Thursday, November 21, 2013

Do Stones Have Souls?

by J J Cohen

[read Karl on the origin of the Easter Bunny first, because it's awesome]

Lithic ensoulment is one of many strange questions I have pondered in the course of writing this book. Well, not me: Albertus Magnus. But let him be my Aristotelian proxy. From the chapter that, after five revisions, is nearly done:

Lithic Soul

An oval of salt and pepper granite sits on my study’s sill, a lithic egg. I spotted the stone while walking the ocean’s edge in Maine and found myself stooping to pick it up, hand grasping before I was aware of making a choice (Bruno Latour calls this the “slight surprise of action”).[i] So many of the rock’s qualities allure, calling me to continued contemplation, calling me to introduce this stone to you. Speckled granite is indigenous to the hard geography where some of my family has lived since fleeing Russian pogroms in the 1880s. I discovered the stone in a liminal space replete with childhood memories, daughter and fellow beachcomber beside me. It was an impossibly lucid, undeniably singular day in December, and neither of us cared that frozen foam marked the tideline. Formed deep in the earth under inconceivable pressure, a piece of tumbled mountain worn to a globe by tidal pounding, the rock bears the impress of aeonic force. My career is predicated upon studying temporal distance and depth. Something about its being ovate, too, draws me: those flecks on a white surface promise a secret interior, some yolk of futurity inhabiting the shell of its impenetrable past. I collect medieval narratives in which rocks really are eggs, with toads or greyhounds or dragons slumbering inside, awaiting discovery. I seized a round stone on a winter beach in Maine because it dwelled already inside my history. But what if the stone seized me? What if the petric ovum, so perfect for the palm, holds more than density, obduracy, and an accidental power to draw human hand and story? What if it is not anthropomorphizing to speak of a stone’s ability to resist, its power to attract -- and even of its sympathies, alliances, inclinations and spurs? And let’s up the outrageous ante even more: what if within my ready-to-hand rock is not just a willfulness, an incipience, an agency, but that principle of vitality that in the Middle Ages was supposed to set humans apart from everything else in the world?

Gossamer conveyors of identity, souls are easy to imagine even without the human bodies they animate: personhood before birth, a ghost, a denizen of heaven or hell. A soul might even be trapped temporarily within an alien object without challenging the intimacy of soul to human form. Barbara Newman gives the vivid example of Madre Juana de la Cruz (d. 1534), who heard a rock from her brazier cry out and came to understand that a sufferer from purgatory was incarcerated within.[ii] Medieval souls were typically represented as miniature versions of people, corporeal yet intangible semblance. The illustrator of James le Palmer’s encyclopedia Omne Bonum bestows a historiated capital upon the entry for anima in which God uses pincers to measure or grasp a small, naked figure. This soul is suspended precariously while God renders his judgment.[iii] Carol Zaleski labels images of this type “somatomorphic”:

On the tympana of cathedrals, in colorful miniatures illustrating the lives of the saints, in bas-relief on the tombs of princes, and in the ‘art of dying’ woodcuts, the naked and childlike soul is extracted from the body by angels who carry it up to heaven in a linen napkin, or by demons who drag it down to hell, while around the deathbed the pious mourners or greedy expectant relatives gather.[iv]
Sometimes the human soul might be represented as something other than a homunculus, something inorganic and nonhuman. Caesarius of Heisterbach describes it as an all-seeing glassy sphere, perhaps “like the globe of the moon.” Other writers envision bubbles, sparks, flames or birds.[v] Yet when the soul-bubble pops, a human is typically disclosed inside, so that nonanthropomorphic representation yields quickly to familiar bodily form. Depiction of the soul as a miniature embodied person derives not from theology so much as popular tradition. Medieval souls are complicated, since they are at once distinctly human (guarantors that identity survives corporeal decay) as well as a vitalizing force shared with plants and animals.

