, exposure was a horror. We all know about the “beasts of battle” of Germanic poetry, the eagles, ravens, and wolves that eat the unburied corpses of the dead. In the Song of Roland, as the Battle of Roncesvalles sours for the Christians, Turpin begs Roland to blow the horn and summon Charlemagne; while they’re all certain to die before rescue arrives, at least the Emperor can take their bodies away and bury them in churches, where “neither wolf nor pig nor dog will eat of us” (1750; “N’en mangerunt ne lu ne porc ne chen”; trans. from Gilbert). Petrarch’s Historia Griseldis, itself an adaptation from the last tale of Boccaccio’s Decameron, allows its heroine to register a complaint when she’s certain her children are being taken away to be killed: “I ask you one thing: take care that wild beasts or birds do not mutilate this little body, unless you are commanded to the contrary” (Unum queso: cura ne corpusculum [mark the anguish of that “little body”] hoc fere lacerent aut volucres, ita tamen nisi contrarium sit preceptum; trans and text from Sources and Analogues I.121; in the medieval French, “Je te prie, toutesfoiz…que tu gardes a ton povoir que les bestes sauvaiges ne devourent ou menguent le corps de cest enfant, se le contraire ne t’est enjoin”; in the English poet, ll. 567-72). And the Apocalypse of St John, last book of the Christian scriptures, features birds invited to “the great supper of God” [cenam magnam Dei], to feast upon the soldiers and horses of the army of the Beast: this is clearly a humiliation, at least for the dead (for the birds, it is something better: more on that in a later blog post). No one would willingly allow the corpse of anyone they loved to be exposed like this.

Nonetheless, at least from Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Europeans knew about still another funerary practice, which stretched from the Caspian Sea and Caucasus through Mesopotamia and perhaps even as far as the Indus, and, as I’ll write in next time, when I finally take on Heidegger, eventually up to Tibet.

They found this practice alternately repulsive, barbaric, antiquated, but also, in some instances, of most interest to me, another way to mourn, no less valid than fleshly inhumation. Knowledge of these practices not only connected medieval people to a wider cultural world, doing much to help themselves imagine themselves in light of another’s word; as I will argue in a later post, they also provided a way for medieval people to imagine themselves and their bodies differently, by recognizing that bodies could be given over as flesh to large carnivores, not just worms, but without abandoning mourning. Exposure need not be humiliation, and being consumed need not be done in secret, in the grave. Here, in this open consumption, was a place for medievals to recognize that our bodies could be material flesh and our bodies at the same time: as I will argue in an upcoming post, this was material recognition of the way all flesh, all bodies, belong to the world at large and ourselves at the same time. A material reduction (we are flesh) can continue to acknowledge our emotional connection to the particularity of our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones (we are beloved flesh).

This post, however, will mainly be devoted only to what the medievals could have known. Evilmerodach and Odoric of Pordenone (especially as transmitted by the Book of John Mandeville) were enormously popular in the later Middle Ages. But what about the earlier period?

The oldest potential references to “sky burial” may be those depicted in an obelisk carving at Göbekli Tepe (or Göbeklitepe) and paintings at Çatal Höyü (or Çatalhöyük), both in modern-day Turkey (thank you to Kathleen Kennedy for turning me on to these!), which each feature vultures soaring over or fluttering about headless human corpses. I make no claims that memories of these astonishingly ancient cultures reached to the Middle Ages or even to the classical world: each site was occupied for some 2000 years (itself no small time!), the former abandoned about 10,000 years ago, the latter 7,000, and therefore at the most recent more temporally distant from Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) than we are, now, from the invention of writing (c. 3500 BCE).

Testart p 35

Testart p 35

And what some think to be sky burial in fact may be only depictions of military victories, with the headless corpses of the vanquished left to be eaten by vultures, and the skulls taken as trophies, or so argues the, it must be said, appropriately named Alain Testart in “Des crânes et des vautours ou la guerre oubliée” (“On Skulls and Vultures, or, The Forgotten War”). We will let that rest, then, and return to what I suspect may be our most ancient, incontrovertible reference to sky burial, from Herodotus.

Our Greek historian writes:

But there are other matters concerning the dead which are secretly and obscurely told–how the dead bodies of Persians are not buried before they have been mangled [without my knowing Greek: ἑλκυσθῇ, to drag, draw, or tear in pieces] by bird or dog. That this is the way of the Magians I know for a certainty; for they do not conceal the practice. But this is certain, that before the Persians bury the body in earth they embalm it in wax (Godley trans, Loeb, Vol 1, I.140, p 179).

