Chapter 3 – Food For Worms, Part I

IMG_0141What follows is, as the title promises, the beginning of what is, by my current count, Chapter 3 of my Book2 [the next bit is here, and I’m sure to revise this to give it some room to breath]. I’ve revised material that’s appeared in print before, in postmedieval’s “Ecomaterialism” special issue, itself a development of several blog posts from 2012 [here and here for example], but in this pass, apart from overhauling the introductory paragraphs entirely, I get to go at things without the space limitations of a journal article, and, moreover, without of the cruft of engagement with ooo, very au courant in 2012, but not so much now. I’d like to think of this is an improvement.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through a gate, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17).[2] However many the roads to this gate, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise, or threat, of an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. The subject might think this abyss grand: abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few artistic bodies may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[5] or Alexis Shotwell’s, via Lisa Heldke, for an understanding of “the entangled features of our eating behaviors,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food, with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of the well-known morality play Everyman, about the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the general body of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of medieval death work is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. Certainly most of this material aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. This material can still be read profanely, however, some of it more easily than others. My chapter does not aim to be comprehensive.[8] My interest will be in a work like this version of a famous and widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders it as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.
Earth drew the other earth to the earth.
Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.
Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Admitting that this rendition is “crude,” Rudd then opens up the moral content of the poem’s dense imagery, in which earth is human, flesh, and spouse, but then returns us to the quatrain’s bare materiality: “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” For what we might call Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take this profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem shockingly lacks a soul—not being a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are—it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. My chapter, then, will treat each of these elements singly: flesh; then worms, particularly the natural, antipaternal science of spontaneous generation; and then finally how this alliance between worms and flesh challenges the somber “unsubstitutable singularity” of what is by now a classic strain in critical animal theory.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves,[12] and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[13] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[14]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[15] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[16] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. The bones once again have a place in the Merina community. Think here also of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[17] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[18] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[19] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;
trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;
leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[20]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But of course their material continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[21] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[22] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[23] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[24] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, as could but here I will offer just one more, the Disputation. The body of this poem, far from finding rest in the grave, instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to the body about their hosts of allied vermin:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.[25]

[The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon, The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake, The toad, the mole, and the scorpion, The viper, the snake, and the adder, The toad, the ant, and the crab, The spider, the maggots, and the newt, The water leech, and the others are not far behind.]

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.

[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64.

[6] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017,,

[hereafter DIMEV], 6292. This version might be contrasted with the far more neatly moral and anthropocentric DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 15–17, 21–22, 28–29.

[13] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[14] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[15] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[16] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[18] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[19] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[20] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[21] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les Vers Comme Heritiers: Aspects de La Poétique Du Testament Aux XIVe et XVe Siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[22] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[23] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[24] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[25] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 62.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 455.

[21] Ibid., 461.

[22] Ibid., 463.

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

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

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

The Middle English Disputation between a Christian and a Jew: Materiality, or not.

Eric Corriel at Lumen 2014

Cross posted to In the Middle, where you can comment; or find us on Facebook.

Because the field’s so crowded, I’m reluctant to call the “Disputisoun bytwene a cristenmon and a jew” [Disputation between a Christian and a Jew, hereafter DCJ] one of the stranger Middle English poems; but it is a particularly weird one. Here’s a recent summary:

[DCJ tells] how an English and a Jewish theologian disputed in vain at Paris. The Christian argues the Virgin Birth and the redemption through Christ’s crucifixion and the Jew favors a God who has no son. In order to convince the Christian the Jew suggests he will prove the power of his religion by showing the Christian a vision of Christ on the cross. They travel to the Otherworld where the Christian proves the vision of the crucifixion to be a false one by confronting it with a consecrated host. The Jew admits the errors of his ways and converts to Christianity. At this point the Christian is identified as Sir Walter of Berwick, who was made a penitentiary by the pope.

Among these otherworld encounters are Arthur and his Round Table (!), a dinner with nuns, squires, and the recital of romances, and, finally, what turns out to be a fake crucifixion (a crucifiction?). [For another summary, see my comment to this 2008 blog post]

Luuk Houwen, whose summary I quote above, offers us one of the only articles on the DCJ, and, so far as I know, the only one published this century. I’m convinced by his argument, which is essentially an identification of its genre: the poem’s not a romance, but a religious vision, developed from one of the many exempla designed to prove the sanctity of the Eucharistic Host.

Houwen, however, doesn’t do much with the Jewishness of the disputant, and probably for good reason: Thomas of Cantimpré’s exemplum, a likely source, features a contest between a heretic and a Christian; in another analog, from a Life of St Wolfram, it’s pagans and a not-quite-yet Christian. The DCJ adds Arthur, the Nuns, and the other elements of what we might call a specifically British otherworld. But, apart from calling its figure of unbelief a Jew, it doesn’t explicitly add anything to the tradition that’s clearly about the Christian engagement with Judaism.