The second creation story in Genesis (2:7) connects human liveliness to God’s breath, exhaled into the clay of which Adam is formed. Related in Latin to the words for animal and respiration, terms that suggest the proof of life is movement (animare, “to put into motion”), souls are substance-permeating mechanisms for triggering vital activity. In classical and medieval science the soul enters the flesh just before breathing begins, the spur to quickening. In the wake of the rediscovery of Aristotle in the thirteenth century Latin West, souls became objects of passionate, often contradictory clerical discourse. Having been translated from Greek and Arabic into Latin, Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific texts roiled the academic landscape with their challenges to Christian orthodoxy.[vi] In 1210 Aristotle’s works on nature were banned in Paris under pain of excommunication, but by 1255 they dominated the university’s curriculum.[vii] Difficult labor was required to reconcile his philosophy to ecclesiastical doctrine, engendering an era philosophically turbulent and intellectually generative. The Aristotelian opus is heavily citational, so that along with his writings were conveyed a great many excerpts from Greek thinkers. These classical texts arrived in medieval universities mediated by translation and accompanied by the commentaries of Islamic, Eastern Christian and Jewish scholars. Especially influential were Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and Qusta ibn Luqa (Costa ben Luca). Problems of heterogeneity and potential incompatibility are well illustrated in contemporary scholarly rumination over the concept of soul. In classical Greek philosophy “soul” was more scientific principle than individualized entity, while in Christian theology it was more likely to be the enduring essence of a person, a principle of agency and identity separable from the body at death, even if difficult to envision outside particular embodiment.[viii] Writing in the middle of the thirteenth century, Bartholomaeus Anglicus undertook a comprehensive overview of what “soul” means, collating Aristotle with the Church Fathers, attempting a convergence of the term’s heterogeneous vectors in the hope of an orthodox synthesis. Bartholomaeus emphasizes that the soul is a divinely bestowed agent of corporeal animation, “joined to the body in two manners, that is, as mover to the thing moved, and as a sailor joined to his ship.”[ix] This navigational charge also extends to its governance of the flesh, as he makes clear by invoking a declaration attributed to Augustine that the soul is provided for the body’s “reulinge”[governance].[x] The soul is that good thing seated in the human heart, rendering humans close to angels and triggering divine yearning. The font of rationality, free will and intellect, this immortal portion will at death be released to the bliss of heaven. Yet classical tradition also makes clear that the soul is a neutral phenomenon diffused throughout the entire body to imbue vitality, not unique to humans but found also in animals and plants. Philosophers provide so many contradictory definitions, Bartholomaeus observes in exasperation, that “what thing a soul is, is unknown to many men” (On the Properties of Things 3.4).

Bartholomaeus stresses that ensoulment is multiple and not exclusively human. In an Aristotelian mode he describes through secular language three types of souls: vegetal, to bestow life; sensible, to provide feeling; and rational, to grant reason.[xi] He explicates the properties of these souls at great length, dividing each into constituent qualities and detailing with geometrical precision the various abilities they grant their possessors. Plants harbor a bare kind of life through their vegetal souls, envisioned in the shape of a triangle. The three angles are formed by the lively virtues of reproduction (“gendringe”), digestion (“norschinge”), and development (“wexinge and growing”). Procreation, ingestion, and change over time are therefore quietly established as the traits without which life does not exist. Conversely, anything that eats, reproduces and grows possesses vitality, and therefore the most fundamental of souls. A sensible soul enables animals to experience sentience but not reason, rendering them “vnskilful.” Sensible souls are like quadrangles, that is, two triangles that combine to form a square: they contain the vegetal soul but exceed it through the sensory and corporeal abilities they confer. The rational soul, a perfect circle encompassing its angular forerunners, bestows rationality as well as vivacity and feeling, rendering humans the apex of embodied creation, containing all things in microcosm. The constitution of humanness through a tripartite soul means that a “good two thirds of man’s functions are shared by other animate and sentient beings,” a complicated embedment within a material ecology.[xii] Yet despite an emphasis on mundane entanglement, little space exists within this resplendently geometric scheme for the liveliness of anything lower on the ladder of nature than “plants and roots” (3.7).

Aristotle and his medieval followers held that souls provide plants, animals, and humans their particular abilities, so that matter becomes lively only upon ensoulment. Yet what about supposedly lifeless matter that does things, that acts? What if the inert refuses immobility? Separating the inanimate from volition-filled beings is typically the first cut made to organize a taxonomic system. In the sixteenth chapter of On the Properties of Things, dedicated to rocks and metals, Bartholomaeus describes these substances as “completely without soul or sensation, as all things that grow under the ground and are engendered in the veins of the earth.”[xiii] Stone is mere substrate. Yet we have seen repeatedly in this book how the lithic undermines rigid category, challenging the stability it is charged with founding and exhibiting a geological vivacity. Differences between the human and the lithic, the inorganic and biological, the material and the creaturely see firm but prove porous. A writer contemporary with Bartholomaeus, just as enamored of Aristotle, therefore found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to argue that stones do not demonstrate any of the qualities of life. They do not reproduce, do not digest, do not grow or mature, and certainly possess no souls. Albertus Magnus energetically refutes lithic vitality. He also quietly conveys its truth.

