Medieval Monsters, Fun, and Delusions of Importance

Screenshot from 2013-08-14 13-15-34

Creation of Adam, quadrupeds looking on. Initial framed by Wildman and Mermaid. Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale (Paris,  Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5212 réserve, 6v. Before 1403)

Medieval monster scholarship tends to be dour. Monsters, it says, embody anxiety. They imply what we are by showing us what we believe we’re not. And if monster scholarship is fun, it tends to be fun because it believes itself to be dallying in the forbidden. This is the fun of breaking the law, breaking the law, which means it’s not getting rid of anxiety but rather playing anxiety’s flip slid, and dancing to it, ecstatically.


“Resistance to social constraints”! “Unthinkable Dangers”! Some examples, not exactly up to date, but recent treatments for the most part say much the same: just search for medieval monsters anxiety on Google Books.

But only special pleading, I think, could turn the Wild Man and the Mermaid of that Creation scene into a scene of worry. It doesn’t respond so well to the language of, say, 50s B-Horror movie posters (“thrill to the…!” “can you escape from the…!” &c).

Why frame the scene with a wildman and a mermaid? Are they, say:

  • defining the borders of the thinkable?
  • grotesque incarnations of the incognizable formlessness of the Real?
  • the crawling chaos of our own selves, imputed to the abject other?
  • the materialized form of the disgusting call to multiply coupled with Adam’s implicit autoeroticization/impossible autoreproduction, since if the wildman has sex with the mermaid, what happens? (huh?)
  • figures of the East itself, the site of Eden, and a call to colonize it and to tame or enjoy its bounty?
  • the uncategorizable not-All that remains when the whole field of life collapses into the binary, hierarchical categories of human and animal? 

Obviously, such things can be done, obviously. No surprise, I myself would probably go with the last one. Doing it like this lets the world know that we’re not just being frivolous, that we’re not just noodling about because we like to write, but rather that we’re asking what we might call “dangerous questions in today’s conventional world” (language that always comes off as pretentious. delusional. or self-congratulatory when applied to writing in the humanities. For example).1

I think the mermaid and wild man are fun. Maybe just fun. Maybe mostly just fun. Of course we can do more: we can follow the history of other illustrations like these in whatever direction in culture or time, so we can have more fun looking at them.

And of course we can continue to write about monsters, even these ones, as materialized forms of various cultural anxieties. That kind of work has been done well by people I’m happy to have as friends, and it’s been done by me too: I’m addressing this, I suppose, to mes semblables, mes frères. Certain medieval monsters really are primarily about the dominant culture’s anxiety over the impossibility of ever coming up with a working definition of being Christian, male, human, whatever. And of course it’s worth it to do scholarship that afflicts the powerful and comforts the afflicted, so long as that’s what’s actually being done. At least, it’s no small benefit that scholarship that goes after the rich, misogyny, racism, gender anxiety, and so on, has increased our fun by giving us more texts to read and teach, material that often works with our students better than the usual set of Great Masters.

With all that in mind, I’d also strongly recommend not forgetting the monsters children draw. Speaking as someone who was once a child, I’m sure kids draw monsters mostly because monsters are fun to draw. Unhappy children draw them because they’re unhappy, too, but not all children are unhappy, and even unhappy children aren’t unhappy all the time.

I’d recommend trying to write about monsters, or whatever, like children draw them. I don’t know how that would work, not yet. I’m definitely not sure how to do non-serious scholarship about fun, especially since so much scholarship is so concerned with being rigorous (an awful, awful word), but I’d invite anyone who’s doing scholarship to try.

If we need justification, maybe it’s this: believing in the world-political importance of what we’re doing as humanities scholars is a good way to believe that we’ve done all we need to do once we’ve done our scholarly work. It’s a good way to delude ourselves into a good conscience. If we remember that what we’re doing as scholars is mostly fun, maybe we’ll be more inclined to be serious about the things so many of us purport to care about.

1. An easy way to know if something is actually dangerous to the “sickeningly conventional and thoroughly corporatized” whatever: is ALEC passing laws against it? Can you go to jail for it? Will your career, if you have one, be ruined? Will liberals tsk-tsk you?

Here follows a short and not-at-all-exhaustive list of serious and dangerous activities: voting; political speech where you’re likely to meet disagreement from people with money; exposing the surveillance state; exposing the police state; exposing industrial slaughterhouses and fracking; saving public schools and public space in general; fighting against sexual harassment in conventions, conferences, and whole academic fields. For even more serious: swap out “exposing” for “fighting.”