This account is more than a little confused (I’m not the only one who thinks so: one expert calls this account “desperate”): either the practice is secret, or it’s not; and corpses are left out to be dragged or torn, but not so much so that they can’t be embalmed and buried. Herodotus may be reflecting (and, if we’re feeling reckless, anticipating) the variety of Zoroastrian burial methods under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids: the famous exposure of bodies in free-standing dakhma, “towers of silence,” must be remembered alongside the cliffside and other tomb structures of ancient Iran. The towers may be but a (ninth-century?) refinement of a cultic practice of keeping the decomposing corpse free from contact with visible plant life and damp earth, which, we can observe, might be achieved just as well by swathing the corpse in wax, or letting dogs or birds consume the flesh of a corpse staked to dry, bare ground.

Strabo’s Geography (before 23 CE) is more assured that Herodotus, though perhaps no more accurate. He writes that the Persians “smear the bodies of the dead with wax before they bury them, though they do not bury the Magi but leave their bodies to be eaten by birds,” adding what became a common charge that “these Magi, by ancestral custom, consort even with their mothers” (XV.iii.20). Elsewhere (XI.xi.8, V, p. 293 in Loeb trans), Strabo explains that the Caspians starve and expose those over 70 years old, abandoning them on (or strapping them to?) desert biers, watching from a distance, and considering them blessed if – and only if – these hapless elderly are attacked by wild dogs or birds. Very Mad Max. And, citing Onesicritus, a historian who embedded with Alexander the Great, Strabo imagines that the Bactrians keep dogs expressly to kill their aged and sick, adding a description that, in essence, imagines the Bactrian cities as necropoles:

While the land outside the walls of the metropolis of the Bactrians look clean, yet most of the land inside the walls is full of human bones (XI.xi.3, V, p. 282-83 in the Loeb).

To me at least, further examples are shockingly plentiful: in what might be chronological order, from 45 BCE to the third century CE, Persian sky burial shows up in Cicero’s stoic Tusculan Disputations (I.xlv); Plutarch’s Moralia (499, Vol VI p 371 in Loeb, where he says Hrycanians do it with dogs, Bactrians with birds); Sextus Empiricus’s skeptic Outlines of Pyrrhonism (III.227); Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (XLI.iii); Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (IX, on Pyrrho); and Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Killing Animals (IV.21). Christian examples, in a list that may be just as non-exhaustive, include the Book of the Law of the Countries, written by pupils of the Syriac gnostic Bardesanes (d. 222; in Syrian, Bar Dayṣān; one translation here: search for “In the whole of Media”); the Recognitions of pseudo-Clementine (IX.25); and Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel (I.iv, search for “And of the benefit which visibly proceeds”). And, finally, the source that first led me down this path, Jerome’s Against Jovinian (II.vii), where he writes:

The Tibareni crucify those whom they have loved before when they have grown old. The Hyrcani throw them out half alive to the birds and dogs: the Caspians leave them dead for the same beasts. The Scythians bury alive with the remains of the dead those who were beloved of the deceased. The Bactrians throw their old men to dogs which they rear for the very purpose, and when Stasanor, Alexander’s general, wished to correct the practice, he almost lost his province (a point Jerome gets from Porphyry).

Some writers (Herodotus and Justin) – or, I might say, some genres –present themselves as simply doing ethnography, only listing customs, as they might list geographical features. Strabo is horrified, at least by the Bactrians. Porphyry is horrified too, although his conclusions may surprise: yes, some people are meat-eaters, or parent-eaters, or parent-exposers, but at least we philosophers need not behave like this. And Eusebius anticipates the colonial missionaries of modernity, when he argues that the conversion to Christianity corrects these terrible practices (the pagans no longer “expose their dead kindred to dogs and birds….For these and numberless things akin to these were what of old made havoc of human life”), so that Christian conversion is, for any culture, and not only Jews (more frequently targeted as culturally anachronistic), an emergence out of a muddled past into a neat, correct, universal civilization.

Still, whether in philosophic or many of these religious texts, the most frequent reason for these ancient writers to cite sky burial (and its associated practice that we might call “sky euthanasia”) is to pose as cosmopolitan admirers of the great variety of human culture. Plutarch lists these and other practices (sati, for example) to argue that virtue can resist chance’s worst harms: Central Asians positively love to have their bodies exposed to beasts! Bardesanes’s students and pseudo-Clementine alike use worldwide cultural heterogeneity to argue for human freedom and against the compulsion of the stars. If stars had so much power, human culture would be more easily classifiable, more homogeneous. But, says Book of the Law of the Countries, “the truth is, that in all countries, every day, and at all hours, men are born under Nativities diverse from one another, and the laws of men prevail over the decree of the stars, and they are governed by their customs.”

In the hands of other writers – Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus, and even Jerome – we have something similar to Pomponius Mela’s first-century Chorographia (II.8), namely – a curious appreciation of human difference in what we might call (and no doubt has been called) the “cultural variation topos.” Diogenes does it with admirable force:

The same thing is regard by some as just and by others as unjust, or as good by some and bad by others. Persians think it not unnatural for a man to marry his daughter; to Greeks it is unlawful. The Massagetae…have their wives in common; the Greeks have not. The Cilicians used to delight in piracy; not so the Greeks. Different people believe in different gods; some in providence, others not. In burying their dead, the Egyptians embalm them; the Romans burn them; the Paeonians throw them into lakes.