Still,some other differences from the analogs demand our attention. There’s the Jew’s similarity to Chaucer’s Clerk of Orleans, in the Franklin’s Tale, who similarly conjures up a chivalric entertainments:

he shewed hym, er he wente to sopeer,
Forestes, parkes ful of wilde deer;
Ther saugh he hertes with hir hornes hye,
The gretteste that evere were seyn with ye.
He saugh of hem an hondred slayn with houndes,
And somme with arwes blede of bittre woundes.
He saugh, whan voyded were thise wilde deer,
Thise fauconers upon a fair ryver,
That with hir haukes han the heron slayn.
tho saugh he knyghtes justyng in a playn;
And after this he dide hym swich plesaunce
That he hym shewed his lady on a daunce,
On which hymself he daunced, as hym thoughte.
And whan this maister that this magyk wroughte
Saugh it was tyme, he clapte his handes two,
And farewel! al oure revel was ago,
And yet remoeved they nevere out of the hous.

That’s certainly a connection worth developing, perhaps having to do with the relationship between preachers, sorcerers, and storytellers; here, though, I’ll just suggest that we put the poem in conversation with the medieval relationship between Jews and materiality, specifically, the way that medieval Christianity tended to insult Jews by associating them with materiality. For Christians, Jews were excessively literal, concerned only with brute facts and not with spiritual truths, stone-hearted, driven by instinct rather than choice, with bodies that were excessively corporeal: stinky, prone to bloody fluxes and–in the Siege of Jerusalem among others–dismemberment (see Steven Kruger’s The Spectral Jew and Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s Idols in the East).One of the goals of the new materialisms is, or should be, to drain the material insult of its force by, at once, recognizing the presumptively human/Christian/whatever as material too and the material as more agential or, at least, less foundational (“the ground of our discussion is” etc). More wobbly on the material side, less free on the human/etc side, with a serious reassessment of what we mean when we use the word “agency.” Things like that.

That’s important, but it’s harder to implement in this case. What’s strange in the DCJ is that the Jew isn’t obviously associated with materiality, but with illusion; it’s the Christian who wields the material object, the consecrated Host, that — like the clap of the Orleans’ Clerk–bursts the illusion apart, returning us to the world of dark, solid matter:

Whon he was schewed to the siht,
He barst þe Buyldynge so briht.
Bote was derk as the niht,
Heore sonne and heore mone.

If we just take the Jew as being made to stand in for the general unbeliever, that’s not a problem, except, of course, for the general fact of its prejudice. But if we take the Jew seriously as a Jew in a Christian poem then we need to work harder.

Host desecration stories with Jewish desecrators, like the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, which Houwen cites, or several exempla in British Library, Royal 18.B.23, feature a kind of profane belief in the material sanctity of the Host. The Jews obtain a Host, by theft or purchase or deception, and then mistreat it until the Host reveals its truth. A sample, since BL Royal 18.B.23 isn’t online. A Jew bets a Christian 20 pounds that his dog would eat a consecrated Host. The Christian accepts the bet, and then, by pretending to be sick, tricks a priest into slipping him the goods. When he extracts the uneaten Host from under his tongue and delivers it to the Jew, here’s what happens:

Þan [the Jew] toke þe Hoste, þat was in þe purs, and cast it a-fore þe dogge. And a-noon þe dogge fled and wold haue renne owte of þe hous. Þan þe Iewe cached hym a3eyn and chereshed hym, and euermore he drewe a-bake. Þan þe Iewe saw þat he wold not for no cherishynge take itt, þan he bette hym. And anone þe dogge fell downe on all iiij knees and did as he couthe reuerence to þe Sacramente. Þan þe Iewe was wode wrouthe and toke a staffe and bette þe dogge, and toke þe dogge in is armes and put hym þer-to. And þe dogge felte þat he wold haue mad hym to haue eten itt. And sothely he stirte vp to is þrote and voried hym.

Þan anoon þe Cristen man ranne to þe preeste þe wiche þat houseled hym, and told hym how it was and of þe dogge, suche an vnresonable beeste, how þat he did is dewe reuerence to Goddes bodie in þe forme of brede.

So be þis meracle þou may be stered to beleue þer-on in þat, þat an vnresonable beeste do dud, þat neuer had techynge of holychurche. (130)

This isn’t at all what happens in DCJ. Its Jew doesn’t have any particular belief either way in the Host. He doesn’t want to do things to it to prove that it’s mere material. He’s even, before its reveal, indifferent to it. Rather — and this proposal is probably where I’ll open discussion the next time I teach it — the Jew in the DCJ champions visible immateriality, and the Christian invisible materiality. The DCJ isn’t so much a dispute between materiality and its other (whether this is spirit, choice, free interpretation, immortal stability, &c) as it is between the falseness of visible things and the true materiality of invisible things. On the other side of (false) vision, we haven’t arrived exactly at the realm of spirit, but at the one, true materiality of the Real Presence.

The trick, which I’ll leave to my students, and to you, is to make this frankly rather dull reading more interesting.

[for more on/in the Vernon Manuscript, see here; and for a full TOC, here]

SATISFACTION: Interested; Omnipotent; Implacable


First, of course, read Jeffrey on Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human, which I’m co-endorsing as a masterpiece. I’m promising you my own, briefer post on it, now.