A short and not-at-all-exhaustive list of not particularly dangerous activities: owning guns (you’re a danger to everyone around you, and chiefly yourself, but not to the status quo, nor, especially, to the surveillance state); writing philosophy; going to academic conferences in the humanities and speaking to your peers

The Werewolf Painting of Poligny (Jura)

Werewolf and monster scholarship loves to cite a painting of three werewolves holding knives, supposedly in (or once in) Poligny, in the Jura, in the Church of the Jacobins (i.e., a Dominican church). For example, see Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire infernal, ou Recherches et anecdotes sur les démons (501, s.v. Michel Verdun); Charles Thuriet, Traditions populaires du Jura (66, and sorry for no Gallica or link); and more recently, well, this google search should work.

The ultimate source seems to be Henry Boguet’s Discours exécrable des sorciers, 123, from 1603.

Here’s an English translation, from Charlotte Otten’s Lycanthropy Reader, 89:

And if anyone ask with what instrument witches, when appearing to be wolves, effect the death of those whom they kill, I shall answer that they have only too many contrivances for this purpose. For sometimes they use knives and swords, as did Perrenette Gandillon, who killed Benoist Bidel with his own knife, and therefore he who painted the three were-wolves of Poligny represented them as each carrying a knife in its right paw.

Que si quelqu’un desire de sçavoir avec quel instrument les sorciers estans en apparence de loup dónent la mort aux personnes qu’ils tuent, je luy diray qu’ils n’ont que trop d’inventions pour cela: car quelquefois ils se servent de cousteaux, et de glaives, comme nous avons dict de Perrentte Gadillo, qui tua Benoist Bidel se son propre cousteau: et je tiens, que c’est la raison pour laquelle celuy qui a depeint trois loups garoux de Pouligny leur faict porter à chacun un cousteau en la patte dextre. (French very roughly edited by me, some early modern spellings preserved)

I’ve been trying to track down the painting. No luck. Poligy’s tourist board says nothing about it, and no one on flickr gives me a picture. Nothing on Wikipédia either.

So! Conversation on the MEARCSTAPA listserv has been very helpful in leading me to believe that while the painting might once have existed, it may also just be lost. I’m inclined to think it’s as legendary as the “lost” pig execution painting of Falaise, Normandy, well-known to animal trial scholars as the greatest artistic loss in human  (and porcine) history.

Have any of you ever seen it? Or seen it reproduced? Citoyens de Poligny, aidez-moi !

(h/t, merci bcp to Zachary Fisher for sending me towards the image above, which is from here, page 17, and case not of lyncanthropy but rather hypertrichosis)

GOT YOUR NOSE: Bisclavret defaces his wife

Plaster cast from the Palais de Chaillot

Plaster cast from the Palais de Chaillot

Recall that towards the end of Marie’s lai, Mr. B’s wife shows up at court, only to be attacked by her lupine husband:

Oiez cum il s’est bien vengiez!

Le nes li esracha del vis.

Que li peüst il faire pis? (Bisclavret 234-36)

“Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face. What worse punishment could he have inflicted on her?” (translation by Gallagher. My own translation would go like this: “Listen to how well he avenged himself! He tore her nose off her face. What worse could he have done to her?”)

The loss of the nose has long been a rich interpretative site in Bisclavret criticism. We can divide the readings into several groups:

  • psychoanalytic ones, which pun on vis [face] and vit [penis]: e.g., Bloch, Labbie, and Dolores Warwick Frese, “The Marriage of Woman and Werewolf: Poetics of Estrangement in Marie de France’s ‘Bisclavret'” in A. N. Doane’s and Carol Braun Pasternack’s anthology Vox Intexta: Orality And Textuality in the Middle Ages, rooted, I believe, in Jean-Charles Huchet, “Nom de femme et ecriture feminine au Moyen Age: Les Lais de Marie de France,” Poetique 48 (1981): 407-30. Essentially, Ms. B had illegitimately taken on the phallic function and has it torn from her. This helps explain why only her female descendants are noseless;
  • claims that nose-removal was a common torture in the Middle Ages, which I think is a wild exaggeration: I’m looking forward to seeing Larissa Tracy‘s further contextualization: I believe she’s arguing that the court of Henry II, being antipathetic to torture, would have found the scene repugnant;
  • claims that the nose-removal makes the wife more bestial: for reasons I’ll explain (far) below, I disagree; I’m more in the neighborhood (less in the same block than on the same bus line) as Laurence M. Porter’s proposal in Women’s Vision In Western Literature: The Empathic Community that “Wolves have prominent muzzles and the missing nose makes Bisclavret’s wife’s face resemble a human skull more than a wolf’s head, suggesting the skull underneath the skin, the illusoriness and transcience of sexual delight”;
  • interconnections with many, many stories of Roman virgins and, in particular, virgin saints, who cut off their noses to make themselves unattractive to the Barbarian invaders [see Claude Thomasset, ‘La femme sans nez’, Littérature et médecine II, ed. Jean-Louis Cabanès, Eidolôn, 55 (Bourdeaux: Université Michel de Montaigne, Bourdeaux III, 2000), 57-52 and Jane Tibbetts, ‘The Heroics of Virginity: Brides of Christ and Sacrificial Mutilation,” Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives Ed. Mary Beth Rose. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986]: implicitly, then, Bisclavret’s assaulting his wife’s attractiveness;
  • and finally, most influentially, a great many claims that losing the nose [or losing the nose and ears] was a punishment for an adulterous wife. See Stith Thompson Q451.5.1, Nose cut off as punishment for adultery. This requires a lot of detail.