As he set about composing his magisterial Book of Minerals, this thirteenth-century Dominican friar, bishop and polymath wrote in frustration “We have not seen Aristotle’s books about [minerals], but only some excerpts from them.”[xiv] Aristotle’s surviving works offer little on the subject of minerology, just thirty lines at the end of his treatise on meteorology describing how dry subterranean vapors spawn stones and earth, while wetter exhalations create metals.[xv] The excerpts from the Lapidary of Aristotle to which Albertus refers were not from a work authored by the Greek philosopher at all, but fragments of a text that seems to have been composed in Arabic in the ninth century under the philosopher’s name and later translated into Latin.[xvi] Albertus decided to recreate what he thought to be a lost Aristotelian work from what he could glean from the sources available to him, especially Avicenna, framing his text within the kind of taxonomy he supposed Aristotle would have used. In the process he brought into being an entire scientia de mineralibus, a mineral science.[xvii] A cosmopolitan churchman who studied in Padua, taught in Paris, and helped to found a university in Cologne, Albertus was fervid in his desire to reconcile Aristotle with Christian doctrine. He found himself in uncertain territory when composing The Book of Minerals (c. 1250). Breathtaking in its epistemological reach, the Book was intended to be a kind of summa of stone lore. A comprehensive scientific survey, with almost one hundred different entries, the text proceeds carefully, defining its terms and probing earlier works while elaborating a capacious system of classification. Albert’s minerals are, like all matter, composed of the four elements in varying concentrations, earth and water predominating. Gems, for example, are defined as a subset of stones in which water prevails, aqueous coagulation yielding the translucence mere earth cannot grant. For Aristotle form rather than substance determines inherent qualities. Albertus therefore writes that the power of a stone to counteract poison, cure an abscess, or attract or repel iron derives directly from its specific form. Lithic materiality becomes active – becomes capable of protecting, igniting, drawing or emitting – through its singular manifestation as diamond, coral, jet, or topaz. Albertus repeats the Aristotelian doctrine that unformed matter is inert, with particular arrangement imbuing qualities. Substantial form provides each type of stone with innate but limited functions “performed by necessity” (1.1.6), and its potentiating form is in turn bestowed by the “formative power” of celestial bodies. Stones are therefore meager in their latent possibilities and mechanistic in their deployment. Like stars, they cannot choose when or how to radiate their powers. Yet within Albertus’s detailed explications, individual stones become complicatedly envitalized through ecological enmeshment, so much that they change over time and even die: “the specific form of individual stones is mortal, just like humans [mortalia sicut et homines]; and if [stones] are kept for a long time away from the place where they are produced [extra loca generationis], they perish” (2.1.4).

Such a vivifying conceptualization renders form a functional soul: in Dorothy Wyckoff’s gloss, “the essential being, or identity of a thing; in living things, the ‘life’ or ‘soul.’”[xviii] Albertus, however, argues strongly against such equivalence. Though some alchemists hold that sulphur and quicksilver inhabit stone as its soul or spirit, with petric materiality as a kind of body, he states dismissively that he is not composing such an occult treatise (1.1.1). Yet, he must confess, philosophers have described actual souls within stones. Democritus, a Greek metaphysician famous for his theory of atoms (and known in the Middle Ages for alchemical treatises attached to his name), argued that all things made from elements necessarily possess soul as a condition of existence. Without a soul stone could not come into being, Democritus insists, and therefore “there is a soul in stone” (1.1.4). Ensouled stones possess quite a long tradition in Greek thought. Thales, first of the great Greek philosophers, argued that magnesium manifests an animating psyche when it draws iron.[xix] Albertus mentions this possibility of petric souls twice in his Book of Minerals, disagreeing firmly each time:

There have been some who, even though they assign special powers to stones, attribute these to a soul in the stone. These are certain of the Pythagoreans ... of which in many respects Democritus was a follower, since he said ... in stones … there is a divine part which he called the soul of stones, extending to things roundabout, on which it acts. But this is the height of absurdity ... It is true that anything whatsoever may have within it something divine, or similar to the divine, by means of which it seeks and pursues divine being ... but … stones do not have any souls. (2.1.1)
Stones are not like plants, animals and humans because they possess “no function corresponding to a soul” (1.1.4). They do not consume food. They do not have senses. They demonstrate no “vital activity.” They cannot breed: “We never see stones reproduced from stones … a stone seems to have no reproductive power at all” (1.1.4). Yet this keenly reductive logic from Albertus quickly becomes entangled and dilates into rich story.