Second! A Kalamazoo paper, nearly a month on, from the second Impossible Words session, summarized by Jeffrey like this:

Some fragments: BLISS as an infusion of being as well as a theological colonization of joy (Randy Schiff); places can survive when human settlements do not, so that SURVIVAL is enwrapped in a plural physics, a tale of migration (Dan Remein); an afterlife tells us that our actions have consequences beyond human calculability, beyond SATISFACTION, a knowledge that resonates with ecology’s inhumanism (Karl Steel); within the “I” might be excavated a humble flicker of multiplicity to hold onto (Chris Piuma); TOLERANCE operates at every scale and within every discipline (from cancer to justice to botany) and exceeds them, as supplement (Laurie Finke); COMMUNITY is impossibly built of a with (cum-) and an obligation (-munus), we are incapable of paying the debt of distance from self that community demands, and yet a kind of infinite perishing shows another way (George Edmondson); if we are not gobsmacked, then who are we as a COLLECTIVE (Anne Harris)? The Q&A were fantastic, and a topic for next year’s roundtable even spontaneously emerged, “Lost Words.”

To which I’d only add that the Q/A circled around the horror of collectives. Many of us felt that the call and response of the Material Collective was a bit “creepy.”

My paper follows:

Those of us who do Middle English know that Pearl offers a picture of the “more and more” of God’s grace. In its 101 stanzas — notably, not the expected 100 — merely commercial economies, represented so neatly by the grieving jeweler, break open to make way for God’s unending generosity. Pearl teaches us that life, at its best, isn’t fair, and thank goodness for that.

So, Pearl gives us two ways of not being satisfied , the one insufficient, the other beyond sufficiency. We have the disatisfaction of the jeweler, greedy, malcontent, envious, impatient on his side of the river, sad at the death of what might be his daughter, more than a bit jealous that she’s made such a good match; and then there’s God’s infinite unsatisfiability, always able to do more than what’s required, always exceeding what’s on order, an unsatisfiability whose eternal grace keeps on coming, because — to paraphrase Anselm — it’s its own cause, its own power, its own necessity.1

But for a fuller picture of God’s unsatisfiability, we have to take another trip to the otherworld, travelling, as you might expect, in the other direction: our guide will also hail from the late fourteenth century, the Middle English translation of the Vision of Tundale, a representative medieval best-seller if ever there was one, with some 150 Latin manuscripts and translations into at least 12 vernaculars. It’s sometimes taught. As you might recall, Tundale’s a wicked Irish merchant, keen on collecting debts, who, after falling into a coma, travels first to hell and then, more briefly, into heaven.

The vision says that God’s mercy “passes all things” (39; 813), while the demons, watching Tundale elude their grasp, complain that God “should reward each man according to what he has done” (275-6), that God, in other words, should just do the right thing, and only that. God being God of course does more. The deeper Tundale’s infernal journey, the deeper the pain: “he thought the pain seem to be more than all the pain he had encountered before: that pain surpassed all other pains” (403-5; see also 760-64), and the more he encounters “souls in pain without end” (1128), “in endless pain” (1163), who can do nothing but cry “welaway” (462; 1130), who can suffer “yet might they not fully die” (1080).

As we might expect, doctrinal debates worried over the justness of such eternal punishment. Hugh of St Victor’s De sacramentis explains that sinners wanted to sin eternally, so of course they should be punished eternally; while Aquinas heaps up a jumble of reasons, including that sin “offends God Who is infinite,” and since “punishment cannot be infinite in intensity, because the creature is incapable of an infinite quality, it must needs be infinite at least in duration.”2 Here, presumably, the antecedent, the it, refers to the duration of both punishment and sinner, who endures, “infinite in duration,” without ever fully dying.

Now, it’s easy to see how the same door that opens to infinite mercy also opens to infinite suffering: God is the sovereign, whose unregulated, self-generated goodness at once establishes and suspends the order of justice, with everything that follows from that.3 But this operation, which, essentially, flips or reverse engineers Schmitt’s Political Theology away from the secular and back towards the theological, makes God human, just as awesome and frightening as any other king.

God’s inhuman infinity requires that we not be satisfied with that. To grasp God’s inhuman horror more fully, we have to get him off his throne and sense the impossible, how he’s invisibly and impalpably everywhere. God’s time is beyond ours; his order beyond ours; his realm one that none of us, at least not here, can penetrate fully: you’ll remember what happens to the Pearl-dreamer when he tries, in his frenzy, to slip across the river, while Tundale just as badly fails in trying to get into the furthest reaches of heaven.

I’m saying that God offers a chance to get totally inhuman. He’s so much more than a sovereign. He–or the divine it–operates at a scale that no human action, no human conceptualization, could ever satisfy. And yet this It still takes an relentless interest, condemning us or saving us according to its own unlimited ends, far beyond anything that we could think just.

Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, on the topic of Very Large Finitudes, says that there’s “a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of ‘forever’ than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything.”4 Fair enough, but here’s a counterproposal: what the afterlife tells us is that our actions have consequences far beyond anything we could ever imagine. Something out there is taking an interest, disproportionate to our comprehension, but proportionate to Its own, rewarding or condemning us according to calculations that we will enjoy, or suffer, undergoing without understanding, and — given that this is an eternity — without ever giving us an out. Without ever being satisfied that we will have done enough for It, in It.