Stith Thompson’s most frequent citations here are to the Kathasaritsagara, “The Ocean of the Stream of Stories,” an enormous 11th-century Sanskrit tale collection in which adulterous wives often lose their noses (or their noses and ears), sometimes while embracing the reanimated (and bitey) corpses of their executed lovers. Anna Kłosowska suggested to me that the stories could have made their way to Latin Europe: I want to know more about this: perhaps via Iberia or Norman Sicily?

Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of Hjalte, who’s with a ladyfriend while his king’s being betrayed. When Hjalte hears the sound of battle, he decides to leave her to rescue his lord. His ladyfriend asks him “si ipso careat, cuius aetatis viro nubere debeat,” if she should lose him, how old a man ought she to marry? He answers her by cutting off her nose.

Robert Stanton directed me to the laws of Cnut, which punish a female adulterer with the loss of her nose and ears. Frederick II of Sicily (1194-1250) commanded that an adulterous woman’s nose be amputated, unless her husband didn’t want this: otherwise, she would just be flogged (“adultera convicta de adulterio traditur viro, ut in recompensationem thori violati, truncetur ei nasus, & si maritus ei truncare non vult, fustigabitur”; h/t Shulamith Shahar The Fourth Estate for this reference).

Still earlier law codes might be referenced, with increasingly remote chances of relevance: Ezekiel 23:25 hints at the loss of nose and ears for adultery: medieval Biblical commentaries might profitably be consulted; the Byzantine Ecloga of 726 punishes adulterers of both sexes with nose-slitting; and  Diodorus of Sicily’s 1st c. BC universal history says that in Egypt, “In case of adultery, the man was to have a thousand lashes with rods, and the woman her nose cut off. For it was looked upon very fit, that the adulteress that tricked up herself to allure men to wantonness, should be punished in that part where her charms chiefly lay” (thanks to Sharon Kinoshita for proposing the web search that led me to these sources).

Looking ahead, Valentine Groebner Valentin Gröbner ‘Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town,” trans. Pamela Selwyn History Workshop Journal 40 (1995): 1-15 (in work that I expect appears in some form in her his 2009 Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages) talks about a 1479 case in Nuremberg in which a certain Fritz Schreppler tried to cut off his wife’s nose in the marketplace. We have several others like this from the same period, including multiple instances in which a husband and wife teamed up to cut off still another woman’s nose.

Groebner Gröbner also records fourteenth-century denasatio punishments against prostitutes in Augsburg, and then, finally, she he cites evidence of pan-medieval texts that link the loss of a nose to public humiliation and punishment for sexual crimes: there’s Du Cange, where “the examples under the adjective denasatus alone fill an entire column,” and Aenied VI.496-7, where Deiphobus’s terribly mutilated in his face, perhaps for the crime of sleeping with Helen of Troy. And, finally, the Knight of La Tour Landry speaks of a husband who breaks his disobedient wife’s nose and “all her lyff after she had her nose croked, the whiche shent and dysfigured her uisage after, that she might not for shame shewe her uisage, it was so foule blemisshed.”

We might also look to the witness of medieval translations and adaptations of “Bisclavret.” In Biclarel [warning: pdf], Mr. B just mutilates his wife’s face (373-74), with no specific reference to her nose, and then she’s walled up, presumably to be crushed or to starve to death (454-5). In the Icelandic version, he tears off her clothes and nose, and in the Old Norse version, “Bisclaret,” he tears off his wife’s clothes, but her female descendants are still born noseless. Incidentally, “Bisclaret” ends in a tantalizing way for werewolf scholars: “Nothing that happens now is more true than this adventure we have told you about, for many strange things happened in olden times that no one hears mentioned now. He who translated this book into Norse saw in his childhood a wealthy farmer who shifted his shape. At times he was a man, at other times in wolf’s shape, and he told everything that wolves did in the meantime. But there is no more to be said about him. The Bretons made a lai, ‘Bisclaret’, of this story which you now have heard” (translation by Robert Cook and Mattias Tveitane).