Cicero Tusculan Disputations also merits citation at length:

But why should I notice the beliefs of individuals, since we may observe the varied deceptions under which the races of mankind labour? The Egyptians embalm their dead and keep them in the house; the Persians even smear them with wax before burial, that the bodies may last for as long a time as possible; it is the custom of the Magi not to bury the bodies of their dead unless they have been first mangled by wild beasts [nisi a feris sint ante laniata]; in Hyrcania [no surprise] the populace support dogs for the benefit of the community, while the nobles keep them for family use: it is as we know a famous breed [nobile…genus] of dogs, but in spite of the cost, each householder procures them [translation modified] in proportion to his means, to mangle him [lanietur], and that they consider the best mode of burial (Loeb, King translation, p. 291, I.XLV).

I’m as yet uncertain about the medieval afterlife of these points. To take two examples: Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies accuses Persians only of being fire-worshippers (XIV.iii.10), led to this error by “the giant Nebroth,” and its several references to the ferocious Hyrcanians and neighboring Scythians says nothing about the exposure of the elderly or the dead to possible animal mangling or excarnation. Gregory of Tours, writing a generation before Isidore, likewise calls the Persians only fire-worshippers (History of the Franks, I.v), blaming this, more correctly, on “Zoroastra.” Note also his annoyance (X.26) at the appointment of a Syrian merchant, Eusebius, as bishop of Paris in 591, who stuffed the household with other Syrians: some of them, I expect, might have had more than passing knowledge of the customs of the Sassanids: and yet no word from Gregory. Nor am I entirely sure, yet, about the survival of many of my texts into the Middle Ages. Chaucerians know the afterlife of the more misogynist passages of Jerome’s Against Jovinian, and I know the text as a whole survived, as we see from this twelfth-century copy.

But quick searches of the Patrologia Latina and the Monumenta Germaniae Historica suggest that Jerome’s ethnographic musings may not have been much talked about.

More research is needed! The next post – here perhaps before next Friday – will be on Mandeville, and, if there’s room, against Heidegger and on the ecocritical and affective implications of all this. Hang out, hang on!

Man is the Pasture of Being, Part 1: Evilmerodach

This series of posts is going to be about sky burial, ecomaterialism, edibility, and birds vs worms as eaters of bodies, and it’s going to be the rough draft for the first section of my “worms” chapter for my second book. Hang tight if that’s what you want. If the first thing you want, however, is a deep dive on the cultural afterlife of one of the less famous Babylonian kings, then you, my friend, my perhaps avian friend, are in for a treat.

Sometime in the early fourteenth century, the Speculum humanae salvationis (The Mirror of Human Salvation) hit Latin Christendom like a ton of allegorical bricks. Available in more than 380 manuscripts from 1324 on, a typical page looks like this:

BnF Lat 512 34r

BnF Lat 512 34r

Above, we have two illustrated scenes from the Bible, and below, an interpretation in Latin verse (or, as the fourteenth century wore on, still other languages: English, French, Dutch, Czech, and especially German, but oddly not Italian). For the most part, the SHS illustrates expected scenes: Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden; Noah’s ark; Jonah’s slithering out from the whale; Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac; the misery of Job. More surprising are the many historical scenes, largely drawn from the life of David and the Book of Judges: Ehud kills Eglon; Samson pulls apart a lion’s jaws; Benaiah (whom you might remember as a son of Jehoiada) also kills a lion; and, in illustrations as horrific as Goya’s Disasters of War, David punishes his enemies.

And, in every illustrated version I’ve seen (17 so far), Evilmerodach (elsewhere also spelled Evilmarodach, Awel-Marduk, and, less likely, Amel-Marduk) is dismembering the exhumed corpse of his father, Nebuchadnezzar the great, and feeding his limbs to the birds. He is supervising, alone or with his retinue; or he’s standing over a slab or table or down in the sarcophagus, doing the dirty business himself; he has an ax, a knife, or a falchion, presumably coded as the weapon of an “eastern” tyrant. We know he’s the king because he’s wearing a crown; his father’s also crowned, although his head’s likely to be lying on the ground, staring up blankly at his son; or it might be the meal of one hungry bird. Or, it might be hoisted aloft, slung between two. Like a cocoanut (BnF Latin 512, 27r or especially BL Sloane 346 18v).

