The Medieval Review 16.08.06

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. pp. 366. $20.14 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-8166-9262-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Lesley McFadyen
Birkbeck, University of London

Stone opens with an introduction on stories of stone (history), and closes with an afterword on Iceland (rock). This is a clever device, for the point of the work is to stress an alliance and continuity between stone and human, to write about relationships that go beyond anthropocentrism without ending in elemental solitariness. The book is then divided into four main sections on the topics of geophilia, time, force and soul. These are striated with a further three details of discussion. I do not have anything to say here on the excursuses, except that I am full of admiration for the way Cohen deals with the affects of the Mémorial de la Shoah and the Berlin Museum.

For Cohen, the ecology of the inhuman refers to a study between biophilia and geophilia. I took this to mean that although an ecological approach has offered up an understanding of worlds where humans are not considered as distinct from other organisms, i.e. it gives a relational frame in which to study; it is the geological that extends that approach and gives it scale and depth. Stone matters. Already, you will have guessed, that this is a very theoretical book. All of the contemporary thinkers of a relational or network approach are referenced here e.g. Jane Bennett (2010) Manuel De Landa (2006) and Bruno Latour (2005). It is no coincidence that time and force are key conditions to the relational accounts of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1988), a work that even had a geology of morals--soul.

On medieval terms: Cohen states that his sources are lapidary texts, lithic architectures (and inscribed jewels) (27), chronicle and romance (7). It is here that we find the beauty of this book, for Cohen is not simply theoretically aware, he is able to engage more effectively with medieval sources because of the theory he knows and he demonstrates that "medieval writers mediated upon inanimate matter and came to rather similar insights, expressed within differently sympathetic modes" (257). In addition, part of the success of the book is because he himself is such a gifted narrator and poet. Perhaps this style of writing is out of the ordinary in medieval studies, there is certainly a hint of the defensive in Cohen's introduction where he says that the intent is to give the reader vertigo. To me, rather than throw me off the path, his art of writing is necessary because it aligns with a practice that exists in medieval texts. A similar writing practice is found in the work of the prehistorian Mark Edmonds who has collaborated with the novelist Alan Garner to produce the The Beauty Things. [1]Key texts consulted in Stone are Albertus Magnus Book of Minerals, Geoffrey of Monmouth The History of the Kings of Britain, Isidore of Seville Etymologies and John Mandeville The Book of John Mandeville.

Geophilia: in this section Cohen gives evidence of stone and human alliances, from the Book of Genesis and Adam’s shaping from clay (22), to the Book of John Mandeville and the account of Adam and Eve living within a rock after their banishment (25). There is a bodily connection with the derivation of terminology in the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, with lapis coming from its ability to injure (laedere) the foot (pes) (31). Particular jewels are used (and often inscribed) to extend the force, or powers, of stone to humans. Throughout, Cohen pays attention to the effects of stone, in terms of the durability of it as a material and the temporal scale of its existence. Often, durability is articulated as solid and with a scale that is beyond history, whilst at other times there is an awareness of a material and form that is either fluid and restless or that moves and changes through time. Many of the latter examples are stories of stone that have a slower temporal register. I am used to having to think and write in this way as a prehistorian, and it is wonderful to read of how it is necessary for historical periods too. Thinking in stone collapses the chronological divisions of disciplines, and Cohen gets to the heart of this when he says: "When we decelerate, imagine a deeper past, get geologic, then history becomes more eventful, richer, deeper in its strata. Modernity loses some of its luster, prehistory loses homogeneity, and the agency of the material world becomes easier to perceive alongside that of the human" (37).