And that would seem to be that: Ms. B loses her nose as a sign of her marital infidelity, or to humiliate her, or to disfigure her. Absent legal or (other) narrative evidence particularly from the court of Henry II, we don’t have firm ground for these explanations, but we probably have enough to make our claims with sufficient confidence, and to say, as well, that any further interpretation would just be fanciful, evidence only of our critical ingenuity in this ongoing professional party game we call “producing a reading.”

But I can’t help myself: I have to propose one more possibility. Recall how my previous Bisclavret post takes the lai’s opening as structurally analogous to a bestiary. From that, I’m led to illustrations in the bestiaries of Adam naming the animals:

Aberdeen Bestiary f 5r, detail

I know I’m stretching things, but I’m struck by the protuberance of the animal faces in this and other medieval illustrations of Adam before the animals, and by Adam’s comparatively flat face. Had the deer, or even the round-faced lions lost their noses, they would have a face that more resembled Adam’s than that of any other animal. That is, as Laurence M. Porter observes, the loss of a nose doesn’t make Ms. B more “bestial” (despite what’s commonly said in the criticism) but rather less bestial. Porter takes the injury as making her face more skull-like, turning her into a kind of vanity figure somewhat avant la lettre. However, I take the injury as one that traps her in being only human, denying her the freedom of movement, and of the freedom of ontological (or, for that matter, ethical) positions enjoyed by her husband and by the masculine court to which he belongs.

She had been afraid of a husband able to shift from man to wolf; she wanted to be married only to a human, and nothing more; and for that, she’s punished with nothing less that an inescapable humanity. In a lai, it’s hard to imagine a worse punishment! She and her daughters, barred from the dangerous fun of men, have been made…well, boring.

More to come, perhaps, if you think this is worth developing.

You’ll remember how “Bisclavret” begins:

Quant de lais faire m’entremet

ne voil ubliër Bisclavret.

Bisclavret a nun en Bretan,

Garwalf l’apelant li Norman.

Jadis le poeit hum oïr

e sovent suleit avenir,

hume plusur garwalf devindrent

e es boscages maisun tindrent.

Garwalf, ceo est beste salvage;

tant cum il est en cele rage,

humes devure, grant mal fait,

es granz forez converse e vait.

Cest afere les or ester:

del bisclavret vus voil cunter. (Bisclavret, 1-14)

[In my effort to compose lays I do not wish to omit Bisclavret–for such is its name in Breton, while the Normans call it Garwaf. In days gone by one could hear tell, and indeed it often used to happen, that many men turned into werewolves and went to live in the woods. A werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests. I leave such matters for the moment, for I wish to tell you about Bisclavret” (translation by Gallagher)].

Frightening, no? Well, no, not really, since we never see our werewolf hero [hereafter Mr. B] eat anyone. Or really, anything (barring, perhaps, his estranged wife’s nose). When Mr. B’s wife wheedles him into giving up his secret, lupine life, he confesses that when he becomes bisclavret he goes into the great forest, into the deepest part of the woodland, and there lives on prey and plunder (“vif de preie e de ravine“).

This is violent language, but there’s nothing here about his explicitly eating humans. At least not so far as he tells his wife, or us, for that matter. Jeffrey will remark on the vagueness of Mr B’s account of his diet in a forthcoming piece in Studies in the Age of Chaucer; Burgwinkle’s talked about it too (“As he ceases to be dangerous – no devouring of men that we know of – his wife appears ever more treacherous” (166); no doubt there’s more: I don’t have Bynum’s discussion on hand, for example (although I don’t think McCracken and Kinoshita discuss this matter in their recent critical companion to Marie).

Readers of my AVMEO essay would expect me to suspect Mr. B of anthropophagy: wolves like to eat people, and Marie’s already told us werewolves eat people. Only special pleading could get Mr. B off the hook: maybe, some might say, Mr. B would be unlikely to find many humans to eat in the deepest part of the forest. That’s not much of a defense. It’s easier to accuse Mr. B of hiding the nastiest truth from his wife, who nonetheless proves that she understands him perfectly well by immediately plotting to get rid of him. More sympathetically, we might even suspect Mr. B not of being duplicitous, but of being too self-deluded to admit, even to himself, what he’s really doing.