This would clearly seem to be a bad thing. This is how, for instance, Jacopo de Cessolis’ kingship manual-cum-commentary on chess takes the story: though I don’t know why Friar Jacopo made Evilmerodach his exemplary bad king (research is ongoing, but my eye’s on you Giles of Rome), this exhumation is chief evidence that our Bablyonian king needs moral instruction: for Evilmerodach was “a jolye [vigorous] man without justyce and so cruel that he did do hewe his fader’s body in thre hondred pieces and gaf hit to ete and devoure to thre hondred byrdes that men calle voultres” (Caxton’s translation; for the medieval French, see here). I would be astonished if this late thirteenth-century work (surviving in more than 100 manuscripts) were not the immediate source for SHS’s Evilmerodach moralization. But I’m just as certain that neither treatment is quite fair to our king.

The earliest account dates to Jerome’s early fifth-century commentary on Isaiah (for 14:18). He ascribes the story to the Jews (narrant Hebraei huiusmodi fabulam; PL 24: 162C-D), but Josephus’s history, for example, confines itself only to the Biblical account of Evilmerodach’s involvement in Joachin’s triumphal return (Jeremiah 52:31-34, essentially the same as 2 Kings 25:27-30); the Biblical history in pseudo-Philo (middle of the 2nd c?) doesn’t go any later than the Book of Judges; the twelfth-century traveler Benjamin of Tundala sticks to the Biblical account; so the earliest extant written Jewish version of it belongs to the fourteenth-century Rhineland. Or so says Louis Ginzberg. It may be that the tradition passed, in fact, from the Christians to the Jews.

In Jerome, Evilmerodach gets what Jacopo doesn’t grant him: a motive. Evilmerodach had reigned during the seven years his father lived as a beast, and, when Nebuchadnezzar returned to sanity, he, in his gratitude, flung his son in prison, where he (along with the Jewish king Joachin, aka Jeconiah, aka Coniah) languished until the old king finally died. But Evilmerodach’s counselors needed convincing that Nebuchadnezzar was really gone (metuebant ne viveret qui dicebatur exstinctus); so Evilmerodach had him dragged from the tomb with hooks and ropes, and, with all the moral authority of a just king, proclaimed: “Sepultis omnibus qui a te interfecti sunt, tu solus insepultus iacebis” (all will be buried whom you killed, and you alone will lie unburied). End of story. Quite the opposite of tyranny.

The story shows up next in one of Agobard of Lyon’s (d. 840) many treatises against the Jews, where this Johnny One-Note uses it to prove the truth of Christ’s resurrection. Of course. Still hooks and a rope (unco et funibus); no dismemberment; no birds. These we first get in Haymo of Auxerre’s (d. 855) roughly contemporary Isaiah commentary. Evilmerodach is certain his father will come back: “my father dies when he wants, he rises up again when he wants!” (Pater meus quando vult moritur, quando vult resurgit). Joachin – now coming into his own as a clever courtier – knows just the trick: get 300 birds from various parts of the world, exhume the body, cut him into tiny pieces, and tie every part to a bird (ligaret unicuique avi partem suam), saying: whenever these very birds gather together, then your father will resurrect (Cum hae simul aves quandoque convenerint, tunc resuscitabitur pater tuus). Hugh of St Victor’s (d. 1141) commentary on Joel, like Jerome, ascribes the story to the Jews (Hebraica docet), and simply has Evilmerodoch, still scared, concoct the idea on his own. Here he burns his father to cinders, which he splits into four bags: tying the bags to the necks of four eagles, he releases them to travel to the four corners of the world (Quo in quatuor marsupiis dispertito ad quatuor aquilarum colla ligagavit, quibus per quatuor orbis climata dispositis eas avolare permisit).

It would take Peter Comestor’s (i.e. Peter the Eater’s) enormously successful Historia Scholastica (1173) for Evilmerodach story to get close to its final form: king, 300 parts, 300 birds, and, finally, birdfood. Peter’s version also benefits from an admirable directness:

When he began to reign, he raised up Joachin, whom he had a companion in prison, and fearing that his father would resurrect, who had returned from being a beast into being a man, took Joachin into counsel; at whose counsel, he exhumed the corpse of his father, divided it into 300 parts, and gave the 300 parts to 300 vultures. And Joachin said to him, “Your father will not resurrect until these vultures return together”

[Cumque regnare coepisset, elevavit Ioachim, quem socium habuerat in carcere, timensque ne resurgeret pater suus, qui de bestia redierat in hominem, consuluit Ioachim. Ad cuius consilium cadaver patris sui effossum, divisit in trecentas partes, et dedit eas trecentis vulturibus. Et ait ad eum Ioachim: “Non resurget pater tuus, nisi redeant vultures in unum.”]

All that Peter misses is the accusation of tyranny. For my friends in English departments, one last, less recherché citation: Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, which is basically Peter Comestor’s version, with its English translations having Nebuchadnezzar’s diced corpse going to “þre hondred vultures” for “etynge” (in Higden’s Latin, “devorandas”), and in the other, as well, to “iij c. gripes” [300 vultures; def. C], presumably also for eating.