Having run my human time out, I’ll leave it to you to develop the ecological consequences.

1 Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Chapter V, in a dizzying attempt to save God from having something so compulsory as a motive: “God does nothing of necessity, since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his actions. And when we say that God does something by necessity, as it were, of avoiding dishonor–which, in any case, he need not fear–it is better to interpret this as meaning that he does thing from the necessity of preserving his honor. Now this necessity is nothing but his own changeless honor, which he has from himself and not from another, and on that account it is improper to call it necessity.” In Eugene Fairweather, ed, A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 150. [see also Aquinas ST 1a 2ae 112 art 1, “Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be more powerful than its effect. Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace.”

2 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis), trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951), 468. Also see Aquinas ST ss 99, Art. 1, “quia per eam contra Deum, qui est infinitus, peccatur. Unde, cum non posset esse infinita poena per intensionem, quia creatura non est capax alicuius qualitatis infinitae; requiritur quod sit saltem duratione infinita”

3 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 38.

4 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Kindle location 1095. Obviously, medievalists would lean on this point a bit with the way that Very Large Numbers work in, for example, the Chansons de geste.

Day 6 – Animal Testaments

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Today we considered a little-studied genre that comprises animal complaint poetry and animal testaments. Our texts were the late antiqueTestamentum Porcelli, two Middle English works, “By a Forest as I gan fare” (aka The Hunting of the Hare) and the Chester play’s “Balaack and Balaam,” and several late medieval or early modern works, the oyster section from Thomas Brown’s translation of Gelli’s Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s “Gryllus,” Martin Luther’s “Complaint of the Birds,” and finally Margaret Cavendish’s, “The Hunting of the Hare.” We could have added several more to this list: the “Lament of the Roast Swan” from the Carmina Burana, the Anglo-Saxon riddle about the oyster, Jacques’ lament of the the hunted deer in As You Like It, and so on. We could certainly add Robert Henryson’s “Preaching of the Swallow” from his Fables too. Such works occupy a spectrum from the clearly parodic (the Testamentum, Carmina Burana, and the Martin Luther) to the obviously serious (Cavendish), with most uncertainly occupying a place somewhere in between. Our conversation didn’t get to half of these today, however.

Preliminary to starting, I encouraged everyone to go see Eleonora Stoppino, “Animals, Contagion, and Education from Boccaccio to Fracastoro,” this Wednesday evening at NYU.

We started the class proper by continuing conversations from last week and also from the intervening conversation on the wiki. To this end, I showed a scene from František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová, a classic of Czech and medievalist cinema (now showing at BAM). The film responds well to critical animal studies: in it, the medieval, in its violence and lust, is animal, arguably, though the film’s wolfpack motif suggests a natural that’s, well, beyond good and evil. We watched a scene about the transformation of Christian (that name!), a German knight, and the paragon of chivalric civilization, into a hulking wolf man. When his pagan lover, Alexandra, discovers him, she bashes in his skull with a rock, seemingly with his permission. She herself is a creature of the woods, hardly more than animal herself: having had an incestuous something with one of her brothers, Vláčil clearly wants us to regard her as beyond culture. Which one is the animal here? Which one the wolf? Which the human?

So, how can we read this with Melion? What if the Irish forest woman had bashed in Melion’s skull when he turned into a wolf (to please her)? In a larger sense, what is the gender of the forest?

The forest as silva or nous is clearly feminine, either as form awaiting content, or as the material not organized into service of a masculine order. But the forest is also the place where men go to live more authentically, unmixed with women. And there, they meet women, or things like women. Melion and Guigemar are but two examples of this, but we can think of innumerable examples from modern culture. Like civilization, like culture, the forest has a double gender, then, one that can’t be organized into one or the other neatly.

We used this as an entrance to finish discussing “Guigemar” and “Yonec.” Putting aside the fact that intersex cervids are not all that uncommon, biologically speaking, and thus not exactly “wonders,” and putting aside the tendency of white stags or boars to draw heroes into sylvan adventure in Celtic stories, there’s also the intersex doe as a family unit. She’s with a doe, and she’s also a he. She is, in that sense, a representation of the way that a married couple becomes two in one flesh. Having been forced to leave his pure masculinity, Guigemar finds himself compelled to give up hunting and to enter into the queerness of heterosexual mixing. Through his erotic love, he perhaps may be forced to discover the larger, more ethical love that would recognize the wounding of animals as an injury to himself as well.

And then “Yonec,” where we concentrated on the unnamed wife’s admiration of “Yonec” first of all for being a hawk of quality (species rank is social rank, with the human in general not of paramount importance), and on the shifting bodily perfection of Maldumarec, who can take on any form, versus the tight stasis of the senex amans, who is, in Gallagher’s translation, “baptized [in] hell; strong are his nerves, strong his veins, and full of pulsing blood,” a body that’s at once too tight and full of secret, horrific life. How else to read these bodies against each other?