Maybe we can suspect worse. For while there’s something marvelous about not being confined by the armor of an alienating (human) identity, there’s also something horrific (to us) about letting the human frame slip. Again following the path laid by my AVMEO essay, I suggest that Mr. B’s own vagueness hints at the consequences of giving up on human supremacy, namely, that once human supremacy doesn’t matter, humans fall under the general category of “prey and plunder.” There’s no need for Mr. B to conceal anthropophagy, but neither does he need to disguise it with a euphemism, because, for him, human flesh is just like other fleshes. There’s violence here; there’s a wrong being done, to someone or something; but it’s not a particular violence, or a violence that quite knows what it’s injuring, unless it’s the particular violence through which a nobleman sustains his position within the state of exception.

The dehumanized point of view isn’t the only stance the lai takes, however. Its opening doesn’t forget about the specificity of human flesh, not at all. I propose that we read the opening lines as modeled on a bestiary, not at all an inconsequential genre for the late twelfth-century England in which Marie wrote. See the Aberdeen Bestiary’s entry on the wolf, for example. Like Marie’s lai, we have an initial discussion of names, followed by a summary of behavior. To be sure, I may be over-reading the resemblance, but I suggest it to call attention to the generic difference between the lai’s narrative and the lai’s opening. Marie opens with what we might call a scientific and humanist voice, maybe like a bestiary, maybe not. Whatever the voice, it’s knowledgeable, distant, one that looks out at the nonhuman world, always thinking of how it might help or hurt people. To this voice, a werewolf, like wolves in general, can only be a threat.

(Monday edit: I really do need to say, here, that Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters will be doing interesting stuff with bestiaries and Bisclavret in ways that will be enormously important to my own developing Bisclavret argument)

The narrative voice, on the other hand, doesn’t care so much about human supremacy. For this point, in the next few months, look for Cohen and, as well, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters; also see McCracken on translation and movement. The narrative voice concerns itself with gender and sexuality (see Burgwinkle and Tovi Bibring), and with feudal loyalties, but not with humanity, except to observe how it’s slipped. Note that when the King meets (the) bisclavret, he declares, first, that “ele [i.e., this beast] a sen d’ume” [154; this beast has human intelligence], and then revises himself three lines later: “ceste beste a entente e sen” [157; this beast has understanding and intelligence]. Beasts, he realizes, have their own intelligence, not a wan imitation of human reason, but rather their own. When anthropocentrism collapses, what dangers follow?

We might therefore hear Mr. B’s “preie e ravine” as at once being aware of the violence of appetite and unaware of the specificity of human flesh as compared to the flesh of deer, or pigs, or sheep. Mr. B may be hiding something from his wife; or he might just have forgotten, like most eaters, that what he eats has any significance apart from how it benefits him. After all, he’s concerned mainly with his own safety, not hers, and not with–it seems–ours.

Or he might be observing that eating means subjecting someone or something to prey and plunder; that it means taking someone’s “better part” (again, my AVMEO essay), regardless of what that thing is. This is a lai, in other words, that knows what it is to eat in a world without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute human privilege.

Next-Day Edit: that should read “without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute privilege, human or otherwise.” For some recent discussions of posthuman ethics, relevant to my post, see Levi Bryant and Scu at Critical Animal. I think Scu gets it exactly right when he says “Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world.” I think that “Bisclavret” might answer Levi’s statement that he’s “not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like.” Well, here’s one, and it’s lycanthropocentric. It’s not a flat ontology (edit of the edit: or rather, not a flat ethics), because–as Bogost reminds us–there’s no escaping -centrism, of whatever sort. But to eat from the perspective of the wolf (as I suggest the Wolf-Child of Hesse does) or the werewolf (as Mr. B does), is certainly to be non-anthropocentric. Edit of the edit: although I may be speaking far above my pay grade, and certainly far outside my expertise, while we might be able to conceive of a flat ontology, I’m not sure we, or anything else, can conceive of a flat ethics.

And one more next-day edit: I know that going into the deep woods to “vif de preie e de ravine” essentially describes the life of a poacher, which matters, of course, in late twelfth-century England, given the rising importance of royal forest privileges. But I just don’t see that observation leading to an interesting reading. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

That’s all I have for now, though I have notes on hand for talking about the eaten nose. Those who looked at my book two proposal might suspect (correctly) that this material will probably form the introductory section to second chapter, leading up–of course–into my Wolf Child of Hesse discussion. Time, and effort, will tell. For now, though, I’m planning to learn what the latest issue of postmedieval has to say about about lepers.