To look at this with more charity than Jacopo de Cessolis did, Evilmerodach is simply doing what any king must do. He must secure his rule, both against other present claimants, and against his own lineage, which must neatly, definitively swap him in for the previous king. The previous king really needs to be gone: the king is dead (“are you sure?”); long live the king (“but only this one, for now”)! Faced with this, Evilmerodach, like any king, does what he must. Antique psychoanalytic interpretations of the primal hoard, with everything that follows from that (non/nom/nomnomnom du Père), should also be suggested: the dismembered father, made really dead, is all at once an overcoming of Nebuchadnezzar’s tyranny, a perpetuation of it (by dishonoring the dead), an act of power (who else can get away with desecrating a king’s corpse?), an act of fear (“is dad really dead?”), and of course something that looks more than a little like butchery. As if Evilmerodach were planning to eat his father’s corpse.

Like a ferocious beast. Recall that the story is also one about humans and animals: being with the beasts is like being dead; and being returned to the beasts simply reverses what he had been in his madness. He ate grass as an ox (Daniel 4:30), and now he himself is fodder.

Evilmerodach makes his father a bird feeder.

But Jacopo de Cessolis made him a tyrant, and the Speculum humanae salvationis piled on, so that, even in published scholarship, Evilmerodach’s sometimes charged with having killed his father (this post is, among other things, a resource to ensure that no one else makes this mistake). The Middle English verse explains:

King Evilmeredach of swilk / some tyme gaf for lyknesse

When he in his dede fadere / exercised his wodenesse

Whas body dolven out of the grave / in thre hondreth gobets he kitte

And to thre hondreth voltoures / forto devoure dalte itte

So in thaire fadere crist for thaym dede / haves fals cristen thaym wodely

What thay wilfully synnyng hym est sones crucifye

And thay synne more wreching / crist in his deitee

Then they yt crucified hym lyving / here in humanitee.

That is, Evilmerodach’s treatment of his father is like those who through their sin crucify him over and over again. And that would seem to be that: Evilmerodach is now just plain Evil.

Except that Evilmerodach normally shares his page with Absalom, David’s rebellious son, captured and killed when his long, beautiful hair tangles itself in a tree.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1806 31v

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1806 31v

For the SHS interpretation, Absalom is no bad son. Instead, he’s a symbol of Christ: Absalom is stabbed by three spears as he dangles from the tree, just as Christ was stabbed by three lances, that is, three pains, namely, the severity of the pain, the bitter grief of his mother, and carrying the weight of the sins of the damned.

This delirious allegorization, like nothing so much as the modern habit of finding Christ in any given thing (warning: dog), reminds us that allegory does not completely overwrite the vehicle. Instead, the sometimes shocking inadequacy of the vehicle to tenor forces us to remember the vehicle’s continued material existence. Though allegory is sometimes — especially in the Middle Ages — held to be the “nut” underneath the shell of a literal reading, in this case, the “nut” is the historical referent, available for, and grounding, unceasing and mobile interpretation. In this case, though he is temporarily read as Christ, Absalom remains behind the SHS interpretation what he must still be, a bad son; though he is temporarily read as a figure for blasphemous, false oaths, or just sin in general, Evilmerodach likewise remains a frightened king, doing what he must. And whatever the interpretation, his father’s corpse remains a corpse, dismembered, and the birds remain hungry birds.

We should not lose track of the material business of Evilmerodach. If we remember that, we can pay better attention to the Evilmerodach’s craft. Certainly, sometimes the SHS just throws the new king into the tomb with his father, losing itself in the specificity of this weird solution to royal succession (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Ms. germ. fol. 245 48r; similar, but less odd, BnF Latin 511, 26r). At times, Evilmerodach wields a sword, a royal weapon, and just hacks away at his father’s corpse as he would any other human body (Ms Douce 204 25v or Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 206(49) 25r). Sometimes, however, he uses an ax (BnF Latin 9585, 30v), sometimes with the body on a wooden table, working like a butcher (Sarnen, Benediktinerkollegium, Cod. membr. 8, f 26r).

Sarnen, Benediktinerkollegium, Cod. membr. 8, f 26r

We can compare it to this butcher, for example, from Caffaro di Rustico da Caschifellone’s groundbreaking annals of Genoa, one of whose manuscripts features this worker among its many other civic marginalia (BnF Latin 10136, 6v).

BnF Latin 10136, 6v

As I observed in How to Make a Human (208-10), medieval people were fully cognizant of the similarity between animal and human flesh (after all, the Latin carnis doesn’t differentiate between the two), and the concomitant similarity between butchers and, well, people butchers. Like soldiers. And not only soldiers.