Albertus knows that stones act through a force (virtus) that is not seminal, not fecundating: non-vitalizing, non-reproductive, non-creaturely. Stones are not generated from lively seed but through “mineralizing force,” a phenomenon that enables him to state that stones can actually generate more stones, but “their production is not like the reproduction of living plants, and of animals which have senses” (1.1.4). Yet when Albertus must detail this mineral force in action, he admits that its function is just like [sicut] that of animal seed [semine animalis] since it forms and produces specific types of stones.[xx] Stones are not animals, and yet act as if alive. Mineral virtue makes it difficult to say if stones in Albertus’ account are organic or inorganic, for they appear to be (as Valerie Allen notes) “both and neither.”[xxi] Paradoxically, even as a stone is not alive and cannot really reproduce, in Albertus’s account “reproduction remains the only way of understanding” petrogenesis.[xxii] His vocabulary for lithic activity describes stones as if they were creatures gestated within the earth, producing in turn their own lapidary offspring. Albertus’s Latin is replete with verbs of reproduction and parturition.

Yet that sicut, that complicated “as if,” does not suffice for granting a stone a soul. “Stones possess forms but not souls.” Albertus repeats a version of this definitive statement twice, insisting that “the first function of the soul is life; but no characteristics of life are found in stones” (1.1.6). He knows from Aristotle’s treatise De anima that a soul is not separable from the substance of the thing in which it is found, but is a capacity for life inherent to the forms that organize matter. To be considered living, a thing must demonstrate digestion, change over time, and reproduction. This definition is built around the exclusion of the lithic, for Aristotle had used rocks as an example of matter without the capacity for life. So Albertus writes that stones do not eat: “for if a stone used food, it would necessarily have pores or channels by which food would sink into it ... like the roots of plants or the mouth of animals” (1.1.6). Lithic compactness is argument enough against the existence of alimentary organs. A stone is simply too dense to take anything within itself. Nor do stones procreate. “We have never seen stones reproduced from stones,” Albertus observes. Stones take nothing from the world. They lack “vital activity.” They are insensible matter, not even dead because never alive. Even if stones perish over time, that death is also another sicut, another as if, mere metaphor.

The insistence in the Book of Minerals that stones possess no soul is eroded, however, by recurring textual demonstration of lapidary liveliness. Albertus argues against those who describe stones as inert, those who insist that “the powers of stones ought to belong to living beings” (2.1.1). Experience proves, he insists, that magnets attract iron, diamonds restrict this allure, sapphires cure abscesses, some gems bring victory, others reconcile arguments or expel venom. After his discussion of the various ways in which stones attract or repel other objects (iron, flesh, silver, fire, bones, wine, fish), he writes that it is “as if there were in these things something pleasing to the stones, or a soul by which they were moved.”[xxiii] Stones radiate a potency that derives from substantial form along with the relative order of their constituent admixtures of elements with heat. Such lithic power is marvelous, mortal, innate and mobile. Even though Albertus insists that lithic power does not constitute being, rocky force does an excellent job of imitating life, especially when stone and human form an alliance. Corallus, for example, can staunch bleeding and protect against epilepsy. To wear corallus around the neck is to be guarded from storms, lightning and hail. Powdered and dissolved into water, it will fertilize herbs and trees, “multiplying their fruits.” Corallus connects human bodies, bodily fluids, the weather, and the vegetal world. Like all the stones Albertus describes in his alphabetical lapidary, coral is not a passive material to be harnessed to specific uses. Its virtue is innate, always emanating, always seeking the connections that will allow the rock to become an agent so powerful it can rebuff tempests, so fecundating it can compel the vegetal to superabundance. Coral’s force, moreover, encompasses an entire ecology: water permeates wood and petrifies through the power of place (1.1.7).