We also heard a bit about humans suckling puppies. For more on such matters, from medieval perspective, see Peggy McCracken’s essay in this volume.

To turn into animal testaments, we observed how recent laws in Idaho ensure that the killing of animals remains invisible.

Our presentation was on the two poems about hare hunting, the Cavendish and one in Middle English. Our presenter set things up by using Erica Fudge’s “Two Ethics: Killing Animals in the Past and Present” to sketch three (not two) early modern ways of thinking about animals:

  • Cartesian mechanization, in which animals were only objects, there to be used in whatever way, guiltlessly;
  • “inward government” and self-fashioning, in which treating animals poorly might disorder a rational mind;
  • and Montaignian skepticism, in which humans and animals all operate together in a community.

The larger distinction is between empirical accounts of animals, which start with animal behavior, and metaphysical accounts, which start with ideas. Descartes clearly is a metaphysician, then.

Now, the Cavendish gives us only observations of the external life (and death) of the hare, while the Middle English poem gives us the voice of the hare itself. Both give us living creatures, anything but mechanistic, anything but there only to be killed. Cavendish’s emphasis on animal life and human tyranny clearly belongs to the Montaignian project of a community of creatures. Cavendish also troubles the human arrogance at hunting: culture is a kind of witchcraft, in its supernatural ability to counteract the wind’s own protection of the hare, and, at any rate, since the dogs do the actual hunting, all humans do is exult. Cavendish’s poem clearly also belongs to 17th-century scientific projects, but with a twist. It’s very careful to observe correctly, but in this case, this “scientific” view does not lead to “instrumental reason,” which simply masters everything it regards, but rather creates emotional connections between viewer and observed animal. Sight here does anything but reduce a body to only a body.

We also thought of Cavendish’s bad poetry. The hare “gives up its ghost.” This is a cliché. But a cliché is also a mark of what “goes without saying.” What does it mean to grant a nonhuman death the unthought sympathy of a cliché? If a community is the group whose borders “go without saying,” how does the cliché actually include the dying hare within it?

Notably, the Middle English poem gives us a “living death,” where the hare witnesses its own death, and the turning of its body into garbage: its guts thrown away, its skin turned into a toy for puppies. And somehow, for some reason, this is the hare “coming home,” as we see from the last two stanzas. Is this, then, the purpose of the hare, where it was never really alive, since it becomes itself fully, it “comes home,” only when its cooked with leeks?

From there, we considered the recent food ethics issue of Phaen/Ex. We talked about meditative baboons, thinking about how the constitutive things of the ‘nature’ that humans often seek to become ‘one with’ in meditation also have their own meditative practices, suggesting a heterocentric mysticism rather than a unified nature from which humans, uniquely, are excluded; we considered how cattle culture in Alberta (and Argentina)doesn’t hide the animal behind the meat but rather makes the slaughter of cattle visible and central to its regional identity: this is a sacrificial culture, then, something quite other than many contemporary discussions of gender and meat-eating in, chiefly, Carol Adams; we considered how the death camp model of biopolitics and modernity promoted by, for example, Agamben, needs to be revised if we’re talking about factory farms: while the Nazis sought to make themselves visible and to erase their killing (as at Treblinka or Sobibór), and while Nazis sought to eliminate an entire people, factory slaughtering operations by contrast want to make the killers invisible and the product of the killing visible. And it wants to continue producing corpses indefinitely. This killing treats the bodies as products, as “already dead,” not in a way that’s worse than death camps, but in a way that’s certainly different, requiring a different thought. And, finally, we considered the problem of thinking of women as food: there’s more to be done here, next week, but we’re found that the essay wanted Bynum as well as an account of the human biome and how the human body-as-food is essential to human health, whatever the gender of the body.

We also considered something called “meat glue,” as a way to think about how we might have a return to the medieval “entremets,” those elaborate margin-hybrid-style sculptures that one would find in the middle of a medieval aristocratic feast. Here, after all, the animal is not an “absent referent” but rather present, in its body, as itself, but also dead. Is a poem like the “Testamentum” a kind of “present absence” in this regard?

On the Testamentum Porcelli, an oddly popular medieval text (some 8 or 9 manuscripts survive), we considered how the pig needs to write with someone else’s hand, which is indeed a porcine problem, but also one general to anyone who needs to use the law to write a will or indeed anyone who needs to use language, since language — as Cary Wolfe among others reminds us — is always already there, belonging to someone else, before we get a chance to use it. In this, as in so many ways, the Testamentum challenges human/animal divisions. Notably, its dispersal of its body alternates between the useful (bristles for shoemakers, bladders – for balls – to boys) and the silly (tongue for lawyers). We wondered whether it had the means to dispose the grain and other pork feed it promised to its relatives.

Day 5 – Marie de France, Animals, and Lineage

CaptureOur bit of animal news today is the recent, horrific report about factory-farmed pigs being fed the ground up corpses of piglets. One farmer’s response to this story made our head spin:

“Modern age agriculture nor confinement buildings have anything to do with pigs being cannibals. Pigs have been cannibals since the beginning of time. This is why criminals have used pigs as means of disposing of murder victims through the years.”