But the distribution of the royal body to the birds also recalls a ritual that has captured the love of ecocritics, me among them. This is the Tibetan ritual of “sky burial,” which, regardless of its variations, always sees corpse fed to wild birds. I’ll have much more to say about this in my next post: about the sometimes ahistorical enthusiasm for this ritual in ecocritical art, in what would have been known about it in Latin Christendom, what this has to do – and doesn’t have to do – with late medieval Christian burial practices, and what is at stake, from an ecocritical perspective, between being esca vermibus (food for worms) and esca avibus (food for birds). And I’ll also have something to say about Heidegger (a sneak preview: I’ll argue that der Mensch ist das Futter des Seins, Man is the fodder of beings).

For now, though, I’ll leave you with this: the connection of Evilmerodach with sky burial seems to be a stretch, and, indeed, for most of the manuscripts I’ve been able to examine, it is. Evilmerodach is a bad, bad king, and he’s doing a bad, bad thing, although he is also, in some manuscripts, being a perfectly good butcher, albeit with an unusual carcass. It may be too much to see this as intimating any kind of sky burial.

Except that at least one German illustrated adaptation of the Bible, Morgan M.0268, fol. 021v, features – surprisingly – Alexander the Great arriving (naked?) through the woods, and, in the middle, a dinner party with Roxana of Bactria, and then, in the right, what I think might be mistakenly labeled as Evilmerodach, dismembering his father and feeding him to the birds. Whoever he is, he’s not wearing a crown; but the Morgan believes him to be Evilmerodach; notably, he is in the east, where this late fourteenth-century artist would have expected to find sky burial. And in at least one German Alexander, Evilmerodach’s shrine [“sarc”], green as grass, makes an appearance (3563-67) .

Morgan M.0268, fol. 021v

Morgan M.0268, fol. 021v

I may just be on to something. Part two will arrive in several days.


The Smiling Oyster, 1950’s, by Allen on Flickr

Giving a talk at Cornell this Thursday!

The Bare Life of (Medieval) Oysters,” March 12, 4:30, Goldwin Smith Hall 142

By some miracle of diligence, I have at least forty minutes of stuff to say, much of it new, new, new. Here’s a sample!

Maybe see you there?

For Aristotle, for Boethius, for Aquinas, and for a host of other thinkers, the oyster is not without sensation. What it lacks is the capacity to abstract from its present situation – what the intellectus grants – and the related capacity for movement, which itself might be understood as a kind of spatial abstraction: for movement divides the subject’s location from the field of other possible, locations within a generalized quality of space and spatial difference. The oyster’s total immobility leaves it in a situation of astonishing, even horrifying helplessness. As Aquinas writes, movement is that quality by which animals may “seek necessaries of life from a distance”; the Old English Boethius explains, the power of movement makes some animals like us, for through movement they can “love what they love, hate what they hate, shun what they abhor, and seek what they love.” And without movement, oysters can do none of these. They can’t go at what they want, and they can’t get away from what they don’t. All they can do is sense, perhaps in some little frustration – remember Gelli’s crab-worried oyster – that they are alive and vulnerable, without being able to do anything to preserve, sustain, or improve that life.

Finally, nothing shows that life. If most animals, including humans, show off their life by moving, and if plants – invariably ranked below shellfish – show their life by bursting from their seeds and growing – the life of the shellfish has to be taken on trust. With this in mind, I would add oysters or even substitute them for plants in this passage in Michael Marder’s Plant Life, when he writes that “after we strip life of all its recognizable features, vegetal beings go on living; plant-soul is the remains of a psyche reduced to its non-human and non-animal modality. It is life in its archaic bareness…in a word, life as survival” (22). For the plant’s growth, its “ineluctable bi-directionality of growth, striving at once towards light and towards darkness” (63), is still a kind of mobility, regardless of how generally imperceptible this action may be to an impatient human attention. In its seeking out good land, or in breaking into stone or soil, plants evince some kind of desire or preference or, at least, what Marder calls a “non-conscious intentionality” (37). All an oyster has, by contrast, is its mere being there.

Viewed from the other side, this immobility is nothing other than life’s own general necessity of having to be somewhere, which is always paired with a desire to continue to live. This is the helplessness that comes with simply existing. This helplessness, which splits moving from unmoving animals, dividing the oyster from oxen and humans alike, may not be so far removed from our condition. Certainly, we can move, but only within limits. We can shun what might harm us, but only within limits. So far as we know, we are all going to die — that, at least, cannot be shunned — and in this time of climate change, we know that our freedom to flee danger is limited by our confinement to this sweltering earth. On a planetary scale, we should number ourselves among – to recall Boethius – “such other things as feed clinging to rocks.” For even Aquinas would have to agree that worldly life can be characterized not just by our movement within it and abstraction from it but also by our always limited capacities to shuffle deckchairs on this titanic, fostering earth.

An Attempt at the Definitive Squirrel Post

Rouen, BM ms. 3028, 89v

Rouen, BM ms. 3028, 89v

National Squirrel Appreciation Day came and went, as it always does, with me in the yard, hiding my nuts, and missing my chance, again, to tell the squirrels of America how much I love them.