Other stones act with similar vigor. Chryselectrum changes its colors during the course of the day. Because it fears fire, when held in the hand it reduces fever. This communion in the palm is suggestive. The stones Albertus catalogues yearn for union with the biological. Many are themselves progeny of lithic and animal commingling, and must be ripped from bestial bodies to be attained: borax from a toad’s head, celidonius from a swallow’s stomach, celontes from shellfish, alecterius (a kind of medieval Viagra) from the crop of a cock. Torn from the brow of a snake, draconites dispels poison and bestows victory. Even when they do not originate in flesh themselves, stones desire to touch and transform bodies. Diamonds (adamas) can be mined through the softening effect of goat’s blood strong in parsley or fenugreek (animal-vegetal-mineral union), and protect against insanity, nightmares, poison and enemy attacks. Powdered and mixed with wine, ematites dissolves the excess flesh of wounds. So similar to the organic are Albertus’s stones that carnelian is described as “the color of flesh, that is red; when broken it is like the juice of meat.” Its power is, of course, to staunch bleeding in humans. Albertus insists that stones cannot choose when to radiate their powers, and yet provides numerous examples of gems withdrawing themselves when those who would confederate with them prove unworthy. He articulates at length the networks through which rocks and gems ally themselves with fleshly bodies, so that they stir with activity.

But then we remind ourselves that Albertus insisted that “no characteristics of life are found in stones” (1.1.6). They do not eat, he says, and it is probably stretching the truth too much to see in the ability of ematites to dissolve wounded flesh a kind of microbe-like devouring of the organic. Yet Albertus describes sarcophagus as “a stone that devours dead bodies … Some of the ancients first made coffins for the dead of this stone because in the space of thirty days it consumed the dead body” (2.2.17). Because of this lithic property, he adds, stone monuments are to this day called sarcophagi. He declares that rocks do not reproduce, and yet he details peranites, which conceives and brings forth little stony children (concipere et parere 2.2.14). Like balagius, it also possesses a gender, male or female. It would be difficult to uphold that these gendered gemstones lack “vital activity,” even if the petric life they demonstrate is not exactly anthropomorphic. At the same time, however, stones are very like humans. Petrogenesis occurs through the mixture of earth with water – that is, in clay (1.1.2). Albertus is a classical Aristotelian, for whom (as Bartholaemeus puts it when he quotes the philosopher) the difference between earth and stone is moisture.[xxiv] Albertus must have known that this description of petrogenesis is uncannily similar to Augustine’s account of the creation of Adam.[xxv] In the Commentary on Genesis the bishop of Hippo wrote:

Just as water collects, gels and holds the earth together in a mixture of water and earth, thus creating clay, in the same way the living-spirit [anima] of the body gives life to the material of the body.[xxvi]
Humans and stones are intimate in their materiality. They are also queerly contiguous in their vitality. Albertus states that stones are not alive because they do not digest, reproduce, or change over time, but he provides examples of stones that do each of these things. Stones do not have souls, and yet they seem extraordinarily similar to things that do, including the humans who are formed of exactly the same substance: humans are, in Augustine’s account, mobile rocks. No wonder Albertus had to deny lithic ensoulment so resolutely.

Yet what if stones require nothing of the human in order to thrive? What if the animating principle of soul diminishes their vitality and domesticates lithic challenge? Medieval writers developed a sophisticated vocabulary for lithic liveliness that did not necessarily concern itself with anthropomorphic reduction, a vocabulary for conveying a full-fledged creatureliness within stone indifferent to the question of soul.

