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21.11.07 Clay (ed.), Beasts, Humans, and Transhumans in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

21.11.07 Clay (ed.), Beasts, Humans, and Transhumans in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

It is an ethical truism that “dehumanization” is something people should not suffer. No wonder, as it’s just as much a truism that “dehumanization” leads to, or is caused by, the loss of political agency and the reduction of the individual to an indistinguishable, fungible element of a crowd. “Dehumanization” means the loss of dignity, self-possession, and self-determination; it means being treated like an animal, or an object. No one decent would ever want to subject anyone to this condition.

Studies like this present volume, and many other works in medieval and early modern animal studies and posthumanism more generally from our present century, have happily demanded a reevaluation of the category of the human, and, with this, a reevaluation of attendant categories like “dehumanization.” As scholars like Zakiyyah Iman Jackson have argued, groups targeted by the powerful are never simply stripped of their humanity: nineteenth-century slavers in North America, for example, spoke of enslaved people as animals while exploiting their specifically human skills, knowledge, and family ties to wrest from them still more labor. The pleasures the slavers took no doubt stemmed from their delighting in inflicting cruelty on people. In my period of study, medieval Christian anti-Semites insulted Jews as brutes even as they drew on Rabbinic exegesis--surely a human activity--to resolve exegesis cruces. The question of the human, like the question of the animal, never operates as a simple binary.

With points like these in mind, we are better positioned to observe that the human in the mainstream medieval thought was a precariously balanced being, poised between bestial mortality and immortality. If it directed its attention to mutable, sensual things--downward, towards the earth, in the common spatial metaphor--it abandoned itself to irrational animality; if it directed its attention upwards, towards unchanging things, it became godlike, drawn towards its best destiny. In this schema, repeated throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, there was no allowance made for the middle gaze, the view that might rest on the horizon. For the human, drawn in two directions by its rational and mortal selves, was always on its way to being something other than itself. Within this tradition, “dehumanization” might be understood as capturing that mobile character of the human, always becoming and never quite being, always on the verge of falling into the muck of mortality or of ascending towards the heavens.

In its attention to our “transient position” (viii), J. Eugene Clay’s introduction to his anthology hits points like these well. His short essay surveys the varying character of the category of the human in literary and cultural theory, the Bible, classical philosophy, and the synthesis of the two in various medieval theologies. He rightly distinguishes transhumanism, through which humans seek to transcend their mortal limitations, from a more general posthuman questioning of the characteristics traditionally thought to be particular to humans. More excitingly, Clay draws on the work of Andrea Nightingale to identify certain transhuman elements in ancient and medieval thought, so turning up the roots of transhumanism in verses like 1 John 3:2 (“it is not yet clear what we will be”) and in mainstream medieval Christian resurrection doctrine. If transhumanism realizes the human fantasies of power perfectly, so that we become unchanging creatures of pure reason, now freed from all dependency and physical impediments, posthumanism might lead us in the other direction, towards a better realization of our shared dependency with all that exists. With such thoughts in mind, Clay looks at the moral status of nonhuman animals, drawing on familiar material (Saint Guinefort, the Holy Greyhound) and, to this medievalist, material happily less familiar (Sergius of Radonezh’s sharing of food with a bear). While Clay’s contribution cannot be easily excerpted to teach on its own because it, of necessity, must introduce the volume’s essays, it still offers the key points of the field so richly that I would recommend it anyone wanting an efficient introduction to rethinking the category of the human.

I focus on Clay’s introduction at such length because it is, for me, the book’s most successful contribution. The other essays generally get the job done, but few meet the posthumanist challenge the introduction sets. Edit Anna Lukacs’ chapter on Bradwardine’s De causa Dei deserves special mention, however. Theologians of his era and the century before were surprisingly worried about metempsychosis; Bradwardine is no exception, but he treats the subject with notable thoroughness, and is just as notably open to certain kinds of metamorphosis: he even considers werewolves, which, as he argues, assume their human shape again once their passion leaves them. We must thank Lukas for reading through this massive work on our behalf and producing such a useful study.

We also have chapters on Merlin’s animality by Robert Sturges, a welcome follow-up to his work on Merlin in the Roman de Silence; on the sixteenth-century neo-Latin Metamorphosis Amoris of Nicolas Brizard, by John Nassichuk, in which Cupid assumes many forms, many of them animal, which allows Brizard to show off his playful mastery of old lore; on the representation of boar-hunting in Ms. Bodley 64 and its relation to the manuscript’s patrons, the marcher lord Robert de Monhaut, by Susan Anderson; on the politicization of riding styles in Habsburg Spain by Kathryn Renton, in which the short-stirruped style a la jineta, imported into Iberia from North Africa in the thirteenth century, came to be an essential feature of Spanish nobility; on how the exegesis of Psalm 91 and its metaphors of hunting and arrows explains certain features of Walter Map’s account of the hunting death of King William Rufus, by David Scott-Macnab; on the animal characteristics of the visual representation of demons and the devil, by Amanda E. Downey; on the grotesques of carved wood marriage chests in early modern Italy, by Rachel L. Chantos, which argues for their apotropaic function; and finally Thomas Willard’s discussion of Paracelsus’s fascinating De Nymphis, Sylphis, Pygmœis, et Salamandris, et Caeteris Spiritibus (a work translated into modern English by Henry E. Sigerist), a volume of much interest to anyone interested in the cultural history of monsters. I have to note, however, that Willard draws what is, to my mind, an odd comparison between “aliens who marry citizens to get a green card and raise families in the U.S.” (157) and the monstrous Wasserfrau who can acquire souls by marrying terrestrial men. I find the comparison not quite suitable.

Clay’s volume captures the feeling of a conference, naturally enough, as the chapters come from the nineteenth annual conference of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Like a conference, the contributions feel as if they represent research at various levels of completion, archival thoroughness, and argumentative confidence and ambition. I am sure I am not alone in wishing to have been part of the conversation, and, given how long we have had to go without in-person conferences during the pandemic, reading through the volume generated a not unhappy atmosphere of nostalgia and anticipation.