Well. Cannibals? Anthropophagous? Which is it? Both, actually. We did note that medieval people often remarked on the physical similarity between pigs (porcus) and humans (corpus); that pigs would eat human babies (see the Knight’s Tale, Temple of Mars); and that, as observed by one of us–who had in fact helped raise pigs–pigs are mean and bloodthirsty.

The Middle English version of “Androcles and the Lion” in a Gesta Romanorum (at least 2 versions) is quite unusual, and possibly invented by the translator. It’s not just that the story of the grateful lion is missing the clear exchange of favors we get in classic versions (including the apocryphal Acts of Paul). It’s that, of course, that the Emperor not only has sex with a bear (a bear? why?) but also that he impregnates her, three times, having first two sons, and then a daughter. Only the latter looks like a bear. When the Emperor escapes the bear, the lion helps him get away, and the bear (“like an ursine Medea,” as our presenter quipped) dashes her daughter to the ground (see also the story of the dwarf and the ape in the //Roman de Perceforest//). What’s up with this?

After discussing the playfulness of animals (as our Emperor loves to play with his hounds and hawks), our presenter offered an account of the differences between Galenic and Aristotelian accounts of impregnation and childbirth. Using Angela Florscheutz, among others, she explained the peculiarities of the species differences of the emperor’s ursine children. We asked the question of what being born from an animal source does for the human offspring. In this story, it presumably allows the two sons to be better at being human (might we add superhuman?) in that they have better adventures, and are stronger warriors and better swordsman.

Our conversation thought about the way that noble families liked an animal or fairy ancestor, to split themselves from the chains that bound them mundanely to every other human (here’s my Beowulf example, discussed), but then observed that this family goes nowhere. The daughter’s dashed to pieces in the woods, while the boys, despite becoming great knights, die and are buried together, with no indication of any progeny. What’s up with that? We also looked at “and the Emperour knew her flesshly, and she brought forth a sone, like the Emperour. than the Emperour would have fled, but he durst not, for the bere,” where the for might mean that he doesn’t want to hurt the bear’s feelings, or, more simply, that he’s afraid; but still, that double meaning of for must be noted.

And then there’s what’s on the tomb: “Here lieth .ij. sones of the Bere, whiche the Emperour gate with drede.” Though we know of nothing bear like about the children, we have them here marked as sons of the bear, and also a mark of what must be known as the Emperor’s fear of the bear. Who would write on the tomb that, essentially, the Emperor had been raped by a bear?

We discussed the kind of role reversal not just implied in the tombstones, but also in the “courting” (if you’ll humor me and let me call it that) between the Emperor and the bear. He is afraid at her arrival into the cave, but she brings home the hunt and lays it out for him, after which he “smote fire and araied it.” Honey, I’m home! In the proximity of preparing flesh, we find the fear of the character who prepares it; I wonder if this has anything to do with the daughter who is “rent all to pieces,” also because the bear “was aferde.”

Gender and Woods
We also considered the double desire and repulsion men express in these tales (and in Melion) for women and woods together. What is up with that? Your professor linked it to medieval neoplatonismwhere the primordial matter //nous// is rendered as //silva//, and where also Isidore of Seville derives (correctly) materia (matter) from mater (mother). There’s an easy way to link this to the Lacanian Real, but I think we could do still more here.

Geoffrey of Auxerre
His apocalypse commentary (collected 1188) provides a very early version of both the Swan Knight and Melusine stories, both of enormous importance to the Lusignan family. The work neatly illustrates Derrida’s point (which Crane makes good use of) that poetry is what philosophy must deprive itself of, as Geoffrey’s efforts to make sense of these stories fail so spectacularly that they can’t help but illustrate the radical split between poetry and neat commentary. Still, Geoffrey’s work, at least in these little bits, recalls the other great twelfth-century wonder collections of Gerald of Wales and Gervase of Tilbury (Otia Imperialia).

Most notably in Geoffrey’s version, the “Melusine” is a water creature, but not serpentine; rather, she has been enjoined to silence and when her husband demands she speak, then she flees. Later, she returns and snatches back their son, thus ending the developing monstrous lineage.

How to think of her silence? Geoffrey links it to the monstrosity of Waldensian women preachers (they’re noisy, and should be ashamed by the the silence of this demon), but we can link it to the intersections between animals, “muteness,” and women. Women who talk too much? Doomed. Too little or not at all? Like animals. But there’s a sense, at least here, that silence is something other than privation. The mystery of silence is something worth honoring rather than something to scorn.