[i] See the title of chapter nine of Pandora’s Hope, as well as p. 281, on being overtaken by action.
[ii] From Virile Woman To WomanChrist 121. Juana realizes that many such stones contain souls, some of which had been imprisoned for centuries. She has them placed within her sickbed so that through her suffering and prayer they may be set free.
[iii] British Library Royal 6 E VI f. 94v, viewable online at
[iv] Otherworld Journeys 51.
[v] Carol Zaleski’s review of the possibilities is thorough in Otherworld Journeys 51.
[vi] On the changes to medieval clerical conceptualizations of matter and the “metaphysical worry” that Aristotle introduced – as well as the continuities with earlier, more Ovidian models -- see Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality 234-37.
[vii] Robert Bartlett charts the challenges Aristotle’s works posed, especially to conceptualizing nature, in The Natural and the Supernatural 29-32.
[viii] Soul and body form, in the words of Caroline Walker Bynum, “a psychosomatic unity” (The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, esp. 5, 11, 13, 135). On the implications of this model of embodied psyche see especially Susan Crane, Performance of the Self 90-91.
[ix] “ioyned to þe body in twey maners, þat is to menynge, as mevere to þe þing þat is imeued, and also as a schipman is i-oned to þe schip” (On the Properties of Things trans. John Trevisa, 3.3).
[x] Bartholomaeus quotes extensively from the Liber de spiritu et anima, thought at the time to have been composed by Augustine.
[xi] “vegetabilis þat 3eueþ lif, sensibilis þat 3eueþ felinge, racionalis þat 3eueþ resoun” (3.7).
[xii] See the excellent discussion of Aristotle and human “indistinction” in Jean E. Feerick and Vin Nardizzi, “Swervings” 2-4. This Aristotelian definition of soul corresponds to the third entry for “soule” in the Middle English Dictionary. The primary signification of the word was far more spiritual; it could also mean ghost, person, or capacity for religious experience, emotion, or imagination.
[xiii] “clene withoute soule and withoute felyng, as alle thing that groweth undir grounde and is ygendrede in veynes of the erthe.”
[xiv] Book of Minerals 1.1. Cf. “I have not seen the treatise of Aristotle [on stones], save for some excerpts, for which I have inquired assiduously in different parts of the world” (Book of Minerals 3.1.1).
[xv] See Dorothy Wyckoff in the introduction to her translation of Albertus Magnus Book of Minerals xxx. Wyckoff writes that Aristotle is implying that he did compose a text on stones and minerals and that it did not survive, thus leading to Albertus’ frustration at discovering only fragments (1.1.1, 2.3.6, 3.1.1). She suggests a date for Albertus’ completion of his text of 1261-3 (xl).
[xvi] See Lynn Thorndike, “The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle” 243.
[xvii] On Albertus and the inauguration of mineral science, see J. M. Riddle and J. A. Mulholland, “Albert on Stones and Minerals” 204. The geologist Dorothy Wyckoff made a similar argument for Albert’s originality and influence in her edition of the Book of Minerals.
[xviii] See her introduction to the Book of Minerals, xxxiv. In his treatise on The Soul (2.1.3), and cf. p. 258: “for any living thing, its form is, first of all, its ‘aliveness,’ that is, its soul ([De anima] II, I, 412 a 3 ff.) … Later commentators speak of three souls – vegetative (or nutritive), sensitive (or appetitive), and rational (or intellectual), but for Aristotle these seem to be merely different aspects of ‘being alive.’” Albertus distinguishes between two kinds of form, that which is connected to “the nature of the natural body” and that more closely related to the divine which “is an incorporeal essence, moving and perfecting the body.” See 1.1.6.
[xix] David Macauley examines Thales and souls in Elemental Philosophy 51-52, where he writes that for Thales “what manifests the capacity to stir and change of its own accord is animated.”
[xx] “virtus formans et efficiens lapides et producens ad formam lapidis hujus vel illius” (Book of Minerals 1.1.5)
[xxi] Valerie Allen, “Mineral Virtue” 130. Virtus is a medieval word intimate to the medieval elaboration of how the soul works, making the possession of virtus by rock an intriguing problem for Albertus rather than (as in the lapidaries) an astonishing force to be celebrated. I will discuss virtus at much greater length later in this chapter. See also Kellie Robertson's excellent discussion of Aristotle, rock, and substantial forms in "Exemplary Rocks."
[xxii] Valerie Allen, “Mineral Virtue” 134.
[xxiii] Book of Minerals 2.3.6. Albertus is quoting while considerably expanding the Lapidary of Aristotle, which makes this claim only for magnetite. See Wyckoff’s note in Mineralia p. 150.
[xxiv] “druynesse [dryness], ouercomyng alle moisture, suffreþ no3t erthe turne into sadness [solidity, permanence] of stone” (16.1); see also the entry for clay (16.2), where it is observed that through coldness water mixed with earth freezes so that “erthe turneþ to stone,” while oily earth can be heated into petrification.
[xxv] See G. Ronald Murphy, Gemstone of Paradise 48.
[xxvi] Quoted Murphy 44


Jeffrey Cohen said...