Sorry, little guys! You’ll have to make do with this, days in the making, a squirrel post so long you may want to bury bits of it to read later.


Squirrels are a good subject for pet studies because domesticated squirrels are obviously just pets – although I’m prepared to pretend to be shocked when you tell me about your guard squirrel – and because domesticated squirrels strike most of us as an anomaly. Newspapers periodically run stories on cab drivers and other local characters who pal around with squirrels (a sample), but otherwise, to find a land where the squirrels are still chained and tamed, we might have to visit Southern Italy, where I’m told they’re sold in petshops.

Eighteenth-century paintings of children with chained squirrels are not all that uncommon. The Brooklyn Museum has one, the New York Historical Society another, the Museum of Fine arts in Boston still another, and the list scampers on to include one by Thomas Hudson, with a boy whose perhaps too wizened face recalls nothing so much as John Malkovich’s. More are collected in this much-plagiarized blog post. One famous champion of slavery, Robert E. Lee, loathed his sister Mildred’s pet squirrel, named Custis Morgan, while the founders of the country he sought to destroy were themselves also mixed up variously with squirrels: in 1772, Paul Revere himself billed one client for a silver chain for a squirrel, while Benjamin Franklin wrote a mocking epitaph for another, named either Mungo or Skugg.

Earlier examples not having to do with America’s Founding Fathers, include Aelbert Cuypt’s Portrait of the Sam Family before the Town of Bacharach (1653), where little Abraham Sam clutches the chain of his little squirrel, and Francesco Montemezzano’s of a woman and hers, in 1575. Later pet squirrels include Bonnie, painted by Joseph Decker in various wild settings, in The Seated Squirrel and another, called either Their Winter Hoard or, outrageously, The Gluttons. The poet Christian Friedrich Hebbel’s squirrel, Lampi (or Schatz), mourned deeply, may be pictured here, living and chained to his kennel.

As for the real goods, the medieval pet squirrels, we have enough to assert, with small confidence, that people kept squirrels for pets, with more frequency, per capita, than they do now. We have a fifteenth-century love ring, French or English, whose inside engraving features a woman with a leashed (metaphorical?) squirrel, at the British Museum; or this page from a mid fourteenth-century Quest for the Holy Grail, whose right margin pictures, naturally enough, a squirrel cleverly chained to its pole, perched atop its little squirrel house, thinking, one presumes, about the Arthurian court’s coming doom. A similar squirrel kennel shows up in an early fourteenth-century Flemish Psalter (MS Douce 5), while the Hours of Anne of Bohemia (1382-1384) have a squirrel with its kennel, no pole, and in the Luttrell psalter, an unchained, unkenneled squirrel, wearing a bell (and later, in the same manuscript, a squirrel riding the shoulder of lady in a wagon). The early fourteenth-century Ormesby Psalter also has a lady with a squirrel in her hand, as does one of the Chertsey Tiles, dating to the last decade of the thirteenth century. Even more medieval (and early modern) squirrels, mostly undomesticated, are collected by this extraordinary post.

Squirrels, like other small animals, seem to have been kept mainly by women and, in later centuries, children, though we know of plenty of men from the later eighteenth century on not afraid to give squirrels their love: in addition to Hebbel, there’s the pet squirrel in the third volume of Hal Willis’s delirious medievalist novel Sir Roland; there’s also I. W. Sickels, who wrote in 1903 that  “the male squirrel is always more or less treacherous,” and observed that a pet squirrel will often hide its nuts “in the pockets of your coat, vest, or pantaloons, or between your collar and neck”; and even John Huston, whose little Pachito, normally a placid chap, once bit the producer Ray Stark.

What’s harder to come by, however, are written accounts of medieval domestic squirrels. To be sure, monastic visitation records complain about nuns keeping squirrels, among other animals (for example, Eileen Power, here; or Archbishop Eudes in mid thirteenth-century Rouen, [also here], whose contempt for pets merits nothing less than his being immortalized as an operatic, or Disney, villain). But without easy access to the Acta Sanctorum (thanks CUNY!), it’s hard to find the stories about squirrels that would be preserved, no doubt, in hagiographic records of grief, trauma, and healing (think of St Cantilupe, who once resurrected a pet dormouse! n5, here).

It’s hard, as well, to find squirrels, because they’re so blessed with names. Which brings me to my second point:


The problem with squirrel research is knowing what to call them. The base form in Latin – sciurus – throws off a mess of possibilities: scira, scuirus, scurulus, scuriolus, quirolus, squiriolus, squiriolis, escorion, escuratus, escurellus, exquirium, squirio, escurellus, aspriolus, esperiolus, espirio, expereol, pirolus, pirulus, pyrolus, speriolus, spiriolus, spiriculus, spirgulus, and asprigulus. I’ve found these mostly through searching the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and Louis Gauchat’s article, below. With no small trepidation, I can also cite cirogrillus, to some, a squirrel, to others, a hedgehog.

