Monthly Archives: June 2015

De proprietatibus metallis et homo – on the properties of metals and man (or how I gained a metallic leg)

One of those entirely unexpected, cannot-be-foreseen-until-the-cursed-moment-it-happens instances put me on my backside last Friday morning whilst simply making my way from my grandmother’s garden to the kitchen sink with the intention of washing up my breakfast bowl, and numerous further intentions of doing many more things that day, and I’ve not been vertical since. One slip on a patch of some sort of grease on a polished tile floor, some split-second spiral action in between that I don’t recall or can’t explain, and I’m on the floor with a shattered tibia protruding like an egg underneath the skin of my shin (turns out the fibula is fractured in two places as well) and an ankle that is very much in the wrong position.

My broken fibula (you can't really see the tibia fracture from here).
My broken fibula (you can’t really see the tibia fracture from here).

As is often the way, uncanny parallels present themselves though, bringing one’s situation into relation with other events or occurrences that prompt us to believe that ‘these things happen for a reason’, and so it was that, forced to just sit (lie) still for a while, I got down to some reading for my next PhD chapter. In fact, at the time of the accident, whilst on the kitchen floor with three paramedics injecting and strapping me, I still found the time to request that a member of my family did not forget to pack the academic books I had left on the living room table before breakfast! It’s just a question of priorities.

I had surgery on my tibia this morning and have been thinking about the now-prosthetic element of my leg. There’s a contradictory fascination with this for me. I marvel at the expertise and speed with which my leg has been reconstructed (God bless the NHS) and am intrigued at the idea of a titanium rod becoming a life-long partner to my anatomy, but also disturbed by notions of what is natural and unnatural, as though my body is now de-humanised, mechanised in some form. And yet, we would usually place the human on the ‘unnatural’ side of that opposition which splits the ‘natural’ world and us. So where does that place me now? I also can’t help being aware that the rod in my leg will be the most enduring aspect of me – it will outlive me by a long way, perhaps transmuted into something else after my life time, but still persisting, and carrying with it the narrative of its relatively brief encounter with the inside of my leg.

And it just so happens that all this musing on my own ‘new’ body coincides with a selection of critical texts I have with me on the subjects of medieval inter-corporealities, hybrid bodies, on the post-human, on the fusions of human and nonhuman forms, both animate, inanimate, tangible and intangible. I intend for my coming chapter to explore the idea of mutilated bodily forms, and the strange literal and metaphorical misfit avian-human bodies that occur in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession) tales, which in turn are re-tellings (transmutations) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So I’m happy enough with my leg elevated and the chance to ponder medieval hybrid forms that proliferate in literature and marginal illustrations. My leg is a crass, very literal example of all this, but it did strike some interesting resemblances with what I am reading. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, for instance, states in Medieval Identity Machines, that ‘human identity is … unstable, contingent, hybrid, discontinuous; that the work of creating a human body is never finished’ or, elsewhere, that ‘always supported by objects, substances, and ecologies, the human is never unaccompanied’ (Inhuman Nature). If I considered my human body as a discrete and defined, closed flesh-and-blood anatomy (forgetting the fact that 90% of the DNA in my body belongs to microbial bodies anyway), I find it hard to do so in quite the same way now!

The Rutland Psalter (13th cen.). Source: British Library public domain.
Medieval marginal hybrids. The Rutland Psalter (13th cen.). Source: British Library public domain.

Cohen’s key example of externally-affected bodies in his Machines’ introduction comes from medieval astrological texts which show the human body in synchronicity with cosmological forces – the great machine of heaven. I am prompted to think of these celestial forces on the lives of minerals in medieval thought, too, bringing me back to that titanium in my leg. In medieval encyclopedias (like Bartholomaeus’s De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things), metals were as much a part of the great chain of being as anything else, albeit relegated to a low position in the hierarchy. Albert the Great’s De mineralibus (Book of Minerals) considers the inanimate specifically. Stones and minerals had their own powers – alchemical and magical; inorganic and organic at the same time; composed of fire, air, earth and water; and potent with divine essence. I don’t think many of us would commit to the belief now that minerals obtain a heavenly ‘virtue’, but the most recent theories in broad cultural studies are encouraging us, as part of the broad ecological/environmental paradigm, to think of all interrelations in what Timothy Morton has most recently titled ‘the mesh’ (The Ecological Thought). Perhaps the example of my leg isn’t such a silly example after all; the experience has, quite literally, ‘opened the flesh to [not] animal or vegetal transformation’ (Cohen, Machines), but certainly mineral transformation.

Mandrake from the Tacuinum Sanitatis (15th cen.). Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Mandrake from the Tacuinum Sanitatis (15th cen.). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Medieval ‘environmental’ legacies

Today’s publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change has, expectedly, sparked fierce debate about the enviroment. It has required people to (re)consider, defend and articulate the human perspective on the natural world: how are we defined in relation to it, by it and as part of it? To what extent is the earth our property and resource (natural capital)? How ought we manage our relationships with our local and global environments? What part, if any, should religion still continue to play in our engagement with the natural world? For many, the Pope’s comments on the environment are refreshing and hopeful. For writers concerned with cultural and historical perceptions of nature, there might be a further resonance, however: a new dialogue with the centuries-old, dominant Christian doctrine which has locked us into the idea that we are somehow separate to and inherently superior to other species. The notion that human rights and conveniences naturally come first, that every other being we lump into that vast ‘animal’ category are there to be exploited and used by us, still has a hold (who has not resorted to naming, however flippantly, uncivilised behaviour as ‘animal’?).