(video from Emilie Mercier’s animated Bisclavret)

de monstro possunt fieri monstruosae quaestiones, or, an apology for an omission

“Le monstre sert d’outil conceptuel, au même titre que d’autres cas limites comme l’embryon ou le cadavre, pour penser la personne humaine et les rapports complexes entre âme et corps, forme et matière.”

[The monster serves a conceptual purpose, in the same capacity as other limit cases, like the embryo or the cadaver, for thinking about the human person and the complex links between soul and body, form and matter.]

I’ve spent the last month, not blogging, obviously, but rather hitting a tight deadline to produce 6k words about skin. Depending on reviewers, publishing schedules, and our developing environmental eschaton, you’ll see what I did sometime in…2014. Maybe sooner. Unless I paraphrase some of my ideas here first. For now, let’s just say that I had a lot of fun conceptualizing skin through object-oriented philosophy rather than psychoanalysis (those prices!). In essence, I was looking in instead of (inside my skin) looking out.

But today I’m here to confess something. I’m proud to have an essay in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous on “Centaurs, Satyrs, and Cynocephali: Medieval Scholarly Teratology and the Question of the Human.” I’m also ashamed, though, because I somehow missed an important essay, Maaike van der Lugt‘s “L’humanité des monstres et leur accès aux sacrements dans la pensée médiévale” [The humanity of monsters and their access to the sacraments in medieval thought], available for download here. I’m ashamed, because it’s a great article, but also because I’m a big fan of her work on barnacles and because her book on WORMS (hello!) somehow didn’t get cited in my worms paper. That will be corrected.

So, apologies, Professor van der Lugt, if you happen to be reading this. I hereby swear to follow your career with interest.

In the meantime, if your French is pas si bon (and–the Parisians know–mine is barely enough to get by), I’ll summarize some of my favorite bits from it, starting with the last line, a kind of punchline from Hugh of Pisa: “de monstro possunt fieri monstruosae quaestiones” (23 n91; concerning monsters, monstrous questions can arise).

The article concerns itself primarily with the baptism of conjoined twins and the ordination of intersexed people, mapping the differences and overlaps between canon and civil law (the former concerned with the sacraments, the latter with inheritance and paternity). It occasionally touches on disability, pygmies (included mummified pseudo-pygmies, traded by merchants), and the heterogeneous offspring of bestiality. Needless to say, discussions of monsters inevitably mean discussions of the so-called norm: questions of gender determination, for example, are universally applicable in a society–like theirs, like ours–that divides so much labor according to gender roles.

So. The article opens with two accounts of conjoined twins, one near Florence in 1317, the other in 15th-century Paris, the first denied baptism as a bad omen, the other baptized (as Agnes and Jeanne) shortly before they died; their body would be displayed for three days to the people of Paris (see here, item 508). Fascinating! Here follow some of my favorite bits:

  • the observation, via Aristotle, that all children not resembling their parents are already some kind of monster, insofar as the sperm didn’t manage to reproduce the image of the father;
  • Peter Abelard’s proposal that satyrs come from the union of servents and nonhuman animals, which means that they’re human, since one human parent suffices for a creature to be human, regardless of its appearance;
  • An anonymous mid-13th-century commentary on the human body, added to the Summa of Alexander of Hales, arguing that blemmyae, lacking heads, could be considered human only if some other part of their body has an organ that serves as a brain; preferring not to grant humanity to cynocephali; and identifying the internal organs rather than external appearance as the key element for determining humanity. The important organs are the brain, heart, liver, and testes. If these are human, so’s the creature. On the other hand, says our writer, since monstrosity is punishment for sin, then monsters are ipso facto human, since animals of course can’t be sinners;
  • Later in the 13th century, a Franciscan Quodlibet argues that, yes, pygmies are human, since they have human proportions; by similar reasoning, a child born with legs coming out of its sides isn’t one. The Franciscan also observes, on the topic of the spawn of bestiality, that human sperm is not powerful enough to convert other sperm into being human: see also mules [semen hominis non est tante virtutis quod possit convertere aliud semen ad suam speciem sicut asinus non convertit semen eque, sed facit tertiam partem (10 n40)];
  • Albert the Great, a dubious source tells us, stopped the execution of herdsman thought to have fathered a peculiar calf; au contraire, said (pseudo) Albert: the stars had aligned oddly! But in Holland in 1464, Willem Boudewinszn, a lover of cows and the father of one–or so he admitted under torture–was executed and burned, along with the cow he (confessed he) loved (11 n46);
  • Nicholas Oresme in 1370, countering the argument that humanity can be determined on the basis of form, argues that children born blind, deaf, and “nulla ratione utentes minus quam canis” (having less reason than a dog) should be baptized, though they seem far more monstrous to him than, say, a blemmye (12-13, n50). (van der Lugt also directs us at Aquinas);
  • On the question of baptizing conjoined twins: obviously, they should be baptized, but how many times? Quodlibets at the end of 13th and beginning of 14th century often considered the problem. Two heads might be sufficient cause for two baptisms, but several medieval theologians, following Aristotle, gave priority to the heart, not the head. Of course, there’s no easy way to determine whether an infant has two hearts, so we encounter recommendations that the second baptism be conditional (and, on this point, I said: HELLO Erkenwald! My favorite Middle English conditional baptism). Pierre de la Palus suggests that if a spot on the monstrous body can be found in which a wound or a stab transmits pain only to one head, but not both, then two baptisms will be required;
  • The quotlibets continued to worry at the problem of married conjoined twins: what if the twins have only one vagina between them? Then consummation for one would be fornication for the other, while the husband of one would be committing adultery and incest at the same time as he carried out his proper marital duties on the other. But nature makes nothing in vain, and, possibly, says Eustache de Grandcour’s quodlibet, they may have one vagina, but two uteruses [et possibile erat quod habuerint diversas matrices];
  • And then, finally, we have the problem of intersexed people. The church authorized their marriage, but only if they adopted either a feminine or masculine role, and stuck with it. Those without a preference were to remain chaste. Choosing which gender dominated was a knotty problem: some thinkers emphasized genitals, others secondary sexual characteristics (a beard, for example), and others comportment and behavior. Baptism wasn’t a problem here, although in cases of doubt, the priest should give the child a masculine name, which could easily be made feminine if necessary (Robert would become Roberta, Gerald would become Daphne, etc.). Those intersexed people thought to have a dominant masculinity could even be ordained as priests.

There’s much, much more, particularly in the footnotes. If your French is up to it, and you’re into monsters, gender, and the human as a question (and if you’re reading this blog, I suspect you are), then this is an article you’ll love. Highly recommended.

Today’s Two Discoveries: Joanna Ruocco and George Neilson’s Caudatus Anglicus

CaudatusTwo discoveries today. This excellent review in The Nation of two books by Joanna Ruocco, Man’s Companions and The Mothering Coven, the latter of which has this:

Mr. Henderson takes the lettuce heart. He had always thought the physical universe had no shape at all, just a multi-directional nothingness with deep space objects floating around at varying speeds. He realizes that he has been ridiculous. All these dark folded places, opening everywhere at once—of course, that’s what the physical universe looks like.

All these dark folded places, opening everywhere at once. If this doesn’t remind you of what we–especially Eileen–have been thinking and writing about of late, you’ve likely been reading another blog. Beautiful.

Second discovery. In HI&MiMB: ODM, Jeffrey has a nice fat footnote on the “abusive epithet of Angli caudati (tailed English)” (40) at 186-87 n84. So the existence of George Neilson’s short, delightful Caudatus Anglicus: A Mediaeval Slander (Edinburgh, 1896) will not surprise him. Or perhaps you, especially if your surname is Heng or Weeda. But it did surprise me, as did its availability on read it online! Send a copy to your Kindle! Steal Neilson’s cadences, which sound like this:

Scotsmen and Frenchmen believed or professed to believe–which came to the same thing–that Englishmen were, in one particular, not as other men are. In consequence, an opportunity was frequently taken to refer to an alleged fact of natural history so interesting in itself, and so unpalatable to the persons reminded of it. Of course it was scandalously unfair to go, literally, behind the Englishmen’s backs with any insinuation of the kind, but then we know that wherever there is racial antagonism fairness becomes a very secondary consideration.

And like this:

Layamon’s additions to the legend (lines 29587-600) are the point of chief contrast between his account and that of Wace. From Layamon we first hear of the nickname of Mugglings, and of the shame which the story occasioned not to the men of Dorsetshire or of Kent merely, but to Englishmen generally. Go where they might their faces were reddened by unkind reminders. Sarcastic foreigners could not be expected to display a tedious nicety in fine distinctions between English counties.

To discourage the others: Gerald’s humanity goes awry

K150063Here’s a post in the classic mode of 2007 brand Karl: a reading of an animals text, in this case, of a modern classic, namely, Gerald of Wales’s shifting reactions to animal-human hybrids and bestiality in a block of stories in his History and Topography of Ireland (also see Eileen in 2007, on this episode and gender).

