Friday, July 01, 2016

"The Brutal Middle Ages" and other smug modern errors

Still from Marketa Lazarová.

There's a big blog post about to spring up here tomorrow, so I'm squeezing in to beat the crowds. Once you read that, obviously, those of you lucky enough to be at Leeds must go to this excellent feminist medieval event, which is happening next Wednesday.

What follows is the opening of my 9,000-word (! yes! that was our limit: mine is exactly that) chapter on Animals and Violence for the Routledge Handbook for Animal-Human History (ed. Hilda Kean and Philip Howell), which I'm delivering a month late, because although I write about animals, I too am human. Roughly speaking.

The whole thing is called "Animals and Violence: Medieval Brutality, Margery Kempe’s Vegetarianism, and the Smugness of Modern Humanism." You've perhaps already seen earlier drafts of later sections here, here, and here. If so, great!

And now to read my co-presenters' papers for the "(Dis)abling the Human/Animal Body" session for the New Chaucer Society...


Few readers of this chapter will be surprised to learn that examples of medieval cruelty to animals are easy to come by. William FitzStephen’s thirteenth-century portrait of London lauds the city for its entertainments, which include wrestling, target-shooting, and riverboat jousting, and also spectacular fights to the death between bulls or boars and dogs. The fourteenth-century Middle English poem Cleanness adapts Jesus' parable of the rich man's feast, so that, like a good English magnate, he proclaims the completion of preparations with a hearty ‘my bulls and my boars are baited and slain’ [my boles and my bores arn bayted and slayn]. And one early sixteenth-century English recipe meant for a convalescent begins notoriously: ‘Take a red Cock that is not too olde, and beate him to death, and when he is dead, fley him and quarter him in small peeces, and bruse the bones everye one of them.’[i]

I start here because this ‘medieval brutality’ is what would be generally expected in a chapter on the medieval and animals. ‘Medieval Brutality,’ a cliché in the general culture—as with this, from the New York Times: ‘experts in radicalization said that understanding the process by which people fell for the medieval brutality of a religious ideology is vital to combating it’—distinguishes the medieval from the modern as filthier, crueler, and more ‘ferocious’ (from the Latin ferox, wild animal, as ‘brutal’ comes from the Latin brutus, ‘beast’).[ii] In this self-regard of modernity, the medieval is more animal than the present. Recall the mudcaked peasants of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, the feral pagan temptress of Marketa Lazarová, one of František Vláčil’s medieval existential tragedies, or the damp, fleshy, fecal crowds in the streets and noble courts of Alexei German’s unendurable ‘medieval’ science fiction film, Hard to be a God.[iii] The assumptions hold that the past is cruel, the present civilized; the past superstitious, the present rational; and by extension, the past animal, and the present human. According to these assumptions, medieval people were more ‘in touch’ with animals, in part because they were more like animals than those of us presumed to belong fully to the present.
My study of violence and animals focuses on the Middle Ages because of this period's strange relationship to the paired conceptions of modernity and humanity. The idea of modernity often operates by looking to the Middle Ages either as its origin—where languages, religions, cuisines, and customs arose organically—or as what it had to leave behind in order to form itself as modern, by abandoning faith, aristocracy, and the ferocious violence of medieval peoples.[iv] As Kathleen Davis argues, a supersessionary model, itself borrowed from the Middle Ages, drives these assumptions. The model was itself a central feature of medieval Christian anti-Semitism. Since the earliest Christian scriptures, Christians portrayed Jews as outmoded, hidebound in irrational laws, and parochial, superseded by a (Christian) present that is forward looking, free, creative, rational, and cosmopolitan. Davis observes that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial administrators developed the concept of the ‘medieval’ to divide European modernity from colonies they preferred to think of as still trapped in the past.[v] The same assumptions of modernity persist into the present in a ‘developmental narrative,’ as Geraldine Heng writes, ‘whose trajectory positions’ the West as modern ‘and the rest of the world as always catching up.’[vi] It is an obvious irony that to the degree that the middle ages is thought of as superstitious, irrational, excessively traditional, and ahistorical—possessing only a homogeneous unchanging ‘pastness’ until the modern arrives—it becomes modernity’s ‘Jewish’ past, this while modern movements dedicated to closing borders to preserve their supposed Western freedom claim as their irrevocable heritage what they believe to be the medieval origins of their languages, nations, and especially faiths.
Left behind, yet necessary as a foundation, launching pad, or authentic core, the medieval is the animal in relation to the human of the modern. Whether this animalized medieval is actually in the past or in present-day regions, cultures, or activities disdained as ‘medieval,’ the Middle Ages is understood to be bound in a way of life like that of a mere animal: driven by instinctual appetites, beholden to the uncomprehending superstition of religious fundamentalism, and tyrannized by a rule founded only on direct, violent domination, the so-called ‘law of the jungle.’ If the animal is fundamentally ‘brutal,’ so the medieval is fundamentally animal. Both are what must be denied for the human to emerge, or both the true core concealed beneath a veneer of reason and temporary, merely decorative consumer culture.
For all these reasons, a critical reassessment of medieval attitudes towards violence against animals counteracts two interlocked delusions simultaneously, that of ‘modernity’ and ‘humanity.’ One way to resist these splits and the various paternalistic violences they justify is accurate representation, which demonstrates the heterogeneity, contradictions, and intellectual mobility of both sides of a presumed divide: Jewish exegesis was never stolidly literal, Christians could practice ritual every bit hieratic as what they accused the Jews of, and both engaged in an ongoing development of their own faith, often through exegetical exchanges, not always hostile, with each other.
So too does the notion of ‘medieval animalistic violence’ fail.
[and so on!!]

[i] W. Fitzstephen, Norman London, F. Stenton (trans.), New York: Italica Press, 1990, p. 58; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl; Cleanness; Patience, A.C. Cawley and J. J. Anderson (ed.), London: Dent, 1991, l. 55; A. W., A Book of Cookrye, London: Edward Allde, 1587, image 13, Early English Books Online, Cambridge University Library.
[ii] K. Bennhold, ‘Same Anger, Different Ideologies: Radical Muslim and Neo-Nazi’, The New York Times, 5 March 2015 [accessed 30 June 2016].
[iii] T. Gilliam and T. Jones, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, EMI Films, 1975; F. Vláčil, Marketa Lazarová, Ústřední půjčovna filmů, 1967; A. German, Hard to be a God [Trudno byt’ bogom], Kino Lorber, 2013.
[iv] For a well-known example of this tendency, see S. Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
[v] K. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008; I am also drawing on her as yet unpublished work ‘Convolutions of Time: Why an “Early Modern” Period?’, presented at Common Eras: Law, Literature, and the Rhetorics of Commonality in Medieval and Renaissance England, Freie Universität Berlin, 19 May 2016.
[vi] G. Heng, ‘The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages 1: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages’, Literature Compass, 8.5, 2011, p. 264.

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