**Alphabet of Tales on the Prince of Crete**

We rede of þe kyng of Crete he was a semelie man̛, & he had a nygromancier in his courte at hight Estus. And þis kyng had a doghter, and þis Estus happend to gett hur with childe. And when̛ it was born, for tene þis kyng hur fadur garte caste it oute in þe wud emang wylde bestis. So with-in a while after hunters fand it in a cafe emang wyle bestis, & þer it was nurisshid with hur mylk. And when̛ it was broght home in a strayte gate whar cateƚƚ vsyd̛ to com̛ by, and when̛ he saw þai wolde do it no skathe bod rather norysshid̛ it, he commaundid̛ at it sulde be casten̛ vnto hundis þat long had bene kepyd̛ fastyng, at þai mott destroy itt, & þai wold̛ do it no skathe. & þan̛ he garte caste it emang swyne at þai mott devowr̛ it; and þer it was nurisshid̛ on̛ a sew papp̛. And when̛ he saw þat, he garte caste it in-to þe occian̛; and when̛ it was casten̛ þer, þis Estus, þe fadur þerof, be his craft broght it vnto þe land̛ agayn̛ whikk̘; & þer it was nurisshid with a hynde. And fro thens furtℏ it wexid so swyfte of fute at whare at evur þe hartys went it wold̛ go with þaim. So at þe laste it was taken̛ in a snare, & broght to þe kyng & gyffen̛ hym̛ to a present. And onone he knew it & had compassion̛ þeroff, & garte name it & nurtur it; & þe name þer-of was Avidus. And afterward̛ he made it his successur. And þis kyng Avidus, as we rede, was furste þat evur garte tame oxen̛ & learn̛ þaim to draw; and he was furst þat evur fand pleugℏ, & he taght men̛ to plew & to saw whete & oþer cornys *.[A sidenote here has a small hand pointing to the words [Su]pra de [in]vencione aratri.] .

Your professor lost several hours yesterday trying to track the sources for this story, with some success. What follows will encapsulate that research. It appears (first?) in Justin’s //Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus//, 44,4, on a legendary Iberian King, Gargoris, and his son Habis (or Habidis). By the time we get to Middle English, the Cunetes become the people of Crete (older versions have Curetes, which are a people of Crete: see note 9 here), and “Habidis” becomes “Avidus.” While some 24 medieval manuscripts of Justin’s //Epitome// survive, the story probably — my guess — enters the Middle English Alphabet of Tales (or its sources) via the enormously popular thirteenth-century LHistoire ancienne jusqu’à César. No complete text available online, sadly, though anyone is welcome to dig through the manuscripts for me.

The story is NOT actually all that popular, at least not in the sources I usually check (no luck with Gargoris, Habis, or Habidis at the MGH, and searches for Avidus get no one using Avidus as a proper name). There’s a kind of analogue in the romance of //Caradoc// (where a necromancer tricks a king into sleeping with a series of animals — really, only kind of), but that’s about it. It is of some importance to medieval Spain and afterwards. There’s a 16th-century romance, for example. And we might also look at Gárgoris y Habidis. Una historia mágica de España, althoughits author seems to be kind of a disreputable character, and the book has been accused of antisemitisim.

The question is what this story might do once we bracket off the inevitable ad-libbed glossing the medieval preacher would have given it, and also its relevance to Spain, which it would (I think) not have carried into England. Do we just link it to the long history of stories of exposed children miraculously protected by beasts?

We observed primarily that even if we were to rationalize the story to account for the embarrassment of illegitimate birth (as in the Euhemerism like that practiced by Palaephatos), we still have a story that finds the origin of technology and thus of civilization in the extraction of surplus labor and even surplus charisma from the bodies of animals. Civilization and reason, in a sense, don’t have what it takes in themselves to lift humans up into humans. Hence the requirement to mingle with the animals somehow, and then, in the tale’s end, to dominate them. Notably, the Latin tag is ‘On the invention of the plow’ rather than ‘on the domestication of oxen.’ We also note the peculiar pronouns: “So at laste it was taken in a snare …
& þe name þer-of was Avidus,” which suggest an uncertainty about his status as human.

Marie de France
Today, we managed only to discuss Bisclavret, and not even the whole work. Guigemar and Yonec next week.

The very opening of Bisclavret continues to fascinate. Is she saying that Bisclavret’s NOT like the other werewolves, or that we’re not supposed to think he’s like that, but that since we’ve been warned, we can’t help but remember this model as we read through. We’ll always suspect him of anthropophagy as we read, then, which puts us in the subject position of Bisclavret’s wife.

No discussion of Bisclavret would be complete without talking about his wife’s nose. Here’s a long post reviewing some options for reading the loss of the nose. Generally, we went with Crane and Cohen that the loss of the nose locked the wife into being human, punishing her with the loss of animal freedom (or violence) the man in the tale enjoyed. Our presenter observed, using Tania Colwell’s work on Melusine, that her daughters could have been noseless because of medieval gendered ‘genetics,’ in which the mother would transmit her characteristics to her girls, and the father would transmit his characteristics to his sons.

There’s also something perhaps in Bisclavret’s response, early in the lai, to his wife’s first bit of wheedling. She says “I fear your wrath more than anything else” (Gallagher trans; mes jeo criem tant vostre curut / que nule rien tant ne redut), and he “took hold of her neck and pulling her close to him, he kissed her.” A controversial translation! Hanning and Ferrante do it as “When he heard that, he embraced her, / drew her to him, and kissed her”; and Burgess as “When he heard this, he embraced her, drew her towards him, and kissed her.” Here’s the French: “Quant il l’öi, si l’acola, vers lui la traist, si la baisa.” Nothing about grabbing a neck in there…except that //acola// comes from //col// (and from //collum// before that). Philologically speaking, there’s a bit of the neck in there. Whatever’s happening, she’s told him she’s terrified; he at once grabs her and then applies his mouth to her face. What’s happening here, then, is his control over her body, early in the lai and then, of course, reapplied later on, when, to make this perfectly clear, he again applies his mouth to her face, when he bites off her nose.