In a George Monbiot article on this topic, I was directed to the website of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation (a US Christian organisation), which talks of ‘God-given dominium‘ and the ‘imago Dei’ as part of its plea to the Pope to reject plans to reduce burning fossil fuels. It is hard for a medievalist to read such words without thinking on typical medieval theories about man’s dominant position in the hierarchical chain of being. There is Isidore of Seville, for instance, who reminds us that the ‘human stands erect and looks towards heaven so as to seek God, rather than look at the earth, as do the beasts that nature has made bent over’ (Etymologies, Cambridge, 2006). Other writers, from Thomas Aquinas to Boethius to Bartholomew the Englishman echoed these sentiments. There is a striking resemblance to the Cornwall Alliance’s view: ‘Good climate policy must recognize human exceptionalism, the God-given call for human persons to “have dominion” in the natural world (Genesis 1:28)’. And this: ‘the physical world … [is] an ordered cosmos that rational creatures can understand and harness for human betterment; private property rights, entrepreneurship, and widespread trade’.

Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 34v. Detail of Adam naming the beasts according to their uses. Source: British Library catalogue (public domain).
Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 34v. Detail of Adam naming the beasts according to their uses. Source: British Library catalogue (public domain).

As a medievalist, it’s fascinating to see how the medieval lingers in our own times. The Alliance’s standpoint certainly shows the longeivity of some medieval doctrine. But I am also uncomfortable with how their argument positions itself in relation to the medieval view, what they refer to as the ‘one culture nurtured for centuries in the Biblical picture of reality’, as though continued explotation of the earth right now can be justified through this comparison. Putting aside the fact that many – religious and secular alike – would query such a ‘picture of reality’ several hundred years on, the bigger problem for me is that this vision wasn’t exactly cut and dry even in the medieval period, so it seems a little shaky to be using it to substantiate arguments in the 21st century. What recent medieval scholars have been busy showing, in fact, is that the medieval ‘picture’ was far from uniform; it was riven with contradictions, variations, inconsistencies and ironies. My own work in this field has suggested how writers were very capable of complicating and destablising the usual representation of the human and non-human relationship, ridiculing it even (see here). In fact, a good number of medieval works suggest that ‘conceptualizing the animal realm was an ongoing, undecided question’ (Susan Crane, Animal Encounters, 2013). It seems to me that little has changed, and that if medieval thinking admitted these sorts of variations, then so should ours. It’s one reason why continued and renewed study of early attitudes towards the natural world is vital; it can do much to inform what we think and do now.

Frederick II and De arte venandi cum avibus

I recently blogged about birds of prey in medieval culture with particular reference to Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. Originally, what follows was a part of that entry, but I’ve decided the topic deserves its own post because I wouldn’t want people to miss out on the stupendous manuscript to which I direct you below!

In relation to my previous entry, if you want a good sense of just how popular and skilled the arts of hawking and falconry were in the medieval period, take a look at this digitalised edition of a thirteenth century copy of De arte venandi cum avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) by Frederick II (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor. It’s known as the Manfred manuscript and is housed in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

Frederick II on the second page of the Manfred manuscript, De Artes Venandi Cum Avibus, Pal. lat. 1071 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

This chap, and his treatise on falconry, was really advanced for his time. He approached ornithology with a genuine empiricism (inspired by Aristotle), quite different to the prevailing mode of interpretation by which nature was regarded as an allegorical code to God’s divine intentions. It was Frederick, for example, who first decided to dispprove the centuries-old folklore belief that barnacle geese grow from drift wood or dead trees. He sent envoys to northern countries to find evidence. Of course, they found none! I came across this digital edition of the text very recently (see here). I’m a sucker for medieval manuscripts depicting birds of any sort, and I’m aware of most, but this thing is just something else. It’s full of birds! And accurately depicted birds too: black vulture; falcon (look like juvenile sakers or lanners by colour, but possibly peregrine); gyrfalcon; eagle owl, long-eared owl; barn owl; lapwing; curlew; white-fronted goose (I think); greylag goose; barnacle goose; black stork; white stork; European crane; grey heron; bittern … the list goes on and on! If any ornithologists want to tackle the trickier species, write a comment to this entry and let me know what you think. The images in this manuscript perfectly suit Frederick’s (more) scientific approach and provide another great example of how the ways in which medieval writers thought about and dealt with birds/nature were complex and diverse. Many birds are labelled, too (in Latin, of course). The second half has some fascinating depictions of courtly types attending to and training with their birds, or wonderfully intricate images of falconry equipment.

De Artes Venandi Cum Avibus, Pal. lat. 1071, 39v. (Source: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana:

New garden ticks

I’m privileged to live where I do: my school accommodation backs on to rural countryside on the edge of Cranbrook. It means I’ve had some pretty great birds from my living room window, including a kingfisher who visits the pond just across from me in the autumn and winter. Last Thursday evening, I went out for a quick walk on the playing field behind the boarding house to watch the swifts screaming and careening over rooftops and my attention was immediately caught by an adult cuckoo working its way along the peripheral trees. The first I’ve seen in two years, and they only continue to get rarer (see here). This one quite happily spent a half hour feeding on grubs, flicking from the cropped grass to overhanging branches where it rested for short periods.

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Also discovered that a pair of grey wagtails are nesting behind a broken ventilation grate down the outside cellar stairs right outside my bedroom window!

Source: Wikipedia Commons. Photgrapy by J. M. Garg
Source: Wikipedia Commons. Photgrapy by J. M. Garg

A postscript: Out for a walk today (Tuesday 17th June) on exactly the same field and I get another ‘garden’ first: a mediterranean gull with three blackheaded gulls! That must be pretty unusual for Cranbrook full stop!