Monday, November 12, 2012

Fire Rocks

Aberdeen Bestiary Folio 93v detail
 by J J Cohen

[Jonathan and I were composing posts at the same time. Don't miss his piece on Global Chaucers]

I'm emerging from my writing lockdown for a moment to share with you a bit from a chapter in progress, which contains a long sequence on the history of gendered stones -- a phenomenon dating in lapidary tradition back to its origin in Theophrastus:
"For one type of sardion, which is translucent and of a redder color, is called the female, and the other, which is translucent and darker, is called the male. And it is the same with the varieties of the lyngourion, for the female is more transparent and yellow than the other. Also, one kind of kyanos is called male and the other female, and the male is the darker of the two." (Theophrastus, On Stones)
Theophrastus doesn't make much of lithic gendering, nor connect a possible petric sexuality to a statement he makes at the beginning of On Stones about "stones which give birth to young." It's a weak kind of anthropomorphism, since little is really at stake: gendered stones are a neutral fact. They don't become more apprehensible via gender, and they don't act in a more human way for their sexual dimorphism.

This tension between a seeming anthropomorphism and a rocky indifference to limiting ambits manifests repeatedly in lapidary history. Marbodes of Rennes writes of a stone called the peanita, which conceives through an unknown mechanism and gives birth to lithic young. Alchemy genders metals as a generative principle. Albertus Magnus invokes gendered categories within a strangely creaturely vocabulary to explain the genesis of stones. Lapidaries are texts full of lithic vitality, so it is perhaps not overly surprising to find rocks gendered within them. It is startling, however, to find lively stones dwelling among animals.

The Physiologus, concerned mainly with how various animals offer spiritual allegories, bestows to the bestiary tradition a discussion of gendered piroboli or Fire Rocks. Interpreted as the carnal sins to which men and women are together drawn, the piroboli are described as “igneous rocks of the masculine and feminine gender” native to the East. Kept at a distance from each other the two types of stones are inert, but should the male approach the female “fire breaks forth and consumes all.” Also called lapides igniferi, these fire stones make frequent appearances in the bestiaries, where they find themselves in the good company of the phoenix, elephants, panthers, beavers, foxes, weasels, bees, dragons, sirens and hyenas. Lapidaries were sometimes bound with bestiaries, and it is not difficult to see why: the rocks of the latter can be as lively and restless as any creature contained in zoological compendia.

Aberdeen Bestiary 94r detail
Whereas lapidaries are usually content to allow stones to be stones, however, the bestiaries render fire rocks fully anthropomorphic. They are almost always depicted as a human couple embracing in the midst of flames, an allegorical and narrative-laden representation in which nothing of the lithic remains. Typically these figures are naked, but sometimes these stones in corporeal form are clothed (e.g., St John's College Cambridge A.15 103v). Since humans are made from earth just like stones, these representations make good biblical sense – and since fire is an easy allegory for lust, a devoutly Christian story contained in stone writes itself.[1] In the Aberdeen Bestiary, for example, the fire stones are fully humanized: a nude man and woman combust in a garden meant to recall Eden (f 93v). Yet Aberdeen balances its lithic representations. Flip the page and you are met by a depiction of a lone rock atop a green hill (f 94r). This solitary stone is adamas, the diamond, most impenetrable of materials, the most withholding, its loneliness a rebuke perhaps to the blazing gregariousness of its siblings. Adamas dwells indifferent to human worlds and fiery futurity on its placid summit. Perhaps it exists out of time, or at least out of human time.

Few depictions of fire rocks are content to leave them in lithic solitude, to add nothing anthropomorphic. Yet a surprisingly nonhuman, nonnarrative representation of fire stones appears in the bestiary of Harley 3244 (f. 60, image apparently not digitized by the BL). Debra Hassig describes the illustration well: “five evenly separated red and orange stones, glowing like embers, are distributed along a light green mountainside” as if in a landscape portrait (Medieval Bestiaries 117). These fire rocks sparkle with a promise of vitality on the slope of that verdant hill, but they have not yet ignited into story. They thrum with compacted energy, pulse with the promise of magnificent detonation. Some lapides igniferi are neither fully human nor fully petric, creating a jarring hybridity as human visages peer from lithic chunks. The bestiary held by Gonville and Caius College [2] offers two dark stones with petals like petric flowers against a monochrome background, yielding the impression that the rocks are moving towards each other across space or sky. In the centers of these stones are intricate and expressive faces, one male and one female, each uneasily eying the other as flames begin to erupt. They seem keenly aware of the explosion about to arrive ... and yet they remind me of Anne Harris's suggestion that fire stones might also laugh.

Kellie Robertson argues that hybridity is innate to the lithic-human encounter. She provides vivid readings of this hybridity's eruption in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, observing that “In a medieval world where rocks were not merely passive objects of the human gaze, but active participants in shaping the mental reality of percipients, rocks have the capacity to organize the humans who look at them, based on what they see, rather than being simply subject to human desire” (“Exemplary Rocks” 106). Some bestiaries go farther, bringing lithic vitality into wholly unexpected – and dangerously combustive – realms, spaces in which easy assumptions about what it means to be human or alive fall apart. Rocks are anthropomorphized not with the effect that the petric becomes more knowable, or assimilated into the human, but stone instead is removed from that constrictive familiarity which prevents realization of its queerness. As the lithic flowers with perplexed human faces in the Gonville and Caius College bestiary suggest, their visages registering bemusement at an incineration that has already begun, the lithic abides in marvelously inscrutable spaces – so alien, in fact, that the fire bearers [lapides igniferi] themselves seem puzzled by a combustive future just starting to arrive.

[1] Kellie Robertson acutely observes “These anthropomorphizing accounts of fire-producing stones suggest a natural world motivated by recognizably human desires and behaviors. The habit of moralizing rocks in this way seems to reduce the inanimate object to a screen on which the human is projected in grainy but recognizable form” (‘Exemplary Rocks” 93). Robertson argues against such reductive reading (rocks are more than humans in “petric drag”) by pointing out that “this allegorized world is one of mutual, rather than unidirectional, influence” (94): both rocks and humans are changed by their proximity and relations.

[2] As far as I can tell Gonville and Caius College has not digitized any of its manuscripts, so I cannot link to an image here.

1 comment:

Jeb said...

"both rocks and humans are changed by their proximity and relations."

I can run with that, both subject too and shaping a shared environment.

"I followed aye mine inclination,
By virtue of my constellation."

Burning lust of the wife of Bath shaped by the stars.

Nice thought to end the day on. Thanks