We plan to deal with Bisclavret’s violence in more detail next week. For now, we made a comparison with child psychology. If an adult is violent, typically we say it’s the adult’s fault; if a child is, clearly something must be wrong with the child, or someone or something has been cruel to it. With animals, well – none of us would have let our pet dogs get away with this. And when the courtiers say that the dog has never done anything like this before, when they see it ‘act out’ twice, well, they think something was wrong with it.

Then there’s the matter of gender: we observed that Bisclavret is “la beste” (274) and “ceste beste” (241): feminine! That’s just the way a beast is (a point Derrida works with very productively). In this king’s court of men, where the only woman to appear suffers sudden violence and then deliberate torture, who is the ‘feminine’ figure of the wolf who shares the king’s bed? What is la bête for the sovereign? More on this later, I hope.

We also built on Cohen and Crane to look at Bisclavret and clothing. If most medieval werewolves transform by ‘putting on’ a wolf skin (think of Gerald of Wales and Guillaume de Palerne, for example), then here’s an example of someone who becomes a wolf by putting OFF their HUMAN clothes. What’s the problem with putting on clothes, then? The shame of returning to a fallen, limited (Cohen) human condition

The insects and the miller / The krycket & þe greshope

From the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.


Here’s a macaronic, presumably late 15th-century poem from Peniarth MS 356b, which I ran across yesterday in Robbins’ Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (2nd. ed), p. 104.

The krycket & þe greshope wentyn here to fy3ght,

With helme and haburyone all redy dy3ght;

The flee bare þe baner as a du3ty kny3th,

The cherubud trumpyt with all hys my3th.

Salamandraque cicada domitatum perereterunt,

Galiaque cum lorica presto se parauerunt;

Musca vexillum portabat vt miles egregius,

Scarabius buccinauit totis suis viribus.

The hare seyte a-pon þe hyll & chappynd here schone,

And swere by the knappes wich were þer a-pon,

That scho wowld not ryse ne gon

Tyll sche se xx howndes and a won.

Lepus super montem se ipsum collocauit,

Et suos sotulares laquitissinauit,

Et per laquitissos ipsequen iurauit

De lustro surgere nec ire voluit

quousque vigenti canis vnum videret.

Þe myler sedet o-pon the hull

and all þe hennes off the town drew hym tyll;

The mylner sayd, ‘schew, henne, schew!

I may not schake my bage for you.’

Molendinarius super montem sedebat,

gallinarum ville ad se copia currebat;

Molendinarius inquit, ‘sco, galina, sco!

Meum saccum pro uobis vrcillare non possum.’

I love this little poem, written in the end–I think–of a grammar, and therefore, perhaps, intended for children (at least per Nicholas Orme, “The Culture of Children in Medieval England,” Past & Present 148 (1995): 48-88 [82]).

I couldn’t tell you much more than what you see here. Crickets and Grasshoppers go together, as in this children’s natural history, or in this recent nature poem by Dan Beachy-Quick (“The poetry of the earth never ceases / Ceasing” &c., which edit I’m chagrined to have to be reminded, is a play on a little poem by a not-exactly-minor poet by the name of John Keats, as David Hadbawnik had to remind me), and also in scripture, Leviticus 11:22, although not in any version of the Bible, so far as I know, that would have been known in fifteenth-century Wales (Vulgate here; Wycliffite here, for example).

In the absence of any criticism, in the absence of being able to consult the manuscript online, and therefore in the absence of much of the needed cultural context, what can we do with this poem? On twitter, I called it “A great little macaronic poem of manuscript marginalia come to life” (a point, minus the “great,” already made by Douglas Gray), and that might be enough, alone.

If we want to take this as a children’s poem, and still respect it for all that (and why not?), and if we want to take this as a kind of nursery rhyme, with many of the features of the genre, we might observe the close relationship of children and insects, the very small, and the nervous (the hare awaiting the 21 dogs). Children work at a different time than we adults (presuming on my audience!), and a different scale. They’re more vulnerable, smaller, faster, with time moving more slowly (my birthday comes around so quickly these days). My wife recently introduced me to Delmore Schwartz’s “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers,” whose first line is just that, and whose entirety you really, really need to read if you don’t already know it.

We might take this little poem, in its bizarre resistance to interpretation, as just that, a stranger.

Or we might do more with it, paying attention to its language, form (why the five-line stanza in the middle?), and vocabulary. What, if anything, would you do with it?

(on children and animals, see Jeffrey’s ancient blog post, since turned into an article, most recently reprinted here.

And for more on Villard de Honnecourt, see Haylie Swenson’s essay in postmedieval 4.3)