To the story of a “semibos vir,” a creature partly ox and partly human, sheltered by the Marcher lord Maurice fitzGerald and killed by Irish natives, Gerald responds with what our Jeffrey calls an “uncharacteristic undercurrent of melancholy, ambivalence, and regret.” Gerald does not judge the nature of this, the section’s first hybrid: he lists its bovine face and extremities and its speechlessness; he condemns its death; but he is reluctant to categorize it (“an extraordinary man was seen—-if indeed it be right to call him a man”; O’Meara trans.). Notably, in the History‘s second recension, as if responding to critics, Gerald extends his consideration of the ox/man: he admits the peculiarity of classifying the death of the “semibos vir” as a homicide (“sed et hujus animalis interemptor nunquid homicida dicetur?”) and finally suggests that the strange excursus might be excused as simply representing nature having its revenge rather than as offering a topic for disputation (““Sed excersus hujiusmodi sunt excusandi: potiusque timenda est naturae vindicta, quam disputatione discutienda.”). Gerald thus, very briefly, suspends debate over the nature and privileges of the human; he would rather the ox/man be thought about some other way.

But almost as soon as he relaxes his judgment, he tries to remember himself. He classifies his next hybrid, yet another ox/man, as having “plus hominis quam pecoris” (more of the man than of livestock), and then a cow/stag as being more like livestock than wild animals. In both these cases, he brings them closer to himself—one is nearly human, one nearly domestic—as if refusing to let either one wander too far from his supervision. He concludes with two cases of bestiality, both committed by women, one with a goat, the other with a lion.

Though bestiality produced the hybrids of his previous stories, Gerald strains to refuse himself his own curiosity for it. He had praised the goat, perhaps aesthetically, perhaps erotically, as being “remarkable…for the length of its coat and height of its horns” (O’Meara trans.), yet humans drawn by this beauty to “yield to the pull of dreamier horizons and unforeclosed possibilities” (again, Jeffrey, from “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages”) must, as Gerald reports, be consigned to death for submitting themselves to the creatures they should, as humans, master.

Gerald nonetheless does not quite know what to do with the final incident. He first blames the lion. The section heading, in both the first (p. 146-147: warning, pdf) and second recensions of the History, is “de leone mulierem adamante ” (a lion who loved a woman), and he explains that the lion “bestiali amore” (made beastly love) to a “fatuam” (a foolish woman), and, as a result, was locked up; when it escaped from its cage, only the woman could calm it. Gerald then blames the woman, because, “muliebribus ipsum demulcens illecebris” (caressing it with womanly enticements), “omnem statim furorem in amorem convertebat” (she at once changed all its rage into love). Faced with such a horror, he exclaims, “O utramque bestiam turpi morte dignissimam” (Each one a beast, most worthy of a shameful death!). Having allocated responsibility to both human and animal, he then recalls that even the ancients committed bestiality. He quotes Leviticus 20:16, “The woman that shall lie under any beast, shall be killed together with the same,” and glosses the verse to explain that the beast is killed “non propter culpam, a qua bestialitas excusat” (not because of its guilt, from which it is excused because of its bestialness). By denying the lion reason, by making it only an object of the woman’s lust, by subjecting the lion to death, not execution, by delivering it to the human as mere life, as an instrument broken by misuse, by, in short, hiding himself within doctrinal Christianity, Gerald tries to reactive the temporarily inert system of the human.

But even here he goes awry: he further justifies condemning the lion to death “propter memoriae refricationem, quae ad mentem facinus revocare solet” (in order to irritate the memory again, by recalling to the mind the crime). Fair enough: pour décourager les autres, I suppose. But which others? And whose mind is being irritated (again)? And how to translate that “solet” gracefully? “It is for the habit of recalling the crime to the mind”? I’m honestly a bit lost on this point. Does he mean to frighten animals, or humans, horrified by the deaths of their animal inamoranti, or both?

And, having just told the story, has he not just himself recalled to mind the crime, but perhaps for a different purpose, one of wonder–despite himself–rather than a simple, humanist condemnation? After all, in the second recension, he (or someone) can’t help but add a little tag to tale’s end: “de Pasiphe quoque, taurum adamante, multorum opinione non fabula quidem sed res gesta fuit” (also, Pasiphaë, the bull lover, [whose story] many consider to be not fiction but rather history). Someone, his or her mind irritated, wants to add more, driven to dreamy contemplation of sin, I might say, by an overzealous confessor.