This proliferation raises a question of just what counts as a Latin word: obviously, despite having learned Latin as a second language, our writers had some freedom with this noun that they don’t have with, presumably, verb endings. Latin may be a deadish language, but through its pile of corpses scampers the ever-transforming squirrel. All that makes these words specifically Latin are that they’re used with a Latin grammar and vocabulary that made it readily distinguishable different from the common tongue (which may nonetheless have used precisely the same word for “squirrel,” unless it was a region that preferred eichhorn, eichörnchen, or acquerna).

One final point here: the origin of the word squirrel is, they say, in the Greek σκίουρος, σκιά shade + οὐρά tail. This etymology appears wherever squirrel etymologies are likely to be found: in the OED, in the Deutsches Wörterbuch, and so too in this arm of the French state. Centuries old, the proposal may have first been suggested by Conrad Gesner’s mid sixteenth-century Historiae animalium:

Graecum nomen est animalculo datum à cauda, qua supra dorsum reflexa se tegit & inumbrat…ut pedes hominibus illis quos sciapodes fabulose nominant

The Greek name of this little animal is given from its tail, which it bends around above its back and covers and shadows itself…like the feet of those fabulous men that they called “sciapods.”

As fabulous as this is, Gesner might have been wrong, as might everyone who followed. There’s little surprise that no one’s bothered much to correct him, since, in the humanities, the squirrel tends attract no more than its due interest. It may nonetheless be worth noting that, a century ago, Gesner met his match in a skirmish that might be refought, if etymologists see fit, once again, to take up the banner of accuracy.

Louis Gauchat’s 1909 “Les noms gallo-romains de l’écureuil” (available in Volume 2, here) calls the “shade tail” origin an “idée bizarre,” and cites as support, “entre autres,” Schader’s 1901 Reallexikon der indogermanischen Altertumskunde (whose later versions you might check for me) (meanwhile, the OED et al. might check the 1903 Universal Cyclopaedia and Atlas). The Reallexikon suggests that the word might come, more naturally, from scéri, fast or agile, while also pointing out the importance of the root preserved in the Slavic véverica (consider the Welsh wiwer, for example), as this element appears in the Anglo-Saxon ácweorna (Gauchat 194). At the least, the OED might hint at some other possibilities!


At the Twitter, the great Matthew Harrison gifted me with Topsell on squirrels:

They growe exceeding tame and familiar to men if they be accustomed and taken when they are young, for they runne vp to mens shoulders, and they will oftentimes – it vpon their hands, creepe into their pockets for Nuttes, goe out of doores, and returne home againe, but if they be taken aliue, being olde, when once they get loose, they will neuer returne home againe, and therefore such may wel bee called Semiferi [semi-wild] rather than Cicures.

They are very harmeful, and wil eat al manner of woolen garments [and scamper across all manner of power lines], and if it were not for that discommidity, they were sweete-sportful-beastes, and are very pleasant play-fellowes in a house.

Topsell is one of many who repeats this legend:

The admirable witte of this beast appeareth in her swimming or passing ouer the Waters, for when hunger or some conuenient prey of meat costraineth her to passe ouer a riuer, shee seeketh out soe rinde or small barke of a Tree which shee setteth vppon the Water, and then goeth into it, and holding vppe her taile like a saile, letteth the winde driue her to the other side, and this is witnessed by Olaus Magnus in his description of Scandinauia, WHERE THIS IS ORDINARY AMONG SQUIRRELLES … [my emphasis]

Olaus Magnus is indeed one source for this, as is, in later years, Carl Linnaeus, who, under sciurus, observes briefly that “Cortice interdum navigat,” and, in later years, Squirrel Nutkin. Olaus’s contemporary Conrad Gesner also remarks on sailing squirrels, and, in my period, we have, in the fourteenth century, Conrad of Megenberg, and, in the thirteenth, Vincent of Beauvais and Thomas of Cantimpré’s roughly contemporary encyclopedias (the later being adapted into Dutch verse: “ende sitter op, alst in een scip ware, / ende metten staerte seyltet over dare”).

Here the trail goes cold: I’ve lost my nuts, because earlier medieval works of natural science, either say nothing about sailing (Albert the Great and Hildegard of Bingen), or, shockingly, not the least thing squirrels (Isidore, Bede, Rabanus). Why this story begins to be written down only in the thirteenth century is a mystery that could – and perhaps should – be solved only with a grant, or endowed chair, worthy of this great labor.

Thanks to the following for help and encouragement with this post. You may not have known this was coming: Irina Dumitrescu, Matthew Harrison, Kathleen E. Kennedy, Elaine Treharne, and “bxknits.”