For those who are curious, the Confessio Lapidis follows this section.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Also, this quote from Kellie Robertson captures lithic vitality better than anything I've written here:

“Far from being ‘worldless’ [as Heidegger claimed], medieval stones were irrepressibly vital: inner ‘virtues’ bestowed on them quasi-animate powers of motion and action, while ‘mineral souls’ linked them to the plants, animals, and humans further along the scala naturae, or ladder of nature. Lapidaries and encyclopedias documented the endlessly entertaining charisma of ostensibly insensible stones … understanding of the interconnectedness of all material bodies suggests that the allegorical reading of stones found in lapidaries were not mere analogies; rather, in a physical world where the rock and the human differ more by degree than by kind, where the divide between the material and the immaterial was not yet so indelible, the reciprocity of moral lessons was underwritten by an ontological connection manifest in the scala naturae” (“Exemplary Rocks 92-93, 99).

medievalkarl said...

Great stuff Jeffrey, and I know I'll annotated the heck out of this when the book comes out. I also remember some other shapes of souls from otherworldly visions, like those described here.

I'm also thinking that while Albert wants digestion, reproduction, and change to be evidence of or the actions of the soul, and thus has no particular space for stones, there's something underlying all three of these, viz., desire, which is what stones seem to have. Not just the desire to persist, but also the desire to make contact. That fundamental desire may be invisible or unconsidered by Albert, but it's there.

Wondering if you can write the following bits in some way

"engendering an era philosophically turbulent and intellectually generative."

"individual stones become complicatedly envitalized through ecological enmeshment"

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Out of curiosity: is there a particular reason you chose to quote Bartholomeus Anglicus in a 14th-cen. English translation rather than the original Latin?

medievalkarl said...

I'll take the liberty of hazarding a guess: because the English is sometimes more fun and vivid, particularly if the audience for the book can be assumed not to know Latin.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, thanks for that. The section after this one is about virtus (a nonanthropomorphic designation for vitality) and then comes the sex life of stone, on rocks and desire, so you've given me a great way to set up the transition early. Awesome.

What were you suggesting about the two lines you quote? Adding the possibility of desire there? Or rewriting them for clarity?

Nathaniel, citing Trevisa's translation was a deliberate choice. Partly it is for exactly the reason Karl gets at: Trevisa is lively and weird, and I love his composite text. But partly too I get annoyed by the insistence that Bartholomew's Latin is somehow more authentic. The impatience that medievalists sometimes demonstrate towards the use of a contemporary translated text seems to me symptomatic of a desire to freeze texts into a single, originary moment and that wholly misrepresents their medieval vitality. It's the same with those who insist that Mandeville be cited only in French, since some French version (not any we now have) seems to have been its lost original. In fact in my book I cite Mandeville in ME and French, and from various redactions, because that's the polyglot and heterogeneous thing Mandeville was. Long story short: Bartholomew "in the original Latin" is no more authoritative for the story of stone I'm tracing than Trevisa's Middle English version.

An author like Albert is easier, since he was not translated in the Middle Ages so far as I know.

medievalkarl said...

Jeffrey, glad it's helpful. I'm thinking clarity: you're writing for U of Minnesota, with hopes, let's imagine, to be reviewed by the über-hip LA Review of Books, so maybe you want to loosen those clauses up a bit.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Agreed, and thanks. Much of my process of revision is removing the contortions from my prose (and chopping extremely long and unnecessarily languid sentences into smaller, more energetic ones).

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

You make a compelling argument for the use of the medieval vernacular translations.

Part of my curiosity has to do with the fact that a group at Stanford has developed an elaborate online curriculum (originally geared to teach high school Latin but since expanded for use in history courses and to introduce scholasticism) centered on Bartholomeus' (Bartholomew's) De rerum proprietatibus:

Basically, they use the intertextuality of Bartholomew's philosophical work to introduce students to the whole medieval world while simultaneously using its relative simplicity to teach them Latin.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Magnificent resource, Nathaniel: thank you for sharing.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Magnificent resource, Nathaniel: thank you for sharing.

Anne F. Harris said...

It is so marvelous (delicious!) to enter the world of your writing. I seek "yolk(s) of futurity" multiple places now - nice. Thank you for crystallizing Albertus Magnus's weird ontology: action besides life, consequence beyond soul, and change without movement. There's a cumulative effect to reading Magnus (one amazing property after another) that resembles the tumble of stones themselves - bewildering and loud. Stones gain a presence in the noise and I love how you find Magnus wriggling in discomfort. Your mention of his cosmopolitanism made me wonder about the wondrous geography of his stones (so many from India, from far isles, all the mentions of Arabia) and, about his book as a kind of wonder cabinet, a collection (like Aaron's breastplate?). There's liveliness in the assemblage as well. Thank you thank you for sharing this.