Time: this chapter starts by linking in time fourteenth century and Neolithic worlds by giving account of the burial of the standing stones of Avebury. This is further evidence of the latent energy of stone, and a continued need to engage with it through time. Cohen could follow this further in archaeological accounts of the excavation of the stone pits, the pits were cut to the dimension of the stones, they are then not unlike graves. [2] Stones physically undulate topographically in the accounts of the fourteenth century, from stones that are buried at Avebury to the philosophy of Jean Buridan where rocks reappear. Cohen writes: "Whether its invitation is to contemplate thousands or millions of years, eternity or infinity, stone vexes human history, admixing the transient and the perdurable" (79).

Fossils are indices of the liveliness stone retains and further entangle medieval and prehistoric worlds, for example langues de serpents were stones to detect poison, five are noted as being owned by Edward I and Edward III, and were probably fossilised teeth or arrowheads (87). There are the thunder axes mentioned in The Book of Minerals by Albertus Magnus, and that Cohen identifies as Neolithic tools. Most interesting of all are the examples of a "lithic-propelled temporal entanglement" (86) that operates at the limits of scale. For example, deep time, before the flood, appears in Augustine’s fifteenth book of the City of God and the story of the giant’s tooth. Temporal immensity is in material form and so requires of Augustine a narrative of giant and not human origin. Size for Augustine is duration.

Force: it is in this part of the book where Cohen pulls together, almost to touching point, contemporary theory and medieval text. Jane Bennett's ‘"vibrant matter" is much like Isidore of Seville’s description of enhydros that gushes crystalline water like a fountain" (137). Or the double articulation of substance and form in Deleuze and Guattari's (1988) rendering of strata are similar to the ways in which the lithic is an anchoring and propelling device in the narrative of The Book of John Mandeville (155).

For me, the example of Stonehenge is an alliance too far. I can see how Cohen can couple together Bjørner Olsen's (2010) In Defence of Things to Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain, but not to the Neolithic. Relational theories/decentred accounts are supposed to illuminate other qualities of the material, but not to the extent that all that is left is stone, i.e. it becomes elemental solitariness. In the Neolithic, Stonehenge was a series of construction sites, it was mutable, but as an assemblage of materials and effects that also involved chalk and wood amongst other things. Cohen/Olsen's focus on ruination is at the expense of ecological relations. For example, clearing woodland takes as much force, and has as much effect, as dragging sarsen stone from its surface outcrops (sarsen fields). And to backtrack a little, Cohen is mistaken to think that time operates at a bigger scale in the Neolithic project of Stonehenge as opposed to that of Seahenge (114). I wonder if, at times, medieval historians will feel that this study of stone has become detached from the messier contexts that they are interested in?

Soul: interestingly, is about co-presence and animated ecologies. The story of the Green Children of Woolpit in William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs, is an example of a deeper time than English history, and one that is ‘difference-laden’ (207). Furthermore, in this example, there is a history of fenland as the Green Children appear from a ditch rather than through an architecture in stone.

Best of all, there is the beauty of the contradictory that Cohen brings to the fore in the traits that Albertus Magnus denies and discerns in the lithic. He writes: "That sitcut, that complicated as if, prohibits ensoulment while making stones seem living things. They act through a force that is nonvitalizing, nonreproductive, nonorganismal--and yet the instance in the Book of Minerals that stones possess neither soul nor life is quietly eroded but recurring demonstration of their vivacity, an animacy not well cordoned away through metaphorization (as if)" (219-220). This is where Cohen's theorising on stone makes a difference. I know I have been a little critical of his take on the archaeology, but this book on stone matters. Furthermore, unlike the material turn within archaeology (Olsen 2010), here Cohen does not flatten out the human into the network along with so many other elements, but instead uses the elemental to get at the scale of understanding the inhuman on human terms. And so this book on stone matters for all periods of history.



1. Mark Edmonds and Alan Garner, The Beauty Things (Group 6 Press, 2016).

2. See Mark Gillings, Joshua Pollard, David Wheatley, and Rick Peterson, Landscape of the Megaliths: Excavation and Fieldwork on the Avebury Monuments, 1997-2003 (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2008).

Copyright (c) 2016 Lesley McFadyen

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