Anne F. Harris said...

This is Anne Harris by the way (I think I get cited as Anonymous in comments these days - sigh).

Ruth Evans said...


A wonderful survey of medieval understandings of the soul and medieval understandings of the properties of stones – and contemporary debates about whether stones have souls. This is all great – I learnt a lot. But I’d really like to have seen you conclude by returning to your initial questions, which relate (presumably) to non-correlationist phenomenology à la Bogost. How far do you want to push the idea of the nature of the Maine stone as “alien”? from what you’re saying, you seem to want to see it as “vital,” which suggests perhaps you don’t see it as alien? in what ways can it be thought outside of human consciousness? And was that ever, in any way, a possibility for medieval scholasticism? And what can the medieval views you outline so well tell thinkers like Bogost?
Incidentally, what did the Middle Ages know about magnetic rocks?
“the rock’s qualities allure: doesn’t that need an object? Allure me?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Ruth, for being such a perceptive reader. What appears above is a small section of a beast of a chapter on the life (vitality, vibrancy) of stone. The next section examines virtus, a Latin word that captures nonhuman agency without making it anthropomorphic or anthropocentric; then the closing section is on lithocentrism, stone's own worldedness. Bogost gets ample treatment in my introduction and first chapter. I've found Object Oriented Ontology inspirational, but medieval materials also buck against its totalizing impulses (and its code of fourfold mystery) in important ways.

Thanks again Ruth!

Eileen Joy said...

A wonderful chapter; of course, I personally don't believe anything has "soul" -- human, nonhuman, whathaveyou -- but that doesn't mean, as you demonstrate here that there aren't all sorts of ways to talk about how things, in the Middle Ages and now, are conceptualized as being animated. I don't know my Bartholomew [or Trevisa] all that well, but while reading this, I kept thinking of how Jane Bennett invokes Spinoza's idea of "conatus" -- the ability of things to simply *persist* in their existing, whether a rock rolling down a hill or the way(s) in which that stone you invoke at the beginning, somehow, "called" to you. And another fabulous resource for thinking about this subject [whether things have souls, animus, mind, perception, agency, etc.] is Steven Shaviro's new as-yet unpublished work on the "unthought," where he focuses on objects' ability to have what scientists call "experential sensitivity" and what George Molnar calls "aboutness" ["Powers: A Study in Metaphysics"].

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Might you at some point share the virtus section with us -- or will you make us wait to buy the book? ;-)

I ask because virtutes play such an important role in Hildegard of Bingen's platonic cosmology / metaphysics / worldview; and of course, she included a whole section in her medicinal work Physica on the properties of gemstones; and the 12 precious stones of the heavenly Jerusalem reoccur throughout her poetic/allegorical worldview; and there's her analogy of the Trinity to a stone’s damp viridity (umida viriditas), solidity to the touch (palpabilis comprehensio), and red-sparking fire (rutilans ignis) (Scivias II.2.5); and...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Alas Nathaniel I will be reserving the section on petric virtus for the book, which is actually due to press soon and ... well, out in spring 2015. I have just the smallest bit on Hildegard; mostly I am working with Marbode of Rennes and the classical inheritance in that portion (and wondering why lapidaries get bound with bestiaries so often).

But if you remind me I will happily send you a copy of the book when it comes out.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jeffrey, this is a really fascinating read: can't wait to see more when the book's out. Not sure how connected these thoughts will be, but here you are: I like the survey of how souls work, and wonder about the ways in which tendency (kind of in a Bennett sense,I'd imagine) creates what a medieval mind perceives as the illusion of a possible vitality that must be rejected in order to reserve something for the human.

I was also quite interested by Karl's invocation of desire. Desire seems to suggest this kind of tendency, the way that Kevin Kelly argues technology has tendencies similar to those of a bacteria that drifts toward nutrients as a way to perpetuate its own liveliness.

The other thing that I found really interesting is the moment where you talk about the "bare kind of life" that's granted to plants. That resonated with me in terms of a vague memory of Agamben, but also in terms of a lingering question that seems at the heart of the work you're doing: What counts as life in a network, ecology, world?

Just the small questions, obviously.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

You are an astute reader not only of my post but my whole book project! You've well identified its motivating obsessions. Not that I in any way resolves them ... but life, desire, movement, emergence, relation and companionship are the book's heart.